Pandora Box or Pandora’s Jar? Women in Greek Myths- 1

Last year at Christmas our daughter sent us two beautiful gifts as per our interests. With my keen interest in women’s issues, refraining from using the word Feminist, I received Natalie Haynes, ‘Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths’. Her Dad received Gulzar’s, ‘A Poem a Day’, an amazing collection of poems in 34 Indian languages by 279 poets, with the English translation. Must have been a lifetime of work. Well so must have been Natalie Haynes’ search for women in the Greek myths.

Natalie Haynes, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths

Natalie Haynes chooses ten women in Greek myths whose stories have been told and retold, in paintings, jars, films, operas, musicals. She noticed that major women characters in the original versions became nonexistent or pale shadows of themselves as time passed and with each retelling. The stores as told in the films are the version that most people see, remember and believe. In this fascinating book she retells the story of these ten Greek mythical women, delves into ancient texts and foregrounds them.

I plan to write a review, as I read them, of the tales of these women in the Greek myths as retold and foregrounded by Haynes. Of course my pace will be slow as I and my co-authors are engaged in writing/ rewriting and putting out academic publications, important for our present careers!! Putting out is the wrong phrase, more like uploading on academic journal sites, which does not necessarily mean they see the light of day! Interestingly, all but one of my co-authors are women. Feel a little like the women hidden in the Greek Myths!

The first story Haynes recounts is of Pandora. She is credited, or rather discredited, with being the person who opened the Pandora’s ‘Box’ and created all the troubles for the world. She is much like Eve, who is discredited with the first sin of the human race! Now was it a ‘Box’ or a ‘Jar’ and is it possible that it tilted over accidentally? Haynes argues for this possibility given the high center of gravity of Greek jars portrayed in ancient paintings!

Pandora depicted with the infamous Pandora’s Box! Probably work of Rosetti, 1871

Pandora originally appears in two of Hesiod’s works, a short appearance in the poem ‘Theogony’ and a longer description in ‘Works and Days’ around 8th century BC. Hesiod was a Greek poet said to have written around 750-650 BC and, along with Homer, is credited with establishing Greek religious customs

Hesiod’s poem ‘Theogony’ described Pandora as ‘kalon kakon’ or beautiful evil. ‘Theogony’ catalogues the genealogy of the Gods. First comes Chaos, Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (Underworld) and Eros (Love), Chaos, Erebus (Darkness) and Night, Night creates Day and Air, Earth creates heaven. Heaven (Ouranos/Uranus) and Gaia (Earth) have multiple children including Kronos and Rhea. Ouranos hides his children in a cavern away from light. To get away from the oppression Kronos castrates his father and throws him into the sea.  Kronos and Rhea have multiple children, but Kronos swallows all of them, as he is warned that one of them will overthrow him. Rhea has Zeus in secret, who forces Kronos to regurgitate his older siblings. Zeus takes over the mantle of King of the Gods. Zeus is clever and strategic, but is deceived by Prometheus twice. The second deception is the theft of fire that Prometheus shares with the human beings. Zeus wishes to punish him and that is where Pandora comes in. 

Zeus gets Hephaestus, God of fire, and son of Zeus and Hera, to mould from earth the likeness of a woman. Goddess Athena dresses the maiden in silver clothing with a veil and a golden crown. When they finish they show the ‘kalon kakon’, beautiful evil, to the other gods who realize that the mortal men will not be able to resist her. According to Hesiod from this woman comes the entire race of women.

Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’ has a more detailed version of the story. Zeus is angered by the theft of Prometheus and vows to give them an evil as the price of fire. Pandora is created with immortality, beautiful face, golden graces and the skill of weaving. Hermes (God of war) gives Pandora as a gift to Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, who accepts it though he was warned by his brother not to accept gifts from Zeus.

Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’ in Greek was translated into Latin by Erasmus in the 16th Century. He wrongly translated the Greek ‘pithos’ meaning jar for ‘puxos’, transliterated ‘Pyxis’, meaning box. Hermes gives her a ‘doglike’ mind and a dishonest nature. .

In more recent times, Roger Lancelyn Green’s ‘Tales of the Greek Heroes’, published in 1958, depicts Pandora as opening the box when Epimetheus is out. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Tangle wood Tales for Boys and Girls’, published in 1853, Pandora is sent to the child Epimetheus so that he would have a playmate. When she enters the cottage she sees this great box and is curious. The tale does not say who sent her and why. Hawthorne loads the narrative against her. Pandora’s unquenchable curiosity is seen as a sin. The role of Zeus, Hephaestus and Athena in creating Pandora, Hermes in delivering her and Epimetheus in not preventing her from opening the box is ‘whitewashed from the story’.

Aesop’s Fables, are still popular with children, are considered to be written by a group of writers. Aesop himself was perhaps a slave or may not have existed at all. In Aesop’s version Pandora is not the guilty one.

Zeus and the Jar of Good Things (Aesop’s Fables): ‘Zeus gathered all the useful things together in a jar and put a lid on it. He then left the jar in human hands. But man had no self-control and he wanted to know what was in that jar, so he pushed the lid aside, letting those things go back to the abode of the gods. So all the good things flew away, soaring high above the earth, and Hope was the only thing left. When the lid was put back on the jar, Hope was kept inside.’ Man lets all good things disappear, but hope is still there ‘that she will bestow on each of us the good things that have gone away’. Unfortunately, as names are not mentioned, Pandora’s good name cannot be restored!

Artists: Painters, sculptors and others concentrated on the ‘box’ or ‘jar’. Rosetti, in 1871, completed a portrait of Pandora holding a golden casket. Fingers of her right hand keep the casket slightly open. There is a coil of orange smoke emanating from the box open a crack. Just above Pandora’s left thumb is an inscription that translates ‘born in flames’, making whatever is in the box appear sinister.

While in the much earlier version of Hesiod, Pandora is the origin of the entire race of women, which was lost in the later versions. The more widely seen and read versions focus on the ‘box’ apparently full of woes. The Oxford Dictionary meaning of Pandora’s Box, ‘a process that, if started, will cause many problems that cannot be solved’. Pandora has in more recent reading become the ‘beautiful evil’ that started all problems for human kind. Pandora became the much maligned woman of the ‘Pandora’s Box’! That she is the origin of the race of women is long forgotten.


7 thoughts on “Pandora Box or Pandora’s Jar? Women in Greek Myths- 1

  1. All evils were loosed from the jar into the world of mortals but hope retained. Is there no hope for humanity in Hesiod’s view? Or is evil now a characteristic of mortals but hope still an attribute of the divine? (And yet elsewhere he states that there are evil gods.) I’m unclear on the interpretation.


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