Author: Natalie Haynes
Published by: Picador
My Rating ★★★★
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 those ancient tales.
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 narratives. 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.
Taking Pandora and her jar (the box came later) as the starting point, she puts 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.
Natalie Haynes’ most recent Women’s prize-shortlisted novel, A Thousand Ships, told the stories of the women of the Trojan war. With Pandora’s Jar, she returns to nonfiction to examine the origin stories and cultural legacies of the best-known women of classical literature. Her detailed research and vast knowledge of the subject is made even more readable by her sharp wit and enjoyable humour present in her writing throughout her work.
This book offers a wonderful feminist discussion into various women at the heart of the Greek myths. Pandora’s Jar focuses on the women who are often overshadowed by the male heroes of their own stories, and Haynes manages to bring them to life and give them a voice that has long been forgotten. These are women who originally are described as intelligent warriors, fearless and resourceful, and ultimately let down by their husbands, lovers and the Gods. They are often relegated to the side-lines of the story, and when they are granted an extended focus, it is simply for their role as either the mother, the sinner, or the monster. Sometimes all three at once. You can feel the author’s frustration at this as she writes.
It is fascinating to realise just how many of these women’s stories have been altered or adjusted over the years to allow them to serve as scapegoats for the mistakes of men. It struck me in particular with Pandora’s story and how she in fact did not intentionally unleash the horrors of her jar into the world. Yet, similarly to Eve in later Christian stories, she, the first woman, has been made to carry the blame ever since. As Haynes points out: “Every telling of a myth is as valid as any other, of course, but women are lifted out of the equation with a monotonous frequency.”
“Myths are a mirror of us,” she says in her conclusion of the book, and she goes on to explain that we cannot hope to understand ourselves if we have only a partial picture. I enjoyed this one even more than anticipated. It is a wonderfully funny, frustrating and informative read as the author attempts to fill in many of the blank spaces in Greek mythology from a female perspective.
I am really enjoying this recent resurgence of the Greek myths told from a woman's perspective, such as Haynes’s novel A Thousand Ships and Madeline Miller's Circe, and this was another great example of the genre. It really is a fascinating read.
The author’s next exploration of Greek mythology will be in the form of her new book, The Children of Jocasta, which I believe will see her return to fiction writing in a similar style to her previous work in A Thousand Ships. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy when it is released next week!