Recent decades have seen myriad ‘retellings’ of classical mythology centering women protagonists. Bestsellers like Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2006); Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018); Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2019) are all based on women who appear in Homer’s epics, and represent just a few of the literally dozens of woman-centred takes on classical myth.
But outside of the purely fictional realm, a growing body of work takes a more scholarly aim at extricating the roles of women characters from the early Greek versions of their stories. Located at the juncture of mythology, history, and literature, such studies offer a fascinating glimpse not only at the role played by archetypal female protagonists in western mythology but also at the gaps produced in recent centuries by our cultural biases.
The latest scholar to take on the task is British classicist Natalie Haynes, whose fascinating study, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, excavates the stories underpinning ten of the women (or groups of women) appearing in Greek mythology.
“Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us,” writes Haynes. “Which version of a story we choose to tell, which characters we place in the foreground, which ones we allow to fade into the shadows: these reflect both the teller and the reader, as much as they show the characters of the myth.”
It is time, she says, to make “space in our storytelling to rediscover women who have been lost or forgotten.”
Pandora’s story, which opens the book, is well-enough known. The first woman, created by the gods as punishment for mortals’ illicit acquisition of fire, she is usually depicted as a sort of sleeper agent, sent to Earth by the gods with a jar full of evils – sickness, death, and other fine sorrows — to sow discord and misery among humanity (men). Common knowledge, right?
Or is it? Haynes reconstructs other, earlier versions of the legend. In some variants (such as the sixth-century BCE version she extricates from Theognis’ Elegies) the goods Pandora carried around were not vices but virtues like self-control and trust. And according to Aesop it wasn’t a woman who released them into the world, but a “curious or greedy man” who let the lid off the jar. The story, it seems, is more complicated than we were led to believe.
Part of the problem, Haynes explains, is the filter through which modern readers tend to learn the Greco-Roman myths. The well-known modern versions of these stories date from the Victorian era and the early 20th century and are thus filtered through the patriarchal lens that predominated in the scholarship of that era. Often, modern male popularizers deliberately wrote out women who enjoyed a more prominent presence in some of the ancient Greek versions of these stories.
Looking beyond those modern, patriarchal retellings, Haynes searches the original Greco-Roman literature for earlier versions of the legends. In some cases, the ‘alternative’ tellings she finds were the more common version of yore, and the variants we know today are simply modern patriarchal spin, often deliberately warping the original story or omitting the important role of female characters.
A recurring figure in the book is the Greek playwright Euripides (~484–406 BCE), some of whose plays could almost be considered feminist, after a fashion. Only 19 of his estimated 92 plays have survived, but they offer a fascinating contrast to plays based on the same stories by more misogynistic Greek playwrights.
“Euripides was an astonishing writer of women,” states Haynes. “He wrote more and better female roles than almost any other male playwright who has ever lived…It’s not just that women in Euripides’ plays have agency and make decisions which advance the plot (although they do), it’s also that he writes them with a rare insight into areas which simply don’t feature in men’s lives in the same way.”
Examples include his sympathetic presentation of Jocasta (Oedipus’ mother and later wife, who kills herself with barely a word in other versions of the story) and his rare defense of Helen of Troy in The Trojan Women. There is also his depiction of Medea, wife of Jason (of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame) in his eponymous play about her. The action in that play takes place in Corinth, where she and Jason have settled down after their adventuring days and now have two children. Jason, in an effort to boost his fortunes, is wooing the daughter of the king of Corinth, and he and the king intend to send Medea (who was the real brains behind the Argo, repeatedly rescuing Jason and his men during their travels) into exile to facilitate the wedding.
She responds by killing not only the king and his daughter but also her own two children (rather than let Jason take them away from her). Then she absconds to Athens, leaving an infuriated and mourning Jason with a parting prophesy about how he too will die.
A consistent theme in Medea’s story is the death of her children, but other playwrights wrote it off as an accident or attributed the murder to an angry mob. Euripides, however, makes it a very deliberate decision on Medea’s part to kill them. She’s not just a vengeful murderer but a mother placed in an untenable position by her lack of rights as a female foreigner in Corinth. In presenting her case to the audience she swings back and forth on the matter, revealing a deeply complex woman with tremendous agency and independence who changes her mind about things throughout the course of the play.
