Chapter Five: On Mythology As Adaptation and Gender & Justice Intersections

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Chapter Five builds on your familiarity with folklore in the adaptations of classical mythology
  • To succeed in this chapter, select several assignments to practice close reading skills and textual analysis of mythology as adaptation and ecocritical approaches to literary studies

Let’s tell stories for a while, if you please, but let’s make them relevant,

as Horace says. For stories…are not only the first beginnings of philosophy.

Stories are also—and just as often—philosophy’s instrument.

Poliziano, Lamia 1492

image of an aged page from a book with black and white image in the center with text directly below surround by ornate and white image of Orpheus with a musical instrument that looks like a violin as he sings and charms the animals around himThe image is in dark grey of an omniscient male god above a male figure. The male god-like figure is wearing a crown. The king stands and gestures with his right hand toward a male figure who sits below a tree and reclines against its tree trunk. To the left of the sitting minor character is a lion who also sits. The lion stares directly a head, while the king and sitting figure look at toward each other as if in a conversation.

1497 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1505 of Orpheus in Book X, & 1606 Plate from Book 1 on “The Creation” by Ovid CC

The previous section addresses mythology in early oral traditions and the epic from cultures across geographic regions to address intersectionality on current sustainability challenges. These engagements in textual analysis with the literature of Sumerian, Mayan, North American Indigenous and West African Mali traditions demonstrate literary studies approaches that disclose the relevance of ancient texts for twenty-first century learners. The section concludes with ecocritics. They explain how various ancient storytelling traditions faced challenges with the environment and natural resources. While some traditions attempted to ensure sustainable relationships with nature, other collaborations were antagonistic, very much like modern-day human-nature disparities.

Literary tropes are also identified in ancient origin myths. They explain the physical world and unknown experiences through archetypes, like the mother and father, creator and destroyer, light and darkness, and the sky and the underworld. In folklore other archetypes emerge in fables and animal tales, like tricksters, villains, fools, and characters who lack experience.

How is Classical Folklore Retold in Later Works as Adaptations?

A common practice among storytelling around the world is to share and retell stories. Retold variations of stories are adaptations. Retellings of mythological figures whereby similar characters reappear throughout different epochs and cultures are considered archetypes. These are characters who represent inherent qualities that all people hold.

image in black ink with an off-white negative. Psyche is standing but leaning on her left to express her sad emotions.illustration of an Indigenous 'weeping woman'. The Indigenous mother sits in a canoe in the center, with members of her Indigenous community surrounding the and white 1876 engraving of Margaret Gardner. She stands and stares at four male bounty hunters as her two children lie dead at her feet. Her clothes are worn and the four male slave hunters show expressions of bewilderment of Margaret Gardner's act.Picture in color on a sunny day of a statue of La Llorona in Xochimilco, Mexico. There is a green grass lawn and a stone pedestal holds the statue of La Llorona. La Llorona is an Indigenous weeping woman figure. She wears a veil and a long dark gown. "Wood carved in the shape of a woman called "La llorona", typical of Mexican culture, with a white veil on a stone base, located on the island of "la llorona" in the canals of Xochimilco, Mexico."

1860s Cupid & Psyche (left), 1559 Indigenous weeping women, 1867 Illustration of Margaret Garner, & Mexico’s La Llorona CC

An ancient prototype, the figure of Niobe in Greek mythology emerges as an archetype in retellings of mothers who lose their children by forces beyond their reach. Modern variations of the Niobe archetype are witnessed today in the Weeping Woman legend. She is a female figure in folklore known throughout Southwestern, Chicano, Mexican, Caribbean, and Central American storytelling traditions by the name of La Llorona.

The Niobe archetype should not be confused with the Medea archetype. Known throughout modern literary works like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this female figure, unlike Niobe, defies patriarchal gender designations and victimhood identifications. She represents “a strong-willed and desperate woman driven to unthinkable acts of violence” (Marks 2013). Since Euripides’ Medea (431 B.C.E.), this figure takes matters into her own hands to represent transformative agency.

How does Adaptation Transform in Theater, the Novel, Film, & Television?

