BMCR 2006.07.16

Der Pandoramythos bei Hesiod und seine Rezeption bis Erasmus von Rotterdam. Hypomnemata, 151

, Der Pandoramythos bei Hesiod und seine Rezeption bis Erasmus von Rotterdam. Hypomnemata, 151. Göttingen: Ruprecht, 2004. 234. €46.90.

There are well known gaps in Hesiod’s account of Pandora scattering the contents of a pithos with only Elpis remaining, i.e., in the upshot of Zeus’s punishment for Prometheus’s impudence, and this uncertainty is one reason for a great variety in understandings of the overall myth. Thus the subject of this book is the history of such readings from archaic Greece to early modern times, with the pithos controversy as its point of departure.1 More precisely, the work has two distinct thrusts, corresponding to interpretation before and after the Hellenistic critic Aristarchus of Samothrace, respectively. For the earlier period Musäus (henceforth M.) combines a literary history with his objections to the standard construal of the pithos narrative, while the later is more or less normal history. The result is a signal contribution to a specialized debate, on the one hand, and an engaging look at how our forebears in classical studies treated an interesting topic, on the other. M.’s prose style facilitates both aspects, as it is relatively spare and straightforward for this subject. The book is remarkably free of typographical errors and the like.2

The earlier treatment (parts 1-3 of the book) is, namely, a sustained argument that the construal of the narrative now standard to the point of iconic status in popular culture, wherein Pandora let evils out of the pithos, only arose in Hellenistic times, with Aristarchus as the midwife/obstetrician ( Geburtshelfer, p. 72) at the birth of this new myth.

As to detail, part 1 treats the myth itself. M. first analyzes the principal modern (late 18th century to mid-1990s) interpretations of Works and Days 90-105, organized according to the familiar issues of: whether the pithos contained goods or evils; whether Elpis (Expectation or Hope) is good or evil; and whether the vessel keeps her away from, or stores her for, humans.3 In doing so he gives thoughtful and fair-minded criticism of work both by upholders of the standard view and by its critics (including this reviewer). He then approves a construal given most recently by Neitzel: the pithos was an ordinary jar of provisions, which Pandora spilled so as to leave humans to hunger and the diseases that hunger makes possible, with elpis (personification only figurative) the hope for new provisions. He next argues that this reading is more consistent with the Prometheus narratives in the two Hesiodic poems than is the traditional view. Lastly, in a rather conventional (thus perhaps gratuitous) discussion, he puts the myth in the context of the overall W & D and cites possible sources.

M. treats the role of Aristarchus in part 2, and in part 3 details possible earlier references to the myth. Considering this, rather, in chronological order, the latter treatment tries to establish that there is no evidence anyone read a jar of evils before him. A possible exception, offered by Holzhausen, is Aristophanes Av. 1537-43, but M. argues that this claim is tenuous (pp. 104-6). Indeed, in one case there is an indication of support for his reading that Pandora spilled provisions. Namely, Callimachus speaks of a householder complaining of mice destroying his provisions (fr. 177 Pfeiffer), and Reinsch-Werner has shown that the account’s language alludes to Hesiod, but the allusion works better in M.’s reading than in the standard view of Pandora letting evils loose (108-15).

Part 2 itself cites our sources for Aristarchus, scholia on the W & D and the Iliad, which say in particular that he thought Hesiod’s pithos was derived from the two pithoi described by Homer at Il. 24.527-28, one containing goods, the other evils, and that (Aristonicus ad loc.) “he says both of the two jars” were involved. M. argues that the derivation itself is false since the two passages are generically incompatible. He then takes up how the ancients came to think Homer was earlier than Hesiod. Especially, Aristarchus himself read Hesiod’s content in a number of places as dependent on Homer’s, which suggests that he was seeking evidence for the priority, and so was biased in favor of derivation of the one pithos from the two. But in general M. feels that Aristarchus’s jar of both goods and evils would metamorphose into evils alone in some subsequent authors, down to us. The first of these, according to the attestations he will present in part 4, would be Philodemus in the 1st century B.C.E., about a century later.

