Today the phrase "to open Pandora's box" means to perform an action that may seem small or innocent, but that turns out to have severe and far-reaching consequences.
In classical Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. Zeus ordered Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create her, so he did—using water and earth. The gods endowed her with many gifts: Athena clothed her, Aphrodite gave her beauty, and Hermes gave her speech.
When Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Epimetheus, Prometheus' brother. With her, Pandora was given a beautiful jar – with instructions not to open it under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity (given to her by the gods), Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom – the Spirit of Hope named Elpis. Pandora, deeply saddened by what she had done, feared she would have to face Zeus' wrath, since she had failed her duty; however, Zeus did not punish Pandora, because he knew this would happen.
Etymology of the "box"EditThe original Greek word was 'pithos', which is a large jar, sometimes as large as a small person (Diogenes of Sinope was said to have once slept in one). It was used for storage of wine, oil, grain or other provisions, or, ritually, as a container for a human body for burying. In the case of Pandora, this jar may have been made of clay for use as storage as in the usual sense, or of bronze metal as an unbreakable prison.
The mistranslation of pithos is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam who translated Hesiod's tale of Pandora into Latin. Erasmus rendered pithos as the Greek pyxis, meaning "box". The phrase "Pandora's box" has endured ever since. This misconception was further reinforced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting Pandora.