Hope, Blessings, and a Return

Well, that was a longer absence than intended. Moving into my new home, starting my dissertation, and a flurry of life happenings pushed my mythology blog onto the back burner for nine months. Let me jump right back in on a current topic: politics and myth.

The recent U.S. election campaigns revolved largely around myth in a way that Joseph Campbell often discussed: myth as a story that is neither factual nor false, but instead expresses a guiding metaphor. A couple of Campbell’s Four Functions of Myth were in evidence: myth as a way to make sense of the world around us, myth as a means of encapsulating the norms and mores of society.

We’ve had the War on Terror as our guiding metaphor for seven years. It frames our worldview in terms of terror, insecurity, mistrust, fear, paranoia, siege mentality. This mythically-evocative metaphor has justified the U.S. suspending constitutional rights and launching preemptive wars. It’s also led to an extremely polarized “us versus them” outlook that tends to pigeonhole Americans into “patriotic” or “anti-American” and non-Americans into “friend” or “foe.”

Two leaders emerged during the election with startlingly mythic names. Barack (“blessing”) and McCain (“son of Cain”). Many stories were told about these two semi-mythical figures.

In this election, I think, people reached for the myth of Hope partly as a reaction against the myth of Terror we’ve been living under (again, remember, I’m defining myth as meaningful metaphor, not falsehood). During the post-election punditing, op-ed columnist Roger Cohen of the New York Times writes about Obama’s message of Hope by calling on him to carry out the myth of Pandora’s Box:

 In Greek myth, when Pandora opened her box, she let out all the evils except one: hope. The Greeks considered hope dangerous; its bedfellow can be delusion. Nietzsche later saw hope as the evil that prolongs human torment.

But in the end Pandora opened her box again and released hope because, without it, humanity was filled with despair.

Cohen seems to me to be implying that the previous few years have seen a release of many evils (including despair), and it’s Obama’s job to release hope. That last paragraph intrigues me; it’s a revision of the myth not present in ancient sources. It sounds to me like an attempt to solve the perplexing paradoxes of this myth: (a) WHY is Hope grouped with all the evils of the world? and (b) If evils are released into the world, but Hope is still trapped in Pandora’s Box, does that mean we have no hope?

I’d love for people to comment with their own take on Pandora’s Box and what it means that Hope was trapped in it — do you have answers to (a) and/or (b)?

Below the cut, I give a little more about the origin of the Pandora’s Box myth.

The myth of Pandora first appears in Hesiod, told both in Works and Days and in his Theogany, which along with Homer’s epics established the canon of Greek mythology for all time. (Subsequent writers would expand and rework the myths, but always with Homer’s and Hesiod’s versions in mind.)

In Theogony II.560ff, Hesiod recounts how Zeus commanded woman to be made as punishment for men after they accepted Prometheus’ purloined gift of fire. Hesiod catalogs with gusto all the evils women inflict on men. In Works and Days Book II, we learn that the woman’s name is Pandora (“all-giving,”) so named because she was given traits by all the gods. She is “an evil thing in which they [men] may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction” (Evelyn-White’s translation, II.59). The Theogony version introduces Pandora’s box— or rather, a jar— the evils and plagues released by it. Hope is caught inside by the “will of Zeus.” There is no explanation of Zeus’ motives for doing this, other than Hesiod impressing on us that “there no way to escape the will of Zeus.”

Hesiod’s version of the story is the one that we know, but Pandora’s name, “all-giving,” provides a clue to an older stratum of the myth. Hesiod interprets her name to mean passive recipient of the gods’ (treacherously seductive) gifts, but in fact her name is active: she is a giver of all gifts. Early Greek vase paintings depict her rising from the earth like Gaia, and a few scattered references to a Pandora cult hint at her status as gift-bestowing goddess. Feminist classicist Jane Ellen Harrison was the first to call Hesiod’s version a misogynist revision of an older, pre-patriarchal mother goddess tradition. The last century of scholarship has generally borne out Harrison’s hypothesis.

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