Greek women are on a roll. No, not Arianna Huffington, Melina Mercouri and Irene Papas, but their counterparts in ancient mythology. We had Madeleine Miller's cracking Circe (her first book having focussed on the men - Achilles and Patroclus); Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (the sequel, The Women of Troy, will be out this August) and Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships, which all worked from the premise made explicit in Barker's title: that we know the women of Greek myths only through a male perspective.
At the same time, there has been a trend in presenting both myth and history as if they have to be funny in order to be interesting. I blame Horrible Histories myself. I have not always enjoyed Natalie Haynes on radio 4 because of this tendency, so approached Pandora's Jar with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation
There are jokes. Haynes can't help herself: she used to be a stand-up comedian. But there is also a great deal to illuminate and enjoy. Although she says at the end that it isn't "a scholarly book," her frame of reference takes in Stesichorus, Theognis and Diodorus Siculus as well as Hesiod, Pausanias and the Greek tragedians. There is no need for her to self-deprecate, although an index would have been nice.
But this is marketed as a book with popular appeal and the production is gorgeous. I want to give a shout-out to Swedish artist Petra Bӧrner for the beguiling cover.
Let's get that business of Pandora's container out of the way. If asked, I would have said "box;" wouldn't you? That is the common expression but we get it from Erasmus in the 16th century who translated pyxis instead of pithos, which is a tall jar. So if we've got that so wrong, what else have we mis-believed about Pandora?
Well her name means "all-giving" as well as "all-gifted," according to Haynes, which certainly puts a new spin on her actions. She was created as the first woman, being given assets by the gods, and was then presented to Epimetheus as a wife. (He was the brother of Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus). In some versions, she brings the jar with her as a dowry. But in no ancient Greek source is she forbidden to open it; that has been tacked on by later re-tellers of the story, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Roger Lancelyn-Green. There isn't even agreement that the jar is full of evils. Theognis says Pandora released good things like self-control and trust, which flew away, explaining why they are so rare among men.
Pandora - artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons)
Having sorted us out on Pandora, Natalie Haynes moves on to nine other women or groups, which are worth naming: Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and Penelope.
After a discussion of their places in popular mythology and a look at Greek sources, Haynes goes on to look at more recent interpretations in a variety of art forms. It's a real shame she doesn't mention Stravinsky's short opera, Oedipus Rex, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau, based on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. It's true that Jocasta has no more prominence in terms of number of lines in that work than she does in Sophocles. But what lines and what music!
Oracula, oracula, mentita sunt oracula.
It's also true that "the fixation on Oedipus sucks all the light and air" out of the story, as Haynes observes
Helen "of Troy" is probably the most famous of the women in Greek mythology in this book. She was abducted by (or went willingly with) Paris, prince of Troy, from her marital home and caused a ten-year war between Greece and Troy to restore her to her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. But how many people know the alternative version in which an image of Helen was taken in her stead and the real Helen kept safe for the duration in Egypt? It is found in Euripides' play, Helen.
One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on The Amazons. How many Amazons can you name? Haynes says there are more than sixty names on depictions of them on Greek vases. I could summon up only Hippolyta and, at a pinch, Penthesilea. The great things about the Amazons, as Haynes make clear, is that they fought together. They are not interested in single heroic acts like the men in Greek mythology; there are no Amazonian equivalents of Achilles or Hector. Even when Penthesilea takes on Achilles after Hector's death, she brings another dozen Amazons with her.
One of ways in which they have been diminished is the example of describing Hyppolita's war-belt as a "girdle." In Pseudo-Apollodorus' Biblioteca, Haynes tells us, one of the Labours of Heracles/Hercules is to bring back the belt of the Amazon for a princess called Admete. This belt would have held weapons and been a broad, sturdy affair, nothing like a loose waist-tie to cinch in a flowing tunic. Still less like the barely functional adornment of a naked woman as in the 16th century Dutch painting below
The chapter I was most looking forward to was the one on Clytemnestra and I must here declare an interest: I have long found her a subject of much calumny and wrote a short story in her voice for an anthology called Bloody Women, which ended up mothballed. Maybe its time has come now? Haynes does make much of the fact that Agamemnon sacrificed his and C's oldest daughter at Aulis in order to get a fair wind for his ships to Troy. And that would be quite enough to make you hate your husband and have some defence for killing him.
But few people take account that Clytenmestra's first husband, Tantalus and their baby son were both killed by Agamemnon before he married her. Haynes does mention this but doesn't give it the prominence I do. To recap: your sister is the most beautiful woman in the world and also semi-divine; your husband and baby son are murdered by an invading thug; you are then given to said thug as his bride; you buckle down to your fate and bear him three (or four) children; he murders the first child you bore him and goes off to war for ten years; you hear he has taken not one but two war-brides as part of his booty; he returns home, where you have ruled as queen for a decade, bringing a third war-bride with him. You then, with your lover, kill him. What court would not agree you have been provoked?
