Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths

By Natalie Haynes

published by Picador, £20

I first realised there was something disturbing going on when it came to women in Greek myths when I was 11. Off school with some childhood bug, I was occupying my time reading library books. One afternoon, I found myself engrossed in the Labours of Hercules.

I’d read children’s versions of the legend before then but this was Robert Graves’s much more adult telling. I recall laying the book down in horror when I discovered that Hercules was given his 10 famous labours – fighting the Hydra, and so on – as punishment for murdering his wife Megara and their children.

Hercules was no hero. He was a monster. But I read on. Hercules, I discovered, had been driven mad by Hera – queen of the gods – and compelled to kill his family. It was an act of revenge by Hera as Hercules was the illegitimate son of Zeus, her husband.

So the queen of the gods was a monster too! I kept reading. Hercules, it turned out, was the product of rape. Zeus had disguised himself in order to have sex with Alcmene, mother of Hercules, appearing to her as her husband. Alcmene just happened to be Zeus’s great-granddaughter as well. What the hell, I thought. Rape, incest and family annihilation all in one story?

I’ve been hooked on Greek myths ever since. Who wouldn’t be? This stuff was like Dallas but with flying horses, magic swords and mass murder. However, underneath, I realised, something dark was going on when it came to what these myths were saying about men and women. Firstly, why is poor Megara, a victim of domestic murder, so overlooked today when the myths are retold? Also, the queen of the gods was hardly a pillar of the sisterhood – she treated mortal women like trash. And Zeus, the god of gods, was a rapist.

Knowing this, watching Disney’s Hercules with your children makes for very uncomfortable viewing.

The same icky subtext was there when I read the Greek myths again at university while studying classics. Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks during the Trojan War, slit the throat of his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods before sailing off to battle.

The Trojan War ends in mass rape, child murder, the enslavement of women and a city burned to ashes – in a plot all cooked up by the ancient Greek equivalent of James Bond, Odysseus. Was I supposed to be on these guys’ side? I’d much rather be Trojan.

As any student of ancient history quickly discovers, the idea of ancient Greek democracy is also a joke. It wasn’t just that the Greeks kept slaves and didn’t allow women a vote, but wives and daughters were cloistered and controlled in a distinctly Talibanesque fashion. During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta – depicted reductively as a battle between democracy and tyranny – the Athenians attacked the island of Melos and killed every man and enslaved every woman and child in a war crime the Nazis would have envied.

In recent years, writers have attempted to put some gender balance into our understanding of the mythic past – and fittingly, all the heavy lifting has been done by women.

In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker tells the story of Troy from the perspective of Briseis, a princess captured and sexually enslaved by Greek commanders.

In Circe, Madeline Miller tells the Odyssey from the perspective of the enchantress Circe – one of the many mortal and immortal women Odysseus uses and abuses during his pan-Mediterranean exploits. Margaret Atwood also plays with the Odyssey, looking at it through the eyes of Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope in The Penelopiad. These retellings remind us that behind the strutting, murdering men, there are some rather interesting and overlooked women, with stories of equal significance.

In A Thousand Ships and The Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes puts women centre stage in both Troy and the queasy, unsettling Oedipus myth. Haynes is a brilliant classicist as well as a stand-up comedian and with her latest offering, Pandora’s Jar, she has effectively written the first textbook codifying this new feminist take on Greek myths.

Haynes takes 10 female characters and gives them their rightful place in the pantheon: Pandora, Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, The Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope. The opening chapter on Pandora sets the scene: here’s a woman, like Eve in the Christian myth, blamed exclusively for all the woes that beset humankind.

Except that’s not true. Study the myth and you’ll find Pandora is pretty much blameless. She’s basically a dupe for Zeus – yes, him again – who uses her to unleash misery on the world in an act of pure spite. Zeus, like Adam, slips off the hook.

The Medusa myth is heartbreaking. We think of Medusa as the quintessential monster. But Medusa was once a beautiful woman who was raped by Poseidon inside Athena’s temple. The goddess, rather than punishing her rapist relative, blames the victim.

Athena sees the rape as a defilement of her temple so transforms Medusa into a creature with snakes for a scalp and a stare that turns people to stone. Later, Perseus – another of those swaggering Greek killers – lops off Medusa’s head in the vain pursuit of glory.

Not all of the women in Greek myth are victims with no agency, though. Clytemnestra makes sure Agamemnon gets his comeuppance for butchering their daughter Iphigenia. Penelope, too often regarded as the archetypal submissive wife, is a canny political operator.

Helen of Troy, in her many appearances in a multiplicity of

myths, is a sophisticated, nuanced woman – but who blinkered men can see only through the prism of her beauty.

There are plenty of wonderfully ghastly women villains as well. You can’t have a feminist version of myth in which all the women are goodie-two-shoes, after all.

If men can be horrible, so can women. Enter child-killer Medea, and Lady Vengeance herself, Phaedra. Haynes, in her bid to even the gender score, goes a little too soft on the likes of Medea and Phaedra – though given that both have long been painted by men as proof that all women are inherently wicked, that’s understandable.

If there’s one flaw in Haynes’s fantastic feminist Bronze Age romp, it’s that she assumes a little too much knowledge on behalf of the average reader.

It’s a minor quibble though and doesn’t detract from the joy of jumping into a #MeToo time machine with Haynes and going back to settle old scores with some very unpleasant men.