Mythological Hermeneutics: Pandora

Mythological Hermeneutics: Pandora

The myth of Pandora is a good one on which to demonstrate aspects of theological exegesis, being relatively self-contained, but also internally complex. The goal of theological exegesis, as explained previously, is to arrive at that reading of the myth which frees divine agency to operate in the widest scope. It does not supplant other modes of interpretation, such as those which focus on the myth’s historical and social conditions of emergence. In the case of Pandora’s myth, it is clear that in Hesiod’s account, at any rate, there is a motive and an action of misogyny; however, the theological approach reads through this misogyny, not in order to reconstruct an hypothetical pre-Hesiodic myth, which would be itself simply another, distinct myth from the perspective of a theological exegesis, but rather to discern that which, in Hesiod’s own account, transcends his all-too-mortal authorial intentions.

In this regard, it is crucial to recognize that inasmuch as Pandora is the first human in the proper sense, and the sole human ancestor of all who follow, that anything the myth attributes to Her cannot be regarded as true only or peculiarly of females, but of males as well, indeed, as being true of mortal humans in general and in principle. Pandora is in this respect prior to gender, insofar as gender as a property of mortal humans is not thinkable before there are multiple mortal humans.

We can begin to discern Pandora’s unique position, and also start to delineate the ontological stratifications in the myth, through the parallel established in it between Prometheus’ action of stealing divine fire concealed within a fennel stalk — the first thyrsos — and the gift of a bride to his brother Epimetheus. Here theft, distribution without consent, on the ‘higher’ plane corresponds to gift, reception without solicitation, on the ‘lower’ plane, a fairly classic inversion of the kind much exploited by structuralist readings of myth, held together by the sibling bond between Prometheus and Epimetheus, which as their names suggest, involves the reckoning (mêtis) of ontological procession (proödos) from the principles, and reversion (epistrophê) upon the principles. It is not a question here of simply finding these Platonic technical terms in these names, but of the myth’s providing the ground, the existential conditions of possibility, for the Platonic epistemology. For we are dealing here, after all, with the real divine actions which make philosophical cognition possible as a kind of craft or technê.

If the creation of Pandora is in fact the creation of the mortal soul qua mortal, then Zeus’ description of Her as a ‘plague’ and an ‘evil’ for humans in Hesiod’s account becomes a rather straightforward description of the mortal condition as perceived in its very mortality, which makes the creation of mortals a ‘wrathful’ production, that is, the constitution of something which is simultaneously and by definition its destruction. This is a mythological formula that can be discerned in many theologies, wherever some class or condition of beings is affirmed to be the product of divine wrath, or as the general mode of causality operated by Gods who are characterized as ‘wrathful’, namely, the production of temporal beings and structures specifically in their temporal aspect. I have discussed this function elsewhere with respect to Egyptian and Hellenic theology.1

It should not be surprising, in this light, that the scene of the Olympians bestowing their gifts upon Pandora should resemble the scene in the Devī-Māhātmya from the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa in which the Gods each endow Durgā with a portion of their powers that She may perform her wrathful deeds on their behalf (Devī-Māhātmya 2.1-2.33).2 Note as well the fiery nature of Durgā’s emergence (2.9-11), which invites comparison both with the fiery wrath belonging to Egyptian Goddesses who are the ‘Eye [Agency] of Re’, as well as with Pandora, whose own emergence parallels the theft of the divine fire by Prometheus, and whose own daughter is Pyrrha, ‘Fire’. Pandora is hence both the ‘all-giver’ that her name denotes, and also a discrete gift, that is, the giver of all things within a delimited domain, that of mortal humanity. Note as well, in this respect, that the episode from the Devī-Māhātmya occurs in the context of the Gods, having been “expelled from heaven by the wicked Mahiṣa,” being forced to “wander on earth like mortals,” (2.6).

It is therefore, properly speaking, their mortal souls “in which all take pleasure in their spirit [kata thymon], embracing their own evil” (Hesiod, Works and Days 57-8), and not females. We should read in this light even the basic statement that Hephaistos is to give her “the form of a maiden [parthenikês]” (63), for it is the Korê who in the first place descends from the immortal realm to that of the shades,3 and that Athena teaches her “to weave the cunningly wrought [polydaidalon] web” (64). Porphyry, in his exegesis of the Cave of the Nymphs from book 13 of the Odyssey, comments upon the Naiads’ weaving (13.107-8) that “the body is a garment with which the soul is clothed … whether we consider its composition, or the bond by which it is knit to the soul. Thus according to Orpheus, Kore, who presides over everything generated from seed, is represented weaving a web.”4 English cannot possibly do justice to the connotations of polydaidalon, that which is ‘very or manifoldly of Daidalos’. Evidently symbolic as well are the gifts to Pandora from Hermes of a “canine mind” and “thievish character” (67), where the latter evokes the theft of the divine fire5 and the former the dogs of torch-bearing Hekate, witness of Persephone’s abduction—note as well the “spring flowers” with which the Horai crown Pandora (75).

