The Development of the Pandora's Box Myth
"From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble..." -Hesiod's Theogony
“To Pandora, the earth, because she bestows all things necessary for life." -note attributed to Hipponax on Aristophanes' The Birds
Pandora, Mother of the Female Race, Created from the Earth
The story of Pandora begins -in our extant literature of the subject- within fifty years of the year 800BC. That is the time of the famed poet Hesiod, best known for his Theogony’s genealogy of the Greek gods.
We can trace the story of Pandora back to him, and no further with any certainty. But we find as we go back through the centuries that a mystery is building -a mystery left unsolved. Pandora becomes ambiguous, ephereal as she vanishes back into the ancient prehistory of the world from which she comes.
Accused of being everything from a woman -the epitome of crimes!- to being the bringer of plagues, Pandora has oddly enough managed to endear herself to us. Referred to in countless pieces of literature, she lends her name to dozens of businesses and enterprises. Why has her scanty if notorious mention in classic mythology rated her such staying power in human consciousness?
To explore this myth further we need to first understand where it comes from. What was the nature of Pandora's box and its contents? What was the purpose of the cursing of Pandora?
The story begins in recorded history with Hesiod, and that is where we will begin as well. Hesiod is one of the world's oldest known writers, known also for being the first of the didactics. He wrote on practical matters across a broad range of topics –everything from the nature of the gods, to advising on the pros and cons of keeping a wife vs. a housekeeper, and warning fellow farmers of which days to avoid planting.
His pragmatism is left for us to consider in the two works we still have which are agreed to be his: Theogony, a work he claims to be inspired by the Muses, and Works and Days, a virtual sermon addressed to his brother whom he had quarreled with. Pandora is featured in both as the first woman and bringer of sorrow to men, though in somewhat different ways. Hesiod is the first we know to have written of Pandora, and he gives her story to us with the most detail as well.
The truth is though even he only tells the story in passing, in both versions using it as a theodicy, to explain the existence of evil and suffering in the world. Subsequent ancient Greek writers do little to back him up, some contradicting him outright and others referring only briefly and derogatively to the blighted Pandora, offering nothing new to the story.
There is very little to go on. Including those irrelevent references made in passing there is still less than a dozen existant references to the Pandora story in the ancient literature. Some of those references do not refer to Pandora at all, but offer other theodicies which -though similar to Hesiod's- contradict his accusation of Pandora's involvement.
We will take a look at all the relevent passages, to gain a better understanding of the Greeks' own view of Pandora. We will overlook the irrelevent passages, and ignore all later versions of a Pandora story. Though more than plentiful, these much later versions obviously cannot tell us anything regarding how the ancient Greeks perceived Pandora.
But first, to avoid any confusion, we'd best have a quick look at that box.
Who Gave Pandora the Box?
Arguments have been made that Pandora’s infamous box came from Zeus, whose true revenge on mankind was not Pandora and the female race itself, an idea we will look at more closely further on. Zeus's revenge on mankind -according to these arguments- came in the box Pandora brought to earth.
Others have argued that the box came from Epimetheus’ workshop, or that Prometheus had stolen it from Olympus and left it with Epimetheus for safekeeping, and the opening of the box was totally accidental and had nothing to do with Zeus.
The simple truth, however, is that Pandora was not even given this infamous box until the time of Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century AD, more than 2000 years after Hesiod's first writing of the Pandora story. It was then that the scholarly priest Erasmus while translating the story from Greek into Latin mistook the word ‘pithos’ (Greek: jar) into 'pyxis' (Greek: box).
Some suggest that Erasmus may have confused the Pandora myth with the box in the story of Psyche, but the Greek words for jar and box are very similar. Pithos (jar) would easily be mistaken for pyxis (box).
This Latin translation would become the primary source, being more accessible to western scholars than the original Greek. Thus the box was born.
