When Hope is a Bad Thing - Elpis and Pandora’s “Box”

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Curtisimo, Feb 20, 2021.

  1. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Egypt, Alexandria
    Antoninus Pius
    BI Tetradrachm, Alexandria mint, RY 11 = AD 147/8.
    Dia.: 24 mm
    Wt.: 13.81 g
    Obv.: ANTωNEINOC CEB EYCEB, Laureate bust right
    Rev.: L ENΔEKATOV, Elpis standing left, lifting hem of skirt and holding flower
    Ref.: Dattari-Savio pl. 111, 8160 (this coin illustrated); Emmett 1383.11; RPC Online IV temp #13607 (this coin cited).
    Ex Robert L. Grover Collection of Roman-Egyptian Coinage, previously held by the Art Institute of Chicago (1981.511); ex Giovanni Dattari Collection (1853-1923)

    This coin is one of the best provenances in my collection. It was in the collection of Giovanni Dattari (1853-1923) and is shown in the Dattari-Savio plates (pencil rubbings shown above). It was also in the collection of the numismatist Robert L. Grover who then donated it to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1981. The museum sold it in 2017. This coin spent time in the fabulous @zumbly Collection before finding a new home in my collection. I’m not sure how provenance gets any better than that.

    Elpis and the Myth of Pandora’s “Box”
    Have you ever stopped to think about the myth of Pandora’s box and realized that it doesn’t make sense? Is Hope (Elpis) the worst of the bad things that needs to be contained in the jar or is Hope a good thing that needs to be protected in the jar?

    Let’s take a look at the myth.

    Hope as a Negative Goddess?
    The earliest telling of the myth comes from Hesiod in the Works and Days written sometime in the 7th or 8th century BC.

    For those that aren’t familiar with the story, the short version is that Zeus wanted to punish humans for receiving the gift of fire from Prometheus and so he had Hephaestus craft a beautiful woman named Pandora and gave her a jar (in Greek pithos, which is a large jar, not a box) with all of the evil things that could plague mankind trapped inside it.

    I took this photo of several pithoi at the archeological site of Knossos on the island of Crete. These jars are huge. I can’t help but wonder if Zeus made two of these evil filled jars and accidentally knocked the other one over at the end of 2019... (Author’s photo)

    Pandora was then married to Prometheus’s brother, Epimetheus and sent down from Mt. Olympus to live on earth with him. Eventually she became so curious as to what was inside the jar that according to Hesiod she;

    “took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered, all these [evils] and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men. Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door; for ere that, the lid of the jar stopped her, by the will of Aegis-holding Zeus who gathers the clouds. But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils.” [1]

    The word used by Hesiod for Hope is ἐλπίς (Elpis). This is the goddess shown on the reverse of the above coin.

    So if Hope (Elpis) is a good thing why is she in a jar with all the evils of mankind? Why, further, is it a good thing that Hope is kept in the jar? Wouldn’t it be better if Hope was out in the world to comfort humanity? It seems that Hesiod actually thinks of Elpis as evil, perhaps even the worst of the evils in the jar.

    The confusion comes from our translation of the Greek Elpis into Hope. This isn’t exactly correct. Elpis was the spirit (or goddess) of “expectation” in either its positive or negative form. Her positive aspect was something like our modern concept of “hope” but her negative aspect should be thought of as something like “foreboding.”

    In this light the message might be that although the evils of the jar are now reeking havoc among humans who will have to undergo suffering and death we have the ability to not feel debilitating fear at our fate because Zeus decreed that Elpis (foreboding) will be contained in the jar.

    It sounds rather dire, which of course it is. If you read Hesiod you quickly realize he’s not exactly a sunshine and rainbows kind of guy.

    Hope Becomes a Positive Goddess
    Hesiod’s view of a negative Elpis (Hope) was not the only view and it was not the view that eventually won out. One variation of Elpis and Pandora’s Box appears in a fable attributed to Aesop who lived a century or two after Hesiod (dates are very uncertain). It is called Zeus and the Jar of Good Things:

    “Zeus gathered all the useful things together in a jar and put a lid on it. He then left the jar in human hands. But man had no self-control and he wanted to know what was in that jar, so he pushed the lid aside, letting those things go back to the abode of the gods. So all the good things flew away, soaring high above the earth, and Hope was the only thing left. When the lid was put back on the jar, Hope was kept inside. That is why Hope alone is still found among the people, promising that she will bestow on each of us the good things that have gone away.” [2]

    In this version the things in the jar are all good things and there is no Pandora. The good things are given as a gift to mankind but because humans have no self control these gifts return to the realm of the gods. Hope is the only good thing that remains on earth in the jar.

    This positive aspect of Elpis was later associated with the Roman goddess Spes which only strengthened her role as a benevolent goddess. This seems to be the aspect of Elpis that becomes the most dominant when depicted in art during the Roman period. In sculptures and on this coin Elpis comes to be shown as a woman bestowing on the viewer a good thing represented by a flower in her outstretched hand.

