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 provides a mythic origin story for the need to work in life, then, which might be likened to the Judaeo-Christian story of Adam having to till the fields following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden (we will return to this parallel in a moment). But it’s more than just an almanac or instruction-manual. It’s a unique hodgepodge of these, myth, fable, creation story, and much else.
Hesiod wrote Works and Days for his brother, Perses. Hesiod 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.)
The tale of Prometheus is well-known because it explains how mankind came into possession of fire, thus enabling man to form civilisations. Prometheus served up some ox for his cousin, Zeus, and the other gods, as well as for the first men. Prometheus, known for his cunning, served up the ox in two ways: to Zeus and the other gods, he offered up the ox’s stomach, which didn’t look very appealing as you can imagine. Inside the stomach, he had concealed the meat and entrails rich in fat, as well as the fleshy skin of the ox.
Meanwhile, to the men, Prometheus served up the ox’s bones, which he had concealed beneath a tasty-looking layer of the animal’s fat.
Zeus was annoyed. Why had Prometheus given the juicy-looking portions to the mere mortals, while he and the other deities were being served up nothing but the ox’s stomach? He called out Prometheus on this. Prometheus invited Zeus to choose whichever of the two servings he would prefer, in that case. But Zeus was too canny to be tricked, and promptly inspected the fatty bones and stomach full of juicy meat. Realising Prometheus had meant to trick him, he grew angry with his cousin for trying to give the juicy portions of the ox to mere men, and as retribution, Zeus denied man the power of fire.
Because Prometheus had tried to trick the gods, Zeus devised a punishment for mankind that would let evil into the world. And this is where the story of Pandora and her box – or rather, jar – comes in.
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).
The myth of Pandora’s box – or Pandora’s jar – is 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.
In the Book of Genesis, the serpent famously tells ‘the woman’ (i.e., Eve) that she and Adam will not die if they eat of the tree of knowledge, as they had been warned by God would happen; rather, eating of the forbidden fruit will enable them to know what good and evil are and they will be like gods. Eve is won over by this argument, with her curiosity concerning the fruits of the tree of knowledge leading her to view the fruit as a gateway to wisdom, if eaten. This is much like the curiosity of Pandora in the Greek myth.
Of course, Eve eats from the tree and gives Adam some of the fruit to eat too. Their eyes are immediately opened, and they are ashamed of their nakedness, and fashion fig leaves to make themselves ‘aprons’ to cover their nakedness. God appears walking in the garden, and Adam and Eve promptly hide themselves. Knowledge, it turns out, is not all it is cracked up to be.
As a result of their curiosity, Adam and Eve will now be mortal, and will die, as God told them they would. Famously, God tells Adam, ‘for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (3:19). So one can draw a number of parallels between Pandora, the first woman, and Eve, the first woman.
Consider just a few of 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.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.
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.