We witness adaptations of previous works in novels, short stories, comics, and graphic novels. Yet adaptations have also transformed classical theater and even ancient religious scripture. Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BC) are themselves adaptations of oral tradition. These dramatic works adapt Greek mythology from ancient religious cults. Through retellings, adaptations that may have originated in an oral tradition are now shared in mass media through film, broadcast radio and television, as well as by online streamed series.

It is important to note that the dramatic performances of the ancient Greek theater were part of the annual religious and civic celebration known as the City Dionysia, an annual festival in Athens, commemorating Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and ritual madness. The theatrical performances were the central focus of the festival and included two major types of drama: tragedy and comedy (also known as satyr plays). (Pressbooks on Greek Theater)

The printing press in the sixteenth century and the emergence of cinema in the late nineteenth century are modern technologies that opened new doors for storytelling and adaptations, especially from the novel to film.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels have been adapted in a range of national contexts but probably the most adapted author is Shakespeare, whose plays have appeared in film form as a large-budget Hollywood musical (West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, US, 1961)), a historical epic set in feudal Japan (Kumonosu-jo/Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1957)…to name a few. Pressbooks on the Adaptation

The current online streaming culture is a result of new services through online platforms whose storytelling has depended on previous platforms and technologies – in print, celluloid and radio and television.

Cartoon two-tone grey mobile tablet with a widescreen, that is streaming a video using a video sharing application, that is showing a green background with a grey camera and a red play sign logo.image of a book cover, that has trees with the title in white, titled "The Lost City of Z,"image of a film poster in color, that is based on the book by Grann, "The Lost City of Z" (2017). To imply crisis and chaos, the backdrop is of smoke and red clouds that hover over the image of its two main characters- lovers from different social groups: the Osage Nation and Euro-American.image of an egg shaped yellow circle has a seal of a piece pipe across a clothed Indigenous Chief looking forward with his back toward us, which shows his custom regal clothes and headdress:This is a modern map of Oklahoma that shows the territories of several Indigenous communities: the Kaw, Osage, Cherokee, Ponca, Pawnee, Sac , Fox, Creek, Choctaw, Kiowa, Chickasaw, among others

2018 Tablet Streaming, Print media of Grann’s book, Book adapted in 2023 Film on Osage Nation in Oklahoma (1890s map)

By the late twentieth century, online technologies began to converge on the internet. This virtual technology has enhanced the sharing of information and communication through several platforms and search engines to facilitate the online streaming culture of storytelling we know today (Pressbooks on the Internet).

While Internet distribution gained some traction during the 2000s, web series were hardly mentioned in the same breath as traditionally televised programs, lacking the cultural legitimacy to be taken seriously as a form of televisual storytelling. Nonetheless, the experimentation with distribution and release strategy during this period set the stage for the streaming services of today. Sharma 2016

Modern storytelling technologies are part of our daily lives. We carry films and stream shows through our cell phones, tablets, and computers. With today’s streaming culture, adaptations are part of the norm in television, film, and streaming series.

Critics trace these modern adaptations at the advent of the silent film and throughout today’s streaming series – like the adaptation of the novel The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker into a film in 1985 by director Steven Spielberg and into a musical version in 2004 by Quincy Jones, Emma Thompson’s 1995 cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), and a recent comedy horror cinematic version Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) directed by Burr Gore Steers that is based on a 2009 adaptation of Austen’s novel by American writer and film producer Seth Grahame-Smith.

Current streaming services also offer adaptations of novels into a series, like American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ 2016 television series adapted from American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred (1979) and 2017 television series by Bruce Miller of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel titled The Handmaid’s Tale.

What is Ideology Relativity in Adaptations?

When we work with two versions of the same story, an early version and a current adaptation, we are challenged with the analytical task to accurately identify how a story has been adapted in regards to ideology. For example, we can read the comics Superman and The Black Panther and learn about how heroism and villainy are represented at the time of their publications. But, when we review current adaptations of the same stories, its ideals and values of heroism and villainy have changed, perhaps due to a need to address the current generation and or to appease the whims of those who directed and produced the adapted versions. These variations of social norms and values witnessed in an adaptation are examples of ideology relativity.

