Source of book: I own this
This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This one, I might have discovered eventually, but was glad to read it now. In fact, this one won our vote by a good margin this time around (we vote on three months at a time - top three win.) This was somewhat on brand for books we have read over the last few years - we apparently like new spins on the old Greek myths: Circe, The Song of Achilles, The Penelopiad, and most recently, Fates and Furies. (You can check out all of the books from the club that I have blogged about here.)
This book was a bit different in that it is non-fiction. Rather than a retelling or re-imagining of myths, Haynes goes back and looks at women in Greek myths in their more complete and three-dimensional form.
For most of us, our introduction to many of the old myths was through the classic Victorian retellings. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, or Thomas Bulfinch. Others may have read Roger Lancelyn Green. My kids’ generation is more likely to experience the myths in movies.
The risk with any of these, however, is that one tends to get the “approved” version - the ones the Victorians went with, which often misses the many different versions that existed in the past. The Victorians in particular were prone to minimizing the role of women, eliminating their backstories, making their motives more passive than active, or straight up treating them in a more misogynistic manner than the ancient Greeks. (And that’s saying something too.)
In actual fact, all of these myths had alternate versions, richer and more complicated back stories, and a variety of approaches to the subject matter.
Haynes encourages the reader to look at the stories from different perspectives, ancient and modern, and see them as living tales, not a museum.
I particularly appreciated her going back to Hesiod, and forward to the playwrights who reinterpreted the stories, particularly Euripides, whose plays often focus on the women of myth, and have far more of their perspective. In addition, she refers to a lot of works of art with mythological subjects, particularly statues and pottery. These too indicate what the ancient Greeks thought about the stories, and how they interpreted them.
Haynes studied the Greek classics at Cambridge, but is best known for her work with the BBC. And for a handful of novels based on the myths.
There are ten chapters in the book, each focusing on a different woman - or group of women in one case. In each case, Haynes assumes some background knowledge (although she does fill in a bit of the story as she goes.) I am fairly familiar with mythology, so I think Phaedra was the only one I was a bit shaky on.
In order, Haynes looks at Pandora, Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope.
There were a lot of great lines, a certain amount of snark (Haynes is my generation, so I definitely was down with the vibe), and a tone that was both casual yet highly informed.
The opening chapter on Pandora really sets the stage. Pandora was hardly some foolish girl playing with a box, as the title hints at. Rather, she has a jar, created by the gods. She is used to deliver it to humanity in retaliation for Prometheus’ gift of fire. Not only that, but she is the first woman, made from the ground, not from humankind. In that sense, she is Eve yet not Eve, but firmly in the “everything was fine before women” genre, unfortunately. Hesiod seems particularly pissed at women in his digression during his telling of the myth into all the problems he finds with women.
But what is she actually like? We get only one phrase which might tell us, before Hesiod gets side-tracked explaining how women will only want you if you aren’t poor, and comparing them unfavorably to bees.
This is not just a problem the Greeks had either. The long tradition of Abrahamic religions has been pretty sordid in its views of women, perhaps predictable in a patriarchal society. If you want to deny women equality, better denigrate them so you feel better about it. If anything, the modern era has been worse about this, with artists pretty universally focusing on the box and the evils and blaming Pandora for what the gods did.
The emphasis in Pandora’s story for centuries has been her single-handed role in the fall of man. Just as Adam and the snake dodge so much of the blame in Eve’s story, so Zeus, Hermes, and Epimetheus have been exonerated in almost every later version of Pandora’s. The guiding principle when searching for the cause of everything wrong in the world has been, all too often: cherchez la femme.
Haynes points to Erasmus (of all people, I didn’t expect that) for the switch to “box” instead of “jar.” A mistranslation, whether accidental or intentional, although he was neither the first nor last to do that. (Both ancient mythology and ancient holy books have been subjected to the same careless treatment over the centuries.) More concerning is the idea that Erasmus applied to the story.
But somehow, he coined an idea which has echoed through the centuries. Everything used to be okay, but then a single, irreversible bad decision was made, and now we all live with the consequences forever. It’s reassuring in a way: the problem was caused long before we were born and will persist long after our deaths, so there’s nothing we can really do about it. It allows us to be children again: injustice, cruelty, and disease are all someone else’s fault, so it isn’t our problem to try and fix them.
Again, a bit unfair to just blame Erasmus - this is literally a core teaching of Protestantism, one I grew up with, and one that I see continues to perpetuate evil in our world. (I also think it is a misinterpretation of scripture, and it becomes particularly toxic when combined with eschatalogical thinking, as it leads to the “get everyone to convert to our theology because the planet will be destroyed in a few years by god anyway” kind of thinking. As Haynes points out, this absolves us from either taking responsibility for our role in the evil in the world, or doing anything about it.
