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Michelle’s Pick of the Week: Pandora’s Jar

This week I decided to travel back millennia to rediscover the myths I thought I knew.

We begin with the tale of Pandora’s box jar. Author Natalie Haynes discovers that it wasn’t until somewhere after the Middle Ages and before the 20th century that the jar became a box. Haynes then compares Pandora with the biblical Adam and Eve. Pandora was the “first woman” of Greek mythology; made of clay as a gift to mankind. She must also protect a very large, top-heavy jar. Oops, she fails. At least Eve chose to eat the apple. Wait – why was it even there?

Next is the tragedy of Jocasta, a woman destined to marry her son. The story is a classic Greek tragedy that feels positively Shakespearian. Her husband, who dies at Oedipus’ – his son’s – hand, Jocasta, and Opedipus, do everything they can to avoid fate and thus fate happens because of these choices. The whole play is so efficiently told that it consists in one simple scene narrated almost entirely by Oedipus. In later versions, such as the adaptation written by Euripides, Jocasta is allowed a monologue.

Helen of Troy is a character for the ages. The disparities across versions of the Fall of Troy in who she is, what she did, and what power she held are wide. The writing here is both funny and analytical, and it’s a good tale to use to illuminate the structure of Greek society. Haynes then puts Helen back into the context of her time, revealing Helen as a small child who is sexualized, kidnapped, groomed, and villainized.

Haynes connects ancient stories and modern pop culture throughout the book. We discover Star Trek’s episode featuring “Elaan of Troyius” that flipped the script on its head. Medusa could possibly inspire the monster of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and Penthesilea parallels Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Medusa’s story is contrasted with the lesser-known Judith and Holofernes while Eurydice and Orpheus is compared with the ancient story of Alcestis and Admetus. We see Hercules interacting with more than one of our Greek feminine heroes and discover the movies, operas, and plays developed in the modern era which have their own twists. Phaedra becomes Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and Beyoncé plays Medea, a non-Greek person in a Greek legend whose heroic deeds disappear over time, in a music video.

Erudite and funny, Haynes’s writing is smooth and engaging. Each myth is placed in context with our understanding of women’s rights and roles in Ancient Greece. These re-examined tales shine a light on the motivations, decisions, and cleverness of the women of Greek myths that until recent decades were more likely to fade into the background. Pandora’s Jar is a deeply feminist book to be savored by new Greek mythology readers or seasoned mythology buffs alike. Read it one story at a time, and not necessarily in order.

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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