Opening Pandora’s Box

By Patti Christensen.

One of the ancient stories that pops up in modern tales is Pandora’s Box. We hear that if some action is taken it will “open Pandora’s Box” or cause some terrible thing to happen that cannot be undone. An Internet search finds the following uses: “War on Iraq will open Pandora’s Box,” “Texas lawmakers should not open Pandora’s Box,” and “Canada may open Pandora’s box on climate change.” On another website, there was a warning to doctors and mental health professionals under the heading of “opening Pandora’s Box” about the dangers they might be getting into when interviewing a victim of domestic violence.

Webster defines Pandora’s Box: “from the box, sent by the gods to Pandora, which she was forbidden to open and which loosed a swarm of evils upon mankind when she opened it out of curiosity; a prolific source of troubles.”

The earliest written version of this ancient Greek myth appeared around 5000 B.C. It is often interpreted as the story of how woman was responsible for bringing evil into the world, with Pandora being an irresistible temptress causing all sorts of trouble for men. Pandora is sometimes referred to as a pagan Eve. I like to focus the story in a different manner.

Here is my modern version of the story. Feel free to use or adapt it,or use the format with a more traditional Here is my modern version of the story. Feel free to use or adapt it, or use the format with a more traditional version of the story. (See end notes for other sources.)

Pandora’s Box

Once, a long time ago, there was a young woman named Pandora. She was quite happy,having been recently married, but also rather bored. Each day her husband, Epimetheus would go off to the office, and she would stay home to take care of the house. Nothing exciting would happen. She liked cooking, but was REALLY not very interested in cleaning at all.

One day as she was half-heartedly vacuuming, the doorbell rang, “Oh good, a visitor, “ she exclaimed.

It wasn’t really a visitor. It was the UPS man delivering a package. “Sign here; it’s for you, “ he said, and then got into his brown truck and left.

“Wahoo! Some excitement at last.” She tore open the outside wrapper and there inside was the most beautiful box she had ever seen. It shone. It glittered. It was gorgeous. It also had a note on it that said, “DO NOT OPEN, “ Do not open, or what? Do not open?

Pandora had a problem. Should she open it or not?

[Divide the group into two sections. Instruct them that one side would now think of arguments for why she should open it. The other side would then give arguments for why she should not open it.]

She began to think about why she should open it. What do you think she thought of?

[Call on people.]

Example answers:

  • If they hadn’t wanted me to open it, they wouldn’t have sent it to me.
  • No one will know.
  • It could be a wedding present.
  • Maybe it’s chocolate.
  • I can always close it back up.

But then she started to think about why she shouldn’t open it.

[Call on people.]

Example answers:

  • It said not to open it.
  • It’s against the rules.
  • You’ll get in trouble.
  • Something bad might happen.
  • Maybe it’s nothing that you would want anyway.

She went back and forth Yes-No-Yes-No.

[You can take additional answers here if the group has thought of some.]

Finally, Yes!!! And she opened it.

In a rush, out poured all of the horrible,bad things you can think of into the world.

What do you think came out?

[Call on people.]

Example answers:

  • War
  • Poverty
  • Hunger
  • Terrorism
  • Acne
  • Rape
  • Runs in your nylons Fear
  • Getting pulled over for running a red light Child abuse Running out of gas

[Depending on the group and its issues, you may want to do some prompting about possible answers, or to add your own ideas. It is also okay to assist the group with some answers that are less “heavy,” such as runs in your nylons or blind dates.]

At last, all the bad things were out, and no matter what Pandora did, she couldn’t get them back into the box.

As she sat despairing at what she had done’ she saw there was one more small thing in the box.

[Take out a small piece of paper with the word “hope” written on it. Show to the group.]

“Hope. ” Even in the face of all the terrible things and tragedies in the world,there still remained hope.

She thought of all the things that gave her hope, the signs of hope. What do you think she thought of?

[Call on people:]

Example answers:

  • Babies
  • Love
  • Surprise parties
  • Chocolate
  • Flowers
  • Kindness from strangers

She knew that even though she had made some mistakes, even though there might be many horrible things, as long as there was hope, she could continue on.

So, in the face of all the hard and difficult things we have to face in the world, we can also continue as long as there is hope.

I have used this story with various groups, both children and adults. I tell it in an interactive, participatory manner. I use a beautiful box with a lid that opens and closes. Currently, I have a fancy gold-filigreed box with a latch that swings open. It is important that the contents are hidden when it is closed.

This story could be told in a number of different settings or with different populations including at-risk children, people in transition (such as those in a divorce group, in a juvenile hall or jail setting), with residents of a shelter, or with any kind of victim/survivor group. It works well in a setting such as a storytelling workshop or with a general performance audience. It can be adapted for a one-on-one session by asking the client to speak both of the sides of the debate as to whether she should open the box. Or, I might speak one side and have her speak the other side.

While the story can stand on its own at an informal “performance” venue, there are a number of effective exercises that can follow the story in a counseling/healing context.

Listeners can either write or talk about their own personal list of “bad things” and signs of hope. One group decided to make a list of signs of hope during the week and to bring them back to group. They made some wonderful lists!

This story can also evoke personal stories and memories of times we have acted when we “knew we shouldn’t.” Some teens wrote out their own “inner debate” about why they should or should not take a particular action. These were very funny and offered ample opportunities to relate to each other’s experiences. The discussion may focus on having done something that cannot be undone, and on the possibility for self-forgiveness or of turning points in our lives where we have taken action and then “every-thing changes.” One survivor of childhood sexual abuse related on her website that when she told her grandmother about her newly remembered sexual abuse memories, her grandmother warned her that she might be opening up Pandora’s box and encouraged her to just forget it. Group members may recall being told to “not rock the boat.” Were choices made that others did not want us to make? What were the results?

Women sometimes want to talk about their reactions to the portrayal of a woman as responsible for evil, especially when a woman’s curiosity is the cause! Sometimes the similarity of this story with biblical Eve is brought up. We talk about how curiosity can be a good thing in our lives and how it can cause problems. Clients can draw scenes from the story, focusing especially on the signs of hope.

Sources for versions of Pandora’s Box:

Burleigh, Robert. (2002). Pandora. Silver Whistle Books. A dramatic retelling of Pandora’s story for young readers ages 6-10.

Grant, Michael & Hazel, John. (1993). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Who’s Who in Classical Mythology. A guide to all Greek and Roman mythological characters.

Graves, Robert. (1993). The Greek Myths. New York, NY: Penguin USA Paper. Classic reference book retelling stories of Greek gods.

Panofsky, Dora. (1991). Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Traces the history of Pandora’s box in European art and literature.

Wells, Rosemary. (1998). Max and Ruby in Pandora’s Box. New York, NY: Puffin. When Ruby finds her little Brother Max snooping in her things, she tells him the story of Pandora opening the box to teach him a lesson.

On the Internet:

Bullfinch, Thomas. Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Age of the Fable, “Prometheus and Pandora.” Retrieved February 12, 2003 from http://www.bulfinch.org/fables/ bull2.html

Guerber, H.A. “The Legend of Prometheus and Pandora’s Box,” Myths of Greece and Rome. Retrieved February 10’ 2003 from http://www.physics.hku.hk/~tboyce/ss/topics/prometheus.html

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Pandora’s Box.” Retrieved January 10, 2003 from http://fairytales4u.com/story/ pandora.htm

Oniya, Tracy Ann. “The Story of Pandora.” Retrieved January 20, 2003  from http://www.geocities.com/stlouiswicca/story_of_pandora.htm

“Pandora: She Never Had a Box,” The Classics Pages. Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/pandora.htm


This article first appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Patti Christensen, MSW, M_A. in Theology, is a professional storyteller and clinical social worker in San Diego CA. She is a full-time teaching artist in the schools, as well as a therapist at a family counseling center. For the past 15 years, she has worked as a therapist with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and child witnesses of violence. Christensen’s focus includes child abuse prevention and education with children in school settings.

Comments are closed.