On Content People, Meredith Farley interviews creative professionals and leaders to get a behind-the-scenes look at their career experiences and turn that into actionable advice for listeners. Tune in to hear from experts in various media, and get inspired to find contentment in your own creative career.
Episode #12 Summary
Liv Albert is the creator and host of the podcast “Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!” She chats with Meredith Farley on this episode about research, learning, Greek mythology, podcasting, the power of a great story and more. Listen along to find inspiration for your own creative endeavors.
Content People: Research, Greek Mythology and The Power of Podcasts
On this episode of Content People, I chat with Liv Albert, creator and host of the podcast “Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!”. With her degree in English Literature & Classics, she tells ancient stories in a fun, witty way. She not only writes, produces and hosts her podcast, but she’s also an author of two Greek mythology books.
Liv fell in love with Greek mythology around 7th grade, when she saw a ‘90’s miniseries on “The Odyssey.” Since then, she’s explored ancient sources and honed her research skills to bring these timeless stories to life.
“Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!” started out as a fun idea, but Liv quickly realized that it had so much more to offer — both to her listeners and her life.
Here are a few more things we talk about in between all the myths and magic:
- The importance of giving yourself time to practice and improve.
- Handling comments and not-so-constructive criticism.
- Finding and understanding stories that matter.
Thanks for listening!
– Meredith Farley, Host of Content People
More Content for Content People
Liv’s podcast: Check out “Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!”
Liv’s book: Get your intro to the greats in “Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook.”
Brafton: We may not be mythological Greek heroes, but we are marketing heroes. Find out why in our digital marketing newsletter.
Meredith’s newsletter: Check out Meredith’s newsletter (also called Content People).
Meredith: Hey, everyone, and welcome to Content People. Tune in to hear from creatives, leaders, and experts in various media. I’m your host, Meredith Farley.
Ian: And I’m the show’s producer, Ian Servin.
Meredith: Hey, Ian.
Today, we talked to Liv Albert. Liv’s the creator, host, and producer of the very popular Greek and Roman mythology podcast, Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby. I love Liv’s show. I was really glad to talk to her. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a twice weekly podcast in which Liv dives deep into the details of ancient Greek and Roman myths and the history that surrounded them. She brings a really cool perspective, a lot of humor, sarcasm, and a modern lens to these stories. And she’s built up a really huge listener face. The show gets millions of downloads per year. We talked to Liv about the origins of the show and what she’s learned building such a successful podcast from the ground up.
Ian: Obviously, podcasts have been around for a while, but I feel like so many other things, they really blew up during the pandemic. So it was super cool to talk to someone who really built a show from the ground up and grew an audience and a community around it. Podcasts are obviously a super interesting format for content. And with all of the attention it’s been getting lately, it’s something that a lot of people are looking at. And Liv had so many great things to say, not just about what makes a podcast special, but also what makes good content and how you can take your own passion and enthusiasm to make something that is going to connect with an audience.
Meredith: Yeah, it was great to hear from her on that. So without further ado, we hope you like it. Here’s our convo.
Meredith: Thank you so much for joining content people and being on this episode.
Liv: Thank you so much for having me. It’s very nice.
Meredith: I am so excited. I know we were just chatting a second ago about this, but I have been a long time listener of your podcast. My friend Brianna actually turned me on to let’s talk about myths, baby. And she was actually also on a later episode of this podcast.
So for listeners who aren’t familiar with you, could you share a little bit about who you are and what your podcast is about?
Liv: Yeah, so I am Liv Albert. I created and host the podcast, let’s talk about myths, baby, which is a thing I still dislike saying in front of other people and just the name, not the podcast, obviously. Yeah, I started it about five and a half years ago. I talk about Greek mythology. I retell stories and over the past few years, I have taken to speaking with like academics and experts and authors and all these different incredible people about the ancient world and basically every facet at this point. I will take anything if it features the ancient Mediterranean at all. That’s just basically my entire life at this point.
Meredith: When did your love of Greek mythology begin and what do you think drew you to it?
Liv: So funny, I get asked this like literally all the time and I never have a great answer because it’s basically that like I’ve loved it since I was a kid, but I don’t remember like where that came from specifically other than I was a child. I do remember in grade seven and I say grade seven because I am Canadian. That’ll come out pretty quick.
I had this teacher who not only taught us Greek mythology, but also he had us watch the there’s like this mini series from the 90s that like I am of an age where when I was in grade seven and for him to show us, it meant that he had like a VHS recording that he had to roll a TV into the room and play this and we had to fast forward the commercials because it was recorded from TV and all that.
But yeah, it was like this mini series of the Odyssey and that’s all I remember is like having to watch that. I barely remember what’s in it. I just remember watching that and have it be like if it wasn’t the catalyst, it just drew me deeper into Greek mythology
Meredith: For sure. I think we’re of the same age, so similar to the past recollections. I think I watched that. What’s the name of the guy that’s in it? It’s like Armand.
Liv: Yes, yeah, exactly Armand, something in a lot and like I don’t remember what parts of the odyssey it featured, I just know, we watched it.
Meredith: Oh my, I yeah, I totally remember that one and I think that was my intro to Greek mythology as well, although I didn’t stick with it in the same way. That’s really that’s interesting.
So all right, myths, I think of it as the original content and I’m really tempted to dive right into questions about myths because I know you are such an expert, but because this podcast is about creative work and a lot of creatives are listening, I want to one, acknowledge that you have achieved a significant success through your content and two, make sure that as we go, I’m doing my best to mine your experiences for actionable advice for listeners who also might want to create something for themselves.
And so first, one thing I’m very curious about is to ask you to share a little bit about the day to day work of me teaming such as successful and it would seem to me really labor and research heavy podcast, like what goes into an episode and what is a week or two in your life generally like?
Liv: Yeah, so first I would recommend to anyone looking to do this to not do it the way that I have done it, which is that I am now incapable of relinquishing control on so many things. And while I do have an assistant now, she basically just does the stuff that I would have never had time to do if I didn’t have her.
