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

Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 13 May 2021

Genre: Non fiction

Page count: 320 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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.

I don’t always get on with non fiction — I sometimes struggle with a more formal or academic writing style — but Pandora’s Jar is an incredibly readable book that was incredibly insightful and eye opening.

Like lots of kids, I was obsessed with Greek mythology — I got every book of myths from the library that I could — but I never really re-examined it as an adult. Pandora’s Jar is a perfect book for someone in my position — wanting to know the actual stories, but also examining the characters in an insightful way.

The book features ten women from Greek mythology, some who were very familiar and some who I didn’t know well at all. Haynes dedicates about 30 pages to each woman, explaining their tale and the social context, as well as diving into what such a character may have been thinking or feeling and her motivations. Naturally, the most interesting women features are villainous women like Medea and tragic figures like Jocasta. There is so much to be gleaned from these characters and Haynes provides a jumping off point.

I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Greek mythology — whether it was a childhood interest or something read as an adult — and feminist readings of classic texts. I’m looking forward to not only picking up more of Haynes books, but more Greek mythology in general.

Content warnings: discussions of rape, sexual assault, enslavement; child murder; murder

 

Want to pick up a copy of Pandora’s Jar for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):

Blackwells | Book Depository

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