The Big Idea: Maya Deane
How many ways are there to tell a classic story? As many ways as there are people to tell it. In Wrath Goddess Sing, author Maya Deane finds a new way to tell one of Western Civilization’s oldest tales.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: there is no one single “THE ILIAD.” There is only a series of Iliads written and rewritten, reframed and reinterpreted for nearly three millennia. I’ll tell you what probably happened at the end of the Bronze Age to inspire the tales that became the Iliad about 500 years later, and how the Iliad rewrote that past. I’ll tell you how ordinary people made their own variants and preserved their favorite episodes for centuries outside the written record, how Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors reframed the Iliad to justify their wars and empires, how modern powers did the same.
And then I’ll tell you why I rewrote the whole damn thing.
Around 1200 BCE, the eastern Mediterranean world was remarkably advanced. You could travel from Greece to Egypt in a week; vast trade networks ran from Spain to southern China; carnelian beads from India are found in ancient Korean graves and Mycenaean tombs. Even non-elites enjoyed modern luxuries; Middle Bronze Age plaque samples from Canaan show that ordinary people were eating bananas from India.
The superpower of New Kingdom Egypt dominated, challenged by the Hittites, who were in turn challenged by the Mycenaean Greeks – the Achaians of Iliad fame. But after decades of warfare, the Hittites crushed the Achaians, and the whole international system collapsed. Greece and Anatolia were hit especially hard. Cities were deserted, populations crashed, and a dark age descended. Across the eastern Mediterranean, women lost tenuous rights, ancient goddesses were supplanted by young war-gods, and bronze, which requires international trade, gave way to cheap, ubiquitous iron.
In these following dark times, history became epic, rewritten to suit the living. The powerful Hittite client city of Wilusa became Ilios or Troy. In the epics, Ilios started the war when its evil prince Alexander kidnapped Helen. Thanks to the efforts of a generation of demigods, especially the glorious Achilles, the Achaians won and destroyed their enemies, reversing historical defeats. And Achilles, who was often portrayed as gender-diverse in popular visual art, beardless AND in women’s clothing, was soon rewritten too. In the brutal postapocalyptic world of Iron Age Greece, the epic tradition butched Achilles up into a role model for warrior chieftains.
Outside the epic tradition, things stayed weird and full of variance. Potters liked to paint strange episodes, including one where Achilles and Ajax are playing a board game, or another one where Achilles is fussily bandaging Patroklos’s wounded arm, brooding like a mother hen.
Meanwhile, the epics unleashed their own strange effects. They did appeal to chieftains and warrior princes; as powerful states emerged in the Classical era, superfans of the Iliad fandom paid scholars to write them into the story. The royal family of Epeiros, for example, paid Proxenus of Atarneus (Aristotle’s future tutor) to “find” a genealogy tracing their line to Neoptolemos, son of Achilles. This made them descendants of multiple gods – and, more practically, retconned a hereditary claim over most of western Greece and provided ancient family feuds to use as pretexts for war.
Their offspring Alexander the Great (named after the Trojan prince) took things further. He kept the Iliad under his pillow, claiming his wars in Asia were revenge for Achilles. He also rewrote his own legend almost immediately, making himself son of Zeus, son of the Egyptian god Amun, even son of the last native Egyptian pharaoh (reflected in the Egyptian Alexander Romances within decades of his death). His reading of the Iliad became the cornerstone of a shared Hellenistic imperial culture for successor states from the Balkans to India.
Even the Romans wrote themselves in. Commissioned by Augustus, Virgil turned minor character Aeneas into the original Roman founder, and in the process, justified Roman imperialism in Anatolia, Greece, and North Africa. This tradition continued into modern times. The British Empire used the Iliad extensively for propaganda, positioning Britannia as the heir to Hellenic civilization. In Greece, modern nationalists used the Iliad to justify the Megali Idea of annexing Turkey.
This imperial epic tradition has predominated, but it was never the only version.
People have always retold the Iliad to express the unspeakable truths. For centuries, Achilles was often portrayed by women on stage. Louis XIV’s trans sister Philippe (whose contemporaries called her “the silliest woman” but respected her military acumen) commissioned a statue of Achilles for the gardens of Versailles: a woman warrior drawing a sword. And, of course, readers have argued about the Iliad’s queer themes since the Classical period. While Xenophon’s Symposium claims Patroklos and Achilles were platonic friends, Plato’s Symposium features an extended and florid discussion that boils down to which one topped and which one bottomed.
And that’s what I love about the Iliad: we can argue about it. We can rewrite it. We don’t have to accept the verdict of its worst nationalist or imperialist fans. We don’t have to vibe with the parts Alexander and Caesar enjoyed. What I love about the Iliad is the loss, the grief, the ugly rage, the way Achilles threatens to eat Hector’s body and feed his flesh to dogs – not hegemonic power but agony at the way that time can never reverse, the dead can never come back, shattered worlds can never recover.
My own retelling is not the greatest hits of 2500 years of imperial propaganda. Wrath Goddess Sing is a struggle against gods who are not metaphors or symbols of cosmic order but monsters of unspeakable power and privilege who destroy lives without accountability. And it’s love – love for enemies, love for friends, love for family and victims and self, love for our too-short lives, love in the teeth of too-early death.
Let go of the frameworks you’re used to. Look at the ancient classics with fresh eyes, not as the foundations of empires, but as an endless rewriting of a historical moment that resonates in eternity, more and more with each retelling.
If you don’t like the way I retell it, then you should tell it again.