September 27th, 2008


Pandora's Aquarium

I remember reading that L. Frank Baum's mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a major player in the women's suffrage movement who was much more willing than her compatriots to criticize religion. She accepted the idea of an ancient matriarchy that had control of politics and religion before the men ruined it. While I can't say I buy into that, what I've learned in history class suggests that there might be a grain of truth to it. Before politics came to dominate in the world, the main deities were fertility goddesses. After all, since women are the ones who give birth, it makes sense for them to preside over fertility, right? As society became more nationalistic, religion changed accordingly. A mythology book that I read suggests that the stories about the current gods overthrowing old goddesses (like Gaea or Tiamat) is representative of this shift. But then, there have also been male agricultural deities and goddesses of war. Athena is often classed as one of the latter, and I tend to think she's pretty cool. The Hebrew deity Yahweh was presented as distinctly male, and that concept of God seems to dominate even today. There's also a trend among neo-pagans as worshiping a Goddess instead of a God, but I have to wonder why an all-powerful being should be limited by such a concept as gender. It made sense for the old pantheons, since most of those gods were supposed to have been born in the usual human manner. A deity who can create just by speaking or exercising His will, however, really has no need of private parts, at least as far as I can tell.

One way in which I agree with Gage is that traditional religion really has given a bad rap to women. Take, for instance, the story of Eve, or its Greek equivalent about Pandora. This story is primarily known in the version told by Hesiod, in which Pandora is a woman fashioned by the gods who married a Titan (she must have had a thing for big, burly men) named Epimetheus, and opened a jar (the references to Pandora's Box are presumably the result of a mistranslation) containing a whole lot of evils. Only Hope remained in the jar, which is why it's now referred to as the Obama Jar. No, seriously, I'm not sure what Hope was doing in with all those evils, but there are a lot of different interpretations of this, and some alternate versions in which it makes a little more sense. Regardless, that's pretty similar to the Adam and Eve tale, right? The first woman ruined the world for everybody else. It must not have been the beginning of ALL evil, though, since this was presumably after Cronus castrated his father and swallowed his children whole. It's hard to tell with Greek mythology, though. Since the Pandora story seems to take place once Zeus is firmly established as king of the gods, and some sources say that Cronus was in charge during the Golden Age of Mankind, Pandora couldn't very well have been the first woman, could she? Or maybe the Golden Age people were the hermaphrodites from Plato's Symposium. And speaking of temporal paradoxes, don't even get me started on Theseus. I'll probably end up discussing him in a later entry anyway.

"Pandora" is often said to mean "all-gifted," referring to the gifts that the Olympian gods gave her. The only problem is that, at least according to what I read on Wikipedia, it actually means "all-GIVER." This has led to some speculation that she might have originally been a fertility goddess, but was later demoted to a weak-willed woman who messed up the world by misogynistic myth-makers. I don't know whether this is true, but it's an intriguing idea. I'd say that even the now-known myth isn't entirely fair to Pandora, as there's no indication that anybody told her WHY she shouldn't open the jar. Curiosity is hardly a distinctly feminine trait, after all. There's probably a good chance that, if Pandora hadn't opened it, Epimetheus would have, as the poor guy was never very bright. It was his brother Prometheus who was the smart one, always putting one over on Zeus in order to benefit mankind. So Zeus had him chained to a rock, and made an eagle eat his liver every day. I guess the overall moral of the story is, "Don't mess with Zeus."
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