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Pandora trying to close the box while the evils of the world taunt her as they escape, based on a painting by F. S. Church.
A pithos from Crete, c. 675 BC. Louvre

Pandora's box is an artifact in Greek mythology, taken from the myth of Pandora in Hesiod's Works and Days.[1] The container mentioned in the original story is actually a large storage jar but the word was later mistranslated as "box". In modern times an idiom has grown from it meaning “Any source of great and unexpected troubles”,[2] or alternatively “A present which seems valuable but which in reality is a curse”.[3]


In mythologyEdit

According to Hesiod, when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, the king of the gods took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus. Pandora opened a jar left in his care containing death and many other evils which were then released into the world. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped except for one thing that lay at the bottom – usually translated as Hope, though it could also have the pessimistic meaning of “deceptive expectation".[4]

From this story has grown the idiom “to open (a) Pandora’s box”, meaning to do or start something that will cause many unforeseen problems.[5] Its modern, more colloquial equivalent is “to open a can of worms”.[6]

Etymology of the "box"Edit

An Attic pyxis, 440–430 BC. British Museum

The word now translated as "box" was actually a large jar (πίθος pithos) in the Greek.[7] [8] It was used for storage of wine, oil, grain or other provisions, or, ritually, as a container for a human body for burying, from which it was believed souls escaped and necessarily returned.[9] Many scholars see a close analogy between Pandora herself, who was made from clay, and the clay jar which dispenses evils.[10]

The mistranslation of pithos is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Erasmus, who translated Hesiod's tale of Pandora into Latin. Erasmus rendered pithos as the Greek pyxis, meaning "box".[11]

Different versions of the containerEdit



  1. ^ Hesiod, Works and Days. 47ff.
  2. ^ Chambers Dictionary, 1998
  3. ^ Brewer’s Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1992
  4. ^ Brill's Companion to Hesiod, Leiden NL 2009, p.77
  5. ^ Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  6. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2013
  7. ^ Schlegel and Weinfield, "Introduction to Hesiod" p. 6
  8. ^ Meagher 1995, p. 148
  9. ^ Cf. Harrison, Jane Ellen, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek history, Chapter II, "The Pithoigia", pp.42-43. Cf. also Figure 7 which shows an ancient Greek pot painting in the University of Jena where Hermes is presiding over a body in a pithos buried in the ground. "In the vase painting in fig.7 from a lekythos in the University Museum of Jena we see a Pithoigia of quite other and solemn booty. A large pithos is sunk deep into the ground. It has served as a grave. ... The vase-painting in fig. 7 must not be regarded as an actual conscious representation of the rupent rite performed on the first day of the Anthesteria. It is more general in content; it is in fact simply a representation of ideas familiar to every Greek, that the pithos was a grave-jar, that from such grave-jars souls escaped and to them necessarily returned, and that Hermes was Psychopompos, Evoker and Revoker of souls. The vase-painting is in fact only another form of the scene so often represented on Athenian white lekythoi, in which the souls flutter round the grave-stele. The grave-jar is but the earlier form of sepulture; the little winged figures, the Keres, are identical in both classes of vase-painting."
  10. ^ Cf. Jenifer Neils 2005, p.41 especially: “They ignore, however, Hesiod's description of Pandora's pithos as arrektoisi or unbreakable. This adjective, which is usually applied to objects of metal, such as gold fetters and hobbles in Homer (Il. 13.37, 15.20), would strongly imply that the jar is made of metal rather than earthenware, which is obviously capable of being broken."
  11. ^ Meagher 1995, p. 56. In his notes to Hesiod's Works and Days (p.168) M.L. West has surmised that Erasmus may have confused the story of Pandora with the story found elsewhere of a box which was opened by Psyche.