What if Abraham hadn’t founded Judaism, Christianity and Islam? What if the founder had been Sarah, his wife? What if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hadn’t written the Gospels, but the two Marys, the mother of Jesus and Magdalene?

Given that men ruled the roost unchallenged pretty much until the 20th century, our great myths – and forgive me, but as an atheist I see all religions as myths – have a distinctly blokeish bent.

When it comes to the Greek myths, however, there’s been quite the effort to reset the scales. Madeline Miller gave the Odysseus myth a feminist spin in her novel Circe, setting the witch-lover of the peripatetic hero centre-stage. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls retold Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of the woman who lived and died at Troy.

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At the heart of this gender reappraisal sits Natalie Haynes. Many know her best as a comedian, but her forte is as a classicist. She’s given the women of myth the glory they deserve in novels like Stone Blind, retelling the Medusa legend. Medusa, for anyone who cares to read beyond the tale of her murder at the hands of Perseus, was much more sinned against than sinning.  Haynes’s non-fiction work Pandora’s Jar gave voice to the mortal women of Greek myth, the likes of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Clytemnestra, who settled bloody scores with her appalling husband King Agamemnon at the point of a blade.

Haynes has returned with another beauty of a book, entitled Divine Might, this time exploring the Greek goddesses. Even if you’re a freak for ancient myths like me – my bedtime audiobook is currently The Epic of Gilgamesh (for the umpteenth time) so I’m clearly obsessed – there will be gaping holes in your knowledge of the Greek goddesses. 

The male gods are always the star of the show. Or have been, rather, until Haynes came along. What do you know about Hera?  Married to her brother Zeus, bit of a harridan forever persecuting mortals, tormented brave Hercules. Or Aphrodite? Goddess of love, sprung from the head of her daddy Zeus, helped start the Trojan War. Athene? Likes a bit of bloodshed, and something to do with Athens … maybe.

Haynes fills out the forgotten myths of these immortal women, drawing on ancient sources such as the Homeric Hymns. Hera, rather than the shrew she’s been portrayed as for centuries, emerges as a woman who tolerates the intolerable: a rapist husband who’s violent to her. Little wonder she’s the goddess of married women. In ancient Athens, women were subject to Taliban-style rule.

Where Haynes really excels is in the stories of goddesses given little attention in the past. Immortals like Artemis – the hunter – are often overlooked for cooler goddesses such as Athene and Aphrodite. Artemis, though, is a total bad-ass. And not necessarily in a good way. The human woman Niobe once boasted she was more fertile than Leto, Artemis’s mother. For such hubris, all her children were murdered and Niobe turned into a weeping stone. There ain’t no sisterhood on Mount Olympus, especially with puny mortals.

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Haynes gives us a glimpse of what worshipping such deities meant in the Bronze Age: whole pyres of animals were sacrificed to Artemis … as were children. In the Trojan myth, Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia to Artemis in order to get a good wind to take his fleet to battle. Darkly, Artemis was also the goddess of virgins. 

As Haynes says, Artemis was a “true predator”. Poor old Actaeon, another daft human, stumbles upon her naked and is turned into a deer and torn apart by his own dogs.  It’s a story well trod in literature, a centrepiece of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but one of the achievements of Haynes is that her zingy, lively style will bring these myths to a new, younger audience, especially girls.  For that alone, she deserves applause. The great myths have for too long been seen as the domain of bookish boys and geeky male scholars.

In her hands, the story of Hades abducting and raping Persephone (his own niece incidentally) becomes a revenge thriller akin to Liam Neeson’s Taken. The goddess Demeter, Persephone’s mother, threatens to extinguish all human life on Earth unless Zeus brings her some justice.

The only goddess who isn’t up for a bit of the old ultra-violence is Hestia, goddess of hearth and home.  That’s perhaps indicative of the fact that as it was men shaping these myths, they feared female power and were much more comfortable with an obedient hausfrau.

One of the great joys in Haynes’s work is her use of ancient art and poetry to explain the stories of these goddesses.  You’ll learn about delightful and delinquent Greek pottery – be prepared for much torture and high-grade porn. It’s a shame her publishers, Picador, didn’t litter the pages with illustrations as I had to keep googling to see the art Haynes was writing about.

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If there’s one criticism, it’s this: as a comedian, Haynes loves digression, often for comic effect. One trope is to look for mirrors of Greek goddesses in modern TV and film. Sometimes this works.  The way she aligns the myth of the Furies – the ancient goddesses of revenge – with a horror movie like It Follows, is smart. At other times, it doesn’t quite work.  Her aside on Mighty Aphrodite, for instance, really adds nothing to the story of the goddess.

The reason myths still speak to us – why so many keep consuming books like this – is that these stories tell us just how similar we are to our ancient ancestors.  Here’s an example: in this current era of brutal warfare, one moment stood out for me in Divine Might which curiously didn’t deal with gender, but with conflict.

It comes as Haynes tells the story of how Athene sent the hero Ajax mad on the battlefield. In the legend, he’s crazed, hallucinating, weeping.  The Greeks, you see, didn’t have our psychological language. They didn’t know terms like “PTSD”. But Ajax has been fighting and killing for 10 long years. He’s a broken man. Athene’s curse is the only way our ancient ancestors could express such suffering.

That’s why myths matter. They keep us humble. They tell us that despite the internet and satellites, we’re really little changed from those who lived millennia ago.

Divine Might
Natalie Haynes
Picador, £20