Counseling and The Myth of Opening Pandora's Box

When we consider starting counseling, we may naturally speak with anxiety about, “Opening Pandora’s box.”   It is a metaphor for the potential of letting loose all manner of disastrous problems and evils for ourselves and potentially others.  On the basis of this anxiety, of course it is natural to hesitate.   In my brand of therapy though, we tease out a gift of empowerment within that "box" that you likely have not  been told about ~ or should I say has been forgotten!

Pandora's BoxPandora’s box is an “origin myth” ~ an attempt to explain the beginning of things.

We humans have always wanted to know why things are the way they are in the world, and how they came to be that way.  We still do.  This is a critical psychological principal that becomes really important to know in the process of self understanding, especially in counseling.  When we don’t know “why things are the way they are,” we will make up a plausible story about it (a 'myth'), relieving us of the anxiety of ‘not knowing.’  It doesn't matter if the story is true or not, only that it plausibly explains a lot.  And what's important about that for your counseling or therapy is that we tend to continue to live our lives, as if the myth is true, even when it's not because we totally believe that it is!  On this basis, who would not be frightened of the counseling process?

There are many myths, across all cultures, which attempt to explain things that can't otherwise be explained: the origins of the universe and of human beings; why there is evil and disease in the world; hate and war; the origins of beauty; of heroes, and so on.  If you think about it, unfortunately entrenched myths about needing counseling or therapy, even about stress and mental illness, continue to run rampant, to this day!  In many stories, beauty and other gifts are bestowed by the gods as rewards for our allegiance to them;  evils are released because we disobey.

The story of Pandora and her box comes from Ancient Greece.  Because the passing of myths were mainly oral in tradition, there are several versions of this myth.  Here seems to be the most popular.

The Story
In Greek mythology, Pandora (meaning ‘all-giving’) was the first woman on earth.  Before humans there were the “immortals” (the Gods and Titans).  The brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus were Titans, giant “god-like” men, who had fought on the gods’ side in a war. Some say they were cousins of Zeus, King of the gods.  So, Zeus assigned Prometheus the task of creating man out of clay and water (in many versions Hephaestus, the craftsman, helps in this).  Epimetheus was assigned to create the animals and to give them their gifts of courage, swiftness, cunning, etc.  When he had given out all the gifts he had to the animals, he found that he had none left for Man.  Taking pity us, man, brother Prometheus decides to make man stand upright, like the gods, and give them fire (which Zeus had forbidden, since it would give us too much power -- the power of the Gods).  So Prometheus stole fire – some say from Zeus’ lightning bolt, others say from the sun, and yet others from Hephaestus’ forge.

Most agree that Zeus asked Hephaestus to make Pandora (the first woman) also out of earth and water.  Now, Zeus was not crazy about Humans, so he intended her to be a punishment for Prometheus who loved, and took pity on Man.  Each god and goddess bestowed upon Pandora a gift (known as “talent”), of beauty, charm, music, etc, but also others, like curiosity and persuasion – gifts that could be used for good or ill. 

While Prometheus may have crafted man, woman was a different sort of creature.  She came from the forge of Hephaestus, beautiful as a goddess and as beguiling, thanks to traits bestowed by Athena and Zeus.  So, Zeus presented to Man his “gift,” Pandora, as a bride to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus.  Prometheus had the gift of thinking ahead, but Epimetheus was only capable of afterthought, so Prometheus, expecting retribution for his audacity, had warned his brother against accepting gifts from Zeus.  But of course, he didn’t listen.

Zeus gave the gods-crafted Pandora as bride to Epimetheus, along with a box.  With it came a warning telling the couple never to open it. Epimetheus was dazzled by his bride, Pandora.  Perhaps he forgot the warning of his prescient brother:  that it might not be a gift at all, but they were supposed to ‘hold the box in safe-keeping for Zeus until his return!”

Epimetheus insisted that his wife obey the letter of warning.  Unfortunately, one day Pandora's husband left her side for a few hours. Remember that Pandora was gifted with curiosity as much as the other attributes given her by the gods.  For her the box was a gift, not something to be kept in trust. What business had Zeus to tell her not to open it?  Perhaps she'd listened to much too her brother-in-law's tales of tricking the King of the gods. Perhaps she saw nothing to fear...Maybe if she just took a quick peak.... 

Looking around to make sure no one was watching, she opened the box Zeus had given them just a crack.  As Pandora did so, ghostly forms gushed forth from the crack.  Pandora had unleashed all manner of evils that are now known to man.  No longer could man loll about all day lavishing himself in the dream-like benevolence of the gods, but he would have to work and would succumb to illnesses.

At the very bottom of the container though, was the last thing to come out.  It was something that wasn't evil at all. In fact, it was actually very good. And we call the good that Pandora unleashed by the name of “hope.”

As in many origin myths, man had lived in a world without worry – until this jar / box was opened, which contained ills for mankind.  Zeus knew that Pandora’s curiosity would mean that she could not stop herself from opening it, especially when he had told her that she must not do so!

We can feel the myth of Pandora’s Box stirring in ourselves in times of confronting ourselves, or important others.  Can you relate this myth to the issue of 'authenticity' in relationship?  To your imagination in your conception of what it is to be in counseling?  Is there not a voice that you hear warning you against being totally “real” with yourself;  with others -- inspiring a fear of opening Pandora’s box?   Don’t forget what was in the bottom of that box though...

In the Lansing, Michigan area, please feel free to email or call me with any questions or comments at the address below.

Peter Roseman
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