July 16, 2013

Pandora: The First Woman

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , , , at 7:45 am by Babs

In Greek mythology, Pandora (“all gifted”) was the first woman, fashioned by Zeus as part of the punishment of mankind for Prometheus’ theft of the secret of fire.  According to the myth, Pandora opened a container releasing all the miseries of mankind – greed, vanity, slander, envy, pining – leaving only hope inside.

The myth of Pandora is very old, appears in several distinct versions, and has been interpreted in many ways.  In all literary versions, however, the myth is a kind of theodicy, addressing the question of why there is evil in the world.  Hesiod, both in his Theogony (briefly, without naming Pandora outright, line 570) and in Works and Days, ca. 700 BCE, has a very early version of the Pandora story.  In modern times, Pandora’s Box has become a metaphor for the unanticipated consequences of technical and scientific development.  The evidence of the vase-painters reveals another, earlier aspect of Pandora.

The Myth According to Hesiod

The titan Epimetheus (“hindsight”) was responsible for giving a positive trait to each and every animal.  However, when it was time to give man a positive trait, there was nothing left.  Prometheus (“foresight”), his brother, felt that because man was superior to all other animals, man should have a gift no other animal possessed.  So Prometheus set forth to steal fire from Zeus and handed it over to man.

Zeus was enraged and decided to punish Prometheus and his creation: mankind.  To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him in unbreakable fetters and set an eagle over him to eat his liver each day, as the eagle is Zeus’s sacred animal.  Prometheus was an immortal, so the liver grew back every day, but he was still tormented daily from the pain, until he was freed by Heracles during The Twelve Labors.  Another possible reason for Prometheus’s torment was because he know which of Zeus’s lovers would bear a child who would eventually overthrow Zeus.  Zeus commanded that Prometheus reveal the name of the mother, but Prometheus refused, instead choosing to suffer the punishment.

To punish mankind, Zeus demanded that the other gods make Pandora as a poisoned gift for man.  Pandora was given several traits from the different gods: Hephaestus molded her out of clay and gave her form; Athena clothed her and the Charities adorned her with necklaces made by Hephaestus; Aphrodite gave her beauty; Apollo gave her musical talent and a gift for healing; Demeter taught her to tend a garden; Poseidon gave her a pearl necklace and the ability to never drown; Zeus made her idle, mischievous, and foolish; Hera gave her curiosity; Hermes gave her cunning, boldness, and charm.  Thus the name Pandora – all gifts – in Hesiod’s version derives from the fact that she received gifts from all deities.

The most significant of these gifts, however, was a pithos or storage jar, given to Pandora either by Hermes or Zeus.  Before he was chained to the rock, Prometheus had warned Epimetheus not to take any gifts from the gods.  However, when Pandora arrived, he fell in love with her.  Hermes told Epimetheus that Pandora was a gift to the titan from Zeus, and he waned Epimetheus not to open the jar, which was Pandora’s dowry.

Until then, mankind lived life in a paradise without worry.  Epimetheus told Pandora never to open the jar she had received from Zeus.  However, Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her and she opened it, releasing all the misfortunes of mankind: “For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills [kakoi] and hard toil [ponoi] and heavy sickness [nosoi argaleai] which bring the Keres [baleful spirits] upon men; for in time to keep one thing in the jar: hope.  The world remained extremely bleak for an unspecified interval, until Pandora “chanced” to revisit the box again, at which point Hope fluttered out.  Thus, mankind always has hope in times of evil.

In another, more philosophical version of the myth, hope [Elpis] is considered the worst of the potential evils, because it is equated with terrifying foreknowledge.  By preventing hope from escaping the jar, Pandora in a sense saves the world from the worst damage.  The daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora was Pyrrha, who married Deucalion and was one of the two who survived the deluge.

Problems and Mistranslation

Most scholars contend that Pandora’s “box” is a mistranslation, and her “box” may have been a large jar or vase, forged from the earth, perhaps because of similarities in shape between a jar and a woman’s uterus.  There is also evidence to suggest that Pandora herself was the “jar”.

The mistranslation is usually attributed to the 16th Century Humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam when he translated Hesiod’s tale of Pandora.  Hesiod uses the word “pithos” which refers to a jar used to store grain.  It is possible that Erasmus confused “pithos” with “pyxis” which means box.  The scholar M.L. West has written that Erasmus may have mixed up the story of Pandora with the story found elsewhere of a box which was opened by Psyche.  The original Greek text from 700 BC of Hesiod’s Works and Days, whence we get the earliest extant story of Pandora and the jar, does not specify exactly what was in the box Pandora opened.