    Statuette showing Elpis / Spes presenting a flower in her right hand and holding the hem of her skirt with her left. (Images courtesy of the National Museums Liverpool)

    [1] Hesiod:

    [2] Aesop:

    Please feel free to show your:
    • Elpis / Spes coins
    • Coins from Alexandria
    • Coins showing a flower
    • Coins with a mythical figure with both positive and negative aspects
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2021
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  3. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Fantastic, @Curtisimo! Educational and entertaining write-up, too. I've shown this many times before, but what's one more time, right?

    Julia Domna, AD 193-217.
    Roman AR denarius, 3.40 g, 17 mm, 12 h.
    Eastern mint, AD 194-195.
    Obv: IVLIA DO MNA AVG, bare-headed and draped bust, right.
    Rev: BONA SPES, Spes standing left, holding flower and lifting fold of skirt.
    Refs: RIC 614; BMCRE 412-13; Cohen/RSC 8; RCV 6575; CRE 387.
  4. Andres2

    Andres2 Well-Known Member

    Good info, thanks Curtisimo

    Spes.JPG P1160224 (3)Spes.JPG
  5. svessien

    svessien Senior Member Supporter

    Thanks for a good write-up!

    To me, hope is a positive thing, and I try to keep it ever-green.
    I think that’s why I like to have Spes on the reverse.

    Titus As.jpg

    H sest.jpg

    Marc Aurel sest.jpg

    Sear 7450 Diadumenian.jpg

    Sear 7927 Severus Alexander.jpg
  6. Theodosius

    Theodosius Fine Style Seeker Supporter

    Fascinating write up, Curtis! That is a nice looking coin with a top notch series of provenances.

    I always thought of a potentially mixed up version of the Aesop fable where hope is like a consolation prize after all the evil things escaped.

    Last edited: Feb 20, 2021
    Curtisimo likes this.
  7. Orielensis

    Orielensis Supporter! Supporter

    Very nice coin and write-up, @Curtisimo ! I enjoed reading it.

    Here is an "eternal hope" that turned bad quite soon after:
    Rom – Geta, Denar, Spei Perpetuae, Laodicea, Ric 96.png
    Geta, Roman Empire, AR denarius, 198–200 AD, “Laodicea” mint. Obv: L SEPTIMIVS GETA CAES; bust of Geta, bare-headed, draped, r. Rev: SPEI PERPETVAE; Spes, draped, advancing l., holding flower in r. hand and raising skirt with l. hand. 20mm, 3.19g. RIC IV Geta 96.
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2021
  8. ominus1

    ominus1 Well-Known Member

    ...kool story..i have her as Spes on this Gallienus..:) Gallenius ae coins 004.JPG ...oops:rolleyes:
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2021
  9. Ryro

    Ryro They call me the 13th Caesar Supporter

    Jeez Luis! That is an impressive coin and provenance :woot:
    Here's one that hasn't been shown, my Tetricus II of her. How the heck to you tell if his and his dad's coins are barbarous? Just assume they all are!
    Tetricus II
    (Caesar, 273-274). Æ Radiate (16mm, 2.35g, 12h). Treveri. Radiate and draped bust r. R/ Spes walking l., holding flower and raising skirt. RIC V pt. 2, 270. Brown patina, Good Fine – VF
  10. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Only one Spes, I believe:

    Herennius Etruscus Caesar (son of Trajan Decius), AR Antoninianus, 250 AD. Obv. Radiate & draped bust right, Q HER ETR MES DECIVS NOB C / Rev. Spes advancing left, raising skirt & holding flower, SPES PVBLICA. RIC IV-3 149, RSC IV 38. 22 mm., 4.37 g.

    Herennius Etruscus - Spes 1.jpg
  11. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Here are a couple SPES


    RI Tetricus II 273-274 CE BI Ant SPES w Flower


    RI Fausta 325-326 CE AE3 Spes stdg 2 infants SMHA 20mm 3.48g scratch over eye damnatio memoriae by Constantine
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2021
  12. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Looks like ABVNDANTIA to me.
    Curtisimo and ominus1 like this.
  13. ominus1

    ominus1 Well-Known Member

    ..O...well....i was just goin' by the holdin' up the dress gal....hehe...oops....:rolleyes:...thanks for the correction RC..:)..this coin's so worn and my imagination great that this coin has been many things to me over the years. :D
    Curtisimo likes this.
  14. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Excellent writeup on Elpis/Spes, Curtis! It was a coin I thought belonged in your collection and I'm happy to see it there. :)

    I found that tag particularly interesting because of all the different hands that contributed to it using different pens and pencils (I didn't add my own scrawl, incidentally). I especially like the "(why??)" and wonder what was being referred to. I believe that was added by the Gemini XIII cataloger who worked on that particular section of the sale.

    Here's one of your coin's lotmates, another ex Dattari A-Pi tetradrachm with an Elpis reverse.

