Over Pandora’s hoop

One of the oldest stories in which hope plays an important role is the Greek myth of Pandora's box. The main source for this story is the farmer’s almanac Works and Days by Hesiod, written around 700 BC. In this didactic poem, Hesiod not only gives practical advice on farming, but also explains why human existence is marked by hard work and much suffering.

The supreme god Zeus, writes Hesiod, did not like the fact that the titan Prometheus offered fire to men and became their master. To punish him, he had him chained to a rock. Every day, an eagle was charged with pecking out his liver, for eternity. Zeus took his revenge on humans in a very different way: he had the first woman modelled out of clay. In addition to many qualities - including beauty, gentleness, elocution and musical talent - she was endowed with curiosity. Zeus also gave her a mysterious sealed jar containing all the evils of the world. Once on earth, this container was quickly opened by the curious Pandora.



"But the woman took off the great lid of the jar
with her hands and scattered all these and
her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men.
Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home
within under the rim of the great jar, and
did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her,
by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds.
But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is
full of evils and the sea is full.
Of themselves diseases come upon men continually
by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently;
for wise Zeus took away speech from them.
So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus."



So says an old translation by H.G. Evelyn-White of the Hesiodic lines in question. The fact that, of all the evils, hope (sometimes translated as 'premonition') remains in the box poses many problems of interpretation. One philologist who has tackled this problem is Friedrich Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human, his "book for free spirits". In the 71st aphorism he writes the following:


"One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within. Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, — it is hope. Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives man hope,— in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man."


Is hope a vain driving force of human action? What makes us humans persevere in times when all seems lost? Everywhere in the world, life manages to sprout even from scorched earth. At the end of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, this renewal of greenery emerges only timidly. In other works, such as Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, it is an irrepressible primitive force.