BMCR 2020.08.10

Mythological narratives: the bold and faithful heroines of the Greek novel

, Mythological narratives: the bold and faithful heroines of the Greek novel. MythosEikonPoiesis, 8. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. x, 359. ISBN 9783110527322 €109,95.


The ancient novels are rich in mythic symbolism. The paintings of Europa in Achilles Tatius and of Andromeda in Heliodorus have long been recognised for their narrative significance, and the comparison of novelistic heroines to Aphrodite, Artemis, and others peppers novelistic narratives with a continual stream of mythological references. While individual facets have received sporadic critical attention, this topic has not yet received the holistic and overarching treatment it deserves.[1] Lefteratou’s book, therefore, tackles a sizeable gap in novelistic scholarship, and, although some issues with the work’s structure limit its wider potential, it succeeds in offering some stimulating readings of myth in the novels.

The work is structured around three paradigms (Iphigeneia, Phaedra, and the doublet of Helen and Penelope) with analyses of how these play out across the five canonical Greek novels. These exemplars, as the book’s subtitle demonstrates, resonate especially with novelistic heroines, since they collectively raise complex questions of fidelity, agency, and sexuality. Lefteratou does not aim for one-to-one correspondence between myth and novel, nor does she limit herself to explicit invocations of myth, but instead focuses on myth’s wider resonance as a structural framework for novelistic narrative. This facilitates a more original approach, as the work mostly avoids some of the most obvious ekphraseis, and it narrows Lefteratou’s focus to the structural relationships between myth and novel.

Lefteratou begins with Clinias’ denouncement of the crimes of tragic heroines (1.8.3-7) and Clitophon’s decision to model himself after Apollo in the Daphne myth (1.5.5-7) in Achilles Tatius. Lefteratou astutely states that these passages do ‘not show the affinities of the novelistic story with myth, but rather, how broadly the term “myth” relates to the plot of the Greek novels’ (3). Strikingly, Lefteratou does not discuss what these scenes might tell us about these characters’ motives (after all, Apollo is a blindingly poor exemplar for someone who wants to be lucky in love), but instead focuses on the contrast between myth’s tragic endings and the novel’s happy ones. Lefteratou defines myth inclusively and considers well the complex theoretical issues inherent in defining myth. Key to her argument is the ‘megatext’, the cumulative total of oral, written, and visual associations invoked by any simple reference to ‘Helen’. Armed with this megatext, Lefteratou argues that rather than engaging with single versions, the novels respond to a common framework of sources for those mythic paradigms which hold a marked cultural cachet for imperial readers.

Each chapter follows the same structure: an introduction to the mythic paradigm’s key literary and visual sources, a table of structural/folkloric motifs, then readings of the myth in Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, Longus, and Heliodorus. This repeated structure has strengths – the Heliodorus readings in particular – and weaknesses, notably for Chariton and Longus, who seem to be included in some chapters more to fit this structure than for their significant use of this paradigm.

In the first chapter, Lefteratou concludes that the key themes of the Iphigeneia myth for ancient novelists are sex and death, civilisation and barbarism. These examples lean heavily into the feigned death (Scheintod) motif, and Lefteratou is most incisive when exploring how sacrificial tropes play with Greek/barbarian polarities. Lefteratou’s arguments that Chariton’s Chaereas and Polycharmus rework Orestes and Pylades and that Longus’ myths of Phatta, Syrinx, Echo substitute for the scenes of sacrifice which should appear in her Iphigeneia paradigm, however, are less convincing. Given how much scholarship is devoted to the structural importance of Longus’ inset myths and of Chariton’s Scheintod, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Next, Lefteratou turns to Phaedra, who represents for Lefteratou issues of adultery. This chapter is named after Phaedra and not Hippolytus to better represent the novel’s ‘other women’ (Melite, Lycaenion, Arsake), although more discussion of Chariton’s Dionysius would have been welcome. However, this title is perhaps a misnomer, as Lefteratou interprets the paradigm broadly and includes a wide range of mythic ancestors: a chaste stepmother (Euripides’ second Phaedra), a lustful one (Antheia/Stheneboea), an arrogant chaste stepson (Hippolytus), a less chaste one (Phoenix), one who is punished by a false rape accusation and one who is exonerated (Joseph in the Potiphar’s wife narrative). Chaereas’ brief comparison to Hippolytus (1.1.3) belies any structural significance, and while Habrocomes’ arrogance invites comparison with Hippolytus, this theme quickly vanishes. Lefteratou’s argument that Charikleia interprets Arsake’s desire for Theagenes through a Phaedra lens after learning it from Knemon’s Demainete story is more interesting and more persuasive. The strongest readings look at these ‘other women’, but, while Lefteratou’s analysis of Manto in Xenophon of Ephesus is generally convincing, the comparison of Cyno with Potiphar’s wife in that same novel is rather tenuous, particularly as Lefteratou does not engage with the textual uncertainty of this scene.[2]

