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What Pandora let out and what she left in

{This is a paper read at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States on Oct. 6, 2006, except that discussions of works published since then, up to 1/9/13, are given at the end, enclosed in curly brackets.  The bibliographical data for these updates have also been added to the paper’s references.}


Hesiod’s Works and Days says that the gods created the first woman Pandora as punishment for Prometheus’s trickery and delivered her to men in the person of his bro­ther Epime­theus. My subject today is what the poem says happened next to climax the story; namely, she opened a certain vessel. What I will do is summarize the opinions of the commentators on what this action constituted. I’ll avoid their actual arguments, but (the references note) the people I’ll specifically mention, mostly writing in the past ten years, plus two bibliographical references to the remainder.

            Neither will I go over the text (which is given with an English translation on the text page, with some footnotes for the benefit of those interested in that sort of detail). In summary, the account says that humanity had been free of evils, but Pandora opened some jar in such a way that whatever were its contents did not remain, and thereby caused woes. Only Elpis, meaning either Expectation or Hope, did not emerge. Evils now afflict humanity, particularly diseases. Now whatever you may have heard, the text does not specify just what escaped the jar. That must be inferred, and of course the standard inference is that, to speak in popular terms, “Pandora opened a box of evils to let them into the world, but left man Hope.” That is, the evils cited in lines 91-92, or ‑93 if that verse is authentic, were actually imprisoned in the vessel until Pandora let them out to plague us as in 100-104. True, Hesiod speaks of a pithos, which was a large jar, not a box. Dora and Erwin Panof­­­sky, and now Immanuel Musäus, have noted that we hear of a box today because the influential 16th century figure Erasmus specified that type of container for certain reasons.  But either way, it is construed as having contained evils by most commentators, beginning at least as early as the philosopher Phil­o­demus of Gadara in the 1st century B.C.E.  The view that it preserves Elpis, whatever else it held before it was opened, goes back further, at least to the Homer commentator Comanus of Naucratis in the 2nd century.  The view is probably still earlier since already in the 5th, only two centuries or so after our text coales­c­ed, pseudo-Aeschylus had Prometheus if not Pandora say that he gave men “blind hopes.”  Today the view that evils were released and that Hope is preserved is found in West’s text commentar­y, and since 1996 in works by Gra­z­­iano Arri­ghetti, Stephanie Nelson, Manuel Sán­chez Ortiz de Landeluce, Rosanna Laur­iola, and most recently Jenny Strauss Clay, although they differ on whether the hope is good, evil, or ambiguous.  The idea is hoary enough for many to take it as background for further interpretation, for example, as Mu­s­äus notes with references, to propose that the pithos stands for the womb.   So the standard inference has yield­ed relatively subtle thinking as well as the popular warning against “opening a Pandora’s box.”

            Yet there is dissent. It has arisen mostly out of wonder about what Hope was doing in a jar of evils. (The Hesiod authority Solmsen, among others, even gave up on understanding the text.) A sizeable body of critics feels that if the jar was a prison for evils it must still be a prison for Elpis, so that she is kept away from humanity, not preserved for it. This is the view of Verdenius’s commentary, and since 1996 has been argued by Shannon Byrne, Wilhelm Blü­mer, and most recently the art historian Jenifer Neils, if again differing as to the character of Elpis, as well as whe­ther she is Hope or Expectation. The position may or may not be ancient, depending on how one reads a cryptic statement by the Homer critic Aristarchus that I can go into later if anyone wishes.

            And some of us handle the Elpis problem a different way, namely by denying that the other contents were evils. Indeed, as Musäus and my review of his book discuss, there is reason to believe that no one construed a jar of evils until Hellenistic times, after the 4th century B.C.E. Thus in 1989 I argued the contrary. Specifically, I said the jar contain­ed good spirits, resembling genies, which before Pandora’s act were available to combat the evils cited in 91-92 or 93, considered to already be in the world, but not after it. This idea is ancient. Among others, in the 3rd century C.E. the fable collector Babri­us spoke of a pithos of useful entities, which when freed left for Mt. Olympus to be with the gods, leaving only Elpis. Indeed, although the poet Theognis did not cite a jar, already in the 6th century, B.C.E., he said only Elpis stayed on earth after certain noble deities went to Ol­ym­pus. Here the point of the retention of Elpis is that only she remains to humans, since every other aid has left us. Expectation is formally good but not really when it is alone. Thus in a goal-oriented activity such as athletics you have the subjective quality called confidence, that is, expectation of success as opposed to hope for it. It is recognized as being of value if accompanied by objective skills, but is useless without them.

