As long as you’re tall and blue and no American military types are trying to blast you out of your homeland, Pandora is a pretty nice place in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”
Pandora also is a favorite destination for certain music listeners on the Internet, and many women have embraced the Danish jewelry line known as Pandora.
Various video games and consoles have appropriated the name, as have the novelists Anne Rice (Pandora as a title-character vampire) and Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom (Pandora as a scary planet introduced in “The Jesus Incident”); musicians Tori Amos (who has a song called “Pandora’s Aquarium”), the Cocteau Twins (who have a song called “Pandora”), the Mexican female trio Pandora and the LA female rock band the Pandoras; and a downstate Illinois comic book company called, yes, Avatar Press that launched its busty-warrior flagship character Pandora in1996.
It’s as if someone opened a box, and all these Pandoras came flying out.
Our current cultural Pandora overload is a curious case, with so many endeavors seeking association with a legendary figure most famous for unleashing evil upon the world. Does Pandora jewelry come in a box that, when opened, causes horrible things to happen?
“Definitely not, and that’s not what we embody,” says Jody Christian, Pandora jewelry’s Maryland-based U.S. marketing director. “Really, it’s all about the woman.”
Certainly the woman is at the center of the Pandora legend, though she’s a slippery figure. The name Pandora means “all gifted” or “all gifts,” and that’s a fine distinction.
“All gifted” generally springs from the portrayal of Pandora as the world’s first woman, created by several gods who each endowed her with specific gifts. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod provided the first known, and most famous, written accounts of Pandora, and in his telling she’s beautifully evil, and the gods’ gifts included such negative traits as a deceitful nature and a lying tongue.
Hesiod envisions Pandora as Zeus’ punishment to humans after Prometheus gave them the gift of fire.
Prometheus, knowing he’s in Zeus’ doghouse, tells his brother Epimetheus not to accept any gifts from Zeus, but when Zeus offers the lovely Pandora, Epimetheus can’t resist.
Soon the uncontrollably curious Pandora opens the famously forbidden box — actually a jar or earthenware pot — and evil and sickness escape to plague humankind. Only hope remains inside the jar, an ambiguous detail itself: Is it good that humans can hold on to hope or bad that evil has been released into the world while hope remains trapped in that jar?
“I suppose in one sense you could almost say she’s a sort of standard femme fatale, not in her own relations but just because she’s endowed with all these wonderful qualities, and yet she’s going to bring so much disaster,” says Kathryn Bosher, a Northwestern University assistant classics professor.
Her colleague, Northwestern classics professor Dan Garrison, says the “all gifts” interpretation precedes Hesiod’s, with Pandora the implied giver, not receiver.
“Pandora was probably a very old earth goddess, a goddess of nature,” he said.
“A name like that is implicitly the giver of good things and not the giver of bad things.”
The far-from-feminist Hesiod, Garrison continues, likely put a “reverse spin on a very old tradition” and “turns Pandora into a giver of bad things, kind of an Eve figure.”
The Eve analogy carries over to “Avatar,” as Cameron, in his movie’s press notes, refers to the moon setting as “the Garden of Eden with teeth and claws.”
At the same time, though, Garrison says Cameron is playing off “the pre-literary tradition” of Pandora as nature goddess. “The sentimental twist of the movie is that nature is all good, and it’s a back-to-nature kind of story,” he says.
The jewelry line touts the “all gifted” definition in its promotional materials, but these gifts are all positive.
“To us Pandora is the embodiment of femininity and romance,” Christian says.
“Her name is a timeless expression of the desires, hopes and dreams of all women, and this is the true inspiration behind our jewelry designs.”
The feminine, romantic nature goddess is not what Tim Westergren had in mind when he founded the Internet music site Pandora in 2000. His service is driven by users’ expressing their musical preferences and then enjoying customized “stations” generated from their suggestions, so he appreciated the name’s sense of “mystery and a little bit of attitude.”
“We kind of like the idea of a box, or it was a jar, a container full of surprises, and you don’t know what’s in it,” Westergren says.
“Here you have someone who’s insatiably curious and can’t help herself.”
In other words, this Pandora is not running away from the box.
“Granted we’re not trying to conjure up what actually came out of Pandora’s box,” he says. “We’re about the surprise. We’re not about pestilence, famine and death, in general.”
To Bosher, the rash of Pandoras coincides with a greater trend toward ancient Greek culture, as seen in the movies “300,” “Troy” and the coming “Clash of the Titans” remake. “It seems people are using Greek myth to think about the modern world, as people have always done, but there seems to be an extra swing toward Greekness,” Bosher says.
Garrison says Pandora’s nature association also appeals to a culture wrestling with global warming and pollution.
Or maybe the explanation is simpler. “I think Pandora just phonetically is a very attractive name, so people are taking Pandora and making whatever use out of it that seems appropriate to their product,” Garrison says.
In sheer terms of branding, the massively popular “Avatar” may be a boon to all commercial Pandoras.
Christian termed the movie “absolutely beautiful” (like jewelry!), and Westergren says he was pleased that Cameron created such a positive association with the Pandora moon.
“It wouldn’t have been nearly as welcome if the Pandora had been some kind of killer virus,” he says.
// Moving Pixels
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