“Opening Pandora’s Box” “The Midas Touch” … It’s All Greek to Me, Part 1

I dunno. When I was a kid, maybe five years old, my parents gave me an illustrated children’s book of Greek mythology.

Famous Myths of the Golden Age - 1958.

Famous Myths of the Golden Age – 1958.

And it was all there – Apollo in his golden chariot, Prometheus chained to a rock, Icarus falling into the sea, Jason, Medusa, the Golden Fleece, even tales of the brave Odysseus. And I ate it up with a spoon. I loved every page.

But today, how many people do you think really have had any direct exposure to the history, ideas, art, and culture of Ancient Greece, except maybe having once attended a toga party at a Greek fraternity in college?

“Toga! Toga!” John Belushi in Animal House (1978).

“Toga! Toga!” John Belushi in Animal House (1978).

So I thought I’d bring up a few Ancient Greek-based expressions that are still familiar, but for which the full myths or history behind them are fading from common knowledge. Which is a shame, because that’s the way these colorful and useful expressions will eventually disappear.

Pandora’s Box

To speak of “Pandora’s Box” is to describe something as potentially a source of numerous serious troubles, many of them unanticipated, which are just waiting to spring out.

This still popular idiom comes in handy, whether in questioning the prudence of getting involved in a large-scale ground war in the Middle East or as part of a warning to avoid criticizing a spouse’s friends. (My advice? Stay away from doing either.)

But who was this Pandora person any way?

John William Waterhouse: Pandora, 1896.

John William Waterhouse: Pandora, 1896.

Pandora was the first woman on Earth, according to the Ancient Greeks.

Zeus ordered her creation, and the other gods bestowed her with many gifts including beauty, speech, musical talent, and the ability to persuade. She also received a handsome lidded jar, contents undisclosed, that was later mistranslated as a ”box.” She was told never to open it. Never.

But Pandora could not resist the temptation, and upon opening the container, suddenly all the evils and pain that now bestride the world – war and famine, illness and death, deceit and mistrust – flew out.

Pandora hurriedly tried to close the jar, but she wasn’t quick enough, although she did manage to keep the last thing inside from escaping. Luckily for us, what remained in the container, as a legacy for all humanity, was the spirit of hope.

Putting hope aside, Pandora rushed to Zeus to tell him of all the bad things she had let loose upon the world. But as serious as her action was, Zeus forgave her. Because Zeus knew that included among the many attributes Pandora had received from the gods was the gift of curiosity.
Wow. Those wacky Greek gods, they were something else!

The Midas Touch

Describing someone as having the “Midas Touch” means that a person has the almost magical ability to make anything he or she is involved with succeed. The phrase is still popular and you see it appearing everywhere in profiles of the rich and famous. But originally, this Ancient Greek tale was not a celebration about obtaining wealth, but a cautionary parable about how money, or in this case gold, isn’t everything.

Illustrator William Crane’s depiction of King Midas, from the 1893 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys.

Illustrator William Crane’s depiction of King Midas, from the 1893 edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys.

There was a real King Midas, actually several. But the one we’re concerned with lived “sometime in the 2nd millennium BC, well before the Trojan War,” according to Wikipedia. As to what follows, all is pure myth.

Once upon a time… King Midas happened to help out and take care of the drunken Silenus, who was a satyr as well as a good friend of the god Dionysus. Midas brought the satyr back to the god’s palace, and touched by the king’s kindness, Dionysus, being a Greek god, granted the king one wish.

But what to wish for? For Midas, that was easy. The king wished to have the ability to turn everything he touched into pure gold.

So Midas returned home, and tried out his new power. Shazam! (Idiom Alert!) Sure enough, every object he grabbed became golden, which unfortunately included his daughter Zoë, whom the king loved dearly. Too late, Midas realized that there are things more important in life than gold and acquiring riches.

Rushing back to Dionysus, Midas begged him to remove what he now saw was a curse. Which the good god did. Dionysus also restored Zoë back to life.

A birthday wish for Midas

A birthday wish for Midas

Another lesson Midas might have learned is that next time he has a chance to make a wish come true, he should wish instead for world peace. That’s what I’ve been doing each time I blow out my birthday candles, ever since I gave up on my dream of getting a pony.

In the opening for the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey sings of  “… the man with the Midas Touch …”

In the opening for the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey sings of “… the man with the Midas Touch …”


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