Thread of Life: The Female Perspective in Greek Mythology

Feature by Josephine Monnickendam

The Moirai, the three Greek Goddesses of Fate, are not yet ready to cut the thread of life for women in Greek mythology. The sisters, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, are busy spinning, measuring and deciding over the different threads. Whose narrative should be born again? Whose stories have been explored enough? Where the lives of these women in Greek mythology were hanging on a thin thread before, now their lives are woven thickly into stories time and time again, offering them the opportunity to appear from the shadows and find their own voice.

In high school, I was taught Ancient Greek and Latin while simultaneously exploring their mythologies. These fantastical stories were, however, often only told from the male perspective. Stories about the famous fearless male heroes, stories about the brave male warriors in the Trojan war, and stories about the mighty male gods. Where was the female perspective?

Sometimes the Amazons, a group of remarkable female warriors, were discussed, or the female goddesses, but usually in connection to their male counterparts and, it appeared to me even then, constantly presented through the male gaze. These women were flat, cardboard characters, created to be virtuous and to die. Or they were monsters, horrible figures mirroring the male anxiety for women. Rarely was the inner life of these women further explored.

More recently, however, authors have been reimagining these myths by focussing on the marginalised female perspectives and critically examining the position of mythic men like Theseus and Perseus. As the writer Madeline Miller argues, “[w]omen have traditionally been shut out of epic, but women’s lives are epic too.”

Clotho: Spinning a New Female-Centred Mythology

Clotho, the youngest of the Fates, is busy spinning the thread of life. She is powerful, for she decides who gets to be born, who may live another day, and who is put to death. As her fingers weave the threads together, she reflects on the regret that she sometimes feels for giving the humans the gift of literacy. From the very start, men became obsessed with writing about men, and men alone. Clotho’s brows furrow together. Her face contorts into a sneer as indignation creeps up on her. She was the one to invent the alphabet, yet her story was cast aside. Where is her story? She quickly shakes her head, starting to smile. Things are changing. Now, people finally seem to remember the forgotten half of the world’s stories. From behind her spinning wheel, she helps emerging feminist writers to bring the forgotten and misunderstood mythical characters back to life. Granting Penelope and Eurydice a newly imagined life…

Greek myths are designed to be retold. This started in Ancient Greece with men boasting as they traced their own lineage back to the heroes of myth through stories and, even after all this time, it continues with this century’s writers giving these stories an afterlife. We can view the myths as having been constantly adapted and appropriated by writers as a way to demonstrate their own creativity and to reflect upon their own, contemporary societal issues. The same thing is happening now with the adaptation of the Greek myths from the perspective of the female characters, using herstory. As Ester Díaz Morillo explains, the term herstory indicates that “the female gaze is the focal point” in these stories, as opposed to the male gaze in histories.

These mythical herstories became more prevalent with third-wave feminism. In one of my first-year courses at university, I was introduced to feminist poems about women in Greek mythology. I was pleasantly surprised that around the 1970s-80s, several authors re-wrote the myths by focusing more on women’s emotions and desires, while expressing criticism of the male characters.

Margaret Atwood, for instance, wrote the Orpheus and Eurydice cycle (1976-86), consisting of three poems looking at these two characters. Instead of writing a male-centred text, she underscores the perspective of Eurydice and shows her damning opinion of Orpheus, who has always disregarded Eurydice and expected her to be obedient. As opposed to a tragic love story where two lovers do not want to be parted by death, Atwood imagines how Eurydice is relieved to be released from Orpheus in the Underworld.

In 1999, Carol Ann Duffy published a collection of poetry called The World’s Wife, wherein she gives a voice to silenced women in history, including the wives of famous men. In her poem “Mrs Icarus”, she comically reveals the perspective of Icarus’ wife who describes her husband, not in highly lyrical terms, but rather as a “total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.” This is where my quest to find the female perspective in retellings of Greek myths first started.

Lachesis: Measuring and Reassessing the Trend

Lachesis, Clotho’s sister, is measuring the threads that will be woven with her rod. How much time do these rediscovered characters get on earth? As the most pragmatic one of the sisters, she relies on the science of her measuring rod alone. Extending her ruler, she comes to the conclusion that the threads of the flattened female characters are ready to be cut, and that their time is definitely up. Gathering these threads, she immediately takes them to her sister, Atropos. However, when examining the rounder female characters and other marginalised perspectives, she deduces that they deserve some more time. Allocating Achilles and Patroclus yet more life…

More recently, multiple novels have been written to continue the trend of feminist retellings of Greek myths, including (again) Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), a rendering of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective. With this novel, Atwood was part of the Canongate Myth series, where different myths from all different cultures were retold. Unfortunately, this series still largely focuses on the male perspective.

In 2012, Madeline Miller wrote a love story between the famous hero Achilles and Patroclus called The Song of Achilles. The novel was popular at the time, but notably, almost ten years after its publication, the novel became extremely popular on TikTok. After the user @moongirlreads_ posted a video in August 2021 recommending the novel for its ability to make readers cry, sales skyrocketed, selling nine times as many copies in the U.S. compared to when it had won the Orange Prize in 2012, according to NPD BookScan. Strikingly, through its new, continuous popularity on this social media platform, the novel-based-on-ancient-myths was granted a greater afterlife. From this point on, the reading of books related to Greek mythology has certainly become a trend on BookTok, the name for TikTok videos recommending books, with videos hashtagged #greekmythology being watched 1.8 billion times.

