Monday, October 11, 2010

Pandora's Jar?

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. According to the writer Hesiod (ca. 8th-7th centuries BC), Zeus ordered that she be created as a punishment for mankind. This was because we had got hold of fire and were using it after it had been stolen by Prometheus. Woman was Man’s punishment for handling stolen goods. Pandora was given various traits by the gods: Aphrodite gave her ‘cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs’, and Hermes gave her ‘a shameful mind and deceitful nature’ and ‘lies and crafty words’. But worst of all, Pandora was equipped with a jar containing ‘burdensome toil and sickness that brings death to men’. And we all known what happened when she opened the jar …

‘Jar?’ I hear you cry. ‘Surely you mean a box? Pandora’s Box?’

Well, actually, no. She was known for carrying a pithos containing all the world's evils. The mistranslation of pithos as ‘box’ is attributed to a sixteenth century humanist and theologian called Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466/1469 - 1536). He wrote extensively (he is credited with coining the adage, ‘In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’) and translated many old reference works and epic poems into Latin. During one such translation of Hesiod’s works he mistook the Greek word pithos - which is a kind of jar used for storing grain – for pyxis, meaning ‘box’.

The phrase Pandora's box has stayed with us ever since.

Interesting, eh?


Source: Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 1922:280-83, "The Making of a Goddess".

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