For the past few years, Natalie Haynes has been building a career out of rescuing the women of the ancient world from obscurity or cliche. Her most recent Women’s prize-shortlisted novel, A Thousand Ships, told the stories of the women of the Trojan war. With Pandora’s Jar, she returns to nonfiction to examine the origin stories and cultural legacies of the best-known women of classical literature, with the characteristic blend of scholarship and sharp humour that will be familiar to fans of her Radio 4 show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.
All the usual suspects are here, including Helen, Medusa, Jocasta, Penelope and Medea, and it’s striking, considering their stories en masse, how often they have been passed down the literary and artistic canon as scapegoats for the mistakes of men, or else muted altogether. Take the title character, who never had a box in the original version (the confusion is likely the fault of Erasmus in the 16th century, mistranslating the word for a large jar), and whose name means simply “all-giving”. Though she is described by Hesiod as “kalon kakon”, usually translated as “a beautiful evil”, there is no suggestion in his version that it was her curiosity or defiance that released the horrors of her jar into the world; like Eve in later Christian myths, she, the first woman, has been made to carry the blame.
Euripides wrote more and better female roles than almost any other male playwright who has ever lived
As Haynes points out: “Every telling of a myth is as valid as any other, of course, but women are lifted out of the equation with a monotonous frequency.” Except when they are vilified; she points to famous images of the Medusa myth as an example of the way the male viewpoint is privileged and we hardly think to question it: “it’s just a hero and his trophy”. But Medusa was not always a monster; in some versions “she’s a woman who was raped and then punished for it with snakish hair”.
Among the classical authors, Haynes singles out Euripides for praise. “He wrote more and better female roles than almost any other male playwright who has ever lived”; all the more remarkable given that the plays would have been performed by men to an audience of men. Though this might explain why Medea – one of the most complex female characters in all western drama – only came third (out of three) at the Dionysia festival in 431BC, where it was first performed.
Her frame of reference expands out from the original texts (which she quotes in Greek to explain linguistic ambiguities) and classical artefacts to include Beyoncé, Ray Harryhausen and the social media response to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, to illustrate how far the (often one-sided) narratives of these woman have penetrated our culture. “Myths are a mirror of us,” she says, and concludes that we cannot hope to understand ourselves if we have only a partial picture. This is an erudite, funny and sometimes angry attempt to fill in the blank spaces.
• Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes is published by Picador (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply