So many poems make use of classical mythology, it’s hard to choose examples. And, of course, the ancients themselves often wrote about their myths in poems.
One contemporary poet whose use of myth I very much admire is A.E. Stallings. She’s an American classics scholar who now lives in Athens, Greece. One of her poems centered on ancient Greek mythology is “Actaeon.” Her sonnet “Fairy Tale Logic,” which refers to more modern myths, is one of my favorites, but she’s written many, many fine poems.
Myths often explore the relationship between the individual and the larger community. And, they are often modulated to better fit changing times. The myth of Pandora, for example, is one that’s undergone changes.
Originally, the myth’s story was that Zeus gave a jar (later called a box) to Pandora and told her it was full of gifts for the humans she loved. But Zeus was lying — in fact, the jar was full of demons. Over the years, Pandora changed from a woman who’d been fooled by the ruler of the gods to a woman who was stigmatized because her nosy, disobedient nature compelled her to open a box she knew was dangerous.
Back in 2004, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and the stigma surrounding the disease soon became apparent to me. Ultimately, I wrote a lot of poems about this, many in the form of conversations between the stigmatized individual and the virus, and between the individual and the community. The poems, including the sonnet below, were published in an audio chapbook, Virus Conversations, which streams for free on Bandcamp and other platforms.
Elegy for Pandora
Because you are like me — a woman scorned,
defined by your mistakes, a woman whose
mistakes hurt others, whose otherness has turned
her speechless — you know the story’s other side:
God made the jar. He filled it. Then, he lied:
It’s full of gifts for all mankind. Good news!
And you, in innocence, believed. You pried
it open. A host of miseries unfurled
before you slammed it shut with Hope inside,
a doughy, unarmed caterpillar curled
beneath the lip. Pandora, my body is what
I opened. Disease is what I spread. I shut
my mouth and chew on hope. It’s not about
to grow its wings. I cannot spit it out.