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 Author's Apology


Prometheus has been a favorite subject with the poets

Thomas Bullfinch, c. 1860


There is no way of knowing how or when the Prometheus Legend was created, or how many generations heard it told and passed it on before the invention of the alphabet allowed the contemporary version to be written down. The first references appear in the work of the Greek poet Hesiod, in the 8th c. BCE. Prometheus, we learn, was one of the Titans--the first inhabitants of Earth who later engaged in a war (which they lost) with another group of gods, the Olympians. Prometheus (whose name means forethought) escaped an unpleasant fate by switching sides and helping Zeus. But, though a god himself, he never fit in with the Olympians. He defied Zeus repeatedly--by creating human beings, by giving them fire and showing them how to cheat the gods, and by refusing to use his foresight to reveal a plot against Zeus. For his disobedience, Zeus saw that he was "bound with inextricable bonds, cruel chains, and drove a shaft through his middle, and set on him a long-winged eagle, which used to eat his immortal liver" (Hesiod, Theogeny).

If stories were solely the narration of unique adventures involving distinctive characters, one might assume that once the legend was written down, there would be nothing more to say about Prometheus. But, of course, they are not. Embedded within stories (particularly those we call myths) there are multifaceted themes, the sorts of things called archetypes, or motifs, which are elemental to the human experience. Because such themes resist definitive interpretation, the stories that house them continue to draw the attention of artists and writers. This explains why, in college, we were sometimes frustrated to run across plays and poems by different authors with the same or similar titles. But what explains the legions of poets, playwrights, novelists, composers and artists who, throughout the past 3,000 years or so, have chosen to versify, scenarize, novelize, compose, paint, sculpt and otherwise revisit Prometheus? A quick glance at Books in Print shows over 2,000 books have been written with the word Prometheus in their title. Compare that with Poseidon (29), Hera (35), Zeus (50), Oedipus (272), and Pandora (389). That's an awful lot of attention for a story I was able to summarize in half a paragraph. What's in those "themes," anyway?


Torment. Greek vase, c. 550 BCE.      

The Promethean Themes

One reason for all the attention may be simple numbers, i.e., the more themes present, the greater the chance of attracting a writer looking for just the right theme. Indeed, analysis of the corpus of work surrounding the Prometheus Legend shows that it houses three themes: 1) creation; 2) fire-theft, and 3) torment. Each theme has its attendant images and story elements, particularly the last two. The fire symbolizes knowledge and the enlightenment of humankind. The torment of rock and eagle represents the dilemma of the just who prize wisdom punished by the unjust who prize power.

The various retellings of the Legend are distinguished one from another in two ways: 1) by the era in which the writer or artist lived, and 2) by the theme on which he or she focused. They are alike in that they each add, subtract, and change details and characters, and (in the written forms) make no bones about present alternative endings. It is thus no surprise to find that each retelling contradicts the others at every turn. Was it an eagle or a vulture? Did it eat his heart or his liver? Was his wife's name Asia or Clemense? Was his mother's name Clemense or Asia? Did Zeus punish him for stealing fire, or for not revealing that plot? Was he up there for ten thousand years, or thirty thousand? Was he ever freed? Was it Herakles or Hermes who freed him? What was it Prometheus gave humanity: fire, or science, or astronomy, or the alphabet? Surrounded by such chaos, it would be logical to assume that the legend as Hesiod jotted it down must by this time be unrecognizable.

Fire-theft. Ancient Greek mosaic.


But that is not the case. It is the universality of its themes, combined with the specificity of the images that convey those themes, that gives a myth its vitality, not the style of the writer, or the choice of ending. Times change, kingdoms rise and fall, but the images of molded clay, raised torch, and eagle's claw, and the themes they represent, have no expiry date. If anything, the written retellings have strengthened the story, as the spoken retelling from generation to generation must have done in pre-literate days. The only difference is, since the intervention of writing, we have evidence of the disagreement and change. This is no paradox. For the purpose of myth is not to explain, but to explore.


Creation. Origin unknown.


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