Boxes In The Greek Mythological Tradition
One of the most famous mythical boxes in European and post-native North American culture, is surely that of Pandora. The reason for this is that it is still invoked, even in everyday situations, in the form of a popular warning; whenever there is a risk of unleashing a s***storm through a certain action, we talk about "opening up a Pandora's Box" of problems. Despite the box's popularity, very few are actually familiar with the story behind it, which is, in short, as follows:
In Greek Mythology, Pandora (literally: "all-gifted") was the first mortal woman. She was created with the attributes of all the gods of Olympus - as an angry response to Prometheus' theft of fire - to be a cunning and skillful opposer of mankind. The god's supplied Pandora with a containment unit full of spirits (Daimons), which were later (unwittingly) unleashed through her onto mankind. These Daimons represented all the evils that have since plagued humanity, and only one of them - Hope - never left the container.
There is a clear parallel here to the biblical Eve and the misogynistic "tradition" of viewing women as the source of all evil. It is also easy to see how the myth of Pandora's Box inspired the Scientologist creation story.
|A Greek Pithos (left) and Pyxis (right)|
|John William Waterhouse's Psyche Opening the Golden Box (1903). Again we see the modern tendency of depicting the container as a square box.|
|Cecrops' daughters open the lid of the "box" - here depicted as a basket - and finds the serpent child Erichthonius inside. Painting by Jasper van der Lanen (c. 1620)|
Boxes All Over The World
Even though primarily male, he not only masquerades as a female but actually gives birth to children. He normally keeps his detached phallus in a box and is thus self-castrating (like many Greek androgynes); in order to have sexual intercourse, he removes the phallus from the box and sends it to the woman. (Jones, 490:2005)
|The Raven Steals The Light by Bill Reid (1984)|
The people appealed to some medicine men, called the Little Men, who came up with a plan to kill the Sun. They transformed two men into a copperhead Snake and an adder and instructed them to wait by the Daughter of the Sun’s door and attack the Sun with their venom-filled fangs. But the Sun’s rays blinded the snakes and rendered them helpless. The Little Men tried again, this time changing two men into more powerful snakes: the great horned serpent Uktena and a large rattlesnake. When the Daughter of the Sun opened her door, the rattlesnake got confused and bit her. By the time the Sun arrived, her daughter was dead and her soul had flown off to the Ghost Country, in the dark land of death called Ushunhi-yi. The Sun was so grief-stricken, she shut herself up inside her daughter’s house and cried for weeks. Instead of being glad she was gone, the people quickly realized how terrible it was not to have the Sun’s rays to warm and brighten the Earth.
Once again, they consulted the Little Men, who advised them to send their bravest and smartest men to bring back the daughter’s soul from the Ghost Country. They were given a box to take her home in and warned not to open the lid until they reached the Daughter of the Sun’s house. The men followed the instructions and successfully retrieved the soul, but on the way home, they could not resist the ghost’s pleading for a bit of air. When they lifted the lid, her soul flew out and turned into a redbird. When the Sun found out, she cried so much that she caused a great flood on the Earth. The people then did everything they could to please the Sun, singing and dancing, drumming, and praising her beauty. After a time, the Sun forgot her grief and smiled, happy that the people were finally treating her with respect and love. (Lynch & Roberts, 32:2010)
|Symbol allegedly related to the Daughter Of The Sun myth|
This myth has some interesting details besides the box element. We again find a heavily serpentine theme, and that of the temptation of opening the box. And what about those little men creating the snakes? No doubt one could draw a parallel between them and a certain group of popular aliens, but I'll have to ask you to speculate further on that for yourself, at least for now.
Just before the Spaniards appeared, the deity Cuniraya Viracocha journeyed to Cuzco to talk to the Inca Huayna Capac about how to divide the kingdom. There he persuaded Huayna Capac to go to Titicaca where Cuniraya would reveal himself. At Titicaca, the Inca was instructed to “mobilize your people so that we may send magicians and all sorts of shamans to Ura Ticsi, the world’s lower foundations”. A condor shaman, a falcon shaman, and a swift shaman who were imbued with the power to give form and force (camac) set out with the intention to return with one of Cuniraya’s sisters. The swift shaman arrived first and was warned not to open a small chest, as this was the prerogative of Huayna Capac.
