“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, and there was nothing we could do.”
I know we shouldn’t choose books based on their cover, but I wanted to mention straight away how stunning the finished hardback of this book really is. A gorgeous design of vines in midnight blue and gold, this would jump out at you in any book store. We all know the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Everything is black and white when we’re small children, so we take in myths like this, accepting everything we’re told. It’s just a story isn’t it? King Minos has a monster called The Minotaur that’s half man and half bull. Every year the city of Athens must send seven of its best sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Then one year, Theseus arrives in place of one of the chosen boys, with a plan to kill the Minotaur and stop this blood shed. Minos’s eldest daughter, Ariadne, falls in love at first sight and vows to help Theseus, expecting that she will travel back to Athens with him.
However, the plan doesn’t unfold as she expected and we follow her story as she wakes up on a neighbouring Greek Island alone. Having done a small amount of Latin and Greek at school, I’ve read many of the Greek myths and my abiding impression was how cruel the gods were. In modern Christian faith believers tend to trust in God being a comfort and help in troubled times, but these classical gods are usually causing the troubled times. They are either disguising themselves as animals, committing rapes against human women, having relationships with humans, but then retreating to be unfathomable, mysterious, beings when it suits them. I would have found the Greek’s concept of gods to be frightening – they are capricious, childlike and move humans round like chess pieces. So, knowing that the gods interfered in the lives of King Minos and his Queen did not surprise me.
In this feminist retelling, Jennifer Saint deliberately places the women in the centre of this myth, where they should be. It subtly changes it’s meaning and makes us think again about the version we have always known. King Minos’s daughters, Ariadne and Phaedre, have a living example of how women’s lives are played with by male gods in their own mother Pasiphae, who was tricked into falling in love with a bull. Minos tried to steal Poseidon’s incredible creation of the Cretan bull. In his anger Poseidon filled Pasiphae with lust for the bull and from their rather undignified union came the girl’s brother Asterion, half boy half calf. Possibly thinking of her own troubles, their mother tells them the full story of Medusa, including the part prior to her entanglement with Perseus. In a late version of her story, written by Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful girl with lustrous long hair, and was a priestess of Athena. Poseidon was beaten by Athena into becoming patron of the capital city of Greece, Athens. To punish Athena he ‘seduced’ or raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. However, instead of punishing Poseidon, Athena punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes. The only version I was ever told, when studying classics at school, was Medusa’s part in the story of Perseus – women are of course, only bit players in the story of these incredible male heroes. These part stories, accepted and understood by me as a young teenager, now make me angry. I was only ever given the male version of these tales and I can understand what pushed the author to write this.
‘I only knew Medusa as a monster. I had not thought she had ever been anything else. The stories of Perseus did not allow for a Medusa with a story of her own.’
As usual though, because I have a disability, the book make me think about how disability and difference is portrayed in the myths. There were some similarities between Asterion and Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As I was reading about the Minotaur’s origins I started to have feelings for this creature who never asked to exist. The narrator tells us about her mother after his birth, when she’s blank and exhausted but:
‘she cradled a mass of blankets to her breast and she pressed her nose softly to her baby’s head. He snuffled, hiccuped and opened a dark eye to stare into mine as I moved slowly forward. I noticed that it was fringed with long, dark eyelashes. A chubby hand fluttered against my mother’s breast; one tiny, perfect pink nail at the end of each finger. I could not yet see beneath the blanket where the soft pink infant legs gave way at the ankles to dark fur and hard, stony hooves. The infant was a monster and the mother a hollowed-out shell, but I was a child and drawn to the frail spark of tenderness in the room.’
She describes this special time, before he was monstrous and how she felt, even about the more unusual aspects of him.
‘I reached that final inch and bridged the gulf between us. My fingers stroked the slick fur of his brow, beneath the bulging edifice of rocky horns that emerged at his temples. I let my hand sweep gently across the soft spot just between his eyes. With a barely perceptible movement, his jaw loosened and a little huff of breath blew warm against my face.’
She realises he is not a monster, he is her brother. Inexplicably he moves from milk to craving raw meat and eating passing rats. However, Ariadne does not fear him and instead of thinking ahead, she focuses on the here and now and describes trying to teach him table manners and how to be gentle. Even she has realised that Asterion is a victim, and feels a ‘raw pity’ for him that brings tears to her eyes. In the same way that it isn’t Medusa’s fault she is raped in Athena’s temple, it’s not Asterion’s fault that he is created the way he is. Ariadne describes him as Poseidon’s cruel joke and humiliation for a man who has never even deigned to lay his eyes on him. That is until Minos sees he can use Asterion for his own ends. Minos was only proud of his potential monstrousness and the fear he might instil in his enemies. It is Minos who instructs Daedalus to construct the labyrinth that secures Asterion as a slave and even though there is pride in his new weapon, he doesn’t even allow him to keep his own name.
‘And so Asterion became the Minotaur. My mother’s private constellation of shame intermingled with love and despair no longer; instead, he became my father’s display of dominance to the world. I saw why he proclaimed him the Minotaur, stamping this divine monstrosity with his own name and aligning its legendary status with his own from its very birth.’
I was fascinated with the author’s storytelling, it is spellbinding. She shows us that for powerful men and gods like Minos and Poseidon, whether you are a woman or different like Asterion your only worth in this life, is wrapped up in your value to men. If Asterion had remained gentle and docile, Minos would still have banished him in some way. Pasiphae’s psychological break after his birth shows what happens to women who give birth to daughters and monsters. This is a book that truly makes you think, not just about the historical myths we’re told, but who tells them and why? It also made me think about the stories we are told today, by our world leaders (still largely men). How do they shape the way we view the world? Which heroes do they hold up as examples? Which monsters do they wield to control us? Like Ariadne we must learn to question. She learns to her cost, that even the man who appears to be her saviour, is more interested in his own glory. There is so much to enjoy here and on so many different levels. This is a stunning debut and shouldn’t be missed.
‘No longer was my world one of brave heroes; I was learning all too swiftly the women’s pain that throbbed unspoken through the tales of their feats.’
Meet The Author
Jennifer Saint grew up reading Greek mythology and was always drawn to the untold stories hidden within the myths. After thirteen years as a high school English teacher, she wrote ARIADNE which tells the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne – the woman who made it happen. Jennifer Saint is now a full-time author, living in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two children.