There is a fascinating passage in this chapter where Haynes looks at a Twilight Zone episode in which a mysterious box appears, with a magic button. Press the button, and you get the money you need, but someone you do not know will die. This raises some interesting ethical questions.
Like so many Twilight Zone episodes, the story interrogates the darker side of human nature: what would you do if you were desperate? Or not even desperate, but just poor and getting poorer? How much do you value the lives of people you don’t know? We might think we would respond differently to the offer, but we all ignore the traumas of strangers every time we watch the news. How else could we survive? We can’t care as much about every single person alive as we do for our loved ones. And there is an ethical difference - isn’t there? - between ignoring a stranger who needs help, or money, or a kidney, and actively killing them. Neglect isn’t the same as animus. But to the person on the receiving end of no help (no medicine, no food, no kidney), the death they face is awfully similar to the one they would face if you deliberately assassinated them.
This is what the better people on the Right Wing do not seem to grasp. Death by neglect is still death. Because we as humans cannot, through individual acts of random (or even purposeful) charity make sure everyone is okay, we need the use of social mechanisms - otherwise known as that dirty word, government, to make sure that others do not fall through the cracks. The worse people on the Right, unfortunately, understand this very well, and are determined to make sure that “undeserving” people die, and decrease the surplus population.
I am not going to quote something from every chapter. For example, the story of Jocasta is fascinating, but I didn’t see a zinger there that I wanted to put in this post. Likewise, the chapter on Medusa is really good - particularly the fact that disembodied Gorgon heads decorated things long before the story was created. So in essence, it is a “just so” story about why we have disembodied heads on our armor.
There is an interesting bit in the chapter on Helen. Apparently, the idea that the “real” Helen wasn’t taken to Troy by Paris. Rather, he took an “eidolon” - a simulacrum of her. The real Helen hid out in Egypt or some other distant place.
I first ran across this idea in an unfinished short work by C. S. Lewis, wherein he imagines the reconciliation of Helen and Menalaus, ten years later. At this point, in Lewis’ version, she isn’t the 20-something of the myth (even the Greeks were horrified by the original kidnapping of Helen - before Menalaus - at the age of seven) but a frumpy middle age. I really regret he didn’t finish it, because I am curious where he would have gone with the idea. The part we have hinted that he was perhaps moving away from some of his earlier sexist ideas about women, but who knows?
Having read Agamemnon, I found the discussion of Clytemnestra quite fascinating. The play really should have been named after her, just like Cymbeline should really have been named after Imogen. Aeschylus bases the play around her, and, with the exception of the fact that she kills poor Cassandra, it is really difficult to hate her. After all, she was forced into a marriage with Agamemnon, who is a bully and a lunk and just about loses the Trojan War because he wants to be pissy and petty with Achilles. He also is dumb as fuck, failing to see the danger from his wife, even though she pretty much telegraphs everything. The chorus certainly sees it, but he is too stupid. And also, he parades his war captive and rape victim, Cassandra, in front of her.
The Greeks were a bit obsessed with the terror that a woman might sleep around….like men were expected to. Thus, the penalty for adultery was greater than the penalty for rape. Which tells you about as much as you need to know about how the ancient Greeks viewed women. But there are also the plays, which in some measure do push back on the society they were written in. Thus, Clytemnestra gets to share her side of the story in the play, explaining her burning rage that her daughter Iphegenia was sacrificed to the gods by that idiot of a husband.
And then there is Medea. While she is horrible for the way she killed her children, she too has more depth of character. Oh, and in some versions of the myth, she doesn’t kill her children - the Corinthians do, in revenge for her killing her husband Jason’s new wife, the one he is banishing her and the kids to marry. One of my favorite plays, and the basis for Fates and Furies.
Medea basically is the reason Jason doesn’t sleep with the fishes before his heroic venture gets halfway started. Throughout the story, she gives him the cheat codes for everything, and even sacrifices her younger brother so they can escape. She has given up everything for him, given him everything, and then he throws her over. Yeah, of course she is pissed. Jason, as so many men in the myths are, is a flaming idiot.
We have a strong hint from these descriptions of her magical power that Medea is a very valuable ally and a formidable opponent. You would think the person most aware of that would be Jason.
But you would be wrong. For Euripides, Medea’s actions are not only justified, but indeed blessed by the gods, who give her a ride in a chariot during her escape from Jason. The great hero, as she predicts, will die when a piece of the crumbling wreck of the Argos falls on him. He is crushed by the memory of his great deeds of the past, having thrown away his most important weapon.
Another interesting thing in the play is brought out by Haynes: the trope that would endure of servants playing a key role in a drama, often getting the most memorable lines.
The nurse tells the chorus that it’s better to be an ordinary person rather than rich or powerful. And in Greek tragedy, at least, she is right: disaster rains down on the high-born. You are much better off being the nurse or the tutor if you’re hoping to survive to the end of a play.
Penelope may be the most familiar of the women to most - high schoolers still have to read parts of The Odyssey around here. There is an interesting observation in that chapter which I remember noting even when I first read the work in my high school days. While it might seem that Penelope would have been tempted to remarry, given that her husband was gone and presumed dead for at least a half decade. But in the text itself, it is clear that the suitors are a bunch of idiots. They are terminally dumb. You can just see them drinking Odysseus’ wine, fucking his slave girls, leaving their trash all over the place for the servants to pick up. They seem to have no genuine love for Penelope herself, just for the chance to inherit her wealth. Yeah, can’t blame her for holding off as long as she could. Particularly since Odysseus spoiled her - he may have been unethical and tricky, but he was no fool, and clearly saw something in Penelope that he loved for her own sake.
The conclusion of the book has a couple of observations that I want to highlight.
First is this idea of “declinism.” I remember a frustrating conversation with my father years ago, one of our early breaks on matters political and religious. I can’t even remember what we were discussing, but he went with what he thought was a trump card: “how do you square that with the descent of mankind?”
No, it wasn’t a reference to Darwin, but to an article of faith within Fundamentalism: that the people of the past were better than us. Smarter, more moral, and better in every way. In fact, the high point of humanity was Eden, and ever since, people have gone downhill constantly.
This has always stuck in my craw, and not just because the obvious corollary is that parents are always better, smarter, more moral than their children. Rather, looking in the past, it is easy enough to see significant progress. I mean, we don’t think it is okay to burn people at the stake, let alone crucify them! Most of us oppose slavery, torture, genocide, the murder of children, and so on. Things that were taken for granted as perfectly moral in some contexts by people in the past. (Steven Pinker wrote an excellent book about that, which I highly recommend reading.)
I love that Haynes pushes back against that idea.
When the contents of Pandora’s jar escape into the world, we have tended to see this as something bad. [F]or ancient authors, the contents of the jar aren’t always themselves evil; in some versions of the myth, they are good. But those versions haven’t prevailed as the favoured narrative, perhaps because we find it easier to believe that things aren’t as good as they used to be. There is an enormous temptation to believe in some sort of declinism: that things are always getting slightly worse.
As Frank Kermote notes, we tend to extrapolate ourselves to the universe. Because we have more problems as adults than as children, because our bodies get old and wear out and we eventually die, it is all too easy to see the universe as declining along with us.
Haynes sets for the idea that what Pandora really represents is change. She is a duality in the myths, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, just like her gifts are both. Nothing is that simple.
We do not live in a world of heroes and villains, and if we believe we do, we should really consider the possibility that we haven’t thought about things properly.
The enduring power of the myths is that they hold a mirror up to human nature. For all their blind spots, the old Greeks did examine all facets of human psychology, and nothing about modern humans would surprise them. (The same goes for Shakespeare too, which is why he continues to fascinate us hundreds of years later.)
The final thought I want to end with is this one:
When the question arises - why retell Greek myths with women at their core? - it is loaded with a strange assumption. The underpinning belief is that women are and always have been on the margins of these stories. That the myths have always focused on men and that women have only ever been minor figures. This involves ignoring the fact that there is no “real” or “true” version of any myth, because they arise from multiple authors across multiple locations over a long period. The version of a story we find in the Iliad or the Odyssey is not somehow more valid than a version we find in a fifth-century BCE play or on the side of a vase merely because it is older.
This is a key idea that I really wish I could make more people understand.
There is no “real” or “true” version of any of this.
This goes just as much for the Bible and religious doctrine as for anything else. It was written over a long period of time by a lot of different humans in a lot of different places, with a lot of different perspectives and ideas and even vastly different conceptions of god and morality and history.
There is nothing magic about John Calvin’s views - in fact many of them are downright toxic. There is nothing magic about what Saint Paul used as a metaphor, or his particular approach to living in a deeply patriarchal society. There is no “one true interpretation” or “one true doctrine.” What there is is an ongoing discussion, a striving toward the Divine, toward better understanding of ourselves and the universe. That is why true religion is not at war with true science.
We do not need to “find” justification for the equality of women in the writings of ancient men, whether the old Greeks, the old Hebrews, or the Victorian men who interpreted them.
Reimagining, retelling, breathing new life into the old stories, making them new again, seeing ourselves and our world in light of new discoveries, of new perspectives, of new challenges. This is the real work of myth and storytelling generally. And ultimately, this is the core of our humanity, religious and otherwise. We are a story-telling species.
The thing is, stories have to change to survive. They are living embodiments of humanity, not museum pieces to be looked at and occasionally polished. We ought not to worship static idols. Life is change, the universe is change, growth is change. So rather than focus on finding the “one true version,” we need to be making the stories our own, finding new ways of living them in harmony with others.
I’ll end with a bit from another work inspired by the old myths: Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” I think this captures the ongoing work of living our stories and making them new again.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.