So like hiring her just gave us more stuff. It didn’t take much off of my plate because I am a mess. But that is all to say, yeah, it is incredibly labor intensive. I often just constantly look for ways that I can make it easier on myself and I have yet to find them. But basically, I release two episodes of the podcast every week on Tuesdays. I do what I call a narrative episode. It’s where it’s just me telling stories from Greek mythology. Or in this case right now, I’m in the midst of this big history series on Sparta, which is even more research intensive in a way that makes me question everything I’ve ever done. But for the regular episodes, for the Greek myth episodes, it does require a lot of research.
Thankfully, I’m pretty good at research now. And one of the things that’s funny is I can’t even really give up the research aspect to my assistant because everything I do in research, I do like simultaneously while writing it. So I’ll have eight books open around me, like 10 different websites. And I’m just reading these things and typing the script as I go. And so those episodes always have a script. It sounds really off the cuff a lot of the time, I like to think at least, but it is completely scripted for the most part. It’s just like a stream of consciousness scripted. So it still sounds like a person rambling. But those are like five to six thousand words that I’m writing and researching every week.
And then Friday episodes are either like, I’ll just read something from the ancient world that’s like a translation that’s in the public domain. And thus is like copyright free, or I will be speaking to two academics, experts, authors and things like that. So that requires me to schedule and record and edit those conversations, which is why I sometimes do the reading episodes, because they’re considerably easier. So when I need to make my life a little bit nicer in a week, I will do one of those instead. But often I don’t because I have too many amazing people that I’ve already recorded with or want to record with. And it just ends up like that. So like I’m recording with somebody tomorrow. And so it, I yeah, it’s a lot of work, basically, if that answers the question. But it’s obviously done me well.
Meredith: Yeah, that’s really interesting. As you’re talking, it’s reminding me a little bit of maybe like startup founders who’ve created something that’s like wholly of them. And even figuring out how to in any way divide and delegate feels absolutely impossible. So what it sounds like is such an interesting process.
So you are researching and writing in real time. And that’s for the not, but the scripted, but the just you Tuesday episode. And then you’re also coordinating, researching and editing the conversation episodes. And that is happening in real time every week. Or do you do several ahead of time? Like, how do you work that?
Liv: I try to do several ahead of time. But obviously, because they’re so labor intensive, it’s often not really possible because there’s only so many words you can write in a week. And when one episode is five to 6,000, they also keep growing. Like it used to be more like three to 4,000. And I just keep getting wordier and having too much to say in every episode. So that’s partially on me.
But I’m also really conscious, like I have ads in my show and that’s how I pay the bills. But I also never want the episode so short that the ads are overwhelming. So while I used to do what I called mini myths were like short, brief episodes. Now I don’t really think that I have the ability to be that brief anymore because I am too obsessed with all of the intricacies in the ancient world, like that’s just come with how many years I’ve been doing this. But also I never want to release episodes that are so short that the ads become over the top. So it’s always like a juggling act with that as well, which wasn’t really the question that you asked. But yeah, it’s all happening in real time for the most part. And I do try to batch prepare so often I’ll do that with if I’m doing a reading episode, because I can do those a little easier. So if I’m having a day where I can just bang out some of those, I will, or if I have a bunch of conversations, I try to edit them so that they’re ready to go. For instance, like all my Sparta conversations are ready to go now. And I’m working more on the research ones as we go. Sorry, my, I’m trying not to breathe directly into my microphone, but I’m talking too much, my breathing is troubling.
So that’s basically how I handle those. My goal is always to have like at least a month prepared in advance. But because they’re so labor intensive, and I struggle with ADHD, that was not a problem until I became full time with the podcast. And now it’s very hard to do things in advance because I need the deadline in order to force my brain to do them. So it becomes, yeah it’s tricky, but that’s always a goal. It’s to work ahead.
Meredith: Wow, that’s really interesting. I’m listening to the Sparta series for what it’s worth. And I absolutely love it. It is so fascinating. And I feel like when you listen, you can feel like they feel like laborers of love and like a true dedication to you being as thorough and comprehensive and thoughtful as possible about this. These are really interesting concepts. And I’m like, what do you, why do you even use sources? How do you find your sources for these very complex and in-depth stories?
Liv: The Sparta ones for one, thank you. I’m glad to hear people are enjoying the Sparta ones. I’ve heard it from a few people and it actually, like it makes a really big difference because these are like a complete, like me stepping out of all of my comfort zones and talking about not only history, but this part of history that I’m not that familiar with. I did my BA, but I’m 10 years old now. And what do I remember from it? Not nearly enough. And so the history ones are much more daunting for me and I am wondering whether I’m just rambling and sounding like I make any sense. But so far, so good.
But so for the research of the Sparta series, the only way I was able to do it is that the assistant that I hired last year, Michaela Smith, is one amazing, but two, she is studying classics in university. And so she not only has a fresher grasp on all of this, but she also has access to university publications and university libraries and everything. So thankfully, like all of the research, essentially she pulled everything that we could need and then put it into a means by which I could then use it. And we’ve been working on the scripts together a lot in a way that we don’t for the mythology because I, it’s just me storytelling at the moment. But for these ones, there’s a lot more she’s been writing a ton based on her own research and knowledge.
And then I will go in and make it more my voice, my humor, all those different things and like flesh it out with what I want to say and make it a little less academic because she’s stuck in that headspace, which is really helpful for me. And I’ll just pick through it and change what I need. So for the Sparta one that’s been entirely based on her, but when it comes to the mythology, like I’ve now spent so many years doing this, like the research methods I use now versus five years ago are unbelievably different. So where I used to just Google things and see what I could find and piece stuff together or I had one book of Greek myths that I was doing that and it was like, a retelling book, like a book, a scholar wrote of Greek myths rather than the original sources. And now I’m like, it’s very rare that I will use anything that’s not a primary source like from the ancient world. And when it is, it’s this two volume set that I have, which is completely useless to anyone who is just coming at mythology from a hobby standpoint.
