The Debunker: Did Pandora Open a Box?

by Ken Jennings

Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, was a trivia-obsessed ten-year-old, and now he’s raising a few quiz kids of his own. This month he launches a new series of amazing-facts books for kids, The Junior Genius Guides. Since the first two books in the series introduce young readers to Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology, respectively, we’ve asked him to set us straight this month and debunk some popular misconceptions about classical mythology, which has always been all Greek to us. Myths about myths?! May Zeus have mercy on our souls.

The Debunker: Did Pandora Open a Box?

Like the streaming music service that became her namesake, Pandora was engineered to be a perfect match. According to Hesiod, she was history’s first woman, sculpted from clay by the gods and given all good gifts (“Pandora” is actually Greek for “all-gifted”) in order to become the wife of the Titan Epimetheus. She made him very happy—that is, until she released all the evils of the world, condemning the human race to millennia of toil, sickness, and evil. Once all the bad stuff has escaped, only “hope” is left to cling to.

Panda-orable

The misogyny of the Pandora myth isn’t especially subtle: men are virtuous and live in happiness and peace before they’re corrupted by marriage to a ticking time-bomb of corruption and crazy hidden in a pretty package. Maybe Hesiod had a good buddy who had just gotten married and couldn’t go out on Saturday night anymore.

But the one thing everyone knows about the Pandora myth—that she unleashed evil on the world by opening the box that the gods had given her—isn’t true. In the ancient myths, Pandora actually carries a pithos—a large clay urn used to store foodstuffs like grain or oil. The jar didn’t get replaced until the 16th century, when the Dutch writer Erasmus accidentally mistook a pithos for a pyxis, or box. Would the easy sexual angle (women opens her “box,” helpless men become miserable) be more or less apparent if Pandora was packing a jar instead? Thanks to Erasmus not double-checking his dictionary, we’ll never know.

Quick Quiz: In the movie Avatar, what valuable (but improbably named) mineral is Earth’s Resource Development Administration trying to mine on the jungle moon of Pandora?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.