Greek myth is not fiction. There’s a core of truth in each mythological story. Greeks of very ancient times related those stories that later Greek poets and historians incorporated into their work.
Pandora: gift of the gods
One such story describes the coming into being of the first woman, appropriately named Pandora, all gifts, or gifts from all the Olympian gods. Those divine gifts combined the good and the bad. The epic poet Hesiod, writing in the seventh century BCE, reports Pandora became a scourge and tempting snare for men (Works and Days 47-105; Theogony 570-612).
Zeus asked Hephaistos, the technological genius among gods, to create Pandora out of Earth and water. Hephaistos did, sculpting her like the female goddesses around him.
One of those female divinities, Aphrodite, made Pandora sexy and beautiful. Goddess Athena endowed her with intelligence. She taught her weaving and other skills. The rest of the gods gave Pandora other necessary skills and virtues.
Another myth says that Zeus hated the Greeks so much that he used Pandora to make their lives miserable, even destroy them. His secret weapon was a pithos (jar) full of evils handed to Pandora.
Pandora opened the jar and the evils of war, poverty, disease, jealousy, hatred, and cowardliness spread among the early Greeks. Only hope remained in the jar.
Men discovered Pandora (woman) was the cause of their misfortunes and, accordingly, they have been putting her down ever since.We don’t know who came up with Pandora’s jar overflowing with evils. Yet, the mythological stories we know about Zeus and the other Olympian gods challenge the Pandora jar slander.
Zeus and the gods had a family and society like those of the Greeks. Zeus was the father of most of the Olympian gods. Why would Zeus want a Greek society full of wars, poverty, and countless other evils?
Some of the children of Zeus (powerful gods Apollo, Artemis and Dionysos) had Greek mothers. Herakles was not different. Zeus was his father and a Greek woman, Alcmena, was his mother. He was the greatest hero of the Greeks who called him Kallinikos (handsome in victory) and Alexikakos (averter of evils).Upon death, he became a god protecting people from evil. In Olympia, he was the god of athletes. Altars in his honor were found all over the Greek world.
Next to Zeus, the greatest of the gods were female. For example, Demeter, was sister of Zeus, and goddess of wheat, peasants, and agrarian culture. Demeter was like Gaia, Earth. She was life itself. Her daughter, Persephone, was the goddess of the season of Spring.
The Greeks celebrated Demeter and Persephone (and Dionysos) in the Panhellenic Eleusinian mysteries, their greatest religious festival for a prosperous harvest and life.
Another female divinity of enormous importance was Athena, daughter of Zeus and goddess of intelligence. She was patron goddess of Athens, which built the magnificent Parthenon in her honor. In addition, the Athenians valued Athena so much that they equated her with their national origins and existence.
Athena gifted the olive tree to the polis of Athens. Every four years, the grateful Athenians sponsored the Great Panathenaea games, an Olympics-like Panhellenic festival celebrating the birth of Athena. Horse races, chariot races, music and poetic contests, and athletic competitions graced the splendid Panathenaea.
There was also Artemis, a goddess of wild animals and the natural world who also protected children. Another female goddess, Hestia, protected the family. Her altar was in every household.
Myths talk and praise the Muses, female divinities of learning. The Nymphs protected rivers, lakes, mountains and forests.
Moreover, goddess Aphrodite defined the Greeks. Aphrodite became divine Pandora. She was the official Olympian equivalent of beauty, love and sex. Sophocles, the fifth century BCE poet, expressed the power of love in his immortal play Antigone 781: no battle can defeat love / Eros (῍Ερως ἀνίκατε μάχαν).
True to form, the Greeks made Eros the most powerful of the gods holding societies and the cosmos together. Today’s cosmic gravitation force evolved from Eros, the almighty love and attraction between the stars and between human beings and between animals.
Some of the greatest Greek festivals honored female goddesses. Women organized those celebrations.
This was the case in honoring Demeter Thesmophoros responsible for order and civilization. The festival, Thesmophoria, lasted for three days and started on October 14th. Mid-October was the time of sowing wheat and barley, as well as onions, garlic, beans, radishes, parsley and leeks.
The festival of sowing these important crops was probably the most popular of all Greek religious, agricultural and cultural celebrations. It took place in Athens and everywhere else in the Greek world.
In Athens, the male Assembly did not meet during the festivities of Thesmophoria. Elected women leaders run Athens. Like the Eleusinian mysteries, Thesmophoria honored Demeter and her Kore (daughter: Persephone).
The idea behind Thesmophoria, however, was much deeper. The purpose of honoring Demeter, seen as the mother of moral law and traditions, was protecting all of society and the natural world. Demeter assured the survival and prosperity of agrarian and ecological civilization.
