When it comes to cautionary myths, the story of Pandora is perhaps the most well-known, yet also the most misunderstood story of all. Pandora was a mortal woman who was blessed or cursed, with an innate curiosity by the gods in Greek mythology. Aside from her curious nature, the gods also bestowed upon her a box, locked shut, not meant to be opened by a mortal. Pandora grew into a woman with a thirst for knowledge and an eagerness to learn about the world, and it was not long before she started questioning the mystery inside the box. Her obsession with the box grew until she couldn’t bear it anymore and eventually she opened the box. What was unleashed from the box was all forms of terror and evil, permanently tainting the human world and ultimately ending the Golden Age of humankind.
The story of Pandora itself is a theodicy—an attempt to explain how evil came to exist. The story came to us from Hesiod’s “Theogony” and “Works and Days”, a set of epic poems written around the 7th century BC. The latter didactic poem specifically lays down the importance of work in humanity’s survival through the story of Pandora as well as its prequel, the story of Prometheus and how humans came into possession of fire. The myth also provides a sort of cautionary tale that warns humans not to let curiosity take hold of us and puts us and our surroundings at risk. The proverbial phrase “to open a Pandora’s box” originated from this story, which refers to bringing about problems due to unwise decision-making. This myth is often compared to the biblical Adam and Eve, as both tales elaborate the origins of evil in a similar fashion: as a consequence of curiosity at the hands of the first created woman in each religion. The unfairness of the way it puts the blame on a single person’s mistake has sparked debates and various interpretations over the meaning behind the myth, especially in regard to the nature of curiosity.
The myth of Pandora’s box suggests that unchecked curiosity can lead us to adversity and emphasizes the importance to restrain said curiosity. This can be translated as a message to not to rush into doing things without careful consideration and keep our distance from the unknown for our own safety. In a theological aspect, it can also hint at a warning to not investigate too much about the world lest we end up offending the gods. This message seems to correspond with its precursor: the story of Prometheus. In a time when fire was reserved only for the gods, Prometheus dared to steal some of them and gave it to humans, which allows them to make technological advances and leads them to civilization. As a punishment, Pandora was sent with a box that would inevitably be opened as a lesson not to test the line which separates the mortals from the gods.
However, the implication that it is inevitable for Pandora to open the box leads us to another question: why even give Pandora the nature of curiosity in the first place if the gods are just going to blame her for it? What are we to do with our curiosity if not to satisfy its thirst for knowledge and understanding about the world? Looking past the questions surrounding the morality of it all, there seems to be a duality in the nature of curiosity, of its ability to bring satisfaction as well as demise. But an interesting point that the myth seems to make is that despite the consequence, curiosity is much more innate to humans than we might think.
Humans are deeply curious in nature. Like a double-edged sword, it is both our strength and our weakness. Scientifically, curiosity is like a bonus feature that humans get as a result of evolution. In a way, human evolution serves the purpose to explore in hopes that it might collectively lead us to a better place with a better understanding of the world, even if it means we get lost along the way. We owe centuries’ worth of history to essentially messing around and finding out about things. In the case of curiosity turning destructive, though it does demand caution, it does not mean it is inherently wrong. Pandora’s curious nature, just like the rest of ours, is a part of what makes us human.
What the tale of Pandora suggests, then, can be interpreted as less of a cautionary tale and more of a description of what humanity is like. There will always be the temptation to look for something just as there will always be the signs preventing humans to do so. Humans are meant to be curious and to poke around uncharted territory despite all the dangers lurking beneath it. Sure, it is perhaps better to concentrate on what we need to know. But, in a world as complex as ours, it is difficult to know what exactly the things that we need to know are, except if we mess around and figure it out ourselves. In other words, there is nothing the tale is cautioning us against; it is simply a reflection on what defines the long journey of humanity—the need to learn and try new things just for the sake of it. As Terry Pratchett said in his novel Interesting Times, “Probably the last sound heard before the Universe folded up like a paper hat would be someone saying, ‘What happens if I do this?’”—which wouldn’t be surprising if that was exactly what Pandora had said before opening the box, too.
Stafford, T. (2012, June 19). Why are we so curious? BBC. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20120618-why-are-we-so-curiousTED-Ed. (2019, January 15). The myth of Pandora’s box – Iseult Gillespie. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMdJxVjZMRI