In Greek mythology, Pandora (Greek: Πανδώρα, derived from πᾶν, pān, “all” and δῶρον, dōron, “gift”, thus “the all-endowed”, “the all-gifted” or “the all-giving”) was the first human woman created by the gods, specifically by Hephaestus and Athena on the instructions of Zeus. As Hesiod related, each god helped create her by giving her unique gifts. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to mold her out of earth as part of the punishment of humanity for Prometheus’ theft of the secret of fire, and all the gods joined in offering her “seductive gifts”. Her other name—inscribed against her figure on a white-ground kylix in the British Museum—is Anesidora, “she who sends up gifts” (up implying “from below” within the earth).
The Pandora myth first appears in lines 560–612 of Hesiod’s poem, the Theogony (ca. 8th–7th centuries BC), without ever giving the woman a name. After humans received the stolen gift of fire from Prometheus, an angry Zeus decides to give humanity a punishing gift to compensate for the boon they had been given. He commands Hephaestus to mold from earth the first woman, a “beautiful evil” whose descendants would torment the human race. After Hephaestus does so, Athena dresses her in a silvery gown, an embroidered veil, garlands and an ornate crown of silver. This woman goes unnamed in the Theogony, but is presumably Pandora, whose myth Hesiod revisited in Works and Days. When she first appears before gods and mortals, “wonder seized them” as they looked upon her. But she was “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.” Hesiod elaborates (590–93):
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,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.
Hesiod goes on to lament that men who try to avoid the evil of women by avoiding marriage will fare no better (604–7):
He reaches deadly old age without anyone to tend his years,
and though he at least has no lack of livelihood while he lives,
yet, when he is dead, his kinsfolk divide his possessions amongst them.
Hesiod concedes that occasionally a man finds a good wife, but still (609) “evil contends with good.”
The more famous version of the Pandora myth comes from another of Hesiod’s poems, Works and Days. In this version of the myth (lines 60–105), Hesiod expands upon her origin, and moreover widens the scope of the misery she inflicts on humanity. As before, she is created by Hephaestus, but now more gods contribute to her completion (63–82): Athena taught her needlework and weaving (63–4); Aphrodite “shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs” (65–6); Hermes gave her “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” (67–8); Hermes also gave her the power of speech, putting in her “lies and crafty words” (77–80) ; Athena then clothed her (72); next she, Persuasion and the Charites adorned her with necklaces and other finery (72–4); the Horae adorned her with a garland crown (75). Finally, Hermes gives this woman a name: Pandora – “All-gifted” – “because all the Olympians gave her a gift” (81).
In this retelling of her story, Pandora’s deceitful feminine nature becomes the least of humanity’s worries. For she brings with her a jar (which, due to textual corruption in the sixteenth century, came to be called a box) containing “burdensome toil and sickness that brings death to men” (91–2), diseases (102) and “a myriad other pains” (100). Prometheus had (fearing further reprisals) warned his brother Epimetheus not to accept any gifts from Zeus. But Epimetheus did not listen; he accepted Pandora, who promptly scattered the contents of her jar. As a result, Hesiod tells us, “the earth and sea are full of evils” (101). One item, however, did not escape the jar (96–9):
Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house,
she remained under the lip of the jar, and did not
fly away. Before [she could], Pandora replaced the
lid of the jar. This was the will of aegis-bearing
Zeus the Cloudgatherer.
Hesiod does not say why hope (elpis) remained in the jar. He closes with this moral: “Thus it is not possible to escape the mind of Zeus.”
Hesiod also outlines how the end of man’s Golden Age, an all-male society of immortals who were reverent to the gods, worked hard, and ate from abundant groves of fruit, was brought on by Prometheus, when he stole Fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to mortal man, Zeus punished the technologically advanced society by creating woman. Thus, Pandora was created as the first woman and given the jar (mistranslated as ‘box’) which releases all evils upon man. The opening of the jar serves as the beginning of the Silver Age, in which man is now subject to death, and with the introduction of woman to birth as well, giving rise to the cycle of death and rebirth.