The great painters depicted Pandora almost always with a box, excluding Regnier and Jean Cousin. These two early paintings of Pandora include a jar, but never a pithos, never the 'great jar' we are told of by Hesiod .
Ongoing literary references from the time of Erasmus on refer to Pandora's box, and the term has become indelibly imprinted on our minds. It's used everyday to refer to many a complicated conundrum, hodge-podge of data and ideas, or as a less than flattering euphemism for the female sex organ. That latter one may be closest to the truth.
There is no leaving the box behind, but the jar –the pithos- must be acknowledged and its nature understood to begin to grasp the many implications of the myth. The pithos is not just a jar; it is a jar of quite large size used for storage of many useful things like grains and wine, or seeds. These pithoi (plural form) could be buried partially beneath the ground, typically in rows designed for storage convenience, but they were also commonly used in the shipping of goods such as olive oils.
Pithoi were, in fact, large enough to house a human, and it is said that many a poor Grecian made his home in one. Diogenes the Cynic, social critic of Athens and later of Corinth, made his home in a pithos laid on its side. When the cozy shelter was broken by the antics of a boy, the townsmen procured the philosopher a new jar.
Being so large and readily available, pithoi were also used as grave jars, particularly by the poor. So the jars, the pithoi, had a dual association in the mind of the ancient Greek. There was the promise of abundance in the grains stored in the pithos, in the wines and oils and seeds, but there was also the stark reminder of death and of one’s inevitable return to the earth.
It is this dual concept of the Greek usage of the pithoi which must be kept in mind when Hesiod tells us Pandora opened a pithos and released its contents to “wander amongst man”. The jar of Pandora was clearly a jar of death, Hesiod makes that very clear. And yet the jar also brought Hope.
The nature, source and meaning of that Hope have been debated for millennia, and has perhaps continued to rather elude us.
Pandora in Hesiod’s Theogony
In Hesiod's ancient Theogony, Pandora is not mentioned by name, and neither in fact is her jar mentioned. We are told merely of a first woman, created by the gods as a price for men to pay. She is Zeus's revenge on mankind all by herself, with no help from any indicated box or jar.
We are told first of the creation of the earth, through Chaos, Earth, and Eros 'fairest of the deathless gods' and possessing a force which 'unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind'. These are the first three, Chaos, Earth and Love or Sexual Attraction. They are an interesting combination, and from them the rest of the world is created, as well as the Titans who ruled the earth.
It is in this course of events that eventually our mankind is created, after the Titans had been defeated and banished by the new regime of Zeus and his Olympian entourage. Prometheus (Forethought) is a titan who has been granted amnesty –probably due to his knowledge of a secret concerning a danger to Zeus.
Prometheus -ever man’s champion- steals the fire for mankind, a gift which Zeus has declined to grant. When the leader of the gods discovers what Prometheus has done he is enraged. Prometheus is granted mercy no longer. Chained to the side of a cliff for this transgression, he is punished to having his self-regenerating liver pecked out daily by an eagle. Eventually Hercules comes along and saves him.
Nor did early man escape the wrath of Zeus. ‘Forthwith he (Zeus) made an evil thing for men as the price of fire.’ Hephaistos shaped her, ‘formed of earth’ to Zeus’ specifications, and Athena dressed her in ‘silvery raiment’ and ‘embroidered veil’, placing on her garlands of flowering herbs. Hephaistos, the Olympian carpenter, created a ‘crown of gold’ for this ‘evil thing’ as well, made ‘as a favor to Zeus, his father’.
‘On it was much curious work, wonderful to see; for of the many creatures which the land and sea rear up, he put most upon it, wonderful things, like living beings with voices: and great beauty shone out from it.’
An interesting tiara for the bringer of plagues, and one must wonder about Zeus' meaning in giving such a thing to Pandora. What symbolism is represented by this conglomeration of life forms on Pandora's crown?
The crown is never mentioned again. Instead of a crown of living things Pandora is found with a jar of deadly plagues. But not, however, in Theogony.
