Here in Wales there’s a phenomenon known as ‘Welcome to Wales’, ‘Croeso I Gymru’. This occurs especially when one crosses the Pont Hafren (Severn bridge) in a westerly direction. Whatever the weather elsewhere, at this liminal point in time and space the rain always splats across the windscreen. Seems to work also at Cardiff airport – returning at midnight after a brief quest for winter sunshine the icy rain didn’t so much precipitate as move horizontally through the air. At least it woke me up enough to do the drive home.
We joke about it, but after this trip I’ve decided I rather like our welcome home. I had been in the island of Lanzarote. The place is basically one giant volcano rising from one of the split lines in the spreading tectonic plates of the Atlantic Ocean. In some areas the rocks are still hot enough to cook one’s dinner. In wintertime Lanzarote is very arid. A good chunk of the island is a plain of black lava dating back to the last eruption of the 1730’s, so dry that in all those years just a few lichens have as yet made it their home. Away from the lava field every stream bed is dryer than bone, and you’re likely to be scoured by windblown dust and sand. There isn’t a single tree apart from the tourist resorts and close by to dwellings. Much of the land is brown, with a few scrabby dried-up bits of vegetation waiting for their chance to bloom again when rain does come. (To be fair, the northern part is a little bit greener!)
I was very impressed by the work of the folk cultivating the better bits of land. Immaculate little rectangles of finely-raked black ground-lava soil have little hollows for every plant to catch the occasional drop of rain. Lots of onions were coming up nicely. Whole hillsides are covered with vineyards, where each vine, with woody growth trimmed back almost to ground level, has its own hollow perhaps a metre in depth, with a little drystone wall of lava lumps to add to wind protection. There’s a great deal of the world desperate for water. But here in Cymru, though we do sometimes grumble as to the sogginess, the gift of water means that the land is green, and when the sun does shine, the trees provide a gentle shade.
Water is very much a theme for the imminent festival of Imbolc. In folklore Imbolc is sometimes called a ‘breaking of the ice’, but I suspect that idea is both from a more northern location (like Scotland) and from a time when winters were colder (such as the ‘little ice age’ which lasted until the mid 1800’s). Nowadays it seems that floods are rather more likely. In the 30+ years that I’ve lived on this mountain, there has been a noticeable shift in climate. Used to be one didn’t think about gardening much before Spring Equinox, but Imbolc is now the time to begin planting if one is to make the most of the season. A greenhouse is essential of course for starting the plants in comfort.
In a song by Pagan band Aeolian Songspell, Imbolc is “The Season of Rebirth, Feel the Infant Stirring in the Waters of the Earth.” A lovely gentle song for the festival, also invoking ‘Galantha, the Snowdrop Queen’ – you can listen to it here:
Years ago I was introduced to the idea of Imbolc as a time for ‘Washing the Face of the Earth’. This is very much in accordance with ancient Roman practice. For them, February was the last month of the year (which started March 1st) – a time for purification, getting rid of the year’s detritus. In ancient Athens, their ‘spring-cleaning’ festivals of Kallynteria and Plynteria were held a bit later in the year. In Anglo-Saxon times February was ‘Solmonath’ (Mud month!) and also Kale-monath (cabbage – there wasn’t much else left to eat – though in Wales we have leeks also!) Here at Pandora the festival of Imbolc seems the perfect opportunity for a soapy slosh-around of the various statues that live outside in the garden, as well as an extra dusting of the altars.
For many of the Pagan community, whether or not they have other ‘Celtic’ or ‘Gaelic’ interests, the festival of Imbolc is focused on the Goddess Brighid. Her name seems to mean ‘Bright One’ and ‘Fiery Arrow’. Brighid was identified with Sulis Minerva of Bath, which makes her ‘Eye of the Sun’, as is the Egyptian Sekhmet. Brighid is usually thought of as a Triple Goddess, but this has no connection to the notion of maiden-mother-crone – sometimes there are three Brighids, sisters perhaps, but of the same ‘age’. Alternatively, you may easily associate Her with all the four elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire – in short, She’s Goddess of just about everything. If you want to know more about her, and search the internet, you may well feel somewhat daunted – 927,000 results for ‘brighid goddess’! Brighid has become the focus for a true devotion, something felt in a deeply inter-personal way – She doesn’t fit into anyone’s allegorical boxes. In the 1960’s Vatican II ‘modernization’ it was declared that there was insufficient proof of the existence of any ‘Saint Brighid’ and she was thus ‘decanonised’. So She has been returned to us, and Her flame burns again at Kildare.
