Pandora’s…Box?

There is one particular myth that has permeated our culture even to this day.  While many of them we reference in our everyday lives without even realizing it, this particular one just stands out to me.  That may have something to do with where I work though.  Either way, the name and word Pandora seems to pop up here and there particularly when referring to bad things or the Danish jewellery brand.  What exactly does the word Pandora mean?

Ah, the Greek language.  I have a love-hate relationship with this ancient language.  I studied it in school and really was not fond of it.  I did learn a lot about language in taking it though.  So, in a way, I do love the language because it to me so much.  I just never want to take another Greek class ever again because it is the single most difficult language that I have ever sat down to try to learn and I have tried Icelandic.  English has a fair amount of Greek based words in it which makes it fairly useful.  The word Pandora is one of the few words that I can think of off the top of my head that has pretty much kept its pronunciation correct from the Greek.  It comes from to words pān and dōron.  These words mean “all” and “gift” or “endowed” respectively.  This would mean that the name comes across as meaning “the all gifted” or “the all endowed”.

Wait!  I thought Pandora opened the box and brought misery to the world!  Well, no, actually in the myth it is not Pandora that opens the box.  Rather, an unwise man opens it.  Either way, Pandora was not the one that released whatever it was from the whatever it was in.  This myth has been so skewed by people that Pandora ends up being the baddie.  What is the deal there?  Well, you can sort of thank Hesiod for that.  He is the one that wrote in his Theogony that she was the first human woman and that she was so beautiful it was practically evil and that men would not withstand her.  Hesiod is the one said those famous words of “evil contends with good”.  He also makes it sort of vague as to who exactly opened the container.  For all he knew she could have opened it because of she is a woman after all.

Despite all this talk of her being evil, she was a good wife because of the many “gifts” she received.  What exactly are those gifts that she has?  Not what a lot of people would think of as gifts.  In this case think of gifts as personality and talents.  Here is a run-down of those gifts she received according to Hesiod gives them in his Works and Days.

  • Hephaestus- He is the one that actually creates her.
  • Athena- She teaches her how weave textiles and do embroidery.  She also gives her clothes.
  • Aphrodite- She gives her grace, longing, and cares.  She also gives her the ability to seduce men.
  • Hermes- He “blessed” her with a cunning disposition, shame, and the ability to make pleasant and cunning speech.  He is also the one that names her.
  • The Charities- They give her jewellery and other accessories.
  • The Horae- They crown her with a garland.
  • The Graces- They give her the ability to be graceful in her movements.

Some of those gifts would be nice to have.  Other, not so much.  Regardless, she was the first human woman of the Ancient Greek belief system and as such, she was showered with all sorts of gifts from their gods.  It makes you wonder exactly was left in that box thing of hers.  In the end it was hope.  Despite the various forms of this myth the world is left with that one thing.  Hope is the one thing that all people have regardless of how bleak a situation looks there is always hope.  So, Pandora left the world of the Ancient Greeks with hope.  How nice of her after whoever released whatever from that container.

 I had mentioned that Pandora’s Box may or may not have been a box at all.  Well wonder no more about what it is!  My Greek class came in handy once again.  In Hesiod’s Works and Days the container in question is called a pithos.  That particular word dose NOT mean box.  To prove my point, here is a picture of pithos that is housed in the Louvre.

See the problem?  How is that a box? Sure does not look like one to me.  How is a storage jar a box?  The Greek word pithos actually means “large jar” and some pithos were as large as a child!  How exactly can one open a box if they do not have one?  They cannot.

How did it get to be a box though?  Erasmus of Rotterdam is the culprit for that screw up.  When this Dutchman translated the myth from Greek into Latin he mistranslated the word pithos to pyxis.  That particular word actually does means box.  Since Latin was the more common of the two classic languages for such a long time with and only those that had an education in the classics, most people believed that Pandora’s container of whatever was in it was indeed a box.  Uneducated people that could not read simply passed the story down orally and the concept seems to have stuck.  Besides, saying that you opened Pandora’s Jar seems a lot less bad than saying you opened Pandora’s Box.  A box has the ability to be kept locked up.  While you can also do this to jars, the concept of something being kept locked up makes people think of treasure chests and safes.  Things that are boxy.

Now that we have established what it was that Pandora had in her possession, what the heck was in it?  There are a couple of different opinions on this. Hesiod writes that it was filled with evil, disease, and death.  When opened, they escaped into the world and that is what lead to the suffering and mortality.  Others write that it was the opposite.  Rather than evil and bad thing, the jar was filled with blessings.  In this case, when the jar was opened all but one of the blessings escaped before the lid was able to be put back on.  People seem to get caught up on Hesiod’s version of the story though.  Why is that?  Well, truth is, Christianity is what caused people to favour that version.  Think about what the story is about.  The story is about how humans were created on the Earth and how evil and death came in to the world.  The main culprit for evil and death being brought into the world is the first human created.  Sound familiar?  Oh yeah, that is how the “Book of Genesis” starts!  When Christianity started spreading and they needed a way to convert the non-believers they pointed out similarity in the old myths of the people they were trying to convert.  Yeah we totally get what you are talking about!  We have that same story except we call the people by different names and the jar is actually some sort of fruit!  It worked and Christianity spread throughout Greece.  The Church did the same thing over and over again for various other things as well.  That is why we celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus when we do rather than in the spring when he was actually born.  The Romans already had a holiday there so they just replaced the figures that were being worshiped and ta-da!  The Roman Catholic Church gained a lot of new converts and the religion has now spread all over the world.

So there you have it.  We now know that Pandora had a jar, not a box.  We also know why people tell the version of the myth that they do and completely disregard the other version. 

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