The story continues. Pandora the ‘beautiful evil’ is presented to the rest of the gods and all are overcome with wonder upon seeing ‘that which was sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.’ We are told that from her comes that ‘deadly race’ of women, to the trouble of mankind, with a nature to do mischief, like the drone bee feeding off of the toil of others ‘by day and throughout the day until the sun goes down.’
‘Even so Zeus who thunders on high made women to be an evil to mortal men, with a nature to do evil.’ Should man avoid ‘marriage and the sorrows that women cause’, then he will still suffer, for he will have no one to take care of him in his old age, and his ‘kinfolk will divide his possessions amongst them.’
But should man marry, even to ‘a good wife suited to his mind’, evil will continually contend with good ‘for whoever happens to have mischievous children, lives always with unceasing grief in his spirit and heart within him; and this evil cannot be healed.’ If the wife doesn’t drive you to the grave then the children will. Or you can die lonely.
That’s it; Hesiod goes on to another tale relaying the message of Zeus’ omnipotence, leaving Pandora granted neither a name nor a jar nor even an ill reputed box. Hesiod does however leave his audience with a fairly clear picture of his opinions regarding women, and children, and much has been made out of his seemingly mysogynistic viewpoint and assumed bachelorhood.
That aside, in Theogony, Hesiod’s version of Zeus’ punishment on mankind as the price paid for the fire is nothing more than irresistible-women, and perhaps the ‘mischievous children’ they produce. There is no spilled jar at all. Women alone according to Theogony is sufficient punishment to men in and of themselves.
Through either their own natural deadly, dripping charm, or through the children they produce, or through the loneliness incurred by trying to resist what the gods had made irresistible. Obviously, this is a subject which Hesiod has given a lot of thought.
Pandora in Hesiod's Works in Days
The plot thickens for Pandora in Hesiod's Works and Days. The story is expanded on. More gods are credited with being on the design team. Aphrodite ‘shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs,’ Hermes put in Pandora ‘a shameless mind and a deceitful nature,’ and the Hours ‘crowned her head with spring flowers’ while ‘the divine Graces and Queenly Persuasion (Peithos) put necklaces of gold upon her.’
Athena has taught her needlework and the arts of weaving. Combined with the coming of fire, these gifts from Athena will later cause Pandora to be found by modern critics guilty of starting the pestilent spread of civilization.
She is named Pandora, ‘because all they who dwelt on Olympus gave each a gift, a plague to men who eat bread.’ So the Pandora revealed in Theogony now in Works and Days gets a name –Pandora, we are told, gifted by the gods.
She also gets a husband it would seem, though the text never makes that explicit. Hermes is sent by Zeus to deliver Pandora to Epimetheus. Epimetheus (Afterthought) is the Titan brother of Prometheus (Forethought) –he whom stole the fire for mankind.
Though Prometheus is a wily advocate of man, his brother Epimetheus is not known for his quick wit or for thinking ahead. Hesiod tells us the more clever Prometheus had warned his slower brother not to accept any gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus was so smitten with Pandora that his brother’s words slipped right out of his mind.
Later on, ‘when the evil thing was already his, he understood.’
Despite a couple of small additions, the accounts thus far are the same. ‘For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly.’ Women herself -designed as she was by the gods to be troublesome- is the price to man for having received the illicit gift of fire from Prometheus.
She will bring ills, hard toil, and heavy sickness upon mankind, ‘which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly.’ This is similar to what was recorded by Hesiod in Theogony –'the sorrows that women cause'. It is here though, in the very next line, that the story changes irrevocably.
‘But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them. So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus.’
This final paragraph provides the key elements of the Pandora’s Box myth. The first woman -created by the gods as a punishment to mankind- opens the 'great lid' of an unexplained jar and 'scattered all these', the illnesses, toil and diseases referred to in the previous line. Hope remains in the 'unbreakable home', trapped by the will of Zeus under the rim of the 'great jar'. 'But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men,' quietly infecting mortals with diseases 'for wise Zeus took away speech from them.'
