by Helen Noakes
“God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there’s no turning back.”—Gloria Steinem
SAN FRANCISCO, CA—(Weekly Hubris)—8/16 /10—Joseph Campbell was the first to point out to me the similarity between the biblical story of Eve and the myth of Pandora.
Eve ate of the fruit which imparted “the knowledge of good and evil,” and Pandora opened a box that unleashed all the evil in the world. Both women acted out of a sense of urgent curiosity, an uncontrollable need to know. One presumes, from the biblical tale, that Adam harbored no such intellectual drive. At least none is mentioned.
Like Eve, Pandora opened that box in defiance of a god who insisted on keeping humankind ignorant. Truth be told, what escaped from the confines of that box could not have been contained forever, anyway. Indeed, if the gods were truthful, they would have acknowledged that evil, sorrow, and pain permeated the human experience already. Perhaps that’s why the myth was needed. Someone, other than the gods, had to be blamed for all the evil in the world, and who better than a curious woman?
Did Pandora see more sharply in that brilliant Greek light? Did she seek to define what it was that caused misery? Did she open the box in an effort to face the enemy and, if not destroy it, at least learn how to deflect its blows?
She, like Eve, seems to have been seeking the knowledge of good and evil.
Every place on earth has its particular and inherent light. In Greece, the light is relentless and ruthlessly beautiful. It makes no allowances for half-measures. It eliminates gray, and sharply illuminates whites and blacks. There is little compromise there; still fewer apologies. Things either are or are not. Gods were either benevolent or malevolent, and each of the Greek gods displayed both aspects with little regard for the hapless humans under their control. The Greeks were the first culture in the Mediterranean basin to hold their gods accountable for unjust and predatory acts.
Did Pandora open the box to find what lay at its very bottom—that one thing that the gods seemed determined to keep locked up?
Did Eve’s sharp eyes detect the serpent in the vivid light of Paradise and elect to accept its challenge?
I should point out that the serpent, an aspect of a chthonic deity of prehistoric origins, is the archetypal symbol of wisdom and healing in many cultures. The caduceus (the winged staff with its two entwined snakes) is still used internationally as a symbol for Medicine. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the sacred serpent is female. So it’s no surprise that the authors of Genesis envisioned a serpent entwined around the tree of knowledge.
It struck me that, in both these stories, it is women who instigate “falls from grace.” And both of these stories originated in male-dominated societies, after the cults of the Mother Goddess, so dominant in peaceful agrarian societies, were displaced or diminished by cultures where the warlike territorial imperative became a driving factor.
There is something deeply significant about this.
Both women were fearless in their curiosity and were punished for it by male gods. But is it the gods or the men whom they served who punished such “offenses”?
Yes, you read that correctly.
It is my own belief that in all oppressive religions it is not the gods or God who punish, but men who excuse their all too human intolerant and subjugating behavior by invoking divine laws.
And why, in both myths, is the negative side of the story drummed into us and not the positive?
Beneath the evil that Pandora allegedly unleashed, she found hope. Pandora found hope despite the trials of being human. It was not the gift of the gods; it was Pandora’s discovery. It was entirely human, and it was found by the female of the species.
Of course, in Greek mythology, defiance against the gods (“hubris”) was not restricted to women. Prometheus paid dearly for his transgression. But his behavior is seen as an act of sacrifice, an act which benefited humankind.
Does hope not benefit humanity?
Would any of us continue living if we didn’t harbor hope somewhere in our hearts?
When Eve bit into the fruit, she acquired knowledge. Why would God create a human being without investing her or him with knowledge? Perhaps, again, it was necessary for the all too human priests to find a myth which would explain human suffering. And, centuries after the myth of Pandora, they created the myth of Eve’s fall from grace.
Why did the myth-makers choose women? (Ah, but that’s another column . . .)
Which leads me to another series of questions. Did Pandora ask too many questions? Did Eve? Is that the reason that they were punished?
Have you noticed how many of these divine prohibitions have to do with the withholding of knowledge? Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing god fear knowledge? Could it be that it isn’t the god, but men who harbor that fear? Could it be that knowledge really is power? Can you see how deeply these myths have affected our present attitudes?
But here I go, emulating my mythological sisters—asking questions.
PS: This is the first in a series of articles exploring the impact of myths on our culture.