We have the story of Pandora from two 7th-century BC poems by Hesiod. But some things have been lost in translationby Charlotte Higgins / November 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
Pandora: you know the one. The first woman. The one who opens her box, letting all the evils of the world fly out of it. And what’s left in the box after everything else has escaped? Hope.
I’ve been thinking a bit about Pandora recently. Partly because she gives her name to Natalie Haynes’s wise new book about women in the Greek myths, Pandora’s Jar. Partly because I’ve rewritten her story for a book of my own, coming next year.
Hers is a fun story (especially if you are not a woman) but, as Haynes points out, the received version of it is a bit off-kilter. The box isn’t a box, for a start. In the original Greek, it’s a jar—think of one of those big terracotta storage jars. Haynes points out how this seemingly small distinction makes a real difference to the tone of the story. Locked boxes seem mysterious. Perhaps they contain secrets, treasure or jewels. Dante Gabriel Rossetti made a wonderful painting of Pandora using the heavy-browed, languid-mouthed Jane Morris as his model. In it she hugs a carved box to herself, about to open it. And how could she not? It looks irresistible. A jar, though: that’s something more workaday. A person would have every reason to open a storage jar. You’d reasonably expect it to contain useful things: grain, or oil.
We have the story of Pandora from two 7th-century BC poems by Hesiod: Works and Days and Theogony. The former is a kind of poetic farming manual, with homespun advice mixed in with mythical stories; the latter, an account of the origins of the world.
The stories he tells of Pandora are quite odd, when looked at coolly. She is created as a punishment to mankind, after Prometheus steals Zeus’ godly fire to give to humans, and is sent to Prometheus’s brother, Epimetheus. He forgets his brother’s advice never to accept a gift from the king of the gods, lest it be not quite benign.
The jar, in Hesiod’s stories, comes out of nowhere; there’s no explanation or context. Unanswered questions include: does it arrive with her? Is it owned by Epimetheus? And why does hope stay…