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The Greek Myth of Pandora’s Box—Source of All Trouble and Discord

Pandora's box
“Pandora’s Box,” by Charles Edward Perugini. Credit: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The secret offshore wealth of more than 300 world leaders, politicians and billionaires, just exposed in the “Pandora Papers” on Sunday in one of the largest-ever leaks of financial data, brings to mind the fury and discord unleashed when the famed Pandora’s box of Greek mythology was unopened.

The documents, showing how 35 current and former world leaders used accounts in tax havens to accrue enormous amounts of wealth and carry out transactions, do seem to be grounds for an unlimited amount of anger and fallout, as seen in Greek mythology.

This time, it’s the offshore dealings of the King of Jordan, the presidents of Ukraine, Kenya and Ecuador, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that are in the crosshairs, leading to an unleashing of the Furies.

Whether or not any one of these public figures will actually have to pay for their alleged financial shenanigans, the publication of their dealings may turn out to be just the beginning of a whole lot of trouble for these men, calling to mind the figure of Greek mythology who started a mess by her curiosity in inviting an opening of her famed box.

So what did actually happen in Greek mythology when Pandora’s box was opened?

Pandora, the woman who supposedly opened the box of evils onto the world, was the wife of Epimetheus and mother to a mortal daughter, Pyrrha. Because of Pyrrha’s marriage to her cousin Deukalion, the gods sent a massive flood to destroy the earth and the mortals.

However, Pyrrha and Deukalion managed to survive the flood, and after seeking help from the Oracle at Delphi, they cast the bones of Pandora to the ground so that the world would be repopulated. Thus, Pandora is actually the mother of the human race, according to the very earliest Greek mythology.

But the story we often hear of her was told through a much different lens, through the Greek writer Hesiod, and that one makes her into the ultimate scapegoat, on which humanity can hang all its troubles.

Πανδώρα, derived from πᾶν, pān, i.e. “all” and δῶρον, dōron, i.e. “gift,” thus “the all-endowed,” “all-gifted,” or “all-giving,” was the first human woman created by Hephaestus on the instructions of Zeus, the greatest of the gods.

Her other name is Anesidora, or “she who sends up gifts”—up implying “from below” within the earth.

The Pandora myth addressed the question of why there is evil in the world, according to which, Pandora opened a jar (pithos, commonly referred to as “Pandora’s box”) releasing all the evils of humanity.

Pithos becomes Pandora’s box (from the Latin, Pyx)

The word translated as “box” was actually a large jar in Greek antiquity (πίθος, “pithos”). Pithoi were used for storage of wine, oil, grain or other provisions, or, ritually, as a container for a human body for burying, from which it was believed souls escaped and necessarily returned. Many scholars also see a fascinating analogy between Pandora herself, who was made from clay and the clay jar which dispenses evils.

The mistranslation of pithos is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Erasmus who, in his Latin account of the story of Pandora, changed the Greek pithos to pyxis, meaning “box.” The context in which the story appeared was Erasmus’ collection of proverbs, the “Adagia,” or Adages, in 1508.

Hesiod’s very negative interpretation of the Pandora story went on to influence both Jewish and Christian theology and perpetuated her bad reputation into the Renaissance. Later poets, dramatists, painters, and sculptors made her their subject, and she has thus come down to us as the one who releases chaos into the world, becoming the focus of all our griefs and uncertainties.

Hesiod changes Pandora story, making her scapegoat for humanity’s ills

The Pandora myth first appeared in written history in lines 560–612 of Hesiod’s poem the “Theogony,” which was written in circa 8th–7th centuries BC, without ever giving her a name. After humans received the stolen gift of fire from Prometheus, an angry Zeus decides to give humanity a punishing gift to compensate for the boon they had been given. He commands Hephaestus to mold from earth the first woman, a “beautiful evil” whose descendants would torment the human race.