In the longest chapter, Lefteratou invokes Helen and Penelope who thematise beauty, abduction, chastity, and reunion. Although Chariton’s Penelope/Helen references have been well-discussed, Lefteratou’s readings are often stimulating. Xenophon’s perceived ‘distancing from the mythical megatext’ (244) in favour of folkloric motifs, however, raises the question of how relevant this megatext really is to him. . Lefteratou offers some persuasive readings of Achilles Tatius, but with some odd overreaches: reading Melite through Penelope at the novel’s close seems questionable (259-60). Heliodorus’ famously Odyssean narrative receives a lengthy and often perceptive treatment, especially Charikleia and Theagenes’ elopement as a revisionist Trojan War story. An epilogue runs through the potential impact on ancient readerships and novelistic myth’s evolution in later works like Nonnus’ Dionysiaca.

Lefteratou’s analyses of individual novels are often stimulating, and though I doubt anyone will agree with all of her many readings, they cumulatively provide useful grist to the mill of the complex relationship between novel and myth. The readings of Heliodorus stand out, in large part because Lefteratou’s arguments about novelistic convention and metaliterary self-awareness find the most material to work with here. Lefteratou’s style is often rather dense, and, while she covers an impressive range of scenes, paradigms, and themes, the considerable number of typos throughout the book reflects rather poorly on De Gruyter’s editorial processes, given the publisher’s calibre.

At times Lefteratou’s perspective is so structural it risks excluding other relevant readings. While she acknowledges the importance of Clitophon’s ego-narration, this fact can sometimes be elided in practice.  For example, she interprets Leucippe as a novelised Helen who ‘initiates their elopement’ and asks ‘is Clitophon the mythomaniac reader of the novel who creates the possibilities for a Helen pattern or is Leucippe an avid reader of romance tales?’ (251). But given that Clitophon’s ego-narration makes the tension between Clitophon’s desires and his (mis)perception of Leucippe’s unavoidable, can we ever really make this distinction? Who perceives these mythic paradigms, and whose vested interests do they serve? Lefteratou’s focus is admittedly on the structural models here, and such questions might go beyond the work’s scope, but even a brief consideration of the significance of such questions would better support these readings.

There are also several larger issues which need to be raised regarding the work’s scope and approach. The first concerns the work’s reliance on novelistic convention as the key framework for how to understand the novel’s mythic innovations. Lefteratou repeatedly refers to features like ‘happy endings’ as generic expectations which structure readerly engagement with the novels’ mythological reworkings. This works well for Heliodorus’ Aithiopika, but Lefteratou indicates several times that Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus display awareness of novelistic conventions (e.g. 140, 229). This flirts dangerously close to a circular argument: they are evidence both for the establishment of these conventions and also their pre-existence. This is complicated by Lefteratou’s use of folkloric motifs: to what extent then are these conventions specifically ‘novelistic’? If a large part of the argument depends on generic expectations of the novel as genre, it is worth interrogating their wider implications further.[3] How would the argument look if, for example, the fragmentary novels of Antonius Diogenes and Iamblichus were included?  She does invoke the fragmentary Ninus romance and Metiochus and Parthenope to fill in the gaps left by Chariton in the formation of such conventions, but an argument which rests less heavily on this particular conception of the genre would better support the wider arguments Lefteratou wishes to make.

Secondly, to what extent is this a book about myth in individual novels, grouped for convenience around shared paradigms rather than about novelistic myth as a generic construct? Lefteratou states ‘if the so-called canonical novels appear to us as ‘canonical’, this is because they rework those standard mythical narrative structures that were established throughout Greek literature,’ (314). Is myth then a key component of the foundation of novelistic narrative or a chosen reference consciously manipulated by individual novelists? More clarity here would strengthen her arguments about the distinctiveness of novelistic myth within imperial literary landscapes.

A third issue is the rigidity of the work’s structure in contrast to its content’s fluidity. Myth, as Lefteratou rightly notes, is not monolithic, and each individual myth can take on multiple forms without one being more ‘canonical’ than another. But the work’s structural formality necessitates that each paradigm must be simultaneously stable enough to be recognisable, yet flexible enough to take different forms across all five texts. This problem is particularly visible for Longus, a novel which hardly lacks mythic significance. Although the Phatta, Syrinx, and Echo myths have long been recognised for their structural and thematic relevance, they do not fit easily into Lefteratou’s paradigms, and the brevity of  her discussion may give the false impression that they are essentially uncontroversial (78-80). Later, Lefteratou may be right to see Daphnis plucking the apple (3.33.4-34.3), long recognised as a dramatisation of Sappho fr. 105a (LP), as a reference to the Golden Apple, but calling it a ‘mention of Helen’s abduction by Paris’ overstates the explicitness of the reference. To what extent does the perception of such parallels depend on Lefteratou’s chapter headings encouraging us to read through this paradigmatic lens? A more flexible organization would allow Lefteratou’s strongest readings to shine while opening up more natural spaces for those which fit less well under the umbrella of these paradigms.

Finally, how exactly should we define myth? Lefteratou wisely focuses on a widely conceived network of mythic paradigms, but the work’s approach depends on both the flexibility of the mythic paradigm and its clear identifiability, no matter how tenuous the link. For example, Lefteratou argues that Clinias’ disdain for women in Achilles Tatius frames him as a Hippolytus-like figure, and his lover Charikles’ tragic death recalls Euripides’ Hippolytus (141-3). The textual parallels here are suggestive, but how much of this is only Phaedra/Hippolytus? Might the vocabulary of erotic slavery (1.7.3) suggest elegiac tropes rather than Habrocomes’ submission to Eros? If it is that ‘their rejection of the power of Eros and Aphrodite, as well as the couple’s arrogance…leads to their fall’ (142), then why is Charikles punished for Clinias’ sins? How far, in other words, does each parallel invoke a wide-reaching structural significance? Lefteratou’s approach undeniably brings out the novels’ mythic resonances, but how far this can be pushed invites further questions about the relationship between myth and novel, genre and paradigm.

These wider considerations perhaps prevent Lefteratou’s work from becoming an exemplar for how to tackle such a complex topic, but then again, the topic’s breadth means that no one book can ever cover everything.  Her ambitious approach, however, is to be commended and despite these issues, the book offers a variety of thought-provoking readings which will hopefully contribute to more scholarship in this field in the future.


[1] E. P. Cueva (2004) The Myths of Fiction is the only recent monograph on this topic, but the work lacks a clear overarching thesis and does not offer an especially holistic overview.

[2] See D. Konstan (2007) ‘Love and Murder: Two Textual Problems in Xenophon’s Ephesiaca,’ AN 5: 31-40; A. Tagliabue (2017) Xenophon’s Ephesiaca: A Paraliterary Love-Story from the Ancient World, ANS 22, Groningen, esp. 91 n. 39.

[3] A point well made by H. Morales (2009) ‘Challenging Some Orthodoxies: The Politics of Genre and the Ancient Greek Novel’ in G. A. Karla (ed.) Fiction on the Fringe: Novelistic Writing in the Post-Classical Age, Leiden and Boston: 1-12.