Probably it is unsurprising that I myself, having already thought the jar myth of our handbooks was non-Hesiodic, find M.’s argument that it arose after Hesiod persuasive, and of course readers will decide the extent to which it is convincing individually. However, it is important here to distinguish between what Hesiod himself thought and the understanding of what he thought. No doubt there will be a tendency to focus on M.’s jar of provisions reading itself, to compare it with others in a continuation of a long debate. However, to me his historical point is the most important. To be sure, he himself is somewhat inconsistent as to how seriously we are to take his particular construal. Initially it is offered with a tentative air (pp. 30-41), as if for the sake of argument in the context of the material to follow, but the book’s conclusion (209) states his reading in a more ex cathedra fashion. Nonetheless, if we focus on the historical issue of the understanding of Hesiod, whatever he himself thought (a much more difficult question), M. has a strong case that the jar of evils interpretation arose well after him.

Yet I am not persuaded that the origin of this post-Hesiodic standard interpretation can be timed quite as closely as M. has it. The Hellenistic period featured a number of types of myth interpretation that we now see were anachronistic, so that it might not have taken Aristarchus’s particular bias to conflate an allegory like that of Homer’s two jars with an actual myth like Hesiod’s narrative.4 A century or two before Aristarchus seems possible for the origin, although one would think there would be a corresponding attestation if it extended as far back as classical times, let alone Hesiod’s.5

Proceeding to post-Aristarchean interpretations, as far as I can tell M. offers the largest collection in one place to date of older readings of Pandora (part 4). He cites over eighty segments (in the original and in German translation), with discussion, ranging in time from Philodemus’s revelation noted above, specifically that “some” ( enioi) said it was Epimetheus who opened τὸν πίθον τῶν κακῶν after he received Pandora (pp. 123-24), to Erasmus’s well known mistake in writing that the vessel of evils was a pyxis, not a dolium (117-19, 179-82, cf. 15 n. 8) — hence today’s notion of “opening a Pandora’s box.” The history is more guided tour than chronicle. That is to say, M. first treats commentary embodying certain possible underlying themes: the jar of evils; claims that it was Prometheus rather than the Olympians who created woman; and others. He then considers examples within the categories of Christian literature, allegorical interpretations, and Latin writing. His idea here is that the earlier interpretations featured one or another component of Aristarchus’s or a competing construal, but then the readings evolved, so that the early modern understanding could only be a Rezeption of a Rezeption, far from Aristarchus’s sense, let alone Hesiod’s. For example, besides introducing the box idea, Erasmus says that before Epimetheus entered the story his brother Prometheus received Pandora and the vessel, but rejected them, an idea not in Hesiod, at least, whatever Aristarchus may have thought.

True, such tracing of themes posits literary or intellectual connections between many people, and adequate evaluations of these connections would require reviewers more knowledgeable on the cited figures than I. In one case I do disagree; namely, M. takes the idea of a pithos of good things which escaped human use, attested with Babrius and Macedonius, to be post-Aristarchean. But his argument against the common opinion that the tradition if not the details of the attestations was, rather, pre-Hesiodic, and that it draws on the only slightly post-Hesiodic Theognis 1135 ff rather than the reverse (pp. 124-28), is unconvincing. Still, M. can be seductive. His idea that Erasmus’s conflation of Pandora’s jar with Psyche’s box was conditioned by the Neoplatonist reading of Pandora as soul (181-82) is certainly intriguing.6 Particularly of interest is the Byzantine scholar Tzetzes, often thought intellectually inferior. M. is concerned to rehabilitate him, and notes his expansive allegory of the myth which, among other things, incorporates psychic elements rather than reducing to them as does the Neoplatonists’ soul-allegory (152-59). Other treatments I find noteworthy include those of Cornutus (123, 142-43), Plutarch (143-45), the scholia to Horace Carm. I.3 (168-71), and Eustathius speaking of Homer’s two jars versus Hesiod’s single one (131, 135-36).

The procedure M. follows can result in overlooking cases. In particular, he omits schol. Thuc. 3.45.5, since it does not mention any of the characters of the myth, nor even the pithos, only elpis at v. 96, and so does not speak to his thematic interests. However, it is important in that it entails Hesiod’s elpis being of good things, and thus in fact opposes what Aristarchus thought if we follow the implication of schol. W & D 97a.7 Otherwise, one can cavil that at least the example of Aesop #1 Halm (p. 129) might not actually refer to the myth.

