Back when I was a kid, I loved reading about Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. I read about them in grade school and then, while taking Latin in high school, I read even more. Our copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology got quite a work out. But then, I moved on to other interests and pretty much forgot about mythology until recently, when people like novelist Madeline Miller and translator Emily Wilson have put the gods and goddesses back on my radar. Wake, Siren is a collection of short stories dealing with this subject matter. Writer Nina MacLaughlin went back to Ovid’s Metamorphosis (which I have not read) and re-imagined a number of the myths contained within, usually giving the reader the point of view of one of the female victims of said gods’ and goddesses’ lust and anger. It is a powerful, perhaps triggering collection. Readers who have dealt with sexual assault and violence might have a hard time reading these stories, which highlight the fear, powerlessness and rage of the victims.
Wake, Siren features 34 myths, many of which will be familiar to readers, such as the stories of Arachne, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Medusa. In MacLaughlin’s retellings, the ancient stories get a very modern feel, and not just because some are clearly set in our contemporary world. In MacLaughlin’s stories, an inherently unfair power structure with gods and goddesses at the top plays a role in diminishing women’s voices and turning victims into monsters. Sometimes, other women try to help their sisters; often goddesses side with gods to punish female victims; and throughout, the victims/monsters express rage at the injustices done to them. The collection opens with the story of Arachne, a young woman who was an enormously talented weaver. She was so talented that she dared suppose she could take on none other than Minerva in a contest and best her. Minerva, offended and threatened by this human, takes her on and ultimately not only destroys Arachne’s tapestry with its images of gods raping women and facing no consequences, but also tries to destroy and diminish Arachne by turning her into a spider. Minerva clearly viewed Arachne as a real threat to the power structure that places deities on top; she has no affinity for Arachne as a woman or fellow weaver. Arachne’s telling of this story reveals not a human broken by power but rather a woman wise to its injustices and prepared to continue the fight.
Arachne’s story provides a powerful opening to the rest of the collection. Several stories feature nymphs who, although loyal to Diana and interested only in serving her, are relentlessly pursued by gods who will not be denied in their lust. The story of Syrinx stands out for revealing how Syrinx’s sister nymphs attempted to protect her from Pan by turning her into reeds only to have Pan take those reeds/Syrinx and turn her into his pipes. They acknowledge that this is better than being raped, but a violation nonetheless. Other stories feature women (Semele and Io, for example) who had the misfortune of drawing the attention of Jove and the wrath of his wife Juno. While Jove is a rapist, Juno punishes the women who were victims of his crimes. Again, for the “haves”, loyalty is to your class and not your gender. A similar situation arises in the story of Medusa. She makes it clear that Neptune raped her in Minerva’s temple, and she describes a violent, painful experience made worse by the fact that Minerva punishes her but does nothing to Neptune. Powerful male gods never face consequences. Medusa ends her tale by telling the reader that it’s not the snakes on her head that turn people to stone but her rage.
These stories remind the reader of current headlines which feature very similar injustices: women blamed for being victims, privileged white male perpetrators being exonerated and facing no consequences. MacLaughlin also manages to demonstrate the PTSD that victims face as a result of being harassed by men. In Scylla, the water nymph Scylla visits her friend Galatea, who is clearly suffering from PTSD. Galatea tells her friend about being stalked and harassed via email by Polyphemus, the cyclops. The messages he sends her sound very much like the hate rages of incels before they explode and hurt women. Galatea had been a happy person in a loving relationship and tried to just ignore Polyphemus, but he continued writing her, threatening her and her boyfriend. Galatea is now ruled by fear. Scylla says,
I thought about how maybe the worst violence isn’t the physical part, but what it does to the mind, hijacking attention centers, recircuiting what the brain wires itself around.
I could go on and on about the stories in this book. They are incredibly well written and sharply critical of the misogyny and class-ism not just of myths but of our modern world. If you enjoyed Circe, if you like some feminism in your fiction, if you are in a place where blunt and honest descriptions of rape and violence against women will not trigger you, then Wake, Siren should be on your reading list.