Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes

Book Pandora's Jar next to a red vase

While I’m mostly reading fiction at this point (a side effect of grad school), I sometimes venture back into non-fiction. This week’s book is one such example and I loved it: Natalie Haynes’ fantastic exploration of women of Greek mythology, Pandora’s Jar.  With each chapter focused on a different woman, such as Medusa, Penelope, and of course, the eponymous Pandora, Haynes provides an excellent analysis of ancient texts and modern takes of characters who are all too often pushed to the margins.

I read at least parts of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid back in high school (which has somehow become a long time ago), but I was never that interested in it.  Of course, the broad outlines of the stories seeped into my consciousness from an early age, as had much of the lore of Greek mythology.  (Though perhaps the first real introduction I had to Hercules was watching the abysmal Hercules Against the Moon Men as a hilarious episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.) I therefore had a passing familiarity with the women described, but a strong desire to learn more. 

Haynes delivers in spades.  Her analysis and use of sources (ancient texts, vases, poems, artwork, etc.) helps us see these women not as “villains, victims, wives and monsters,” but “people.” Pandora’s Jar does not just situate these women in their ancient context; Haynes also shows how popular culture – from Clash of the Titans to Troy, from operas to episodes of the original Star Trek, and more – also influence how we interpret, understand, and interact with these characters.  Even better, she brings a sharp sense of humor that makes it a joy to read. It also helps us remember that people wrote ancient texts, and they included their own innuendos, exaggerations, prejudices, personal interests, and more.  Their own times influenced them, as did the stories they knew, the sources they relied on.  As Haynes reminds us in the intro:

“Every myth contains multiple timelines within itself: the time in which it is set, the time it is first told, and every retelling afterwards.  Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us.”

For a long time, our re-tellings of these myths have centered on men (both as the subjects and the ones doing the telling).  The women of these stories faded into the margins or became the reason for our suffering.  The title of the book already points us to the issue.  Nearly all of us, I’m sure, are familiar with Pandora’s Box.  Pandora has a box and told never to open it.  But her curiosity gets the better of her and finally she gives in and takes a peek.  As a result, she releases all sorts of evil into the world.  She is only able to close it in time to keep one thing – hope.  Much like the story of Eve, life was fine for humanity until a woman gave into temptation, becoming the source of all evil, pain, and suffering.  

So if we all know this, why is the book called Pandora’s Jar instead of Pandora’s Box?  Because, as Haynes lays out for us, it was never a box until relatively recently – the sixteenth century.  Ancient art and writings depicted Pandora with a jar.  And not just any jar – a very delicate, easily tippable jar.

In the earliest writings about her, Zeus creates Pandora to be a punishment to humanity in response to Prometheus’ gift of fire to us (and a trick on Zeus regarding sacrificial meat).  Zeus and the other gods create her directly, give her certain gifts to make her irresistible to men and then give her a jar that she brings to her husband, to whom she is directly delivered by Hermes.  So now, instead of just writing her off as the root of evil, we’re faced with the question of whether she even has any autonomy, the role of free will (especially in the face of very powerful and very touchy gods), and the nature of hope.

There’s a great deal more, but obviously, that’s what the book is for, not the review.  Each of the women discussed become much more complex, as does our relationship to these stories.  Regardless of your feelings about the classics (love, hate, or indifference), this is a fascinating book, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll likely enjoy doing so too!  Then go check out her book A Thousand Ships.

Find it online:

Pandora’s Jar

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