That’s the end of it; Pandora the 'beautiful evil' has been transformed from the mother of the 'deceitful' race of women into a jar-opening disaster story. As Eve ate the apple, Pandora opened the jar. Only with Pandora and the jar, we have no idea where it came from or what it represents. Both Pandora and Eve, however, are said to have brought suffering and death into the world.
This final paragraph from Hesiod on the topic of Pandora has left us with the enduring myth of Pandora as we know it –with the small transformation much later by Erasmus of the jar into the now infamous box.
The Two Jars of Zeus
Though Hesiod was the first known to write of the Pandora story, and our object here is to work through the known relevent references, we must first take a jump back before going forward any further.
In the rolls of Greek literature, Hesiod is predated only by Homer, famed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer is thought to have been active within the fifty years prior to Hesiod. Homer does not mention the Pandora story in any way, but he does mention a couple of jars, one of which contained “ills”. The reference is in the Iliad, and tells us that Zeus kept handy a jar of blessings and a jar of ills, to be dispersed on mankind as Zeus so chose.
'The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Zeus' palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Zeus the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Zeus 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.'
These two jars have been considered a presumable source of Pandora’s jar in Hesiod, and Aesop’s more benevolent jar of “Good Things”. Since a connection, however, never presents itself, and the possible ramifications are relatively unimportant, we won’t dwell on the multiple theories involved here.
The only relative point here is that a theodicy already existed. Homer defined it decades prior to Hesiod. Homer tells us that Zeus bestowed 'evil gifts' upon individual humans as he chose to do so, heaping evils upon those who incurred his disfavor. There's no doom and gloom, no spilt jar and no gift of evil women. No Pandora.
Hesiod, it would seem, comes from a different school of thought. Hesiod in fact did come from a different school of thought. Homer views things -and imparts those visions to us- in a life-embracing sort of way, an enduring testimony of the greater aspects of mankind, and -granted-hero demigods. The critics agree, Hesiod was a poor farmer, who viewed the gods, mankind and life itself from a more pessimistic and fearful perspective.
It should again be noted though in Homer's conception of the two jars of Zeus', this dual concept of the pithos (jar) in Greek culture. A jar of Good Things or blessings, and a jar of Evil Things or ills.
Ancient Greek Ode to Hope
For human nature Hope remains alone
Of all the deities; the rest are flown.
Faith is departed; Truth and Honour dead;
And all the Graces too, my friends, are fled.
The scanty specimens of living worth,
Dwindled to nothing, and extinct on earth.
Yet whilst I live and view the light of heaven,
Since hope remains and never has been driven
From the distracted world--the single scope
Of my devotion is to worship Hope.
When hecatombs are slain, and altars burn,
When all the deities adored in turn,
Let Hope be present; and with Hope, my friend,
Let every sacrifice commence and end.
Yes, Insolence, Injustice, every crime,
Rapine and Wrong, may prosper for a time;
Yet shall they travel on to swift decay,
Who tread the crooked path and hollow way.
---Theognis of Megara, mid 6th - early 5th century, BC
Aesop and Theognis on Pandora
Neither Aesop nor Theognis –Greek writers of the 6th century BC- ever mentioned Pandora. Both, however, did have their own theodicy which involved the opening of a jar. Writing over 200 years later than Hesiod, neither Aesop nor Theognis would seem to have agreed with Hesiod’s Pandora theory.
Aesop –active in the first few decades of the 6th century BC- records in his 525th and 526th Fables that a jar of good things had been entrusted to mankind by Zeus. 'But man had no self-control' and he opened the jar. The 'Good Things' all flew out and were chased away by the stronger evils in the world, and so flew back up to Olympus and the gods. Now they must come back to man only one at a time, to escape the notice of the Evil Things which are ever-present. Hope remained in the jar, however, the one Good Thing left to mankind to console him with the promise of the Good Things we have lost. So says Aesop.
