Saturday, 31 October 2015

Prometheus and the Quest for Fire

Prometheus Statue

Originally I was going to incorporate some thoughts on the recent Aronofsky film Noah in this post, but I ended up dedicating an entire post to that movie. Onstead I will write some thoughts about the Aeschylan play, Prometheus Bound, and the legend of the Greek god Prometheus (which happens to be one of my favourite Greek plays).

The Greek Legend

Like most myths and legends there is no single story that we can say 'that is the story of Prometheus', and the details change depending on who is telling the story. With Prometheus, the general consensus goes to Hesoid, who wrote a short treatise (or should I say poem) on creation called The Theogony. As the story goes, Promentheus was one of the titans, the gods who existed prior to the Greek gods that we all know, however he was one of the minor titans. When the Greek fods rose up against the titans Prometheus betrayed his kin and joined with Zeus and the other younger gods. However Prometheus wasn't all that much of a friend to Zeus because through a slight of hand, he managed to trick Zeus into taking the bones from a sacrifice while keeping the meat for human consumption. I will make mention of this interesting idea of sacrificing livestock to the gods, something that seems to have been a part of many of the ancient religions, and is also something that God instructs the Jews to do in the Old Testament (though the need for sacrifice was abolished after Christ since he is seen by Christians as being the ultimate sacrifice).
However, while it is tempting to have a discussion on sacrifice, I might leave it for another time because I wish to focus on something else, a story that many of us know: the gift of fire to humanity. As the story goes Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave the secret to humanity. In response Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a rock to have his liver eaten daily by a eagle only to have it grow back at night. Years later Heracles comes along, slays the eagle, and delivers Prometheus.

On the Greek Gods

This following section is just a few thoughts that I have on the nature of the gods in the ancient near-eastern world so I am only working on my own speculations as opposed to any formal academic proposition (and since this is a blog, and not an essay, I feel free to make such speculations). Anyway, my belief is that the Greek gods live in a prehistoric period and developed much in the same way that ancestor worshipping cultures developed. In was not uncommon for the Roman to deify their emperors, and I suspect that a similar thing occurred in Greece as well. When they actually lived is hard to say, however no doubt they existed at a time shrouded in myth - most likely prior to the Mycenean age. As you read through a number of the myths (such as the Library of Greek Mythology or The Metamorphoses), you will notice a progression from the mythological to the historical (or at least the Trojan war in Apollonius' case, however Ovid does through to the ascension of Augustus Caesar).
Thus it is my theory that there is some truth to the story of Prometheus, however so much of it is hidden in myth that it can be very hard to uncover what the actual story was. What we do know is:
  1. He participated in a rebellion against a king by betraying the said king;
  2. He then played a trick on the new king that was no doubt for the benefit of the king's subjects;
  3. He then gave the subjects of the king specific knowledge that made their life substantially easier;
  4. He was then punished for his transgressions, either with imprisonment or exile;
However, it is unlikely that he would have been rescued by Heracles since the events in which Heracles takes part occur in the generation prior to the Trojan War, and this was probably added at a later date.

The Gift of Fire

No doubt we can all appreciate the usefulness of fire. Not only can we use it for warmth and light, but it allows us to do things that we normally wouldn't be able to do. For instance, with fire we can cook our food (especially meat) so that when we eat it we are less likely to suffer ill effects (cooking meat acts to destroy any bacteria that may be in the meat). We can also strengthen wood and smelt metals. For a while I always thought that we used coal to smelt metal, however it wasn't until the 17th century (at least in Europe) that coal was used. However, outcrop coal (and peat) was used as early as the Bronze Age in Britain, though the techniques of coal mining were practiced in China as far back a 1000BC. Thus, as can be seen, fire is an essential part for the development of technology, and without fire, in reality, little can be done.
It is interesting that the story of the 'Theft of Fire' is one of those stories that had been perpetuated around the world, though unlike the Flood myth, I suspect that the reason these stories exist is due to the destructive potential that fire has. For instance, a tribe that knows how to create fire can literally destroy an entire forest as well as hold dominance over a tribe that doesn't. Yet, in my mind at least, it is hard to imagine a society that exists without fire. To me, fire is one of those discoveries (or at least the ability to create fire) that can give a society the ability to develop other technologies, such as metal working.

Rise of Civilisation

Let us go back to Prometheus, and the Aeschylan tradition of the myth. Unfortunately we only have one play surviving from the original trilogy: Prometheus Bound. The entire play is set on a rock in the Causus mountains to which Prometheus is chained, and a parade of people pass by and have discussions with him before a chasm opens up and swallows him. There are a number of anachronistic elements in the play, however that is not what I am interested in at this time. What I am interested in is how Prometheus is portrayed as the benefactor of humanity. In the earlier traditions is was simply the theft of fire that Prometheus is known for (as well as the trick with the sacrifice), however as the story develops he ends up bringing a lot more to humanity, ideas that form the foundation of civilisation such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, and medicine.
These elements are interesting because it demonstrates an understanding of the foundations of civilisation. Agriculture results in a movement away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and forms the foundation of settlements as the people no longer are required to move to where the food is located. Writing forms the basis of trade as merchants are able to keep track of stock as well as debts (and in fact some of the earliest incidences of writing are inventories). Mathematics not only assists in trade but also forms the basis of architecture. It is interesting that the theorem that is attributed to Pythagoras was not actually developed by him, but was known to both the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians.
Yet this no doubt is a later addition to the myth since by the time of Aeschylus Athens was a pretty advanced city state (compared to other cities). They had a functioning democracy as well as a vibrant literary and philosophical culture. They had a pretty advanced navy as well as understanding of sophisticated military techniques. In fact, if we read some of the plays we can also see how they understood modern psychological illnesses (something which I will discuss at another time).

