The phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” may refer to the Trojan horse — the wooden structure that helped Greeks sneak into Troy — but the myths surrounding dangerous gifts go beyond Homer’s epic poems. A great example is “Pandora’s Jar” or “Pandora’s Box”, as it is widely known. Pandora, a “dangerous” woman in ancient Greek mythology, was both a blessing and a curse. Created by the gods to serve humanity, Pandora ended up opening the box containing all evils, releasing them into the world. At first glance, the myth warns about the dangers of naivety and curiosity. However, it reveals a lot more than we think about the way ancient Greeks viewed women, life’s struggles, technological advancements, and more.
The Myth of Pandora and Her Box: How Was She Created?
Pandora is an important character in ancient Greek mythology. She is widely known as “the first woman to walk on planet Earth”, a female figure similar to the biblical Eve. However, this perception of Pandora is often disputed. Although it is not clear whether other women existed beforehand, we do know that she was crafted by the gods to be the perfect female. She possessed the most valuable feminine characteristics of that time: beauty, grace, and the ability to weave.
“Forthwith then he fashioned evil for men in requital for the fire bestowed. For from the earth the famous Hephaistos, halting in both feet, fashioned the image of a modest maiden, through the counsels of the son of Kronos. And the goddess glancing-eyed Athena girded and arrayed her in silver-white raiment;”
Hesiod’s Theogony (line 570)
What Was in Pandora’s Box?
Pandora’s story has survived to this day, thanks to poet Hesiod’s works. In his poem Theogony, Hesiod describes Pandora as a gift that the gods offered to humanity. The name of the heroine also suggests this; Pandora can be translated as “All-Gifted” or “All-Giving”. This divine gift, however, was an act of theodicy. The gods of Mount Olympus wanted to punish humans for acquiring the great gift of fire with the help of the Titan Prometheus. The latter felt that humans were too vulnerable in a world full of dangers. In an effort to create balance on Earth, Prometheus offered humans the ability to start fires, which enabled them to protect themselves. At the same time, fire allowed humans to become creators, an ability that enraged the gods.
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In Hesiod’s Works and Days, it is understood that the divine punishment humans received came in the form of Pandora and the pithos (jar) she brought with her. The woman was created by god Hephaestus and was sent to Prometheus’ residence with the help of god Hermes. There, Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, accepted the offer to marry Pandora and gladly received her pithos — an item they were warned to always keep closed. One day, a curiosity-filled Pandora removed the pithos’ lid. As a result, a number of evils were released on Planet Earth, including diseases and the woes of old age. Pandora, however, was able to close the lid just before the last element had escaped: hope. Humanity was now in a perpetual cycle of suffering and hoping that better times will come.
Pandora’s myth has survived to this day, with the phrase “opening Pandora’s box”, a metaphor for “causing many troubles and problems”. The exact reason for using the word “box” instead of “pithos” or “jar” is not fully clear. However, most scholars attribute it to an Erasmian mistranslation of the 16th century CE. Since then, most artistic depictions of Pandora show her holding a box instead of a jar.
The Theme of Sinful Curiosity
“Curiosity killed the cat” is a proverb that dates back to Ben Jonson’s play Every Man in His Humor from 1598. The phrase warns people of the dangers of inquisitiveness — a common lesson from cautionary tales. It is more than clear that “Pandora’s box” is a story that revolves around the trope of sinful curiosity. Although Pandora was crafted by the gods to be the perfect woman, she also possessed countless negative characteristics; curiosity was the most dangerous of them all. Just like the biblical Eve couldn’t resist the urge of trying the forbidden fruit, Pandora couldn’t stop herself from opening the jar of all evils. She was told that the item was off limits, without any specific explanations. Therefore, she had to check for herself.
Today, curiosity is perceived as neither positive nor negative. Looking back in time, however, we can see depictions of the dangers of excessive curiosity in visual arts and literature. That was especially true for the depiction of curious women, who were seen as more dangerous than curious men. In the 19th century, it was not uncommon for women to be depicted as nosy neighbors, peeking through windows and fences. As the scholar Theodor Ziolkowski explains in his book The Sin of Knowledge, Prometheus’ myth (which is intertwined with the one of Pandora) formed the western idea of sinful curiosity. This perception was of course highlighted with the biblical fall of Adam and Eve; it all started with a bite of forbidden knowledge, literally and metaphorically.
The Theme of Hopelessness
Apart from sinful curiosity, a key element in Pandora’s myth is no other than hope. It is also the most enigmatic one. Hope is normally seen as a positive; an optimistic state of mind that motivates people to keep going at the hardest of times. In Pandora’s myth, however, it is perceived as a curse. Hope was trapped inside the jar of all evils, trapping humans in a never-ending cycle of misery and struggle.
“Many are the evils that an idle man, who keeps expecting that his empty hope will become the real thing, in want of life-sustenance, takes to his thūmos. It is not a real hope that cares for a man who is in need, as he sits around in a lounge while he has no adequate means.”
Hesiod’s Works and Days (line 498)
If hope is evil, is hopelessness positive? The answer to this burning question is perhaps answered by the chorus in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. In his play, the ancient Greek tragedian changes the narrative by having the philanthropic Titan offer two gifts to humanity: fire and hope. The latter seems to have enraged the gods the most; hope is a bigger benefit to humans than fire. Fire might help them progress in life but hope is what keeps them going even after their progress is stalled.
