This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
You have heard that some of the Shining People could be very jealous. Even Zeus himself used to get quite angry if he thought that anyone, whether mortal or Immortal, was receiving too much admiration and praise. So, knowing that a certain man called Prometheus was very great and wise, the king of Olympus kept a careful eye on him and was always ready to interfere if Prometheus in any way usurped the royal power. Prometheus, for his part, was too busy teaching other people all he knew to give much thought to Zeus’s jealousy. He was like a clever giant among men and cared for nothing but making everybody happier and wiser than they had been before.
There was one thing that, above all the rest, Prometheus wanted to present to mankind — and that was the gift of fire. He knew all about it, and the wonderful things that could be done with it. He knew that the sun itself was a ball of this beautiful and flaming mystery, which Apollo drove daily across the sky in his jeweled car drawn by glittering, winged horses. Prometheus knew, too, that there was fire in the high stars, and in the heart of the smoking volcanoes. But on the Earth itself, in the homes and workshops of men, there was no fire; for Zeus hid the secret of it and would never tell any mortal how to produce even one little tongue of living, leaping flame.
The big generous giant was quite aware that it was of no use to ask Zeus to reveal this great secret; for Zeus’s jealousy would make him refuse at once. But Prometheus was a friend of Athena’s, and he begged that beautiful and kindly lady to show him the way to Olympus. She admired him so much that she could never refuse him anything; so, one dark night, she led him up the rocky path towards the shining palace, the mortal wrapped in his dark, warm cloak, the immortal sending little shafts of light through the dim trees from the glittering of her bright armor.
As they went, Prometheus stooped and gathered a fennel stalk, long and hollow, and placed it in his bosom, under his mantle. Then on they moved, through the dark pinewoods, past the rushing mountain streams, up, up, up, towards the palace among the snows and the stars.
Presently, the stranger caught a glimpse of the bright halls where the nymphs danced, and the nine muses sang, and the immortals laughed and talked at their banqueting tables. Here, while the earth below was so cold and gloomy, was a delightful warmth and light. On silent feet Prometheus, in his dark mantle, drew nearer and nearer to the Shining People’s home, while Athena pointed, in pride, to one or another wonder. At last, he was within full view of the long, beautiful rooms, with their aisles of golden pillars that Hephaestus had made, and saw, not only the pillars, but the magical throne, and the tall tripods from which gold and silver vases hung. Above all, he saw the exquisite stands for the flaming torches and the jeweled lamps in which glowed the radiance of that living fire that he was risking so much to carry away.
Even as Prometheus stood, marveling, in the doorway, there came a tread of spirited horses, a blinding flash of wheels, and up drove Apollo in his glorious car. In an instant Prometheus shot out his hand, and, from the chariot, stole one splendid jewel of light. Down in the hollow stem of the fennel stalk he hid it, placed the stalk in his breast, folded his mantle tightly about it, and fled away, afraid lest even Athena should see what he had done. As fast as feet could carry him, he sped down the steep slopes of Olympus back to earth, breathless with anxiety lest the flame in the jewel should die out before he reached the valley. But the fennel stalk guarded well the little treasure of fire that had been entrusted to it. Prometheus arrived at his home, drew the precious stem from below his mantle, and, setting light to a torch that stood upon a high stand, let the flame shine forth on earth like a new and wonderful star.
That same night, Zeus, looking down upon the shadowy world from the bright glories of Olympus, saw little jewels of light peeping here and there, just as you may see the lamps glowing in distant windows nowadays when twilight falls. The king of the Shining People started with surprise and stared more closely. Then, all at once, he knew what had happened! He knew, too, that only Prometheus would have dared to pass the doors of the sacred palace, and to steal the stuff of which the sun was made — the sacred fire that belonged to the immortals alone.
Zeus was, oh, so angry with the fearless mortal who had carried to earth the greatest secret of Olympus. He sent in hot haste for Hephaestus, who had always used fire himself in the workshop where he had made his golden ladies. He was to make another lady now, said Zeus, but not of gold. She was to be formed of delicate and beautiful clay and was to have a face as fair as a wood nymph’s and a voice as sweet as Apollo’s lyre. All the Shining People were to present her with some gift of charm or beauty. In fact, she was to be a sort of fairy princess; and, when she was finished, he would tell the immortals what he meant to do with her.
