Pandora: Core Reading

The Creation of Pandora (ancient vase painting)
Zeus, Hermes, Epimetheus, Eros (flying), and Pandora (rising out of the ground, because she is made of dirt) (ancient vase painting)

Pandora is the first human woman in Greek mythology. I first encountered this myth when we did a play about it at my Unitarian Sunday School. It was also one of my favorites in my book of myths. From what I remember, the popular version goes like this: Prometheus, a god who always tries to help humans, steals fire from Zeus, the king of the gods, for humans to use. Zeus imprisons Prometheus to punish him for the theft, but he feels bad for Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, who is now alone. To keep him company, he creates Pandora to be his wife. When he gives her to Epimetheus, he also leaves a mysterious box, which he warns must not be opened. Pandora and Epimetheus are happy together, but Pandora can’t resist the mystery of the box. When she is left alone, she opens it, and all of the problems of human life fly out: hunger, disease, lies, etc. She is terrified, but after all the evils fly away into the world, one thing is left in the box. It is Hope, who comforts Pandora, because even in times of trouble, we will always have Hope. (In the Sunday school play, I played one of the problems who fly out of the box, and Hope was a blond, ringleted toddler. I think my older brother played Zeus).

When I learned the story, I liked the sense of balance in it. If life didn’t have any bad things, then it also wouldn’t have hope. It would be colorless and bland. Life is full of problems, but without them, it would not be interesting or dynamic, and there would not be any possibility of positive change.

When I took my first Classics class in college, I was dismayed to find that the oldest surviving version of this myth is actually pretty mean, sexist, and dark. The story does take place after Prometheus steals fire from Zeus. He does get punished for this with imprisonment and torture (having his liver eaten by an eagle every day). But Zeus creates Pandora, not as a comfort for Epimetheus, but as an additional punishment for the theft of fire. This part of the myth is preserved in Hesiod’s Theogony, lines 561-616:

“In return for fire, [Zeus] quickly made an evil for men;
for the famous Lame One (Hephaestus) made from earth the likeness
of a modest virgin, by the plans of Kronos’ son (Zeus).”

That’s right—before she even exists, Pandora is called “an evil for men.” Zeus commands his son, Hephaestus (the craftsman/blacksmith god, who has a limp) to make the shape of a woman. She is sculpted from mud, and even though she is the very first woman, she is called “the likeness of a modest virgin.” She is described as a fake even though she is the first of her kind. Compare this to the biblical Eve, who is made out of Adam’s rib. She comes after him and is subordinate to him, but she is still closely connected to him, made of the same stuff. In Hesiod’s version, male humans already exist, but Pandora does not come from them in any way. Instead, she is a whole new creature, made out of dirt. But Hephaestus and Athena dress her up to look very nice:

“Owl-eyed Athena sashed her and dressed her
in silver clothes; she placed with her hands a
decorated veil on her head, marvelous to see;
and lovely fresh garlands, the flowers of plants,
Pallas Athena put around her head
and she placed on her head a golden crown
which the famous Lame One had made himself,
shaping it with his hands, to please father Zeus.
On it he carved many designs, a marvelous sight;
of all dread beasts the land and sea nourish,
he included most, amazingly similar to living
animals with voices; and beauty breathed over all.”

Then Hephaestus presents Pandora, who is now all tricked out with fancy clothing and jewelry, to the community of gods and men:

“But when he made the lovely evil to pay for the good,
he led her where the other gods and men were;
she delighted in the finery from the great father’s
owl-eyed daughter; awe filled immortal gods and mortal
men when they saw the sheer trick, irresistible to men.”

This translation is very literal, so let’s be clear: Pandora herself is “the lovely evil to pay for the good,” that is, a beautiful evil thing that the gods give to humans to punish them for the theft of fire, a good thing. She is also “the sheer trick,” imagined as inherently deceptive because her evil nature is masked by her beautiful exterior. Then the speaker goes on to explain Pandora’s connection to all women:

“For from her is the race of female women,
from her is the deadly race and tribes of women,
a great plague to mortals, dwelling with men,
not suited for cursed Poverty, but for Wealth…”

Again, notice the contrast with biblical Eve. Eve is the mother of the whole human race, and although Pandora must logically also be the mother of the whole human race, she is described as only the mother of women, as if women were a separate species. This account of the myth ends here, but the poet goes on for another twenty lines about how women are bad, because they eat all the food, and don’t help with the work, and wear makeup, etc. The rest of the myth is explained in Hesiod’s Works and Days, lines 42-105. Again, the story begins with Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus to give to humans. In response, Zeus says:

“‘Son of Iapetos (Prometheus), knowing more schemes than anyone else,
you rejoice over stealing the fire and over deceiving my thinking.
But a great pain awaits both you and future mankind.
To make up for the fire, I will give them an evil thing, in which they may all
delight in their hearts, embracing this evil thing of their own making.’
Thus spoke the father of men and gods, and he laughed out loud.”

Again, Zeus explicitly creates the first woman as a punishment for the theft of fire. She is to be “a great pain” and an “evil thing.” This version includes more details about how Pandora is made:

“Then he ordered Hephaestus, renowned all over, to shape
some wet clay as soon as possible, and to put into it a human voice
and strength, and to make it look like the immortal goddesses,
with the beautiful and lovely appearance of a virgin. And he ordered Athena
to teach her own craft to her, weaving a very intricate web.
And he ordered Aphrodite to shed golden charm over her head;
also harsh longing, and anxieties that eat away at the limbs.
And he ordered Hermes, the messenger and monster-killer,
to put inside her an intent that is doglike and a temperament that is stealthy.
Zeus spoke, and the gods obeyed the Lord Son of Kronos.”

The gods carry out Zeus’ wishes:

“Right away the famed Lame One shaped out of the clay of the Earth
something that looked like a comely virgin—all on account of the will of Zeus, son of Kronos.
Athena dressed her and tied her girdle, adorning her.
And the goddesses who are named Graces, as well as the Lady Persuasion,
placed golden necklaces on her skin, and the Seasons,
with their beautiful hair, plaited springtime garlands around her head.
Pallas Athena placed on her skin every manner of ornament.
And within her breast the messenger and monster-killer (Hermes) fashioned
falsehoods, crafty words, and a stealthy disposition,
according to the plans of Zeus the loud-thunderer. And the messenger of the gods (Hermes)
put inside her a voice, and he called this woman
Pandōrā, because all (pan) the gods who abide in Olympus
gave her as a gift [dōron], a pain for grain-eating men.”

Again we see the idea of Pandora as double in nature, beautiful on the outside but tricky and bad on the inside. In this more detailed version, various goddesses dress her and teach her the skills  of a good wife, while Aphrodite (goddess of sex) and Hermes (god of movement, transactions, and thievery) give her a dishonest nature. Now the gods give her to Epimetheus, Prometheus’ less-clever brother:

“But when the gods completed this deception of sheer doom, against which there is no remedy,
Father Zeus sent the famed monster-killer (Hermes) to Epimetheus,
the swift messenger of the gods, bringing the gift. Nor did Epimetheus
take notice how Prometheus had told him never to accept a gift
from Zeus the Olympian, but to send it
right back, lest an evil thing happen to mortals.
But he [Epimetheus] accepted it, and only then did he take note in his mind that he had an evil thing on his hands.”

What is so bad about Pandora? We soon find out:

“Before this, the various kinds of humanity lived on earth
without evils and without harsh labor,
without wretched diseases that give disasters to men.
But the woman took the great lid off the jar
and scattered what was inside. She devised baneful anxieties for
humankind.
The only thing that stayed within the unbreakable contours of the jar was Hope.
It did not fly out.
Before it could, she put back the lid on top of the jar,
according to the plans of aegis-bearing Zeus, the cloud-gatherer.
But as for the other things, countless baneful things, they are randomly scattered all over humankind.
Full is the earth of evils, full is the sea.
Diseases for humans are a day-to-day thing. Every night,
they wander about at random, bringing evils upon mortals
silently—for Zeus had taken away their voice.
So it is that there is no way to elude the mind of Zeus.”

Here is the source of the “box” part of the myth, but it is very different! For one thing, it’s a jar, and for another thing, there is no indication that Pandora opens it by accident or in innocence. In fact, she seems to open it at the command of Zeus, not in defiance of his orders. The role of Hope is different too: it does not comfort Pandora, but is trapped in the jar. The implication does not seem to be the balanced world of misfortune and hope described by the popular versions of the myth.

One famous interpretation of the myth, which I agree with, is that the jar is a symbol for the womb. (Greek medical texts tend to describe wombs as jars). A woman comes into a marriage with this “jar,” and when it is “opened,” it releases problems and worries for the husband (the need to support a family), while holding “Hope” (the possibility of a new child) inside. This also helps explain the intense hostility to women in the myth: it seems like there was a perceived connection between reproduction and death, as if, because women give birth to new children, they are also responsible for man’s mortality.

Pandora: Additional Materials

Pandora: Creative Prompt