And for somebody like me, it’s deeply so helpful. It’s called early Greek myths by Timothy Gantz. And it’s like a source book. Basically this academic went through and picked out every reference to every character in every ancient source. And he puts them all together and talks about what is the same and what is different and what these weird things are and who said what and when and he often has sources that are fragmentary or partially lost in a way that it’s often hard to find that as well. So that’s completely invaluable. There’s also a website that’s like a lifesaver because it compiles a lot of ancient sources as well. So basically I’ll say I’m pretty familiar now with where to find ancient sources. I have so many books and so many different places where I can find them.
So it’s just a lot of piercing through a million different sources trying to stick to original sources or ancient sources rather or, scholars writing about those sources and it’s pretty wild. But I’ve just turned it into an art at this point and can pretty much find anything.
Meredith: Yeah, sounds like it. Somewhere related to the trailer for the show or at least it was when I first started listening, which was a few years ago, you referenced, you said, Hey guys, like start at this episode number. And I think the message was something to the effect of around this episode is when you feel like you honed in on how to tell a story and how we wanted the podcast to be.
And one, I found that even just thinking about it now as someone who’s done like 10 episodes of a podcast, I find that really comforting because it’s like, yep, you got to do a lot of these before you really figure out how to do it. But you’re so good at it. Can you tell me a little bit about what you learned about storytelling and podcasting from those early days?
Liv: Oh, God, yeah. The thing about podcasts that is both amazing and so frustrating is that they just live forever, no matter when you recorded them. Episodes I recorded and put out there five and a half years ago, people are coming to them as if they’re a brand new thing they’re listening to for good or bad. It can be troubling. What you’re referencing is actually the very first episode of the show has a disclaimer up at the top. It says around this episode, I got better at what I’m doing, I got better at researching, I got a better microphone, blah, blah, blah. And so I do have that at the very beginning of the first episode. And does it convince people?
No, everyone starts with the first episode. My first episode is always the number one downloads of my entire show, including I think it was about one tenth of my total downloads for this year, which is like a reference. So yeah, like 2022, I had a total of 400 episodes, obviously not released in 2022. But by the end of the year, my show had 400 episodes available in the feed. And out of those 400, like our total, I got something over 10 million, I think downloads last year. And one million of those downloads was my first episode.
Why are you doing this to me? It gets so much better. Because a lot of people stop after the first one too, or leave me reviews where they’re like, she’s bad at researching. And I’m like I told you that I acknowledged it. I am better now. It’s almost like I’ve been doing this for five years, and there’s 400 episodes, like maybe the first five aren’t the best reference points. Anyway, I feel very strongly about it. But also, they get the most downloads, so they’re not getting deleted.
But that is all to say I started this podcast as a hobby, explicitly, because I was really depressed, and I hated my job. I’d gone through a full blown quarter life crisis and quit my career that I’d worked everything for and moved across the country home ish, but not home. And so it was just like I was in a deeply messy place, and I was super depressed, and lonely, and all I did was listen to podcasts. And even like we talked about before we started recording, like you develop these kinds of relationships with the podcasters that you listen to, and they’re like friends. And that was just my whole thing. And I started one purely because I was like this could be my thing too, like I could just do this as a way to pass the time to feel less depressed, what have you.
And that is 100% why I started the show. And so it was really piecemeal, it was like, I explicitly remember that probably the first three or four episodes, I wrote the script primarily in my phone’s notes app while I was not doing the job that I hated, while I was sitting in my office typing and like I was so I was reading on like Wikipedia and like other whatever other websites I could get on my cell phone, on my phone while I was like also writing in the notes app. So they were very just they were a stream of consciousness, but in a very different way from what I do now. And it was just thrown together and just whatever came to me.
And so I think they’re good. And I don’t think that they were bad in terms of like storytelling, but they weren’t as accurate as I would like, as detailed, they glossed over a lot of things. All the misogynists out there who hate my show would say that I mentioned the patriarchy too much. I didn’t really change that, but I got better at it.
And I think it’s just a matter of the more you’re doing it and the more sources you get to I think the episodes where I decided I got better at it was when I started the Iliad. And that’s because I was reading the Iliad, whereas before I had been reading like books of Greek myths that are written by people today, versus the ancient sources. But with the Iliad, I had to inherently go to the ancient sources and I think that kind of switched something for me. And I realized the value of being exclusively or wherever possible, exclusively with ancient sources, and what that did both for my detail and accuracy and so many different things.
And so yeah, I think it’s just a matter of it’s just practice, right? It’s just with podcasts, practice remains in the feed forever. Whereas if you’re writing a novel, you’re going to go through 10 different drafts and no one’s ever going to see those. But a podcast, especially when you’re not starting it with a company backing you with producers with editors with all these different things, like you’re just starting it with however you’re going to start it. And yeah, like the first probably 20 episodes of my show or practice that everyone gets to listen to forever.
Meredith: A million people a year listen to and perpetuate.
Liv: Yeah. I actually just heard from a professor at a university who was like, I just want to let you know that I assigned your first episode to my class and they really loved it. And she said all these incredibly kind things. But I was like, Oh, God, no, not my first episode. Pick a different one. I’m so much better now.
Meredith: I wonder, do you think that okay, do you think they really are that bad? Or do you think you were, were you hard on your set harder on yourself in the early days?
Liv: So I think bad is the wrong word to use in terms of how I really feel. I don’t think that they are bad. I just think that they’re not a good representation of what my show has been for the last three to four years. And I am proud of what the show is now. I’m proud of what it was back then too. But it was a different show. It was entertainment. It was just like, here’s a fun and quippy myth. It’s going to be 20 minutes long. It’s going to be really surface level. You’re going to have fun. It’s fine.
And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But what my show is now is a real deep dive into the ancient world, the ancient sources, the context, the nuance, the history, everything in a way that I love. And I think a lot of people also just prefer storytelling. So probably those early episodes are best for them. But I love everything I’ve learned and the details I can go into now and the nuance and the history of literally everything like I’m obsessed with that. And so to me, like I’m just way more proud. And I think that my current show is just better in all of those respects, but it is like a preference thing, probably more than anything.
Meredith: When you say ancient sources I don’t I’m, can you explain exactly what that is? I don’t know. I really know.
Liv: That’s fair. Yeah. I’m going to use a lot of terms that are totally normal for me. So please ask about anything. But ancient sources, I, so what I mean by that is the sources that actually come from the ancient world. So I read them in translation, but they are from the ancient world. So I’m talking about the Iliad, the Odyssey, Homer’s works, quote unquote Homer, he probably wasn’t a real guy. But those are the works that we have his name on. Or the ancient plays, the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus and Sophocles.
Those are some of my favorites to cover. Euripides is my favorite. He’s the absolute best. So these are plays that were written in the ancient world, written in the 5th century BCE performed in the 5th century. And they just survive for us to read today. So the comparison between something that was written in ancient Greece and survives for us to read in translation, like the alternative is say books of Greek myth that are written by people in the last 100 years. So Edith Hamilton is the most famous, I would say. But there are so many, I wrote one, mine is a, is an example of this, people writing about the Greek myths, but from our, from now, just over the last 100 years.
And often what they’re doing is looking at a bunch of different ancient sources, and they’re putting it all together. But often, they are doing that, and then they’re inserting their own narratives and sometimes biases, like the book that I had that I was using at the early days of the podcast, I just found, it’s just called the Greek myths and like it was on sale at a bookstore and I was really broke and doing this just for fun. So that’s the one I bought and that’s the one I read. And I’ve looked back on parts of it now. And it has all of these completely invented things that are often super misogynist, and it presents them as if that is exactly what was said in the actual Greek, the ancient sources, the Greek mythology.
Whereas this is absolutely a man inserting his own wild insults to women that are like not in the ancient sources at all. So often when you’re reading these ones, and unfortunately, they’re the most accessible, they’re the most comprehensive, they’re the easiest way for you to find all of the stories just like an everyday person accessing them. But they can often be super inaccurate in terms of what we do know about the ancient world. And they can often be, because for the most part, everything’s been written by men up until very recently, they can often be really misogynistic. And you don’t know when you think like the ancient world was super misogynistic, but it wasn’t that bad. Like this guy can even make it worse, which is saying something. Yeah, so it’s like that’s the big difference and why I am so specific now where I’m going to be referring to the ancient sources wherever possible.
Meredith: So you take what I perceive as a very deliberately intersectional lens when telling and interpreting these myths. And I’m curious if, and you’re answering it, but a question I came into this wanting to ask you was, do you think that these myths initially spring from a patriarchal heterosexual lens? Or is that a more latter day retelling that we’re still disentangling ourselves from? I don’t know if that’s clear. Basically, I’m wondering, I was wanting to ask you if you thought the myths started off as sexist as they seem.
Liv: The first phrasing or question I think is even better. And I completely get it. So I’m absolutely going to answer that because it’s a little bit of both in a way that I think is really interesting. So there’s going to be a lot here. Basically, the ancient sources as we have them now were absolutely developed in a patriarchal society. Patriarchal, yes, heterosexual, no, which I think is interesting. So the time in which these pieces like say the Iliad and the Odyssey, I’m just going to use those as the best example because they are also the earliest surviving sources we have from ancient Greece. So they’re from about the eighth or ninth centuries BCE, some of the oldest.
So they were developed in a patriarchal society. They were developed around that time. They might not have been written down until later because everything comes from an oral storytelling tradition. So around that eighth, ninth century, these were oral stories that were told by traveling bards. This is why we think Homer was probably not a real person. It was probably a number of traveling bards that would travel the Greek world. They would tell these stories, but they would sing them their songs set to music.
So it’s not even just poetry, like they’re absolutely songs set to music, they would sing them in front of a bunch of people, night after night, things would change because there were different people singing them. So they all sung about the Iliad, they all sung about the wrath of Achilles, but they would insert things, change things, adjust, possibly based on where they were telling the story to whom, all of these things they would want to like feature that region more heavily or there’s all these different connections that could make and why these things were constantly changing because it was only ever spoken aloud. And then eventually they were written down into things that we have survived today. So they were both developed and written down in a patriarchal society. However,
the groups that existed in the same areas before and influenced the gods that exist in the Greek mythology that we know were, however long, far back, probably a good 1000 years before, they were matriarchal in a way, or we think that they were, we don’t have writing, but we have a lot of figurines that are women that have breasts and everything. We have a lot of those that suggest that they were generally fairly matriarchal, if not completely, like they were, they worshiped goddess way more than they did by the time of the works that we have, if that makes any sense in the Bronze Age and earlier, they worshiped women a lot more.
And on their own there’s a lot of goddesses that were probably developed in that time and then passed down to become the goddesses of Greek myth, Athena, Aphrodite, Gaia. They originally probably were more goddess-based and then they just became these lesser characters that they are in the works that we have. A lot of it is just based on archaeology, not text, because we don’t have, we don’t have stories from that time. We only have if we have any writing, it tends to be, like, really practical what existed in the palaces at the time.
And so all to say, like, all to say they were all developed in that world, but they also have these leanings of goddesses. And you can feel where those goddesses come in. Aphrodite is incredibly strong. She is incredibly sexually transgressive. She gets to do whatever she wants. And she’s married, but she doesn’t, she’s not with her husband very much. She has kids with a bunch of other people. She is a really good example of this goddess that probably came to us through an originally matriarchal society and turned into what we know of Aphrodite today. And so there’s a lot in there. But when it comes to the heterosexual side, that is, for the most part, something that came about more when Christianity took hold and that we are still pulling apart today. The ancient Greeks were not particularly heterosexual, but they also weren’t homosexual in the way that we think of it now. They, a lot of different city-states, primarily Athens and Sparta, or Sparta was a little bit different. I’m going to talk about it when it comes to Athens, because they had this practice called pederasty, which is super gross.
Because what it is that older men would have a young man slash boy who they would mentor, but it was also an inherently sexual relationship. And it was, like, it was definitely affection-based and romantic at times as well. They usually had wives as well. So there’s this really, they just did not consider sexuality like we did. There’s no notion of gay, straight, bi, whatever. There’s just nothing. It’s just whatever is going on. They didn’t marry the same gender or things like that. But they definitely had sexual relationships. And if women did, amongst other women, we don’t really have it clear because they didn’t really think of it that way.
They probably wouldn’t have seen it as sex. So it didn’t come in, but it was probably happening a lot. But because it wasn’t penetrative, they didn’t see it as sex. And so we don’t hear about it. It’s really interesting. We do have the poet Sappho from the Island of Lesbos. She is why we have the word lesbian because she wrote love songs to women. And she was a lesbian because she was from the Island of Lesbos. And that’s literally where the word comes from. So there is that. But she’s a one-off. And a lot of people will tell you that her love poem songs were not about women, that she was writing them for a man to give to a woman because they like to completely erase her sexuality, whatever it
was. It’s really fascinating. But, yeah, basically, the heterosexuality that we assign to all of that is definitely Christian slash modern. But also it’s just you have to ignore everything you know about gender and sexuality. When it comes to the ancient world, in a fascinating way, I could go on forever.
So I will stop myself now.
Meredith: Now, that is so fascinating. I want to make sure I have it right. As you’re talking, I’m almost picturing a chemistry set. That sounds weird. But it’s like these ancient prototypical myths are, this liquid that then through these different lenses of the culture of the time gets distilled in different ways.
So it’s if I end up, I think I have the order right, but correct me if I’m wrong. So Bronze Age, probably more matriarchal, some of the Greek goddesses that we know were probably bigger players and worshiped a bit more than it’s into the ancient Greeks, where there’s not necessarily a heterosexual lens, but there’s certainly a patriarchal lens applied to the mores of the stories. And then we unfortunately lose a ton of the ancient texts. And then there’s these Bards in more like dark, around, did you say around 800 BCE?
Liv: So the Bards are actually like really early ancient Greece. Oh, okay. And yeah. So and I’ll clarify too, it’s probably before the Bronze Age, where it was matriarchal. But the Bronze Age has a little bit more of it leftover. But the Bronze Age is where we first get, like, all the major stuff that we think about. But there is no, or there’s minimal writing that comes from that time. So there’s a lot of different periods in ancient Greece. The Bronze Age is like 2000 BCE to 1200-ish. And then there’s this big decline. A lot of people debate a lot of different things about what happened.
So I won’t try to do that. But then there is like this early Iron Age period, where it’s really transitional. We’re dealing with a complete change in writing systems. So the writing that we have from the Bronze Age there are like elements that come into the ancient Greek that we know now, but it’s pretty different. And then that’s when we have this emergence of the oral storytelling tradition. So we’re talking like almost right after the Bronze Age. And then there’s the Archaic period, which comes after that, which is like some of the ancient Greece that we think of, like the Persian Wars. That’s like the 6th, 7th centuries. And then we move into the Classical period, which is what you really think of. That’s when all the philosophers are around. That’s when all the playwrights are around. That’s when Athens goes to war with Sparta. And then from there, it’s like the hellenistic period, which comes after Alexander the Great and all of this, and then the Roman period. So basically, like all of that is patriarchal. Beforehand, there are these goddess figurines that we think suggest a matriarchal society, at least in some areas.
But yeah, the storytelling is actually like oral storytelling of the traveling bards is like the earliest writing or stories that we have now. Also, I realized, so the early Iron Age is sometimes called the Dark Ages. It’s a super problematic term though, actually, because Dark Ages suggest something about the people when actually what it just means is a lack of sources, which is why we have the Dark Ages, the time period I don’t even know, like more recently, I’m really bad with everything after BC. But it just refers to a lack of sources, but it suggests something about the people that ends up being harmful. But in Greece, they call it the Dark Ages, but it’s actually the early Iron Age period because it’s not dark. We have writing, we have evidence, like all these different things make clear it’s not actually a Dark Ages. But people do sometimes call it that still. But yeah, that’s like the early Dark Ages. It’s like the Greek Dark Ages versus a thousand years later, when there’s another quote unquote Dark Ages.
Meredith: So that makes sense. Yes. So the oral tradition is happening. And that is happening before the more classical era. Is that right?
Liv: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s when we got like the Iliad and the Odyssey and so much more that we don’t that has been lost or never written down in the first place. And then the classical period is where we get lots of writing because it’s when the philosophers are coming in, they’re writing so much stuff. Plato wrote way too much. He was over the top. And then the playwrights where we have so many of their plays surviving and hundreds that we know are missing. And then there’s also like we only have three surviving tragedians. So writers of tragedy, when we know there were so many more, but only three like work from three of them survive.
And then there are the comedy writers too, of the classical period. So there’s just so much content from the classical period. Whereas in the archaic period, there’s less and in the early Iron Ages, there’s even less. So yeah, it’s just kind of the progression of that. But one thing that’s really important to think about is that everything we tend to talk about when it comes to ancient Greece from the philosophers to the playwrights to just this general idea of what we think of for the classical period broadly. And like that kind of influences how we see ancient Greece generally tends to come from Athens. Athens was a major player in that period. But they weren’t as big earlier.
And they certainly weren’t like the be all and end all of ancient Greece is just that’s where the writing that not only the writing that survives to us today tends to come from, but particularly also the writing that people have been studying for the last 1000 years. And over the past few decades and centuries, I would say, people are starting to look at things from other areas. But up until this point, we’re really heavily influenced by Athens. So everything comes through this really strong ethnocentric lens that influences what we think. And so Athens was super patriarchal. Athens, women in Athens, their lives sucked. But we can’t say that with certainty about the rest of Greece. Their lives were different in Sparta, like marginally better, but mostly just different. And then elsewhere, there’s like even more kinds of question marks. So a lot of what we tend to say about ancient Greece, especially in the classical period and archaic too, to an extent, is just like Athens.
Whereas Athens is a small part of the larger Greece, which is also a good reminder that ancient Greece was not a unified place whatsoever. They were always fighting with each other. We call them ancient Greece now, but it was like a bunch of small states that sometimes would team up with one another. But ultimately, they were all like individual people, individual like states, and doing their own thing, writing their own stuff, having their own dialects of Greek, like all that. It was really broadly spread out. And we just now put it all under one umbrella of ancient Greece.
