Writers & Company

Natalie Haynes on the fantastic and fearsome women of Greek myth

The British writer, broadcaster and comedian spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how her book Pandora's Jar explores the untold stories of the women in Greek myths.
Natalie Haynes is an English writer, broadcaster and comedian. (James Betts)

WARNING: This article contains content that may affect those who have experienced​ ​​​sexual violence or know someone affected by it.

From the face that launched a thousand ships, to the gaze that turned men to stone, the women of Greek myths are the subject of Natalie Haynes's latest book, Pandora's Jar.

If you've ever wondered whether Helen really started the Trojan War or how Medusa got a head full of snakes or what Pandora's box was all about, Haynes is the person to ask. The British classicist, novelist and former stand-up comedian goes back to the ancient original sources to rediscover these and other legendary women whose stories have too often been forgotten or misrepresented. 

Haynes has been obsessed with the classical world since she was an 11-year-old schoolgirl in her hometown of Birmingham, England. She's the author of six books, including the bestseller A Thousand Ships, a retelling of the Trojan War through the experiences of women, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. She's also recorded seven series for BBC Radio called Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics

Haynes spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from London.

A fitting title

"I really wanted to call the book Pandora's Jar because I thought it was the perfect illustration, distilled into two words, of just exactly what happens with these stories that I was going to tell. The story gets very slightly distorted and it doesn't look like a big deal, but cumulatively and over time, it actually is a big deal.

"Pandora is the first woman according to the Greek creation myth; there are only men before Pandora. She is created by the god Hephaestus, sculpted from clay. And so I thought, 'Well, she's the first woman, this is the place to start.' But very conveniently it also gave me the title of the book.

"When Erasmus, the Dutch polymath, is translating the story of Hesiod, he makes a mistake. He sees the Greek word pithos, which means jar, but he translates it to the Latin word pyxis, which means box.

"A Greek jar is a different receptacle from a box. It's not a safe place to put the world's evils. There's something much less certain about keeping things in a jar than in a box. The level of carelessness required to knock over a Greek jar is really minor while the level of malice involved in a box opening is much more. So you can see immediately how these two equal terms get distorted in translation. She stops being both good and bad, essentially morally neutral. She became gorgeous but evil. The archetypal femme fatale."

According to Greek mythology Pandora was the first woman on earth, created by the god Hephaestus at the request of the god Zeus. She was endowed with charm and deceit by the gods and carried a box which she opened, releasing all evils on the world. With her is her horrified husband, the Titan Epimetheus. Art by John Flaxman. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

From the outside in

"I had written three novels in succession which had become increasingly traumatic to write, if I'm absolutely honest. And that had sort of peaked with A Thousand Ships, which was my novel retelling the Trojan War from the perspective of its women. I had spent a lot of time with the surviving women of Troy, who were trafficked and enslaved and tortured. And there are the women of Greece waiting hopelessly without news for their menfolk to come home, often for years at a time.

I wanted to tell these stories — essentially doing the fun part of my job, which is researching these stories and sharing them with an audience, but without the quite stressful bit of imagining it from the inside out.

"I was so sad at having to keep all these awful stories in my head at once, I thought I needed to recover a bit from imagining them all. So I wanted to do the fun part of my job, which is researching these stories and sharing them with an audience, but without the stressful bit of imagining it from the inside out. I was examining these characters from the outside and saying, 'Look at how this story changes. Isn't that interesting?'"

A vilified victim

"Medusa must be one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic character to come to us from Greek mythology. We see the face of the Gorgon over and over again, the snakes for hair and so on. We tend to think of her as always being a monster because that's the version of her that we see.

"But she is a mortal girl who is raped by the god Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Athena is so angered by this rape — and feel free to insert your own subtext here — she doesn't punish the rapist, Poseidon, she punishes the rape victim, Medusa. And she curses her by taking her most beautiful characteristic, her hair. The most celebrated thing about her is turned into snakes.

If you see yourself as the woman who survived sexual assault, only to be decapitated by another man after being cursed by a more powerful woman — it doesn't look that triumphant to me."​​​​​​

"So it's this horrendous story of a young woman who is first assaulted by a man who has infinitely more power — he is a god, so perhaps that's a better description. And then she's further punished by a goddess for having had the temerity to be raped.

"It's really interesting the way this image has been depicted in art because there are so many sculptures of Perseus holding up the head of Medusa, some of which are actually called 'Perseus Triumphant.' And you look at it and think, 'Well, it's only triumphant if you see yourself as him, not her.'

"If you see yourself as the woman who survived sexual assault, only to be decapitated by another man after being cursed by a more powerful woman — it doesn't look that triumphant to me."

Head of Medusa is an oil on canvas painting by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1614. (Moravian Gallery, Brno, Czech Republic)

Ancient stories with modern relevance

"If these stories don't seem relevant to you, that's because you have an amazingly fortunate life. But I know many women all over the world know exactly what it's like to be completely powerless. Many women know what it's like to be sexually assaulted. Many women know what it's like to be blamed for that sexual assault. They know what it's like to be considered deviant if they want to wear trousers and fight as opposed to wait at home and weave.

I am completely fine with people not finding that they have a relevance to themselves, but I don't think that's true for us all by a long chalk."

"Many women know what it's like to have abusive husbands, abusive sons and abusive fathers. And all of those stories are right there in Greek myth.

"So I am completely fine with people not finding that they have a relevance to themselves — but I don't think that's true for us all by a long chalk."

The author's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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