If you’re interested in knowing more of Brighid in the devotional sense you should look at Clann Bhride (Children of Brighid), a religious order devoted to this goddess – their website is at https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/ They publish a ‘Book of Hours’, on paper and also as free pdf. Some of the same folk have contributed to ‘The Cauldron Cill: Brighid Devotional’, available from www.lulu.com. This prayer is from the Clann Bhride introduction: ‘Who is Brighid’
Light me as Your lantern.
Play me as Your harp.
Keep me in Your mantle.
Guide me to Your hearth
Taking things beyond just three ‘aspects’ the Brigid-Along developed by Sassafras Grove of AD is a Novena, or potentially nine-day event. Starting at https://sassafrasgrove.org/tag/brighid-along/ (or search from brighid-along) – the nine rites celebrate Brighid as Midwife, Foster Mother, Initiatrix, Smith, Poet, Warrior, Guardian of Sacred Wells, Keeper of Hearth Fires, and as Healer.
For me, Brighid is Lady of the Mantle. Her mantle covers and protects the land and each person who asks for her protection. The threads of the mantle connect all things in the Web of Life. You may be interested in this 2010 article ‘Brigid of the Mantle: Brigid nam Bratta’ by Linda Iles, at https://mirrorofisis.freeyellow.com/id408.html. The visionary “Fiona Macleod” has Brigid saying:
“I put songs and music on the wind before ever the bells of the chapels were rung …
“And I have been a breath in your heart.
“And the day has its feet to it that will see me coming into the hearts of men and women like a flame upon dry grass, like a flame of wind in a great wood…”
Our local Circle Dance group will be meeting towards the end of the ‘Imbolc season’. Dances will include the Romanian ‘Cradle Dance’ Joc de Leagane (traditionally in honour of the village midwife), the Bulgarian ‘Razvivaj Dobro’ (traditionally led by a nursing mother) and Zensko Oro (to the tune of ‘Come Bride, Enter In’. Shifting themes, the Corries’ “Peat Fire” seems just right for the Breton An Dro. My personal favourite music for Brighid is the song ‘Brighid Upon the Highland’, for which a circle waltz seems right. The tune is the traditional ‘Brigit O’Malley’, with words by Helen Farias and Craig Olsen. You can read a little more about the song here: https://www.gaiansoul.com/2012/01/30/a-song-of-devotion-to-brigid-on-the-highland/ and you can hear the song, even download it for free at: https://craigolsonband.bandcamp.com/track/brigid-upon-the-highland
To close, the simplest of all prayers for Her is in Gaelic, translating as “Walk with us, Brighid”, pronounced “Shoe lean ah Breejah”:
It’s a hard world for us Pagans to relate to. The most popular usage for the word ‘myth’ is ‘a widely held but false belief or idea ‘. We generally speak of the religious beliefs of ancient Pagans as being ‘myths’, but what does this really mean for us? How do we actually relate to myths, from our own culture or others?
There seems to have been a shift in language usage such that the word ‘mythology’, which ought to mean ‘study of myth’ or more literally, ‘talking about myth’ has become equivalent to ‘myth’ itself. Google certainly indicates this. A search for ‘myth image’ produces masses like these arrows, not a deity in sight. Whereas, a search for ‘mythology image’ gets you Zeus and other Olympians, Thor and his hammer, and lots more. As for ‘mythos’, that seems to be a brand of beer! Whether a source uses ‘myth’ or ‘mythology’ is itself an interesting point. I do find that the better writers tend to use the former term, whilst the potboilers and plagiarists use the latter. If one looks in a bookshop or library for ‘mythology’, it’s almost all to be found in the “children’s section”. Victorian academics had the notion that the people in traditional cultures have ‘primitive’ and ‘undeveloped’ minds, supposedly analogous to those of children. Hence myth was and is thought only suitable for children (once stripped of all sex and much of the violence), irrelevant to adults.
