Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes – Book Review

Title: Pandora’s Jar (review copy)

Author: Natalie Haynes

Genre/Themes: Greek Mythology, Reference

Blurb from Goodreads

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.

My Review

I’ve been reading differing accounts of the Greek myths since childhood. They have always captured by imagination in a way that can be compared to nothing else. I guess part of me likes to think of them as historical fact rather than myth… But what is evident is that in modern collections of Greek myths is that men are put to the front and centre, and that the female characters are only visible on the margins. One has to only look at the perennially popular film ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963) (who here hasn’t seen it a billion times during their childhood christmases?) and see the way that Medea is reduced to a bit part. Or if like me you learned a lot about the myths from Robert Graves’ seminal collection ‘The Greek Myths’ (first published 1955, never out of print since) but that book has definitely been influenced by the patriarchal overtones of its time.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of novels that are attempting to redress the male-female balance from popular myths with numerous book retellings coming to the market. From (but not limited to) Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ focusing primarily on characters from Homer’s the Odyssey, to Pat Barker’s ‘The Silence of the Girls’ and Natalie Haynes’ own ‘A Thousand Ships’ that are more focused on The Trojan War, the book market has become awash with these books that attempt to give more agency to the popular female characters (some with better success than others but that’s for my individual reviews for each of these books).

When the question arises why retell Greek myths with women at their core, it is loaded with a strange assumption. The underpinning belief is that women are and always have been on the margins of these stories. That the myths have always focused on men and that women have only ever been minor figures. This involves ignoring the fact that there is no ‘real’ or ‘true’ version of any myth, because they arise from multiple authors across multiple locations over a long period. The version of a story we find in the Iliad or the Odyssey is not somehow more valid than a version we find in a fifth-century play or on the side of a vase merely because it is older. Homer drew on earlier traditions just as the fifth-century playwright Euripides or the sculptor Phidias did.

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. And this provides ammunition for those who choose to believe that that’s how stories always were and are.

In this new non-fiction collection author, classicist and podcaster Natalie Haynes has brought the focus on to the women in ten individual Greek stories. Haynes’ looks at stories from many different time periods starting with BCE featuring classical tellings of Homer, Hesiod, Euripides and continuing through the Common Era to modern times and interpretations, even with a nod to how The Amazon are portrayed in the Wonder Woman film franchise.

The book takes its name from the story of Pandora and reveals that she never had a box! In some instances she had a jar (thusly explaining the book’s title) but Haynes goes on to explain that rather than releasing evils on the world that Pandora is a mechanism by which Zeus takes revenge on the Greeks and therefore questions the agency of Pandora in the stories that much malign her as who amongst the Greeks could stand up to the all powerful Zeus. Another interpretation of the Pandora story shows that Pandora is either an actual gift, or has been given gifts. And therefore the idea of her box is very much a construct with her name actually meaning all gifted.

What Pandora brings to mortals is complexity. And that is true of all the women in this book: some have been painted as villains (Clytemnestra, Medea), some as victims (Eurydice, Penelope), some have been literally monstered (Medusa). But they are much more complicated than these thumbnail descriptions allow. Their stories should be read, seen, heard in all their difficult, messy, murderous detail. They aren’t simple because nothing interesting is simple.

The book continues its exploration of stories featuring Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, The Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope.

I was personally delighted to see Eurydice feature as the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was always one of my favourites as a child, but it was interesting to show how voiceless Eurydice is in the well known versions. How we don’t actually know if she indeed wanted Orpheus to rescue her from The Underworld or if perhaps he was obsessed with her rather than in an equal loving relationship… it’s just fascinating to me to see all the different interpretations and where the emphasis on each story is placed; it’s frequently placed on the male viewpoint rather than the female in modern times.

Another highlight to me was the chapter on The Amazons as I am very unfamiliar with their stories; also interesting to note how the names of the individual Amazons are not as familiar to us as other characters.

Overall this was a really fascinating read. I felt that Haynes was very measured in her approach and you could see the wealth of knowledge that she has about classical Greek mythology. And what made this book all the more readable was Haynes’ own sense of humour shining through; the book is incredibly funny as it is filled with witty commentary and little asides that help to raise it from ever feeling like a dry text book.

Highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in Greek mythology, and very definitely recommended to anyone who has enjoyed the recent glut of mythological retellings on the book market.

* An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley. This review contains my honest thoughts and opinions*

Publishing 1st October 2020, Pan Macmillan/Picador

Other Works by Natalie Haynes I’ve Reviewed

My Socials

9 thoughts on “Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes – Book Review

  1. Emer, thanks for that review. I have heard of this book before and it’s on my list. Last year I read Mythos by Stephen Fry and thoroughly enjoyed it. At present Circe is on my kindle; I think I’ll have to read this one too.

    Liked by 1 person

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