What Was the Real Story of Pandora in Mythology?
You might think you know the story of Pandora, but how much do you really know about the first woman of Greek mythology and her terrible gifts?
According to most Greek mythographers, women seemed to bring nothing but evil into the world.
Before the creation of the first woman, men lived in a Golden Age. They were healthy, ageless males who did not know hunger, exhaustion, illness, or other forms of suffering.
All that changed when the first woman was sent to live among them. She was a deceitful and cunning person who brought all the miseries that made life difficult for her descendants.
That is the most common reading of the Pandora mythology. Many scholars believe, however, that there are other ways to view the Greek legend.
The Story of Pandora and her Gifts
The story of Pandora begins with the Titan Prometheus. Once a friend of the gods, he had disobeyed Zeus by repeatedly helping humanity.
To punish the human race for one of the Titan’s actions, Zeus had taken away the gift of fire. Knowing that people would soon freeze to death and starve without the ability to make fire, Prometheus again defied Zeus by stealing it back and returning it to humanity.
For this crime, Prometheus was bound with unbreakable chains on a remote mountaintop. Each day, his liver was torn out by the enormous Caucasion Eagle.
Humanity, too, needed to be punished. They had gone against Zeus’s will when they had accepted the fire back from Prometheus to save their own lives.
Rather than taking something away from men, however, Zeus decided to give them something that would punish them eternally.
The Golden Age of men that lived on Earth at that time were all male. They lived in relative comfort and knew neither death nor old age. Zeus’s punishment would change all of that.
He commanded Hephaestus to make a new person out of clay. He was to give it a feminine shape that was previously known only from the goddesses.
When Hephaestus was done, the other Olympians gave this new type of human their own gifts. Any of them could be beneficial, but they could also bring strife and suffering with them.
Hermes taught her to speak and gave her a quick wit. He also made her an adept liar, however.
Aphrodite gifted the woman with beauty, charm, and grace. These gifts were pleasing, but they would also cause men to fight amongst themselves for her favor.
Athena taught her needlework and weaving so she could create beautiful and functional objects. She did not grant her wisdom or strength at arms, however.
When all this was done, Hermes gave the first woman her name. She was Pandora, “All Gifts.”
Prometheus had the gift of foresight, so he warned his brother Epimetheus not to accept anything that Zeus gave him. When Epimetheus was presented with Pandora to be his wife, however, he forgot about his brother’s words of caution.
What Epimetheus did not know was that Pandora did not only receive gifts from the gods for herself, she had also brought more with her.
The Olympians had given her a large jar, mistakenly identified as a box in later translations, with instructions not to open it. Some myths said that her guile and deceitfulness prompted her to open it at the first opportunity, while others said that innocent curiosity was to blame.
Either way, the first woman released a plague of ills that would end the Golden Age and cause suffering to mankind forever.
Classical writers did not identify the curses that Pandora released, but most scholars interpret them as the daimones of harm. They included old age, illness, hunger, and death.
According to many sources, Pandora tried to close the lid as quickly as possible when she saw these evils fly out of her jar. She managed to preserve hope, the only good thing she had brought with her.
Pandora famously released evil into the world, but that was not the end of the story.
She and Epimetheus remained married, and she was the first human woman on earth. Their daughter, Pyrrah, would be the first person who was not born to a goddess.
Pyrrah married Deucalion and together they survived the great flood that Zeus sent to destroy the wicked men of the Bronze Age. They repopulated the earth by casting stones over their shoulders that turned into a new race of men and women.
As the mother of Pyrrah, Pandora was the direct ancestor of mankind in Greek mythology. The first woman and her daughter gave rise to all the people of the earth who were not descended from the gods.
My Modern Interpretation
The mythology of Pandora has been studied widely by scholars of many fields for centuries.
Many scholars have seen evidence that the story long predated its earliest written form, which was by Hesiod. They believe that the myth was inverted and once showed Pandora and her gifts in a much more positive light.
The story of Pandora may have once been one in which the gods sent her with things that would improve humanity’s lot. Her still in weaving, for example, enabled them to create warm clothing.
Changes within the culture likely prompted the moral of the story to shift as well. According to many, this shift was likely the transition into a more patriarchal culture.
Like many ancient societies, the earliest Greek people were likely less male-dominated than they were when wealth, military power, and political clout became of greater importance. Even if not entirely matriarchal, the earliest people of Greece were probably more egalitarian than their descendants.
Such a change could have prompted the rewriting of Pandora’s story into one in which the worst plagues of mankind are brought by the first woman. By the time the story was written, Pandora was not only blamed for the evils she released but also used to stereotype all women as cunning, manipulative, unwise, and deceitful.
This trend is one that is seen in many religions. Some people have pointed out, for example, similarities between Pandora and the Biblical Eve.
Both of these women were warned by their deities not to do something. When they did, they brought about the end of a peaceful and innocent time and began humanity’s cycle of suffering and death.
Some archaeologists believe that evidence of this beneficial Pandora’s mythology survived in art even when the story that was written painted her in a negative light. Some early images, for example, show her emerging from the ground in the same way that the motherly fertility goddesses often do.
A possible interpretation is that Pandora was once revered, possibly by a pre-Greek culture, as a mother figure. She may have been an earth goddess or a human, but her story was twisted until her gifts became negative traits instead of the gifts of food and wealth that mother goddesses typically provide.
The same name is, in fact, occasionally used as an epithet of Gaia. The original story may have been of an aspect of the mother goddess of the earth coming to bring humanity her gifts.
It has also been suggested that Pandora functions as an opposite to Athena, one of the most revered goddesses in the pantheon.
An image of Pandora is featured in a prominent place among the friezes of the Athenian Acropolis. This reinforces the link between the two and has provided support for this interpretation.
According to this view, the people of Athens viewed the Pandora legend through the lens of their own high-structured civic order. One represented ideals while the other represented the dangers posed by losing them.
Both Athena and Pandora were motherless female characters. They embodied much different versions of femininity.
Pandora was given wiles, cunning, and deception as her chief traits. Athena rejected these, however, and exemplified the more ideal pursuits of virtue, wisdom, and the promotion of truth and law.
To the Athenians, Pandora represented the chaos and dangers of the human world. Athena, however, embodied the civilized laws and structure that allowed their culture to rise above these problems and flourish.
According to Greek writers, Pandora was the first human woman. She was created by the gods to punish mankind for taking the fire that Prometheus had stolen from them.
Created by Hephaestus, Pandora was given her worse traits by the gods. She was deceitful, manipulative, and her feminine beauty would cause men to fight one another.
She was sent to live among mankind to sew discord. She also took with her a jar, often mistranslated as a box, that she opened to unleash every form of suffering that would affect later generations.
While the story of Pandora makes her gifts, both those in the jar and those of her femininity, all negative, many scholars believe that her story can be interpreted in another way.
Some think that the Pandora myth was once a much more positive one. As the mother of mankind, possibility an earth goddess, Pandora’s gifts were those of fertility, nourishment, and mercy.
Changing societal views, however, led to the myth being reimagined to blame Pandora for all of humanity’s woes. She represented chaos and suffering even though she was the mother of mankind.