© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen
The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled. Plutarch
Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life. Linus Pauling
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Dorothy Parker
What interests me in life is curiosity, challenges, the good fight with its victories and defeats. Paulo Coelho
(An interactive telling of the Ancient Greek myth about Pandora’s Box)
(In keeping with Ancient Greek dramatics, this reflection includes a Greek Chorus)
Alison: Hesiod, the Greek poet who lived around 750 to 700 BCE, about the same time as Homer, gives us the most well-known version of the Pandora myth, similar to my earlier telling. In his tale, Hesiod describes Pandora as the world’s first human female. Zeus created her in vengeful response to Prometheus, a Titan demigod, who gave fire to humanity, making them more god-like. To create Pandora, Zeus asked his fellow Olympians to bestow her with gifts.
Chorus 1: Apollo awarded her with musical talents
Chorus 2: From Aphrodite she received beauty and grace
Chorus 3: Athena contributed intelligence and handcraft skills
Chorus 4: From fleet-of-foot Hermes, Zeus demanded he give her a “shameless mind and deceitful nature”
Chorus 5: Zeus endowed her with curiosity, then offered her to Prometheus, who wisely declined the gift.
Alison: Pandora, whose name means All-gifts or All-giver, was then offered to Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother. Despite his brother’s warning not to trust a gift from Zeus, he accepted and the two married.
As a wedding gift, Pandora was given the fateful box, though a more accurate translation of the ancient Greek pithos is not a box, but a large pottery storage container or jar. Much later renderings of the tale called it a box.
Hesiod claims the container was filled with every imaginable evil –
Chorus 6: You mean like disease?
Chorus 7: And war and hunger, too?
Chorus 8: (dramatically) And what about…death?
Alison: Yes, everything undesirable was imprisoned inside, including death, thus when released, humans became mortal, in contrast to the immortal gods.
Chorus 9: But will she open this mysterious box?
All Chorus: (nod or murmur Yes or No among the chorus)
Alison: Pandora has no idea that all these nasty things are trapped inside the jar, nor why she’s instructed never to open it.
If she obeyed Zeus and never opened the box, we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we? And so, her innate curiosity and the mysteries calling out from the box can’t be resisted. She opens the box.
All Chorus: (aghast or dismayed) Oh, no!
Alison: And the evils inside fly out.
Hesiod’s tale creates the perfect image of a disobedient, trouble-making woman responsible for all humankind’s suffering. Hesiod, by the way, never married and his writings regularly disparaged women. (Healing Pandora, by Gail Thomas, page 12)
Doesn’t this story sound familiar? A later myth tells of Eve in the paradisal Garden of Eden. After her curiosity compels her to bite the forbidden fruit and gain knowledge, and after Adam follows suit, they are sent out of the care-free delightful garden, made mortal, and meant to suffer. Blame another woman.
1st small Chorus group: Not so fast!
2nd small Chorus group: Let’s remember who created Eve and Pandora!
Alison: Yes, two patriarchal Father gods baked in curiosity during their creation. Both women were set up.
Chorus: Grumble, grumble…
Alison: Setting aside the patriarchal message of these two myths, they reveal a basic truth: Eve and Pandora symbolize every human because curiosity is baked into all our DNA. Do you know anyone who could resist opening that mysterious box?
I know I couldn’t. Besides, if we aren’t curious, we might as well be dead. To be disinterested in life is a living death.
Fortunately, most of us wonder about the world around us – we want to know how it works and why we’re here.
Chorus 10: You’re curious if you search Google at least once a day!
Chorus 11: You’re curious if you’ve ever asked, “Who, what, when, where, how, or …
All Chorus: WHY!”
Chorus 12: You’re curious if you’ve ever tried something new
Chorus 13: You’re curious if you’ve introduced yourself to someone you don’t know
Chorus 14: You’re curious if you don’t accept religious beliefs without question
Alison: The desire or compulsion to experience, understand, and know defines curiosity. It awakens us to the miraculous, prompts us to experience novelty, and, when satisfying our curiosity, allows us to break free of old, limiting ideas and authorities.