            Another way of proposing a jar of good things is to say that they were material provisions, not spirits, which Pandora disposed of in some way. This idea has no direct ancient attestation, although Musäus suggests that it is presumed in a fragment of the Hesiod-influenced Hellenistic poet Callimachus. It was first proposed directly by Eduard Schwartz in 1915, and has now been endorsed by Musäus and apparently Jens Holz­haus­en, and by Jakub Kra­j­c­zynski and Wolfgang Rösler in an article that just came out in July. These critics do differ in an essential way. To Musäus and some others, Pandora simply spilled the jar’s contents so that men’s livelihood was lost. The subsequent hunger then allows formerly harmless diseases to attack. The retention of elpis means that we hope for new provisions. But in an original, not to say revolutionary contribution, Krajczynski and Rösler propose that Pandora was the original housewife, who simply used the jar’s contents over a period of time to keep Epime­the­us’s household functioning, so that the myth explains the origin of a household division of labor that was common with the Greeks. The ills of lines 100-104 naturally come to the man who must labor to replenish the pithos. As for elpis, these authors say that it is a figure for a small amount of grain the wife leaves to be planted as seed. And for them, seeds represent the hope for a good harvest, not a simple expectation that it will happen.

            Those are the written interpretations. But our earliest surviving testimony to the overall narrative is not literary, but archaeological. There are a small number of visual representations of Pandora dating from the 5th century, B.C.E., whether or not the Hesiodic version of her. Most of them deal with her origin, not the pithos, but the slide {website viewers: see the vase painting reference in the references} shows a vase that may include that. It was excavated over 200 years ago and there have since been many interpretations, as is noted by Manfred Oppermann in the LIMC cat­a­logue. Nonetheless, the two figures on the left are now usually read as Pandora rising from the earth and Epime­theus holding a mallet, respectively, because there is a similar painting where those nam­es are actually lettered in. And to some scholars although not all, the right-most figure is the head of Elpis protruding from the pithos. If so, who is the mature male next to her, as opposed to the youth on the left? To my uneducated eye the one on the left looks like a full sized Epi­me­theus receiving Pandora in his optimistic youth; the one on the right also Epime­theus but in his later years, stunted after the diseases of the myth have emaciated him, contemplating Elpis as all he has left. However, the bona fide art historian Neils believes the details of the iconography support the left hand male as Hephaestus, who formed Pandora from earth; the right hand one as Zeus, who caused Elpis to be trapped; and the pithos as made of metal, which she reads as a prison. If so, the artist would be our earliest witness to a tradition of the jar imprisoning its contents as opposed to storing them.

            Now the debate over these construals has been in process for two thousand years, and I have no elpis of resolving it this morning. I only want to point out what one’s position on the issue implies for the rest of Hesiod’s poem. I do this in the context that while many in the 19th century thought the overall Works and Days was incoherent, and while their tradition has retained some influence, scholars in the last few years of the 20th and so far in the 21st have tended to see coherence in the poem, although there is no consensus yet on details. With this in mind I first ask those who hold that our text says Elpis is kept away from humans if they can live with a conflict in the po­em between perceptions of so important a concept, not just as to whether it is good or evil, where there has been much debate, but whe­ther or not it exists. Lines 498-500 {cited in the text page} say that a farmer should not rely on elpis, but that many men do. That is to say, it is present among humans, which is incom­pati­ble with keeping it away from humans from the start. So if that is your reading you should also agree with the 19th century that the poem is incoherent.