On Ecocriticism and the Adaptation in Mythology & Abolitionism

Ovid’s revision of the Niobe myth in The Metamorphosis enhances her agency as a figure who experiences injustice and powerlessly suffers. The poet Christine de Pizan in the High Middle Ages also revisited the Niobe mythological figure in her own work to confront her contemporary misogynistic romances that negatively misrepresent women. The lyrical poetry of modern poets also demonstrates reimaginings of mythology on the figure of Niobe.

Pioneering Black poet Phillis Wheatley, who was captured from Africa and then sold into slavery in the United States, rewrote the classical prototype of the ‘weeping mother’ to respond to Ovid’s Niobe and to reposition the tradition of Western lyrical poetry within an abolitionist context. Through her reimagined adaptation, Wheatley’s poetry unveils the lived experiences of those who suffered bondage under American slavery.


For example, in her poem Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI. And From a View of a Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson, Wheatley uplifts the plight of the trauma enslaved mothers undergo through classical myth:

The queen of all her family bereft

Without or husband, son, or daughter left

Grew stupid at the shock…

A marble statue now the queen appears,

But from the marble steal the silent tears.

(OER Poem on Niobe by Wheatley 1773)

Wheatley’s rewriting of Ovid’s Niobe from Book VI of The Metamorphoses transforms classical poetry into abolitionist lyrical poetry through ideology relativity. This treatment of Niobe places the mother figure at the center of the myth. Ovid’s version of the myth does not center Niobe on her experiences. Hence, Wheatley’s poem is not only a depiction of the trope of the weeping woman, but her adaptation also alludes to the current lived experiences of those who have been enslaved, a reimagining that is also fruitful for ecocriticism on abolition literature.

An engagement with African American experiences in the United States is necessarily an environmental one, whether, for example, in the transatlantic crossing, plantation labor, or the Great Migration, although critics often do not bring an ecocritical lens to such historical events (Wardi 2021).

Classical themes in abolitionist lyrical poetry challenge us to study literary works of previous epochs, like those by Ovid and more recent works. Let’s proceed in literary studies to witness ecocritical earlier works.

How Does Ovid Approach Adaptations of Greek Myth?

Roman poet Ovid – known by the noble name Pubublius Ovidius Naso – lived at a time of peace in Rome. In 44 B.C. chaos and disorder ensued when the Roman Republic collapsed during its civil war after Julius Caesar was assassinated (Ovid, Metamorphoses, A Norton Critical Edition 2010). After much political tumult, Emperor Augustus restored order during his reign from 31 B.C. to 14 C.E.

Painting of Orpheus attacked Apulian Red Figure bell krater.Black and white photo of a statue of Apollan Warrior at the Temple of Apollo with a missing right of the remain of the Temple of Apollo in Rome, Italy. Two standing columns in the center surrounded by scattered remains.Augustus, Emperor of Rome. Line engraving, 16 –, after A. Sadeler after Titian. Half-length portrait, resting his right hand on a globe, facing towards the left, surrounded by an etched frame with swept centres and corners.

Orpheus in 300 B.C. (left), Statue of Apollo (center-left), Temple of Apollo (center-right), & 1700s Emperor Augustus (right) CC

Unlike Roman epic poet Virgil who witnessed the fall of the republic, by the time Ovid wrote his poetry Roman culture and society was reinvented by Augustus. Roman iconic and emblematic traditions, including its ancient poetic symbols – the ‘laurel’ in particular – were redefined by Augusts to celebrate the Roman military and its imperial values.

“Under the Augustan Principate, the ancient symbols of the laurel tree, along with the symbolism of oak, were absorbed into the iconography of the emperor himself” (496).

In The Metamorphoses and his other works, including his epistolary personal works, Ovid challenged established Augustan ideology. For example Ovid’s rendition of Dido’s mistreatment by Aeneas, an account Virgil elaborates on in Book 2 of the Aeneid, a literary epic on the founding of Rome, demonstrates the hero’s deceit and malice, which leads to Dido’s suicide in Virgil’s epic. Ovid gives voice to Dido to implicate Aeneas’ abuse towards her, and in turn to expose immoral classical misogyny.

“You deceived me in all; nor am I the first credulous fool deluded by that perjured tongue, or the first who have suffered from a rash belief” (OER Ovid’s Letters, Epistolary works).