Female heroines illustrate the powerful feminine part of Hellenic civilization. Iphigenia, Antigone, Electra, and Hypatia suffered defending Greek virtues.
Iphigenia died for Greece. Antigone chose death over ignoring the divine law. Electra spoke passionately about her fatherland.
Medea and Hecuba are not supposed to be Greek, but they symbolize Greek wisdom. Medea, though a princes from Colchis in the eastern region of the Black Sea, challenges man’s pride in military fighting. Medea says it’s all wrong for men to assume women have it made staying home with children while they fight wars. She would rather take her place in the military frontline three times rather than give birth to a child (Euripides, Medea 248-251).
Medea is a controversial woman. She probably exacerbated the views of Jason on women. Jason was a pre-Trojan War hero who led the Argonauts to the land of Medea for bringing back to Greece the Golden Fleece. He married Medea. However, once in Corinth, Jason put Medea aside and married the daughter of the king of Corinth. This did not go well with Medea. She killed the two sons she had with Jason and poisoned Jason’s Greek wife and her father.
Jason called Medea a monstrous barbarian. He was shocked so much by his family tragedy that he turned against women. He wished they did not exist, and that men had a way to bring children into the world (Euripides, Medea 465-1350).
Hecuba, queen of Troy, was blessed and cursed by the gods. She had everything and nothing. She found herself a slave at the end of the Trojan War. She vainly pleaded with Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greeks, to punish the Thracian killer of one of her sons who had been sent to Thrace for protection. She reminded Agamemnon the world depends on a moral order, which is above the gods. That moral order, she said, defines good and evil. The gods exist by such moral law and humans live by it. Flout that law and allow those who murder in cold blood and defy the gods to go on with their evil acts and human justice and civilization wither (Euripides, Hecuba 799-805).
Who could or can disagree with the Hellenic heroines, including Medea or Hecuba? The Trojan queen suffered like no other human being. She witnessed the killing of her children and, still, she appealed to a higher moral order running the cosmos and civilization. She was Pandora who still speaks to all human beings with authority. Like the other Greek heroines, Hecuba was Hellas; she is us.
By the time of Hypatia, early fifth century, Greece was a province of Rome, which was under rulers enforcing the Christianization of the entire Roman empire, including Greece. The Christians tore Hypatia to pieces for teaching mathematics, astronomy and Greek philosophy.
The fate of Hypatia signals the eclipse of Hellas for some 1,300 years. All Greeks, men and women, paid a horrendous price during that long night of foreign occupation (by Romans, converted Greek Christians, Western European crusaders, and Turks). Finally, in the 1820s, the Greeks fought their Turkish enemies and won their political independence.
Women in the modern Greek state had less liberties and rights than those they enjoyed in ancient Greece. For one thing, the Greek state was impoverished and in perpetual debt. Whatever wealth it had, went to fighting for the recovery of its territories from Turks and British.
Moreover, external political developments like WWII nearly annihilated Greece. The German occupiers left their bloody barbarian footprints all over the country: it was nearly miraculous my family escaped execution. The Germans (and their Italian and Bulgarian collaborators) spent four years colonizing and killing Greece. The Germans in particular never ceased plundering Greek archaeological treasures, starving Athens, killing farm animals, extirpating hundreds of villages, shooting thousands, leveling Greece.
Greece has yet to recover from the murderous German shock. It is still mired in poverty and debt. However, thanks to the American embrace, Germany, once again, is in charge of Europe, including Greece.
First woman president of Greece
So, when in late January 2020 the Greek parliament elected a woman as the president of the country, it caused international astonishment. According to the Guardian newspaper:
“A high court judge and ardent human rights advocate has been elected Greece’s first female president in a historic vote by parliament.”
The name of this woman is Katerina Sakellaropoulou. “Today a window to the future has opened,” said the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis… “Our country enters the third decade of the 21st century with more optimism.”
Ancient Greek history is full of astonishing stories. Sometimes, that astonishment bubbles up in modern Greek times as well. I see nothing extraordinary in the election of a woman president of Greece.
Virtues of modesty
One of the lessons of Greek history is that of modesty. Pandora is everywhere. She had no evils in her jar.
Just because you are alive in 2020, don’t assume you are the best or that you have the answers to crucial global issues like the role of women in our civilization.
I would hope that the philosophies of Medea and Hecuba touch the Pandoras of our troubled times. Yes, we need to uphold a moral order for inspiration to defeat the anthropogenic and plutocratic barbarisms of inequality and climate change.