            And if you are in the majority who believe the pithos imprisoned some things, name­ly evils, but now preserves others, namely Elpis, you must also be willing to believe that Hesiod could be so confused as to give the jar such a dual function. It is true that some have acknow­ ­ledged the confusion, but they assign it less to Hesiod himself than to the genre that for whatever reason he employs here. Thus West states that “myth­ical jars … imprison evil … and conserve good.” But while there are many cases in world folklore where a vessel serves his first purpose, and others where one serves his second, I have found no case where one does both. Or, Sánchez Ortiz assigns the problem to the inherent irrationality of myth in general, but this conflates the irrationality that myth possesses at an abstract level, whereby its logic is not that of science, with irrationality at a concrete level, such as not grasping the simple function of everyday objects. One might say that logical consistency should not be expected of a poem with superstitious elements like the catalog of dark prohibitions near the end of the “Works” portion. For example, lines 753-4 say that a woman’s bathwater is bad for a man. But to illustrate my point, at least Hesiod does not state that the tub holding that bathwater contains some type of pollution that will infect a man, but also holds some other entity that it somehow keeps away from him. Elsewhere in the poem the pithos in particular is simply a storage jar.

            So I claim that if you hold the majority view, where Hesiod was inconsistent on what such a vessel was for, be it from lack of care in treating the materials he inherited or otherwise, then whether you admit it or not you are implying that he was muddleheaded.

            I see no such inconsistencies between the overall poem and the jar preserving either good spirits or material provisions. So if you support either of these two interpretations you are free to claim that the overall poem is coherent if that is your wont.

            And that is what I believe can be said about the narrative at present with some measure of authority. Thank you.


            {Added 10/23/06: No one at the meeting asked for amplification of the cryptic statement by Aristarchus, but briefly the issue is as follows.  He is said to have interpreted the narrative so that the elpis “of good escaped, while that of evil remained” in the jar.  Verdenius interprets the second phrase as support for his view that Elpis is evil and kept away from humanity.  The problem is that the scholiast who relays the opinion casts it as a response to the opinion of Comanus cited in the previous paragraph, i.e., as if Aristarchus too thought the jar preserved Elpis, pace Verdenius.  But in turn, the problem with that reading is that it assumes that humanity is characterized by expectation of evil, whereas that idea is very un-Hesiodic (as the articles of both Sánchez Ortiz and Lauriola document).  So either Aristarchus misinterpreted Hesiod or something is wrong with the report of his view by the scholiast.  Added 9/29/07: To be sure, Chad Schroeder interprets the Comanus and Aristarchus statements (his fragments 65 and 66, respectively, which are quoted, translated, and annotated at the end of his dissertation) differently. He says that Comanus is disagreeing with Hesiod that Elpis could be left in the jar, because it is among humans, implying that Comanus thought the jar had previously kept it away from humans, and that Aristarchus is only caviling that it is only the “hope” of good things that is among humans by escaping. Schroeder could well be correct and I not, especially since Aristarchus makes more sense in his reading.}

{Added 9/19/07: The position that evils escaped the jar and that Hope is preserved is also adopted by Liz Warman and (9/20/07) by Domenico Fasciano.}

{Added  4/17/08:  As to deep interpretations of the pithos, the avante garde scholar Vered Lev Kenaan considers it emblematic of Pandora herself, in that that personage “embod[ies] … the interplay between exteriority and interiority.”  She also (5/9/08) suggests that Erasmus’s mistake of “box” for “jar” nonetheless reveals “the inner connection ... between woman and the idea of a text.”}

{Added 1/23/08: Jonathan Zarecki has now substantially agreed with my 1989 interpretation.}

{Added 10/24/06: Holzhausen actually agrees with Musäus that elpis is the hope for new provision, but anticipates Krajczynski and Rösler, in that he says that Pandora’s deed was to “distribute” the provisions in the pithos “in the role of housewife as manager of the household.”}

            {Added 5/31/08: The political scientist Robert Bartlett presents what as far as I know is a unique answer to the problem of how Elpis can be among men by being in the jar, while in contrast the evils -- which he simply assumes are the jar’s other contents, apparently unaware that this point is an issue -- are among men by being outside it.  He says that men really do not have this hope but almost do, because it did not quite escape the jar but remained just under its lip, so that “we now have hope regarding hope.”  (I am not entirely sure that he has avoided confusion here between “having hope” in the sense of possessing the subjective emotion and “having hope” in the sense of a realistic expectation that that the object of the hope’s desire will actually be realized.)}

