Talking Pandora

By Sasha Rivera '19
Staff Writer

On Thursday, Feb 11, Claremont McKenna College brought in Ruby Blondell, a professor of classics and Byron W. and Alice L. Lockwood Professor in the Humanities at the University of Washington in Seattle, as a guest speaker at the Athenaeum. Her presentation centered around the story of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology and how that myth was used to show in Greek culture that women were the root of all evil and that beauty was a woman’s ultimate weapon over a man.

Blondell began with a retelling of the famous Pandora myth, starting with the purpose of her creation. When Prometheus stole the fire from Hephaestus and gave it to mankind, an enraged Zeus decided to punish the humans by creating the first woman, Pandora. After he sculpted her from clay, Athena breathed life into Pandora, while Aphrodite gave her immense beauty and Hermes taught her to be charming and deceitful. Pandora embodied the erotic allure and beauty of an adolescent bride with “virgin sexual ripeness.” She was then presented as a gift to Prometheus’s brother, Epimetheus. Zeus gave her as a gift a clay jar that she was told to never open. Once settled and out of her husband’s sight, Pandora gave into temptation and opened the jar, releasing all of the terrible evils into the world and leaving behind Hope, who was in the shape of a woman. Pandora thus became known as a “beautiful evil.”

Because of Pandora’s curiosity and weakness before temptation, Blondell likened her to the biblical character Eve, since both had inadvertently created evil in the world by disobeying male orders. However, they differed from one another in their purposes and roles in creation.

Eve was meant to be a lifelong partner for Adam, created from his own rib, and thus represented the union of man and woman. Pandora, on the other hand, was formed in the image of a bride, not a wife. She was made from clay, therefore indicating the Greek belief that men and women were a separate species. In addition, Pandora had her own purpose and agenda, unlike Eve, who was created solely for Adam.

Blondell then turned the discussion to another significant female character in Greek mythology: Helen of Troy. Her role as the cause of the Trojan War enforced the idea of beauty as a woman’s ultimate weapon, as well as a source of destruction and a cause of fear for men.

Women’s power rested in their eyes, evident in the character of Helen. When Menelaus tried to kill her for the havoc she caused with the war, he dropped his weapon as soon as he met her gaze because he became enraptured by her overwhelming beauty. Therefore, beauty became a symbol of empowerment for women because they could use it to control and overpower men who objectified them. In addition, the eyes were some of the few body parts that couldn’t be covered or else women would be unable to perform their domestic functions; thus, women’s erotic power which lay in their gaze could not be concealed and fully controlled.

Blondell used these ideas to then continue describing practices within the actual Greek culture, focusing on Classical Athens. Women could not legally own very much, but their accessories and clothing were their own. Therefore, lavish adornments and makeup were very important for them since beauty was their source of power. It was also believed that women were naturally very weak, had little self-control and had immense sexual appetites. Female beauty and sexual desire were said to cause trouble, so it was important that women were to be controlled by men. Yet even though they were forced to dress modestly, the female body was still provocative because men were left constantly wondering what was underneath the clothes.

“A man can’t win, apparently, but neither can a woman,” said Blondell.

In Greek culture, women were seen as an intrinsic threat because they were more than statues; they had mind, speech and strength through vision, voice and movement. Blondell contrasted Pandora with Hephaestus’s golden, robotic handmaidens, concluding that women differ from robots and statues because they have the power to deceive. Pandora’s own subjectivity made her an object of desire, whereas the golden handmaidens are not.

“Pandora embodies the profound ambivalence of the human condition,” said Blondell.
Blondell concluded her presentation by comparing Pandora with modern technology, stating that both are essential, yet harmful. Like Pandora, technology is linked to ambiguity, ambivalence and a lack of control. She also displayed several products and websites likening Pandora to technology, such as the Pandora radio station.

Then, Blondell took questions from the audience. The first person inquired as to how Greek men protected themselves from the female evils of beauty and desire. Blondell replied that self-control was essential in Greek culture and that masculinity and strength were determined by this self-control. Another audience member asked about the significance of these myths in current society, to which Blondell replied,

“Every culture picks up these stories and uses them for their own purposes.”

The rest of the questions pertained to the practices of prostitution in Greek culture and the portrayals of Helen of Troy in other time periods like the Renaissance. While Blondell admitted that she could not give a proper response since her specialty was in exclusively Greek culture, she did bring up how Hollywood films often depict Helen as a girl next door rather than a woman with divine powers. Blondell is currently writing a book on the representations of Helen in film and television.