Prometheus created humans and ignited the psyche. He counseled Zeus in his war against the Titans, and created a “black hole” to imprison the former rulers (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 326-328). But once the Olympian monarch established his rule of order, Prometheus rebelled against the first decree: a flood that would kill all humans and wipe the slate clean for Zeus. By advising his progeny to “fashion an ark” (Pseudo-Apollodorus 1. 45), he saved the young race; until, at a feast, a rift was roused between gods and men. To resolve the issue and establish a bridge between disputing parties he invented the burnt offering. Though this gesture became a ritual standard, for attempting to trick Zeus into receiving unwanted waste as a generous gift, humans were deprived of fire. In an act of necessary rebellion the progenitor stole back the fire in a hollow fennel stalk, with which he delivered knowledge beyond instinct—how to work clay, wood, metal, numbers, and words to make art, food, and tools. This defiance of Zeus brought punishment upon Prometheus and his people. To humans he gave Pandora—not a woman like Prometheus’ wife or his ally Athena—a misleading fiend, a plague on humanity, a contorting influence on the human psyche. Once married to Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, she opened the jar—mistranslated centuries ago as a ‘box’—and introduced suffering to human life. By this time the human benefactor could do nothing, as he had been exiled to “a rock at the edge of the world” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 176-7)—to the place of the sunrise. Chained to a stone, furious at Zeus, he declared his foresight of the tyrant’s downfall. And for refusing to reveal the prophecy, a ravaging eagle was loosed on his regenerative liver. Still, true to his foresight, Zeus’ own son later freed him from bondage.
He fought for Olympian order, then against Zeus’ tyranny. When Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound, it was to Athenians who remembered the overthrow of their last tyrant, the establishment of democracy, and two freedom wars against Persian tyranny. When Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley were writing around the figure of Prometheus, it was to an audience that remembered the revolution of science from religious repression as well as the French and American democratic revolutions against power-abusing monarchs. The spirit Prometheus awakens is that rebellious insistence on the right to personal freedom—the desire to not be beneath or limited by the will of another. Fundamentally, this is the right to live, but it is also the right to create, to learn, and—in Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound—to love.
Prometheus is the man at the sunrise, the bringer of the fire, the spark, the exuberant creative force, that which brings inner light to outer expression, and the unwavering defender of our human right to this nature. As a titan, he is more raw than the Olympians, but as his raw qualities include intelligence and ingenuity, his abilities to improve and refine are limitless. He is the opposite of static, in fact, as Tarnas describes it, progress is a Promethean enterprise. When Zeus chains him to stone, it is not only to punish his disobedience, but also to neutralize him. Beyond his rebellious nature and insistence on freedom, innovation and the innovative spirit pose great threats to regimes that rule over the status quo. When Prometheus appears, so too does change—from outside the system or states in which Promethean stories and attitudes surface. Change can require defiance and become rebellion, which many governments have, historically, avoided with violence and exile. When Zeus chains Prometheus to the mountainside, we might see Karl Marx being exiled, the Nazis driving artists from their borders, or the Soviet party banning We, a (Prometheus Award winning) novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin. With A Brave New World and 1984, these dystopian realities provide perfect examples of ultimate Promethean nightmares in which creativity, love, individuality, freedom, invention, and knowledge are completely denied by tyrannical leadership.
Myth is All Around Us is an interview series in which the host, Margaret “Maggie” Mendenhall, explores mythic stories and characters with a series of guests to discover where they are reflected in our culture today.
“Myth Is All Around Us” first airs on PADNET.tv – a public access digital network and long beach community television channel.
Margaret Mendenhall holds an M.A. in Mythological Studies with an Emphasis in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, where she is currently working on a Ph.D. dissertation. Her work examines the different aspects of feminine energy and the concept of the rescue story as they are represented in the German-language operas of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Wagner and Richard Strauss.
“Here in the Myth Cafe, we are mythologists, and we are investigating sacred narratives.”