Pandora’s Box: The Myth Behind the Popular Idiom

You may be familiar with the saying, “It would open a Pandora’s box of problems.” Most people know this to be synonymous with “very bad news” but that does not answer many questions. After all, you might wonder, what was Pandora’s box? Who was Pandora? Why would opening the box create so many problems? What is the origin of this saying that has become a part of the English language without people even knowing why? Thus, it is interesting to learn the tale of Pandora and her pithos that was gifted to her by the Greek god Zeus himself.

Pandora’s Box: A Greek Myth

The story of Pandora and her box is a very important one in Greek mythology. The most well-known source of this myth is perhaps the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod’s, Works and Days.

For the Greeks, it was an essential story to show the downfalls of human nature and curiosity. The Pandora myth is a lesson on human weaknesses but it is also an explanation for why men lead difficult and hard lives, full of misfortunes and sorrow. And it can all be traced back to the one whom the Greeks thought was the first woman ever created, Pandora.

Who was Pandora in Greek Mythology?

According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the king of the gods, was so angry when Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gifted it to mankind that he decided the human race needed to be punished for this. Zeus commanded Hephaestus, the smith of the Greek gods, to create Pandora, the first woman, as a punishment to be visited upon mankind. 

A human body was crafted from clay by Hephaestus, while Hermes taught Pandora lying and trickery. Aphrodite taught her grace and femininity. Athena gifted her beautiful robes and taught her weaving. Zeus then gifted Pandora a box and asked the other gods to place inside the box gifts for the humans. Pandora was to take care of the box but never open it.

However, these gifts were apparently not benevolent gifts at all. Hesiod called them beautiful evil. They were all the afflictions and ills that humanity could ever know, kept inside one large jar with a lid covering them. Zeus knew very well that Pandora’s curiosity would be too much for her to resist. So these evils would soon descend upon mankind and cause them all manner of troubles. Considering Zeus’s jealous and vengeful nature, it is not at all surprising that he came up with such a creative and extravagant form of punishment for the slight to his authority.

Interestingly, as per Greek myth about the Great Flood, Pandora was also the mother of Pyrrha. Pyrrha and her husband Deucalion escaped the flood sent by the gods by building a boat. Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the story of how the two of them were instructed by Themis to throw the bones of their great mother to the ground so other beings may be born. While this ‘mother’ is interpreted by most myths as being Mother Earth, Gaia, herself, it is fascinating that it is linked to Pandora’s daughter Pyrrha. Thus, in a way, Pandora herself was the first mother of the human race.  

Etymology

The meaning of the Greek word ‘Pandora’ is either ‘the one who bears all the gifts’ or ‘the one who was given all the gifts.’ Being the first woman to be created by the gods and having been given the gifts of the gods, her name is exceedingly apt. But the myth behind it makes it clear that this is not as blessed a name as may appear at first sight. 

Pandora and Epimetheus

Pandora was the wife of Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Since Zeus and the Titan god of fire were on such bad terms, it is worth wondering why Zeus presented Pandora as the wife of his brother. But the Pandora story makes it clear that she who was created to wreak vengeance on humanity was not presented to Epimetheus because of any love or benevolence on the part of Zeus. Prometheus warned his brother not to accept any gift from Zeus but Epimetheus was too swept away by the beauty of Pandora to heed the warning.

Some versions of the myth state that the box belonged to Epimetheus and it was the uncontrollable curiosity on the part of Pandora that made her open this possession of her husband’s, given to him by Zeus himself. This version puts the blame on the woman doubly by making her open a gift that was not even given to her and releasing all the evils into the world, leaving only hope behind.

It is narrative justice of sorts that the daughter of Pandora and Epimetheus, Pyrrha, and the son of Prometheus, Deucalion, together escape the anger of the gods during the Great Flood and together re-establish the human race. There is a certain poetic symbolism to the daughter of the first woman, who was created to endanger mankind, continuing the rebirth and evolution of mortal men.

The Pithos of Pandora

Although in modern day usage, we refer to the article as Pandora’s box, there is reason to believe that Pandora’s box was not actually a box at all. The word ‘box’ is believed to be a mistranslation of the original word ‘pithos’ in Greek. ‘Pithos’ meant a large clay jar or earth jar that was used for storage and was sometimes kept partially buried in the earth. 

Often, it was used to store wine or oil or grain for festival days. The other use of a pithos was to bury human bodies after death. It was believed souls escaped and returned to this container even after death. These vessels were particularly associated with All Souls Day or the Athenian festival of Anthesteria. 

Box or Casket or Jar?

It is not known exactly when the mistranslation occurred. Many scholars say that the 16th century humanist Erasmus was the first to use ‘pyxis’ instead of ‘pithos’ to refer to the jar. Other scholars attribute this mistranslation to the Italian poet Giglio Gregorio Giraldi, also of the 16th century. 

