Sunday, June 15, 2008

God of the Week: Prometheus

Prometheus could be the patron saint of bondage enthusiasts, if there weren't already so many contenders. As it is, "Promethian" serves as a shorthand for irresponsible curiosity and yearning to transcend the intellectual limits of human life.
Prometheus was the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. For his crime, Prometheus was bound to a rock where his liver was eaten out daily by an eagle and restored each night. The Titans were the ruling gods of the Golden Age who were overthrown by the younger Olympians. Prometheus was known for his wily cunning in most stories, including those by Hesiod, and was fleshed out in the trilogy of plays by Aesychylus.

Aesychylus made the story more interesting in his trilogy on Prometheus, of which Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play. Here Prometheus doesn't just give fire to men: he gives them all the human arts as well. So Prometheus becomes a god of techne and human intelligence.

It's a powerful play because it requires us to see the story in terms of both sacred and secular order, and the gods as both chaotic forces of the supernatural and as political tyrants. It's hard not to sympathize with Prometheus in his refusal to be the lickspittle of power, or as he puts it, not "to be the dog that licks the foot of power." Zeus is arbitrary in his power, or so he seems to be. The burden that he places on humans, who he plans to anihilate, is cruel and unfair, he betrays Prometheus when loyalty would be appropriate, and his unfairly punishes him for satisfying man'ds boundless (so to speak) curiosity about how the world works, which is rooted in their desire for transcendence. Science, after all, is a form of worship. In many regards, Prometheus is simply the typical antagonist "who knew too much". Seen through the framework of social order, Zeus is a despot.
If we look at the play in terms of sacred order, Prometheus's hubris becomes more glaring. Perhaps there are corners of the universe that should remain secret, and therefore sacred. The Romantics took up the Prometheus story as a sort of warning against the Enlightenment. Byron wrote a poem on the topic, and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein was "the modern Prometheus". I would say that Goethe's version of Faust also draws a bit from Prometheus. And any number of sci-fi films have taken up the theme of man being punished for our boundless curiosity.
And, of course, the desire to know everything has been something of a mixed blessing. Prometheus is the father of all of our medical and technological boons on one hand, and the atom bomb on the other.


gregvw said...

I bet it hurts when a large bird pulls on a sheet which is glued to your junk.

Rufus said...

I'm sure there's a Greek tragedy about that too.