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Pandora's Box and Hope: A tale from Ancient Greece

Updated on August 22, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Pandora's Box

The story of Pandora’s Box is arguably today the most famous story that has come out of Greek mythology. Told and retold for thousands of years, most people will at the very least be aware of the concept behind the phrase “Pandora’s Box”.

The basic storyline tells of how all of the world’s evils were released into the world, but at the same time it is a story that reminds everyone just how important Hope is.

The Titanomachy

Joachim Wtewael - The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans PD-art-100
Joachim Wtewael - The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans PD-art-100 | Source

The Story Begins

The story of Pandora and her box begins in the early days of the rule of Zeus. Zeus and his siblings had been victorious in the Titanomachy, and Zeus had subsequently won dominion over heaven and earth from his brothers. Other aspects of the world were then given into the charge of other deities, with the most important roles being given over to the other Olympian deities.

One important job though was given to two Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus; their job was to create all the life forms that would inhabit the earth.

Despite being Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus had not fought with their extended family, as Prometheus had the gift of foresight, and so had not been punished after the end of the war.

Prometheus Steals Fire from the Gods

Jan Cossiers - Prometheus Carrying Fire PD-art-100
Jan Cossiers - Prometheus Carrying Fire PD-art-100 | Source

Prometheus Angers Zeus

Zeus and the other gods provided all of the characteristics needed for the new creations, and whilst Prometheus crafted, Epimetheus was given the task of apportioning the characteristics. To some animals, Epimetheus gave strength, to some speed, to some the ability to burrow, and to others the gift of flight. Epimetheus, unlike his brother though had no foresight, his name indeed means afterthought, and when he came to man he had no more characteristics or skills to give out.

Discovering the problem Prometheus went amongst the workshops of the gods, and from Athena and Hephaestus, he stole mechanical arts and fire, and gave them to man.

Prometheus would further anger Zeus, when the supreme god gave the Titan the job of teaching man how to make sacrifices to the gods. At Mekone, Prometheus tricked the gods into accepting the best looking, but less substantial sacrifice, and so mankind benefited once again by keeping the good meat.

In retribution Zeus removed fire from man, but Prometheus once again ventured into the workshop of Hephaestus, and stole the secret of fire, so that man could make fire whenever he desired.

Prometheus Punished

Zeus was now so angry with Prometheus that the Titan was given an eternal punishment. Amongst the Caucasus Mountains Prometheus was chained by Hephaestus to an immovable stone pillar. There each day an eagle would descend, pluck out the Titans liver, and eat it. Each night though, the liver would be regenerated, and so the punishment would continue next day.

Although designed to be eternal, the punishment was actually ended when Heracles came to the aide of Prometheus, killing the eagle, and setting the Titan free; although Heracles did have the permission of his father to undertake the act.

Prometheus Bound

Jacob Jordaens - Prometheus Bound PD-art-100
Jacob Jordaens - Prometheus Bound PD-art-100 | Source

Mankind is Punished

Zeus though was not just angry with Prometheus, and the supreme Olympian decided that mankind too should be punished.

The punishment for mankind though was not as straightforward as it had been with Prometheus. Firstly, Zeus commanded Hephaestus to craft a woman out of metal, and into the statue, Zeus breathed life into her. The newly crafted woman was then presented with gifts by the other gods. The gift of beauty was given by Aphrodite; persuasiveness was given by Hermes, whilst she was also given grace and intelligence.

Other less positive gifts were also bestowed, and Hermes gave cunning and the ability to lie, whilst Hera gave curiosity.

The newly crafted woman was provided with a name, Pandora, a name which means “all-gifted”.

Pandora

Bildplatte KPM Pandora PD-art-100
Bildplatte KPM Pandora PD-art-100 | Source

Pandora and Epimetheus

Zeus then presented Pandora to Epimetheus, with Pandora to be the Titan’s wife. Prometheus had previously warned Epimetheus about the dangers of taking gifts from the Olympian gods, but the beauty of Pandora was such that Epimetheus ignored the given advice of his brother.

The concept of Pandora’s Box then begins. In most versions of the story the box was a large jar given as a wedding present from Zeus, in which bad and evil traits and characteristics had been stored. Zeus was said to have warned Pandora that for her marriage to remain a happy one, the jar should never be looked into.

An alternate version of the myth has the jar already in the possession of Epimetheus, the Titan having used it to store the characteristics that he had not found a use for when animal life was created.

Pandora Opens the Box

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) PD-art-100
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) PD-art-100 | Source

The Opening of Pandora's Box

The marriage of Pandora and Epimetheus was said to have been a happy one, but eventually the curiosity that had been in stilled in Pandora by Hera slowly took over. Pandora would lift up the corner of the jar’s lid and took a peak inside.

Through the narrow gap rushed all of the characteristics that had been stored in the jar, and sickness, suffering, disease, war, greed, jealousy and hard labour escaped. Desperately Pandora tried to close the lid of the jar again, but by that time, only one trait remained, and that was Hope.

The escaping characteristics imbued the human population, and the easy life of mankind came to an end. Life now became a struggle, and people had to work hard just to survive.

The Aftermath

Pandora’s actions in opening the jar would ultimately end in the demise of that generation of mankind. Mankind was said to have become so evil that they became repulsive to Zeus, and the supreme god decided to rid the earth of them. To this end a huge flood was sent, and for nine days and nine nights a deluge took place.

Zeus though had not totally given up hope about mankind, and to this end, the job of repopulating the world was given over to Pyrrha and Deucalion. Pyrrha was the daughter of Pandora, whilst Deucalion was the son of Prometheus.

Deucalion and Pyrrha built an ark to save themselves and the world’s animals. The earth encompassing flood would eventually subside, and then a new generation of man was born, when Pyrrha and Deucalion threw stones onto the uncovered land.

On the face of it, the story of Pandora’s Box might appear to be a pretty bleak one, where despair and toil are released into the world, but at the same time it is a tale which shows that no matter how bad a situation becomes there is always hope left.

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