Whomever the mistranslation originated with, the effect was the same. The pithos of Pandora commonly came to be known as a ‘pyxis,’ which means a ‘casket,’ or in more modern terms, a ‘box.’ Thus, Pandora’s Box has become immortalized as both a physical object and a philosophical and symbolic concept of the weakness of mortal men. 

British classical scholar, Jane Ellen Harrison, argued that changing the term from Pandora’s jar to Pandora’s box removed some of the significance of the story. Pandora was not only a cult name for Gaia at the time, Pandora’s connection with clay and earth is also important. Pandora, just like her pithos, was made from clay and earth. It connected her to the Earth as the first human woman, setting her apart from the gods who made her.

All the Evils in the Box

Unbeknownst to her, Pandora’s box was filled with evils bestowed by the gods and goddesses, such as strife, disease, hatred, death, madness, violence, hatred, and jealousy. When Pandora was unable to contain her curiosity and opened the box, all of these evil gifts escaped, leaving the box almost empty. Hope alone remained behind, while the other gifts flew off to bring evil fortune and countless plagues to human beings. There are several paintings and sculptures that depict this moment, including a lovely painting by Odilon Redon in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Hope

When Pandora opened the box and all the evil spirits flew out, Elpis or Hope remained inside the box. This can be quite confusing at first. It begs the question whether hope is evil. ‘Elpis,’ a word translated usually as ‘expectation’ might mean humanity’s ever-expanding expectations of a better life. This would not be a good thing and would prevent one from ever being content. 

But what if hope is a good thing? What if its meaning is only the way we use the word now, that is, looking forward to better things and holding onto faith that good will triumph? If so, then would hope being trapped in the jar be a bad thing?

This is something that can possibly only be interpreted individually. The pessimistic meaning would be that we are doomed in either case. But the optimistic meaning would be that hope could very easily have been a bad thing in the sense that it was expectation, but due to Pandora’s not allowing it to escape the jar it has been transformed into the positive idea that we now associate with the word.

Alternative accounts say that Prometheus slipped Hope into Pandora’s box without the knowledge of Zeus. But this might be due to the conflation of two separate myths, as Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound states that the two gifts Prometheus gave the humans was fire and hope.

Different Versions of the Pandora Myth

While Hesiod writes the most comprehensive account of Pandora’s box, a very early account of the two urns in Jove’s palace is found in Homer’s Iliad. A version of the story appeared in a poem by Theognis of Megara as well. 

However, the most well-known account was found in Hesiod’s Works and Days where Pandora opened the jar that had been entrusted to her and let loose a world of evil that she had no hopes of containing. Pandora slammed the lid shut as soon as she could but already all the evils had escaped leaving behind only hope. And from that day, human beings were destined to suffer and toil all their lives.

There are versions of the story, however, where Pandora is not the one at fault. In fact, paintings exist, painted by artists like Anton Tischbein and Sebastien Le Clerc, which depict Epimetheus as being the one to open the jar. Renaissance writers Andrea Alciato and Gabrielle Faerno do not point fingers at either while Italian engraver Giulio Bonasone puts the blame squarely on Epimetheus.

Whomever may have been at fault, the myth serves as a cautionary tale on the dangers of deceptive expectation and serves as an idiom even today. It can alternately mean something that is sure to cause many unforeseen problems or the danger if one were to accept gifts whose purpose is opaque.

Pandora’s Parallels with Eve

If this story strikes you as being familiar, it is because it has many commonalities with the Biblical story of Eve and the apple of knowledge. They are both stories about the downfall of human beings, caused by women urged on by great curiosity. They are both stories of the beginning of the sufferings of man due to the inexplicable whims of a greater divine power. 

This is a strange lesson to teach a group of beings who have advanced as far as they have because of their curiosity and urge to ask questions alone. But perhaps the ancient Greeks only meant that while the curiosity of men lead to progress, the curiosity of women lead to destruction. This is a bleak but sadly plausible explanation for this particular myth.

Pandora’s Box in Modern Literature

It is hardly surprising that the dramatic myth would inspire many works of literature and art. While the artists who have painted pieces on the theme are many, including surrealist Rene Magritte and the pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the myth has also given birth to several pieces of poetry and drama.

Poetry

Frank Sayers and Samuel Phelps Leland were both English writers who wrote poetic monologues about the act of Pandora opening the box. Rossetti too wrote a sonnet to accompany his painting of the red-robed Pandora. In all of these poems, the writers reflect upon how Pandora lets loose the evils from her box but traps hope inside such that humanity is not even left with that comfort, which is their own interpretation of a myth that many scholars cannot agree upon.

Drama

In the 18th century, the myth of Pandora’s box appeared to be immensely popular in France, as three separate plays were written on the theme. The interesting thing about these plays, written by Alain Rene Lesage, Philippe Poisson, and Pierre Brumoy, is that they are all comedies and the onus of the blame is shifted from the figure of Pandora, who does not even figure in the latter two plays, to the trickster god Mercury. 

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