Natalie Haynes swapped the macho world of comedy for the male-dominated world of the classics and became one of our most acclaimed writers, retelling ancient myths from a feminist perspective. As her new book is published she lets rip to our Writer at Large

BACK in the Bronze Age, Natalie Haynes would have made a magnificent Queen of the Amazons, those ancient warrior women who rejected male power – the original sisters who were doing it for themselves.

Whether on the page or the stage, Haynes is an armour-clad feminist. She takes no prisoners. Haynes began her career as a comedian. However, as a trained classicist, who studied at Cambridge, she has morphed into one of Britain’s most successful authors. Haynes is at the forefront of perhaps the biggest movement in modern literature: the retelling of ancient myths from the perspective of women.

Her 2017 novel The Children Of Jocasta put the women in the Oedipus myth front and centre. Soon, bookshops were bulging with feminist takes on ancient legends. A year later, Pat Barker used her novel The Silence Of The Girls to give voice to the women of the Trojan War. Then Madeline Miller’s Circe put a feminist slant on the Odysseus myth.

This retelling of ancient tales through a woman’s lens is long overdue. For millennia, literature was blind to the grotesque misogyny in our most beloved stories. Take Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus is seen as the archetypal hero – the brave champion vanquishing the monster in the labyrinth.

It’s consistently overlooked, though, that Theseus would have failed without his lover Ariadne, who helped him escape the monster’s clutches. Worse, it’s all but forgotten that once Theseus got the glory, he marooned Ariadne on an island.

Another snakey hero whose sins are sidelined is Jason, leader of the famed Argonauts. Jason would never have claimed the Golden Fleece without help from his lover Medea. Once again, as soon as he gets the glory, our hero dumps the girl. Though in this case, if you know the myth, Medea exacts terrible vengeance.

Sexual assault

The reverse is true when it comes to how we view female mythological characters. If bad men become wonderboys, put-upon women are cast as villains. Medusa, a figure of horror in the modern imagination, is a perfect example. In the original story, Medusa is a beautiful young woman raped by Poseidon in a temple. As Medusa is deemed to have defiled a religious site, the poor girl is turned into a monster and beheaded by another swaggering Greek jock, Perseus.





In her new book, Divine Might, Haynes continues her task of rebalancing the scales – this time giving full vent to the stories of the Greek goddesses such as Artemis, Demeter and Aphrodite, too often overshadowed by the lads of Olympus, immortal egotists like Apollo and Zeus.

It’s worth reminding readers that the king of the gods is a serial rapist, not that anyone paid much attention to that for the last few thousand years. And Odysseus, seen as cool and clever, plotted the sacrifice of a young girl. Hardly Mr Nice Guy.

Unlike many of her male predecessors, Haynes, as a scholar of ancient Greece, doesn’t view her subject through rose-tinted specs. “There’s loads about ancient Greek societies which make them very hard to love: the complete acceptance of slavery, the complete acceptance that some people are just substandard citizens who don’t count, so women are incredibly regulated and reduced.”

It’s extremely difficult to even get a handle on what the lives of women were really like in Ancient Greece as men did all the writing, and didn’t gave a damn about women.


ON the rare occasion when we do get a glimpse of a woman’s life – such as the great poet Sappho – it’s only “because men decided her writing was worth saving. So everything we know about women is refracted through the male gaze”.

Fully half the major Olympian goddesses – Artemis, Athena and Hestia – are rendered sexless by the men who wrote the great myths. Might that be male fear of female sexuality? Or perhaps, Haynes speculates, ancient Greek men “realised that if women had power they’d reject them”.

Haynes notes that Hestia, goddess of hearth and home, was lavished with presents by Zeus when she chose to “reject marriage”. Haynes starts to giggle: “Wow, why doesn’t that continue to modern times? Why does the idea that women are evil and responsible for the world’s wrongs continue into modernity from ancient myth, and not the idea that if you chose not to get married you get a big present”.

She certainly has a point. Christianity, after all, is built upon the notion that women – in the shape of disobedient Eve and her dangerous apple – brought sin into the world.

Some ancient women did escape male power, however, if only for a few hours. There are mythological portrayals, says Haynes, of the Bacchae, “the female followers” of Dionysus. These women worshipped the god of wine by “rejecting normal civic life, and going out into the wilds” to be free. In ancient literature, though, they were inevitably portrayed as terrifying.






IN Euripides’s play The Bacchae, they’re whipped to such frenzy through drink and religious ecstasy that they murder men with their bare hands. The subtext seems to be, says Haynes, “that if you let women loose, who knows what could happen”. They’ll rip men to pieces.

The Bacchae are sometimes portrayed as breast-feeding “piglets” – another sign of how men saw women free from male control as monstrous and unnatural.

You can see why Sigmund Freud got many of his ideas from Greek myths – they consistently reveal men’s weird psychological fear of women. Misogyny permeates Greek myth. “Medusa is the most glaring example – forgive the pun – of male fear of the female gaze, of men afraid of being seen by women,” says Haynes.

Despite what modern readers may imagine, poor Medusa never kills anyone – nor turn anyone to stone – once she’s transformed into a hideous creature with snakes in her hair. In fact, she hides away. It’s only after she’s murdered by Perseus that “her head is used to kill people”. Talk about objectification. Yet the myth paints the woman as debased and the man as heroic.


NOT all of ancient Greece was uniformly misogynistic. There was a spectrum. Athens was at the extreme end, where women were sequestered away completely under male domination. “In Sparta,” says Haynes, “women had a much more open, outgoing life. One of the things that’s so weird and strange to Athenians is that Spartan women are perfectly happy talking back to men.” Spartan women took part in sport – something unthinkable in hyper-masculine Athens. “They had much more freedom.”

Once again, modern people are looking at the ancient world in a topsy-turvey fashion. We shudder at proto-fascist, militaristic Sparta but fawn over Athenian art and democracy. “All the information we have about Sparta has, of course, been constructed by writers from Athens,” Haynes explains – proving that when it comes to who emerges as the cool guys from history, the pen really is mightier than the sword.

But Sparta was no paradise. Spartans enslaved an entire tribe, called the helots, and ritually murdered them each year. “Obviously, their appalling treatment of the helots is abhorrent, but at the same time, was it a lot worse being a helot than a slave down the silver mines in Athens? And certainly it’s better being a woman in Sparta, than among all that delightful art and culture in Athens.”

Athenian men also knew exactly what they were up to when it came to the mistreatment of women. In Euripides’s play Medea, the main character, Haynes explains, talks about women trapped in marriages to unfaithful men and forbidden from any other contact. What Medea says “is true of the wives of the men watching the play”.


WHEN she made a half-hour radio documentary about Sappho, there was so little information about the poet that Haynes “got through all the known facts by the end of minute two. It’s extremely hard to find things out about people’s lives when they’re outliers – and women are always outliers”.

Astonishingly, as Sappho was such a brilliant writer, ancient scholars tried to redefine her as one of the Muses – an immortal goddess – rather than a human woman. “It’s just another way of diminishing women,” Haynes adds. “One of those ways in which women get put on a pedestal and have the ground cut from under them at the same time. It’s like, this woman is so great, she’s basically not human.”

The same happens today, Haynes believes, with athletes like Serena Williams. Commentators refer to her as “superhuman”. It “looks like a compliment”, she says, but it’s also a way of saying no woman can be this good. Female politicians get similar treatment. Margaret Thatcher became the “Iron Lady”, Angela Merkel was “mutti” – mother of the German nation. Successful men don’t get treated this way – they’re just seen as successful. Much was written about Nicola Sturgeon never having children, while little was ever said about Alex Salmond’s lack of kids. “That’s the perfect illustration,” says Haynes.

In terms of women and the sweep of history, “we’ve only been looking at half the picture. But that’s the best you’re ever going to get if you only allow one half of the world to make art and define things and rule”.

So when Haynes took up the study of such “a pale, male and stale subject” as the classics, she set out on a path to become a disruptor. Her book tours are packed events these days. “It’s thrilling to see so many young women there. I feel like I’m building an army.”


MODERN male classicists were often just as bad, if not worse than their ancient counterparts. Take the Hades and Persephone myth. The God of the Underworld abducts and rapes his own niece, with the connivance of his brother Zeus – Persephone’s father. It’s an appalling horror movie of a story.

Yet the ancient version of the myth is actually “much less sexist and much more sympathetic”, Haynes says, than the famous modern retelling by Robert Graves, acclaimed for his novel I, Claudius.

As a young woman, Haynes identified strongly with Persephone. Now, however, approaching 50, she’s in tune with Demeter, Persephone’s divine mother who relentlessly fights for her daughter. “I’m much more the angry woman who won’t take no for an answer.”

In the original Pandora myth, our heroine was described in ancient Greek as “kalon kakon”, says Haynes: beautiful ugly. Modern male classicists changed that to “beautiful evil”, turning Pandora into an Eve-like figure. Early versions of the myth had Pandora owning “a jar full of good things” – she doesn’t open a box unleashing horror on the world. In some versions of the Helen of Troy myth, “she’s completely blameless, she doesn’t have an affair. When did you ever see that in a kids’ book? She’s always off to Troy with her boyfriend”.

In the versions of ancient myths that we read as children, “so much was missing”, Haynes adds. How we tell stories matters, especially when it comes to what’s omitted. And it was “elite, educated, males” who decided how ancient myths were told.


