A New Take on Pandora’s Box
Today’s post comes from one of my all-time favorite authors, Dr. Anita Johnston, author of the beautiful Eating in the Light of the Moon. In the tradition of a storyteller, Dr. Johnston weaves myths, metaphors, and folktales into a powerful narrative on women’s relationships with their bodies, selves, and others. She happens to also be a world-renowned expert in the treatment of eating disorders, and the founder and director of an amazing facility in Hawaii. I am so grateful to her for allowing me to reprint her piece here to share with all of you. To learn more about Dr. Johnston’s work, visit her website.
As a collector of fairy tales and myths that have the wisdom of the ages embedded in them, I was astonished to discover that there was one well known ancient myth that I had heard about for years – but had totally misunderstood. In fact, I did not even know the true ending of the story – which actually lends a very different meaning to its message than I had originally thought. From talking to others, I realized I wasn’t alone with this misinterpretation – and that many of us use the name of this myth, “Pandora’s Box” in our discussions when we caution against “opening up” something forbidden that could lead to irreversible, and possibly catastrophic events. The negative imagery of the story is so compelling that it seems to eclipse the truly hopeful ending of the myth and because of this, Pandora’s Box has been used as a metaphor for the dangers of being curious at best, and as an opportunity to blame women for the evils of the world, at worst.
When I did a little research I learned that in early tellings of the tale, the vessel that Pandora had been given by the Gods was her body, but in later versions it became a jar, and then eventually became a box. Although I knew that the ancient stories were told and retold with regular omissions and additions that emphasized the values of the time, this got me thinking about how externalized and literal we have become over the ages; how we have gone from originally perceiving the body as a vessel of consciousness with many divine gifts, to simply looking at it as an ornamental object and/or a container filled with dangerous things such as impulses, desires, emotions, and intuitions that are best kept restrained and hidden. Pandora’s Box has become a cautionary tale that discourages curiosity and encourages obedience, warning women not to “look within” lest they “cause” great misfortune to humankind. Hmmmm…..
As I look at how “objectivity” has become valued in our culture over “subjectivity”, how external facts are often considered more important than internal stories in the treatment of eating disorders and body image issues, how the “war” on obesity emphasizes the body as the problem rather than calling upon all of us to look within (with as much curiosity as we can muster) and bring to light what the real issues are for us (as a culture and as individuals) I feel compelled to post this re-telling of the myth … as a story of hope.
Once upon a time – high up on Olympus – the gods and goddesses gathered to create a new creature for Earth: The first woman. “A woman! A woman? A woman!” they proclaimed excitedly. “Let’s name her Pandora, which means ‘the gifted’ and also, ‘the all giving.’” Athena, the goddess of wisdom, breathed life force into her and gave her a Soul, which contained the wisdom of the ages and would remain available to her for guidance and creativity. Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, stepped forward and said, “I will give her the gift of beauty and vibrant sexuality. She will have uninhibited sensual desire and a captivating beauty which will allow hearts to open in her presence. ” Apollo, said, “I will give her music. She will be able to give and receive joy through song and dance as she celebrates Life, itself.” Hermes, the messenger God, said: “I will give her the ability to communicate. She will be able to listen without judgment, use words eloquently, and speak her truth clearly, kindly, and honestly.”
Then Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the Gods, began to fashion a body for her using water and earth, creating a three-dimensional container that was strong enough to serve as a vessel for her consciousness. He said, “I will give her the three dimensions of height, width, and depth”, as he began to forge a dazzlingly beautiful body with gorgeous curves and soft, rounded features – the likes of which had never been seen before. When Hephaestus had completed her body, Hera, the Goddess of Marriage, gave her a most interesting gift, which she placed in the very core of her being: the gift of curiosity. The Gods and Goddesses then agreed to add a fourth dimension: time – the ability to conceive of past, present, and future.
Much later, in the re-writing of the myth, the “vessel” that Hephaestus created was described an external jar or box. But in the original version it was her body that was the container…
The story goes that Pandora was cautioned there would be irreversible consequences if she “opened the box” or “looked inside”. For some time she obeyed the warnings against doing so — but Hera’s gift was too strong and it was only a matter of time before she “opened up” and “looked deep inside”.
Immediately from within the vessel surged the awareness of separation and duality, and feelings of angst and isolation poured out. As the laws of cause and effect emerged, they brought forth feelings of betrayal, regret and disappointment. The cultural dictates of right and wrong rushed out, accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt. The realities of old age, sickness, and death overwhelmed her, and she was flooded with feelings of fear and body hatred. As awareness of abuse, neglect, and violence emerged into her consciousness, grief, heartbreak, and feelings of unworthiness came tumbling out. Pandora trembled as more frightening emotions poured forth with each conscious discovery: jealousy, lust, terror, frustration, discouragement, rage, loneliness, confusion and flashes of insanity. This was what she had been warned about should she dare to open the lid to her own dark interior. Desperately, she reached for the lid, in an attempt to stuff down whatever else might burst forth, certain she had made a terrible mistake. She watched all that had been released swirl around her, blend into the light, and merge with all-that-is. What had she done?
Just as she was about to slam down the lid and seal it forever, she heard a faint, hauntingly beautiful sound that resonated from deep within. Ever so softly and gently, it swirled up from where it had been buried beneath all the rage and pain, and all the fear and sorrow; underneath notions of good and bad, right and wrong, knowing and not knowing. She paused for a brief moment to listen and then peeked inside.
It was Hope, speaking to her with a voice so subtle and faint that it required the use all of her gifts to hear its whisper. Softly and gently, it informed her that by releasing all the imagined “evils” from the dark depths of her being, by bringing them out of the Unconscious into the light of Consciousness, they could now be met with love, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness.
And this is how healing occurs.