This painting, by the French artist Odilon Redon (c. 1840 – 1916), was inspired by the ancient Greek myths of the first woman, Pandora. She, according to the ancient tales, was brought into existence after the mischievous god, Prometheus, gave the knowledge of fire to mankind (who, at that time, were supposedly only men). Zeus, the arch-god of the Greek religious pantheon, disapproved of mankind’s possession of fire, and he decided to punish mortal men for their receptiveness to Prometheus’ gift. The punishment that Zeus had in mind, curiously, was the creation of Pandora. As the gods began forming this first woman, Zeus reportedly proclaimed, “To set against the fire I shall give them an affliction in which they will all delight as they embrace their own misfortune” (Hesiod, Works and Days, line 58).
All of the gods on Olympus reportedly contributed in some way or other to her creation. Zeus personally drew up the blueprints for how Pandora would physically look, and he used the appearances of the goddesses on Olympus for inspiration. When Zeus finished representing his vision through the artistic medium of his choice, he left it to Hephaestus—the master craftsman of the gods—to bring Pandora out of theory and into reality. When Pandora was brought to life, she was tutored by the gods in various crafts and skills. For her personality and social skills, Pandora was taught the principles of charm, grace and seductiveness by Aphrodite, whereas Hermes showed her how to be cunning, and how to use subtle intrigue to get whatever she may want. Athena, for her part, gave Pandora lessons in daily skills that ancient Greek women would be expected to know, such as the craft of weaving. Athena further contributed to the effort by working with the Graces and Temptation to design Pandora’s wardrobe. They went all-out, clothing Pandora in golden jewelry, accentuated with garlands of flowers.
When the gods finished building and instructing Pandora, they, themselves were awed at what they created. According to Hesiod, “Both immortal gods and mortal men were seized with wonder when they saw that precipitous trap, more than mankind can manage. For from her is descended the female sex, a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands” (Theogony, line 589-590). Yet, Zeus had one last accessory to give Pandora that would exponentially increase her punitive power. The unfortunate object was a jar and, according to the ancient tales, that dreaded vessel contained many of the mortal woes faced by humans to this very day. As told by Hesiod, “formerly the tribes of men on earth lived remote from ills, without harsh toil and grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men. But the woman unstopped the jar and let it all out, and brought grim cares upon mankind” (Works and Days, line 90-95).
Pandora, deadly jar in hand, was sent by the gods as a bride to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Despite being warned earlier by Prometheus to never trust a gift from Zeus, Epimetheus gratefully accepted Pandora as his bride. Sometime after that fateful decision was made, Pandora opened the jar that had been given to her by the gods, unleashing all sorts of evils and wicked spirits that poured out of the container to envelop the earth and sea, causing the many woes that plague mankind. Curiously, later stories inversely claimed that the jar had contained unimaginable blessings that, once released from the jar, would never be granted on mankind. Interestingly, Hope was the only blessing that supposedly clung to Pandora’s jar and remained inside. Such is the myth that inspired Odilon Redon’s painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.