myth and poetry

Day Log/Athene's Mirror/Athena Sex and the City Series Pt. 5

Transcending the Leaky Vessel; Opening Pandora's Box*
by Maggie Macary, Ph.D. republished December 21, 2007

.............This essay has been edited from the original for republishing purposes. The essay begins with the second paragraph of the original essay and because of this edit the opening line has been revised to incorporate the essence of the deleted paragraph into it. The editor has been careful in keeping the mood and thought Dr. Macary conveys. The essay is from the collection of essays by cultural mythologer, Maggie Macary (1954-2006) written between 2004-2006. would like to thank Doug Macary acting on behalf of the estate of Maggie Macary for permission to republish her blog essays first published in Arrows (2001-2006) at

There is a big hullabaloo right now about polygamy coming out of the closet because of a new television show on HBO entitled Big Love. The show is based on the idea of a polygamous family living in the middle of the suburbs in Utah. The husband and the second wife grew up in a polygamous cult lead by the wife’s father, known as The Prophet. The husband broke away from the cult when he was young and married a nonbeliever who bore him 3 children. After her brush with cancer and a hysterectomy, she agrees to support her husband’s desire to take on additional wives so that he could continue to have children. He brings in “wife” number 2 who bears him 2 children and then brings in a third woman from a troubled background, who bears him another 2 children. All of them live in a 3 house compound, supposedly hidden from the view of their suburban neighbors.

After the first episode, I can tell you that HBO is not producing a show that is favorable to polygamy. Rather, the show already exhibits a mishmash of conflicting and rather dysfunctional emotions. Since the show’s debut, however, there have been a series of articles and discussions on how the debate over gay marriage is actually opening the door to the legalization of polygamous marriages. In fact, numerous people are using the phrase “opening Pandora’s box” in describing how gay marriage or the decimalization of gay sexual relationships leads the way to all kinds of horrors that affect the traditional idea of marriage. Charles Krauthammer debates the problem rather ambivalently in an OpEd piece in today’s Washington Post entitled, Pandora and Polygamy and concludes:

The minting of these new forms of marriage is a symptom of our culture's contemporary radical individualism -- as is the decline of traditional marriage -- and not its cause.
But there is a jumble here in all the discussions that are actually three separate ideas.

One is over the issue of polyamory, which is love among more than two people. Do people have privacy in personal relationships or not? Should society have a concern over adult relationships and when should society interfere in the relationships between two or more people?

Second is the cultural topic of marriage. Marriage is a social contract in Western culture and therefore is governed by the rules of culture. According to mythologist, Jean-Pierre Vernant in his book Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, marriage is first of all defined by the practice of engue:
The engue turns the union between a man and a woman into a social action whose effect reaches beyond the two individuals involved to seal, through them, a commitment between two domestic households, two “houses.” The engue binds them to each other by a mutual, public, and solemn agreement sworn in the presence of witnesses who can act as its guarantors (55-56)
The engue, Vernant assures us, is not the only guarantee of a marriage. Cohabitation for the purpose of producing legitimate heirs for the husband’s household is a required factor in the recognition of a marriage in Greece.

Marriage did not ensure monogamy in Greece, however. Men were allowed their concubines (who were not legitimate wives, but cohabitated with men as well as their occasional trysts with courtesans known as hetairai. And of course, there was intimate contact between men, typically older men and young boys. So, at least for men, marriage did not contain any notion of sexual limitations. Its main purpose was to produce legitimate heirs, a decidedly social concern that governed the inheritance of property.

The third issue is a religious one, one based on beliefs and the sanctity of marriage as a mimesis of the love bond between Jesus and his Church. The Christian Polygamous Website,, defines marriage as a metaphor in which the man is Christ-like and the woman the recipient of his love and protection. In this view, there is a scriptural dictate for a man to love and protect multiple women (as Christ so selflessly and givingly loves the Churches). In utilizing that metaphor, men become the saviors of women who are obviously in need of salvation.

Please note that the notion of polygamous marriages in this context never contemplates one woman with multiple men. The issue of legitimate heirs of the male seed still occupies the center of the debate. Woman never attains equal status with men. How do women in religious, polygamous situation really fare? Tapestry against Polygamy is an organization of women who have left polygamous lifestyles.

And it is here that we remember Pandora, not as the proverbial woman who let out all the evils in the world by opening a box. Rather, Pandora as described by Hesiod is the mother of all women, who are not given the same status as men. She does not carry a box, she has been given a pithos, a jar, a vessel. She has a deceptive, pleasing exterior that hides the glutinous appetite within. Her only redeeming value is that she is a vessel that can contain the man’s seed. Marriage is instituted by culture to contain her as a vessel.

In fact, Hesiod’s rather misogynist description of Pandora is the very omphalous, the origin point, of the West’s hatred of femininity. Woman is the evil deception that Zeus places on man for the theft of fire:
But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction. (Works and Days 60)
Pandora is the anti-puros, the anti-fire which is capable of destroying culture. She must therefore be bound up by marriage to ensure that her appetites (both for food and sex) are controlled and a man’s resources are not destroyed. I mentioned before that the term used for a woman’s veil in ancient Greece is krêdemnon. This one word signifies the veil for a woman, a “headbinder,” the battlements that crown the city, fortifying the city against invasion, and the lid or stopper of a bottle. To veil a woman is to keep the lid on, ensuring female purity and thus ensuring legitimate heirs.
Marriage as we imagine it in the West is and always will be associated with the production of legitimate heirs. That is it’s legal, social purpose. Do we need to expand the definition of marriage to provide legal rights for same sex couples as well as polygamous arrangements?

Perhaps not marriage per se, but I’m all for expanding social contracts that recognize the rights of same-sex partners without a great deal of legal wrangling and hassle. I think it is outrageous that a same-sex couple has little legal protection or rights. But I’m not sure we have to call it “marriage” since marriage has its religious as well as cultural overtones. Perhaps we need a similar social contract for multiple people in a relationship, a protection of rights. That is a cultural decision that should not be based on morality religious or otherwise. It should be based on the practicalities of the society.

Should we imagine marriage as a religious sacrament? Well, I think that religions can define that idea themselves without the help of society as a whole. As many already know, I’m not particularly fond of religion on general and would like to keep religious discussion and beliefs out of the laws of society, especially in a pluristic society that allows for multiple kinds of belief systems.

Does the government have any right to get themselves involved in private matters between consenting adults? Hell no! As far as I’m concerned let those who are interested in polyamory situations regardless of gender, should be allowed to do so without the concern of society. I’m really not interested in the bedroom activities of other people and support the rule of privacy above all other things.

As for the HBO show, Big Love, I’ll continue to watch it because it is already displaying both the complexity of the debate, and the long-standing inequality between men and women. Big love indeed!

originally posted by Maggie to Arrows @ 9:00 AM March 17, 2006


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