From the 11th to 13th March 2022, the WOW (Women of the World) Festival returned to London, this time back in person! For a whole weekend, the Southbank Centre hosted an exciting line-up of speakers, writers, activists, and more, all invited to celebrate women, girls and non-binary people whilst inspiring important conversations about sexism and feminism. I had the pleasure of visiting “Conversation: Women in Greek Myth” with Natalie Haynes and Nikita Gill. As one of the last events of the festival it felt like the perfect way to end an inspiring and empowering weekend.
The two speakers of this event are just as interesting as their work. Despite being Belfast born, Nikita Gill was raised in New Delhi, India, and is an accomplished poet and writer with an impressive social media presence. Her writing explores numerous interesting topics and is often perceived as a modern, feminist take on fairytales and Greek mythology. However, at this event, she served as an interviewer, guiding the conversation with Haynes about the latter's work. Natalie Haynes, a British author and journalist with a passion for the classics, has also written several novels centred around Greek mythology. Her latest novel, A Thousand Ships, retells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women who were involved and was shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The event itself felt more like a conversation between old friends with lots of jokes and laughter from all sides. One recurring topic during the conversation were the most hated female characters in Greek Mythology and their misrepresentation by male classicists. They are often misunderstood and presented through a misogynistic lens as overly emotional, blindly submissive or simply evil. One of those characters is Pandora, whose story Haynes picks up in one of her latest novels, Pandora’s Jar. Haynes talked about the fact that Pandora was made by men, for men and fulfilled exactly the purpose for which she was made for, yet still remains universally hated. Interestingly enough, Haynes also mentioned several versions of the story where it was Pandora’s husband who opened the infamous Box, which brought evil over the earth. But of course, these versions are not the ones we get taught.
Another tragic female trope that Gill and Haynes discussed was Helen of Troy, which also served as inspiration for Haynes’ aforementioned novel, A Thousand Ships. Helen, just like Pandora, is an example of a woman in Greek Mythology who was destined by the Greek Gods to do something yet still hated for it. In her example she was destined to fall in love with Paris, her fate was pre-decided by the Gods and therefore the Trojan War was inevitable. Haynes pointed out the hypocrisy of always blaming the women and never the men of the stories. In Helen’s story, the blame almost always falls onto her, never Paris or any of the men who kidnapped her. Of course, the most famous of all these examples would be Medusa, as Haynes explained that Medusa's appearance was punishment for being raped, with her cursed eyes which would turn people into stone. Medusa’s story affected Haynes in a very special way and inspired her newest novel, which will be released in September 2022.
Whilst talking about these women and their tragic stories, Haynes radiated a deep passion that was infectious. She wanted her readers to understand that the field of classics is sadly still male-dominated, and female heroines are therefore misunderstood. Haynes’ stories are a great insight into the female perspective of Greek Mythology and, at the same time, simply enjoyable to read. For the future, Haynes mentioned her hope for a better and broader teaching of the classics, especially those that are lesser-known. This is now something that I believe, especially after this talk, to be very much possible.
The WOW Foundation was created by Jude Kelly CBE in 2018 to run the global movement that is
WOW - Women of the World Festivals. The Festivals began in the UK in 2010, launched by Kelly at
the Southbank Centre London, where she was Artistic Director, to celebrate women and girls, taking a
frank look at what prevents them from achieving their potential, raising awareness globally of the
issues they face, and discussing solutions together. You can find out about the work they do here.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor