K.B. Black

A hundred words

Short bits on mythology, writing or miscellaneous posts to start your day right

Pandora's Box: The Myth & the Lesson


The myth of Pandora’s box is presented by Hesiod in two of his epic poems “Θεογονία” (The birth of Gods) and “Έργα και Ημέραι”(Works and Days).

In the early verses of the poem, Hesiod describes the goddess of strife and discord Έρις. While commonly the goddess is reviled by Man, and honored only by virtue of her being a member of the wider Olympian company, rather than admired for her works and patronage, Hesiod makes a distinction between the ἐπαινήσειε νοήσας (the one that is to be praised) and the ἐπιμωμητή (the one that is to be accused). The two kinds, while similar in form and method, motivate mortals in different ways.

The one that is to be accused, seeks to plant strife and hatred between achievers and non-achievers. She drives Man against Man, based on jealousy and spite due to a difference in worldly achievements. She drives Man to hate his neighbor, because the latter is tending well to his crops and manages his house with excellence. This kind of Έρις is reviled, and seeks to take her victim away from his Work and get him to despise his fellow Man. The other kind, the one that is to be praised, seeks to inspire Man by the success of his fellows. It does not care to take insult by the good harvest that a working fellow was blessed with, but rather, aims to help the non-working realize what is possible if he sets forth to do his Work.

Hesiod’s distinction is critical, even though it may be deemed unorthodox by most modern-day “self-development goo-roos”. They suggest that we should only compare our progress with the standards we set for ourselves, and that we should not mind the progress made by others in our environment. The ancient Greek mind though, realized that the individual does not live in a vacuum, but, far from that, is a member of society. Real growth is not about feel-good marginal steps that we feel are moving us forward. Rather, it is measured against the standards of progress set forth by the objective societal norm. Hesiod takes the influence of Έρις as an axiom, and advises us to channel the feeling in a positive, impersonal way; our neighbors successes should not be held as affronts meant to wound our ego, but as lessons meant to show us what is possible through work and conviction.Probably due to running the risk of unnerving us (and potentially driving the customer away), today’s “goo-roos” pat us on the back, and say that we should not place ourselves against external, and thus relative-to-reality standards, but rather internal, and thus relative-to-ego ones.

A necessary disclaimer is due though: Hesiod did not have a Facebook or Instagram account. Be wary of confusing success with the hand-picked snapshots of someone’s life. Success should not be boiled down to what a person says about themselves, but rather what is said about them, and even then, only in the ways that are of interest to you.

Zeus, seeing that men were adopting the ἐπιμωμητή Έρις, and that they were growing complacent, looking to get by life in an as comfortable and effortless life, took the Fire away from them, and hid it away in Hephaestus’ forge. Seeing this action as an undue injustice, Prometheus stole the fire and gave it to Man, so that once again Mankind can survive and thrive. As to Prometheus’ motives for this transgression, the titan felt obliged to protect mankind, as he had allowed his brother Epimethius to assign attributes to all the living beings; Man was saved for last, and by that time all the sharp teeth, claws and venoms had ran out, essentially dooming us to extinction.

Prometheus was a titan, who chose to side with the Olympians in their fight against his brothers. His name is a compound word, derived from Προ(Before)+Μυθεύς(Knower), meaning the Precongizant. His brother, another crucial figure in the myth of Pandora’s box, is Epimethius, another compound word derived from Επί(After)+Μυθεύς(Knower), meaning the Reckless. The two brothers are, as is obvious from etymology, polar opposites. Prometheus is the one who knows the implications of his actions, and behaves with knowledge and wisdom, while Epimethius is the one who first acts, without thought, and relizes the consequences of his actions only as they develop. As can be deducted, Prometheus is an avatar of the higher animus, meaning the wise, just and decisive aspect of the masculine force; Epimethius, on the contrary, is the lower animus, the pleasure-seeking, reactive and inconsiderate aspect.

The Olympians were enraged by Prometheus’ theft of the fire. Zeus himself sought to punish both the thief and mankind, and to this goal he commanded Hephaestus to craft the tool of punishment. The god of fire and smithing took clay and water, and put all his art to craft Pandora. She was a woman-like creature, with perfect beauty equal to that of the divine maidens and sweet voice. Athena then breathed life in the woman, and delivered her to Zeus. The king of the Olympians then instructed the gods to present her with their gifts. Athena, the goddess of wisdom taught her in the arts and weaving. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, poured grace and passion all over her head. Hermes, the trickster god, was ordered to instill in her a meddlesome and deceptive character. Then, Athena and the Three Graces, under Πειθώ (Persuasion), dressed the woman with silks and jewels so as to magnify the woman’s beauty, and the Ώρες (Hours) gave her a golden crown to make the appearance perfect. Finally, Zeus sent her to Hermes, who taught her how to speak.

Hermes named the woman Pandora, the name being a compound word derived from Παν (All)+Δώρα (Gifts), meaning that she had been blessed with all of the divine gifts. Zeus, satisfied with the end result and thinking that the woman would be capable of delivering punishment to mankind and Prometheus, he gave her a box, and forbade her from opening it. Of course, Zeus did this only because he knew that the mystery would be irresistible, and that the woman would, sooner or later, succumb to the temptation.

