Not a simple retelling of Greek myths – Natalie Haynes Pandora’s Jar is a fascinating discussion of the women in Greek myths themselves. She begins with Pandora, the woman famous for unleashing pain and suffering and all those negative things into the world by opening her box. She tells the story of the famous beauty Helen of Troy, whose face sank ships; of Medusa, the woman with snakes for hair; Penelope, the wife waiting for Odysseus to come home; and those less well known to the general reader such as Clymenestra, Medea and Jocasta.
Most readers will know a little bit – or think they know a little bit – about Helen, or Medusa, or some the Amazon women. Often our perceptions have been formed by popular culture – movies like Troy, and even young adult fiction like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. Haynes’ aim is to show another side of these stories.
She cuts back through time – and myth – to the original tales, to the ancient writers who presented different versions of Pandora and Helen and all of the others. She looks at poems, epic, and artistic representations, complete and fragmented.
Surprise surprise – often these women have not always been the conniving, manipulative and evil characters the modern world knows them as. Sometimes patriarchal writers have reinvented them; other times, Haynes’ points out that a close reading of the myth shows they’re not as evil as they seem. Medusa is assaulted in a temple of Athena. Who does the goddess choose to punish for defiling her sacred space? Not her assailant, but Medusa herself, giving her snakes for hair. Medusa hides away in a dark cave with her sisters where her killing gaze can do no harm to anyone. Perseus seeks her out, kills her while she sleeps, then takes her head as a trophy and actively uses her eyes to kill his enemies and other innocents. Who’s the monster again?
Haynes’ tone is humorous, witty, and light enough to entertain the reader, while providing a solid base of evidence for her ideas. She is clearly well-read and studied, referring to primary texts, and she includes strong endnotes at the back of the book. At the same time, she adeptly speaks from the perspective of a modern women, well-aware of the inadequacies of our society as well as that of Ancient Greece. She provides a nuanced and balanced perspective. Readers don’t need to know a lot about Greek myths to pick up and enjoy the book, and it functions as a good introduction to these women’s stories.
I read it slowly, not because it was difficult reading, but because I wanted to absorb the many intricate parts of Hayne’s argument. The structure, a chapter per woman, is very successful, allowing readers to delve into each woman’s story with focus while making connections across chapters.
Haynes has spent the last few years writing novels about forgotten Greek women. She’s also spoken about Greek women on the radio. Her impetus for writing this non-fiction book is to undercut some of the varied perceptions these women are given in modern sources – taking readers back to the original, and making these women seem real, human, dynamic, people who deserve empathy. What I loved most about this book is how Haynes took the time to try to understand what these women were feeling, to justify their actions – perhaps it’s the novelist in her – but she bases her understanding on ancient texts, rather than mere speculation.
Whether you’re being introduced to these women for the first time, or revisiting their stories, you will find Pandora’s Jar absorbing. These are women of myth brought into the modern age.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley