Pandora's box

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Lawrence Alma-Tadema's water-colour of an ambivalent Pandora, 1881
A pithos from Crete, c. 675 BC. Louvre

Pandora's box is an artifact in Greek mythology, taken from the myth of Pandora in Hesiod's Works and Days.[1] The container mentioned in the original story is actually a large storage jar but the word was later mistranslated as "box". In modern times an idiom has grown from it meaning "Any source of great and unexpected troubles",[2] or alternatively "A present which seems valuable but which in reality is a curse".[3] Later artistic treatments of the fatal container have been very varied, while some literary treatments have focused more on the contents of the idiomatic box than on Pandora herself.

In mythology[edit]

According to Hesiod, when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus, the king of the gods, took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus. Pandora opened a jar left in his care containing death and many other evils which were then released into the world. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped except for one thing that lay at the bottom – usually translated as Hope, though it could also have the pessimistic meaning of "deceptive expectation".[4]

From this story has grown the idiom "to open (a) Pandora's box", meaning to do or start something that will cause many unforeseen problems.[5] Its modern, more colloquial equivalent is "to open a can of worms".[6]

Etymology of the "box"[edit]

An Attic pyxis, 440–430 BC. British Museum

The word now translated as "box" was actually a large jar (πίθος pithos) in the Greek.[7] [8] It was used for storage of wine, oil, grain or other provisions, or, ritually, as a container for a human body for burying, from which it was believed souls escaped and necessarily returned.[9] Many scholars see a close analogy between Pandora herself, who was made from clay, and the clay jar which dispenses evils.[10]

The mistranslation of pithos is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Erasmus who, in his Latin account of the story of Pandora, changed the Greek pithos to pyxis, meaning "box".[11] The context in which the story appeared was Erasmus' collection of proverbs, the Adagia (1508), in illustration of the Latin saying Malo accepto stultus sapit (from experiencing trouble a fool is made wise). In his version the box is opened by Epimetheus, whose name means 'Afterthought' – or as Hesiod comments, "he whom mistakes made wise".[12]

Different versions of the container[edit]


Later in the 16th century, two Venetian artists designed prints of the story of the box that focussed on its allegorical meaning. In that by Paolo Farinati, dated between 1584/94, Epimetheus has lifted the lid from (in this case) the jar that Pandora is holding. Out of it boils a cloud which carries up a man and a dragon; between them they support a scroll reading "sero nimirum sapere caepit". Its message, 'finding out too late', is reminiscent of the proverb recorded by Erasmus, Malo accepto stultus sapit.[13]

An Allegory of Les Sciences qui Éclairent l'esprit de l'homme (The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit, 1557), an etching ascribed to Marco Angelo del Moro

The other print is ascribed to Marco Angelo del Moro (active 1565 – 1586) and is much more enigmatic. Usually titled "Pandora's Box, or The Sciences that Illuminate the Human Spirit", it portrays a woman in antique dress opening an ornate coffer from which spill books, manuscripts, snakes and bats. By Pandora's side is a woman carrying a burning brand, while a horned figure flees in the opposite direction. Above is a curved vault painted with signs of the zodiac to which the sun-god Apollo is pointing, while opposite him another figure falls through the stars. Commentators ascribe different meanings to these symbols as contradictory as the contents of the chest. In one reading, the hand Pandora holds up to her face makes her the figure of Ignorance.[14] Alternatively her eyes are protected because she is dazzled and the snakes crawling from the chest are ancient symbols of wisdom.[15] Apollo, seated above, points to Aquarius, the zodiacal sign of January/February, which marks the "Ascent of the Sun" from the trough of winter. The falling figure opposite him may be identified either as Lucifer or as night fleeing before the dawn; in either case, the darkness of ignorance is about to be dispelled. The question remains whether the box thus opened will in the end be recognised as a blessing; whether the ambiguous nature of knowledge is either to help or to hurt.

