Greek myths and legends from a different perspective. Really enjoyable!

Natalie Haynes is a broadcaster, writer and classicist who’s written several books for children and adults. I was given Pandora’s Jar – Women in the Greek Myths for my birthday and it’s an excellent piece of absorbing non-fiction. In it, Haynes looks at the Greek myths from an entirely different perspective – that of the women of the time.

In the ancient Greek city-states, women were not much in evidence in public life. In fact, the ideal (for a highborn woman, at least) was not to be seen outside the home and never to meet any men other than her husband, father and brothers. Similarly, in the ancient plays, women were not much in evidence and had much fewer lines than the male characters; and when the plays were performed, the female characters were always played by men wearing masks.

In Pandora’s Jar, Haynes redresses this imbalance. She chooses ten of the best-known women of antiquity and re-tells their stories. From looking at many different sources (plays, poems, historical prose, vase paintings, statues etc) she presents much fuller, more nuanced pictures of these women than is usual. From Pandora, who is said to have released all the ills of the world from her box/jar, and the snake-haired gorgon Medusa, to the unfaithful wife, Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra, the murderous wife of the Greek king Agamemnon. There are other stories too, but the book ends with Penelope who, for 20 years, weaves and waits for her husband Odysseus to return from war.

Many of us probably had our introduction to the Greek tales from children’s books such as Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroesand The Tale of Troy, as well as from modern films and TV series. But in this book Haynes doesn’t pull any punches and doesn’t spare us the murders, incest, infanticide, human sacrifice, rape and abduction with which the ancient stories and plays abound.

At the end of this book Haynes asks “Why retell these myths with women at their core?” After all, it’s always been believed that women were on the margins of the stories. But Haynes answers her own question, saying “Because the women are in the damned stories,” and adds “Their stories should be read, seen, heard in all their difficult, messy, murderous detail. They aren’t simple, because nothing interesting is simple.”

I really like this book. It’s long, and at times it’s difficult to read. But then it’s a piece of scholarly work, so you’d expect it to need concentration. And it’s definitely worth the effort because it’s absorbing and interesting, and at times it’s really funny. There’s a lot more to it than I’m able to convey.

Maybe it’s not for everyone, because it’s long and involved, and occasionally the cruelty of the times is hard to comprehend. Nonetheless, to my mind it’s worth 4-Stars.
Review by: Freyja

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