It’s been a while since I last posted on my blog. I intentionally took time off during April for Ramadan, but I have no excuse for May, other than I’ve been doing lots of reading and not a lot of reviewing (Instagram reels are taking over my life!!!) As they say, “dwelling on the past and worrying about the future will only rob you of the present’s joy” so without further ado, let me tell you about the wonderful Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes.
I received Pandora’s Jar last year as a gift from my sister. She knew I was obsessively reading Greek mythology so it was the perfect present. Why it’s taken me so long to read, I don’t know, but something drew me to it last week and within 24 hours I had finished, and it’s been living rent free in my head ever since.
Haynes takes the stories of 10 women in Greek myths and argues a case for each, urging readers to consider why these women and their portrayals have been changed through the centuries by the men who have narrated them, causing them, at best, to become shadows of the original material, and at worst tools of the patriarchy.
The ten women are:
Pandora, the Eve of mythology
Jocasta, mother of Oedipus and THAT complex.
Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships.
Medusa, she who turned men to stone with her gaze.
The Amazons, man-loving, boy-killing warrior women.
Clytemnestra, murderous wife of Agamemnon.
Eurydice, quite possibly the most romantic story in mythology.
Phaedra, the original wicked stepmother.
Medea, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and,
Penelope, loyal wife to Greek hero Odysseus.
Each of these stories is first considered, through their many iterations over the centuries, and then back to the original source, which unbelievably (actually it’s very believable that men corrupt texts to change the narrative to suit their means!) tells of almost entirely different stories. Natalie explains how they have been, not so subtly, altered to portray women with little agency and as cruel but beautiful, fickle, weak (physically and mentally) hateful, destructive forces and how this narrative continues in books, TV shows and movies we see today.
Haynes goes through each of the stories with almost religious zeal. There is a shout-out to the bible and it’s story of Eve and the original sin in Pandora’s chapter and in the story of Helen she looks at the treatment of beautiful women in art and literature compared to men. The most notable comparison is of course the story of Joseph, and Zuleikha, another reference to religious text. Since the story of Helen has been used as the backdrop of so much popular culture, this section was truly enlightening to me. From Agatha Christie to Star Trek, the trope of a woman’s beauty being her destruction is well documented. These women, who all other women resent and hide their husbands from, who are unintelligent, deceitful and fickle continue to haunt us with its popularity in books, movies and TV shows globally.
When we explore Penelope, Haynes notes, ‘we are witnessing a misogynist tradition which dates back millennia: praise one woman in order to criticize another. Penelope is the model of virtue against which other women fall short’ of course no such standards are expected of her husband Odysseus, who spends almost a decade in the arms of multiple women, on his return home from Troy, but he is still portrayed as a hero, returning to his wife.
The story of medusa made me cry,
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem of Eurydice is kick arse and The Amazons, with a shout-out to Buffy, when popular culture gets female representation right (but diversity so very wrong!) was thrilling. Hayes doesn’t attempt to make the women of these stories better or more virtuous than they are, her arguments are more that women are portrayed in a particular way to suit a specific narrative, one that also seeps into how society sees and treats women. Men have the luxury of being nuanced, have various sympathies and back-stories but often this isn’t afforded to the women, or the context is completely ignored. Natalie explores how this wasn’t always the case with the original text and the bastardization of the text is often inline with the more conservative and patriarchal society, and continues to be to some degree.
Natalie Hayes passion for mythology is evident, and whereas some nonfiction text on mythology can feel like reading textbooks this was engaging from cover to cover. I love the story of each of these women, however flawed and problematic they were, they have their own stories and histories, and aren’t simply tools for the pleasure or inconvenience of men.