Source: The Guardian, 8 Oct 2020
Helen of Troy, Aphrodite, Medea … putting women centre stage in an enjoyable, witty look at the ways in which their stories have been changed over time
It was actually a Roman mythological figure that compelled Natalie Haynes, author of the Women’s prize-shortlisted A Thousand Ships, to make female characters in the Greek myths the subject of her new work of nonfiction. Dido, ruler of a nascent north African nation, was the queen with whom Aeneas, the hero of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, fell in love – before abandoning her to seek his destiny in Italy. Dido is a supremely sympathetic literary figure: dignified, humane, tragic. As she explains in her introduction to Pandora’s Jar, Haynes was saying so on the radio when she was surprised to hear her interviewer describing the character as “a vicious schemer”, a version of Dido, it turned out, that was not Virgil’s, but Christopher Marlowe’s. The modern era, or at least the early modern era, had not served Dido well.
Part of the project of this hugely lively, fun, yet serious book is to unpeel the accretions that have affixed themselves over time, like barnacles on a shipwreck, to the women of Greek myth, from Pandora to Helen of Troy via Phaedra and Medea. Haynes examines the original sources for the characters, noting how, often – though far from invariably – later incarnations have underplayed the much fuller, more complex roles given to them in antiquity.
Lovers of the film Jason and the Argonauts, with its unforgettable stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, might for example be surprised to discover that in the most important ancient source for his story, Apollonius of Rhodes’ epic poem Argonautica, it is Medea, Jason’s lover and a witch of vast power, who does nearly all the heavy lifting in terms of defeating enemies and fulfilling the quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece. She gives Jason a magical salve so he can fight the fire-breathing bulls of the king of Colchis. She puts the giant snake guarding the Golden Fleece to sleep with her enchantments – meaning Jason has only to pluck it from the tree on which it hangs. Perhaps most significantly in terms of the film, since she is absent from the famous scene in question, it is Medea who single-handedly defeats the bronze giant Talos with her awesome magics.
Jason marries his clever lover, has children with her – and then abandons her for a younger woman, as recounted in Euripides’ great play Medea. The character is the original “scorned woman”, her fury fiercer than Hell’s. Though the trope of the scorned woman has not always been invoked to women’s advantage, Haynes shows how it has been harnessed thrillingly by that modern enchantress, Beyoncé, in “Hold Up”, a song about being cheated on. In the video, the artist, clad in a magnificent, Grecian, saffron-coloured gown, strides down a street gleefully smashing car windows and fire hydrants. Haynes notes that the lyrics convey the idea that it is not how Beyoncé’s persona is that counts, but how she is seen by others. She sings: “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?”
Who, precisely, is doing the looking at Greek myths, and who is interpreting the female characters, is an important focus of the book. Robert Graves comes in for a bit of flak. His classic retelling of legendary tales is often regarded as a definitive, somehow neutral work; Haynes rightly points out that it is not. A “straight”, canonical retelling of Greek myth is impossible – the vast wealth of different versions and variants in Greek literature means that any reteller must make creative choices. Often, those choices have involved downplaying, exoticising or dehumanising female characters.
The true spirit of the Amazons, Haynes argues, surely lies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than in (say) Graves’s creepy poem about Achilles, the Greek hero who kills the Amazon Penthesilea in the Trojan war. In “Penthesilea”, Graves has Achilles have sex with her corpse, and then strike an onlooker, Thersites, who jeers at the act. Actually, I think his poem is even odder than Haynes does, because as I read it, Penthesilea’s ghost then actually thanks the necrophiliac Achilles for killing the snide Thersites, rather than, as I think Haynes interprets it, thanks Thersites for sniggering at Achilles. She writes that Achilles’ desire for Penthesilea is rather a late addition to the story; though in Quintus of Smyrna’s epic Posthomerica, we are told that Aphrodite, goddess of desire, makes the warrior-woman’s corpse lovely – such that Achilles grieves to have killed her instead of taking her back home as his wife.
Such nerdish quibbles aside, this is a hugely enjoyable and witty book, which will appeal to admirers of novels such as Madeline Miller’s Circe, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, and Haynes’s own fiction. It is a generous book too, demonstrating how much space and energy there is in these old stories – stories that need only to be activated and animated by new readers and writers to burst into fresh life.
• Charlotte Higgins’s Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths is published by Cape. Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths is published by Picador (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.