Then Hermes delivered the woman to Prometheus, that Zeus was still embittered by the theft of the Ιερή Φωτιά (sacred fire), and thus unable to offer a gift in good heart. The titan denied the woman and the box, and warned his brother to do the same. Hermes, disappointed by the denial, returned to Olympus. Zeus commanded that Pandora and her box be delivered to Epimetheus, as this titan was more haphazard and thoughtless than his brother. Truly, Hermes transported the woman to him, and Epimethius instantly accepted her and the Box, defying his brother’s guidance to deny any gift presented from the Olympians.

The two of them were very happy for a while, and they would not spend a moment separate from each other. Epimethius was content with having a beautiful wife that tended to his every need, was kind and comforting. Pandora was happy with having a powerful Titan as her husband; over time however, her unstable character would lead to ever greater curiosity as to the contents of the box Zeus had given her. Pandora, as is understandable, could not wrap her mind around Zeus’ bizarre demand, wondering why he would give her a box and forbid her from opening it. After pondering over the question for days, Pandora finally opened the box.

All the world’s evil burst forth. First came out Disease, a sickly spirit of bright green colour. Then came out Despair, a screaming spirit of dark purple color. Then Cruelty, a devilish spirit of crimson. Then Greed, a spirit that clanked with the clank of coins of dark green colour. Then Hatred, a sharp-edged spirit of dark red. Then out came Old Age and Death, two rotting spirits of dark gray and pitch black colours. Pandora, ever curious as to if anything else lay inside the magical box, peaked inside. A different spirit, one that looked like a beautiful maiden of white was climbing up the walls, trying to escape the confines of the box. This spirit was Hope. As Pandora was horrified by what she had released upon the world, she slapped the box shut, sealing Hope inside.

One would think, and many scholars would concur, that Hope is a portrayed as a positive spirit in the frame of the myth. The view holds that Hope can only be a positive force, depicted as a panacea that aims to heal the damages caused by the world’s evils. However, this can only be considered wishful thinking driven by some kind of bias for positivity.

First off, the Box is a symbol for control. Everything that lies inside is harmless and impotent; we are perfectly safe from it. Pandora did enjoy Epimethius’ company for a while, and for the same duration life on Earth was mellow; Man had been blessed with a toil-free life, thriving with the use of the Ιερή Φωτιά and the rest of Prometheus’ gifts. Pandora, the first and fullest incarnation of the lesser anima in Greek Mythology (the higher anima being made incarnate by the different goddesses), is paired with the lesser animus of Epimethius, and the reaction is enough to rupture the cosmos in higher and middle, completing the severance between the perfect world of the gods and the everyday world of mortals. Pandora is indeed the wielder of all the divine gifts; that much is de facto true. However, she does not wield control over these gifts; rather she is nothing more than a tool. By letting her curiosity possess her and determine her actions, she forsakes individuation and serves goals that are not her own.

Scholars commonly claim the myth (and Hesiod himself) is misogynistic, especially when Pandora is seen as the analytic blueprint for the Judeo-christian figure of Eve. Both figures are the original human women; both of them are the agents that set the events of the Fall of Man in motion; both are depicted as temptresses that aim to seduce Man, lead him astray from the divine trail. This perspective, when expanded upon in popular culture across history, lead to women being treated as inferior beings that serve only the sinister purpose of seducing man, distracting him from the righteous path of moral and spiritual enlightenment (that was the normal before the Fall).

This analysis stands true only when the figures are viewed upon as one-dimensional agents that act in a vacuum, rather than aspects of a single force, that CG Jung called the Anima. Pandora does have the divine gifts of female nature; her actions, dominated by an inability to control these gifts leads to catastrophe. Epimethius is, likewise, the agent of the lesser Animus, the one who fails to recognize and overcome the trap. He is, by all means, equally responsible for the disjunction of Man from the higher realm.

The subject of the myth is thus: the evils have indeed been released into the world. Truly, disease, despair, cruelty, greed, violence and death are part and parcel of the mortal reality. Usually, these spirits act in unison, reinforcing and amplifying each other, pulling us down towards ever grimmer depths. Pandora has already made sure to release them, and, unfortunately, the free reign they have been bestowed with is non-reversible. These Evils, the myth says, are here to stay; divine punishment for entrusting our basest nature (ἐπιμωμητή Έρις) with our lives is inescapable. More importantly, the act of letting them loose symbolizes that they have moved beyond our sphere of influence; Evil of the kind is fully beyond our control.

At the same time, there is a last spirit remaining in the box; its name is Hope. This is still in the Box, and is, accordingly, still under control. Before claiming the confined spirit carries a positive ring to it, we should take heed to what Hesiod suggests; the Box contains all the world’s evils. Hope is then evil as well! It may appear endearing and soothing, but the consequences are sinister indeed. This is the μύθος of Pandora teaches. The external world is ridden with the curses that Pandora released upon the world. However, hope is not the answer.

Hope, as has been observed across many mythically potent stories, are impediments to freedom and individuation. Hope breeds expectations, and by doing so it reinforces emotional investment in uncertain futures, and robs us of the present moment. On the other hand, hopelessness is the tool for increased presence. It allows us to forgo investing emotions into the future, and by virtue of that, allows us to maximize the value of the present moment.