Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2021

Adelaide Writers’ Week: Reframing the Classics, with Natalie Haynes and Tom Wright

This is the description of the session from the AWW website:

With her acclaimed BBC radio series just commissioned for a seventh series, broadcaster, author, stand up comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes is celebrated for taking those pillars of our cultural understanding, the Greek myths, and retelling them from the female perspective. Her novel, A Thousand Ships, centres Creusa’s experience of the Trojan War and in her most recent book, the eloquent and witty essay collection Pandora’s Jar, Natalie “gives voice to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.”

Wright began with a quotation from Virginia Wright, about the paradox of the ancients featuring magnificent women in their Athenian plays when in that era women in real life were almost invisible.  Haynes explained that rich women were cloistered while women who needed to earn a living were all around them.  (Men were paranoid about the possibility of some other man fathered a child in his household.)  And yet, in upper class drama, women were very powerful, e.g. Clytemnestra and Medea.  And these women in Greek drama talk about gender issues, e.g. Medea complaining that women’s dowries can buy a man who’s a complete dud.  The irony is that her monologue was written by a man, was performed by a man and the audience were probably all men too.  So Haynes thinks that Euripides was not a misogynist because he was showing men how it was for women in that patriarchal society.

Transgressive behaviour is a constant in Greek drama, for men as well as women, (e.g. Ajax turning on his warriors and being savagely punished for it.)  Transgression of female roles in Greek tragedy is extreme e.g. Clytemnestra killing both Agamemnon and Cassandra is but it takes a good translation to see that it’s revenge for Agamemnon killing her daughter.  The myths are not inherently misogynistic but they have been been transformed into multiple conflicting versions over time.  For example, Emily Wilson’s C19th translation of The Odyssey shows Telemachus stringing up slave women for having conspired with the suitors.  This is an accurate translation of the Greek, but four other subsequent versions transform the women into sluts and whores, when of course the women were slaves and had no agency to refuse the orders of the suitors.  Hippolyta the Amazon’s war belt gets translated into ‘girdle’ in translations, even though this word used about men wearing one is always translated as a war belt.  Haynes thinks that this was not deliberate, just a niche of classical scholars applying their own view of the world.

Sometimes it seems that the ancient world exists for us to ‘mine’ and to feel self-congratulatory about the progress we’ve made from then to now.  But Pandora, for example, is a much more nuanced and interesting character in the ancient world, although she becomes more patriarchally-defined character once Christianity gets hold of her.  The European tradition is what does for her.  

These traditions belong to the culture that they’re from. They also belong to all of us, but we shouldn’t approach them with a utilitarian outlook, as in what can we get out of them, we should look at them in their own context, with a sense of the world that they’re writing about.

The chapter on the Amazons in Pandora’s Jar incudes the epic tradition of the Amazons missing from Homer.  (Homer is not one person, at least two, and probably more.) What is extant is part of a set of poems telling the whole story of the Trojan War… the Trojan horse is the most famous segment and yet it’s not even in The Iliad, which is about only the last two months of a ten year war.  There were poems both before and after The Iliad. We have only fragments of these but there are other later versions of the originals which tell us about the great Amazon warrior queen and the Ethiopian king (the originals of which are now lost).  We’re just unlucky that so much of ancient literature (about 97%) was lost, and lucky that we have what we have.

The Greeks were obsessed with the Amazons, and they feature a great deal in the art and pottery, second most popular to images of Hercules doing brave and manly things.  They were not obscure in the ancient world.  Haynes says that there was some ‘perving’ going on: the Amazons were not shrouded in respectable women’s clothing.—they’re, shockingly, wearing leggings. They’re beautiful, and they have beautiful ornately decorated tunics and armour.  They have stunning boots, when the men in the paintings are always barefoot.  And they’re always a ‘girl gang’ riding into battle together, different to the image of the individual Homeric hero.  Achilles talks about ‘my’ honour; the Amazons are about helping each other out.

The talk moved on to discussion about the ‘Wonderwoman’ film. In the ancient sources, the women are always off to war, but in the film they live on an island and they only know about conflict when it penetrates their world, i.e. when a pilot crash lands on the island and she, Diana, goes to help out in the battle of WW2.  But she goes alone. There are riffs and refractions of the myths in the film, as there are in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The notion of giving up your life for others in these tragic situations is a very ancient tradition.

We think of Orpheus is a great romantic, but Plato thought he wasn’t because he wasn’t prepared to die for his loved one.   Some modern feminist interpretations of this are about Orpheus being a stalker and all Eurydice wants is to be left alone, happy where she is. In some of the ‘original’ versions, she’s a much more interesting character.  Both of them are ‘late’ additions to the epic (1st and 5th century BC).   Today we are all fascinated by Orpheus’s descent into Hades, and that he is almost back from the Underworld when he fatally turns and looks behind him and Eurydice is lost to him forever.  When Virgil tells the story in Aeneid, that part about him so nearly achieving his goal is really short… the bit about going down is what gets treated in much more detail, because that’s what really interested Virgil.  Ovid, OTOH, focusses on the power of Orpheus’s music that makes the souls of the dead flock around him to hear it.  Composers and artists have taken on this element of the story: how can I do this also to invoke the souls of the dead?  It’s only recently that anybody’s taken any notice of Eurydice’s story: she gets raped on her wedding day and then she dies…

It was really interesting to hear detailed analysis of stories we know well, and to realise that there’s much more to it in the book.    Onto my wishlist it goes.

(And how amazing to have the opportunity to hear this session at a time when Greek and Latin have basically vanished out of the curriculum except in elite private schools!  I loved the passion with which Haynes talked about this.)


  1. Absolutely fascinating. Grew up with the Greek myths and am fascinated by the way Ancient Greece is simplified and whitewashed, both in modern Greece and abroad.


    • LOL It seems very adaptable, the way it can be recreated in different versions to suit the agenda of the day.
      My favourite adaptation is David Malouf’s Ransom, which explores the burdens of kingship on Priam and his grief as he goes to try to ransom his son’s body.
      But I’m not a scholar so my perspective is just based on the versions I’ve read. I particularly like the Fagles translations, but there’s a more recent one by a women (the name escapes me) which I intend to read in due course too.


      • Are you referring to Emily Wilson’s translations? Yes, I bought a copy of her Odyssey translation (I’m more of an Odyssey girl than an Iliad one – which might explain my peripatetic rather than heroic lifestyle!).


        • Emily Wilson? Yes, I think I am!
          I love them both. And The Aeneid.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting read!


  3. Reblogged this on SacredCircleforWomen.


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