As a bookseller at an independent bookstore specializing in new releases, I get a hands-on sense of how book market trends work. And lately I’ve noticed a resurging interest in mythology.
Not just original myths, but refreshing retellings like Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (though to be fair, many of us readers will read anything by that man, who is a literary god unto himself). I’ve seen titles like Find Your Goddess and Legendary Ladies pop up on the shelves.
This seems to be an emergent pattern for other media, as well. Superhero lore is a kind of modernized mythology, as in the Marvel and DC films Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Guillermo del Toro just won Best Director and Best Picture for The Shape of Water, which is essentially a fanfic of Creature from the Black Lagoon — and horror is a kind of mythology, too.
Whether mythology gets retold, modernized, or subverted, the old school has become new again, and it’s becoming popularized in unexpected ways.
When asked what my novel is about, I’ve often said “it’s based on ancient Roman mythology,” because at least that gives the asking party a conceptual framework to understand the plot.
But if I were being completely honest, I’d say my novel is basically an AU fanfic of Roman myth. I don’t usually say that — not because fanfic is necessarily stigmatized — but because if I did, a lot of folks would go, “huh?”
“Featuring werewolves,” I might add, further complicating things, as werewolves are wont to do.
I can’t stress enough how much The Soft Fall is only loosely based on ancient Roman mythology, inspired by it, or is a reimagining of it. It is not even set in ancient Rome, but a fantasy world that has shades of ancient Rome. In this way it is not like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, for example, which directly characterize the Roman pantheon in a modern context, or Madeline Miller’s latest Circe, set firmly in the Greek Odyssey.
Certain things about The Soft Fall will feel familiar to readers familiar with the traditional Greco-Roman canon: the veiled references to lares, the Oracle at Delphi, the Rape of the Sabines, Palatine Hill. My characters’ names differ from the Roman counterparts that inspired them, albeit slightly, so readers might catch on to that too. Remus and Romulus become Ramus and Remetus. Orion becomes Oryaen. Diana becomes…well, Dianna (see that? The extra ‘n’ is to denote that she is, in fact, her own character, thank you very much).
Not only as an author, but as a person in the world who is legitimately concerned about intercultural relations, the story ideas I borrow from other cultures, and whether or not something constitutes as cultural appropriation, I have to be careful about how I recontextualize mythology. I’m by no means an authority on it, or a classics scholar (Mary Beard is, though, and I highly recommend any of her works). I’ve traveled to modern Rome and read about ancient Rome as a part of my research, but my capacity for research is limited by the very fact that I am not Italian.
But here’s the thing about Roman mythology in particular: it is, in itself, borrowed from the Greeks!
For the record, Diana herself was likely an indigenous woodland goddess, but became associated with the Greek goddess Artemis (and by proxy, Selene and Hecate). Some might call themselves Dianic “purists,” believing the goddess must be interpreted a certain way according to one of her many portrayals. But how can such a thing be claimed if we don’t know which portrayal is “accurate”? Purity is a construct.
As Cicero noted, there are many Dianas, many ‘faces’ or ‘roads’ by which this mighty Goddess was known and worshipped.
– NovaRoma on the festival of Nemoralia
There is much debate regarding her orientation in particular, because of the obsessive emphasis on her celibacy in stories. I just roll my eyes at the “virgin goddess” trope (again: purity is a construct). Some readers argue that the goddess was asexual because of her celibacy, should it be part of her identity rather than simply her preference. Some argue that she was actually a lesbian, because she is frequently depicted with a posse of nymphs who shield her from men’s prying eyes. And most don’t argue that she did love men,* because lesser-known versions mention the hunter Orion as her sole beloved.
Diana’s sexuality or lack thereof is just one of her many contradictory aspects. She has been known to have a wrathful temper, which could easily be an exaggeration, given that basically all the gods are marked by wildly wrathful behavior in some way or another. She is called a protector of women in childbirth as swiftly as she is called a murderer of them — simultaneously relieving disease and the pains of labor as well as bringing sudden death with her arrows. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Netflix series Myths and Monsters both describe Diana’s fateful encounter with Actaeon, a herdsman who merely glimpsed her bathing and, as punishment, was turned into a stag and devoured by his own hounds. So using this example and her apparent chastity, many have codified her a misandrist, as well.
Yet there is a tenderness in her personification that is rarely mentioned. The painting Diana and Endymion by Francesco Solimena depicts the story of Diana’s unrequited love for a handsome mortal shepherd. According to the legend, she fell deeply in love with Endymion, but her love remained unfulfilled due to her vow of chastity. Instead, she would visit a mountain where Endymion guarded his sheep each night, bestowing a kiss upon him while he slept. Occasionally the young man caught a brief glance at her, but believed her lovely face a dream — and enjoyed seeing her so much that he came to prefer sleep over his waking hours. The painting’s Wikipedia page says that “through Diana’s love, Endymion was granted eternal youth and timeless beauty.” That doesn’t sound like misandry to me at all.
Nothing can control how we personally interpret such mythical figures, and perhaps that’s as it should be. The beauty of fanfic is that we can create our own narratives around a character, ones with which we ourselves might strongly identify. Writing Diana not as a one-dimensional virginal misandrist, as she is often labeled, but as a fully realized sex-positive feminist like myself, was my attempt at brushing the dust from her history and adapting her for a modern audience.
I embrace the possibilities of interpretations. But I absolutely take umbrage with the specific argument that Diana must be interpreted a certain way. If we could trace her back to her very first recorded appearance in history, her true origin story, only her creators would know their intentions. Just as if Diana were to somehow exist in ancient history, only the people who knew her would know who she “really” was.
Diana, being a mythical figure, transcends and eludes our complete certainty of her. Myths are derivative, dynamic, and fluid, just like fanfic. And that’s what makes them interesting to us, time and time again, in all of their iterations.
*Spoiler alert: she is, in fact, bisexual in my version. And if that isn’t clear enough, it’s fully revealed in the sequel, because the general consensus is most stories are simply better when we don’t give everything away at once. Yay for character development!