Pandora was all-gifted by the gods in order to tempt man and make him receive her, thus sealing his own damnation. Her similarities with Eve are very evident. She was not genuinely evil, but she was curious and defiant, or that’s how the official story told by Hesiod in his Theogony goes.
In modern times an idiom has grown from it meaning “Any source of great and unexpected troubles”, or alternatively “A present which seems valuable but which in reality is a curse”. Later depictions of the fatal container have been very varied, while some literary and artistic treatments have focused more on the contents of the idiomatic box than on Pandora herself. There is also an alternative tradition in which the divine gift of a jar was opened by a curious male.
What Is the Story of Pandora’s Box?
Before we go any further, we must expel the myth that Pandora carried a box. In fact, it was a jar, or as the ancient Greeks would have referred to it: an urn.
Pandora was forged by the divine blacksmith Hephaestus. All the gods and goddesses showered her with gifts. She was the most desirable female. Then Zeus sent her as a wife to Epimetheus, the Hind-Sighted, giving her a sealed jar as dowry for the marriage. Pandora was instructed not to open the vessel under any circumstances.
But Pandora could not refrain from lifting the lid. She released from her jar all the evils that would torture mankind for eternity. Knowing Pandora’s curiosity would prevail, this was Zeus’s method of taking revenge on humans for the gift of fire that her brother-in-law, Prometheus, gave to mankind.
Scholars claim that the story originated from an earlier mythological substratum in which Pandora was a great goddess and provider of gifts that made life and culture possible. According to these scholars, the entities released from her urn were not evils, but cultural gifts.
The tale of Hesiod may have been a later invention, promoting patriarchal ethics that gave women an inferior and dependent position.
In Hesiod’s story, Pandora brought with her a “pithos,” or a big clay jar, when the god Hermes escorted her to Epimetheus. In symbolic language, the earthen jar may represent the female uterus.
This points to an interpretation of Pandora as a symbol of fecundity, prosperity, and life. According to this interpretation, we could consider that her name, the all-gifted, refers to the gifts she brings men, and not to the gifts that the gods bestowed on her.
Etymology of the “box”
The word now translated as “box” was actually a large jar in the Greek. It was 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 see a close 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 (vessel)” pyxis, meaning “box”. The context in which the story appeared was Erasmus’ collection of proverbs, the Adagia (1508), an illustration of the Latin saying Malo accepto stultus sapit(from experiencing trouble a fool is made wise).
The jar’s contents
There were alternative accounts of jars or urns containing blessings and evils bestowed upon humanity in Greek myth, 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.
In a major departure from Hesiod, the 6th-century BC Greek elegiac poet Theognis of Megara states that:
Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;
the others have left and gone to Olympus.
Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.
Giulio Bonasone’s 16th-century engraving of Epimetheus opening the fatal jar. The poem seems to hint at a myth in which the jar contained blessings rather than evils. It is confirmed in the new era by an Aesopic fable recorded by Babrius, in which the gods send the jar containing blessings to humans. Rather than a named female, it was a generic “foolish man” who opened the jar out of curiosity and let them escape. Once the lid was replaced, only hope remained, “promising that she will bestow on each of us the good things that have gone away.”
Fixing the blame
Neither Alciato nor Faerno had named who was responsible for opening the jar beyond saying it was a “mortal”. During the Renaissance it is the name of Epimetheus that is mentioned as often as not, as in the engraving by Bonasone noticed above and the mention of Pandora’s partner in a rondeau that Isaac de Benserade took it on himself to insert into his light-hearted version of the Metamorphoses (1676) – although Ovid had not in fact written about it himself.
In a jar an odious treasure is
Shut by the gods’ wish:
A gift that’s not every day,
The owner’s Pandora alone;
And her eyes, this in hand,
Command the best in the land
As she flits near and far;
Prettiness can’t stay
Shut in a jar.
Someone took her eye, he took
A look at what pleased her so
And out came the grief and woe
We won‘t ever be rid of,
For heaven had hidden
That is the jar.
The etching by Sébastien Le Clerc that accompanied the poem in the book shows Pandora and Epimetheus seated on either side of a jar from which clouds of smoke emerge, carrying up the escaping evils. The lid of the jar is quite plainly in Epimetheus’ hand. Paolo Farinati, an earlier Venetian artist, was also responsible for a print that laid the blame on Epimetheus, depicting him as lifting the lid from the jar that Pandora is holding. Out of it boils a cloud which carries up a man and a dragon; between them they support a scroll reading “sero nimirum sapere caepit” (finding out too late), in reference to the meaning of Epimetheus’ name in Greek.
In later centuries the emphasis in art has generally been on the person of Pandora. With few exceptions, the box has appeared merely as her attribute. René Magritte’s street scene of 1951, however, one of the few modern paintings to carry the title “Pandora’s Box”, is as enigmatic as were the Renaissance allegorical prints.
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