From Zeus to Sesame Street: the mistranslated wonders of Pandora’s Box

If I say Pandora’s Box the immediate image which comes to mind is probably something like this:

pandoras_box

The tale is that of a Greek woman having been given a box by the gods as a wedding gift and told never to open it.  Curiosity gets the better of her and she does, only to release evils into the world of men, with only hope remaining at the bottom of the box.

Let’s just stop there for a minute, although this tale is common knowledge for the present era, go back to ancient Greece and tell it, excluding the difficulties in language, and the people there would politely inform you that major parts of your version were different from their tale, or at least sadly misinformed.  They would recognise the woman Pandora, but any references to a box full of ills would be met with a frown.  In the modern era, that the container is well known as a box is common knowledge, so how has the tale evolved into what we know now?  The big change in translation comes when Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th C. helpfully translates the original ancient Greek text into Latin.  He translated the original Greek word pithos into the Latin pyxis, which you might think doesn’t sound that different.  Sadly, the Greek translates as ‘jar’, referring to a large ceramic storage jar usually half buried in the floor and normally containing things like wine, oil or grain.  The Latin translates to ‘box’. and we’ve had Pandora’s Box ever since.

The idea that a jar could contain evil things was nothing new to the Greeks, the fabulously long Iliad written by Homer contains reference to jars on the floor of Zeus’ palace:

The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Zeus’ palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Zeus the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Zeus sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.

Ern (ie) from Sesame Street - not evil...

Ern (ie) from Sesame Street - not evil...

(Evil urns, ;o)) Just in case you’re wondering, this is what pythos look like, taken from the extensive and well-preserved site at Knossos :

pithos at Knossos

pithos at Knossos

The other major sticking point in translation from Greek, is the word Elpis, conventionally translated as ‘hope’.  Some modern scholars prefer the neutral translation of ‘expectation’, some even going as far as to suggest a translation of ‘expectation of evil’.  So, about as far away from hope as you can get…  It has been argued that hope was simply another evil inside the jar, (especially by Nietzsche in his book Human, all too HumanZeus 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) since later in the poem Hesiod writes that hope is empty (498) and no good (500) and makes mankind lazy by taking away his industriousness making him prone to evil.

The myth of Pandora is ancient, appears in several distinct Greek versions, and has been interpreted in many ways. In all literary versions, however, the myth is a kind of theodicy, addressing the question of why there is evil in the world. In the seventh century BC, Hesiod, both in his Theogony (briefly, without naming Pandora outright, line 570) and in Works and Days, gives the earliest literary version of the Pandora story.

In a somewhat different version, some modern scholars hark back to fragments of an older version, in which is alluded to in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women and details that the jar was passed to mankind and contained all the blessings from the gods ‘a foolish man’ opened it, releasing all the blessings to be lost forever, with only hope remaining.

So in conclusion, the box was originally a jar, Pandora, or a foolish man may have opened it, the evils released may have originally been blessings from the gods, and don’t get me started on the translation and philosophical discussions on the word hope, it will only make me cry.

You can find a full modern version of the story HERE

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2 thoughts on “From Zeus to Sesame Street: the mistranslated wonders of Pandora’s Box

  1. I’m trying to track down the original of the illustration so I can use it in an article and attribute it properly (‘internet-unattributed’ is about as acceptable in a list of journal references as Wikipedia is). Does anyone have any idea where the original came from and how I can track back to it? Thanks ! Meredith
    PS though I am male (Welsh name) I prefer the jar and stupid male story – especially if the lid was VERY challenging to get off!

    • Hail and Welcome Meredith,

      After a little searching, we think the original artist is one very talented Marta Dahlig. The original picture, from which the above is clipped, and her other awesome works can be found at: dahling.deviantart.com

      Good luck with your article 🙂

      Waes Hael,

      Amalasuntha

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