“When Harry Hamlin stood behind the pillar in the darkness of Medusa’s lair in the Ray Harryhausen film Clash of the Titans, flames flickering off his shield, his face glistening with sweat, my brother and I were transfixed.”
So begins Natalie Haynes’s book Pandora’s Jar, which is not a retelling of myths like other of her novels or even much to say about Perseus even. Instead, the book is a reinvestigation (which often feels like a good, fun undergraduate lecture) of the ways in which various women in Greek myth tellings are portrayed. The book focuses on ten women (and/or group of women) and looks at multiple of the sources that told their stories in antiquity and also many retellings and contemporary versions in film, television, myth compendiums, fiction, and even stories built upon the myths as well.
The book starts with Pandora, noting the mistranslation that Erasmus made in his translation in late 15th century that led to “jar” being replaced with “box” and how the different stories about her often add malice where ignorance might be more appropriate, or add bad things from the jar when nothing or even good things were there. And most importantly how so many contemporary versions of the myth don’t mention what seems to have been primary in her origins, how she was created, with a little touch from every god in Olympus.
With the Amazons (our one group), Haynes emphasizes how exciting and brave and loyalty the group was, but also how much more revered they were in the long past than the recent versions.
With Medusa, Haynes works with the theory that the story of Perseus is perhaps invented to explain why there is so much Medusa-head iconography that predates a lot of the stories.
With Eurydice, Haynes questions the constant telling of Orpheus, while often ignoring the feelings, perspective, and violence in the story.
With Phaedre, Haynes’s goes on a long discussion of the role that rape plays in Greek myth, and how much has been removed from watered-down children’s versions, leading to misreadings of the stories.
With Penelope, the conversation involves what exactly does it mean to be a good wife?
With Clytemnestra, the conversation involves what exactly does it mean to be a bad wife?
With both Madea and Jocasta, we get some very different discussions of motherhood.
And with Helen, there’s a long discussion about who gets to tell their story, and what happens then?
What is really great about this book is its comparative discussion of multiple different representations, with no definitive version of any of them, which is a much more realistic understanding of how stories get told. The book is a love song for these different stories, and very much a love song for Euripides.