No wonder curiosity gets characterized as bad by those wanting to maintain the status quo or hold onto power. Questions are disruptive and counter-cultural. Augustine of Hippo, aka Saint Augustine, wrote in 397, “God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.” Personally, I think humans created hell to control curious free-thinkers like us.
In the prevailing Pandora myth, curiosity and women get scapegoated for the world’s troubles, but I believe a different perspective exists.
If Pandora is the giver of all gifts, then disease and destruction aren’t the only things to fly out of the box. Another poet, Babrius, a Hellenized Roman and the likely author of Aesop’s Fables, explains in the 58th fable that the box contains “all the useful things there are”.
In the following translation, when Babrius refers to a man, hear him more inclusively refer to all humanity. He writes:
Zeus once collected in a jar
all of the useful things there are,
And put it covered up beside
a man who, by temptation tried
and keen to know just what it hid,
with weakened will removed the lid,
and let the contents out to fly
to the Gods’ dwellings in the sky.
But Hope alone was left within,
caught by the cover, and kept in
when he had put it on again.
So Hope remains behind with men,
pledged to give each the useful things
which had escaped from us on wings.
(Healing Pandora, by Gail Thomas, page 74-75)
Babrius claims the box contained useful things for all humanity. Even if we imagine the gifts as being only those things which challenge our lives, such as disease, conflict, poverty, and death, we can reimagine them, not as evil, but as necessities for full and meaningful lives.
Chorus 15: (sarcastically) You better explain that one.
Alison: For example, death isn’t evil. I value death, even if I don’t want it to visit me anytime soon. If life never ended, if life is all carefree and sugar-sweet, not only would it be painfully monotonous, it would lose its value. Things that are fleeting are more precious than things that last forever, which are taken for granted. Death warns me to live fully while I can.
I also believe combatting evil and suffering gives life meaning and purpose. Overcoming challenges, seeking answers to mysteries, caring for one another, loving one another in good times and in bad, these and more, give life direction, joy, and depth. Facing difficulties helps us grow in character, gain self-confidence, and become better able to face new challenges.
Do we wish life had less difficulty? Of course. In the midst of pain, we want it to end. No one deserves to suffer. But it’s unrealistic to think life can be a bed of roses. Hope, that last item in the jar, means we need not be passive recipients of suffering. Hope prompts us to act to relieve suffering. Curiosity invites us to figure out how.
Curiosity draws us up the mountain to see what’s on the other side. And when the going gets rough, hope keeps us going, hope keeps us seeking answers, hope keeps us trying something new, hope promises a reward for our curiosity, and hope gets us to the next mountain.
Curiosity calls us every day. Curiosity calls us to explore the farthest heavens, the deepest oceans, and the mysteries of the mind and body. It leads us to challenge religious doctrine. It leads retirees to travel to exotic locales or learn new skills. It leads our youth to try the latest amusement. It leads chefs to try new combinations of foods. And it leads some to risk their lives for exciting new thrills.
Pandora risked opening a box of unknowns, just as satisfying our curiosity presents risk. That’s the blessing and curse of curiosity. While leading to useful discoveries, they may be accompanied by unintended consequences. Who knew the industrial revolution could lead to climate change? Or pesticides harm human health? Or antibiotics create drug-resistant bacteria? Or plastics harm ocean life?
Because everything we need for life was released from the box, when faced with unintended consequences, our curiosity and need to problem solve, hopefully, will fix whatever issues we create.
The world needs a fix right now. It feels extremely chaotic and unpredictable, as if a new box of evil has been opened.
Chorus 16: You got that right!
Alison: Pandora’s myth offers us hope that in the face of such chaos, a new beginning is possible, that our divisive wounds will heal, and that we will become whole again. We must not forget that all gifts were in that box, including love, generosity, kindness, and compassion. We have what Babrius promised, all that’s useful for a good and full life.
Unitarian Universalism is a faith tradition that honors your wondering, curiosity, and questions, while recognizing life comes with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears. Let us remember that one cannot be appreciated without the other. Let us remember that hope and a dash of curiosity reside within each of us, and can be called upon to improve our lives. May we call upon both, together.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- What are you most curious about? How do you attempt to satisfy your curiosity?
- How or when has curiosity driven various choices in your life?
- If you’ve had a Pandora-like experience of unintended consequences, good or bad, what did you learn from it?