Is Pandora's box really the origin of all evil? Think again

We have the story of Pandora from two 7th-century BC poems by Hesiod. But some things have been lost in translation
November 9, 2020

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 under the lip when everything else escapes? That always used to bug me as a child: surely we do have hope, and we can’t have hope if it is still stuck in Pandora’s box, or jar. In Greek, the word is elpis. Some scholars wonder whether the force of it here is better expressed as “expectation” than “hope.” Maybe the idea is that humans lack a reasonable sense of the future, which would certainly explain our inability to deal with the climate crisis.

Haynes is very good at examining the story, pointing out that the blame for the whole evils-escaping-into-the-world thing could be placed at Zeus’ door, or Prometheus’, or Epimetheus’, as much as at Pandora’s. And Pandora is splendid: she is given a wonderful gown and garlands of flowers and jewels. Nevertheless, all that loveliness seems only the wrapping for evil. If you want a foundational, straight-down-the-line, misogynist myth with vast cultural power, look no further.

It’s the sort of story that makes me want to turn immediately to the lines in Euripides’ play Medea, in which the chorus of women imagine a topsy-turvy world where rivers flow backwards, a woman’s life will shine with glory, and the muses will silence the old songs that tell of female treachery.