The less-discussed side of Greek myth. 4/5.
Thank you to Picador/Pan Macmillan for providing me with an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.
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.
Earlier this year I enjoyed and reviewed Natalie Hayne’s A Thousand Ships (she’s had a busy year!), her excellent retelling of events relating to the Trojan War from the point of view of the female characters. However, while that was a work of fiction, Pandora’s Jar is non-fiction and a more academic consideration of the women of Greek myth.
This is an entertaining look at 10 female mythical figures as Haynes continues to her work to make the classics accessible. She was a stand-up comedian for many years and her wit shines through in her writing, helping to make what could be quite dry subject matter amusing and relatable. The volume of research she’s done is also commendable, particularly when the primary material about women in Greek myth is often scant, especially when compared to what we know about the men from ancient sources.
I was fascinated by the differences in how these female figures were depicted in ancient Greece and their more modern representations. You would hope that perhaps, with time, these women would have been given centre stage. Instead, the perception of them has become more restricted, their agency has been further diminished and voices muted. Pandora is the first and one of the most notable examples of this change in the book.
I have some minor caveats. If, like me, you’re a fan of Hayne’s excellent BBC Radio 4 show (Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics) and are up-to-date with the latest series, you may have already heard quite a bit of what’s in this book! She has always tried to get at least one female figure in each series and the last series focussed exclusively on women. Consequently, when I was reading Pandora’s Jar, sometimes I found my attention slipping because what I was reading was information I’d heard before. Also, I did find some of the 10 characters covered in the book more interesting than others. But then, we all know by now that I find it much harder to concentrate when reading non-fiction than fiction, so a lot of this could just be me!
Overall: highly recommended for those with an interest in Greek myth who are looking for an accessible, entertaining read covering characters not commonly discussed in similar books.