Prometheus

Prometheus was the subject of a story in Greek mythology similar, in some respects to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Prometheus was a member of an older race of gods, the titans, who were the ancestors of the Olympian gods the Ancient Greeks worshipped. The leader of the titans was Cronus, who gained the position by overthrowing and castrating his father Ouranos, the Heavens, at the behest of his mother Gaia, the Earth. When Cronus learned that his children by his wife and sister Rhea would overthrow him in his turn, he decided to forestall the event by swallowing each child as it was born. These six children were the first generation of the Olympians: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. By the time Zeus, the youngest, was born, Rhea was tired of Cronus swallowing her children so she substituted a stone for Zeus and hid the real baby Zeus in Crete. When Zeus grew up, he forced Cronus to disgorge his siblings and there was war between the gods and the titans. Eventually the gods won and the titans were imprisoned in Tartarus.

Prometheus had fought on the side of the gods. Prometheus means”forethought” in Greek and Prometheus had the ability to see into the future. Thus, he knew the gods would be victorious and wanted to fight on the winning side. In fact in some versions of the story, Prometheus’s defection was the decisive factor that led to the victory of the gods. As a result of his decision, Prometheus was not cast into  Tartarus but allowed to remain free.

The good relations between Prometheus and Zeus did not last. When human beings were first created, Greek mythology is somewhat inconsistent over who created humanity, they lived little better than animals since they lacked the knowledge of fire. Prometheus took pity on the mortals and urged Zeus to share the knowledge of fire with them. Zeus refused, so Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and brought it to humanity along with the knowledge of many useful arts and crafts. Enraged by this act of rebellion, Zeus chained Prometheus to the Caucasus mountains where an eagle would tear out his liver and eat it every day. By night, the liver would regenerate only to be torn out again. Eventually Zeus relented and allowed Hercules to rescue Prometheus. Zeus punished the humans who accepted the gift of fire by creating the first woman, Pandora, and giving her the box of troubles that she couldn’t resist opening.

Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mou...

Prometheus, by Gustave Moreau, tortured on Mount Caucasus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may notice that the story of Prometheus is a sort of inversion of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In both cases a being offers knowledge to humanity in defiance of a deity and as a result the being is punished and humanity is fallen into a world of troubles. The difference is that the serpent/Satan is generally seen as a rebel against a just God who wishes evil upon the human race, while Prometheus has been viewed as a benefactor to humanity unjustly punished by a tyrannous Zeus. As a result, Prometheus has come to be symbol of heroic struggle against unjust regimes or of a struggle of reason and science against religion and superstition. There is a publishing house called Prometheus Books which specializes in publications dealing with science, freethinking, secularism, and humanism.

I am not so sure Prometheus is really the hero of the story. It occurs to be that Zeus might have had good reason to withhold fire from humanity. Zeus, being a god, must have known that knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous combination and he must have foreseen the terrible uses humans would make of fire, especially in war..  He might have intended to allow humans to use fire as soon as they had become more civilized. It could well be that Prometheus was not really doing the human race a favor.

There is another story about Prometheus in which he is regarded as a benefactor to humanity, the Trick at Mecone. According to this myth, the gods and humans met at a place called Mecone to make arrangements for the sacrifices that humans would make to the gods. An ox was killed and its remains were divided into two piles. Zeus would choose which pile was to be for the gods’ use in the sacrifice, while humans would get the other pile. Prometheus told the humans to put all the good meat and fat in one pile covered by the disgusting stomach of the ox. In the other pile they put the bones covered with what appeared to be the best fat of the ox. Zeus naturally chose the pile that looked better, leaving the edible parts of the ox for human consumption. Zeus was not pleased with this deception and withdrew the use of fire from humanity to punish them.

Here again, Zeus  Prometheus is presented as the hero and Zeus the villain and again, I am not so sure. This story of the Trick at Mecone is considered to be an explanatory myth which presented the reason the ancient Greeks dedicated the inedible portions of the sacrificial animal to the gods while eating the edible parts. This seems to be the opposite of the Biblical commands that the Israelites only sacrifice the best of their herds and flocks to God at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Perhaps I am more aligned with the ethic of the Old Testament than Greek mythology, but it seems to me that the Trick at Mecone was rather contemptible. Since God, or the gods created the animals that were to be sacrificed, wouldn’t they deserve to have the best portions? Since the gods would have to be far wiser as well as more powerful than mere humans, shouldn’t their commands be followed? The difference was that while the Jews, and later the Christians, took it for granted that God is just, wise and good, and desires only what is best for us, the pagan Greeks did not. According to the poets the gods often acted in ways that were selfish and even cruel. Human beings existed for their use and it was best if the gods took no notice of you. It may have seemed only fair that humans would manage to cheat Zeus. Maybe. I kind of agree with Plato that the poets slandered the gods. Anyway, I still wouldn’t trust Prometheus.

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2 Responses to “Prometheus”

  1. Felix Culpa | David's Commonplace Book Says:

    […] cultures do not consider a “Devil” figure to be bad was what inspired me to write a recent post on […]

  2. Jumble Spoiler – 11/28/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog Says:

    […] Prometheus (davidscommonplacebook.wordpress.com) […]

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