Prometheus, Pandora's Box and Why, in Greek Mythology, Woman Was the Catastrophe of Humanity

Pandora's Box John William Waterhouse
Pandora's Box
John William Waterhouse

Pandora’s Box, one of the most loved Greek myths, is also one of the shortest, but, saying that, to fully understand this marvellous myth, and how Pandora came to be the first mortal woman on earth, the bane of mankind, you need to know a little about Prometheus, so, it gets longer!

Prometheus brings fire to mankind Heinrich Fuger 1817
Prometheus brings fire to mankind
Heinrich Fuger 1817

Prometheus, one of the Titans (these gods came before the Olympians, and lived on Mount Othrys, not Mount Olympus), was given the task, by Zeus (Roman-Jupiter) King of the Olympians, of creating mankind, shaping him from water and earth, his brother, Epimetheus, was given the task of creating animals.

Epimetheus, God of Hindsight, and lack of brain matter, as it turns out, was ordered to create the animals first, and then, when that task was accomplished, Prometheus, God of Foresight, was to create mankind.

 What a lot of trouble and strife would have been avoided if it had been the other way around, but, that’s hindsight for you!

Prometheus molding man from clay Constantin Hansen
Prometheus molding man from clay
Constantin Hansen

With much enthusiasm and not much thought, Epimetheus set about his task.
 Once the animals were molded from water and earth, dipping into a bag of tricks, given to the brother’s by Zeus, Epimetheus bestowed on these lucky creatures all the best qualities; strength and speed for pursuing and killing prey, fur and feathers for protection, claws and teeth for self defense and finely-tuned senses.

His job finished, Epimetheus sat back and proudly surveyed his work, he was about to tell Prometheus that he could now start on mankind when suddenly a thought occurred to him, he’d used up all the best qualities, mankind was going to be rather an inferior species!

Tentatively, Epimetheus said to his brother “Er, Prom, I’ve finished my animals, you can get on with man now, but, before you do, I’d better tell you something”, and went on to explain what he had done.

Prometheus, used to Epimethus’ lack of foresight, just had to make the most of a bad job, to compensate for the lack of qualities left for him to work with; he made man stand upright, like the gods, and then paid a visit to his pals on Mount Olympus to see what he could do to safeguard man’s survival.

After Prometheus has created Man out of mud, Athena breathes life into him. Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1912
After Prometheus has created Man out of mud, Athena breathes life into him.
Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1912

 Hephaestus (Roman-Vulcan), God of Blacksmiths and craftsmen, and Athena (Roman- Minerva), Goddess of wisdom, handicraft and war, risking the anger of their father, Zeus, and feeling sorry for Prometheus, decided to help by giving him their knowledge, so Prometheus, in turn, could teach arts and crafts to mankind.

Just as Prometheus was about to leave Mount Olympus, Hephaestus presented him with fire “Here, take this, it may come in useful for mankind”, and this, my friends, is where the trouble started.

Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, and Cristoforo Gherardi, 1508-1556
. Vulcan's Forge (detail). Fresco. Palazzo Vecchia, Florence. 
Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, and Cristoforo Gherardi, 1508-1556

 Prometheus returned to earth to teach man the art of survival, how to hunt for food, how to build houses and boats and how to read and write, and, I’m sure he regretted this one, the ritual of sacrificing animals to the gods.

As man made their sacrifices to the gods, Prometheus noticed that they seemed to get the short end of the stick, the gods inevitably chose the choice cuts of meat, leaving the bones and fat for man, to turn the tables, Prometheus thought he would show man a trick or two.

From a Liebig trade card   Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven,  gave it to man, teaching them many arts and handicrafts.
From a Liebig trade card
  Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven,  gave it to man, teaching them many arts and handicrafts.

 Prometheus cut an ox into two pieces, saying to man, “Watch closely, this is how you are to perform your next sacrifice, you’ll come off much better, trust me”, and with that, he made a smaller parcel, using the best cuts, wrapping it in the ox’s stomach, and a larger parcel, consisting of the skin and bones, which he concealed in fat.

Sure enough, at the next sacrifice, the greedy gods chose the larger parcel, unknowingly leaving the lean meat for man.

On realizing what had happened, Zeus thought “I’ll teach those tricksters a lesson, let’s see how they like raw meat”, and with that, snatched that wondrous thing called fire, from earth and from mankind.

Statue of Zeus (Detail) Chateau de Versailles
Statue of Zeus (Detail) Chateau de Versailles

 Seeing what had happened, Prometheus felt bad, this was all his doing, he never should have taught man to trick the gods, “I must make amends, they needed that fire, I must find a way to return it to them.” He thought.

In the dead of night, whilst all the gods were snoring on Mount Olympus, Prometheus broke into Hephaestus’ work shop, stole the fire, hid it in a hollow fennel stalk, and with it, hot-footed it back to earth.

Prometheus stealing fire. Jan Cossiers
Prometheus stealing fire.
 Jan Cossiers

The next morning, on discovering that, thanks to Prometheus, man, once again had possession of his treasured fire, Zeus’ anger knew no bounds and he ordered Hephaestus to capture the immortal Prometheus, chain him to a rock, where, an eagle would eat his liver, which would grow again during the night, only to be nibbled at by the eagle again, the next day.

Eagle devouring Prometheus' liver Theodoor Rombouts
Eagle devouring Prometheus' liver
Theodoor Rombouts

Prometheus’ punishment was to continue for all eternity, but ended when he was eventually freed, many years later, by Hercules.