    Antoninus Pius - Gemini Lot A - 4.jpg
    Billon Tetradrachm. 12.82g, 22.9mm. EGYPT, Alexandria, RY 11 (AD 147/8). Dattari-Savio Suppl. pl. 14, 11 (this coin); Emmett 1383.11; RPC Online 13608 (this coin cited). O: Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust right. R: L ENΔEKATOV, Elpis standing left, lifting hem of skirt and holding flower.
    Ex Robert L. Grover Collection of Roman-Egyptian Coinage, previously held by the Art Institute of Chicago (1981.424); ex Giovanni Dattari Collection
  15. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    @Curtisimo, thank you for an informative write-up and congratulations on an appealing coin with stunning provenance:
    Dattari>Robert L. Grover>Art Institute of Chicago>zumbly>Curtisimo is an impressive path to have documented. Here is my favorite Elpis (Spes/Elpis in general a type that I am often attracted too):
    Alexandria Elpis.jpg
    Egypt, Alexandria, Salonina, Augusta & wife of Gallienus, AD 254-268, Tetradrachm, dated RY 15 (AD 267/8)
    Obv: KOPNЄΛΙΑ CAΛωNЄINA CЄB, draped bust right, wearing stephane
    Rev: Elpis advancing left, holding flower and hem of skirt; palm frond before, IЄ/L (date) to right.
    Ref: Dattari (Savio) 5334

    I also found the question about Elpis interesting: Is "hope" an evil (false expectation) or a good (motivating optimism)? Does it remain in the box for mankind or hidden from mankind? I will add a reference from my notes on Elpis, "Hope by any other name...": Erasmus of Rotterdam (AD 1456-1536) is most often cited as the source of the mistranslated Greek πίθος to Latin pyxis (“small box”). In his Adagiorum chiliades tres, first edition, 1508, he twice references pyxis in place of pithos. "Ita ut fuit pyxis illa fallax, per Pandoram a Iove Prometheo missa"(*)...
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2021
  16. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    Marcus as Caesar from Alexandria:

    Type: AE Drachm, 33mm, 22.95 grams of Alexandria

    Obverse: Bare headed and draped bust of Aurelius right

    Reverse: Elpis Standing left holding flower and hitching skirt

    Reference: BMC 1238 listed as "rare" by R.A. Numismatics

  17. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Thanks @Roman Collector ! Anytime is a good time to show such a fabulous coin from your impressive collection of empresses. :)

    Thanks @Andres2 . I like your Aelius example. I’m sure that is an impressive hunk of metal in hand.

    All great coins @svessien ! Thanks for sharing!

    Thanks John! I also only had a vague understanding of the myth until I started to read into it more. It seems that a lot of the early Greek myths involved Zeus and jars of things separated between good and bad. There is even a mention in the Illiad of Zeus having two jars and dispensing good and evil to mortals whenever he felt like it (note to self - stay clear of Zeus until after his morning coffee). From what I can tell the good are always separated from the bad in the jars which makes the Hesiod version read much differently than I originally thought it did.

    Nice coin and a very ironic addition to the thread. Thanks for sharing. Might as well share my Geta too :)

    The skirt hold certainly makes this one tricky! I probably would have thought Spes at first as well. Thanks for sharing, my friend. :)
  18. Curtisimo

    Curtisimo the Great(ish) Supporter

    Thanks Ryan! Nice Tetricus II. I know what you mean. I have a couple of crisis era coins that I am not sure if they are official or not or even what denomination they are supposed to be.

    Nice coin Donna!

    Great coins Brian. That is an interesting AE3 with the two infants!

    Thank you my friend! I thought the various notes on the tag were interesting as well. I noticed the "why? / RR" as well and also wondered what it could mean. My initial thought was it could have been confusion over why it was cataloged as a variant of 2229. The only reference I have on hand is Emmett so I haven't checked that hypothesis.

    Thank you Sulla and beautiful Elpis tetradrachm! The detail is wonderful. I am also glad you posted the link to your blog. That's a very cool website that I'll have to spend some time browsing. :)

    Also thank you for the compliment on the provenance. As I said I think it is one of the best in my collection and I am thrilled with it. The fact that a fellow CoinTalker is among the line of ownership is the cherry on top. :) I am slowly putting together a fun collection of ex CT provenances. I'll have to make a thread to show all of them at some point.

    Nice hefty drachm of MA. Thank you for sharing!
    Ryro, Sulla80 and DonnaML like this.
  19. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    Thank you. Yeah, I always thought it interesting also. “Hope for the Children”? “Saving the Children”? “La Leche League”?
    Curtisimo likes this.
  20. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

  21. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    The 'Emesa' mint Septimius Severus denarii were issued over a longer time than some issues so they are common and come in variations. The earliest used the legend BONAE SPEI but later it was changed to BONA SPES. Many added dots in various locations that I believe was a code we do not understand.
    rg0750bb1193.jpg rg0800bb1454.jpg rg0850bb2395.jpg rg1000bb0433.jpg rg1050bb1354.jpg

    I have not seen a Domna with SPEI or dots but I have not made a sincere search.
    rk5330bb2281.jpg rk5340bb1283.jpg rk5350bb1740.jpg

    My Alexandrian Antoninus Pius year 11 tetradrachm lacks the pedigree of the OP coin.

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