How hope crawled out of Pandora’s box

Ratna Raman

PANDORA, one of the earliest humans created by Hephaestus, was blessed with all manner of gifts by the gods. She was also given a jar that contained all the troubles and evils that could afflict humankind.

Hesiod, the Greek poet, wrote in 700 BCE about Pandora’s jar ‘pithos,’ in his version of the myth. Erasmus translated this Greek story into Latin in 1600 CE and changed the word ‘pithos’ (jar) into ‘pyxis’ (box). Pandora’s jar was subsequently referred to as a box in translations into English.

What did Pandora’s box contain? The myth says that the opening of the box unleashed untold misery, suffering, troubles and unhappiness into an ideal world.

We have no way of determining whether the world was ever an ideal place. However, myths ‘generically’ (as a group) narrate powerful stories that enable humans to gain insights into the complex nature of their world.

Despite the absence of corroborating evidence, Pandora’s story works very powerfully upon our imagination and metaphorically describes the world we inhabit. The contents of Pandora’s box are a useful way to explain the random nature of misery and inequity that exists in our world. Why was Pandora given this dangerous jar or box? The myth informs that that the contents of the jar or box were meant to punish humans for using fire that Prometheus originally stole from the gods for use by mortals.

“Opening a Pandora’s box” is an expression in popular use, which warns of the dangers of starting discussions on troublesome issues that can exacerbate (worsen) situations. In the manner of her later counterpart, Eve, who was warned about eating the apple, Pandora was apparently forbidden by Zeus to open the box. Therefore, opening a Pandora’s box in routine parlance is the equivalent of stirring up trouble.

In today’s world, a veritable Pandora’s box is opened every morning in our homes, when we unfold and read the newspapers. Containing accounts of all manner of natural and manmade catastrophes from every direction in the world, these stories explode all around us, giving us glimpses of a bruised and unhappy world. Stories of evil, pain, suffering and grief pursue us relentlessly.

Pandora and Prometheus, the earliest human inhabitants in Greek mythology also represent prototypes of human possibility. Diurnally, hundreds of curious Pandoras and Prometheuses reading the papers remain shocked and distraught at the news that engulfs them. They wonder what the world is coming to and why such horrible things continue to happen everywhere around them.

The composers and compilers of news place terrible details before us. They do try and provide distractions through the comic pages, the crossword puzzles, pithy sayings and colourful photographs as well as news of things to buy, discount sales and details of places to eat, sometimes recipes of foods that we eat. This diverts and entertains us, but does not really sustain.

In the original myth, when Pandora shuts the lid, shocked at what she had unleashed, a small voice cried out from within the jar, asking to be let out. Hope crawls out of the jar, feeble and frail, but her presence calmed and healed. Hope resides now, inside our hearts. Only hope urges us, day after day, to muster up the courage to live through it all and pray for things to become better.

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