There is for me something a little strange about this ‘mythology’ word – although similar dual usage has happened also with some other ‘ologies’. To me ‘mythology’ also suggests a ‘subtext’ – specifically that what is being studied is only the ‘myths’ and not that to which they refer (the deities). In other words, it is fundamental to most presentations of ‘mythology’ that the deities do not actually exist – and so they cannot in themselves be a valid target of study. Only what people have said (and especially written) about them can then be of concern. Hence the title of this piece – it is ‘talking about’ those who ‘talk about myth’
Really though, that’s not my interest – since for us as Pagans, it seems to me that the point of mythology must be to know better the nature of God/dess/e/s themselves. Arguably better for us to drop the term ‘mythology’ and instead use ‘theology’ (study of the ‘theioi’ ) or the feminist term ‘thealogy’.
It’s certainly not an easy task to relate to Myth at all. For us as NeoPagans, embedded in the ‘western’ commodity-culture, our mythic heritage has been perverted and largely destroyed. We can speculate as to how patriarchal cults have rewritten older myths, typically rendering the results incomprehensible, but though we might try a ‘re-inversion’ it’s not easy to recapture the ‘originals’. Many scholars tell us that no such originals ever existed. They tend to prefer texts to oral tradition, even though writing is a fairly recent event in human experience.
Clearly we ‘moderns’ have a real problem between Myth and Science. Rationalists tell us that myth is just ‘bad science’, and so superseded. We can disagree, and say that myth is the expression of spiritual vision. But how many of us could seriously speak of our galaxy, the word itself derived from Greek for ‘milk’, still known as the Milky Way, as drops from the breasts of the Great Mother?
In ancient Greece, the term used for stories about the ‘Gods’ was “mythos”, which means little more than just ‘story’. This word was often used in association partly with ‘logos’, which has connotations of order and knowledge – logos being the logic behind an argument. Intriguingly, the writer Hesiod (not usually my favourite) makes a deeply-felt contrast between the two. For him, mythos was truth and logos was lies,’seductive falsehoods’. One might speculate that this rather grumpy character had had a bad experience with lawyers… I find his opposition amusing anyway, especially when I bear in mind the the Christian ‘message’ is – in the ‘Gospel of John’ anyway – specifically referred to as ‘Logos’ (usually translated as ‘the Word’ in English). I think Hesiod would be even more unhappy with the ‘logos’ of public discourse nowadays – faced with the barrage of advertising, political propaganda and fake news in general, he would rather talk to his sheep!
If you search for ‘definitions’ of ‘myth’ alongside ‘legend’ and related words, you will find a clearly-graded ranking. Myth is reserved for deities, especially stories of ‘creation’ (effectively, ‘bad science’) whilst ‘legend’ is considered to relate events concerning humans (effectively, ‘bad history’). The bottom ranks of the hierarchy are fable, folk tale and ‘fairy tale’ – all suitable only for the ‘common people’ and to fill the heads of children. But this is a construction of our culture’s intellectuals – people in traditional Pagan cultures, past and present, do not endorse any such separation.
Over the past decade or so I’ve visited family in Aotearoa / New Zealand several times. There’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy a ‘Maori Cultural Heritage Experience’ but very little chance for Pakeha tourists to talk with any Maori about real spirituality. Whilst their faith has certainly ‘survived’, it does seem that to an extent there is an active process of rediscovery underway. A pride in traditional culture and festivals links closely to spirituality. For example, the Maori festival of Matariki marks the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, a little before the winter solstice. Increasingly this is celebrated as a public holiday, but the connections to spirituality are taken seriously (unlike Xmas).
In Maori, ‘Mata-ariki’ means “the eyes of god”. According to myth, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatūānuku, the earth mother, were separated by their children, the god of the winds, Tāwhirimātea, became so angry that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens. Others say Matariki is the mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-ā-nuku, Tupu-ā-rangi, Waitī, Waitā, Waipuna-ā-rangi and Ururangi. Another account explains that Matariki and her daughters appear to assist the sun, Te Rā, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.
You may have read , in works by writers such as Eliade, how in traditional spirituality, myth is of fundamental importance. Every single act, the outwardly ordinary as well as those of magic and ritual, takes on a sacred character precisely as it re-enacts the primal events of the myth. Furthermore, each such re-enactment is understood as a re-creation of whatever the primal events brought into being. Now, it’s one thing for an academic to say this sort of thing, far removed from its actual substance – it’s quite another when a modern writer speaks of their own tradition in very similar language.
I was fortunate to purchase a copy of ‘Tohunga’ by Samuel Timoti Robinson (it’s often difficult to locate a source for this book). Whereas almost all accounts of indigenous myth have been collected by hostile redactors – missionaries or colonial administrators – this is by a modern practitioner initiated into the Maori shamanic / priestly tradition. The first quarter of Robinson’s book presents Maori myth from ‘before creation’ – the Ages of Void and Night – to the population of the world by our ancestors. Robinson’s account has great depth and complexity – far beyond the ‘just-so-story’ material one usually encounters. One feels then that other oral traditions have no less substance.
The second degree (of seven) in tohunga training is specifically focused on learning systematically the lore of the many deities and prayers. Speaking of ‘karakia’ (prayers of power) Robinson writes (my brackets):
The karakia …called upon the aid of atua (deities) …for hunting…gathering food…calling and quelling the winds and rain, chanting while weaving so as to hold the fibres together…every aspect of Maori daily life.”
The tohunga ascends the macrocosm by karakia and contacts the higher powers by naming the atua…then, when we apply this karakia to the physical level, such as when calling Rangi to bless a child, these heavenly powers are brought down to out level in Te Ao Marama.”
The names of the wairua (spirits) become the power bases by which rituals are empowered.
To join the karakia to Hawaiki (the mythical origin place) has the added mana of the source…instead of our individual power the Maori has the power of everyone before him in his whakapapa.
In the NeoPagan movement we don’t really have a lot of myth. The myth of Atlantis has been superseded, I think, by the science of plate tectonics and continental drift. (So Atlantis was ‘bad science’, though to credit Blavatsky et al, it was not until nearly a hundred years later that the modern theory was accepted.) The Wiccan second degree employs a much-questioned ‘Descent of the Goddess’ myth – usually considered to have written by Gardner himself.
Most popular, surely, is still the Wiccan ‘Wheel of the Year’ myth, in which their Goddess and God are directly embodied in the changing of the seasons. This is mostly derived from the ‘Golden Bough’ by James Frazer and the ‘White Goddess’ by Robert Graves. Various ideas of twin gods in conflict are mixed in, not always very consistently. I suspect though, that whilst most Pagans think it’s important to be in tune with the physical cycle of the year, as well as with its underlying spiritual currents (which of course differ greatly in different climates. and reverse in the southern hemisphere), nonetheless they don’t feel a need to mythify this especially. Nor can it have been so significant to the first generation of Wiccans, some of whom have suggested that ‘doing magic’ was of more importance than celebrating festivals. Starhawk’s ‘The Spiral Dance’ presents the creation myth from the Feri tradition, but as far as I am aware, that title is the only popular Wiccan book with its own ‘mythic’ narrative.
One of the major changes in the Pagan community during my 40+ years has been the shift away from duotheism to polytheism in general, and to specific polytheisms, such as Hellenismos or Kemeticism, as well as various Celtic and Norse reconstructions. Barely a handful of us will have born into polytheism, so these commitments are the result of explicit choice – however much we feel the Gods have directed us. I’m wondering how much this movement derived from a ‘need for myth’, unsatisfied by Wiccan or not-very-theist-Druid Paganism, and to how great an extent myth is the centre of the spiritual practice, rather than a background. (I would love to hear more from practitioners in these faiths.) Certainly I’m aware of a distinct divergence in the Heathen community, between those who treat the Eddas as ‘authoritative sacred texts’, not so unlike the Abrahamics, and those of more flexible views. (You might be interested to know that if you’re a prisoner in the UK, you can get a free copy of the Eddas, just like the Bible and the Koran, but these is the only Pagan text given such status.)
Looking at some of the Pagan faiths that have maintained continuity – the many Hindu traditions, say, or Shinto, it’s not always easy, when we are not fluent in the relevant language, for us to know whether myth is a fundamental part of daily spiritual practice, or more the excuse for a public festival. In Voudoun, the loa are considered immediately present at every event, so perhaps in that religion myth plays a lesser part.
Many of us are deeply unsatisfied by standard versions of myths – taking the view that what has come down to us is not much representative of ancient spirituality, having been heavily ‘patriarchalised’ and otherwise amended by those with political and economic power. You can find many writers describing this – a classic is ‘The Paradise Papers’ by Merlin Stone. But if we are to do more than grumble, and instead regain ‘true myth’ we will have to write it ourselves. If there ever were texts of these ‘tru myths’, all have gone to the fires. So rather than sneering at ‘Unverified Personal Gnosis’ (UPG) we have to ask the deities to tell us their stories directly. Better if we don’t expect all such gnosis to be consistent! We won’t all like everyone else’s visions.
The process is happening. One of my great favourites is Charlene Spretnak’s “Lost Goddesses of Early Greece”. Another good place to rummage is at Bibliotheca Alexandrina where the folks have produced a number of ‘devotional anthologies’, often including retellings as well as modern prayers.
Creation myths have not much featured as yet. It’s notable that the Abrahamic cults make a big deal of these. Victorian-era scholars, whose influence continues, tended to interpret Creation as making a Creator automatically ‘Top God’. Then writers like Eliade describe how these deities seem to move off the scene, using the term ‘deus otiosus’. I am inclined to think that this is a deep misunderstanding of Pagan Creation Myth. I would suggest that our myths are conceptually quite different from the Abrahamic stuff. More precisely, rather than their separation of Creator and Created, in the Pagan myths the Pagan Creator deities are the Creation Process. In Robinson’s book mentioned above, creation is termed ‘Te Wananaga o Te Ao Marama’ – the coming of our world of light. The language is deep and subtle – it’s not like making a cake, or anything else in which creator, source material and created result are identifiably separate.
For myself, I felt the ‘craving for true myth’ some years back. Writing for the readers of ‘The Pipes of PAN’ magazine, I initiated a ‘competition’ to encourage ‘new’ myths of creation. The prize was awarded to the poet Hilary Llewellyn-Williams for her story “Spinning Woman”. I didn’t write at that time, but more recently found ‘The Drummer’ was speaking to me. The story She gave combines a Creation myth with a very specific aetiology (origin story).
Just because they are deities, doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humour…
You’ve all heard of Pandora. You’ve all been told the story of the silly girl whose curiosity released all the ills of the world. She has the distinction of being the second-most-blasphemed Goddess in human history – after Eve, Mother of All Living. Perhaps now that hardly anyone actually believes in ‘Eve’, Pandora is tops!
I wrote rather more briefly about Pandora in the collection ‘Naming the Goddess’ ed. Trevor Greenfield, Moon Books 2014. Some new insights have arrived since then.
Pandora never had a ‘box’ – the 16th-century writer Erasmus mistranslated the Greek word ‘pithos’ (a large storage jar) as if it had been ‘pyxis’ (box). The story was somewhat confused with that of Psyche (the story within a story in Lucius Apuleius wonderful ‘The Golden Ass’). Just about every artist since then has reproduced the mistake – lovely pictures but not much help when it comes to understanding Her. Except maybe that the word ‘box’ is sometimes used as a euphemism for female organs…This has been a very sticky error – one even finds Goddess-worshiping Pagan writers caught up in it.
This painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is pretty much standard – tells us more about the artist’s relationship to the model (Jane Burden Morris) than about Pandora.
In my local ‘high street’ Pandora has been turned into a shop selling expensive bling – no doubt in costly ‘boxes’. Just as the name of our Goddess Isis has been hijacked of late, so a google for Pandora now prioritises shopping. And just about every hack journalist in search of a cliché will open up “Pandora’s Box” before long. Computer games pervert Her into a ‘goddess of calamity’ and deceit. There are countless novels using Her name – Amazon currently has no less than 6809 results for her – varying from bonkbuster and soft porn to a rather nice children’s book by Victoria Turnbull, in which Pandora is a fox in a dress.
A more appropriate recent tribute is that Her name is used for the ‘idyllic’ planet portrayed in the 2009 film ‘Avatar’. The beautiful inhabitants live in harmony with nature and worship a mother-goddess named Eywa. I feel very uncertain as to the ‘message’ of this film – can’t help feeling that a subtext is the impossibility of such life for we humans.
