In Greek mythology, Pandora's box was a large jar (πιθος pithos) carried by Pandora. It contained the evils to be let loose on mankind. When the box was empty, hope remained. The actual evils are not specified by Hesiod.
Where the word box is from[change | change source]
The word in the original text is pithos, which usually refers to a large container; used to store wine or other things. Such containers were also used for funerals. In the case of Pandora, this jar may have been made of clay for use as storage as in the usual sense, or, instead, of bronze metal as an unbreakable prison.
The mistranslation of pithos as "box" is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasums is thought to have made the error when he translated Hesiod's tale of Pandora into Latin. Hesiod's pithos refers to a storage jar for oil or grain. Erasmus, however, translated pithos into the Latin word pyxis, meaning "box". The phrase "Pandora's box" has endured ever since. This error was further backed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting Pandora.
A pithos from Crete, ca. 675 BC. Louvre; This is the original pithos Hesiod described; the box probably looked like that.
An Attic pyxis, 440–430 BC. British Museum. This is what Erasmus translated it to.
References[change | change source]
- Although in Hesiod's "Works and Days", these actual evils are not specified by name, except for Hope. See text line 90, beginning with line 85: "And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterward, when the evil thing was already his, he understood.  For ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sicknesses which bring the Fates upon men; for in misery men grow old quickly. But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands  and scattered, all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds.  But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils, and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them.  So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus" 
- Cf. Jenifer Neils, in The Girl in the Pithos: Hesiod’s Elpis, in "Periklean Athens and its Legacy. Problems and Perspectives", p.41 especially."Many scholars wish to see a close analogy between Pandora herself, made from clay, and the clay pithos which dispenses evils, and they have even identified the girl in the jar as Pandora. 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. ...".
- In his notes to Hesiod's Works and Days (p.168) M.L. West has speculated that Erasmus may have confused the story of Pandora with the story found elsewhere of a box which was opened by Psyche.
- Pandora by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Bibliography[change | change source]
- Neils, Jenifer, The Girl in the Pithos: Hesiod’s Elpis, in "Periklean Athens and its Legacy. Problems and Perspectives", eds. J. M. Barringer and J. M. Hurwit (Austin: University of Texas Press), 2005, pp. 37–45.