Close to Cuzco, the shaman could not resist looking inside the box: “Inside it there appeared a stately and beautiful lady. Her hair was like curly gold and she wore a majestic costume, and in her whole aspect she looked very tiny. The moment he saw her, the lady disappeared. And so deeply abashed, he arrived at the place called Titicaca in Cuzco”. The swift shaman brought the woman back to Huayna Capac and Cuniraya. While escorting her back, the shaman only had to speak and a table with food would instantly appear. He delivered her on the fifth day to Huayna Capac and Cuniraya Viracocha who were both overjoyed. Before opening the chest, Cuniraya said: “‘Inca! Let’s draw a line across this world. I’ll go into this space and you into this other space with my sister. You and I mustn’t see each other anymore!’ he said as he divided the world”. He began to open the box. At that moment, the world lit up with lightning.
|Illustration showing Huayna Capac carrying what looks like a box, but is actually a shield|
Urashima was fishing one day when he caught a large tortoise in his net. Feeling sorry for it, he cut the tortoise loose, freeing it to return to the sea. But the creature was actually one of the daughters of Ryujin, the Shinto god of the sea. She spoke to Urashima, inviting him to come to Ryugu, the sea god’s palace. Not completely believing he was speaking to a tortoise, he agreed to go. As he swam he saw a vast and beautiful palace made of sea shells, coral, and pearls. When they arrived at the palace, the tortoise changed into a beautiful girl. Urashima fell in love with her, and they were soon married. But after four years he felt homesick, and asked to go home to see his parents.
Urashima’s wife gave him a box with magical powers that would allow him to return to her when he wanted—but only if it remained closed. Back on land, Urashima found that much had changed. His parents were long gone. Finally in confused desperation, he asked an old man if he had known Urashima. Urashima, said the old man, drowned in the sea 400 years ago. Urashima, though he had hardly aged at all, had been away for 400 years. His parents and all his friends were long dead. Stunned, he opened the box, forgetting his wife’s warning not to. Instantly, he aged and disappeared into dust. (Roberts, 145:2010)
There are other variations of the story, among them one where only 300 years has passed, where the female is indentified as "Dragon Princess", and some in which Urashima opens the box and is enveloped in a mist. Actually, the story plays into a larger tradition of Japanese sea myths, originating with Benten, or Benzai-ten, the Japanese sea goddess, who is described as either riding a dragon while playing a harplike instrument, or swimming through the water in snake form and/or assisted by a group of white sea snakes. So, once again we have a serpentine connection.
To sum up...
- The most consistent theme would have to be that of temptation - the irresistable feeling of looking into that which must remain unseen, despite explicit warnings against it. The prevalence of this is perhaps not so strange, if we think of it as the common human weakness that it is. The inclusion of this element as part of a learning process makes sense, if we view it as a beneficial lesson for more or less any stable society.
- There is also a clear serpentine theme running through many of these myths, but whether this is coincidential or not I can't say. It is something which appears so often, that it might well be impossible not to encounter it when comparing stories from the ancient world. What is fairly well established, on the other hand, is the link between reptiles and temptation. So in that sense, the connection is both interesting and meaningful. The serpentine theme most definitely has sexual connotations, and as we shall see in a later post, boxes are often interpreted as symbols of female sexuality.
- The detail about mist and vapors being emitted from boxes, or containers in general, is relatively consistent throughout many of the myths, as well as in the depicitions of these - just scroll up and look at some of the images i have included. It is also an element that is found in many UFO cases which include boxes (but also many which do not), and one that I will spend a lot of time on in the near future.
- Bastian, Dawn E. & Mitchell, Judy K.: Handbook Of Native American Mythology. ABC-Clio (2004)
- Brisson, Luc: How Philosophers Saved Myths - Allegorical Interpretation And Classical Mythology. University Of Chicago Press (2004)
- Coleman. J.A.: The Dictionary Of Mythology - An A-Z Of Themes, Legends And Heroes. Arcturus Publishing Ltd. (2007)
- Cotterell, Arthur: The Encyclopedia Of Mythology - Classical, Celtic, Greek. Anness Publishing/Hermes House (2006)
- Eason, Cassandra: Fabolous Creatures, Mythical Monsters And Animal Power Symbols - A Handbook. Greenwood Press (2008)
- Grant, Michael: Myths of the Greeks and Romans. Meridian (1995)
- Jones, Lindsay (ed.): Encyclopedia Of Religion (2nd edition) vol.1. Thomson Gale (2005)
- Lynch, Patricia Ann & Roberts, Jeremy: Native American Mythology A to Z (2nd Ed.). Infobase (2010)
- Panofsky, Dora & Erwin: Pandora's Box - The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd (1956)
- Radin, Paul: The Trickster - A Study In American Indian Mythology. Philosophical Library Inc. (1956)
- Roberts, Jeremy: Japanese Mythology A-Z (2nd Edition). Chelsea House Publishers (2010)
- Roman, Luke & Monica: Encyclopedia Of Greek And Roman Mythology. Facts on File (2010)
- Steele, Paul R.: Handbook Of Inca Mythology. ABC-Clio (2004)