Atropos: How Long Will this Trend Live on?

Atropos, the oldest of the three sisters, has the hardest job of them all. She has to decide how people die and cut the thread which will end their life for good. Although she is generally known as ‘the Inflexible One’, she does have some sympathy towards the newest female characters created, secretly hoping that she might have her own narrative one day. Therefore, she is more lenient, and tries to stretch the lives of some of these characters. Giving Ariadne, Medusa, and Medea more time…

After discovering this trend on TikTok, I fell in love with this new literary movement, which finally gave me the chance to re-discover the stories I had missed out on in high school. In every bookstore I enter, I immediately look for the newest mythical feminist releases.

The more recent of these publications critique the role of men in Greek mythology and their status. Are the men really so heroic? Or are they just being selfish, using women for their own vanity? Jennifer Saint’s novel Ariadne (2021) tells the story of Ariadne, who is mostly known for her association with the hero Theseus and her role in his escape from the Minotaur. In this narrative, however, Ariadne’s life is further explored, showing her emotions, desires and struggles with the patriarchy. Furthermore, Saint cleverly questions the role of the heroes and gods in the Greek myths. Early on in the novel, Ariadne reflects: “What I did not know was that I had hit upon a truth of womanhood: however blameless a life we led, the passions and the greed of men could bring us to ruin”, both referring to the male ‘heroes’ and gods. Even though Ariadne leaves her family and risks her own life in order to help Theseus, she is used by him and is eventually left behind. Throughout the narrative, Ariadne grows from a young naïve girl who constantly questions and blames herself into a strong woman: “I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself.”

Saint interweaves another myth into her story as inspiration, or rather a warning, for Ariadne. At the beginning of the story, the myth of Medusa is told to Ariadne by her maid. Just like Ariadne, Medusa also has to deal with a hero, Perseus, who is not at all heroic. Throughout the story, Ariadne constantly uses this myth to give herself strength and to reflect on how she will act, identifying with a ‘monster’ rather than with a hero. Saint argues, through the use of this myth-inside-the-myth, for the urgency of new feminist narratives about women, since “[t]he stories of Perseus did not allow for a Medusa with a story of her own.”

Luckily, this no longer seems to be the case. In her newest novel Stone Blind (2022), Natalie Haynes gives Medusa a story of her own. Haynes tells her story by effectively using a variety of female voices, ranging from the goddess Athene to the Graiai, three sisters who share only an eye and a tooth, to Elaia, a personification of a (female) olive grove.

In this story, she directly addresses the reader, saying “I see you”, which is quite ironic in a novel with the title ‘Stone Blind.’She also explains that she “know[s] that the hero isn’t the one who’s kind or brave or loyal. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – he is monstrous.” In this case, she reverses the hierarchy between the hero, the most highly esteemed figure, and the monster, who should be defeated at all costs. Furthermore, she questions the position of the monster: “[Medusa] is the monster. We’ll see about that”, setting the premise for the whole novel. Throughout the story, Medusa is depicted with a sense of humanity; showing sisterly love, compassion for animals, love for nature, and experiencing fear. She feels fear for the god who raped her and fear for the goddess who punished her for this, which is a sharp contrast to the monster we are used to. Over and over again, the reader is asked to reflect on their own reading experience with questions and accusations: “You are not. You are not still sympathizing with him. Why?”, referring to Perseus. This happens again a few chapters later: “I’m wondering if you still think of her as a monster.”

It becomes clear that the ‘hero’ Perseus is prejudiced himself, concluding that “anything that doesn’t look like [him] must be a monster.” As I heard Miller describe during her interview at ILFU on 2 October 2022, these recent publications often reflect on the traditional misogynistic creation of monsters, which seems to embody male anxiety. This entails the anxiety that the male/female hierarchy will break down and in order to hold this in place, women are vilified. Haynes counters this tradition throughout her novel. She is not only giving women their voices back in Greek mythology through her polyphonic novel, but she also urges the reader to reflect on their own prejudices regarding mythical characters.

The three sisters smile at each other, returning to their work in unison, back to waving, measuring, and cutting. Atropos, bursting with excitement, says: “Clotho hurry, we need more thread, threads of life.” Clotho hurries back to her spinning wheel, this time not feeling bitter, but rather starts weaving with a glint in her eye. She passionately starts to treadle working on the stories of Atalanta, Clytemnestra, and Medea…

Josephine Monnickendam is a current student of the MA Literature Today at Utrecht University. She completed her BA English Language and Culture at Leiden University with a year abroad at the University of Hull, specialising in literature. Her literary passion focusses on defiant (criminal) female characters and the reactions to them in literature, using the interdisciplinary knowledge of her minor in criminology. She is part of the design team for RevUU.

Works Cited 

  •  “A Q&A with Madeline Miller.” Women’s Prize for Fiction, 13 Jul. 2021,
  • Díaz Morillo, Ester. “Making Herstory: A Reading of Miller’s Circe and Atwood’s Penelopiad.” Journal of the Association of Young Researchers of Anglophone Studies, 2020, pp. 9-25.
  • Duffy, Carol Ann. The World’s Wife. Picador, 1999.
  • Harris, Elizabeth A. “How Crying on TikTok Sells Books.” The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2021, video.html?register=email&auth=register-email.
  • Haynes, Natalie. Stone Blind. Mantle, 2022.
  • Saint, Jennifer. Ariadne. Wildfire, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: