Pandora (“all-gifted” or “all-giving”), famous in pop culture for opening the “box” of troubles she can never close, has long captured imagination. The conception of Pandora’s jar as Pandora’s box dates to the Renaissance, and has since become the iconic representation of the object.
In Works and Days, the poet Hesiod blames Pandora for all the hardships of mankind. In brief: Zeus decides to punish men for Prometheus’s gift of fire. He creates the first woman, Pandora, a creation given all possible gifts to ensnare the minds of men: a “beautiful evil.” Zeus gets his fellow Olympians to each bless her with talents and grace.
Pandora herself—and her beguiling femininity—represents her own curse upon men, but she also holds a jar she’s warned never to open. Hesiod’s obvious implication is that a woman cannot stop herself from doing things she’s told not to (as if a man would never give in to curiosity). Given the sexual politics inherent in the story, it seems to be a comment on women being flawed, rather on curiosity being inherent in human nature.
Zeus gives Pandora as a wife to Epimetheus, the duller brother of Prometheus, who accepts her, against his brother’s warnings. And Pandora, of course, cannot stop herself from opening the jar, unleashing a cavalcade of hardships upon unprepared humankind. In the Golden Age, according to Hesiod, man enjoyed the fruits of the earth with little labor, living long (perhaps immortal) lives free of disease or burdens. The opening of the jar ends all that, bringing forth mortality and suffering, while ensuring man must ever work for his sustenance.
All that remains within the jar is hope. Hesiod leaves it open to interpretation whether this means Pandora still offers hope, or whether it means, with hope trapped inside the jar, man is forever denied it. One could even suppose another implication that, perhaps, hope is the greatest evil of all, and Zeus spared man that, for he does write it is by “Zeus’s will” that hope remains contained.
Within Hesiod’s Pandora story we see obvious parallels to Eve and the idea of original sin—that is, the tendency of patriarchal societies to want to assert authority over women by holding them culpable for everything “wrong” with the world. As it to say, “things would be better if you just did what you were told.”
But the issues, and the sexual politics behind them, go deeper. In pre-Hellenstic myth, Pandora was a goddess herself, a giver of gifts. Classical scholar Martin West says, that in earlier myths, Pandora was Prometheus’s wife, and her jar offered blessings. He speculates Epimetheus (“after-thought”) may have actually unleashed the hardships upon mankind. Pandora’s original name may have been Anesidora (“she who sends up gifts,” also titles for Gaia and Demeter), creating a possible connection with an Earth Mother figure.
Which is to say, Pandora (Anesidora), an Earth Mother goddess (or a child thereof), originally represented an older matriarchal motif that patriarchal Hellenistic society needed to syncretize into their world-view. This has led scholars such as Jane Ellen Harrison to imagine Hesiod himself invented a misogynist fable for political reasons. And yet this mythic inversion, this transformation from a purely positive figure into a purely negative one, became preserved as the traditional myth.
Another example of how myths change over time, and thus, we can almost never have canonical “true” versions of them.