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Folktales

Pandora's Box

retold by Robert Hoffman

As the mists of time part and show us the past we see that even before the time of men, before our puny struggles and trials, there was life on the earth. If we look closely we can see the battles of the Titans and the Olympians. Such battles as men have never witnessed raged. Mountains were cast down and trampled under the fierce feet of the Titans. Thunderbolts pierced the sky and the lightning crowned the ever-restless waves.

Every day brought another victory or defeat for the forces involved in the struggle. For countless ages the battle continued. In this time before man neither side was assured victory. Even the immortals themselves had doubts. In time, the immortals became stronger. Because of this the great war was finally stilled. Zeus and his family had won the war and as victors, divided the earth.

Poseidon, Zeus' brother, was given dominion over the sea and its creatures. Since the earth was mostly sea it was a high honor. Often Zeus would look from Olympus and see Poseidon dancing in the waves as he cast about the earth. Such tempests he could throw for fun. But Zeus knew there was more to this than was readily apparent. For when Poseidon threw his storms over the waters he was only keeping his skills sharp in case their enemies should rise.

To his brother, Hades, he gave the underworld. This was the end of all creatures and because of this was considered to be important -- if dreary and somber. Though even Zeus had trouble seeing into the gloom that constantly swept that hard land there came a time when he too could hear the lost souls moaning for their loss of life and love. Though Zeus shuddered when he heard their cries he knew his brother was well satisfied and that was important.

With each of his kin satisfied life became wonderful for the immortals. Each pleasure sought was a pleasure gained. Everything they wanted was theirs and more.

As much as each desired the tranquility and serenity of this life there was another part of them that longed for the changes brought by confrontation. Having no wish to resurrect their enemies Zeus cast about for some other way to amuse his brothers and sisters.

From the clay of the earth he created the first creature that could reason. Man, he called him. When his creation desired another name Zeus granted he be called Epimetheus.

Epimetheus lived much like the gods. Sickness and even death were unknown. He was content and because of this his actions became predictable.

From his high seat on Olympus Zeus watched Epimetheus go about his day in happiness. Zeus gave Epimetheus dominion over the earth and its creatures. Epimetheus responded by praising Zeus. Zeus relished his praise.

But endless praise, in time, becomes as boring as no praise and Zeus decided to help his creation by giving him a mate. He called his brothers and sisters together and told them of his plan, "We must make this creature, this woman, to be like Epimetheus and yet unlike him. Where we took the best of all of us and created the man, this woman must be different."

"What do you mean, different?"

"Poseidon, this creature must be different in every way from man. Where man is hard, she will be soft. Where man is strong she will be weak. Where man is foolish, she will be wise. Where man is brave she will be timid. Where man shall be scared she will be brave."

"But, when they combine their talents won't they rival us?"

"Of course, but we won't tell them." Zeus said with a smile.

"You know best, brother. What can we give to help?" The sea god said as his beard began to dry and blow in the freshening breeze. Zeus rose from the throne and walked among them. With a stern look over his marble-like face he said, "From each of you I want the opposites in the world. When we give the woman the gift of love, we will also give the gift of jealousy. Where we give creature weakness, we must give her strength. We will make her appearance rival that of Aphrodite, but her insecurity will cause her to become vain. In time all of the contrary elements we can bring will be combined."

"Zeus, what shall you call this woman?"

"Hades, I shall call her Pandora.

"I see. Pandora means all. Very good."

And so the elements of the earth were gathered and separated according to their properties. To an intelligent mind the gift of an overwhelming curiosity was given. Zeus asked Athena why she gave this pair. Athena replied, "Though they seem to not be the opposite, they truly are. For as much as curiosity can lead to knowledge, curiosity eventually leads to the loss of that same knowledge. While knowledge is good and strong, it can be weakened by the need to know too much."

Zeus, a cloud passing over his countenance, finally smiled. "I see, Athena, but will the subtlety be lost on these creatures?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps. But we must give them the chance to be more together than they can ever be alone. Don't you agree?"

"Yes, I do." He said with the cloud moving away and the light of his smile warming the hearts of all.

When Epimetheus found Zeus' gift he was delighted. She was clever with her fingers and could do many of the things that troubled him. For all the time he had been living he had never managed to be patient enough to weave leaves together into a cup for the pure water that flowed from the earth. She mastered this almost immediately and Epimetheus took special care to thank the gods for their wonderful gift.

But on Olympus complacency soon lead to boredom and one day after a tiring day of hearing himself praised he called Hades to him. "Listen, I want you to go to the dark places you know so well and gather what you find. I want the sprites of disease, hunger, hopelessness, cruelty, and the rest. Bind them into a strong box and bring it to me."

"What for, brother?"

"Hades, I have my reasons. Please do as I ask."

"Of course."

The sun shone brightly overhead for the morning rain had passed leaving the world lush and green. Together Pandora and Epimetheus sat under an olive tree and tasted of the sweet gift of Athena once more. Up the road they saw a man walking carrying a heavy box. Together they ran to see if they might be of some help. Pandora asked, "Can we help carry your burden?" The traveler looked deeply into her eyes and with a hint of sadness said, "Yes, I suppose you must."

Together Epimetheus and Pandora picked up the large box and carried it as they led the stranger to the shade of the olive tree. Placing the box down gently Pandora ran to fetch some clear water. Quickly she fashioned the reeds into a cup and brought the cool drink to the stranger.

With a sigh he accepted her gift and drank deeply of the blood of the earth. The stern look on his face finally began to ease and he knew he must continue his journey. "If it wouldn't be too much to ask, could I leave my chest here for a while? I need to hurry to complete my journey." Epimetheus looked over the young man and smiled, "Of course. Your box will be safe with us. Come after it when you will -- it will be here."

"Listen, Epimetheus and Pandora, you must not attempt to look inside. There could be terrible consequences if you do."

Epimetheus nodded his understanding and smiled," Don't worry about it. Nothing will disturb your box."

Pandora nodded her agreement, but her eyes never left the carefully decorated box. When the young man left to continue his journey he was suddenly gone. Epimetheus smiled, as he knew that he must have been one of the immortals.

Days passed and the box stood where the stranger had placed it. Often Pandora would look at the beautiful designs carved into its surface and wonder. She thought that anyone who could create such beauty for the outside of a container must have something special beyond comprehension enclosed.

Athena's seed of curiosity began to grow. Soon Pandora was spending every waking hour examining the box. Though she could not read, she knew there were words written in gold on the top of the box. The carvings of the men and women were beautiful and for hours she would let her fingers trace the designs quietly while an ever-growing curiosity encompassed her.

One day when Epimetheus was away for a minute Pandora placed her ear close to the box to see if any sound would escape. In a voice so faint it might have been the wind she heard, "Help us. Please open the box and let us out, Pandora."

Her fingers pulled her long black hair out of her way and she placed her naked ear against the box to see if she was being deceived. Faintly, but more clearly than before she heard, "Pandora, let us out. We need to be free."

With great hesitation she decided to peek inside to see if whoever was asking for her help looked like someone she would like to help. When she fingered the cord holding the chest closed, she was surprised that the knot fell open in her hands. She placed her hands on the edges of the lid. Casting her eyes around she looked to see if Epimetheus could see her. He could not. Faintly the voices cried again. With a stern resolve she began to lift. The box, instead of being hard to open as she anticipated, opened easily.

Pandora was expecting to be able to look and see who or what had called her. Instead the creatures of the box flew out in a torrent. Round her head and body they flew quickly stopping only long enough to bite and sting. Each of them were hateful spiteful creatures. She tried to shut the lid to stop their rush for freedom but they had escaped. After they tortured her for long moments they flew off to seek Epimetheus. What had she done?

She cried softly as she sat on the green grass under the pale sun and leaned against the box. Tears stained her beautiful face and she hung her head in shame. For though the creatures had not identified themselves something in her knew who they were.

Her bitter tears were amplified by the screams of Epimetheus as he was attacked without mercy. Finally when his cries had faded, Pandora heard a small sweet voice ask, "Pandora, can you please release me?"

"Why should I? Didn't you see who they were?"

"Of course I did, they are my sisters. But I can assure you I am not like them."

Pandora who felt all was lost sadly opened the box. A beautiful sprite with gossamer wings flew shimmering into the sunlight. Round and round her body the creature flew lighting only when a sore was encountered. As the creature touched the hurt -- it was gone. When Pandora had been healed completely the creature flew to heal Epimetheus. Pandora sat back against the box and thought. Hope, she was certain that was the creature's name continued her healing.

In time the sprite flew back and rested exhausted on Pandora's shoulder. Pandora watched as the creature drifted painlessly into her flesh and took up residence in her heart. She knew she had been given the gift that, even though it could not erase the pain she had brought to the world, could make that pain easier.

She smiled a soft smile for knowing there is hope, and hope is sometimes enough.


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