            {Added 5/15/09: Silvia Montiglio takes the conventional view whereby the jar is construed to contain evils and humanity to retain (an ambiguous) “hope” (stating that the position that Elpis remains imprisoned away from humans is “logically flawless,” but doubting that we should ask for logic in “a text so full of inconsistencies and loose transitions”); however, she makes the interesting point that Hesiod means to contrast an Elpis that is fixed and “stays within humans” to the evils of vv. 100-104 that wander all over the world.}

            {Added 9/24/09: Benjamin Wolkow has argued to some effect (citing evidence of what the “dog-like” mind that Hesiod ascribes to Pandora would have meant to the Greeks) that, as against a common understanding that her motive in opening the jar was simple curiosity, (Hesiod means that) she opened it with the malicious intent of stealing the provisions she thought it contained.  Wolkow implicitly assumes the conventional view of these contents, and says that Pandora could have simply mistook them, but I would think his interpretation is easier to accept if the vessel actually contained provisions.}

            {Added 2/15/10: In her contribution to the new Brill “Companion” volume Clay passes over the issue of whether or not the jar contained evils (while referring to some of the studies from the bibliography here in a footnote), but adds a suggestive sentence to her earlier interpretation of Elpis remaining in the jar to say that “the real counterpart to Hope is certain knowledge of what will be.”  Perhaps we might wonder what Elpis would be like if she had gotten out.}

            {Added 3/13/10:  I did not take Daniel Ogden’s 1998 contribution seriously when I first wrote this paper, but since Clay also cites it in the footnote just mentioned, I suppose it is time to account for it.   Ogden seems to have a conventional view of what was in the jar as Hesiod actually tells the story, but says that “what the audience might have expected” to have been there was a “teras-baby,” that is, a newborn with monstrous features necessitating leaving it to die by exposure.  He arrives at this conclusion by considering attested Greek and Near East tales that are indeed like this.  And despite denying that this was the actual story, either with Hesiod or before him, he thinks it relevant that the poet elsewhere mentions the possibility of women having bad children, and that some scholars interpret the jar allegorically as a womb.}

            {Added 3/15/10:  As part of a massive new Italian translation of all of Hesiod, pseudo-eHHesioHesiod, and the scholia to Hesiod, with introduction and notes, Cesare Cassanmagnago gives a conventional understanding of our narrative, if with the matchless formulation that to leave Elpis to humanity, so that we can think about the future, constitutes magra consolazione, “cold comfort.”}

            {Added 5/18/10:  Catalina Aparicio Villalonga’s article in Catalán on the Greek concept of the hetera (roughly “courtesan”) has an appendix on Hesiod’s two first-woman myths, in Theogony and our poem, respectively, which she combines into “the” myth of “Pandora” along with most feminist Hesiod scholarship.  She follows J. Castellano’s 1999 translations of the Greek into Catalán (which I have not seen), albeit with “corrections,” with the result that her construal of the jar is conventional.  She makes no mention of the tradition that interprets the jar’s contents as goods in her actual text (in spite of citing three titles from it in her bibliography), but does revive the old idea, originally due to the 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer, that Hesiod “mistook” an original story where it contained them.}

{Added 10/5/10:  Ernst-Richard Schwinge gives an account of the jar within the general conception that it contained provisions, not evils, while refining some points of this tradition.  For example, he argues that the “other” myriad cares (although some translate as “otherwise”) mentioned immediately after we are told Elpis remains are not in addition to her, but to those announced before the text states Pandora opened the jar; that is, the diseases cited at the end of the story are different from the cares associated with working to obtain the lost provisions.  Above all, he is concerned to show that leaving Elpis in the jar completes the implementation of Zeus’s anger at Prometheus mentioned before the account of the creation of Pandora:  Elpis is an evil because it is false expectation that humans will recover the lost means of livelihood, even though they naturally think it good because it was in the jar with them.  In the process, Schwinge displays a good critical grasp of the German literature and some of the English, albeit he ignores a number of the works cited above.}