Meredith: So for the sources that are not from Athens of that time, have they always been around and just of less interest? Or were those other areas just so much less prolific that we have to try and surmise things about the culture as opposed to Athens?
There’s such a body of work we can really dig in. Like why haven’t we focused more outside of Athens yet?
Liv: I’m less certain about that. That’s more of a question for academia, I think, and especially also how much exists from beyond Athens. Broadly, because I’m researching Sparta now, I have a better idea of that. And when it comes to Sparta, almost everything we know about Sparta was actually written not by Spartans at all. Most of it was by Athenians who were their enemies. So it’s really interesting trying to piece apart what happened in Sparta. We have writing from a couple of poets of Sparta, but just poets. So we have a bit of poetry, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about the society. So I would say it’s probably 90% that the work from Athens is what actually survived, primarily because Athens was a place where they were more interested in writing things down for survival.
It wasn’t that they were smarter or more interesting, it’s just that they were specifically more interested in things that are survivable now. They were the big place for the tragedies, the plays, and so that’s what survives from there, that’s where the philosophers were. And then just generally, a lot of it is not coincidence because you can see why, but it isn’t because they were particularly special. They were like a powerhouse, but they’re also just interested in stuff that happens to survive. But also the key to all of this is in order for something to survive from the ancient world, hundreds of different people and groups have to make conscious decisions for it to survive, except for a few really rare cases. Because the physical work from, say the Iliad and the Odyssey, where it was probably written down in the 7th century, so like 600 BCE, in order for something to survive from that time, it doesn’t just survive in the form that existed back then, because for the most part, unless it was written all on clay tablets that somehow survived, which is unlikely, these things will have fallen apart.
And so it tends to be like people have to have copied them for posterity. A lot of that comes in during the Byzantine period where they had all these libraries and the Byzantines were copying a lot of stuff. So we have the Byzantine period and that area to thank for most of what survives today. And so like a lot over time, so many different people had to make these decisions to keep copying these works so that they survive. So it’s also like it was because the Athenians wrote down a lot of things. And then it was because these different people were interested in the Athenians writing. And then next, like hundreds of years later, those people were interested. So it’s just a series of different people that we have no control over having to have decided that they like to keep a thing with the exception of really rare things, but really interesting ones. So we know that there were a ton of Tragedians writing these Greek tragedies every year, they had this big theater festival, and they performed a bunch of them every year.
We have a bunch, we know a bunch of names of people who wrote them down, or who created these plays, but we only have surviving plays from three different people. East Coast and Sophocles, we have, I think it’s like between six and nine plays that survive from each of them that we can read now. And those won’t survive. And the same general number from Euripides survive because they were taught in Byzantine schools. So the Byzantine school system used them to teach their students. And so we have all these copies that were able to survive because the Byzantines, who were probably what they were almost a thousand years after, if not like close to that, because they were choosing to study these things, they survived for us today.
With the exception of Euripides where he had a bunch of plays where they weren’t taught in school. So they’re the plays that like a lot less people cared about, they were less popular, people probably thought they were bad it’s like any filmmaker or artist creative now, you’re gonna have works that are not ideal, and people are not going to remember them or they are, and it’s not going to be for good reasons. And for your sake, for the other playwrights, we don’t know what their work was bad, we don’t know the bad ones because they’re lost. By Euripides, we have a bunch that survived because this Byzantine collector had all of Euripides’ plays on these scrolls. And the scrolls each contained I don’t know, a handful, maybe 10 plays in one scroll. They were alphabetical. And one of his scrolls survives. So it’s like English letters H through K, I think or something. It’s like only a few different letters in the alphabet that this one’s this one scroll survives.
And so we now have I think it’s like maybe 10 of Euripides’ plays that are meh, they’re the ones that people didn’t love in the ancient world. We’re not studying in schools. They’re just the random plays in this letter group. And they’re called the alphabet plays now. And basically, because this one thing managed to survive, not intentionally, it was random, we have all these plays that we wouldn’t otherwise have. And we have this indication that not everything was perfect. But that said, too, we have these plays that were not beloved in the ancient world, but are like, so fascinating to study now.
So one of them is Helen, which I’ve covered on the show. And Helen is so interesting, because it’s this alternate universe of the Trojan War, where Helen doesn’t go to Troy at all, this ghost version of her goes to troy. And instead, she is brought to Egypt, where she just likes living, waiting it all out for all of that time. And we would not have that play otherwise, because nobody cared about it in the ancient world. But we have it now. And it’s fascinating and weird and cool. And it’s just completely random, dumb luck that we actually have it to read today. I’m really obsessed with the alphabet, if that isn’t obvious.
Meredith: So when you had Emily, of the Fuck Boys of Literature on, and that was the first time that I really heard about this. And you were talking about the idea that there’s really only like a handful of the greatest hits that were really preserved and survived. But there are so many other texts from this time that we just don’t have access to.
And it really blew my mind. But you talking about the alternative universe Helen of Troy play, it makes me think about it. And in 500 years, people are like studying our Netflix cues for life claims about our culture. And it’s yeah, these weren’t that good. No one was that into them. But we did watch them after dinner sometimes.
Liv: Yeah, no, there’s just so much. And I think we have this idea that everything from the ancient world is brilliant and fascinating and cool. But it’s that’s because that’s the stuff that enough people decided was brilliant and fascinating and cool that it exists today. And today, we don’t think about that because everything is inherently so much more preservable between the internet and just like the quality of books and all these different things, like it’s just so different. But back then with the things that they had and the writing structures and the general tradition, which was like, especially with art in this way, the tradition was not to write it down.
The tradition was to just go sing it to your friends. And so it had to be really intentionally written down because there was like a purpose behind it. But what’s really fascinating is how we know all the things that we don’t know, because there’s got to be a lot that we don’t know existed, but it did, but we’ll never know. But there’s a lot that we know existed and it’s lost. And that is just because other people would reference it in their writing and their writing survives.
