Pandora’s box is an origin myth – the attempt to explain the beginning of something.
People have always wanted to know why things happen in the world the way they do. Before there was much science, they did not have much understanding of how the world works, but they still wanted to know, just as much as we do. Human curiosity always asks why .. and then human creativity finds ways of giving an answer.
There are many myths, across all cultures, which attempt to explain the beginnings of human beings and why there are evil things like disease, hate and war in the world. In many stories, these evils are released because humans disobey gods.
You may like to compare the story of Pandora with the story of Adam and Eve. Do you know any other similar stories from other cultures?
Are there other versions of the story?
The story of Pandora and her box comes from Ancient Greece and is very old. Because of this, there are several versions of the myth.
In Greek mythology, Pandora (meaning ‘all-giving’) was the first woman on earth. Before humans there were the immortals (the Gods and Titans). The brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus were Titans (Giant people) who had fought on the Gods’ side in a war. Some say they were cousins of Zeus, king of the gods; he asked Prometheus to create man out of clay and water (in many versions Hephaestus helps in this). Epimetheus had to create the animals and give them their gifts of courage, swiftness etc. He gave out all the gifts and had none left for Man. So Prometheus decides to make man stand upright, like the gods, and give them fire (which Zeus did not want them to have – some say he had removed it as a punishment). So Prometheus stole fire – some say from Zeus’ lightning, others from the sun and yet others from Hephaestus’ forge.
Most agree that Zeus asked Hephaestus to make Pandora (the first woman) also out of earth and water, and he intended her to be a punishment. Each god and goddess gave Pandora a gift (talent), of beauty, charm, music etc but also others, like curiosity and persuasion – gifts that could be used for good or ill.
Then Pandora was given a container – in the original Greek stories it was a jar and did not become a box until the Sixteenth century AD. A scholar called Erasmus, who lived in Rotterdam in Holland, translated a story of Pandora from Hesiod’s work. Hesiod was a Greek poet who lived about 700BC. Erasmus was translating the Greek into Latin (which scholars did all their writing in, in those days) and translated the Greek word ‘pithos’ meaning jar into the Latin word ‘pyxis’ meaning box. And a box it has stayed to this day!
How did the myth arise?
Originally a Jar?
It arose as a way of explaining why dreadful things happened, such as people getting sick and dying.
As in many origin myths, man had lived in a world without worry – until this jar / box was opened, which contained ills for mankind. Zeus knew that Pandora’s curiosity would mean that she could not stop herself from opening it, especially when he had told her that she must not do so!
Many other myths also explain the ills of the world by saying they are caused by human disobedience of a god’s instructions.
(Though some versions of this story say that the box was a real gift and the box held good things for mankind, which Pandora let escape from the box, and fly away forever, only catching Hope.)
Even Hope itself has been argued about by scholars – not everyone agreeing that it is a great good – that maybe Zeus meant it as an evil also – otherwise it would not have been in a jar of evil. Others believe that Zeus may have relented a little, and put Hope in to help mankind through the hard times that the other ‘gifts’ would bring.
What does it mean to us today?
Today, Pandora’s box means a source of troubles. When we talk about opening Pandora’s box, we use it as a metaphor to mean that we may not know what we are getting ourselves into! Sometimes, that we do not always know how something we have started may end, that we do not know the consequences of our actions.