Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.10.8

J. Cahill, Her Kind: Stories of Women from Greek Mythology. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1995. Pp. xi + 232. ISBN 1-55111-042-3 (pb.)

Reviewed by Katie Gilchrist, Oxford University,

The subtitle for this book, "Stories of women from Greek mythology", could easily be extended to say "retold for a modern audience", thus making explicit the intention behind the book, which is not to retell these stories by simply lifting each tale from the ancient sources, but rather, as the ancient authors themselves did, to take the basic outline of the story and fill in the details as seems most suitable for the intended audience. Most of Cahill's retellings are in the first person, giving words to women themselves; even when not told in this manner, the focalisation is constantly through female eyes, the narrators are women and the tales are told as to women. Cahill's presentation of the position of women in the world of the myths means that these are women who have been married off for political and family reasons, women who may have little commitment to their marital families, and whose devotion to their children is not matched by their husbands. They are misunderstood by husbands, children, and fathers, and take their revenge for this.

Doubtless some readers will be inclined at this point to dismiss this book as "feminist" and leave it at that. It is true that Cahill's retellings are sometimes a long way from the versions with which we are familiar from the ancient sources. Cahill's own interest, however, is not in giving an "accurate" retelling (whatever that might be), but one for her own time. Like the ancient authors who originally told these stories, Cahill sticks to a basic storyline in each case, but feels free to pick and choose between details provided by the various ancient authorities, as well as adding details of her own. In this way, the tales are retold for a modern audience, and are made more relevant for such an audience. The most striking example of such reworking occurs in the tale of Myrrha: following the comment of a student that Ovid's Myrrha shows the symptoms of a victim of incest, not of its instigator, this is how the tale is retold. Cahill notes where she has made such changes, and where she is using details from an ancient source. Her version of Myrrha's story is introduced as a "necessary" alternative to the tale as told by Ovid, "lest it [Ovid's version] ever be used to 'prove' ... that the victims of sexual abuse enjoy what happens to them". The "original" tale, told from the father's point of view, seems to express ancient fears about female sexuality; Cahill's version reflects the modern awareness of abuse and feeling for the victims of abuse.

Cahill's selection of thirteen women includes some interesting choices; as well as the obvious choices of Jocasta and Clytemnestra, figures whose voices have been considered less often, such as Ino and Medusa, have also been included. The others are Philomela, Eriphyle, Procris, Althaea, Myrrha, Hypermnestra, Danae, Thetis, and Medea. Such a collection is bound to miss out some figure each reader would have liked to see dealt with; personally, I find the glancing reference to Alcestis in the introduction intriguing, and would be interested to see Cahill's versions of the stories of such traditionally "good women" as Alcestis or Penelope (a Cahill version of Phaedra might also be interesting). Overall, however, the selection in this volume is good, giving a fairly wide range of stories.

The actual retelling of the tales is generally well done, although I would have preferred a little more variation in style from story to story. Cahill works as a professional storyteller, and doubtless the sameness of tone I find on reading her work could presumably be overcome in oral presentations where the tone of a speaker's voice can introduce more variety. From this point of view, it is particularly interesting that Cahill includes two versions of the story of Medusa -- one written for the book, the other a transcript of an oral performance. Cahill discusses the differences and the reasons for them in an appendix which provides an interesting sidelight on the mechanics of storytelling.

In the introduction, Cahill makes some important points about our loss of the oral tradition of telling these tales, and rightly stresses that the versions we have are the public ones, written (mainly) by male poets, rather than the more informal versions which were probably told at home, tales to entertain women (and men, one should possibly add) while they worked. I do not share her acceptance of the idea of an original Great Mother Goddess, but fortunately this belief does not impinge on the storytelling (as it does in, for example, Robert Graves' work). The discussion of this question may put Classicists off this book; my feeling is that the best audience would be adults who are not classically trained, but who are interested in the myths, and want versions which are aimed at an adult audience rather than children. The notes and discussions of ancient sources seems reassuring to those wanting to feel that these modern retellings are firmly rooted in the Classical tradition: the notes also give references which might encourage a reader to investigate the classical texts themselves. Such retellings of the Greek myths aimed at adults (rather than as rather up-market fairy-tales for the young) are definitely worth encouraging, as increasing numbers of students reach university before encountering these tales. This book also shows how these myths can be retold successfully for a modern audience, for Cahill's versions are definitely of and for the late twentieth century.