They ‘were hiding in plain sight’, explains Natalie Haynes, in the opening lines of her new book, Pandora’s Jar, a witty and wise attempt to (re)centre the often overlooked or misjudged women of Ancient Greek myth. Haynes is no stranger to the endeavour: women often take centre stage in her formidable repertoire of work as a Classicist, including a podcast series – Natalie Haynes Stands Up for The Classics – and several bestselling books.
Pandora’s Jar consists of ten chapters, each dedicated to exploring a different mythical woman: the titular Pandora, Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, The Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope. A familiar enough set of characters, but Haynes wastes no time in dismantling the stereotypes attached to each, beginning with the world’s first ever woman. Pandora, she informs us, had a jar, not a box (the confusion comes from a sixteenth-century mistranslation), and in some versions of the story is not remotely responsible for the releasing of its contents. Even the rampantly misogynistic Hesiod’s description of her as kalon kakon – a ‘beautiful evil’ – can be translated more neutrally. This idea of ‘alternative versions’ is a key theme throughout the book: Jocasta does not always commit suicide after discovering that she has been married to her son. Instead, she continues to play an important political role in the court of Thebes; we are so blinded by Helen’s Hollywood beauty that we have missed the clever, funny woman beneath it, who, in several accounts, never made it to Troy at all, instead sitting out the ten years in Egypt whilst the Greeks went to war over an eidolon, a mere phantom.
Perhaps the most sobering chapter is that of Medusa, a monster we are all familiar with, whether from Haynes’ favoured film, Clash of the Titans, or the famous Cellini statue, which recently found a new form as a political meme. But her story looks very different when we consider the versions in which she is first a victim of rape, then punished for it with deadly ‘snaky hair’. Phaedra’s false rape allegation is also treated with sensitivity: it should remind us that behind the miniscule number of similar stories, resides horrifyingly large numbers of real women who experience some form of sexual assault, many of whom never receive justice.
Generally, though, the tone is refreshing. Haynes has a wonderfully light touch, moving easily from the morals of fifth century Athens to Star Trek and the music of Beyoncé (who, like Medea, struggles to decide which is worse, looking ‘jealous, or crazy’). She gives the more ‘progressive’ ancient writers of female characters, such as Euripides and Ovid, their due and then dives into the new ways these mythical women are being represented in contemporary society, from the resentful Eurydice of Carol Anne Duffy’s poetry, to the opinionated heroine of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad. The result is a cornucopia of female voices. By observing these women en masse, we can expose the patterns and differences in the ways that they have been treated throughout the centuries.
In the prologue of Pandora’s Jar, Haynes asserts that every myth contains ‘multiple time-lines’ within itself: ‘the time when it is set, the time in which it is first told, and every retelling after’. Her book reminds us that we should not forget the existence of these retellings, whether we find them in the work of Classical authors, Renaissance artists, or modern interpretations. That the liquid, slippery quality of these myths is what makes them so compelling and keeps them in motion. They are each, as she observes, a mirror of ourselves. It will be interesting to see what, in future reworkings, that mirror reflects. One thing is for certain: we can expect to hear a lot more from the women of Greek myth because if, as Haynes puts it, with an almost visible eye-roll, ‘she’s in the damn story!’, then ‘why wouldn’t we want to hear from her?’
Written by Hazel Atkinson
Haynes, Natalie. Pandora’s Jar. London: Picador, 2020.