THE PLOT: Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes is a non-fiction book, which takes ten prominent women from Ancient Greek myths and analyses how the perception of them has changed through the ages. From comparing ‘Hold Up’ by Beyonce with Euripides’ Medea to asking why modern portrayals of Medusa are always as a monster, Haynes argues that these mythical women may have more nuanced stories than our “traditional” retellings may suggest. Looking at art and literature, this book questions why women, like our mythical foremother Pandora – Hesoid’s first woman and the prototype of the Bible’s Eve – are viewed as kalon kakon: a beautiful evil.
RATING: Non-fiction isn’t really my cat’s pyjama’s so I intended to dip in and out of this book (as the mood took me). However, I have to give it four stars because it sustained my interest and I gobbled it up. Intellectual yet accessible, Haynes deftly weaves between different source material without losing the story-telling aspects of these myths. She clearly explains the main thrust of each narrative while providing her own insights into why certain aspects have been interpreted in different ways. I’m sure my rating is partly based on nostalgia for my university days (when all I had to do was read these stories) but I’m giving this book a huge thumbs up.
GOOD BITS: It’s hard to choose but I think the sections on Medusa, The Amazons and Jocasta were the most insightful. This is because they contained ancient and modern versions of the myths, some which I wasn’t hitherto aware of, and it made me question some of my preconceptions. In particular, discussing The Amazons in light of the blockbuster movie, Wonder Woman, was a joy to read.
In general, I have a soft spot for Medea and Helen so I also liked reading about them to remind myself of their stories. Similarly, over the years I’ve managed to forget everything about Phaedra so it was great to re-introduce her to my brain. In my opinion, it was right to include Phaedra (a mythological woman who lied about being raped) as it prompts a necessary discussion about why the patriarchy might have wanted to reinforce the idea that women lie about being abused.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I was really looking forward to the section on Clytemnestra – who kills her husband Agamemnon – but it fell flat. It seemed to rely on the Oresteia trilogy by playwright Aeschylus, without taking many other sources into account. I thought this would be a great opportunity to look at wider representations of women who kill their husbands in art (and violent women more generally), but I feel like Haynes didn’t provide a new or unique perspective. The main thrust seemed to assert Clytemnestra’s cleverness, which the playwright Aeschylus already made clear over 2,000 years ago.
OVERALL: I would 110% recommend this to ages 16+ studying Classics and/or Ancient History at school or university. It presents core material for any classicist in an interesting way and encourages the reader to challenge how they view these women. I wish I’d had this book as an example of how to make a clear argument while utilizing a range of sources, and I hope it’s added to relevant reading lists. Yet, this is also a book for anyone who has an interest in Ancient Greek mythology and is looking to deepen their understanding or look at these women from a different point of view.
Thank you to Pan Macmillan / Picador Books for sending me a #gifted copy of this book to review. The hardback of Pandora’s Jar was published on 1st October 2020 (UK) and is available to order now. The paperback will be published on 13th May 2021 (UK) and is available to pre-order.