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Take My Word

Do Look a Gift Myth in the Mouth

December 30, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

Just before Christmas, I had a phone call from my sister, Stephanie Middleton May, who lives in Nova Scotia and is a recently naturalized citizen of Canada. She says there's a chain of department stores called Eaton's up there, comparable, I gather, to some of our high-toned chain stores in the United States.

This year they had a nationally televised commercial showing a lady getting on an elevator in a department store--Eaton's, of course--and as the car rises and slowly comes to a halt, the lady's voice (over, filled with dramatic, ecstatic wonder) describes the scene: "The elevator doors opened--and I saw Pandora's box!" There before her dazzled eyes was a scene of such sybaritic opulence as to put visions of sugarplums back in the nursery, where they belong.

This Pandora's box evidently held jewels, furs, expensive perfumes and other symbols of the highest high life. My sister stared uncomprehendingly, certain that she must have misunderstood something somewhere. It was only after she'd seen the commercial three times that she felt secure enough in her perceptions to phone the department store to see if anyone connected in a position of authority with such a high-class emporium had so little knowledge of Greek mythology as to accept this perversion of the tale of Pandora's box.

Without further ado, here's the story as it has--or should have--come down through the ages:

Prometheus, a Titan whose name signifies Forethought , stole fire from heaven with which to instill life in the clay model he'd made of the first man. To punish him for his theft, Zeus asked Hephaestus to make a woman as a wife for Prometheus. Hephaestus came forth with Pandora (meaning all-gifted), the first woman, whom the gods endowed with beauty, grace, charm, wit, talent, and then some.

Zeus also gave Pandora a beautiful box, which she was cautioned to keep locked. When Pandora was offered as wife to Prometheus, he (knowing Zeus far too well) smelled a rat and sent Pandora packing, beautiful box and all. Prometheus' simpler-minded brother, Epimetheus (Afterthought), however, accepted Pandora and married her.

In a short while, Pandora's curiosity got the better of her (some versions say it was Epimetheus's curiosity that got the better of him ), and she (or he) opened the box--which, much to their chagrin, contained all the evils that were to plague mankind throughout history. The only thing to remain in Pandora's box was hope.

My sister phoned the TV station, the department store, and even the advertising agency that had dreamed up the commercial and told whoever would listen that they had Pandora's box mixed up with the Cornucopia, or Horn of Plenty, which was a horn of the goat that suckled Jupiter. This horn was placed among the stars in the heavens as a symbol of abundance. The original Pandora's box was full of greed, famine, war, murder, rape, pestilence, locust plagues and boll weevils--not the sort of thing a department store should specialize in. Not at Christmas, anyway.

It's easy to picture big decision-makers sitting around a conference table running ideas about the big 1987 Christmas campaign up the flagpole:

"What about 'It's a regular Pandora's box?' " a Bright Young Idea Man asks.

"What's that?" asks a VP in Charge of Soliciting Bright Ideas.

"It's like in Greek mythology," says the B.Y.I.M. "It's Classic. Pandora's box. Ya know?"

Confused about the myth, the VP in Charge of Bright Ideas says: "Love it! Great! It's classic! The lady gets off at the third floor and a regular Pandora's box is opened before her bedazzled eyes!"

And thus was born a campaign to win the hearts and minds of all but a young 59-year-old matron, formerly a Connecticut Yankee, recently reborn as a citizen of Canada, who picks up the phone to ask: "Are you guys out of your gourds. . . ?"

It's classic.

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