“Hope” in ancient Greek: Pandora and the Greek goddess Elpis

In developing an ecotheology of critical hope, one of the things that is important is to understand what the biblical authors mean when they’re discussing hope in the Bible. After doing research on the concept of hope in psychology, I found this framework of hope useful, but not a sufficient understanding of hope from a faith-based perspective. In psychology, hope basically refers to the ability to create and complete (or adjust) goals, while hope in the realm of spiritual faith has more to do with a long-term sense of moving in the direction of a hope that is larger than anything we can accomplish in a lifetime. I recently posted about the concept of hope in the Hebrew Bible, and today I’ll write a bit about my findings on hope in classical Greek. These languages and their thought-worlds contributed to the ways that the authors of the Christian scriptures used language to try to put spiritual experiences on paper. Understanding how Greek culture viewed the concept of “hope” can help us understand the similarities and differences between the Hellenistic (Greek) concept of hope and the way the Greek term is used by first century Christian authors.

The Greek word we translate “hope” is elpis, ἐλπίς (noun), or elpizo, ἐλπίζω (verb). In classical Greek literature, elpis can be used as an expectation of the future in either a positive or a negative way, as opposed to our usual understanding when we use the term “hope” in English (anticipating something positive). Elpis is actually the name of the Greek goddess for hope, or at least for expectation. In the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, found in Hesiod’s Works & Days, Pandora—the first female human being created by the gods—is given a gift from each of the gods, and these are placed in a box (or jar, really). She is actually seen as a punishment to humankind because Prometheus, who created human beings, stole fire from the gods and gave its secret to humanity. So, the gods created Pandora, and gave her a bunch of “gifts” that led mainly to misery and deceit, but also beauty and hope. She could have kept them contained in the jar, but…she didn’t. Therefore, a bunch of torments and miseries were unleashed on the world, plagues and diseases, silently assailing humanity, taking human beings out of an idyllic past into an uncertain and tormented future where life is short and hopeless.

(Does this sound familiar to any Jews or Christians out there, all the sins and evil in the world blamed on the woman’s choice? I haven’t studied this story in depth, but I would like to see a feminist interpretation of it.)

At any rate, the connection to hope is that the only one of the gifts that didn’t escape the jar was Elpis: Hope, or, in other translations, Foreboding. Elpis hung on or was caught in the lip of the jar and did not escape before the lid was replaced.

One interpretation of this is that hope wasn’t released to dissipate out into the world, but was contained within the jar of the human form. If we mix our ancient stories here and add in something about the “jars of clay” that human beings are likened to in the Christian scriptures (II Cor 4:7), we could interpret this to mean that the jar is a metaphor for the container of the human body, made from dust and returning to dust, and indeed, Pandora herself is shaped from dirt in this myth. Interpreted this way, the story tells us that though we cannot control the other Fates, we can still have hope contained inside. (Looking at this passage from Corinthians through the lens of the Pandora myth, I wonder if Paul also had this story in mind when he wrote this passage. Hmm…I might have to look into this further.)

Alternatively, if we translate elpis as Foreboding, then the fact that it was NOT unleashed on the world gives us hope, in the sense that we usually think of hope. If this foreboding is more like despair, a perspective on the world that expects the inevitability of chaos and entropy, then Foreboding’s entrance into the world would have sent humanity into a downward spiral of despair and meaninglessness.

It fascinates me that the concepts of hope and despair can so easily be interchanged with just the tiniest modification. It’s a tightrope balance, hope: tipping one way or the other into blind optimism or endless despair and meaninglessness is, perhaps, easier than staying on the tightrope, but it’s doable—at least for people with the right combination of talent and practice. This is my experience in life, too: some days I feel hope based on the meaning I find in a history of individuals and groups who have chosen to live for love and justice, while other days I look at those same stories and despair that with all the work that has already been put in, how can I even think that any of our actions has meaning, since the world still contains so much pain and suffering? Hope is definitely a practice, a practice of learning to balance, like learning to tightrope walk.