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So Hephaestus limped off between his golden ladies to make the nymph the king had ordered. He molded the most beautiful maiden that had ever been seen, and he gave her the loveliest face and the sweetest voice on Olympus — let alone on the earth that lay so far below. Then Athena, who could make all kinds of exquisite embroideries, although she was dressed in armor herself, robed this fair being in a gown worthy of a queen and hung a veil about her hair that was a marvel to look upon. Bright blossoms garlanded it, and it was held in place by a magnificent crown. Aphrodite —forgetting her occasional jealousy of a beautiful woman— gave the maiden every charm she could think of, and Hermes taught her gaiety and laughter, and merry, delicate speech. While all the Shining Ones were admiring the beautiful lady, Zeus spoke from his royal throne and commanded Hermes to take her down to earth and present her to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, to be his wife.
At the same time, the king of Olympus gave Hermes a most exquisitely ornamented casket. This carved and jeweled box was, said he, to be taken to earth by the maiden, and left in her charge. But she was to be told that on no account was she ever to raise the lid. Then, having given this order, Zeus said that the maiden was to be called Pandora, which means “the All-Endowed”; and he settled himself to wait while Hermes went down to earth with Pandora and the mysterious box.
Down, down, down they went, along the very path by which Prometheus had come up. Presently, in a glade of oak trees, they found the house of Epimetheus. Hermes knocked at the door with his golden wand and Epimetheus opened it at once. He recognized the winged messenger of the Shining People immediately; but, of course, he was a good deal surprised to see the lovely maiden in the golden crown and silver wedding veil, all garlanded with the flowers of the Immortals, with, apparently, the rest of her luggage in a beautifully ornamented box at her feet.
However, when Hermes informed him that this fair creature’s name was Pandora and that Zeus had had her made on purpose to be his wife, Epimetheus accepted her without hesitation, as, indeed, who would not? Taking her indoors with him, he began to admire her lovely complexion, her bright eyes, her charming smile, and her delicately embroidered robes. The box, however, he took away from her and set in the corner; for Hermes, before he left, had repeated Zeus’s orders that, on no account, was either of the happy pair to lift the lid.
Well, Epimetheus and Pandora settled down together as cheerily as possible. Pandora found life on earth quite delightful, her husband was so fond of her and they had so many friends. She had not a single wish ungratified — save one! That one wish was a consuming, overwhelming desire to know what was inside the box!
Day after day the desire grew till, at last, she could hardly attend to anything. She was always pausing in her work to stare at the mysterious casket in the comer of the room, which was tied up securely with a golden cord. Epimetheus scolded her more than once for her curiosity, but he could not cure her. And at last, one day when her husband had gone from home, Pandora could restrain herself no longer. She seized the box, pulled off the golden cord, raised the lid, and prepared, in the greatest of haste, to examine whatever was hidden inside.
Alas, poor Pandora! She soon knew the secret! Out from the box, with a buzz of wings, flew hundreds of the strangest little brown creatures, like moths, with the stings of wasps or bees. They settled on her neck and arms, and stung her heartily, before they flew off, in a cloud, out of the window! Meeting Epimetheus just outside, they stung him as well; so that he rushed into his house, calling out to know what was the matter. There, in the middle of the room, guilty and sobbing, stood Pandora. With one hand she was rubbing her stings; with the other, too late, she was holding down the lid of the box.
You see, Zeus had known this would happen. It was his revenge on Prometheus for stealing the fire. The strange brown insects were the dreadful and nasty things that are so disagreeable in the world today; things like measles, and whooping cough, and unkind stories, and sums that won’t come right, and dangerously thin ice when you want to skate on the pond. Worse things than these, too, flew out when Pandora opened the box. And Zeus smiled most unkindly as he sat on his throne, and declared that it served everybody right.
While Epimetheus scolded his poor, beautiful wife, and Pandora continued to sob, suddenly both of them heard a low sweet murmuring coming from inside the box. Pandora stopped crying, and Epimetheus stopped scolding, to listen. This is what they heard:
“Let me out, too! Let me out, too! Let me out, too! I am not anything disagreeable, but the sweetest gift that was ever made to man! Only let me out, and I will tell you my name, and you will understand!”
Pandora and Epimetheus looked at each other. Then, very cautiously, Pandora lifted the lid of the casket once more. There was a flash of wings, a little song of delight, and a glimpse of a lovely small being with shining eyes and hair. Out of the window, the delicate little creature sped, like a glittering hummingbird. For a moment it hung among the climbing roses, a tiny jeweled form, sparkling and beautiful. Then it sped away into the world beyond, and Pandora and Epimetheus just caught the echo of its last words as it went:
“My name is Hope.”
So, you see, although Pandora did let loose everything that is disagreeable in life, she set Hope free, as well. And Hope is the very sweetest thing on earth.