Thursday, July 5, 2018


We moderns all know the story of Pandora and her box. As we get it from the poet Hesiod, Pandora was a divine punishment. Incensed by Prometheus' theft of fire, Zeus sent to earth a poisoned gift: woman.
he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire.
Haephestus made her from clay, lovely and gentle; Athena dressed her in gleaming clothes; on her head was a crown of gold. The gods gasped when they saw her, so beautiful, but underneath nothing but deceit:
From her is the race of women and female kind:
of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who
live amongst mortal men to their great trouble,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.
That version, from the Theogony, says nothing about a box of troubles. For that we must turn to another text by Hesoid, the Works and Days:
But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare, the Father sent glorious Hermes, the swift messenger of the gods, to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood. For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands  and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils, and the sea is full. 
Note that the original is a jar (pithos), not a box; the error seems to go back to the 16th-century humanist Erasums, who made a Latin version of the Works and Days from a Greek text that seems to have contained quite a few errors. Incidentally nobody knows why hope stayed in the jar or what it means, indeed it is so obscure that some people think Hesiod must have confused two unrelated myths here, or even that our texts are corrupt.

Anyway, that is Hesiod's deeply misogynistic version. There is, however, quite a bit of evidence that his was not the only version of the story. This starts with the name, which is usually translated "all gifted," with the idea that this is ironic. Other experts think it means "all giving," and they think it was not ironic at all. Above is a damaged white-ground kylix, c 460 BCE, now in the British Museum. In this painting the central figure is named both Pandora and Anesidora, a word usually applied to goddesses that means "she who brings up gifts." Back when scholars thought there was a matriarchal age somewhere back before the patriarchy that dominates in our earliest texts, they speculated that a formerly boon-bestowing goddess had been transformed by Hesiod and others into a cursed mortal woman.

These days belief in the age of matriarchy is under attack from many directions, and you won't get many scholars to defend it. Yet the ambivalence of Pandora remains a problem. One source mentions a cult of Pandora, giver of the gifts that make life possible, and in art the most common image seems to be Pandora emerging from the earth, not being sent down from heaven. (Like the one above, which some authorities say is Pandora and others say is Gaia, a confusion that makes Pandora something quite different from a cursed trouble-maker.)

And the reason we have so much trouble figuring out how Pandora fits into Greek religion broadly speaking is that so far as we can tell she was just not very important. You would think that if most people accepted Hesiod's version, that Pandora was the first woman and the source of most of our miseries, she would have been all over ancient art and literature. But she just isn't. Plus, ancient literature has several other candidates for the first woman and numerous explanations for our mortality and other woes, like this one from the Iliad:
There are two urns (pithoi) that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings. If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune. But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders resepected neither of gods nor mortals.

Which brings me to the observation that started me researching Pandora: her real prominence in art and myth dates to the nineteenth century. If you don't believe me, try your own searches – other than Hesiod what you will find is paintings, sculptures, plays, poems and operas dating to after 1860. In the years around 1900, an age mysteriously obsessed with the femme fatale, Pandora was everywhere. There are a few earlier examples, which are rooted in a Christian theological trope that equated Pandora with Eve; above is a sixteenth-century French painting titled Eve the Original Pandora.

Obviously knowledge of Pandora endured through medieval and early modern times, since Hesiod is one of our key sources for Greek mythology. But she was a minor figure; I suspect many ancient Greeks had never heard of her.

No, her real hour is now. She surged to fame as a metaphor for the risks that surrounded female liberation and sexual license, two things that very much went together in the minds of moralists. She became the danger of women, and the danger of sex, for two generations of male artists.

The first wave of Pandora obsession faded with World War I. When the atomic bombs went off and we confronted our power to destroy ourselves, Pandora acquired a new meaning as a metaphor for technology. Searching for information this week I have stumbled on half a dozen articles that call Artificial Intelligence a "Pandora's Box." Sadly this does not seem to have led to any very interesting art.

Pandora and her box/jar seem to be useful metaphors for the fear that dominates our age: that our progress is our own undoing.

Images: John William Waterhouse, 1886; Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson as Pandora by Alexandre Cabanel, 1873; Thomas Kenning, 1908; Attic white-ground kylix, c. 460 BCE; Attic red-figure vase showing Pandora or Gaia, 5th century BCE; Attic red figure vase showing Pandora and Epimetheus; Jean Cousin the Elder, Eva Prima Pandora, 1550; one of at least depictions of Jane Morris as Pandora by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Yvonne Gregory, 1919; Odilon Redon, 1914; John Dickson Batten, The Creation of Pandora, 1913.


Shadow said...

On an aside, I believe Pandora translates to "The Girl With All The Gifts," which is also a pretty decent zombie novel by M.R. Carey. HUH?, you say. Of course that means the title reduces to "Pandora." The young lady, Melanie, is the Girl With All The Gifts. In a world on the verge of collapse, Melanie is infected with the disease, but unlike the other zombies, Melanie is not mindless. She is very, very intelligent -- scary intelligent. As the book moves along it becomes increasingly obvious that Melanie will play a pivotal role in the future of humankind. The question is, what gifts does Melanie bear for the human race? And is one of them hope?

In the version I recall Pandora is not evil. She is created by Zeus, and is in a sense his victim -- not hard to imagine when dealing with Zeus. Pandora is made to be irresistible and is then given the box and told to go among men. Pandora either does not know what's in the box or is lied to by Zeus as to its contents. (I think it's the latter.) When Pandora opens the box and evils escape, Pandora shuts it again as soon as she realizes what she's done. This leaves Hope trapped within. Does Pandora know it is Hope that remains trapped? Will Pandora let Hope out?


I don't know where I came across that version, but it was while researching the book mentioned above.

PS: I enjoyed the book and am still cogitating over its ending all these months later.

Shadow said...

PPS: And I don't like zombie stories.