Euripides’ plays sparked controversy, then and now. He was criticized by his contemporaries for impiety, and for treating the gods in dismissive and hostile ways in his writing. Some critics (both his contemporaries as well as modern ones) also considered him misogynistic for his portrayal of women who were independent (sometimes murderously so) and sexually autonomous (frequently engaging in adultery without regret). He wrote women, in other words, who clashed with his contemporaries’ patriarchal standards for them. Other critics read his plays in a more positive, feminist fashion, and Haynes’ strong and compelling exposition of his work would fall into the latter category.
Of course, the Amazons feature prominently in the book as well. A growing body of research and archaeological evidence has accumulated in recent years attesting to the widespread presence of women warriors on whom the Greco-Roman stories were based, but Haynes roots her study in the lesser-known literary sources. She discusses the Aethiopis, a lost epic poem of the Trojan War featuring the exploits not only of the Amazon band led by Penthesilea (who arrived to fight for the Trojans in their time of greatest need) but also the story of Memnon, an Ethiopian prince who arrived with an army of African warriors to shore up the Trojan defense.
It’s truly a shame their epics have been lost (at least for now) – as Haynes observes, they would provide a much-needed corrective to the predominantly white male body of literature that’s survived from ancient Greece. In their absence, she draws on other ancient sources to reconstruct what she can of their stories.
It’s indisputable that ancient Greece was a deeply sexist, patriarchal society. Yet Haynes’ book reveals a status quo that was actively challenged even then and a plurality of ways of telling the stories which have assumed such centrality in western mythology.
Equally compelling, however, is the way in which Haynes brings the classical plays to life. As far back as I can remember, the ‘drama’ section of used bookstores was a despised no-go zone for me: a detestable collection of well-worn grade-school Euripides and Aeschylus paperbacks I had absolutely no interest in. I’ve never had a taste for drama, and bored, hurried schoolteachers stamped out whatever flicker of interest I might have had in the plays of ancient Greece and Rome. So I was astonished to find myself flying through page after page of Haynes’ summaries, enthralled at the plot twists and playwrights’ audacity and eager to find out what happens next.
Haynes’ book dwells not on the plays but on the stories of women’s lives that they contain; nevertheless, her enthusiasm for the original texts is impossible to ignore. Her broader goal requires her to provide outlines of the texts in which her subjects’ stories are buried, but those outlines are beautiful, compelling overviews. They’re crafted a bit like what it would sound like to have a good storyteller relate the latest gossip to you over drinks at a club, with all the colloquial jokes and asides that a lively retelling would include. If I’d read summaries like these back in high school, I would have been instantly hooked.
Pandora’s Jar is a delightful, compelling read. Lively, provocative, and well-researched, it’s the sort of book that leaves readers with a thirst to learn more. Perhaps it’s not surprising that male translators over the past several centuries have sought to omit women from their stories: women like these make the men of classical mythology appear downright boorish.
“A translator always makes choices,” explained classicist Emily Wilson in a 2018 interview with Channel 4 News. She was responding to the controversy generated by her translation – the first known translation by a woman – of Homer’s Odyssey. Sexist commentators accused her of mistranslating the original, to which she disdainfully responded that it was the earlier male translators who quite obviously filtered their work through a more politicized lens.
“All translations are composed of words that are one hundred percent different from those of the original,” she retorted. “I’ve certainly been shocked to realise how much there are visible misogynies that are not just from one or other translator, but multiple translators…There’s never a definitive translation and a translator always makes choices. What I am objecting to is that people tend to think of other translations as ‘they didn’t make choices, they just wrote what was in the Greek.’ Everybody makes choices.”
The epic’s opening line alone, describing Odysseus, has been translated in at least 60 different ways in English, observes Wyatt Mason in a 2017 New York Times essay on Wilson’s work. That single phrase, which has been rendered in myriad ways, casts Odysseus in myriad different lights: as a virtuous yet hapless victim of fate; a manly hero; an untrustworthy deceiver; a philandering adulterer; and more.
Homer’s epics also feature prominently in Haynes’ work: she has chapters on Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra (wife of the Greek king Agamemnon, who ruled in his absence during the ten-year Trojan War, had an affair with his cousin and then murdered her husband when he returned from defeating Troy), and Odysseus’ wife Penelope. She also has chapters on Eurydice (wife of Orpheus), Jocasta, Theseus’ wife Phaedra, and Medusa. The light she shines on these women doesn’t necessarily depict them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but it does show their role in history and mythology to be far more complex than most of us were raised to realize.
“Their stories should be read, seen, heard in all their difficult, messy, murderous detail. They aren’t simple, because nothing interesting is simple,” Haynes writes.
“We cannot hope to make sense of our stories or ourselves (myths are a mirror of us, after all) if we refuse to look at half of the picture.”