The Greek myths are among the world’s most important cultural building blocks and they have been retold many times, but rarely do they focus on the remarkable women at the heart of these ancient stories.
Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, from the Trojan War to Jason and the Argonauts. And still, today, a wealth of novels, plays and films draw their inspiration from stories first told almost three thousand years ago. But modern tellers of Greek myth have usually been men, and have routinely shown little interest in telling women’s stories. And when they do, those women are often painted as monstrous, vengeful or just plain evil. But Pandora – the first woman, who according to legend unloosed chaos upon the world – was not a villain, and even Medea and Phaedra have more nuanced stories than generations of retellings might indicate.
Now, in Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Pandora and her jar (the box came later) as the starting point, she puts the women of the Greek myths on equal footing with the menfolk. After millennia of stories telling of gods and men, be they Zeus or Agamemnon, Paris or Odysseus, Oedipus or Jason, the voices that sing from these pages are those of Hera, Athena and Artemis, and of Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Eurydice and Penelope.
There has been an increasing trend in recent years – one which to my own personal delight shows no signs of abating – for the retelling of old myths. Many of these take the narratives that we know but shift the focus to the female characters who seem to play relatively minor roles compared to the kings and heroes with which your average Jo(e) is so much more familiar. Madelaine Miller, Emily Hauser, and of course Natalie Haynes herself have all published works which bring these women to the fore, and there are many others that I could list here.
Greek mythology is something that I’ve always had an interest in and, like Natalie Haynes, part of this stems from watching the likes of Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts with my dad as a child. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, however, and something that I’ve wondered with these retellings is where the inspiration comes from. Is it embellishment, or are there versions of these stories that tell these tales differently to those that have become mainstream? For the record, I’m happy if it’s the former. Fiction will always contain a degree of artistic licence, and I do want an engaging read as well as the different perspectives on these tales after all.
In Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths (Pandora’s Jar from hereon in) Haynes answers this question for me. She looks at the different sources of these tales and the ways in which these narratives have changed over time. Some of these changes are unintentional – it might be due to mistranslation, or because the original material has been lost over the years, leaving gaps for those that came afterwards. There is also an element of the focus being shifted away from the women due to good ole fashioned chauvinism. Men wouldn’t want us pesky ladies getting ideas above our station now would they, and heaven forbid that we might find inspiration from these tales.
Female characters were often central figures in ancient versions of these stories.
Haynes has picked ten women from Greek mythology who most readers will be familiar with and examines the prevailing version of their tales, but also the other versions that are perhaps less well known to non-classicists such as myself. She shows – time and again – how other versions of these tales existed in the ancient world where these women are not only more prominent, but often the central character(s). It’s an opportunity to set the record straight about the likes of Medusa, Helen, and indeed Pandora amongst others, and it makes for a fascinating if sometimes infuriating read that women have been side-lined in this way, however unsurprising it is.
So I decided I would choose ten women whose stories have been told and retold… and I would show how differently they were viewed in the ancient world.
Dedicating a chapter to each of her ten selected women (ok – one chapter is dedicated to the Amazons collectively), I found this to be an absolutely fascinating examination of each and Haynes’ with shines through, making this a highly enjoyable, amusing, and accessible read. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Helen of Troy (or Sparta, if you prefer) – I’ve always felt that she is allocated with too large a share of the blame, and I’ve loved the exploration of the character and the events leading up to the Trojan War.
Pandora’s Jar works as an excellent introduction to these characters and their stories for those interested in the Greek myths and who may have wondered why the women who are so often at the heart of these tales aren’t more prominent, or even on equal terms with their male counterparts. It also works as a fantastic and easily accessible guide for those readers who – like me – have wondered at the inspiration behind the feminist retellings from recent years and the basis for the material.
Pandora’s Jar – published by Picador – is available in hardback, eBook, and audio formats with the paperback released on 13 May.
Also by Natalie Haynes and reviewed on Jo’s Book Blog: