An Exegesis of Promethean Myth

J. Martinez, N. Lygeros

Myths, legends and the like serve the purpose of kindling the flame of oral, cultural transmission by facilitating its conveyance from one generation to another. Myths helped illuminate and render Greek religion intelligible to worshippers by furnishing a wealth of religious background detail conceived in simple and picturesque terms. The Romans' functionally perceived deities had their counterparts in the more fully anthropomorphized oral and literary tradition of Greek mythology ; inclusing Greek epic poetry, theogony ("Divine Genealogy"), cosmogony, and allegory. One should bear in mind that Greek epic poetry is much more than a mere catalogue of matings and births of gods, rivers, planets, winds, and other abstract phenomena.

In the Greek language one of the etymological meanings of the name Prometheus is 'prometheia' or 'pronoia', which literally means pre-vision and is translated into English as 'forethought'. Prometheus is the one who reflects beforehand and he is sometimes referred to as the maker of mankind and a god of fire. He has also been referred to as the supreme trickster.

In Greek mythology Prometheus was the son of Iapetus (IAΠETOΣ) and the ocean-nymph, Clymene. At this point there is already a difference between Hesiod and Eschyle. Prometheus had a double who can be considered to have been a kind of alter ego embodied in his brother, Epimetheus, who later became Pandora's husband. Epimetheus is translated as 'afterthought' or 'hindsight', i.e. the one who reflects a posteriori. They had another brother named Atlas. Prometheus and Epimetheus are like the two halves of a unique Janus-faced personage. As far as humanity is concerned, 'prometheia' is just one aspect of our complete ignorance of the future. Prometheus is 'poikilos' and 'aiolmetis', whereas Epimetheus is 'harmartnoos'. Prometheus supported Zeus against his brother Titans. The Titans were one race of giant gods, the offspring of Uranus and Gaea, who were conquered and succeeded by the gods of Olympus. The latter imprisoned the former in Tartarus and also in Etna.

It is said that Zeus employed Prometheus to make men out of mud and water. Promtheus created mortals from clay, while Athena had breathed life into them. These mortals suffered from the pains of hunger and cold. Prometheus felt sorry for the plight of humanity, so he decided to steal fire from Heaven in order to give humanity this precious gift. This allowed our ancestors to use fire to keep warm and to build instruments hence enabling them to soften the impact of nature's harsh climate. In this way Prometheus tried to be more astute than Zeus by attempting to outwit and deceive him.

Zeus retaliated by sending Pandora to earth with her box of evils - but Prometheus understood the real reason for this 'poisoned' gift ; the victim was Epimetheus and in this way Zeus took revenge on humanity. This was to counterbalance the gift of fire that Prometheus had previously made to mankind. Furthermore, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock on Mount Caucasus. An eagle daily devoured Prometheus' liver, which was made whole again at night so that the same thing could continue the following day. Prometheus endured this torment until he was released by Herakles (the Romans called him Hercules) who slew the eagle. Thus, Prometheus' punishment for stealing fire and defying the gods was their curse that has since then been passed on to the creatures (mortals) whom he created from mud and water in the first place.

In Homer's epic Odyssey, the mortals sailed the ship of Odysseus in a violent sea during Odysseus' (Ulysses') wandering after the war of Troy. The sailors passed by the seashores where seductive sirens sang to attract them to land, and amongst others they landed on the island of the witch-goddess. This would represent the journey of the universal wanderer seeking immortality and trying to escape the destiny-bound cycle of life and death. During the wandering of the Promethean man is highlighted, seeking to refute Heaven and destiny, while sailing over the tumultuous waters of life and defiantly trying to escape from human suffering! A philosophical paradigm may be employed within which human life and health can be regarded as being like the existence of an abandoned, directionless vessel that is trying to establish a course while standing up to the adverse elements of nature en route.

Within this myth the eagle would appear to be associated with a nocturnal register rather than a diurnal kind of symbolism. There is no real association with eagles' habits but rather with the idea of darkness during the night being equated with negative thoughts, feelings, emotions, fear, and the dark side of human nature. As a matter of fact in Hesiodus' Theogony (v.523-524), we find the following sentence : "Et sur lui il lacha aussi un aigle aux longues ailes - et l'aigle mangeait le foie immortel, mais celui-ci s'accroissait d'une quantité en tout point égale,pendant la nuit, à ce que, durant le jour, mangeait l'oiseau aux longues ailes". Moreover "l'aigle est né d'ECHIDNA, la Vipère monstrueuse" (cf. Pierre Grimal). And its symbol is so negative that some authors prefer the expression : "vorace vautour". Thus Robert Graves writes : "De plus en plus irrité, Zeus fit enchainer Prométhée, nu, à une colonne dans une montagne du Caucase ou un vorace vautour lui dévorait le f oie toute la journée, du début à la fin de l'année". Therefore, a solar interpretation does not appear to correspond to the eagle. On the other hand, people would often consider Prometheus' liver to be a solar symbol par excellence. The liver is considered immortal not only because it belongs to Prometheus but because the sun that is associated with Prometheus' liver is considered to be immortal, i.e. an everlasting source of energy or existing from the beginning of time and/or the universe.

We are aware of the importance attached to the liver by our ancestors (cf. heliocentric idea of the solar system). In a certain sense the essential thing is not so much the choice of the devoured organ but rather its acknowledged importance in the eyes of humanity. In other words, if the myth had been created after Michael Servetus' (1511-53) pioneering study and description of the pulmonary circulation of blood the devoured organ would most likely have been the lungs whereas after William Harvey's (1578-1657) discoveries concerning the circulation of the blood around the body, the chosen devoured organ would probably have been the heart. Without doubt the organ of choice nowadays would be the brain (cf. for example, the tale of the man with a golden brain by Alphonse Daudet).

In effect, the relevance of the organ that is considered to be of vital importance to human beings can be traced back to, and associated with, the moment in history in question and its concomitant scientific development. Galen of Pergamum, also known as Claudios Galenos (b.AD 129 d. circa AD 199) was the distinguished physician of antiquity who founded experimental physiology. Galen believed that the four bodily humours ; blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile were supposed to give rise to the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic temperaments, respectively. Thus, human health was thought to require an equilibrium between these four humours. This constituted a continuation of the earlier Hippocratic conception of the unity of the organism(cf. atomic view).There was also an epoch when the stomach was considered to be a fundamental organ, the seat of all human emotions, i.e. the temper or spirit. Thus, chronologically-speaking the order of scientific importance attached to various human organs could be as follows :

Liver > gall > bladder > stomach > lungs > heart > brain > mind > consciousness.

The inhabitants of the Greek Islands still transport fire from one place to another on a giant fennel and Prometheus chained on Mount Caucasus is perhaps a legend that the Hellenic people keep alive or they emigrated from the Caspian Sea in order to give themselves up in Greece : "that gigantic ice cap lying in the snow of the mountain peaks and surrounded by vultures" (cf. Robert Graves).

Another possible interpretation of the myth of Prometheus is that he is said to have been an astronomer who went up Mount Caucasus and stayed there all night in order to make some observations. The myth came about due to the lack of understanding of his close friends and relatives in an attempt to search for the etymological meaning of man. As a matter of fact, one of the plausible etymologies of the Greek word for man (ANΘPΩΠOΣ) is 'the one who looks up' (an implicit reference to the sky) and above all, an "acte gratuit", in other words, not indispensible to humanity's survival and yet an act that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Within this alternative framework we can observe the same type of amalgamation that led to the creation of the myth of the centaurs. In sum, the centaurs (KENTAYPOΣ) were veteran knights who lived in the Pelion, a mountain located near Mount Ossa in Thessaly, Greece.

The compelling image of Prometheus, the astronomer looking up to observe the sky at the summit of Mount Caucasus, could be taken to represent the human race. It is our feeble attempt to comprehend the immensity of the far-away space and heavens and the vast universe that exists in relation to our nearby terrestrial world and mundane existence on this planet.

Prometheus loved humankind and this is evinced by displays of hyper altruistic behaviour and he is the symbol of the well-minded and good-spirited (AKAKHTA ΠPOMHΘEYΣ ; Prométhée sans malice HΣIOΔOΣ v. 614).

Aristotelian duality provides us with a clear inter-relationship between the two states represented by the psyche and the material world. The conceptualization of the Physis and the marked influence of Pre-Socratic thought (involving the four elements ; earth, wind, fire, and water) tend to provide a vision of the universe that is constantly changing, whereby these changes both originate from and are fuelled by the Physis itself.

Orozco (1883-1949) portrayed Prometheus as a monumental pseudo-Michelangelesque giant, straining his powerful muscles against the burden of his fate. Prometheus was the self-sacrificing, creative man ("Man of Fire") providing humanity with fire which enlightens, liberates, and purifies but also consumes!


Paul Faure : Private communication.
Pierre Grimal : La mythologie grecque. Presses Universitaires de France, 1953.
Robert Graves : Les mythes grecs. Pluriel Fayard, 1967.

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