So somebody would be like, so there’s this poet, there’s these two poets where they wrote a ton, but not a lot of it survives. Pherecrates is one and Simonides is another. Pherecrates, I think is the one I’m thinking of where it’s we know he wrote so much mythology, but almost nothing survives in full. Whereas instead, it’s somebody like, say, Pseudo-Apollodorus was like, Pherecrates wrote this whole story about this and this. But we don’t have it, we know it existed because apollodorus wrote that it existed. So we like know that he read it, but we can’t read it. And I think actually it might even be Pherecrates, somebody wrote a version of this story where Helen doesn’t go to Troy, this ghost of her goes. We know that it wasn’t invented by Euripides. He got the idea from an earlier poet, but not much of that poet’s work survives. We just know it existed at all.
Meredith: Oh my God. Have you seen the play Arcadia by Tom Stoppard? It is my all time favorite plays and maybe one of my all time favorite works of literature. And there’s a, one of the main characters in it is she’s in the 1800s. And she’s obsessed and so saddened to the, to distraction by all of these ancient texts that were lost and fires and it’s, and actually in some ways the play is about like humanity coming to grips with the fact that we will lose and forget things all the time and we have to like reinvent it constantly.
And this conversation is making me think about that a lot.
Liv: Yeah. I think about these things all of the time. Like I have a running list of all the Euripides plays that I know existed, but I can’t read and I’m mad about it all the time. But there’s also so many big question marks about like versions of stories or one thing that’s come up for me recently is there’s this really famous myth of Cupid and Psyche and everyone thinks of Cupid and Psyche or certainly everyone in my circles. It’s a really major story, but the only version we have that tells that story is written by a Roman novelist named Apuleus.
And I think it’s pretty clear that he made most of it up, but we can’t be sure. There’s no evidence that the story of their whole relationship existed in any similar way in the Greek world. And so we have to assume that he made it up. But also he could have read another thing and developed his story based off of that’s lost and we’ll never know. Or the bit of the Trojan War where the Trojan horse exists and where Achilles, gets the arrow through his heel and we get all that, all of that stuff that’s like the most famous parts of the Trojan War. None of that actually exists in an ancient Greek source that survives. It exists in a Roman source. And we know that he was basing his work off of Greek sources that survived for him, but don’t survive for us now. So we know the Trojan horse and Achilles’ heel existed in Greek mythology and in Greek history, but we don’t actually have that physical work.
Meredith: I don’t want this to be an overly gimmicky question. But I would hate getting a question like this for the record. But if you only preserve one Greek myth for the next millennia do you know which one it would be?
Liv: Oh, I know I have an answer. I don’t think it’s like a great answer based on a ton of different factors that probably should be put into such an important question. But I would just say the Odyssey because it’s great. And I love the Odyssey. Yeah. So that’s my favorite easy go-to. No, Greek myth, use a Greek myth. So I’m going to say the Odyssey. Yeah. Because otherwise, I would have said Euripides play, but plays are different. They don’t count. It’s fine.
Meredith: And without the Odyssey, you would never have had your VHS mini series.
Liv: Exactly. Yeah, I would have never become this. It’s still my favorite Greek epic. Odysseus is my problematic love. He does a lot of bad things and I love him forever. Yeah, it’s all the Odyssey for me. I know we don’t have too much time left. And I have, I’m sorry, I rant a lot.
Meredith: I loved it. And I presume. So I want to talk a little bit about Medusa with you. And I know that it’s something that you talked about a bit. You’ve talked with other guests and had really interesting questions and conversations around. And I also know I’m not on Twitter, but I know you’ve mentioned on the podcast that this is one that for you seems to light up your Twitter whenever you’re tweeting about Medusa.
And I, I don’t know, I’ve always been really drawn to it for some reason. And I shouldn’t say it for some reason. I think there’s a lot of complex things about women’s power in that myth. And it really hits on some archetypal nerves in a lot of ways. So maybe you could give us a one minute summary of Medusa. And like, why do you think it hits such a nerve with folks today?
Liv: Okay, I’m going to do it really, it’s going to be quick. And thus I will speak a lot of words very fast. So Medusa, oh gosh, there’s so much. So the earliest form of Medusa is this guy named Hesiod. And he says that she was a Gorgon. He doesn’t describe what a Gorgon was. He says that she’s a Gorgon who was born to Forkis and Keto, who are like sea monster goddesses or gods and goddesses.
And then he says that she suffered a woeful fate. She was essentially assaulted by Poseidon and like eventually Perseus cut her head off. And so that’s like the earliest form of her story, like essentially all of it. And then like a bunch of different things change, there’s a few different versions of it. But the big one that gets picked up is Ovid, who’s a Roman author, he’s writing probably at least seven or 800 years after Hesiod wrote that earlier bit.
And Ovid has this whole story where actually she’s this beautiful woman and she’s a priestess of Athena and Poseidon again assaults her but in Athena’s temple and then she gets punished by Athena for that her hair turns to snakes and she turns people to stone. And then again, Perseus comes and kills her. And so those are like the basics of it. But what people I think take hold because of pop culture and so many different things is this idea that she’s this terrifying monster who is out to hurt people and deserves death by Perseus. But none of that actually exists in the Greek myth. That was probably a minute.
Meredith: No, that’s so like the weird story in that in the telling of it, she’s punished for being assaulted essentially.
Liv: In Ovid. Yeah.
Meredith: Okay. But then like it’s there’s this cultural understanding of her as this monster who loves turning people to stone.
Liv: Yeah, none of that exists in Greek myth and actuality in ancient Greek sources. So before Ovid and not Ovid, she is not ever shown as hurting anybody. We don’t know that she turned anybody to stone. We just know that she could.
Yeah, like we don’t have evidence that she ever did it. We just know that like physically she could and we really only know that because her head afterwards turns things to stone. But until her head is physically caught from her body, she doesn’t actually harm anybody. And Perseus is not sent to kill her because she’s dangerous.
