Updated: Jul 23
Pandora and her jar are irrevocably entwined. But who was Pandora without her jar? More importantly, would the jar exist without Pandora? Presumably it would. In Greek mythology. the jar contained evil things that Zeus, an ancient Greek god, wished to unleash upon mankind as punishment for earlier sins. So it stands to reason that the jar would exist with, or without Pandora. Surely Zeus did not require the assistance of a woman to reek havoc on mankind. Was Pandora his scapegoat? Or merely a convenient lure employed by Zeus for the execution of his vindictive plan? Does Pandora, without her jar, pose any risk to society? After all, Pandora did not create the evil things in the jar, nor did she knowingly unleash them into the world. She was created by the gods to play a lead role in a tragic play. She was only a puppet, but she played her part to perfection.
First up, you may be wondering why I am using ‘mankind’ rather than my preferred ‘humankind.’ Well, apparently Pandora was the first woman from which all others descended. I’m not sure if that means women didn’t exist on Earth at all, or the ones that did, did not survive. Perhaps this distinction was not very important to Hesiod, the author of the oldest known account of Pandora’s story. Either way, Pandora was the first woman of import, and she was very beautiful and evil (these being her two most important attributes, in addition to her weaving skills).
Pandora was made by the gods from clay, for the specific purpose of punishing mankind. Zeus, the leader of these gods, was pissed off at Prometheus (also a god) for stealing fire and giving it to the humans. So rude. To add to the humiliation, he tricked Zeus into taking the lesser of the two sacrificial offerings made to him, thereby leaving the best cuts of meat to the humans. Resultantly Zeus decided that the humans needed to be punished. Prometheus was also punished, but that’s a different story.
Zeus commanded the gods to create a woman with the face of a goddess, so beautiful that no man (or god) could resist. She was given a silver dress, a golden crown, and a dishonest nature. They named her Pandora, which means ‘gift’ or ‘all-giving’ and she was promptly gifted to Prometheus’s brother like chattel. Prometheus’s brother was called Epimetheus and he had been pre-warned by Prometheus not to accept gifts from Zeus. But he was either too forgetful, too enamoured, or indifferent, and Pandora was delivered to her new home with her infamous jar.
Pandora’s jar is commonly depicted as a box. According to author and expert Natalie Haynes, Pandora’s jar has been incorrectly interpreted or translated into a box, when it was actually a tall ceramic storage jar or vase, commonly used in ancient Greece. It must have had a lid and it presumably came with Pandora, since in Hesiod’s version the jar suddenly appears at Epimetheus’ place when she arrives. As such, it is not unreasonable that Pandora would open her own storage case. It was, after all, Pandora’s jar and not anyone else’s. Haynes points out that while Hesiod describes Pandora as an evil “in which all men will delight”, he says nothing about her over burgeoning curiosity. The curse of curiosity was ascribed to Pandora much later in the retelling.
In later versions, Pandora’s participation became more active and calculated. Centuries after Hesiod, the jar became a casket or chest which existed in Epimetheus’ house and was opened stealthily by Pandora either while he was out, or against his instructions. With this development, Pandora becomes more culpable and yet no consideration is given as to why Epimetheus is harbouring this treasure-trove of evil, or how it got there in the first place. Epimetheus holds no accountability for his lapse in safeguarding the box, or for letting Pandora into his home, against which he was forewarned (although this information is omitted in later versions). All blame is placed on Pandora, simultaneously warning women against the temptation of curiosity, and explaining why all the problems of mankind are the fault of womankind. It is not difficult to draw similarities with the story of Eve who was tempted by the fruit of the forbidden tree and subsequently blamed for all the sins of mankind. It seems that blaming women for the bad behaviour of men was a popular and enduring theme which still prevails today.
In the original version, Pandora was more passive. While Hesiod dedicated many words to Pandora’s appearance, he devotes few words to her personality, employing only general terms such as ‘evil’ and ‘deadly’. Her personality is of no interest, as she is merely a vessel through which Zeus exacts his revenge on mankind. Like the jar itself, she is an object, a container of misfortune, disguised in shiny silver cloth, like a bomb wrapped up in silk. This dichotomy between her alluring façade and the danger she carries within, is no doubt what Hesiod refers to as her ‘dishonest nature’. Her deceit, however, is not of her own making. Haynes raises the question of “how much agency does Pandora really have?” Could she have fought back against Zeus, the most powerful of all gods? She had no allies or routes of escape. Her fate was sealed the moment Zeus decided to create her.
Once Pandora opens the jar all the evils escape into the world. Prior to this moment, mortal men were living their best lives, free from hard work, disease and enticingly beautiful women. After these countless evils were unleashed, only Hope remained, trapped under the lid of the jar. As Haynes points out, the meaning of this last point is ambiguous. “Is Hope being saved for us inside the jar?” she asks, or “would we be in better shape if Hope travelled among [the evils]?” Is Hope's entrapment another means by which the gods are punishing us? It is difficult to interpret the specific meaning of Hope remaining under the lid, but the introduction of ‘Hope’ suggests this detail is intended to provide a happy ending in what is otherwise a depressing story.
The more intriguing question is: how did Hope get inside that jar in the first place? Did Zeus throw her in at the last minute or was she smuggled in by another god? Sadly, Hesiod does not provide any light on this and the answer to this riddle is lost to antiquity.
Above: Hope by Leah Mariani
I like to imagine Pandora as she sat down and prised open that jar. Was she expecting something nice, like chocolate or a daffodils? What was going through her mind as she watched all the evils escape? Was she feeling guilt, fear or horror? No doubt she was stunned and confused, taking a few moments to work out what was happening. I imagine her eyes wide open in panic, as she blinks once, and then twice in confusion. As the reality of the situation sets in, her eyes narrow and her hand slams the lid back down, accidentally trapping Hope inside. Seeing Hope under the lid must give Pandora a sense of relief and calmness.
While the evils of this world roam free and exert their powers in unpredictable ways, Hope remains nearby, a steady and constant presence, always close to us. In this small act of defiance, Pandora changed her destiny and saved humankind from utter hopelessness and devastation. So perhaps she’s not so evil after all.
You can read more about the stories of Greek mythology here.
Above: Detail from Pandora by Leah Mariani
About the artist
This article was inspired by Natalie's Haynes' awesome book Pandora's Jar.
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