Theognis' reference to the story is shown to the left; it is a poem, an ode to Hope. Writing later in the late 6th century, BC or very early in the next one, Theognis told a similar tale to that of Aesop's Fables. He wrote of hope being the only deity left on earth; 'the rest have flown.' He holds a dim view of 'all the deities adored in turn' on earth, and turns his own worship to the devotion of Hope, which 'remains and never has been driven from the distracted world.'
They both agree with Hesiod that Hope alone remains, but seem to view Hope in a positive light which Hesiod's version leaves questionable. The retention of hope alone for man is the only thing the three fully agree on. For Aesop the jar was opened by man, not by Pandora, and it released all the Good Things, with no mention of diseases and death. Theognis never mentions a jar at all.
Pandora or the Hammerers - Lost Sophocles Play
Active in the latter half of the 5th century BC, Sophocles wrote a satyr play called Pandora, or The Hammerers (Sphyrocopi), but unfortunately other than a few vague references this play has been completely lost. We can guess by the pottery evidence of the time that his play involved the creation of Pandora by the gods in the Hesiodic tradition, but with the addition of satyrs, those lusty half-goats of lore and the mythological fathers of modern satire.
Though satyr plays were generally bawdy comedies, Sophocles was a tragedian. the Pandora story could certainly be seen as a tragedy. We could hope then that in the satiric spirit satyr plays promoted the play might have betrayed some inner truth to the Pandora story. Sadly, nothing of it remains.
Nothing other than a few vague references, and the pottery evidence. The pottery evidence is revealing.
5th Century Greek Vases
Pandora the Rising Goddess
There are three known pottery pieces with figure paintings depicting Pandora. Two additional vase paintings may or may not be Pandora. All besides these last two show Pandora in the scene of her creation, more or less as described by Hesiod, and this is what provides the positive identification.
One of these three may not exhibit the creation scene, but instead may be representative of the moment in Hesiod’s story where Pandora the finished product is first presented to the entire assembly of the Olympian gods. It is the least relevant of the five pieces, but also interesting.
Shown above, this piece is the two tiered, large red-figure vase from the British Museum. Pandora is surrounded by the Olympian gods on the upper tier, while satyrs led by Pan on his flute dance about on the lower tier. At first glance there is nothing much here to interest us, the satyrs seem to represent only Pandora's portrayal in a satyr play.
The two other identified pieces are more intriguing. The first piece -a red-figure cup on white background housed in the British Museum- shows Pandora with Athena and Hephaestos. There is nothing out of place here as they both play prominent roles in Pandora's creation. Each figure is labeled with their name above them, however, and above Pandora, the First Woman, is the name Anesidora.
Anesidora is she who sends up gifts. It is a label or surname the Greeks reserved for the likes of Gaea, Persephone and Demeter, a title or moniker for the Earth Mother and the Fertility Goddesses.
A more appropriate title couldn’t be found for a fertility figure whose power rises anew from below the earth. All of these figures are typically associated with anodos or uprisings where they rise up out of the ground each spring, sending up 'gifts' from the earth, spreading fertility across the winter wasted land. On the cup housed in the British Museum identifying Pandora as Anesidora the figure of Pandora is significantly shorter than the two gods accompanying her. Some believe this is indicative of a goddess in the act of an anodos.
Speculative as this may be, the third piece of pottery of special interest to us shows Pandora most definitely in the act of an anodos (uprising). This piece is a red-figured krater vase housed in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Pandora is half-risen, her arms stretched palms up above her. Several of the gods are present, as well as Eros. Hephaestos the Olympian blacksmith and jack of all trades who crafted her stands beside Pandora as she rises from the earth. While one hand is extended towards the rising Pandora, in his other hand he grasps a hammer.