Inside their hearts I put blind hope.
With that, you gave great benefits to humankind.”
The Theme of Gifts of Destruction
Perhaps, the most important lesson from Pandora’s box is the necessity of skepticism towards unexpected gifts. The “doron” (gift) of Pandora was a jar full of evils. It was presented to Prometheus and Epimetheus as an offering of the generous gods. They accepted it into their home and the results were catastrophic. The gift was a punishment in disguise, a gift of destruction.
“Pandōrā, because all the gods who abide in Olympus gave her as a gift [dōron], a pain for grain-eating men. But when the gods completed this deception of sheer doom, against which there is no remedy, Father Zeus sent the famed Argos-killer to Epimetheus, the swift messenger of the gods, bringing the gift [dōron].”
Hesiod Works and Days (lines 81-85)
Gifts of destruction are a common trope in ancient Greek mythology. In Homer’s Odyssey and in Virgil’s Aeneid, we learn about the cunning plan of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, that ended the Trojan War. The Ithacan king had reportedly asked the master carpenter Epeius to build a hollow wooden horse. The gigantic structure would be the Greeks’ vessel to enter the walled city of Troy and retrieve queen Helen. They would leave it at Troy’s gates, pretending they deserted the war and that the horse was their peace offering. At a time when such tactics were rare, Odysseus’ plan worked; the Greeks entered the city during the day and attacked once it was dark and the Trojans were asleep. Just like the Trojan Horse, Pandora’s jar was a gift of destruction.
Similarly, Pandora’s myth is also a cautionary tale for inviting strangers into one’s home. Philoxenia (hospitality) was a sacred custom in ancient Greece. Both the host and the guest had to follow an extensive list of rules. At a time when there were no hotels or rooms to let, denying a traveler entry to your home was an act of hybris. At the same time, guests were obliged to respect their hosts and not become a threat or a burden to them. In the Odyssey, we see Odysseus reclaiming his kingdom from a group of disrespectful visitors. Similarly, Pandora’s myth reminds us to be cautious when inviting people into our homes. Hermes’ unexpected visit to Prometheus’ residence seemed innocent at first, only to end with the god leaving a gift of destruction behind.
The First Woman: Pandora and Eve
Although it is not fully clear whether other women existed before Pandora, her character bears many similarities to biblical Eve. In the book of Genesis, the first woman was created by God to live abundantly with Adam in the Garden of Eden. After being the first to bite the forbidden fruit, she was blamed for the “fall of mankind”. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and were forced to live a life full of pain and, eventually, death. Similarly, Pandora’s curiosity resulted in humans losing their own version of paradise. Throughout time, both women have been portrayed as symbols of evil, shaping the way women are viewed universally.
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
The Dangers of Technology
The myth of Pandora did not only influence the way women are still viewed in many cultures; it also inspired the West’s skepticism towards technological advancements. That is especially true for artificial intelligence and humanoid robots, since Pandora was an artificial woman herself. She was crafted by Hephaestus, the Greek god of metallurgy, who often used his skills to create robot-like helpers. Hephaestus would craft “automatons” — self-operating machines made of metal. A great example is Talos, the gigantic bronze guardian of the island of Crete. Pandora was another creation of Hephaestus’ craftmanship, but, in this case, she failed to protect and assist humans. Instead, she didn’t follow her creator’s instructions and ended up opening the jar of evils.
Interestingly enough, the philosopher and researcher Yuk Hui includes “Pandora’s box” in the category of myths that influenced the West’s approach towards technology. In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016), Hui compares China’s rapid modernization to the one of Europe. In China, there is a great emphasis on the spiritual aspects of technology, focusing on sustaining a balance between humanity and nature. On the other hand, the Western concept of technology derives from the Greek idea of “techne”, which emphasizes the mastery of nature.
Moreover, westerners often appear more hesitant in developing and adopting robotics and artificial intelligence. This skepticism can be attributed to the European way of thinking, which is greatly influenced by the study of the classics. Myths such as the ones of Pandora and Prometheus are no other than cautionary tales for the dangers of smart technology.
The Myth of Pandora’s Box: Intent and Morality
The western judicial system takes the element of criminal intent into consideration. For example, a person’s death caused by negligence is not punished as harshly as one caused by malice. Sentences vary from country to country, but the idea that intent matters, remains important. In moral philosophy, good intent often equals morality. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant established a scientific morality with a focus on good will — the intention of doing good.
“Nothing in the world -indeed nothing even beyond the world- can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification, except a good will.”
Immanuel Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
Based on this perspective, many questions arise regarding Pandora’s evil nature. In Hesiod’s works, it is not clear whether Pandora wanted to cause harm by opening the box. We are led to assume that she was motivated from curiosity mixed with naivety. The “fall of humankind” could be described as an “accident” in this case. However, regardless of her intentions, she is clearly described as “evil”. Pandora failed to follow an important rule, resulting in catastrophe. This is an aspect that is often overlooked when analyzing this myth. Perhaps, the most important lesson from “Pandora’s box” is that intentions are not enough and that the absence of ill will doesn’t necessary equal good will.