The truth about Pandora

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. She was created when Zeus was angry because Prometheus stole the fire.

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire — a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”

Hesiod, Works and Days (800-700 BCE) Translation Evelyn-White

Hephaistos, the lame god of fire, mixed earth and water into a lovely maiden and all the Olympian Gods gave her a gift to make her even more attractive. For instance, Hesiod describes how Aphrodite shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. The woman was called Pandora, which means All-Gifts. Hermes brought her to Epimetheus, who looked at her and forgot that he’d been advised never to accept a present from Zeus. He brought her home, where Pandora took the lid from the jar she carried. Fate came flying out, together with Hard Toil and Sickness and Plagues. All these found a home among men, whose lives were miserable because of it. Pandora and Epimetheus eventually had a daughter, Pyrrha; the first mortal woman.

Hesiod told his story to warn us there is no way to escape Zeus, even though Prometheus managed to temporarily outwit him. In his Theogony, he describes Pandora as “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men”. He certainly gives the impression that both Pandora herself and the jar she carried were unwanted gifts.

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

If we try to imagine a world without the beauty of women or the cruel surprises of fate, without hard work and sickness, it would not inspire us, however much this blessed but uneventful life might have appealed to Hesiod. I think Prometheus’ fire, Pandora and the contents of the jar conspired to make the life of the pre-Socratic Greeks tragic.

“…since tragedy no less than beauty may be said do exist only in the eyes of the beholder, whose sensibility has been formed and cultivated by art.” Richard Schacht, Making Sense of Nietzsche, in an essay on the Birth of Tragedy

What always fascinates me, is that Hesiod’s is not the only way to tell this particular story.

Homer says in his Iliad that there were two urns, one filled with evils and one with blessings. Zeus can mingle these and bestow them at will. Theognis in his Greek Elegy (6th century BCE) describes the inverse of Hesiod: Pandora opens the jar and all the good gods come out and instantly leave for Mount Olympus: Trust, Restraint and Charitas are lost forever. Therefore, people forget about the rules of conduct and acts of piety. In this version, the people are not the innocent victims of a wrathful Zeus but they become forgetful and can no longer trust each other. This is what brings tragedy to their lives.

Maybe the beautiful maiden was innocent, too. Aesop claims Pandora’s husband had no self-control and opened the jar. (Aesop’s Fables # 526, 6th century BCE). There is one thing all these writers agree on: Hope was kept in the jar, either because Pandora closed it in time or because Zeus had designed it to happen like that.

Is that a good thing? After all, hope does nothing to protect us from the tragedies of life. However, Aeschylus is not alone in arguing that it keeps us alive instead:

Prometheus: Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.

Chorus: Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?

Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.

Chorus: A great benefit was this you gave to mortals.

Aeschylus, from the Greek Tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (5th century BCE) translation Weir Smyth

The texts cited above were found on the Greek mythology site theoi.com.

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Petrarca’s cat

Francesco Petrarca lived from 1304 to 1374. His father wanted him to have a career in law, but he chose poetry, and was crowned poet laureate in Rome. His speech, commemorating the Classic poets who inspired him, was seen as the first Renaissance manifesto. Petrarch is often called the first tourist; he travelled for pleasure and was remembered for climbing the Mont Ventoux. He was a devout Catholic, but is called the father of humanism because he thought God wanted humans to use their intellectual and creative potential to the fullest.

During his life, the period he named the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance and in his personal life there is evidence of many conflicting wishes and thoughts: at first he was a priest and felt the attractions of a contemplative life but he also wanted a family. He spent a large part of his life travelling for pleasure but he also tried to find a place to settle down. He was a Catholic who voiced criticism of church leadership and a romantic who wanted to dedicate his life’s work to a woman he loved from a distance. All these influences can be found in Petrarca’s poetry, his letters and his often unfinished books. He considered his sonnets a work in progress and kept rewriting them all through his life.

In 1327 he saw a woman called Laura in a church at Avignon and fell in love with her. Since she was already married, Petrarca expressed his love and later his grief over her death in sonnets and in songs (canzoniere).

I find no peace, and yet I make no war:

and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice:

and fly above the sky, and fall to earth.

and clutch at nothing, and embrace the world.

Petrarca, Canzoniere, 134

He never married, but he had a son and daughter he later legitimised. At his former house near Padua the mummy of his cat can still be seen, with these epigrams in Latin written by Antonio Quarenghi in 1604.

The Tuscan bard of deathless fame

Nursed in his breast a double flame

Unequally divided;

And when I say I had his heart

While Laura play’d the second part

I must not be derided.

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

For my fidelity was such,

It merited regard as much

As Laura’s grace and beauty;

She first inspired the poet’s lay,

But since I drove the mice away,

His love repaid my duty.

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Through all my exemplary life,

So well did I in constant strife

Employ my claws and curses,

That even now, though I am dead,

Those nibbling wretches dare not tread

On one of Petrarch’s verses

Sadly, the website mentions that the embalmed cat was probably put there by a later owner of the house and that Petrarca has never mentioned a cat in his own writings. Scientists recently opened Petrarca’s tomb preparing to make a reconstruction of his face, but they discovered the skull fragments in there did not belong to him. As with many people who lived a long time before us, we’ll never know the whole story. But that is part of the attraction. As is the fact that poems prove more resistant to passing centuries than big, marble tombs. As Petrarca himself predicted.