After Hephaestus does so, Athena dresses her in a silvery gown, an embroidered veil, garlands, and an ornate crown of silver. This woman goes unnamed in the Theogony but is presumably Pandora, whose myth Hesiod revisited in his later poem, “Works and Days.”

When she first appears before gods and mortals, “wonder seized them” as they looked upon her, he relates. But she was “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.”

Hesiod then says “For 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 helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

The god Hermes also gave her the power of speech, putting in her “lies and crafty words” Hesiod claims, then bestowing on her a name, “Pandora,”(i.e. “All-Gift”). This name, however, amplifies her original nature as the earth mother and the original mother of mankind.

In Hesiod’s retelling of her story, Pandora brings with her a jar (which, due to textual corruption in the sixteenth century, with the mistranslation from Pithos to pyx, the Latin for “box,” came to be called a box) containing “countless plagues.”

Only thing left after Pandora opened box was “hope”

Prometheus had warned his brother Epimetheus not to accept any gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus did not listen; he accepted Pandora, who promptly scattered the contents of her jar. As a result, Hesiod tells us, the earth and sea are “full of evils.”

From this story has grown the idiom “to open a Pandora’s box,” meaning to do or start something that will cause many unforeseen problems.

Although she hastened to close the container, only one thing was left behind—usually translated as Hope, though it could also have the pessimistic meaning of “deceptive expectation.”

Hesiod writes: “Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door.”

Intriguingly, he does not explain why hope (elpis) remained in the jar, but he closes with a decidedly pessimistic moral, saying there is “no way to escape the will of Zeus.”

One way of understanding Hesiod’s decidedly anti-female tale was that he believed that the end of man’s Golden Age (an all-male society of immortals who were reverent to the gods, worked hard, and ate from abundant groves of fruit) was brought on by Prometheus.

When he stole Fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to mortal man, Zeus punished the technologically advanced society by creating a woman. Thus, Pandora was created and given the jar which releases all evils upon mankind.

Pandora equated to Eve of the Bible

Archaic and Classic Greek literature make little further mention of Pandora, but mythographers later filled in minor details or added postscripts to Hesiod’s account, and her story took off in the Middle Ages in the West, leading to our interpretation of it today.

Certain vase paintings dated to the 5th century BC indicate that the pre-Hesiodic myth of the goddess Pandora as the mother of all mankind still endured for centuries after the time of Hesiod.

The Hesiodic interpretation certainly did not completely obliterate the memory of the all-giving goddess Pandora. A scholium to line 971 of Aristophanes’ play The Birds mentions a cult “to Pandora, the earth, because she bestows all things necessary for life”.

In fifth-century BC Athens, Pandora was prominently featured in a marble relief or bronze appliqués as a frieze along the base of the Athena Parthenos sculpture, the culminating experience of the Acropolis.

The Classical scholar Robert Graves asserts that “Pandora is not a genuine myth, but an anti-feminist fable, probably of his own invention.”

As often happens, humans love having a scapegoat, and it was the negative retelling of her story by Hesiod that took root in Western civilization, starting with the early Church Fathers.

They posited that the Classical myth of Pandora made her a type of Eve. Each is the first woman in the world, and each is a central character in a story of transition from an original state of plenty and ease to one of suffering and death—a transition which is brought about as a punishment for transgression of divine law.

It has been argued that it was as a result of the Hellenization of Western Asia that the misogyny in Hesiod’s account of Pandora openly began to influence both Jewish and then Christian interpretations of scripture. The bias against women so initiated then continued into Renaissance times.

There were alternative accounts of jars or urns containing blessings and evils bestowed upon humanity in Greek mythology, of which a very early account is related in Homer’s Iliad:

On the floor of Jove’s palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Jove the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Jove sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.

Whoever created the story of Pandora’s Box regardless of the reason, everyone hates trouble and it seems to be human nature to try to find someone on whom we can pin all the blame. Hence, it is still the old standby of Pandora who epitomizes this most recent scandal from which a plethora of trouble will certainly ensue.

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