The Meaning of Pandora's Box

The Ancient Greeks blame women (and Zeus) for the world's suffering

Pandora
Walter Crane, "Pandora" 1885. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A "Pandora's box" is a metaphor in our modern languages, and the proverbial phrase refers to a source of endless complications or trouble arising from a single, simple miscalculation. Pandora's story comes to us from ancient Greek mythology, specifically a set of epic poems by Hesiod, called the Theogony and Works and Days. Written during the 7th century BC, these poems relate how the gods came to create Pandora and how the gift Zeus gave her ultimately ends the Golden Age of humankind.

The Story of Pandora's Box

According to Hesiod, Pandora was a curse on mankind as retribution after the Titan Prometheus stole fire and gave it to humans. Zeus had Hermes hammer the first human woman--Pandora--out of the earth. Hermes made her lovely as a goddess, with the gift of speech to tell lies, and the mind and nature of a treacherous dog. Athena dressed her in silvery clothing and taught her weaving; Hephaestus crowned her with a marvelous golden diadem of animals and sea creatures; Aphrodite poured grace on her head and desire and cares to weaken her limbs.

Pandora was to be the first of a race of women, the first bride and a great misery who would live with mortal men as companions only in times of plenty, and desert them when times became difficult. Her name means both "she who gives all gifts" and "she who was given all gifts". Never let it be said that Greeks had any use for women in general.

All the Ills of the World

Then Zeus sent this beautiful treachery as a gift to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus, who ignored Prometheus's advice to never accept gifts from Zeus. In the house of Epimetheus, there was a jar--in some versions, it too was a gift from Zeus--and because of her insatiable greedy woman's curiosity, Pandora lifted the lid on it.

Out from the jar flew every trouble known to humanity. Strife, sickness, toil and myriad other ills escaped from the jar to afflict men and women forever more. Pandora managed to keep one spirit in the jar as she shut the lid, a timid sprite named Elpis, usually translated as "hope."

Box, Casket or Jar?

But our modern phrase says "Pandora's box": how did that happen? Hesiod said the evils of the world were kept in a "pithos", and that was uniformly employed by all Greek writers in telling the myth until the 16th century AD. Pithoi are huge storage jars that are typically partly buried in the ground. The first reference to something other than a pithos comes from the 16th-century writer Lilius Giraldus of Ferrara, who in 1580 used the word pyxis (or casket) to refer to the holder of evils opened by Pandora. Although the translation was not exact, it is a meaningful error, because a pyxis is a 'whited sepulcher', a beautiful fraud. Eventually, the casket became simplified as "box". 

Harrison (1900) argued that this mistranslation explicitly removed the Pandora myth from its association with All Souls Day, or rather the Athenian version, the festival of Anthesteria. The two-day drinking festival involves opening wine casks on the first day (the Pithoigia), releasing the souls of the dead; on the second day, men anointed their doors with pitch and chewed blackthorn to keep the newly released souls of the departed away.

Then the casks were sealed again.

Harrison's argument is bolstered by the fact that Pandora is a cult name of the great goddess Gaia. Pandora is not just any willful creature, she is the personification of Earth itself; both Kore and Persephone, made from the earth and rising from the underworld. The pithos connects her to the earth, the box or casket minimizes her importance.

The Meaning of the Myth

Hurwit (1995) says that the myth explains why humans must work to survive, that Pandora represents the beautiful figure of dread, something for which men can find no device or remedy. The quintessential woman was created to beguile men with her beauty and uncontrollable sexuality, to introduce falsehood and treachery and disobedience into their lives. Her task was to let loose all the evils upon the world while trapping hope, unavailable to mortal men.

Pandora is a trick gift, a punishment for the good of Promethean fire, she is, in fact, Zeus's price of fire.

Brown points out that Hesiod's story of Pandora is the icon of archaic Greek ideas of sexuality and economics. Hesiod didn't invent Pandora, but he did adapt the story to show that Zeus was the supreme being who shaped the world and caused the misery of the human lot, and how that caused human descent from the original bliss of a carefree existence.

Pandora and Eve

At this point, you may recognize in Pandora the story of the Biblical Eve. She too was the first woman, and she too was responsible for destroying an innocent, all-male Paradise and unleashing suffering ever after. Are the two related?

Several scholars including Brown and Kirk argue that the Theogony was based on Mesopotamian tales, although blaming a woman for all the evils of the world is definitely more Greek than Mesopotamian. Both Pandora and Eve may well share a similar source.

Sources

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Gill, N.S. "The Meaning of Pandora's Box." ThoughtCo, Apr. 7, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-was-pandoras-box-118577. Gill, N.S. (2018, April 7). The Meaning of Pandora's Box. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-pandoras-box-118577 Gill, N.S. "The Meaning of Pandora's Box." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-pandoras-box-118577 (accessed April 23, 2018).