TO this day, some male critics seem to struggle to understand what writers like Haynes are trying to do.

When she wrote A Thousand Ships in 2019, retelling the Trojan War, one journalist asked her why she was writing about the experience of ancient women during conflict. “I said, ‘mate, there’s nothing I’d like more than for the experiences of women in war to seem incredibly quaint and old-fashioned, and as soon as that’s true I’ll write about something else’.”

For a long time, ancient myths – through the study of classics at university – were “the preserve of posh men who went to posh schools. Routinely, they just didn’t notice that women were people. They went to school without them, grew up without them.

“Why would women ever enter your sphere as a posh man?’”

Generations of male classicists depicted the Greek camp in the Iliad – Homer’s tale of the Trojan War – “as basically boarding school”.

The result was “an ugly, vicious circle where women felt excluded and so didn’t pursue” the classics. But then along came women like Professor Mary Beard – the famed classicist and much-loved TV star – who began levelling academia. Beard taught Haynes at Cambridge.


Mary Beard

Mary Beard


Women like Haynes and Madeline Miller – another classicist – then took the feminist fight for the soul of the classics out of the university cloisters and into popular literature. The classics “don’t belong” to rich, white men, Haynes says. “They belong to everyone.”

But the fight wasn’t easy. When Haynes wrote The Children Of Jocasta she struggled to sell it. “I had to change publishers,” she says. “They didn’t believe there was a market for it.” She chuckles mischievously: “Wow, were they wrong.”

Around half of Haynes’s readers are young women. She, and her contemporaries, opened up an entirely new publishing market.


OF course, there are still misogynist detractors – particular online – moaning about women finally getting their rightful place in ancient myths. But they’re the same idiots, Haynes feels, who whinge about an African-American woman starring in the Ghostbusters remake.

What about the old guard in classics – male academics who once “owned” the subject. Do they celebrate Haynes’s success? She lets loose a boom of laughter.

“They definitely should be,” she shouts. “I’m keeping them all in jobs. They should be sending me a crate of champagne every week.”

In Europe, the cultural dominance of white, wealthy men “gave us some really wonderful art but from a very limited perspective”.

Haynes adds: “So, when people ask now ‘what book are you reading’ or say ‘you won’t like this because it’s got men in it’, my attitude is pretty well: 100%.

“If it’s a story about men, it had better be as good as Sophocles, because otherwise, honestly, I’ve probably heard as much about men as I need to for a bit. There’s no shortage of them. If men are making art about men then it better be great art – that’s where my bar is set.”


HAYNES has first-hand experience of the darkest aspects of male cultural power over women. The world of stand-up comedy “was a really bleak place to be a woman in the 1990s when I started, and in the noughties”. She faced direct predatory behaviour from men on the circuit.

When she began, about 10% of comedians were women. Most comedy nights had a maximum of one woman per show.

“We were never on the same bill unless it was International Women’s Day. You were always isolated.” Cruelly, that made women comics “really competitive” with one another, “when actually it’s the system pitting you against each other”.

She recalls asking one promoter if she could shift her act to another night. “He said, ‘oh no, I’ve already got a spesh act on that night’.” A “spesh” act is a “special”. In other words, a woman comedian was on the same level as “a ventriloquist. That wasn’t uncommon. A lot of things were just awful”.

Haynes found recent allegations around Russell Brand “very painful” and adds that accusations against him of predatory behaviour were outdone by others on the comedy circuit.


Russell Brand leaves the Troubabour Wembley Park theatre in north-west London after performing a comedy set. He faces claims about his sexual behaviour at the height of his fame. He has vehemently denied the allegations. Picture date: Saturday September

Russell Brand leaves the Troubabour Wembley Park theatre in north-west London after performing a comedy set. He faces claims about his sexual behaviour at the height of his fame. He has vehemently denied the allegations


Today, Haynes wonders: “How was I ever brave enough to do it? I did it for a long time in a really tough period when being a woman in comedy was brutal. I want to go back in time and find 23-year-old me and wrap her up in cotton wool and tell her to be careful. I can’t quite believe I walked through it as unscathed as I did. I was offered work if I would have sex with a promoter. I was told I would not get work if I wouldn’t have sex with one.

“You’d do a gig and the guy would be like ‘I’ll send a good report back to the people who booked it if you etcetera’ – and it just wasn’t uncommon, because we were all separated out. There was one woman on the bill.”

There were plenty of decent men, though – comedians like Robin Ince, Rob Deering and Howard Read. “You thought, ‘thank god they’re there’, because you’re going to not just be safe but also happy and laughing,” Haynes recalls. “There were loads of men who I’d still be delighted to see from my time on the circuit, and there’s definitely some I hope I never see again.”

And her next book? A novel about Medea and the revenge of women. Quite fitting, really.