Sunday, January 4, 2015

Identified Box-like Objects (Part 1)

Readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed that I have a fascination with "mystery boxes", appearing with certain frequency across the UFO literature. This has so far resulted in the following posts: 

There are many more of these on the way, believe me. I have spent a lot of time gathering cases, finding internal patterns, and comparing them with each other. But an obvious and crucial part of this research has also been to look into external factors, that could have served as "inspiration" or functioned as contagious imagery - whether conciously or unconciously. 

This, then, is intended to be the first part in a series of "sister articles", dedicated to exploring these various avenues of influence. Along the way, I will attempt to show how this box element has appeared throughout the years, and how it eventually found its way into popular culture. These articles will be seperated, as much as possible, from the strictly ufological data for now. But the end goal is to bring both "tracks" together for a broader analysis. 

As a starting point, I will outline several ancient myths involving boxes with supernatural qualities, in order to establish a kind of mythological-historical background. 

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.

One of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's famous Pandora paintings (1879)

Surprisingly, the oldest Greek writings about Pandora reveal that the famous box wasn't a box to begin with. This part of the myth changed following the first translations of the texts into Latin, in the late 15th Century. Until that point in time, the myth was not broadly accessible among the scholars of Europe. Much later, it was discovered that a philological error occurred during the translation process, substituting the word pithos (a large cheramic jar, often depicted in Greek artwork) with pyxis (a cylindrical box, sometimes with a square lid), resulting in most future descriptions of the container as a box. The main individual responsible for popularizing this image was Erasmus of Rotterdam, with his his Adagorium Chiliades Tres, first published in 1508. 

Apparently there exists a few representations, slightly predating the latin translations, which show a tendency towards thinking of the container as a box. I haven't been able to find any of these, though.

A Greek Pithos (left) and Pyxis (right)

One could argue that the pithos-pyxis error is a good example of the powerful imagery of boxes: there is something inherently mysterious about them that can override original source material, even in the hands of scholars. On the surface this seems to be a valid point, and I believe that there might be something to it. But in this particular case there could be a more straightforward reason for the mix-up. It may have been because of another Greek myth, which includes many of the same elements as that of Pandora: the story of Cupid & Psyche.

Psyche was the youngest of three daughters, and one of the most beautiful women that had ever lived. According to the myth, she was so beautiful that her admirers forgot to make offerings to Venus. Some even went as far as declaring Psyche the second coming of the goddess of love. Consequently, Venus became jealous and angry and, drawing on the assistance of Cupid, forced a series of trials upon Psyche. In the final trial, Psyche is sent to Hades to gather some of Persephone's beauty. Psyche is given a pyxis for the purpose, with which, long story short, she manages to complete the mission. But on the way back to the surface, she is overwhelmed by curiosity and desire to aquire some of the beauty for herself. Unable to resist the temptation, she opens the box, and vapors are released which causes her to faint. She only completes the trial with the help of Cupid, who quickly comes to her assistance. Afterwards, Cupid and Psyche get married and have child together: Pleasure.

John William Waterhouse's  Psyche Opening the Golden Box (1903). Again we see the modern tendency of depicting the container as a square box.

We also have a Greek myth involving Athena, the goddess of war and crafts, and a box. There are several versions of it, but the main details are more or less the same:

Once, when Athena had come to Hephaestus for some weapons, he lost all his inhibitions and tried to rape her. Athena was determined to avoid this encounter and defend her virginity, and in the end Hephaestus missed his mark. The semen instead became Erichthonius (who would later become king of Athens), who in some accounts is described as a serpent, and in others as half snake/half man. Athena put Erichthonius into a box, in order to keep his existence a secret, and gave it to the three daughters of Cecrops (another serpentine human, and the first ruler of Athens). She did not tell the daughters what was inside, only that they were never to open it. As you might suspect, the daughters did not obey, and when they saw Erichthonius they went insane and/or fled in terror and killed themselves. 

One version of the myth mentions the daughters turning to stone by the gaze of Erichthonius, which leads us to think of both Medusa and our old friend the basilisk.

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)

Additionally, the following myth was probably inspired by the above, or vice versa:

Acamas, son of Theseus and Phaedra, was among the soldiers who conquered Troy. Following the siege he married Phyllis, but soon after left her, with a promise that he would return. Phyllis presented him with a departing gift, a box which she told him never to look into, no matter what. Acamas of course broke the promise, and what he saw inside the box horrified him so much that it led to his death. 

Finally there is a myth in which Athena takes the heart of Dionysys - who had just been killed by the Titans - puts it in a box, and delivers it to Zeus, who then revives him.

Boxes All Over The World

Moving outside ancient Greece, we find no shortage of myths centering around boxes. For some reason these are particularly prevalent in Native American mythology, especially in tales involving trickster figures. One of the most well-known of these boxes appears in the description of the North American Trickster:

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)

In the above quote, a reference to Greece is given to us for free. But even without it, anyone should be able to spot the thematic similarities between this and the "serpent" Erichthonius in Athena's box. More about this later.

A trickster myth including not just one box, but several, is the one popularly known as "Raven Steals the Light". In it, the trickster Raven, who has just finished shaping the land and the seas, decides that he needs light to further advance his work. The light, however, was kept in the house of "The Sky Chief", hidden in three boxes - one including the stars, the other the moon and the third the sun. Raven tries several methods for entering the chief's house without being detected. He finally transforms into a baby and tricks the adults in the house to let him play with the boxes, one by one - but only if he promises not to open them. Raven does exactly that as soon as he gets the chance, and according to the myth, that is why we have those three sources of light in the sky today. 

A similar myth involves Coyote, only with two boxes - one with the moon and one with the sun inside.

The Raven Steals The Light by Bill Reid (1984)

Another tale worth mentioning is the Cherokee legend about "The Daughter Of The Sun". In it, the Sun complains to her daughter that the people on earth are not treating her with proper respect. Why will they never look at her? And when they do, why do they squint their eyes? Why are they always complaining about the heat she emits? One day the Sun had had enough and announced that she would kill off everybody. She went about doing this, but soon faced retaliation by the Cherokee:

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.

Parts of the Inca creation myth also deals with boxes containing the light of the world. Especially one passage, included in The Handbook Of Inca Mythology (2004), is very interesting in this connection:

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

The above myth resonates a lot with the Japanese Utsuro-Bune stories, which I covered In Part 1. In retrospect, I would have to say that there is probably much more of a classical mythical element to those stories than I could initially comprehend. Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck also allude to this in Wonders In The Sky, where they trace the stories back via centuries-old Japanese folklore. And Japan certainly does have a lot of other stories involving mystery boxes.

Consider the following Japanese folk tale of Urashima Taro, known also as the "Fisher Boy Tale", which is often compared to that of Rip Van Winkle:
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...

I could have included quite a bit more mythological material in this post, but I think it would have be overkill to do so. At some later point, when the proper context arises, I will surely highlight more of these myths. For now, I hope to at least have established some of the common features I have found, and created a tentative link to more recent stories (UFO cases included) involving boxes. This link will become more obvious as we move along.

In an attempt to draw together some of the collective traits of the myths mentioned in this post, we can at least identify a few main themes: 

  • 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. 

Finally...regarding the word "box": I have used it only when it was mentioned as such in the sources listed below. The weakness is of course that I don't know if that was directly what was mean't in the original texts. On the other hand, a big part of this research is to identify the "boxification" process that has occured, especially in modern times. After all, it is the more broadly accessible material that has the most influence on further retellings.


  • 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)


  1. intriguing. i'm looking very forward to the next installment.

  2. Many thanks Sibyl. Next will be more of a symbological post, with some case studies of recent movies and such.

  3. I think about boxes and containers a lot so this article was an extremely fascinating read. - Edogawa Rampo aka Taro Hirai has a story called The Hell of Mirrors (1926), which focuses on a mirrored container that drives mad those who shut themselves inside. - greetings, Jussi

    1. Thanks Jussi, I will definitely check that story out. I think you are going to like these posts even more as i start going into movies and such.