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.

Advertisements