In Greek mythology, Pandora (from Greek: Πανδώρα, "giver of all, all-endowed) was the first woman. Each god helped create her by giving her unique gifts. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to mould her out of Earth (Γαîα -Gaia) as part of the punishment of mankind for Prometheus' theft of the secret of fire, and all the gods joined in offering this "beautiful evil" seductive gifts. Her other name, inscribed against her figure on a white-ground kylix in the British Museum (illustration, right), is Anesidora, "she who sends up gifts." According to the myth, pandora opened a jar (pithos) in modern accounts referred to as "Pandora's box", releasing all the evils of mankind— greed, vanity, slander, envy, pining— leaving only Hope inside once she had closed it again.
The myth of Pandora is very old, appears in several distinct Greek versions, and has been interpreted in many ways. In all literary versions, however, the myth is a kind of theodicy, addressing the question of why there is evil in the world. In the seventh century BC Hesiod, both in his Theogony (briefly, without naming Pandora outright, line 570) and in Works and Days, gives the earliest literary version of the Pandora story. There is an older mention of jars or urns containing blessings and evils bestowed upon Mankind in Homer:
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.
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 helpmeets 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, the 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 mankind. 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 mankind's worries. For she brings with her a jar 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), hope:
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.
He does not tell the reader why hope remained in the jar.
Hesiod closes with this moral (105): "Thus it is not possible to escape the mind of Zeus."
Later mythographers filled in minor details or added postscripts to Hesiod's account. For example, Apollodorus 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 #2, had made a "Pandora" one of the daughters of Deucalion, and the mother of Graecus by Zeus. The 15th-century monk Annio da Viterbo credited a manuscript that he asserted that he had found to the Chaldean historian of the 3rd century BC, Berossus, where "Pandora" was also named as a daughter-in-law of Noah; this attempt to conjoin pagan and scriptural narrative is recognized as a forgery.
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 reprensentations the upper part of Pandora is visible rising from the earth, "a chthonic goddess like Gaia herself. . Sometimes, but not always, she is labeled Pandora.
In Hesiodic scholarship, the interpretive crux has endured: Is Hope's imprisonment inside a jar full of evils for mankind a benefit for mankind, 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?
The first question might confuse the non-specialist. But 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 mankind 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 men. 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, complicating the debate: are we to take Hope in an absolute sense, or in a narrow sense where we understand Hope to mean hope only as it pertains to the evils released from the jar? 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 (still pessimistic, to be sure) 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.
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.
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" (so to speak) 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 just 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 (her fig.71) 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 in Hesiod's account Athena and the Seasons brought wreaths of grass and spring flowers to Pandora, indicating that Hesiod was conscious of Pandora's original "all-giving" function. Jane Ellen Harrison sees in Hesiod's story "evidence of a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy in Greek culture. As the life-bringing goddess Pandora is eclipsed, the death-bringing human Pandora arises. Thus Harrison concludes "in the patriarchal mythology of Hesiod her great figure is strangely changed and diminished. She is no longer Earth-Born, but the creature, the handiwork of Olympian Zeus." (Harrison 1922:284) Robert Graves, quoting Harrison, asserts of the Hesiodic episode that "Pandora is not a genuine myth, but an anti-feminist fable, probably of his own invention."
The Hesiodic myth did not, however, completely obliterate the memory of the all-giving goddess Pandora. A scholium to line 971 of Aristophanes' The Birds mentions a cult "to Pandora, the earth, because she bestows all things necessary for life".
In fifth-century Athens Pandora made a prominent appearance in what, at first, appears an unexpected context, in a marble relief or bronze appliqués as a frize along the base of the Athena Parthenos the culminating experience on the Acropolis; there Jeffrey M. Hurwit has interpreted her presence as an "anti-Athena" reinforcing civic ideologies of patriarchy and the "highly gendered social and political realities of fifth-century Athens. Interpretation has never come easy: Pausanias (i.24.7) merely noted the subject and moved on. Jeffrey Hurwit has argued that Pandora represents an "anti-Athena", similarly a child of no mother, an embodiment of the need for the patriarchal rule that the virginal Athena, rising above her sex, defended.
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.