Sunday, 11 March 2012

SUNDAY MORNING MYTHS: Prometheus brings fire to man!

If religion represents the beginnings of philosophical thought, then mythology is the means by which this early, primitive form of philosophical thought is portrayed.

But not all mythology is equal. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell once observed, the difference between the pagan Greeks and their Hebrew contemporaries  for example is that the Greeks are on man’s side, both in sympathy and in loyalty; whereas the Hebrews are on the side of their god.

So rather than recite here every Sunday the nastiness emanating from so much of the Hebrew mythology (like Jehovah’s genocide I recounted last Sunday), I intend instead to intersperse it with better stories from other mythology, especially the Greek..

Today, a story of the gods’ power beginning to break down: Prometheus stealing fire from the gods.


Prometheus theft of fire is the beginning of the end for the gods. It reveals Zeus as a cruel and vicious  tyrant who has withheld from men “the means of life" for fear his power is beginning to wane; and Prometheus as the benefactor of humanity bringing them the gift that will transform their industry and their lives, with which (as Hesiod describes it in the 8th century BC) "you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste."

Thinking about stealing fire was easy, but it finally proved a bit more complicated. Prometheus, known for his wit and intelligence, had an immediate plan – to trick the goddesses throwing them a golden pear into the courtyard with a message: "For the most beautiful goddess of all."
    It worked as he planned – the goddesses started a fight over the fruit while gods were completely enjoying the scene. All of them were distracted and Prometheus didn’t have a hard time steeling the fire from Hephaestus’s workshop. Hephaestus was, among other stuff, the Greek god of fire. Prometheus happily left the Gods’ playground and took the fire with him either in a hollowed pumpkin or hollowed reed and brought it to Earth and gave it to humans.
    Oh, how Zeus was mad.

imageSo mad he sent to men “a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face,” with “a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.” So like a woman.  Her name was Pandora, and she bore a box

A box, of course, she was told not on any account to open. With such an invitation however, it was a box she simply could not resist peeking into (so like a woman!), unleashing evil into the world for the first time. One item however remained inside:

Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house…,

Thanks the gods for that.

Zeus was also mad enough to punish Prometheus.

He made Hephaestus himself to chain Prometheus on Mount Caucasus where the eagle would eat his liver forever.
    But, time passed and Zeus offered at one occasion to free Prometheus in exchange for a revelation of the prophecy that predicted the dethroning of Zeus. Prometheus refused.

He refused to take favour from a god he despised, saying (in Aeschylus’s classic play Prometheus Bound):

In one round sentence, every god I hate,
That injures me who never injured him.

imageHis resistance is eventually rewarded:

 Zeus’s son Hercules, on his journey to fulfill the Twelve Labors, passed by the Mount Caucasus, saw Prometheus and decided to kill the eagle and free the chained Titan. Zeus was very angry initially but eventually agreed to grant Prometheus his freedom in return for the tale of how his rule would end.
    But Zeus wanted Prometheus to carry a reminder of his punishment forever – he ordered Prometheus to make a steel ring from the chains he was in, and wear that ring from then on. Since then, the mankind started creating rings in order to celebrate Prometheus and commemorate his help.

The story of Prometheus has inspired poets, sculptors, artists and writers from Aeschylus to Waterhouse to Scott Eaton (above) to Pat Foley (below) to the poet Shelley, who wrote his Prometheus Unbound in revolt against the stories “reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind.”

 The moral interest of the fable, which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.

The story and Shelley’s attitude was inspiration to Ayn Rand, who once described the figure of John Galt as

Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire--until the day when men withdrew their vultures.

 Atlas Shrugged = Prometheus Unbound, Vol II?


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