Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Observations on the Pandora myth

We're all familiar with the Pandora story, how she was given a box and commanded not to open it. Yet, overcome with curiosity she succumbs and opens it, releasing all the evils into the world. Fortunately, she has the power of mind to close it before all hope is lost.

Is there more to this simple fairytale? I submit that there may be a historical nucleus buried within it. First, a more comprehensive review of this story is in order.

In Greek mythology, Epimetheus ("hindsight", literally "afterthinker,") was the brother of Prometheus ("foresight", literally "fore-thought"), a pair of Titans who were entrusted with distributing the traits among the newly-created animals. Epimetheus was responsible for giving a positive trait to every animal, but when it was time to give man a positive trait, lacking foresight he found that there was nothing left. Prometheus decided that mankind's attributes would be the civilizing arts and fire, which he stole from Apollo's sun chariot. When Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus took vengeance by presenting the first woman, named Pandora, to Epimetheus. Prometheus warned his brother not to accept any gifts from Zeus. But Epimetheus did not listen and accepted Pandora.

Pandora ("all-gifted" or "all-giving") was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay, and each god helped create her by giving her unique gifts. With her, Pandora was given a beautiful jar (pithos), mistranslated as "box,"[1] which she was not to open under any circumstances. Impelled by her curiosity given to her by the gods, Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but alas the entire contents had escaped, except for one item that lay at the bottom--the angel of Hope named Astrea. Pandora was deeply saddened by what she had done, and was afraid that she would have to face Zeus' wrath since she had failed her duty; however, Zeus did not punish her, because he knew this would happen.

Deeper meaning

First, it has become apparent that Pandora's pithos represents her womb as the pithos jar is womb-like in shape. Her being the first woman would certainly remind us of Eve in the Genesis creation account, and by extension that sin and death proceeded from her womb. Epimetheus would then remind us of Adam, the one who was responsible for naming each animal, who accepted the first woman, and who acted foolishly, lacking foresight and being undeceived. (1 Timothy 2:14) Prometheus, on the other hand, would call to mind Satan, who used the Edenic serpent that was called 'cautious, prudent, clever, and shrewd' (Genesis 3:1), the proposed basis for his name. He is also portrayed as mankind's true advocate, giving them valuable gifts and and warning them against the wiles of heaven!

Thus it seems that the Pandora's pithos story is another Garden of Eden based myth, and a dark one at that, with layers of symbolism and Hellenization wrapped around it.

[1] Mistranslated by sixteenth century monk Erasmus who changed the original Greek word pithos to Latin pyxis, box.

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