The usual tale derives from the 7th-century bce Hesiod whose works could be considered the ‘party line’ of ‘Greek mythology’. I don’t believe that we should think of these stories as ‘myths’ – at least if we equate the word ‘myth with ancient Pagan religion – but rather as ‘just-so stories’, that is, something ‘deliberately made-up’. Hesiod’s material is reproduced without question by most writers today, as if it were definitive. However, anyone attempting a serious study of ancient Greek religion must soon realise that things were vastly more complex. The Hesiod story of Pandora has a substantial presence in our culture, which one could even describe as obsessive, but ancient Greeks seem to have largely ignored it, as did most Roman mythographers. Other writers, Theognis for example (and also Aesop) told a quite different story in which a Jar of Blessings was given by Zeus to humankind (or ‘man’ – sic) but that a man (so not Pandora) opened it, and all but Hope skipped off back to heaven!
The similarity of the stories of Pandora and Eve is deeply suspicious. Both are ‘first women’, both are made of clay (Eve indirectly, after Adam), both are given responsibility for the presence of evil in the world. Early Christian writers saw this clearly and John Milton made the connection in his ‘Paradise Lost’ some 350 years ago, but all these would have thought the Eve story as written millennia before that of Pandora. The early feminist Mary Wolstonecraft recognised clearly how these stories have been used:
“We must get entirely clear of all the notions drawn from the wild traditions of original sin, the eating of the apple, the theft of Prometheus, the opening of Pandora’s box, and the other fables, too tedious to enumerate, on which priests have erected their tremendous structures of imposition, to persuade us, that we are naturally inclined to evil.”
— Mary Wollstonecraft (1792), A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (quoted from http://www.eoht.info/page/Pandora’s+box)
More recently, it has become generally accepted that the Israelite story dates to something nearer to 500 bce, around some two hundred years after that of Hesiod. Palestine at that time was something of a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa – far more ‘cosmopolitan’ than ‘sunday school history’ would suggest. It is therefore entirely plausible that the Pandora story is directly the precursor for that of Eve – both are still used remorselessly to this very day as misogynistic propaganda.
Nearly all websites and books will just repeat the same nonsense of Pandora as ‘the first woman’ – apparently, prior to that point, humankind really was just ‘man’. For me, a reference source’s approach to Pandora is a good test of its reliability. Philosophers who accept the Hesiodic story can at best only waffle about the ‘riddle of femininity’ and the meaning of Hope remaining in the Jar. The majority seem to think Hope is delusory, rather than a comfort. A few might suggest that the difficulties of mortal life can be a worthwhile challenge to spiritual growth.
So how do we recover Pandora? What might her imagery and story be ‘really’? As it turns out, we don’t have words, but we do have pictorial evidence. The birth of Pandora was represented on the pedestal of the statue of Athena situated at the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens – hardly the location for a sadly moralistic fable. Long after Hesiod, vase painters continued to illustrate Her more properly.
The first modern scholar to break open the box seems to have been Jane Ellen Harrison, a Classics scholar at Newnham College, Cambridge in the early years of the 20th century ce. She was a feminist and a pacifist, a fighter for women’s educational rights (herself denied degree and professorship), much abused by male scholars unable to challenge her scholarship. It would be nice to think of her as a proto-Pagan, but though her work is of great value to us, she remained an atheist-humanist, and did not truly celebrate the Goddesses she liberated. She generally sees the myths as ‘explanations’ of ancient rites, the real nature of which – differing from Olympian religion – had been forgotten.
Harrison’s article “Pandora’s Jar”, published in 1900, first lifts the ‘great lid’. She links the Pandora story to the festival of Anthesteria (timed around the January or February full moon. The three days of the feast were called Pithoigia, Choës, and Chytro – all words related to ‘pots’. She shows how the festival, rather than being an excuse to open new wine, was rather, or was formerly, a celebration of the spirits of the dead – sometimes known as Keres.
This vase shows Hermes, in his role as psychopomp, alongside spirits emerging from the pithos, one of which is returning to it. (redrawn by Jane Harrison after original in a dissertation by Paul Schadow, 1897)
Pandora’s jar is specifically called a ‘pithos’ – this is basically the sort of ‘Grecian Urn’ one finds in garden centres nowadays for people to make into water features. A pithos is actually a very large jar, too heavy for anyone to just carry, typically situated on the ground, or partly within. A smaller jar would have been referred to as an ‘amphora’ or perhaps ‘urnula’. To use a pithos as water feature in this way is not inappropriate. The flowing, and ever-cycling waters are a good invocation of Pandora, for She is the One from Whom All Gifts Flow, and to whom all returns.
