No Comment, Quotation — November 21, 2010, 6:54 am

Hesiod – Pandora, Guardian of Hope

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For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste. But Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it, because Prometheus the crafty deceived him; therefore he planned sorrow and mischief against men. He hid fire; but that the noble son of Iapetus stole again for men from Zeus the counsellor in a hollow fennel-stalk, so that Zeus who delights in thunder did not see it. But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him in anger:

“Son of Iapetus, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire–a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”

So said the father of men and gods, and laughed aloud. And he bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face; and Athena to teach her needlework and the weaving of the varied web; and golden Aphrodite to shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argus, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature…

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.

Hesiod, Works and Days lns. 42-60, 90-105 (ca. 700 BCE)(H.G. Evelyn-White transl. 1914)


The legend of Pandora exists in many forms in the literature of antiquity, but the recounting of the Homeric era poet Hesiod is the first and perhaps the most puzzling to approach. It presents the creation of Pandora as an act of vengeance of the gods, irked by man’s theft of fire. The parallels between the Pandora legend and the biblical tale of Eve, the subject of Jean Cousin’s painting, are clear: both are tied to punishment visited upon humankind because of the violation of a divine rule. But Hesiod’s meaning is unclear and it seems to clash with the biblical tradition. He tells us that among the dark gifts foreseen for humankind, “only hope remained.” Does that mean that even hope, this last grace, is to be denied humans, because Pandora is keeping it in her jar? Or does he mean that hope has been preserved for, and continues to provide a fluttering light of inspiration, to humans? His sense is probably far darker than most modern readers would anticipate.

The specific meaning of some of the words involved has changed over time, and Hesiod’s contemporaries may well have seen clues in them that we do not. For instance, it was a jar, ?????, and not a “box” that held Pandora’s gifts. The reference to a “box” was a mistake introduced when Erasmus fumbled for the meaning of the word. In Hesiod’s time large stone jars with heavy lids were buried fully, or half-exposed, in the ground and used for the storage of certain perishable goods–particularly for the storage of wine. So for one of Hesiod’s listeners, that reference to the “jar” may well have stirred thoughts of wine, a medium of intoxication or forgetfulness. Similarly the word “hope” itself, ?????, doesn’t conjure the same positive associations that it has in English; it might better be translated with “expectation.” Just as this text suggests, a Greek of the Homeric age would have associated “hope” with human misery, perhaps as a salve to make the suffering bearable.

The traditional view of classicists, drawn from the careful study of language and its contemporaneous use, has been that hope plays a dark role. It can be backed up by the balance of Hesiod’s poem Works and Days, which does indeed lament the cruel fate of humankind on earth and attempts to prepare the reader to make the best of it, therefore closely associating hope with suffering or misery. Indeed could the meaning not be darker still: that hope itself is something evil? That was the interpretation that Nietzsche placed on Hesiod’s tale in Human, All Too Human: “The jar which Pandora brought was the jar of evils, and he takes the remaining evil for the greatest worldly good—it is hope, for Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.” This explanation tallies with with the words that Zeus utters to Iapetus, and it seems to be the construction that Greeks from the time of Hesiod and Homer through the academic era put on the Pandora legend.

Another approach would be to view hope as something that offsets or balances the evils that Pandora released upon the earth–as a natural antidote for them. That seems to tally with later Greek thinkers, from the time of the Athens school, and then from the Christian era. Hope, as a concept, undergoes a remarkable transformation, and it is constantly reformed to match the ideas of the time. But there is something quite powerful about that dark vision that Hesiod offered in the beginning, at the dawn of the Greek lyric tradition. It suggests that there are times when hope is a delusion and despair is a more rational reaction to the human condition.


Listen to Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” from Vier Stücke für Xylophon (1952), an adaptation of a piece by the lutenist Hans Neusiedler from 1536:

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