{Added 10/8/10:  I have only just come upon Jan Bremmer’s discussion of Pandora dating from 2000.  He develops a new verson of the old idea of her as “the Greek Eve,” and one which puts the overall Prometheus-Pandora myth in the context of a throughly discussed genre of such stories in the Ancient Near East.  As to the jar, he thinks of it as definitely containing evils as tradition has it (he characterizes some of those of the contributions cited above that dispute this position as “not wholly convincing,” and others of them as simply “unpersuasive,” without further comment), but cannot give a definite interpretation of Elpis.   He is sympathetic to the old idea that she is the “expectation of evil,” as Verdenius phrases it in the contribution cited above, but ultimately thinks the poet is not clear because he “did not completely successfully integrate an existing story with perhaps a different moral” into his account.}

{Added 11/8/10:  I have now obtained access to the important 2006 collection of Hesiod essays in modern Greek entitled Musaôn Archômetha (“Let’s begin with the Muses,” the opening phrase of Hesiod’s Theogony); Flora Manakidou’s contribution in particular includes a running commentary on Works and Days.   On our question here she takes for granted that evils escaped the jar, as convention has it, and that the retention of Elpis means that the quality (which she construes as “Expectation”) is available to humans.   (In a footnote purporting to summarize the literature, she misrepresents Verdenius as asserting that the retention is bad, when he actually says that it is meant as a concession by Zeus to prevent human life from being completely unbearable, and does not notice that he believes it means humans are deprived of expectation.  Here she also observes that in 1963 Fritz Krafft, a precursor of the more recent statements noted above -- which she ignores -- to the effect that the jar contained provisions, stated that the retention keeps expectation among the household goods, but does not notice that he said the escaping entities were also part of them.)  Her essential contribution to the issue is probably to stress the essential ambiguity of the retention to an even greater degree than do writers such as Arrighetti and Nelson, especially by calling on citations in other Greek literature.   Thus she says for example that (I translate) “the obscurity shows that it is in the judgment of the human to evaluate the quality of the doubly-meaning Expectation and what it eventually signifies that it remains with humans.”   I take this to mean that the poet deliberately makes the retention ambiguous.}

{Added 7/29/11:  In the course of giving the most extensive line-by-line commentary on Hesiod’s Works and Days to appear since West’s in 1978, Andrea Ercolani takes the jar of our narrative to have contained evils.  (As do many upholders of the conventional intepretation, in his Italian translation of the poem earlier in the book he reads the grammatical object of the verb “dispersed” in v. 94 to be the ills cited in 90-92 as having been far from humanity before Pandora.)   He does note some of the readings noted above whereby the jar contained provisions, simply saying that they are unconvincing.   As to Elpis, he reviews the three possibilities that elpis (lower-case, objecting to the standard personification) is good, evil, or neutral or two-fold, respectively.   In the online addenda available from his publisher’s website he adds mention of some other readings both of what was in the jar and of the character of elpis.   He does not rule definitively on that question (although he allows that Arrighetti’s idea that the retention of elpis means that it is the only thing under human control is “very sensible”).}

{Added 4/16/12:  As part of her argument that Pandora in Works and Days constitutes an elaboration with respect to the female principle described in Theogony, Lilah-Grace Fraser recognizes two equally valid interpretations of the jar narrative: (1) elpis is good and is preserved for men; and (2) it is bad and kept away from men.  She argues that the first construal is consistent with the rest of the poem, while the second is required by the logic of the narrative itself, in both cases adopting the traditional view that the other contents of the jar were evils.   She holds that Hesiod intends both readings, as part of the elaboration.}

{Added 1/9/13:  A book has now appeared by Patrick Kaplanian, entitled Mythes grecs d’origin. I. Prométhée et Pandore, Paris 2011, listed as having 442 pages.   It clearly would be relevant to our discussion, but unfortunately I have not seen it: The only library in the Washington, DC area to own the book is the Library of Congress, which at present cannot find its copy (a frequent occurrence with it).  If any visitor to this page is aware of the work and can shed light on what it says, I would appreciate learning of this here.}