There is also a mention of jars or urns containing blessings and evils bestowed upon humanity in Homer’s Iliad:
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.
Archaic and Classic Greek literature seem to make no further mention of Pandora, though Sophocles wrote a satyr play Pandora, or The Hammerers of which virtually nothing is known. Sappho may have made reference to Pandora in a surviving fragment.
Later mythographers filled in minor details or added postscripts to Hesiod’s account. For example, the Bibliotheca and Hyginus each make explicit what might be latent in the Hesiodic text: Epimetheus married Pandora. They each add that they had a daughter, Pyrrha, who married Deucalion and survived the deluge with him. However, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, fragment #5, had made a “Pandora” one of the daughters of Deucalion, and the mother of Graecus by Zeus.
In a major departure from Hesiod, the 6th-century BC Greek elegiac poet Theognis of Megara tells us:
Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;
the others have left and gone to Olympus.
Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.
Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone
revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and
men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.
Theognis seems to be hinting at a myth in which the jar contained blessings rather than evils. In this, he appears to follow a possibly pre-Hesiodic tradition, preserved by the second-century fabulist Babrius, that the gods sent a jar containing blessings to humans. A “foolish man” (not Pandora) opened the jar, and most of the blessings were lost forever. Only hope remained, “to promise each of us the good things that fled.”
An independent Pandora tradition that does not square with any of the literary sources is the tradition in the visual repertory of Attic red-figure vase-painters, which sometimes supplements, sometimes ignores, the written testimony; in these representations the upper part of Pandora is visible rising from the earth, “a chthonic goddess like Gaia herself.”
M. L. West writes that the story of Pandora 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 Hesiodic Catalogue of Women as preserving this older tradition, and that the jar may have at one point contained only good things for humanity. 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 curious correlation between Pandora being made out of earth in Hesiod’s story, to what is in the Bibliotheca that Prometheus created man from water and earth. Hesiod’s myth of Pandora’s jar, then, could be an amalgam of many variant early myths.
Is the imprisonment of hope inside a jar full of evils for humanity a benefit for humanity, or a further bane? A number of mythology textbooks echo the sentiments of M. L. West: “[Hope’s retention in the jar] is comforting, and we are to be thankful for this antidote to our present ills.” Some scholars such as Mark Griffith, however, take the opposite view: “[Hope] seems to be a blessing withheld from men so that their life should be the more dreary and depressing.” One’s interpretation hangs on two related questions: First, how are we to render elpis, the Greek word usually translated as “hope”? Second, does the jar preserve Elpis for men, or keep Elpis away from men?
As with most ancient Greek words, elpis can be translated a number of ways. A number of scholars prefer the neutral translation of “expectation.” But expectation of what? Classical authors use the word elpis to mean “expectation of bad,” as well as “expectation of good.” Statistical analysis demonstrates that the latter sense appears five times more than the former in all of ancient Greek literature. Others hold the minority view that elpis should be rendered, “expectation of evil” (vel sim).
How one answers the first question largely depends on the answer to the second question: should we interpret the jar to function as a prison, or a pantry? The jar certainly serves as a prison for the evils that Pandora released – they only affect humanity once outside the jar. Some have argued that logic dictates, therefore, that the jar acts as a prison for Elpis as well, withholding it from the human race. If one takes elpis to mean expectant hope, then the myth’s tone is pessimistic: All the evils in the world were scattered from Pandora’s jar, while the one potentially mitigating force, Hope, remains locked securely inside.
This interpretation raises yet another question. If Hope is imprisoned in the jar, does this mean that human existence is utterly hopeless? This is the most pessimistic reading possible for the myth. A less pessimistic interpretation understands the myth to say: countless evils fled Pandora’s jar and plague human existence; the hope that we might be able to master these evils remains imprisoned inside the jar. Life is not hopeless, but each of us is hopelessly human.
It is also argued that hope was simply one of the evils in the jar, and was no good for humanity, since, later in the poem, Hesiod writes that hope is empty (498) and no good (500) and makes humanity lazy by taking away their industriousness, making them prone to evil.
In Human, All Too Human, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”
An objection to the hope is good/the jar is a prison interpretation counters that, if the jar is full of evils, then what is expectant hope – a blessing – doing among them? This objection leads some to render elpis as the expectation of evil, which would make the myth’s tone somewhat optimistic: although humankind is troubled by all the evils in the world, at least we are spared the continual expectation of evil, which would make life unbearable.
The optimistic reading of the myth is expressed by M. L. West. Elpis takes the more common meaning of expectant hope. And while the jar served as a prison for the evils that escaped, it thereafter serves as a residence for Hope. West explains, “It would be absurd to represent either the presence of ills by their confinement in a jar or the presence of hope by its escape from one.” Hope is thus preserved as a benefit for humans.
Pithos into “box”
The mistranslation of pithos, a large storage jar, as “box” is usually attributed to the sixteenth century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam when he translated Hesiod’s tale of Pandora into Latin. Hesiod’s pithos refers to a large storage jar, often half-buried in the ground, used for wine, oil or grain. It can also refer to a funerary jar. Erasmus, however, translated pithos into the Latin word pyxis, meaning “box”. The phrase “Pandora’s box” has endured ever since.
All-giving Pandora: a mythic inversion?
The meaning of Pandora’s name provided in Works and Days is “all-gifted”. However according to others Pandora more properly means “all-giving”. Certain vase paintings dated to the 5th century BC likewise indicate that the pre-Hesiodic myth of the goddess Pandora endured for centuries after the time of Hesiod. An alternate name for Pandora attested on a white-ground kylix (ca. 460 BC) is Anesidora, which similarly means “she who sends up gifts.” This vase painting clearly depicts Hephaestus and Athena putting the finishing touches on the first woman, as in the Theogony. Written above this figure (a convention in Greek vase painting) is the name Anesidora. More commonly, the epithet anesidora is applied to Gaea or Demeter.
This connection of Pandora to Gaea and Demeter through the name Anesidora provides a clue as to Pandora’s evolution as a mythic figure. In classical scholarship it is generally posited that—for female deities in particular—one or more secondary mythic entities sometimes “splinter off” from a primary entity, assuming aspects of the original in the process. The most famous example of this is the putative division of all the aspects of the so-called Great Goddess into a number of goddesses with more specialized functions—Gaea, Demeter, Persephone, Artemis and Hecate among them. Pandora appears to be such a product of this process.
In a previous incarnation now lost to us, Pandora/Anesidora would have taken on aspects of Gaea and Demeter. She would embody the fertility of the earth and its capacity to bear grain and fruits for the benefit of humankind. 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.
Over time this “all-giving” goddess somehow devolved into an “all-gifted” mortal woman. T. A. Sinclair, commenting on Works and Days argues that Hesiod shows no awareness of the mythology of such a divine “giver”. A.H. Smith, however, notes that Hesiod was conscious of Pandora’s original “all-giving” function. As the life-bringing goddess Pandora is eclipsed, the death-bringing human Pandora arises.”
The characters of Eve in Genesis and Pandora in the Works and Days have some striking similarities. Each is the first woman in the world; and each is a central character in a story of transition from an original state of plenty and ease to one of suffering and death, a transition which is brought about in revenge for a transgression of divine law.
There are also major differences. Eve and Adam transgress in the former, whereas Prometheus does so in the latter. Eve was created to help Adam, Pandora to bring punishment to the men who benefited from the crime (Prometheus got punished separately).
Some believe that in the centuries following the conquest of western Asia by Alexander the Greek, each story was retold to more closely resemble the other. In 1 Timothy, Eve alone appears to be labelled a transgressor. In Pandora by Bishop Jean Oliver, Pandora is said to “open the box in defiance of a divine injunction”.