Ovid addresses pre-Augustan Roman emblems in Fasti, a long narrative literary poem with a narrator who engages in interviewing Greek deities, as allegory with satirical overtones. Resembling an investigative journalistic text, its narrator alludes to Roman traditions that honored poets and iconic emblems like the laurel wreath.

“The laurels that are theirs and that adorn the pained calendar, thou too shalt win in company with thy brother Drusus. Let others sing of Caesar’s wars” (OER English Translation of Fasti, Gutenberg).

Ovid continues to elaborate on Augustus’ cultural revolution throughout the poem Fasti.

In the olden times the gifts were coppers, but now gold gives a better omen, and the old-fashioned coin has been vanquished and made way for the new. We, too, are tickled by golden temples, though we approve of the ancient ones: such majesty befits a gold. We praise the past, but use the present years; wed are both customs worthy to be kept. (Lines 189-227).

How does the Metamorphoses Reflect Adaptations of Mythology?

In light of Ovid’s use of verse to critique contemporary political events surrounding Augustan rule, his masterpiece – The Metamorphoses – may also be read and understood as allegory with satirical overtones. Modern readers can appreciate Ovid’s reimaginings of classical mythology and his stories as adaptations. Ovid’s version serves to renew and reinstate social cohesion.

Written when Ovid was exiled, The Metamorphoses is a narrative poem that blends elements of epic and lyrical poetry in twenty-five books. But, unlike Virgil’s literary epic The Aeneid that celebrates the Roman Emperor Augustus and emulates his values of order and stability, Ovid’s work offers dozens of mythological stories linked by the overall theme of transformation and chaos.

The theme of transformation serves both to present a philosophy of constant change in a chaotic physical world that is never static and to contrast Augustan ideology, of its values of social order and permanence. Ovid accomplished his theme throughout The Metamorphoses with his refashioned retellings of Greek mythology with characterization and plot development not seen in the works of Hesiod and Homer. Ovid challenged Augustan notions of order and stability, through representations of nature and female deities.


Get acquainted with Ovid’s poetry by listening to the beginning of his narrative poem – it begins with chaos in the creation of the gods. “At first, the sea, the earth, and the heaven, which covers all things, were the only face of nature throughout the whole universe, which men have named Chaos; a rude and undigested mass…”OER Audio of Beginning of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis”.

Ovid also establishes the ancient philosophy of the creation in The Metamorphoses, to highlight the Great Chain of Being.

“According to them, God was not the Creator, but the Architect of the universe, in ranging and disposing of the elements in situations most suitable to their respective qualities. This is the Chaos so often sung of by the poets, and which Hesiod was the first to mention” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, A Norton Critical Edition 2010).

Known for going against established social and political norms of Augustan virtues, Ovid’s refashioning of Greek myth highlights the temporality and ever-changing dynamics of life. The stories themselves emulate the same superstructure – reality and nature as dynamic and ever changing, but they also reclaim traditional symbols.

The mythological story “Daphne and Apollo” in Book I is one example where Ovid reclaims the laurel, an ancient tradition of wreath that was “associated with the god of poetry, and thus poetry itself” (Norton 495).

…my quiver shall always have thee, oh laurel! Thou shalt be presented to the Latian chieftains, when the joyous voice of the soldiers shall sing the song of triumph. OER On Ovid and Metamorphosis

How do the Works of Ovid Address Elements of Ecopoetics?

An ecocritical reading of Ovid’s work contributes to literary studies on folklore at a period of Roman history when tensions between peacemaking efforts and the will to consolidate power challenged poets and the populace alike. For example, an ecocritical reading of the works of Ovid offers new insights on his work and on topics important to literary studies on nature and its mistreatment.

Topics relevant to twenty-first century sustainable goals from the works of Ovid like those outlined by the United Nations (UNSDG) include: life on land and below water, gender equality, reducing inequality, sustainable communities and cities, quality education and peace and justice.

Key Points

  • Adaptations of mythology blur lyrical poetry with the narrative
  • Mythology in abolitionist and Roman poetry can challenge popular ideology
  • Retellings of mythological stories appear in Abolitionist and Chicano poetry and legends
  • Literary tropes and archetypes emerge in retellings of mythological figures
  • Ideology relativity in adaptations inform on cultural norms and unveil themes on social justice
  • Ecocriticism enhances analysis of poetry on adaptations of mythology


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