By Dr Oliver Tearle
The story or myth of ‘Pandora’s box’ is slightly unusual among Greco-Roman myths in having its origins – at least its written origins – not in the work of Homer or later myth-collectors like the great Roman poet Ovid, but in the Greek didactic poet Hesiod, who tells the story of Pandora’s box in his Works and Days, a poem composed in around 700 BC.
Hesiod is our source for the myth of Pandora’s box, and it’s revealing that the story first appears in a poem that was written with the intention of instructing the Greeks in how to live their lives and till the fields. The myth continues to inspire new poetry.
Pandora’s box: summary
Before we offer a summary of the story of Pandora’s box, and analyse its meaning, it’s best to do a bit of myth-busting of our own: ‘Pandora’s box’ wasn’t actually a box. Pandora’s ‘box’ was actually Pandora’s jar. It only became a box in the sixteenth century, when the Dutch scholar Erasmus mistranslated the ancient Greek word πίθος or pithos (‘jar’); Erasmus confused it with another Greek word πυξίς or pyxis (‘box’). So it’s Erasmus we have to thank for Pandora’s ‘box’, which is more properly a jar.
Hesiod’s Works and Days – a kind of instruction manual and general book of fraternal wisdom which Hesiod wrote for his brother, Perses – lays out the meaning of the Pandora myth with admirable clarity by pairing it with the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to man. (Hesiod’s poem is also, by the way, our oldest source for the Prometheus story as well as the Pandora myth.)
Because Prometheus had tried to trick the gods, Zeus devised a punishment for mankind that would let evil into the world.
This punishment took the form of the first woman, Pandora, whose name means ‘All-Gifts’, because Zeus got Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to deliver to man via Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Prometheus warned his brother not to accept gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus didn’t heed the warning.
Pandora unstopped a jar Epimetheus had in his possession for safe-keeping, the jar containing all the toils and sicknesses and other unspecified evils, and in taking the lid off the jar, Pandora let them out into the world.
According to Hesiod, she put the lid back on the jar just in time to prevent hope from escaping too, although, as the translator M. L. West notes in his edition of Hesiod’s work, Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World’s Classics), Hesiod doesn’t give the jar clear symbolic meaning. (We discuss Hesiod in more detail here.)
Pandora’s box: analysis
It is worth thinking about the end of the myth and the idea that hope is the last thing remaining in the box – or, rather, in the jar.
This actually makes what seems like a clear and powerful myth somewhat muddled: if Pandora’s opening of the jar let out all of the evils so they went roaming into the world, surely it would make more sense to let hope out too, so it could go out into the world and counter them? Keeping hope locked up in the jar is a bit like infecting the atmosphere with a deadly virus and locking the antidote up in a drawer somewhere. Surely the antidote should be out there in the world, making people better?
But one way to resolve this apparent inconsistency is to say that the jar represents humankind’s control over things, and whilst they cannot control the ills of the world once they have been let out into the world, they can keep hope alive inside – whereas to let that out too would be to see it dissipated and dissolved into the air.
But was ‘hope’ really the last thing left in Pandora’s box (sorry, jar)? The word Hesiod uses is Elpis (Ἔλπις), which can mean ‘hope’ but is often also translated as meaning ‘expectation’. Despite the similar meanings of the two words, they are, after all, not precise synonyms – so it may be that ‘expectation’ rather than ‘hope’ was the last thing left in the jar (rather than box).
In the last analysis, then, the myth of Pandora’s box – or Pandora’s jar – was very much the ‘Fall of Man’ story for the ancient Greeks, the pagan equivalent of the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.
Consider the similarities between the two tales. Both stories share a number of key features: they are both about how ‘evil’ comes into a world where it was previously unknown; they both attempt to explain why man must work for a living rather than sit about enjoying himself; they are both about the dangers of curiosity or seeking to know too much; and they both lay the blame for letting evil into the world squarely (and somewhat unfairly) at the feet of the first created woman, Pandora/Eve.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.