In later centuries the emphasis in art has generally been on the person of Pandora. With few exceptions the box has appeared merely as her attribute. René Magritte's street scene of 1951, however, one of the few modern paintings to carry the title "Pandora's Box", is as enigmatic as were the Renaissance allegorical prints.[16]


In the first half of the 18th-century, three French plays were produced with the title "Pandora's Box" (La Boîte – or Boëte – de Pandore). In each of these the main interest is in the social and human effects of the evils released from the box and in only one of them does Pandora figure as a character. The 1721 play by Alain René Lesage appeared as part of the longer La Fausse Foire.[17] It was a one-act prose drama of 24 scenes in the commedia dell'arte style. At its opening, Mercury has been sent in the guise of Harlequin to check whether the box given by Jupiter to the animated statue Pandora has been opened. He proceeds to stir up disruption in her formerly happy village, unleashing ambition, competition, greed, envy, jealousy, hatred, injustice, treachery and ill-health. Amid the social breakdown, Pierrot falls out with the bride he was about to marry at the start of the play and she becomes engaged instead to a social upstart.

The play by Philippe Poisson (1682-1743) was a one-act verse comedy first produced in 1729. There Mercury visits the realm of Pluto to interview the ills shortly to be unleashed on mankind. The characters Old Age, Migraine, Destitution, Hatred, Envy, Paralysis, Quinsy, Fever and Transport (emotional instability) report their effects to him. They are preceded by Love, who argues that he deserves to figure among them as a bringer of social disruption.[18] The later play of 1743 was written by Pierre Brumoy and subtitled "curiosity punished" (la curiosité punie).[19] The three-act satirical verse comedy is set in the home of Epimetheus and the six children recently created by Prometheus. Mercury comes on a visit, bringing the fatal box with him. In it are the evils soon to subvert the innocence of the new creations. Firstly seven flatterers: the Genius of Honours, of Pleasures, Riches, Gaming (pack of cards in hand), Taste, Fashion (dressed as Harlequin) and False Knowledge. These are followed by seven bringers of evil: envy, remorse, avarice, poverty, scorn, ignorance and inconstancy. The corrupted children are rejected by Prometheus but Hope arrives at the end to bring a reconciliation.

It is evident from these plays that, in France at least, blame had shifted from Pandora to the trickster god who contrives and enjoys mankind's subversion. Although physical ills are among the plagues that visit humanity, greater emphasis is given to the disruptive passions which destroy the possibility of harmonious living.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti's oil painting of Pandora, 1871

Two poems in English dealing with Pandora's opening of the box are in the form of monologues, although Frank Sayers preferred the term monodrama for his recitation with lyrical interludes, written in 1790. In this Pandora is descending from Heaven after being endowed with gifts by the gods and therefore feels empowered to open the casket she carries, releasing strife, care, pride, hatred and despair. Only the voice of Hope is left to comfort her at the end.[20] In the poem by Samuel Phelps Leland (1839-1910), Pandora has already arrived in the household of Epimetheus and feels equally confident that she is privileged to satisfy her curiosity, but with a worse result. Shutting the lid too early, she thus "let loose all curses on mankind/ Without a hope to mitigate their pain".[21] This is the dilemma expressed in the sonnet that Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote to accompany his oil painting of 1869-71. The gifts with which Pandora has been endowed and that made her desirable are ultimately subverted, "the good things turned to ill…Nor canst thou know/ If Hope still pent there be alive or dead."[22] In his painting Rossetti underlines the point as a fiery halo streams upward from the opening casket on which is inscribed the motto NESCITUR IGNESCITUR (unknown it burns).

While the speakers of the verse monologues are characters hurt by their own simplicity, Rossetti's painting of the red-robed Pandora, with her expressive gaze and elongated hands about the jewelled casket, is a more ambiguous figure. So too is the girl in Lawrence Alma-Tadema's watercolour of Pandora (see above), as the comments of some of its interpreters indicate. Sideways against a seascape, red haired and naked, she gazes down at the urn lifted towards her "with a look of animal curiosity", according to one contemporary reviewer,[23] or else "lost in contemplation of some treasure from the deep" according to another account.[24] A moulded sphinx on the unopened lid of the urn is turned in her direction. In the iconography of the time, such a figure is usually associated with the femme fatale,[25] but in this case the crown of hyacinths about her head identifies Pandora as an innocent Greek maiden.[26] Nevertheless, the presence of the sphinx at which she gazes with such curiosity suggests a personality on the cusp, on the verge of gaining some harmful knowledge that will henceforth negate her uncomplicated qualities. The name of Pandora already tells her future.


  1. ^ Hesiod, Works and Days. 47ff.
  2. ^ Chambers Dictionary, 1998
  3. ^ Brewer's Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1992
  4. ^ Brill's Companion to Hesiod, Leiden NL 2009, p.77
  5. ^ Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  6. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2013
  7. ^ Schlegel and Weinfield, "Introduction to Hesiod" p. 6
  8. ^ Meagher 1995, p. 148
  9. ^ Cf. Harrison, Jane Ellen, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek history, Chapter II, "The Pithoigia", pp.42-43. Cf. also Figure 7 which shows an ancient Greek pot painting in the University of Jena where Hermes is presiding over a body in a pithos buried in the ground. "In the vase painting in fig.7 from a lekythos in the University Museum of Jena we see a Pithoigia of quite other and solemn booty. A large pithos is sunk deep into the ground. It has served as a grave. ... The vase-painting in fig. 7 must not be regarded as an actual conscious representation of the rupent rite performed on the first day of the Anthesteria. It is more general in content; it is in fact simply a representation of ideas familiar to every Greek, that the pithos was a grave-jar, that from such grave-jars souls escaped and to them necessarily returned, and that Hermes was Psychopompos, Evoker and Revoker of souls. The vase-painting is in fact only another form of the scene so often represented on Athenian white lekythoi, in which the souls flutter round the grave-stele. The grave-jar is but the earlier form of sepulture; the little winged figures, the Keres, are identical in both classes of vase-painting."
  10. ^ Cf. Jenifer Neils 2005, p.41 especially: "They ignore, however, Hesiod's description of Pandora's pithos as arrektoisi or unbreakable. This adjective, which is usually applied to objects of metal, such as gold fetters and hobbles in Homer (Il. 13.37, 15.20), would strongly imply that the jar is made of metal rather than earthenware, which is obviously capable of being broken."
  11. ^ Meagher 1995, p. 56. In his notes to Hesiod's Works and Days (p.168) M.L. West has surmised that Erasmus may have confused the story of Pandora with that found elsewhere of a box which was opened by Psyche.
  12. ^ William Watson Baker, The Adages of Erasmus, University of Toronto 2001, 1 i 31, p.32
  13. ^ Wikimedia
  14. ^ Smith College
  15. ^ Count Leopoldo Cicognara, Le premier siècle de la calcographie; ou, Catalogue raisonné des estampes, Venice 1837, pp.532-3
  16. ^ Yale University Art Gallery
  17. ^ Oeuvres choisies de Lesage, Paris 1810, vol.4, pp.409 – 450
  18. ^ Théâtre Classique
  19. ^ La Haye 1743
  20. ^ Poems, Norwich 1803, pp.213-19
  21. ^ Poems, Chicago 1866, pp.24-5
  22. ^ Rossetti Archive
  23. ^ The Pall Mall Budget 1882, vol. 27, p.14
  24. ^ The Life and Work of L. Alma Tadema, Art Journal Office, 1888, p.22
  25. ^ Lothar Hönnighausen, Präraphaeliten und Fin de Siècle, Cambridge University 1988, pp.232-40
  26. ^ Victoria Sherrow, Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, Greenwood Publishing Group 2006, A