Pandora's Box: Myth & Story Summary

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  • 0:03 The Origin of Evil
  • 0:53 Zeus' Punishment
  • 1:41 Pandora's Creation
  • 3:00 Versions and Details
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

Don't open Pandora's Box! It's an unforgettable warning not to stick your nose where it doesn't belong. In this lesson, explore the derivation of this phrase, as told in the Greek myth. Learn about the story and details that have been added in modern times.

The Origin of Evil

Have you ever had your curiosity get you into trouble? Today, modern versions picture Pandora as a tragic figure, cursed with incessant, unquenchable curiosity. People warn each other not to open Pandora's Box, or all hell could break lose. Her story conveys a warning: when you go looking for something, be wary about what you might find.

The Greek myth of 'Pandora's Box' is a warning and a story of creation, as well as a theodicy, a myth that tries to explain why there is evil in the world.

The oldest version of the myth was written around 700 BCE and is handed down to us by the poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. His bare bones story has been embroidered over the years. Today, Pandora symbolizes curiosity as well as evil, the feminine ideal as well as the vicious vixen. Let's see a summary of the tale.

Zeus' Punishment

At the beginning of time, the Gods kept knowledge locked away from mortals. ''For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life,'' writes Hesiod. Prometheus enraged the Gods when he stole the knowledge of fire. Prometheus was a Titan, and in Zeus' eyes was cunning and deceptive. In retaliation, Zeus, king of the Gods, plots to destroy Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus.

Zeus addresses Prometheus: ''Son of Iapetus, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire -- a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.'' What is this evil thing? A woman.

Pandora's Creation

Hephaestus, the blacksmith of Olympus, molds the woman out of clay. At the request of Zeus, Athena clothes the woman in rich gowns and garlands. Aphrodite bestows upon the woman the gifts of beauty, longing, and grace. Zeus asks Hermes ''to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.'' She is named Pandora, which in Greek translates as 'all-gifts.'

In the meantime, Zeus summons all the evils in the world and traps them in a jar. In the jar, Zeus also deposits a bit of hope. The Greek Gods were certainly mercurial and unpredictable. Hesiod calls the jar ''the sheer, hopeless snare,'' to get back at men for their greedy theft of the knowledge of the Gods.

Hermes, being the messenger, takes the woman and the jar down to Earth. Zeus' plan goes without a hitch. Pandora meets Epimetheus. Forgetting his brother's warning not to accept gifts from the gods, Epimetheus takes the jar.

Before all of this was a golden age of man. Writes Hesiod, ''the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness.'' But then Pandora opens the jar, unleashing evil into the world. Pandora puts the lid back on before hope can get out: ''Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar...''.

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