That’s a really common misconception. Like he’s not sent there because she’s causing trouble or like she’s harming people. He’s sent there because this king of Seriphos wants him dead so that he can marry Perseus’s mom. And the way that he thinks he can kill off Perseus without angering the mother is to just be like, hey, go get me her head, prove that you’re a hero, go bring me Medusa’s head. So it’s purely that he needs the head. It’s not like preventing any harm or saving anybody. Like it’s just totally randomly picked because he, like this king, thinks that it’s going to kill Perseus to get her head.
But yeah, so like this whole idea develops that she’s like people on Twitter have told me by people, I mean men, have told me that like the reason she had to be killed is because she was terrorizing the lands and like her death alleviated a pressure on the earth. And it’s all in your head, dude. And I can see your misogyny showing like what are you talking about? Nothing about that exists in Greek myth. The worst we have is in Ovid where she is surrounded by statues and the implication is that she turned people to stone. But again, that’s only an Ovid and he’s already made her a victim of assault. Like he already makes her a sympathetic character. So it doesn’t even add anything to the argument that she hurts people.
Meredith: All right, maybe this is a good way to wrap it up is that I love the Greek myths. I’m a very linear thinker. And one thing that I find complex about them is I’m like, where do I start? Like, how do I, right now, it often seems to me like, it’s like trying to understand an eight season TV show by starting in season four. So if someone was like, I really want a foundational understanding of the who’s who and the basic narrative here, where would you set them?
Liv: Oh so the number one thing I tell people when you’re coming to Greek myth is you can’t have that viewpoint. If you want to actually understand it from the ancient world, if you want to understand it through a completely modern perspective, but lose all of the ancient nuance, then you can pick up any book of Greek myths. I would recommend one written by a woman because we tend to be able to push aside a lot of the misogyny. Edith Hamilton is pretty good. It’s very old. So it does have more of that.
I wrote one, but it’s very surface level. So there’s books. But the thing about Greek myth is that back to the oral storytelling I mentioned, that is the way that they intended the stories to be understood. And it was never about linearity. It was never about narrative structure. It was never about basically you have to forget everything you think you know about what a story or a narrative should be. Because that was not the intention of any of these. Like they were told to just like share stories around a fire or to explain something in the natural world or to explain the importance of certain regions and cities.
Like every area of ancient Greece has some story connected them to Heracles because he was like the hero for all Greece. And so they would all make up their own stories of how he was connected to their culture. And often it’s five words. And that’s like a whole story. Because it didn’t, it wasn’t about what we think of as stories. It was about the overall like purpose of what was being shared. So I think the best way to understand it in terms of the ancient world is to ignore everything you think you want to know about stories and to just pick up anything honestly. But I understand that that is difficult.
So there are like, gods, I don’t know, there’s just there’s too much to know to put it into one easy thing. I think my show is a good reference point because you can almost start on any episode, as long as it’s not one that says like part two of three in, in the title. And I’m going to give you enough background and stuff. But I think that the key and what I think makes the way I’m coming at these myths, particularly relevant for the myths themselves, is the way that they originally were meant to be told, which is that it wasn’t about this structure, it wasn’t about understanding all of it. You cannot have in your head a timeline because timelines did not exist.
Because these stories were told over 800 years. A lot changes over 800 years. So it’s just not about, it’s not about dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s because that they didn’t care. It was like 800 years of culture melded into these stories. And so the way I do it is story based. So you can just click a story you want to hear. But also, I give enough background and history and all these different versions and why and everything. So I think, yeah, I have a lot of episodes to listen to it’s daunting. But I think that’s a good way to understand how it worked and why because it’s so much more interesting if you understand the why.
Meredith: All right. That is fascinating. Is there a particular episode of yours that you play if you just want to dip your toes and start here?
Liv: Let’s say the Theogony, not my first episode, which is also about the Theogony, but I did one last year or the year before where I went back and I did a much more detailed look at the Theogony. And I should explain what the Theogony means. It literally just means like the birth of the gods.
So essentially, it’s like the origin story of all of the gods. So it introduces a bunch of people and where they come from and why and yeah, I don’t know. There’s just, there’s so much. There’s too much.
Meredith: No, we can find that Theogony and put it in the show notes for sure. And I would also say I love your book. So I have your book. It’s called Greek mythology, the gods goddesses and heroes handbook. Illustrations are gorgeous.
I found it a helpful reference point. I’m definitely like at times like, wait, who is this person? And so I, for what it’s worth, I’d really recommend that to you. It’s really been helpful and just so fun to page through for me.
Liv: Thank you. I think it is probably, I think of it as being so surface level and whatever. Also, I was commissioned to write it. But that’s why I talk about it like that. And I love it to be clear. But yeah, I do think it probably is a really good starting point because also the whole commissioning aspect of it from the publisher was that they wanted a book that also connects in like where you might know certain characters from pop culture, which is a good way to get a grip on what you’re reading and what names you might remember or recognize and things like that. So all of that is in the book.
And it does cover a lot of sort of the introductory level myths and like the gods and, why you should be interested and what their kind of major stories were. So yeah, maybe my book is a perfect introduction.
Meredith: All right thank you so much, Liv. We’ll link in the show notes everything you gave us a trillion great references. We’ll try to get in there. And I feel like I could have picked your brain about this stuff for hours. You’re such a font of wisdom. Thank you for how generous you are with your info and your experience.
Liv: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I hope I talked enough about content rather than Greek myths, but I could probably talk about Greek myths forever.
Meredith: Thank you.
Liv: Thank you.
Meredith: Okay, everyone, we hope that you enjoyed our conversation with Liv as much as we did.
Ian: Next week, we’ll be talking with another podcaster and YouTuber Caroline Winkler.
Meredith: Caroline has a really creative, wonderful YouTube channel with more than 400,000 subscribers. We talked to her about what it’s like to have a successful career on YouTube and her new podcast, Not For Everyone.
To support this show, you can rate, review and subscribe. Those things make a huge difference. And if you’d like today’s conversation, you’d probably like the content people newsletter, subscribe at the link in the show notes.
Ian: And that’s it folks. Thanks so much for listening.