M.L. West has written that the story of Pandora… pandoapoakdook… and her jar is from a pre-Hesiodic myth, and that this explains the confusion and problems with Hesiod’s version and its inconclusiveness.  He writes that in earlier myths, Pandora was married to Prometheus, and cites the ancient Catalogue of Women as preserving this older tradition, and that the jar may have at one point contained only good things for mankind.  He also writes that it may have been that Epimetheus and Pandora and their roles were transposed in the pre-Hesiodic myths, a “mythic inversion”.  He remarks that there is a curios correlation between Pandora being made out of earth in Hesiod’s story, to what is in Apollodorus that Prometheus created man from water and earth.  (Appolodorus, Library and Epitome, ed. Sir James George Frazer.)


The story of Pandora’s Box can be interpreted in more than one way, but is often thought to be a version of “curiosity killed the cat”.  Various feminist scholars believe that in an earlier set of myths, Pandora was the Great Goddess, provider of the gifts that made life and culture possible, and that Hesiod’s tale can be seen as part of a propaganda campaign to demote her from her previously revered status.  For an alternate view of Pandora, see Charlene Spretnak’s Lost Goddesses of Early Greece; A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Mythology, 1978.  The presence of hope in a jar full of evils for mankind raises questions about whether Hope is a comfort for the evil mankind experiences, or whether the hope for something better must be interpreted as the damnation of mankind.

Pandora As Depicted By the Vase-Painters

Jane Ellen Harrison turned to the repertory of vase-painters to shed light on aspects of myth that were left unaddressed or disguised in literature.  The story of Pandora was repeated on Greek ceramics.  On a fifth century amphora in the Ashmolean Museum the half-figure of Pandora emerges from the ground, her arms upraised in the epiphany gesture, to greet Epimetheus.  A winged Ker with a fillet hovers overhead: “Pandora rises from the earth; she is the Earth, giver of all gifts,” Harrison observes.  On another vase showing the fashioning of Pandora she is inscribed with her alternate name: [A]nesidora (“who sends up gifts”).  “Pandora is form or title of the Earth-goddess in the Kore form, entirely humanized and vividly personified by mythology.”  and she quotes a scholium on a passage of Aristophanes mentioning a sacrificed white fleeced ram to Pandora: “to Pandora, the earth, because she bestows all things necessary for life”.  Thus Harrison concludes “in the patriarchal mythology of Hesiod her great figure is strangely changed.  She is no longer Earth-born, but the creature, the handiwork of Olympian Zeus.”

In Summary

Pandora plays an intriguing role in Greek mythology.  According to the most well-known legend, she was the first woman, created by the ruler of the gods, Zeus.  Zeus was assisted in this task by other Greek deities, including Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, who used her powers to bestow upon Pandora grace and loveliness; Hermes, messenger of the gods, gave Pandora persuasion; and Apollo, god of music and the arts, favored the woman with musical skill.  Because of the gifts of the gods, Pandora was very attractive – her name even means “all gifts”.

However, Pandora had a flaw.  She was curious.  When she encountered a jar that belonged to Epimetheus, she could not resist learning about its mysterious contents, and so she therefore opened it.  This jar contained all of the evils, which were then released into the world.  The only thing that remained in the jar was hope.

She, as the first woman, created after man, is sometimes compared to Eve in Hebrew myth.  Pandora was originally a title of the goddess Rhea (the name means all gifts) – but the story of Pandora and her jar (not box) was more the anti-feminine invention of the poet Hesiod.

But even if Pandora had a jar and not a box, women as portrayed in ancient art are forever putting things tidily away in boxes of various kinds.  There’s even the myth of Danae, where she and her son Perseus were themselves tidied away in a box and dumped at sea.  Francois Lissarague has discussed the idea that the box is symbolic of women’s life in Athens – she was to a large extent herself seen as a container – for the sperm, for the child, who spent most of her life in a container (house) designed for the purpose of allowing no unauthorized person to open the box.

There is a second myth which is less known that says Zeus created Pandora, in good faith, to be a blessing to man.  Zeus sent with her box containing the marriage presents, which were given by every god.  Pandora, being curious, opened the box and all the blessings flew out, save one, Hope.

It is said that the second myth seems more logical, for how could Hope be stored in the same container as all manner of evil and illness.  Unlike today’s associations with Pandora, we need to remember that this goddess’ name mans “all-giver” or “sender of gifts”.  And when the evils of the world threaten, let us not forget that Pandora’s box still, and always, holds hope.

%d bloggers like this: