Why Were Women a Necessary Evil in Greek Mythology?

In Greek mythology, Pandora is the first human woman -- and the reason for mankind's misery.
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According to Greek mythology, men lived in peace and good health until the first woman, Pandora, entered the world. Pandora unwittingly unleashed disease, evil and general misery on mortals, serving as the gods’ punishment for man’s arrogance in accepting the gift of fire. This complicated tale marks women as a necessary evil in ancient Greek belief. With Pandora, men's other half is introduced to the world, and in depicting women as untrustworthy and even devious, the myth supports the paternal structure of ancient Greek culture.

1 The Myth of Pandora

The Greek poet Hesiod describes how the titan Prometheus brought the gift of fire to man, angering the Olympian gods, who decided to take their revenge not only on Prometheus, but on the human race as well. They did so by creating a physically perfect woman out of clay. The result, named Pandora, was given beauty accompanied by cunning, deceit and guile. The world’s first woman, then, had the power to charm and betray.

The gods gave Pandora to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus. Once inside his home, Pandora opened the gift Zeus had given her: a jar containing evil and disease. Although men had been free of such troubles before, Pandora's simple act of opening the jar released them to plague the human race forever after.

2 Pandora's Purpose for the Gods

Pandora marks the female of the species as a necessary evil that determines the inferior status of the human race, placing mortal men and women decidedly below the race of gods. Unlike the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve brings sin and misery to humankind through her own misjudgment, Pandora is created for the very purpose of evil. She is never given the choice whether to give in to evil, because it is her entire reason for existing. In her role as the first woman, this casts a damning light on the entire gender.

3 Pandora's Role in Ancient Greek Society

Pandora served as a justification not only for the mortals’ inferiority to the gods, but for women’s inferiority to men. Ancient Greece was a paternalistic society, with women’s legal and citizenship status largely regulated by, and subordinate to, men. This particular origin story underscores the realities of ancient Athenian society, where women had no independent legal status. A woman was forever under some form of guardianship -- first that of her father or another male relative, then that of her husband. With men overseeing the economic aspects of her life, an ancient Athenian woman also was banned from public life and unable to own property.

4 Women's Role in Ancient Greek Society

Hesiod’s description of women as descendants of Pandora, then, is negative but instructive, in the cultural context of ancient Greece. According to some translations, Hesiod calls women a “beautiful evil” who create mischief and contribute less to society than men, but who must be tolerated if men wish to be supported in old age by children and leave any legacy.

Sabine McKellen began her career teaching English as a Second Language to adults from around the world. She has spent the past seven years in journalism, covering social issues, specifically in rural communities. Her work has appeared in community newspapers throughout southern California, and in various trade and educational magazines.