Pandora, lifting the lid of the ‘pithos’. By Nicolas Régnier

Pandora: The Tale of a Good Girl Gone Bad?

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When Pandora opened her box, as the Ancient Greek myth goes, all manner of evil was released into the world - ending the Golden Age of man and forsaking them to a life of death and rebirth. Being the first woman created by the gods, she was sent as a punishment. This set a very negative precedent for the women that would succeed her, and this sexism remains in modern times. However, Pandora was not always despised as the bringer of evil. Originally, she was seen as a life-giving goddess much like the better-known goddesses Gaea, Athena, and Demeter. Over the years, Pandora went from a revered goddess to the root of all evil, later to be conflated with other religions and immortalized in art and myth.

Pandora’ by John William Waterhouse, 1896.

Pandora’ by John William Waterhouse, 1896. ( Public Domain )

Pandora Unleashes a Punishment for Mankind

The earliest written myth of Pandora comes from Hesiod in “Works and Days”, as well as his “Theogony” to a lesser extent. It is in these works that we see the first version of her as an ill-fated human that brought evil into the world. As the myth goes, she was the first woman created by the gods, Hephaestus and Athena at the request of Zeus. Zeus requested that she be made as a punishment to be unleashed on mankind, due to the transgressions of Prometheus, who had stolen fire from the gods and given it to man. Hephaestus molded her from the earth, just as man was created, but all of the gods gave her unique and seductive gifts - the translation of her name is “all-gifted.”

When Pandora was delivered to mankind, she brought with her a pithos (an ancient Greek vessel), later misconstrued as a box, which contained disease, pain, and various other evils that were released to the world. However, once the box was opened and Pandora saw all the evils fly out of it, she attempted to replace the lid, leaving one thing behind - hope. Thus, ended the Golden Age of man and the Silver Age began, in which man was not subjected to death. With the introduction of women came birth, leading to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Pandora the Demi-Goddess

Pandora is often accompanied by the epithet “Anesidora,” meaning “she who sends up gifts” which is a variation on Pandora meaning “all-gifted.” Similarly, some have suggested that Pandora’s name does not mean “all gifted” but rather “all-giving.”

The epithet “Anesidora” was more commonly applied to the goddesses Gaea and Demeter, implying that Pandora was akin to these great goddesses rather than the bringer of evil in the world. In classical scholarship, it is generally agreed that, for female deities in particular, it is common for initial deities to be broken down to form splintered, lesser versions. This happened with the so-called “Great Goddess” who would produce goddesses with more specialized functions such as: Gaea, Demeter, Persephone, Artemis, and Hecate. Pandora also appears to be a product of this splintering. It has been suggested, from documentation that is now lost to us, that originally Pandora was an embodiment of the fertility of the earth and its capacity to bear fruits for the benefit of mankind. While it is not in the written record, it can be seen in 5th century BC pottery and therefore scholars have been working with this medium to gain a greater understanding of Pandora prior to Hesiod.

Pandora was a beauty to behold and when he saw her, Epimetheus forgot all the warnings about accepting a gift from Zeus. ‘Pandora,’ Jules Joseph Lefebvre.

Pandora was a beauty to behold and when he saw her, Epimetheus forgot all the warnings about accepting a gift from Zeus. ‘Pandora,’ Jules Joseph Lefebvre. ( Public Domain )

Hesiod’s Socio-Political Role for Pandora

Over time, this image of Pandora as an all giving goddess devolved into the “all-gifted” version of herself that we all know today. A commentary on Hesiod’s works argues that Hesiod shows no awareness of the previous mythology surrounding Pandora in her role of a life-bringing goddess. However, other authorities on the subject argue quite the opposite, that Hesiod was aware of these previous myths and intentionally subverted them in favor of a more patriarchal view. In this sense, it is argued that the myth of Pandora is not a genuine myth but rather an anti-feminist fable of Hesiod’s own devising, that was used as a commentary on the culture that he lived in and that perpetuated his own biases.

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