Opening Pandora’s Jar

6 May

I’m somewhat late to the party apropos Natalie Haynes – and even then, I was in the kitchen.  It’s only of late that I discovered Natalie Haynes Stands up for the Classics on BBC Radio 4. And it’s more recent still that I clocked that Natalie has enjoyed a longstanding, stand-up career. Among other things. Imagine then my delight to see Natalie’s name in the literature festival programme.

Education, education, education

I’m uber envious that Natalie had the great good fortune to study the Classics while at school before deepening her classical knowledge at university. Because, when you boil them down, they’re cracking good yarns aren’t they? 

About a million years ago, pre-national curriculum, when my daughter was in primary school, she spent one term ‘doing’ Greek mythology. She LOVED it. At the end of term, the kids put on a performance about Persephone – and the act of writing that name pops the song they sang about her back into my head.  Does the national curriculum now allow for such things? I don’t know – but I somehow doubt it. Indeed, during the course of her conversation with festival organiser Matt Holland, Natalie indicated that it does not. Further, what a tragedy (apt!) and gross unfairness it is that only children in private schools have this opportunity. But all this is a bit of a digression – I’m good at those.

What’s wonderful about Natalie and her work is that her passion for, and knowledge of, the Classics, bubbles out of her in the most joyful way. She’s as unstoppable as the contents of Pandora’s Box themselves! But I say that in the nicest possible way. I can relate!

But let’s get to the jar! The box came later it seems.

Pandora’s Jar 

… you’ll not be one bit surprised to hear is a book – this being a literature festival and all. I suspect I’ll also not surprise you to say that it tells tales from the great Greek myths. BUT – with a twist. As the programme synopsis points out, these stories have been recounted for millennia. Even if you’ve not had a classical education the chances are you’ve heard of Zeus, Agamemnon and Paris or Odysseus or Jason. He was the one with the Argonauts.

But what of the women in these myths? Helen of Troy? Yep – but only in an objectifying way. Medusa? For sure. But hardly a positive portrayal and it didn’t end well for her.  But what of Hera, Athena and Artemis, and Clytemnestra. Or Jocasta, Eurydice and Penelope? Well – fear not. For Natalie Haynes, in true standing up for the classics style, has redressed this eons-old imbalance and put these women of the Greek myths centre stage and on an equal footing with the men.

And this matters because …

… the very word history means his story – not her story. History was not only written by the winners – it was written by men.

There’s an interesting Q&A here with Bettany Hughes, in which she answers this question: ‘DO YOU THINK WOMEN HAVE FEATURED LESS IN HISTORY THAN MEN HAVE?with Absolutely, it’s the inconvenient truth that women have always been 50% of the population, but only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history. Clearly something has gone wrong here, the maths doesn’t work.’

She further goes onto say that back in pre-history we don’t see this erasure of women – the polar opposite in fact. And, in her conversation with Matt Holland, Natalie made the self-same point. She explains that the Athenian tragedian Euripides wrote Jocasta in the most astonishing and well-rounded way, describing her emotional and physical pain in such a way as to make her three-dimensional. As indeed she was.  But yet, said Natalie, we can’t say the same of Marlowe hundreds of years later. And further, despite the fact that, from that time to this, women have hit history with the force of several asteroids, they still don’t hold an equal position in the historical narrative.

So, thank goodness for Natalie Haynes. Yes, I know these are myths – yet these myths, along with Biblical parables etc, are the building blocks of our culture. They percolate through everything. 

There’s a nice slice of symmetry in the fact that, when Pandora managed to slam shut the lid on that blasted box, hope didn’t escape. Because this book represents hope of effecting a change in the hitherto portrayals of women in history that are so often negative at best. And, at worst, write them out all together.

One thing is for sure though, given Natalie’s entertaining and accessible style, opening Pandora’s Jar won’t be all Greek to you …

Words by Angela Atkinson


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