The Greek myths are one of the most important cultural foundation-stones of the modern world.
Stories of gods and monsters are the mainstay of epic poetry and Greek tragedy, from Homer to Virgil to from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides. 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.
Now, in Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Greek creation myths as her starting point and then retelling the four great mythic sagas: the Trojan War, the Royal House of Thebes, Jason and the Argonauts, Heracles, she puts the female characters on equal footing with their menfolk. The result is a vivid and powerful account of the deeds – and misdeeds – of Hera, Aphrodite, Athene and Circe. And away from the goddesses of Mount Olympus it is Helen, Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Antigone and Medea who sing from these pages, not Paris, Agamemnon, Orestes or Jason.
When I finished reading A Thousand Ships, my first thought was that I want to read more by this author. And while there are a couple more retellings she has written, this nonfiction book about the women in Greek mythology was what immediately caught my interest and I knew I would read it as soon as I got my hands on it. And when I found the audiobook, I just couldn’t stop listening.
I didn’t grow up reading books or watching movies about Greek mythology and it’s heroes like the author or many of the readers who grew up in the West. Which is why my knowledge about them is very recent and limited. So, initially, I thought I might not feel the same about the importance of the women the author is talking about in this book because I don’t know most of their stories. Ultimately though, it’s the very age old story of women getting neglected, sidelined, forgotten or demonized in narratives and it’s nothing new or exclusive to Greek mythology – it’s such a universal occurrence that I could very much relate to it and feel the indignation that the author clearly does too.
But what I loved about this book is how the author structures the narrative. We get one chapter per woman but many others get mentioned due to the commonalities between their stories. The author starts with telling us the most popular version of the story and then goes back to the earliest available versions of these stories – in books, plays, art or sculptures – she analyses all the different kinds of media where these stories have been told and the changes the narrative has undergone as the decades and centuries went by. It’s a fascinating look at how the stories change because that particular author or artist decided to do so, reflecting more of his personal viewpoint and the attitudes of society during his time, never feeling the need to be closer to the earliest source material.
Which is why we go from women who are portrayed with lots of nuance and as warriors or independent thinkers to devious, monstrous or demure. I could feel that the author really appreciates the plays of Euripides because he seems to have featured a lot of women characters as prominent and even titular roles and we get to see his interpretations which I really loved. But the author also ensures to give us many other’s versions as well like Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Hesiod and the more modern books and movies written well into the twentieth century. I enjoyed all the stories but there was definitely something special about seeing the utter rage of Medea at being cheated and the way Clytemnestra channels her grief of losing her daughter into planning to take revenge for her death. But I also felt dismay at seeing how Medusa or Pandora and even Helen are made scapegoats for events they weren’t directly responsible for, completely absolving the hand of the various gods who are the actual architects of the troubles. The men get valorized and the women get villainized or silenced and this misogyny gets perpetrated across centuries.
However, I’m glad that we now have authors like Natalie or Madeline Miller, Pat Barker and Jennifer Saint who are determined to bring the complete portraits of the numerous women from mythology to the forefront and I’m very excited to read more of their works. This book was illuminating and informative; despite being a nonfiction and having lots of info, it never felt dry because the author’s writing is very witty and I loved her little comments or sarcastic asides from time to time. Natalie also narrates the audiobook herself and just like I felt during A Thousand Ships, she brings her writing to life with her voice and her broadcasting experience is full on display at the way she makes this narration thrilling and unputdownable.