Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes | Book Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was enthusiastic to read this because I’ve greatly enjoyed Haynes’ Greek mythology retellings in the past, and I hoped that she would provide insight and clarity on these myths, which she did. The only aspect that I was hesitant about was how the feminist perspective would be utilized, and if it would perhaps be inappropriate given how old these stories are, though it was not the case here.

Haynes discusses a variety of female characters in myths, many of whom have frequently been villainized. Each chapter begins with an overview of the individual myth in which the character takes part, and the variations of it are also discussed, which I found interesting. Even if your knowledge of these myths is a bit rusty, there’s a synopsis given in each chapter which is helpful.

“Every myth contains multiple timelines within itself: the time in which it is set, the time it is first told, and every retelling afterwards. Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us. Which version of a story we choose to tell, which characters we place in the foreground, which ones we allow to fade into the shadows: these reflect both the teller and the reader, as much as they show the characters of the myth. We have made space in our storytelling to rediscover women who have been lost or forgotten. They are mot villains, victims, wives, and monsters: they are people.”

There are so many versions of the same story that it’s impossible to keep track of, but this book condenses it down to the most important and relevant ones. There’s a bit of history here in how these stories have evolved, and I was surprised by how much they have evolved, even recently with people such as Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It’s fascinating to see how a story that seems as straightforward as Pandora’s Box (actually her jar), may not be what it seems. Haynes analyzes the original source material to show that it isn’t clear that she did open it intentionally and that in some tellings, her opening it does not have a negative connotation.

 “We must be careful, of course, not to judge ancient characters by modern standards: it is simply a waste of time expecting people who lived thousands of years ago to feel the same about the nuances of women’s lives as we do.”

Of course, the main focus is on discussing and analyzing these myths from the perspective of the woman in them. Given that many of these women are still villainized today, viewing these myths from a feminist perspective doesn’t feel like an anachronism. Whenever Haynes was discussing what these women might have thought or felt, it seemed to take into consideration the time period, and she doesn’t criticize the tellers of these myths who portrayed these women in a negative light. The balance between viewing those women in different lights based on their time periods and who is telling the myth.

The book is fair in showing how the villainization of these women may be justified or not, and it doesn’t sugarcoat what they did or try to excuse it. Rather, it just looks at why they might have done what they did. It also demonstrates how it is more complicated than it may initially seem based on which telling of the myth one is considering. This does allow for fair treatment and assessment of each of the women.

“That we are so often the authors of our own misfortunes because of the same qualities which make us brave, or hopeful, or loving in the first place.”

I really liked how these myths were discussed generally, with modern comparisons and analogies. They’re considered from many different perspectives, and the analyses are all interesting in their own right. If you’re interested in learning more about Greek myths, especially their history, and reading about different perspectives on them, then I would recommend this.


Information

The tellers of Greek myths—historically men—have routinely sidelined the female characters. When they do take a larger role, women are often portrayed as monstrous, vengeful or just plain evil—like Pandora, the woman of eternal scorn and damnation whose curiosity is tasked with causing all the world’s suffering and wickedness when she opened that forbidden box. But, as Natalie Haynes reveals, in ancient Greek myths there was no box. It was a jar . . . which is far more likely to tip over.

In Pandora’s Jar, the broadcaster, writer, stand-up comedian, and passionate classicist turns the tables, putting the women of the Greek myths on an equal footing with the men. With wit, humor, and savvy, Haynes revolutionizes our understanding of epic poems, stories, and plays, resurrecting them from a woman’s perspective and tracing the origins of their mythic female characters. She looks at women such as Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother-turned-lover-and-wife (turned Freudian sticking point), at once the cleverest person in the story and yet often unnoticed. She considers Helen of Troy, whose marriage to Paris “caused” the Trojan war—a somewhat uneven response to her decision to leave her husband for another man. She demonstrates how the vilified Medea was like an ancient Beyonce—getting her revenge on the man who hurt and betrayed her, if by extreme measures. And she turns her eye to Medusa, the original monstered woman, whose stare turned men to stone, but who wasn’t always a monster, and had her hair turned to snakes as punishment for being raped.

Pandora’s Jar brings nuance and care to the millennia-old myths and legends and asks the question: Why are we so quick to villainize these women in the first place—and so eager to accept the stories we’ve been told?

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

Published by: HarperCollins – Published in: 2022

Advertisement

9 Comments

  1. This sounds fascinating. I enjoyed A Thousand Ships and more recently, her new book, Stone Blind, about Medusa. I’m pleased to hear you found this a fair and balanced account of the myths.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m really looking forward to reading Stone Blind! It was fair, and I think that if you enjoyed her fiction than you’ll enjoy her nonfiction.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s