11 Books About Misunderstood Women in History and Mythology

Demystifying the infamous women we’re taught to hate

John William Waterhouse's painting of the mythological figure Circe of Homer's Odyssey.
John William Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa via Wikimedia Commons

For thousands of years, women have been on the fringes of history and mythology. From “The Serpent Queen” Catherine De Medici, evil stepmother Kaikeyi in the Ramayana, and the seductive, church-destroying Anne Boleyn, the few women who have a place in our histories and mythologies are weak, bad, or evil. Recently though, many have started to interrogate and investigate the truth behind these stories, giving a new and modern perspective on the women we’ve been taught to hate. 

My novel, Jezebel, is a feminist reimagining of one of these ancient stories, that of the reviled and misunderstood queen, Jezebel. A real historical figure whose name for thousands of years has been used as a slur, I looked for the truth behind the story of the harlot queen. I found a woman of crackling intelligence, power, and strength who fought against ancient faiths and prophets to protect her family, her throne, her name. 

And I’m certainly not the first writer who has gone looking for the voices of misunderstood women in our most famous histories and mythologies. In fact, there’s been a recent spate of brilliant novels that give these forgotten and reviled women a voice again. 

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Kaikeyi is a tale of another infamous queen, that of Kaikeyi from the Ramayana. This story gives Kaikeyi a voice from the moment of her birth. The only daughter of a king who has banished her mother, she grows up hearing stories of the gods and their great power. After reading an ancient text her mother loved, she finds a measure of this power herself, a magic that allows her to tug on the bonds between people to sway and manipulate them as she wishes. She uses this power and her own fierce intelligence to give power and control to the woman of her court, but the gods don’t like the destinies they give being overthrown, and so Kaikeyi must struggle and fight for her own voice, her own path.  

Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

If there’s ever been a misunderstood woman, it’s Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. And while this story isn’t a direct retelling of The Scarlet Letter, it is a tale about the genesis of that story, from the point of view of Isobel Gamble, who in this novel, is the inspiration for Hester. Isobel, a married woman who has recently immigrated from Scotland to the United States, has a mysterious gift (of seeing letters as colors, A being scarlet) and falls in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. While she and Nathaniel are mixed up together, she learns how dangerous it is to be a married woman having an affair in Salem, just a few hundred years after the witch trials that have haunted the town ever since. 

Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller gives Circe a ringing and powerful voice, in her retelling of this ancient goddess. Instead of a maniacal villain who turns men into pigs for nothing more than pleasure, in Miller’s story, Circe is a goddess with little power, banished to the island of Aeaea for daring to speak against her father, the sun god Helios. Circe learns pharmaka, a magic that gives her power equal to the other gods. This power, of course, draws the ire of gods and mortals alike, and Circe stands against them all to fight for what she loves. A stunning story about the emptiness of godhood, about the joy and horror of being a mortal, Circe turns an ancient story on its head in a resounding way. 

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

This gorgeous and haunting story was rightfully shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2020. Though we rarely see stories of women at war, in The Shadow King we see women front and center of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Orphaned Hirut, previously a servant, helps transform a peasant into a stand-in for the exiled king and goes to war, inspiring women around her to follow. Hirut guards the shadow king fiercely but soon becomes a prisoner and ends up tangled up with Ettore Navarre, a Jewish photographer for the Italian army. Hirut’s voice throughout the story is bold and gripping, as she fights for her country and for herself. 

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

In this retelling of the ancient Greek story of the Trojan War, Natalie Haynes gives voices and new characterizations to the many women who were involved in the Trojan War, beginning with the muse Calliope, who is more than a little annoyed at being constantly begged for a story by Homer and decides to tell him the truth of the bloody war. We also learn about the despair of Clytemnestra after the murder of her daughter, and how she strategically plans to kill the man responsible (her husband). This story gives depth to so many voiceless women, including Penelope, whose increasingly bitter and sarcastic letters to Odysseus give the book a startling humor. This is a tender, rage-filled book that gives a voice to the misunderstood women at the heart of the Trojan War. 

The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec

In The Witch’s Heart, we get a retelling of Norse mythology, a full and captivating portrait of Angrboda, a powerful and banished witch, feared by Odin, with the power to see the future. She eventually falls in love with the mysterious trickster Loki, has three children with him, and has to fight to keep them safe against their own destinies and against the will of the other gods. 

Caroline by Sarah Miller

I never really understood “Ma Ingalls” because in the “Little House” books she is nothing more than a distant and benign mother figure. Then I read Caroline and my whole perspective on this beloved character changed. While the story starts in a little in the big woods it doesn’t stay there, as Caroline journeys, pregnant, with two small daughters, following her husband to the prairie and the hope of a better life. In this novel, we begin to understand the backbreaking work that being a pioneer on the prairie required, not only of men, but women too, just as we learn the frightening beauty of a wolf howling outside your door. This story shows both the indignities and joys of being a woman in the 1870s and Caroline is a fierce and tender woman whose story is well worth reading. 

Medusa’s Sisters by Lauren J.A. Bear

We’ve had several excellent retellings of Medusa lately, and now we get one about her sisters, the gorgons who’ve inspired hatred and fear for centuries. In this story, we learn the truth behind Medusa but also the story of Stheno and Euryale, her sisters. A beautiful and mesmerizing novel of sisterhood, loyalty, and betrayal, this retelling moves past the tale we know and gives these reviled gorgons a voice beyond the monstrous. 

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

In She Who Became the Sun, a queer historical fantasy about the rise of the first Ming Emperor, Parker-Chan takes readers to a brilliantly imagined 14th-century fantastical China, where a girl is given a destiny of nothing, while her brother, Zhu Chongba, is given a destiny of greatness. When her brother dies, the girl decides to take on her brother’s name and his destiny, training to become a monk, and eventually deciding to fight in the army against Mongol rule. A moving story of power and gender, and a woman who chooses to be so much more than nothing, She Who Became the Sun is a brilliant reimagining of history as we know it.  

In the Palace of Flowers by Victoria Princewill

In The Palace of Flowers is based on a rare and real first-person account of Jamila, an enslaved Abyssinian woman in Iran in the 19th century, and brilliantly shows the hardships and struggle of being a woman and slave in this time. While the novel shows the reality of life at this time, it also hits on one of the most important themes in my own book; being remembered when one is a woman in a time that only values men. Jamila, realizing she won’t be remembered after she’s gone, sets about to change that in a deeply moving and beautiful account of a woman trying to find the freedom she’s always lacked.  

Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman

The only non-fiction book on this list, Jess Zimmerman explores and analyzes famous female monsters, specifically from Greek mythology. Including Medusa, the Harpies, and the Furies, Zimmerman looks at these monsters and the reasons we hate them (too smart, too ugly, too much/little sexuality among others) and asks us to question our own assumptions about these misunderstood women and how we can turn traits we consider negative (ambition, hunger, ugliness) into strength.  

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