A kosmos is “fitted to her flesh” (76), but it is a cosmos in which Peitho, ‘persuasion’, is master (potnia) (73-4), that is, in which souls will judge the truth based upon its evidence to and for themselves. Truth for us is inescapably a question of appearance, both in the sense that we are liable to be deceived by mere appearances, but also in the sense that we must grasp even eternal truths for ourselves in discrete acts of judgment distributed in time and which implicate ourselves as judges. Moreover, whatever is in its essence true at a particular time (as distinct from eternal truths, which are accidentally or non-essentially true at every particular time) is at every other time false, and hence Pandora is gifted by Hermes with ‘lies’ (78).

Through the importance of time we can understand the significance of the dispersion of goods and evils from Pandora’s jar, as well. Aesop explains that “the good things” in the jar “were too weak to defend themselves from the bad things, so the bad things drove them off to heaven. The good things then asked Zeus how they could reach mankind. Zeus told them that they should not go together all at once, only one at a time. This is why people are constantly besieged by bad things, since they are nearby, while good things come more rarely, since they must descend to us from heaven one by one,” (Fables 525, trans. Gibb). Ignoring the straightforward sentiment here, we can see that goods, because they alone have an ideal or eidetic character, are necessarily for the soul that lives in time schematized, that is, discerned as virtual ideal properties in experience (“one at a time”), while evils have no such eidetic character and are experienced simply as they come. Hence, the Platonist Proclus titled his essay on evil “On the Subsistence of Evils,” where the plural indicates the nonexistence of an integral ‘Evil Itself’. The inherent bilocation, so to speak, of the virtues, the instantiations of which are here among us while their paradigms are among the Gods, is the precondition of philosophy, as we read in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium.

What remains behind in the jar, however, is ‘hope’ (elpis), which is especially hope of the resurrection, as we see in the tendency for Elpis to be depicted accompanying Dionysos, as in the famous statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It naturally, therefore, stays with the individual soul, as represented by the jar or pithos. Not only does hope peculiarly belong to the individual, because hope is unthinkable apart from some particular perspective or position, but this perspectivalism is also the necessary corollary of the experience of truth appropriate to the embodied being.

In the version of Pandora’s myth that Hesiod tells in his Theogony, the cosmos belonging to Pandora is elaborated in the description of the crown Hephaistos fashions for her, on which are wrought, again, “many daidala” (581) or things worthy of Daidalos, namely “all the dangerous creatures nourished by land and sea … like living animals endowed with speech” (582-4). In the reference here to predators, we are reminded once again of Durgā—“The Gods, delighted, cried ‘Victory!’ to her whose mount is a lion” (Devī-Māhātmya 2.33)—and of Sekhmet. But lest we lose sight of the ontological value of this predation as production of the mortal in its very mortality, we should bear in mind that in the Egyptian scribal initiation manual modern scholars have dubbed the ‘Book of Thoth’, writing is symbolically identified with hunting through a web of associations centering on the process by which ideas become corporeal and hence mortal.6 It is this same web of associations by which Artemis is both huntress and Goddess of childbirth, for a soul is hunted into mortal life, birth into which is equivalent to death.

Moreover, the animals on Pandora’s crown speak, for her crown is also the crowning point of Hephaistos’ craftsmanship or demiurgy, the intelligent animal. Platonists regard Hephaistos as the craftsman of the physical universe itself, and in Pandora’s crown of speaking animals we see the theological integration of the naturalistic account in which intelligence arises from the pressures of survival upon beings sustaining themselves and reproducing in time.

  1. See “The Wrath of Sekhmet,” pp. 276-316 in Daughter of the Sun: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Sekhmet, ed. Tina Georgitsis (Asheville, NC: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2015) as well as “The Book of the Celestial Cow: A Theological Interpretation,” Eye of the Heart: A Journal of Traditional Wisdom, No. 3, May 2009, pp. 73-99; “Queen of Kinêsis: Understanding Hera,” pp. 126-148 in Queen of Olympos: A Devotional Anthology for Hera and Iuno, ed. Lykeia (Asheville, NC: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2013).
  2. Pp. 39-42 in Thomas B. Coburn, Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and a Study of Its Interpretation (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991).
  4. De antro nympharum 66.13-17 Nauck; trans. Thomas Taylor, modified.
  5. On the symbolism of ‘theft’ in myths, with specific reference to Prometheus’ theft of fire, see “The Theological Interpretation of Myth,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2005, pp. 37-8.
  6. “Opening the Way of Writing: Semiotic Metaphysics in the Book of Thoth,” pp. 215-247 in Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Ancient Literature. Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson, ed. April D. DeConick, Gregory Shaw, and John D. Turner. (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
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