The Myth of Pandora’s Box | History Hit

The Myth of Pandora’s Box

Lawrence Alma-Tadema's water-colour of an ambivalent Pandora, 1881
Image Credit: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A famous myth 

Pandora is one of the most notorious characters from Greek mythology. She was the first human woman, created by Hephaestus on the instructions of the King of the Gods, Zeus.

As she was created, Pandora was bestowed a unique attribute by each of the Gods. Thus her name has the meaning of ‘the all-endowed’, the ‘all-gifted’ or ‘all-giving’. According to some sources, she was taught needlework and weaving by Athena. The goddess Aphrodite ‘shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs’. Hermes, the herald of the Gods, gave her ‘a shameless mind and a deceitful nature’ as well as the power of rhetoric, with ‘lies and crafty words’. She was given necklaces and clothing by the Charities, and a garland crown by the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons.

However, Pandora’s fame derives from a more sinister episode, connected with Hesiod’s poem Works and Days, dating from around 700 BC. Driven by intense curiosity, Pandora disobeys instructions and opens a forbidden jar. However, her disobedience soon backfires for as the jar is opened, ‘countless plagues’ are released into the world – an array of physical and emotional curses which torment mankind. As Hesiod put it, the earth and sea were now ‘full of evils’.

This story has gone down in time as an idiom. The jar is a representation of any source of great and unexpected troubles, or a gift which seems valuable but turns out to be a curse.

The truth about one of the most misunderstood figures of Ancient Greek mythology.
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An artistic inspiration

Images of Pandora began to appear on Greek pottery as early as the 5th century BC, and the drama of Pandora’s story has been a rich source of inspiration for later poets, dramatists, painters and sculptors throughout history.

It has, however, diverted somewhat from Hesiod’s original account, as the jar is commonly referred to as a box. This is largely attributed to a mistranslation of ‘pithos‘, as a large storage jar, as ‘box’ (the original being ‘pyxis‘). This was an error by the humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, who translated Hesiod’s work. However, it has given rise to the idea of ‘Pandora’s Box’ (rather than ‘Pandora’s Jar’).

One artist who was inspired by this episode was Jean Cousin the Elder, a 16th century French painter and engraver. His painting ‘Eva Prima Pandora‘, dating from the 1540s (now in the Louvre) is considered to be his masterpiece. It depicts a nude woman reclining in a natural landscape with a town in the distance.

Jean Cousin the Elder, ‘Eva Prima Pandora’, Louvre, Paris, 1550

Image Credit: Jean Cousin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As she rests on a skull, she holds an apple branch in her right hand, and allows a serpent to twist around her left. This is clearly Eve, a symbol of original sin and the fall of mankind. However, Cousin also leaves a sign reading ‘Eva Prima Pandora’, hinting at Pandora’s mistake which also brought sin into the world. Both women are linked with a common theme: their flawed femininity and – as in this painting, womanly seduction – causing the downfall of mankind.

This damning view – which was common in the Renaissance period – faced some rebuttal in the following centuries, suggesting that Pandora’s curiosity was a natural human instinct. Some pointed the blame towards Epimetheus, Pandora’s husband, as the figure responsible for opening the jar. The French poet, Isaac de Benserade, also penned a poem of the tale in 1676, giving a light-hearted edge:

In a jar an odious treasure is
Shut by the gods’ wish:
A gift that’s not everyday,
The owner’s Pandora alone;
And her eyes, this in hand,
Command the best in the land
As she flits near and far;
Prettiness can’t stay
Shut in a jar.
Someone took her eye, he took
A look at what pleased her so
And out came the grief and woe
We won‘t ever be rid of,
For heaven had hidden
That in the jar.

The Pre-Raphaelites

By the 19th century, Pandora’s tragic story had become popular with the Pre-Raphaelite artists, particularly Rossetti. His portrait of Pandora depicts her red-robed with an expressive gaze and her fingers wrapped around the jewelled casket, with the spirits of evil escaping in a cloud of smoke.

‘Pandora’ by John William Waterhouse

Image Credit: John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This passionate, seductive depiction is – like the original tale – linked with temptation and sin, for the model is a lover, Jane Morris – the wife of Rossetti’s friend William Morris. Jane’s long sad face, wide eyes and great mass of dark curls was, for the Pre-Raphaelite artists, a vision of ideal beauty.

Another artist who embraced the pre-Raphaelite style, John William Waterhouse, also dedicated a canvas to Pandora in 1896. This was in keeping with his work, which was known for depictions of women from ancient Greek and Arthurian mythology.

In this painting, Pandora is depicted as a beautiful maiden in a mystical woodland scene, kneeling down to have a close view of the box, which is seductively golden and ornate. But this scene of youth, beauty and peace is already disrupted. Although Pandora is unaware, a thin wisp of smoke escapes the box – the evil spirits free to torment mankind forever.

Alice Loxton