Pandora’s story also ties together the themes of hope and suffering, which is a consistent pattern I’ve noticed as I’ve studied hope. Hope seems to show up most fully in the lives of those who experience suffering and manage to transform it, through meaning-making, into hope. Jürgen Moltmann worked on his theology of hope because he needed a theology that could handle the suffering he witnessed in World War II, and likewise Viktor Frankl realized his psychology of meaning through reflection on his experiences in a concentration camp in World War II. If these men had not experienced suffering in this way, would they have been able to think so deeply about hope and meaning? (Disclaimer: this is not to say that we should seek out or cause situations where we can experience more suffering. My point is that when we allow ourselves to examine and transform personal experiences of suffering into some semblance of meaning, we gain hope from them.)

I wonder if one way to interpret the story of Pandora and the double-sided nature of hope is that if we keep hope contained within ourselves, if we hold onto it, if we choose to house it within our clay-jar bodies, it provides the meaning we need to move forward into the world of disease and evil with courage and purpose, but if we let go of hope and it flies out of our jar, we move through the world with a sense of foreboding, seeing nothing but inevitable death and despair. But I’m not totally happy with this metaphor, because this sounds like we’re grasping and holding tight, we’re keeping the lid on, we’re bottling up whatever good things we can manage to catch hold of. I think what I mean is that hope is something we already contain, something that’s already a part of us, and we don’t have to grasp for it or try to get it back from some ether of escaped dreams and unreachable gifts. It’s already there; it’s already within us—like when Jesus said that the Kingdom of God isn’t something we can point to as over there or over here, but it’s within us (Luke 17:21). We don’t have to chase it or win it, we already have it. (Interestingly, in that passage, it’s a plural “you,” the Kingdom of God is within and among you collectively. Is it the same with hope?)

Again, I want to be careful about any indications here regarding clinical depression. When I say this is a choice, I’m not certain that it is a choice we can all make ourselves without the help of medication. I’m not certain if this is the case in all societies, or simply in ours, where we have become so comfortable that life apparently feels increasingly meaningless. I do know that in the present time and in this present place, hope is not always a choice that an individual can make by him- or herself.

In the story of Pandora, all the gods and human beings have dysfunctional relationships and don’t really make a community that can support one another, so within the frame of this mythology, perhaps it is up to each of us to hold onto Elpis or to let her go. But perhaps we can imagine and experience a different framework, one where we help hold that hope for one another.

Imagining this in light of the present environmental context, however, is hope enough to keep all of the other evils that human beings unleash on the world from overwhelming and destroying us and the world’s ecosystems? We cannot put Pandora’s other “gifts” back into the jar, but does hope provide us a deep enough reservoir from which to draw in order to learn to live in a way that is less destructive? Or, with this mythology as a major basis for Western culture, a worldview that is infecting humanity around the world in this globalized system, does this fatalistic understanding of human identity lead inevitably to self-destruction? Or maybe this self-destruction is part of the process, this recognition that we’ve let all the other gifts dissipate and all we have left is hope, and it is enough. If Pandora’s story is not the story of Christianity (but arguably close to that of Christendom’s interpretation), might the Christian story offer something different in the way of hope? Do we have a story strong enough to imagine ourselves into an identity that doesn’t give up? Do our faith stories provide us a strong enough reservoir that, rather than bringing only entropy and despair, they can provide meaning, imagining us into a place where we fit within the rhythms of chaos and creation?

After I wrote this post but before I posted it, one of my friends, the amazingly talented artist Melanie Weidner, shared this video of her work entitled, “Cataclysm: Hope in the Breakdown.” Though I haven’t seen this friend for years, apparently we’re on the same wavelength about the way that hope goes along with suffering, meaning is born from the ashes of despair, and something new is born out the remnants of something that has died. I’m not exactly sure what this has to do with Pandora, except that the idea of opening “Pandora’s box” usually refers to opening something that is mysterious and dangerous, but potentially alluring—a creative force that is so big and powerful that it can’t be controlled, and therein lies the danger. Perhaps Pandora’s box (jar) is simply life itself, that huge, beautiful, uncontrollable and unfathomable mystery we cannot contain, and all we can do is hold tight to the lip of the jar as the Mystery and the Creative Power rushes past, like Moses in the cleft of the rock as the glory of God’s backside passes by (one of my favorite weird Bible passages, Exodus 33). And so I leave you with that mystery, the chaos and the breakdown, and the paradoxical hope that us humans can’t seem to shake.

7 Replies to ““Hope” in ancient Greek: Pandora and the Greek goddess Elpis”

  1. Thank you, Cherice! I really enjoyed reading this! The notion of ‘Hope’ as light or as shadow has always fascinated me.


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