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.
Human beings have been telling stories since they first learned to speak. And even before we could speak, we managed to tell stories by drawing and painting pictures on the walls of the caves we lived in.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, before even your teachers were born, there lived some really great storytellers. Their stories have been passed down, retold, translated, adapted and, more recently, written down, because everyone loves a good story! Do some of your favorites include haunting and murder, treasure and battle, wicked deeds and heroic actions? These stories probably include legends, myths, and folktales.
The story of Pandora’s box begins with the story of Zeus, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were Titans but pledged their loyalty to Zeus and the Olympians, since Prometheus was born with the special power of prophecy and knew that Zeus would defeat the Titans. Zeus rewarded Prometheus and Epimetheus for their loyalty and gave them the job of creating the first creatures to live on Earth. Epimetheus formed the animals and gave each a special skill and form of protection.
Prometheus took his time molding man and was left with no forms of protection since Epimetheus had already given them all away. Prometheus knew man needed some form of protection and asked Zeus if he could let a man have the fire. Zeus refused. The fire was only for the gods. Prometheus ignored Zeus and gave man fire anyway. For this, Prometheus was punished. Zeus tied him with chains to a rock far away in the Caucasus Mountains where nobody would find him. Every day Zeus sent an eagle to feast upon Prometheus’ liver, which grew back every day so that Prometheus would have to endure this torture daily until Heracles found Prometheus and killed the eagle and let Prometheus go.
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.
A “Pandora’s box” is a metaphor in our modern languages, and the proverbial phrase refers to a source of endless complications or trouble arising from a single, simple miscalculation. Pandora’s story comes to us from ancient Greek mythology, specifically a set of epic poems by Hesiod, called the Theogony and Works and Days. Written during the 7th century BC, these poems relate how the gods came to create Pandora and how the gift Zeus gave her ultimately ends the Golden Age of humankind.
At this point, you may recognize in Pandora the story of the Biblical Eve. She too was the first woman, and she too was responsible for destroying an innocent, all-male Paradise and unleashing suffering ever after. Are the two related?
Several scholars including Brown and Kirk argue that the Theogony was based on Mesopotamian tales, although blaming a woman for all the evils of the world is definitely more Greek than Mesopotamian. Both Pandora and Eve may well share a similar source.