The trouble is that three great tragedians have written about this story and the focus is on Clytemnestra as the archetype of a bloodthirsty, vengeful wife, not a woman provoked to the limit of endurance by her murderous, unfaithful husband. Here I should have liked to know that Haynes was familiar with Richard Strauss's expressionist masterpiece, Elektra. Not because it exonerates the queen but because it contains her fabulous aria about the nightmares she has about her son, Orestes, coming to exact bloody vengeance for the death of his father. Clytemnestra knows how differently women who kill are judged from their male counterparts.
Of the remaining women in the book, only Medea has much agency. Eurydice, Phaedra and Penelope all seem to be women to whom things happen.
Eurydice, after being stung by a serpent, dies and goes down to Hades. Its eponymous ruler wants to keep her but her husband Orpheus has other ideas. Orpheus enters the underworld playing his lyre and the shades of the dead come to hear his music. Even Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, stands gaping. Eurydice is handed back to her husband, they leave together, with the woman walking behind.
The prohibition on looking back is not mentioned in Virgil until after Orpheus has forgotten and broken it. It is made more of in Ovid, who doesn't tell us that Eurydice was fleeing from her would-be rapist Aristaeus when the snake bites. The common theme as in so many of this myths is that no-one asks the woman what she wants.
Haynes is good here on later representations, citing Gluck and, briefly, Cocteau, even Philip Glass's "bonkers" opera (but not Harrison Birtwistle's equally bonkers The Mask of Orpheus). What they have in common is all taking Orpheus' point of view: how would a man feel if his wife died young? Only Carol Ann Duffy's poem in The World's Wife, shows Eurydice content in the underworld and relieved to be shot of a husband "who
follows her round/writing poems."
Phaedra's story is one that bears fleshing out. Her sister Ariadne has already been betrayed and abandoned by Theseus when this "hero" marries her. Her fate, decreed by Aphrodite, is to fall hopelessly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who has scorned the goddess of love in favour of Artemis, the patron of hunting. None of this has anything to do with Phaedra herself; she has to bear the tragedy of Aphrodite's pique.
In Euripides' play, Hippolytus, we see her almost dying for love of her stepson and, when she does hang herself, she leaves a note for Theseus that his son has tried to rape her. In Racine's play, Phèdre, the difference is that the queen's waiting woman has told the young man of his stepmother's passion and he has shown disgust at the idea. In both versions, the best known loci for Phaedra's story, Thesus curses his son for the alleged rape and the young man is horribly crushed by his own chariot. So Aphrodite gets her revenge and Phaedra is collateral damage.
Penelope is the last woman that Haynes tackles and again refreshes our image of the patient wife left waiting twenty years for her husband Odysseus (Ulysses), chastely rejecting other suitors - a passive figure. Firstly, Haynes makes it clear that Penelope is quite as clever as her husband; the wheeze of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law and undoing it every night is her idea. She has told the gaggle of suitors that she won't marry until it is finished and they are too dumb to twig her deceit. It it would be hard work too, as Haynes points out, not like undoing some knitting, where you just pull on one thread and the work unravels.
Athene watches Penelope "unweaving"
Penelope waits for Odysseus because, unlike his hundred would-be replacements, he is clever and therefore interesting. The story is taken from Homer's Odyssey but there is a modern version worth mentioning, Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, which begins with the hanging of the slave-women by Telemachus after the suitors have been killed and I'm glad that Haynes knows it.
But the star of this book is Medea, the seemingly irredeemable wife of Jason, who killed their children. I'm not specially interested in the vaunted introduction to the chapter linking her to Beyoncé; You can read it perfectly well without that. Haynes reminds of of the parallels between Theseus and Jason, who abandon the women who help them in their quests. Theseus dumps Ariadne, who has provided him with a way to navigate to the centre of the labyrinth, so that he could kill her half-brother, the Minotaur, and rescue himself and all future young Athenians from the annual sacrifice to the monster in the maze.
Jason simply could not have taken the golden fleece from Medea's father without her help. The two women help their boorish "heroes" because of being smitten by love. But here's a difference: Medea is a powerful witch and she is not to be scorned without a cost. She has been married to Jason long enough to have two young but not infant sons with him but then he decides to marry another woman, the daughter of the king of Corinth, and send Medea and their children into exile.
Euripides' play, Medea, gives her terrific speeches in which she gets the audience on her side as much as the Chorus she is ostensibly addressing. Medea is not going to go quietly. She manages to poison Jason's intended bride and her father the king. But then, believing that her children will be killed in revenge, she slays them herself. This is no less shocking today than it was in 431 BCE, when the play was first performed in Athens. We can't exonerate Medea but thanks to Natalie Haynes we can understand her a tiny bit better.
Pandora's Jar fulfils its promise to let us see these ten women afresh, to re-visit their stories by putting ourselves in their position rather than that of the men - and gods - who act upon them. Natalie Haynes' very readable text performs the same task as a picture-restorer or a mender of broken pottery; she allows us to see them without the ravages of the centuries, as believable women living in real time.
Natalie Haynes credit: Jamie Betts