The final two vases -above and to the right- are the two which show a goddess not certainly identified as Pandora. They also represent an anodos scene. Both feature satyrs as well, and very possibly represent Pandora. They feature no gods or creation scenes, but -goddess or not- there's no reason to confine Pandora forever to one scene.
The vases are all from at least approximately the same time frame, and are all likely influenced by the Sophocles play. Nonetheless, perhaps the Sophocles' play was based on some now lost truth, and it cannot be denied and should not be ignored that the pottery paintings show Pandora as a goddess.
The only question is whether Sophocles drew on a lost tradition, or conceived of the Pandora as goddess concept himself. That question we'll look at more closely another time, since the purpose of this article is only to observe the evidence, and not to become overly lengthy by attempting to interpret it.
Aristophanes' The Birds
Within only a few decades of Sophocles, Aristophanes wrote a comedic play which briefly mentions Pandora. Pisthetaerus our hero, is advised by an oracle-monger to 'sacrifice to Pandora a white-fleeced ram'. Sacrifices are made to the gods and goddesses, not to deceitful mortal women.
The problem is that the Oracle Monger is not to be taken seriously. All of his advice is dismissed even in the play. But again we have a clear statement which portrays Pandora as a goddess. Though the Oracle-Monger is to be dismissed, and by itself this literary quote means nothing, it is backed up by a note or commentary on the line.
A scholiast was someone who made notes -or scholia- on texts written by others. The purpose is to add clarity to the text by providing additional information. On line 971 of The Birds –the line wherein the oracle monger advises the sacrifice to Pandora- there is a scholium made by the poet Hipponax reading 'to Pandora, the earth, because she bestows all things necessary for life.'
Pandora, All Giving
Again Pandora is associated with Gaea and with fertility, identified as she who 'bestows all things necessary for life.' Anesidora – she who sends up gifts. Pandora – properly translated in its active sense- is All Giving. Even the meaning of her name, we find, has been twisted and hidden.
The traditional story of Pandora and Pandora’s Box clearly doesn’t tell us of this goddess Pandora, and yet the pottery evidence tells us the two Pandoras are the same. The Pandora who was created by the gods as a revenge on mankind, as a mortal first woman who is full of deceit and selfishness and who exposes mankind to diseases and death is the very same Pandora -All Giving- identified as Anesidora, She Who Sends Up Gifts, and a goddess worthy of sacrificing to, she who 'bestows all things necessary for life,' she whose anodos must bring life, abundance and hope.
Yet she is also Bringer of Plagues and Diseases. Her life-giving force, it seems, is closely associated with death, and this we will see more openly displayed when in an upcoming article we look more closely at the duality of the pithos.
Rhythms of the Goddess
A Veritable Pandora's Box
The plethora of interpretations on the many points of the story is a veritable Pandora’s Box. Though we may never know the full true story of the origins of the Pandora myth, taking all the evidence available to us, it seems there can only be a couple of possible conclusions regarding the nature and character of Pandora. These themselves overlap, and open up other Pandora’s Boxes of possible understanding.
That one last, small paragraph of Hesiod’s endowing Pandora with a container of cursings actually prompts pages worth of commentary -from me alone, and I will only go into certain aspects of it. Commentary has been made on the subject for over two millennia, entire volumes inspired by it.
From such humble beginnings we open a Pandora’s Box, and so I have broken this subject down into pieces to avoid being either overly lengthy or inadequately concise. Look for my hub coming soon regarding interpretting Pandora’s Jar as a symbol of female fertility. Beyond that we'll be looking at theories of Pandora as a suppressed goddess, and more.
Thank you for reading my hub, I hope you enjoyed it.
More by this Author
Images of Mohammed? I've got 'em. I didn't draw them, but I've got them and I'm sharing them with you. Pray for my safety from a vengeful Allah and Muslim religious extremists. Now might be a good time for me to...