Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes (Picador, $40) Reviewed by David Herkt
Currently the National Library of New Zealand is “purging” more than 600,000 overseas-published books to “make room for more New Zealand and Pasifika stories”. The first tranche of 50,000 included much of the library’s holdings of philosophy, religion, and mythology and went to Rotary and Lion’s Club book sales in Wellington.
Coupled with an expensive PR blitz and carried out under the auspices of former National Librarian Bill Macnaught and now Rachel Esson, this cull is an act of short-sighted cultural annihilation. The problems are easily discovered.
Natalie Haynes’ newly published Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, for example, is ostensibly far from New Zealand and Pasifika concerns, yet shows its readers the origin and real importance of the age-old patterns that govern all contemporary life and thought.
Until recently, it was the male heroes and gods of Greek mythology who were the focus of attention: Zeus, Achilles, Odysseus, Zeus, and Apollo, just to name a few. They were the fighters and the lovers. Women were typecast as the source of strife – like Helen whose beauty began the Trojan War or Pandora, who unloosed trouble upon the world by opening the jar in which it had been contained.
Haynes is also very much aware of the fact that each of the stories that has come down to us does not have a definitive version. Helen of Troy exists in many forms, both ancient and modern. Haynes takes the reader from Homer’s Iliad to Elizabeth Taylor’s silver-painted performance in Richard Burton’s film of Dr Faustus.
This variety is essential to her thesis of the continuing relevance of these figures. They are the shapes upon which many pin their own personal histories – as Freud recognised when he used Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, as the centre of his theory that every small boy is the jealous lover of his mother at some stage, even to the extent of wanting to supplant his father in her affections.
Medea, who killed her children, is one of the most reviled figures of classical myth – “clever, female, foreign, and magical”. Haynes takes apart the story to reveal a mother who has been betrayed, humiliated and traumatised; and who has been left alone under increasing threat. Pandora’s Jar traces Medea’s importance to Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and Beyoncé’s Hold Up.
It is a fine book for any reader – but it also needs to be read by those who are destroying a part of our intellectual heritage. It demonstrates just how much the past influences the present, even in unexpected ways. Instead of burning New Zealand’s library loan-books, perhaps making them more accessible could have been the solution.