Prometheus had been punished by Zeus for his treachery with fire, what was to be the fate of mankind for accepting stolen goods?

This is where Pandora comes in, to punish humanity, Zeus ordered Hephaestus and Athena to mold a woman from earth, the first mortal woman created by the gods, a woman who would wreak havoc on earth, the catastrophe of mankind, who, up until now had been living the life of gods, as immortals, innocents, knowing not of birth and death, evil and hardships.

Pandora Jules-Joseph Lefebvre
 Jules-Joseph Lefebvre

 Many of the gods of Mount Olympus had a hand in creating the first mortal woman, as Hesiod (Greek poet between 750 and 650 BC), tells us, in his epic poem, “Works and Days”:

 “Athina taught her needle work and weaving and clothed her, Aphrodite  "shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs" (Lines 65–6); Hermes gave her "a shameful mind and deceitful nature" ( Lines 67–8); Hermes also gave her the power of speech, putting in her "lies and crafty words”

Pandora, without being named, was actually first mentioned in an earlier poem by Hesiod, “Theogony”:

“From her is the race of women and female kind,
of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who
live amongst mortal men to their great trouble,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Owing to the many gifts bestowed upon her, the first mortal woman was named Pandora, meaning "the all-endowed" or, "the all-gifted".

Once Pandora was ready, in her best silvery dress, hair adorned with flowers, looking as pretty as a picture, Zeus offered her as a bride to Epimetheus, remember him, the half-wit brother of Prometheus?

Pandora  Alexandre Cabanel  1823-1889
 Alexandre Cabanel  1823-1889

As Pandora’s dowry, Zeus presented her with a “Pithos”, a large earthenware jar with a wide mouth, used by the ancient Greeks for storing wine, olive oil, grains, or even burial of the dead, and instructed her, that under no circumstances, was she ever to open the jar.

A pithos from Crete Louvre Museum   Found in Arcades  Crete,  675 BC. Terracotta, stamped and incised decoration.
A pithos from Crete Louvre Museum
 Found in Arcades,  Crete,  675 BC. Terracotta, stamped and incised decoration.

 It is more commonly thought that Pandora was given a box, but this may be down to incorrect translation of the word “Pithos”, translated into Latin from Greek by the sixteenth century humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, as box instead of jar, and once Dante Rossetti painted his famous picture of Pandora, the jar’s fate was sealed, it had become a box. (Kouti in Greek)

Pandora by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

 Now, Prometheus had warned his brother, Epimetheus, never to accept any gift from Zeus, but Epimetheus, the fool that he was, had forgotten this advice, and on seeing Pandora’s beauty, without a second thought, took her as his bride.

Epimetheus and Pandora lived quite happily together, the only blot on their relationship being Pandora’s nagging at Epimetheus to open the jar, after all, it was her dowry, how silly of Zeus to tell her not to open it.

Epimetheus, surprisingly, took heed of Zeus, there was no way he was allowing Pandora to open that jar, and so he hid the key to its large lock, which Zeus had given him when Pandora wasn’t looking.

One night, Pandora, who wasn’t an evil woman, only curious and disobedient, and also rather brave to consider defying Zeus, decided that when Epimetheus was asleep, she would break open the jar, which she did, and the consequences of her reckless act were dire!

Pandora Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham

As soon as the jar was opened, out flew all manner of abominations: evilness, hate, crime, war, poverty, pain, disease, hunger, hatred, but there, hanging on to the edge of the jar, remained hope.

 Hope Edward Burne-Jones- Hope (1896)
Edward Burne-Jones- Hope (1896)

Pandora flapped her arms about, trying to get these evil spirits back to where they had come from, but to no avail, on seeing that all these goings on had awoken her husband, she quickly slammed the lid shut, trapping hope inside.

 Opening Of Pandora's Box Frederick Stuart Church 1842
 Opening Of Pandora's Box
Frederick Stuart Church 1842 

 “Oh you silly woman” exclaimed Epimetheus, “look what you’ve done, you’ve brought wretchedness upon the heads of humankind, at least open up the jar and free that last little creature, so at least we may have hope."

Pandora, Epimetheus and Hope Arthur Rackham
Pandora, Epimetheus and Hope
Arthur Rackham

 According to the poet Hesiod, in his poem “Works and Days” a story about the creation of man, inspired upon meeting the nine muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), there are five ages of man, the first four, all relatively idyllic, until along came Pandora, who caused the beginning of the fifth age, the last age, the age we are in now, to be a never-ending age of trouble and strife.

Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.  The Nine Muses
Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania.
The Nine Muses 

1. The Golden Age

Men lived like gods, knowing no hardships, no pain; life was one long balmy summer

2. The Silver Age

Zeus has now created man inferior to god, the year now has four seasons, and man must grow his own food, but life is still idyllic.

3. The Bronze Age

Men are now war-like meat-eaters and carry spears, their weapons and houses are made of bronze, when they died they went to Hades (The underworld).

4. The age of Heroes

This is the Mycenaean age, an age of heroes, who, after death either went to the underworld, or to the land of the blessed.

5. The Iron Age

Men are now evil, and are burdened with all the worries of the world; they must toil and suffer for the rest of their lives. Innocence has gone for good.

 And so, this myth goes a long way in showing how and why there is evil in the world, the similarity here, to the biblical story of Eve and that dratted apple, in Genesis, is quite interesting, a few differences, but, both give the same message, woman was the downfall of man!

This post, written with love and meraki, is dedicated to my friend Pandora Spelios.

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