Prometheus in the Modern World

Mary Shelley

I probably should look at how Prometheus, or at least this aspect of Prometheus, is explored in the modern world. Shelley's husband wrote a lyric play called Prometheus Unbound, however the themes of that play do not line up with the topic that I am speaking of here, namely because he explores the spiritual and the relational aspects of the play as opposed to the idea of Prometheus delivering technology to humanity. However, Mary Shelley, in her book Frankenstein (otherwise known as the Modern Prometheus) does.

What is interesting is that a number of people that I have spoken to have actually commented on how badly the book is written, however that is not my interest here. Rather it is the themes that sit behind it, in particular her drawing upon the myth of Prometheus. I am sure many of us know the story of Frankenstein, that is Doctor Frankenstein decides that he wants to create life, however when he does so he is so horrified by his creation that he immediately rejects it and then finds that for the rest of his life he is running away from this horror that he has created. In a way it is a modern version the Faust, the story of the brilliant scholar who becomes so board with the learning that is available to him that he sells his soul to the devil to learn the secret arts, however the catch is that he can only live another twenty-five years, and as those years draw to a close he seeks to escape his fate with no success.

There are a couple of ideas that come out of this reading (which I do not claim for myself, but rather from wikipedia that in turn sourced these ideas from the introduction of the Gutenberg edition). The first is that in the later legends Prometheus was responsible for creating humanity, and in the Roman legend he used clay as the means (which is oddly reflective of humanity being created from the Earth in the Bible). Frankenstein reflects this as Victor Frankenstein also creates life, however unlike the myth, he did so in rebellion against the laws of nature and is thrown into torment because of this. We need to remember that Frankenstein rejected his creation, and was punished for it, however Prometheus did not reject humanity, but gave them civilisation, and in turn was punished by Zeus for doing so (possibly because it empowered humanity meaning that Zeus was threatened by them). However Prometheus during this time was seen as 'a lone genius' which represented humanities desire to control nature and seek greater scientific knowledge, however this knowledge would come at a price, for as Prometheus suffered, so is humanity is danger of suffering in striving to become gods themselves (though we need to remember that humanity was cursed not because they sought scientific knowledge in the garden, but the knowledge of good and evil - there was never a prohibition on science, but in knowing good and evil humanity is more likely to use scientific knowledge for evil).

Modern Science Fiction

Wikipedia refers to an article by Benji Taylor about the 2012 film Prometheus where he explores a number of themes arising from the movie that are reflective of themes that can be taken from the legend, in particular the idea of the origins of humanity. While I personally did not like the movie, the idea of humanity's quest for their origins is intriguing. Even though the film takes its title from the name of the spacecraft that is used to travel to this world, it also suggests that it is looking back to the myth in which humanity was first given the gifts of civilisation. Since humanity is now taking another step of discovery, moving beyond the confines of Earth to explore the galaxy, naming the craft after the titan is probably appropriate.

However, Promethus is not the only film in which the name of the titan is attached to a principle spacecraft. In the television series Stargate SG1, one of the first capital ships that the humans develop in their war against the Goa'uld is called the Prometheus. Once again, like the film above, we are seeing a nod to the Greek titan whose gift of civilisation to humanity created the first steps for them to be able to reach for the stars.

Yet it is not just film that we find Prometheus being acknowledged, for Prometheus also appears throughout the astronmonical world. For instance, there is moon of Saturn, a volcano on Jupiter, and an asteroid. NASA has even named their nuclear propulsion program after the titan, once again acknowledging the gift that he bestowed.

Meaning of the Myth

If we go back to Hesiod, and in particular his Works and Days, we will see a story about the ages of humanity, beginning with the golden age, and then moving to the silver, to the bronze, then to the age of heroes, and finally to the modern age in which Hesiod was writing. What we are seeing is a degredation from the perfect race of humanity (that is the golden) to the struggles and difficulties of the modern age. However, another interesting thing to note is that as the races degrade, the technology rises, suggesting that technology does not necessarily make life easier, but in fact makes it more difficult.
This is in part what I see in the myth. We are given the knowledge of fire, but in response we end up having many more difficulties (the myth also includes Pandora being sent to humanity where she opens her box inflicting humanity with all of the troubles that befall us - however another myth adds a further box that was opened, a box that contains hope). Take for instance the invention of nuclear power - it can produce incredible amounts of energy, but it also has the ability to destroy the Earth. In fact people do not see the benefits of the technology, only the drawbacks, and there is huge opposition to it. Industrialisation has brought us the modern world, but what it has also done is made us dependant on the technology that it has produced. We no longer know how to grow our own food, nor fix our own car - we require specialists to do it. Law has been developed to protect us but has become so complicated that we require specialists to assist us in navigating its warrens.
This, I believe, is what the myth is telling us. We are given this technology, and sometimes it seems as if this technology is a gift to us from the gods, however it has a draw back because in many cases every step forward appears to be two steps backward. In a way it is like the cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans - their cultures were built on the backs of slaves, however they could never even consider freeing the slaves because their economy was so dependant upon them that to get rid of them would result in their society collapsing.

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Prometheus and the Quest for Fire by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me. All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.
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