The book ends with a series of appendices (part 5), followed by a conclusion (in German and Latin), bibliography, and index of citations. The first of the appendices in particular argues for restoration of γῆρας (Vat. gr. 1384) against the accepted κῆρας in W & D 92. M.’s case here merits attention, particularly the claims that some ancient passages referring to Hesiod read γῆρας, and that he did not think of κῆρας in the given sense.8

I want to say finally that there are implications to M. only analyzing the pithos among the myth’s scholarly controversies in part 1, be this construed as a criticism or as a suggestion for further research. It is certainly the most important of the uncertainties. (If Hesiod had told us the origin of the vessel he cites, Erasmus might not have been able to say that it was a pyxis, i.e., something small enough for Pandora to bring with her.) Still, much of the later commentary is focused on other aspects of the myth. How might the admittedly lesser question of why Pandora is conceived and effected with not quite the same divinities (vv. 60-68 and 70-80, respectively) affect Tzetzes’s distribution of human institutions corresponding to Pandora’s attributes, which depends on the Greeks’ view of how the divinities were correlated with the institutions? How might the debate over whether Zeus hiding fire (50), and thus launching the chain of events leading to Pandora, is related to the gods hiding the means of livelihood (42) affect the comparisons of Pandora with Eve’s error leading to the loss of an automatically growing means of livelihood in Genesis (pp. 137-42)?

However that may be, this book’s strengths greatly outweigh its shortcomings, and indeed its significance goes beyond what is usually meant by the term “monograph.” It will be important to anyone aspiring to Hesiod scholarship, but those simply interested in Pandora would also do well to read its account of how our conception of her arose.


1. The book is based on the author’s dissertation at Ernst Moritz Arndt University, historically the University of Greifswald (which just this year celebrates its 550th anniversary).

2. I do notice: the last word on p. 81 should be oxytone, ἱππημολγούς; the reference on 83 should be to Il. 23.683; in the second line of the scholium to 24.45 (86), Erbse reads indicative βλάπτει; maximo is missing in quanto maximo posset (117, 180); the reference to Eustathius ad Il. 20.407 should be to his p. 1214.49 (133); and the second segment from schol. Horace I.3.27a (Paris) should have aliquis, not quis (169). Possibly M. has followed earlier editions with different numbering, but what he calls W & D 228-35 is 230-37 in modern editions (53, where I do not understand what is wrong with saying that bios in 232 and elsewhere is not a daemon, n. 122), and similarly his 297-307 is 299-309 (54). I can find no edition of the cited scholia to Homer’s Odyssey in the bibliography.

3. The following recent work may be added to M.’s citations. To his category A7 (Elpis is good and is stored, i.e., the traditional interpretation), Ortiz de Landaluce at Minerva 12 (1998) 41-52; and Lauriola at Maia 52 (2000) 9-18. To A3+7 (Elpis is ambivalent and is stored), G. Arrighetti, ed., Esiodo Opere (Turin 1998) 413-16; and S. Nelson, God and the Land (Oxford 1998) 67. To somewhere between that and A1 (Elpis is evil but is stored), J. S. Clay, Hesiod’s Cosmos (Cambridge 2003) 124-25. To A8 (Elpis good but kept away), Byrne at SyllClass 9 (1998) 37-46. To A2 (Elpis evil and kept away), W. Blümer, Interpretation archaischer Dichtung: die mythologischen Partien der Erga Hesiods, 2 vols. (Münster 2001) II 185-87 (cited elsewhere in M.’s book but not here).

4. Indeed, Palaephatus, who “rationalized” myths with heroes, if not yet those with gods, is thought to have worked already in Aristotle’s time, some two centuries earlier; see J. Stern in From Myth to Reason?, ed. R. Buxton (Oxford 1999) 215-22.

5. I also wonder about the reliability of schol. W & D 97a, which says that Aristarchus said elpis“of evil remained, that of good escaped” the pithos (fr. 6 Waeschke). The context implies this to mean that the capable if opinionated Aristarchus thought Hesiod believed that elpis of evil characterizes humans, which Hesiod certainly did not.

6. At least this hypothesis seems consistent with Erasmus’s attitude toward allegory, for which see now L. Bresson, How Philosophers Saved Myths (Chicago 2004) 149.

7. Cf. above, n. 5.

8. Another appendix reproduces Daniel Heinsius’s 173-line Greek poem Hymnus in Pandoram Hesiodi (c. 1600), with a German verse translation and critical notes (pp. 192-207). I hope someone with the requisite expertise will comment on the effort.