Mother: “Don’t ask so many questions, child. Curiosity killed the cat.”
Willie: “What did the cat want to know, Mom?”
—The Portsmouth Daily Times, March 1915
An interesting character pops up in religion and folklore around the world and throughout history: the curious and disobedient woman. Here’s the story: A god/wizard gives a woman total freedom, with one exception—one thing she must not do/eat/see. She battles briefly with her curiosity and loses, opening/eating the door/jar/box/apple and thereby spoiling everything for everybody.
Curiosity didn’t just kill the cat, you see. It unleashed disease, misery, war and death on the world and got us evicted from a Paradise of blank incuriosity and unthinking obedience.
That this cautionary tale is found in religions worldwide leads me once again to conclude that religion isn’t the source of human hatreds, fears, and prejudices—it’s the expression of those fundamental human hatreds, fears, and prejudices, the place we put them for safekeeping against the sniffing nose of inquiry. And since the story includes three things powerfully reviled by most religious traditions (curiosity, disobedience, and women), it’s not surprising to find them conveniently bundled into a single high-speed cable running straight to our cultural hearts.
I could do pages on Eve alone and her act of disobedient curiosity with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Was she really punished for wanting to know the difference between right and wrong, or just for disobedience? How could she know it was wrong to disobey if she didn’t yet have knowledge of good and evil? etc). Then there’s Lot’s wife, poor nameless thing, a woman (check!) who was curious (check!) and therefore disobeyed (check!) instructions to not look back at her brimstoned friends and loved ones. Islam even coined a word for a disobedient woman – nashiz – and decreed a passel of human punishments for her in sharia law.
But neither Eve nor Mrs. Lot was the first nashiz woman to cross my path. Lovely, nosy Pandora was my first.
Pandora was designed for revenge on humanity by the gods, who were angry at the theft of fire by Prometheus. According to Hesiod, each of the Olympians gave her a gift (Pandora = “all-gifted”). She was created by Hephaestus in the very image of Aphrodite (rrrrrrowww). Hermes gave her “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and filled her mouth with “lies and crafty words.” Poseidon gave her a pearl necklace, which (unlike the deceitful nature, for example) was at least on her registry. But the real drivers of the story were the last two gifts: Hermes gave her an exquisitely beautiful jar (or box) with instructions not to open it, while Hera, queen of the gods, blessed her with insatiable curiosity.
Long story short, once on Earth, Pandora’s god-given curiosity consumed her and she opened the jar/box, releasing war, disease, famine, and talk radio into the world. Realizing what she had done, she clamped the lid on at last, with Hope alone left inside.
(This is usually interpreted as Hope being preserved for humankind as a comfort in the face of the terrors, but even at the age of ten I realized that by trapping Hope in the jar, she kept it out of the world. Are there no mythic traditions with continuity editors?)
This week I came across the anti-curiosity tale in yet another form, one I’d never seen before–a Grimms’ fairy tale called Fitcher’s Bird:
Once upon a time there was a sorcerer who disguised himself as a poor man, went begging from house to house, and captured beautiful girls. No one knew where he took them, for none of them ever returned.
One day he came to the door of a man who had three beautiful daughters. He asked for a bit to eat, and when the oldest daughter came out to give him a piece of bread, he simply touched her, and she was forced to jump into his pack basket. Then he hurried away with powerful strides and carried her to his house, which stood in the middle of a dark forest.
He gave her everything that she wanted. So it went for a few days, and then he said to her, “I have to go away and leave you alone for a short time. Here are the house keys. You may go everywhere and look at everything except for the one room that this little key here unlocks. I forbid you to go there on the penalty of death.”
He also gave her an egg, saying, “Take good care of this egg. If you should lose it, great misfortune would follow.”
She took the keys and the egg, and promised to take good care of everything.
As soon as he had gone she walked about in the house, examining everything. The rooms glistened with silver and gold. She had never seen such splendor.
Finally she came to the forbidden door. She wanted to pass it by, but curiosity gave her no rest. She put the key into the lock and the door sprang open.
What did she see when she stepped inside? A large bloody basin stood in the middle, inside which there lay the cut up parts of dead girls. Nearby there was a wooden block with a glistening ax lying on it.
She was so terrified that the egg slipped from her hand into the basin. She got it out again and wiped off the blood, but it was to no avail, for it always came back. She wiped and scrubbed, but she could not get rid of the stain.
Not long afterward the man returned from his journey and asked for the key and the egg. She handed them to him, and he saw from the red stain that she had been in the blood chamber.
“You went into that chamber against my will,” he said, “and now against your will you shall go into it once again. Your life is finished.”
He threw her down, dragged her by her hair into the chamber, cut off her head, then cut her up into pieces, and her blood flowed out onto the floor. Then he threw her into the basin with the others.
It gets worse, believe it or not, this charming children’s tale. Now I have to go away and leave you for a short time. You may read anything you wish on the Internet, but you may NOT, on pain of death, click on this link to read the rest of the story.
Given this glimpse into our cultural terror of curiosity, is it any wonder that religion and science are so often at loggerheads? One is fueled by the very thing the other has traditionally feared—the opening of interesting and forbidden jars.
- Fitcher’s Bird is very closely related to (and probably the source of) the tale of Bluebeard.
- The phrase “Curiosity killed the cat” is in fact a much later corruption of the original “Care (i.e., worry) will kill a cat,” which appears in a Ben Jonson play of 1598.