Harrison writes more of Pandora in her book “Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion”. She castigates Hesiod as ‘pessimistic’ and ‘bourgeois’ and as having ‘ugly malice’. The name ‘Pandora’ means “the All-Giving”. It’s neither an ‘Olympian jest’ nor a sarcastic euphemism. Hesiod tries to switch the meaning into passive mode, as ‘all-gifted’. Wordplay of this nature is typical of mythic inversion. Harrison argues convincingly, from the evidence inscribed on the ancient pottery, how ‘Pandora’ is a title of the Earth Mother, in Her ‘Anodos’ – as Koré, the Maiden Uprising. Another name inscribed by Her image is ‘Anesidora’ – ‘sender-forth of gifts’.
As well as for storing the physical gifts of the Earth, the pithos was also used for funerary purposes – a practice not so dissimilar to the ‘Canopic Jars’ of Egyptian rite. Pithoi were often partly sunk into the ground. So the pithos is also the grave. The belly of the Jar is the Womb of Pandora. Images on surviving Greek pottery show pithoi as containing the ‘Keres’ – not ‘demons’ but the souls of the dead that are in Pandora’s care. The Keres are depicted as little winged beings – She sets them free.
The hubris exhibited by Hesiod is quite breathtaking. He has transformed the Mother of the Gods into their created plaything, a foolish, disobedient girl. He has turned Her Gifts into things of fear and contempt. He has turned our Mother into a vengeful curse upon humankind – “a woe for men who live on bread.” And clearly Hesiod doesn’t approve of curiosity – of asking questions. All of this is a perfect example of what Robert Graves calls ‘iconotropy’ –the re-interpretation and perversion of ancient religious images in the service of a contrary dogma. Poor Eve has much the same problem with Her Tree, Her Snake and Her Apple of course! We might feel a little sorry for this pathetic woman-hater and his unhappy private life, were it not for the torrent of bile for which he is responsible.
A tantalising hint from an ancient writer remains. We are told that Sophocles wrote a play entitled ‘Pandora or the Hammerers’. Sadly, the text has been completely lost; all we have is this title. Sophocles’ creation was apparently a ‘satyr play’ – we might think of this as equivalent to a farce, so some incongruity is plausible. The few writers who mention the play seem to think that the hammers might be used in breaking the earth, to free Pandora. Clearly they have never actually used a sledgehammer (which is what is depicted on the pottery). Hitting the ground with one of these things either splatters oneself with mud, or serves to compact the soil (not good for fertility). They could be used to break rocks, but that doesn’t make sense either, except for the use of marl to ‘sweeten’ acidic soil. ‘Clods’ are just too soft for hammers, and would need more than bashing to get into fertile receptivity. No one has considered what seems to me to be an obvious answer – the Hammers are used to smash the pithos in a ritual enactment, either setting free the spirits therein, or in the metal-working context discussed next.
The Hammerers are Pandora’s immediate connection to Hephaestus – he is always depicted with hammer in hand. His involvement opens a different or complementary thread of inquiry. According to Hesiod, Hephaestus is Pandora’s creator – other stories tell of his creation of metal-working automatons (we might call them ‘robots’ ). He is also assigned ‘patron god’ status for pottery. Hephaestus is generally considered ‘pre-Greek’ (that is, worshiped by people in the area prior to the arrival of Indo-European Greeks), as also was his parthenogenetic mother, Hera, Queen of Heaven. If we apply a process of ‘mythic re-inversion’ – a questionable methodology maybe, but which at least gives us a different perspective – we could have Pandora ‘correctly’ as Hephaestus’ mother.
This makes more mythic sense than you might initially think. Pandora herself is usually considered mother of the first mortal woman, Pyrrha. Together with her husband Deucalion, Pyrrha survives a Greek flood. It has been suggested though that Pyrrha and Deucalion are something of a fire / water allegory rather than ‘real characters’. ‘Pyrrha’ means ‘fire’, as in our various ‘pyro-‘ words. But in some non-Hesiodic stories, Pyrrha is credited instead as Pandora’s mother. Pandora is also closely associated with Fire via the Prometheus story – basically as the ‘pay-back’ and equivalent for Prometheus’ stealing fire from the Olympians Gods. We might easily say that Fire was the First Gift – that which facilitated our own species’ transformation from ‘animal’ to ‘human’. It is surely the case that Fire is the Mother of Pottery. Further though, metal-working was developed thousands of years after pottery, and could not have done so without the high-temperature technology of the kiln. Molten metal requires a container – specifically a robust pot. In some techniques, the container needs to be smashed in order to obtain the metal. We call such metal-holding pots ‘crucibles’ and we continue to use this word as a metaphor for the context of spiritual change. Breaking the mould is usually unavoidable when the intended result is a casting, such as a statue. So, additionally, the Pot is the mother of the Bronze.
Pandora’s Fire is a mix of Ancient Greek choral storytelling with a modern twist, perhaps intended mainly for school audiences. See https://www.theatrefolk.com/products/pandora-s-fire It’s somewhat off mythologically, since starts from the Box, but shifts so to completely subvert the victim-blamming of Hesiod. I love the ending:
Burn, burn, Pandora’s bright fire,
Dazzle the world with your light.
The modern writer Daniel Ogden makes the fascinating suggestion that ancient Greeks understood the Jar (maybe smaller than the usual pithos) as a container for Pandora’s child – a ‘teras-baby’, that is, ‘deformed’, lame or just ugly. Strangely he does not name this child as Hephaestus, despite the precise match that God would make to these labels. If all this mixture of imagery is confusing, well, that is precisely the nature of most true myth – they are an attempt to set down a coalescence of spiritual visions.
Fascinatingly, the ancient Greek word for ‘pot’ relates not only to ceramics, but also to chasms and fissures in the Earth, just as in the English ‘pothole’. Springs, the waters of life, flow from such pots. Even the phrase “gone to pot”, meaning ruin and destruction, translates similarly. We know that Persephone the Koré descends through such a place and returns thereby in Her ascent, Her Anodos. So the Jar is not just the holder of Pandora’s Gifts – it is also Her embodiment and Her gateway into epiphany.
I had always thought of Pandora as primarily an ‘Earth Goddess’, Waters too, but on reflection She would seem at least tri-faceted – like Persephone she is involved in Death / Rebirth but also, uniquely in Greece I think, but maybe not unlike Irish Brighid, in Fire, pottery and metalwork. If we take the view that Goddesses do not always have quite the same uniqueness of identity that we believe of ourselves, then Pandora would be a title not only of Gaea / Rhea or Persephone, but also of Hera.
I first made my own dedication to Pandora many years ago. Back in the Typewriter Age I published a magazine, itself titled “Pandora’s Jar”. At the same point in time, I rededicated my Fellowship of Isis hearth or Iseum as the Centre of Pandora, and I made dedication to Pandora at my ordination in the FOI. In addition to the factual material presented by harrison, I was very much moved by Charlene Spretnak’s retelling of the Pandora myth. I wrote back then that the reclaiming of the truth of Pandora is a good metaphor for the task we face. It is even more urgent now. Instead of dominating, fearing and cursing the Earth (and women) our society needs once again to live in harmony with the gifts She so freely provides. We also need to understand that the creatures that we find inconvenient or which sometimes bring us sickness are Hers too, older than We. The great gift of life is matched by the gift of surcease, of death, that we may live again, renewed in vigour.
Recent reading makes me feel further that the Giving of Gifts is actually the basis of human culture, not some add-on twice a year. Pandora as All-Gifting becomes then more than metaphor, rather the origin of whence we have come, and the focus to which we need to return.
Pandora, Anesidora, Koré, Crowned With Flowers, First of the Graces,
You that bestow all things necessary to life.
From your never-emptying Jar Come all the Gifts of Earth in season.
When we are constrained in rigidity May your Hammerers Strike, Set us free to grow.
May Your Hope Uprise Within Us like Your First Gift of Fire. Rise Up O Flame May we be transformed in Your Crucible As Gifts of Beauty, Wisdom and Joy.
If you’re as fascinated by Pandora as I am, you might be interested in these sources – if you find others, of interest beyond the same old stuff, please let me know: