MYTHIC THEMES CLUSTERED AROUND:
The Greek series, "Mythic Themes Clustered
Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena,
Centaurs, Demeter & Persephone,
Hecate & Other "Dark" Goddesses, Hephaestus, Icarus, Medusa & Pegasus,
[Others are forthcoming: full list will appear first on Home Page]
Prometheus' Theft of Fire as Zeus and his Cup-bearer, Ganymede, sleep.
Artist: Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1916)
(From Monsalvat -- see below for annotation)
2-3 July 2001--
I never paid much attention to Prometheus until a few weeks ago. I knew the basics of his story of course: he was a Titan who cheated the gods and stole fire from Zeus, which resulted in a horrific punishment involving his liver.
I could sympathize with this Titan but I certainly couldn't relate to him. His story was a "guy thing." If you mess with Zeus, as Prometheus did, you must expect to pay the piper if you get caught. That's patriarchy. It has nothing to do with a feminist like me, sworn devotee of creative, healing goddesses like Kuan Yin, Vak, Hestia, Natseelit, Grandmother Spiderwoman, and Changing Woman. I'm not foolish enough to confront patriarchy directly — I tell stories, like Scheherazade. I don't steal fire from under the noses of the status quo. My parents didn't raise an idiot.
When I think of Prometheus, I think of Beethoven, who wrote Promethean music — heavy, dark, brooding. Male artists portray Prometheus' virile strength, his crucifying agony, his unending endurance. He's a creature of muscles and torment, a heavy, messianic figure.
Nothing to do with me.
I do know that myths "live" us, whether we recognize them or not — James Hillman and other archetypal psychologists write eloquently on this topic. Freud resonated with Oedipus. Quite a few of my students feel lived by Hades' abducted wife, Persephone. Older women identify with Demeter's loss of her daughter, or with Hera's betrayal by her husband. One of my students is lived by Hephaestus; many others by Psyche and her trials in winning Eros; or by Inana's "dark night" in the Underworld; or by Parzival's Grail quest.
Medusa Ludovisi, c. 200 BCE. Museo Nazionale Romano. Photo by Anderson, Rome.
As for me, I resonate with Medusa, her deepest voice stolen through treachery beyond her control; the creative power of her right-brain usurped by the dark side of the too brilliant left-brain Athena; her traumatized son's waters of inspiration plundered by Greece's novice-muses while he, Pegasus, who had churned up those springs with his wild hooves, remains mute. I sometimes feel surrounded by Medusa's psychic-field, feeling the horror, the rage at so much spilled beauty, but also feeling swept away by the wonder that still exists, crying out to be expressed, shimmering like a garden of wild stars. It is as if Medusa's life-force is in hiding, still making love with blue-maned Poseidon on the floor of an ancient temple, still safely carrying Pegasus in her womb. In that psychic-field, there is no cunning Athena, no conspiring Hermes, no Perseus-butcher, no terrified horse emerging through the thin canal of his mother's severed throat instead of her birth canal. None of that. Instead, in my good times, I can breathe her, dance her, and pray her. My hair "serpents-out" as hers did and I'm determined that her ancient fate won't be mine, for I've learned much since her time.
Something shifted a few weeks ago. I was deeply depressed. A science fantasy novel I had completed February 1st fell into an unexpected limbo for nearly five numbing months when promised contacts failed to come through; several other projects begun with high hopes had also fizzled.
Unfortunately, this is a pattern that has happened with wearying frequency over the decades. For more than half a century now I have continually tried to spin wonder into my little corner of the world, and yet I keep getting shot down, let down, stuck between the cracks, over and over. I'm pulled apart during the too-bright and demanding days, and think I can't endure a moment more. But then, somehow, during the night, I am knit together again as sleep once more puts "velvet between the vertebrae" (to paraphrase Henry Miller). Somehow, I keep going on. And on. Until a door is slammed in my face all over again.
Lately, there have been just too many doors that open with a glimmer of hope, only to slam shut, one after another. It becomes a kind of mockery, this elusive Pandora-hope, the oracular portents, the well-meaning supporters. It becomes a painful hook, one more trap. Would I not be wiser to release the old hopes stuck at the bottom of Pandora's box? to take up gardening or weaving and forget the "big" dreams? At times in one's life, hope is futile, for hope, as T. S. Eliot writes, "would be hope for the wrong thing."
If I fail to renounce hope, it means I risk dying angry and bitter — and that's something I'm not willing to do. If small moments of gladness are all I have been allotted, then I wish to recalibrate my consciousness so that I'm more sensitive to their presence and can enjoy them fully. As long as I hold onto bigger hopes, I continue to function at a too-intense level of striving, and I continue to feel ravaged.
Well, I asked myself a few weeks ago, what does all this feel like? What is this endless, endless striving all about? Medusa? — no, this aspect of my life doesn't feel like her. As far as Greek myth is concerned, her head's cut off, kaput, and that's that. The severed head functions beyond Medusa's life and turns men to stone but that's Athena's perverse business, not Medusa's. What I'm trapped in is a continual cycle, over and over and over. That isn't Medusa.
Who then? Why do I keep spilling myself out, constantly revving up my energies for one more "go" at trying to make a difference, only to get screwed all over again?! Why?! What myth or tale is living me? Am I doomed to drudge in the ashes like Cinderella, awaiting an invitation to a ball which, in my case, never comes? What does it feel like? I need to get to the bottom of this — what does it feel like?
Like having the liver torn out of me, I replied from a dark, secret place. No, I protested. That would be a Promethean pattern, a "guy thing." I scuttled backwards, uneasy, away from the muscular Titan.
Yet I know that in Chinese medicine, the liver is the planner, the architect, the one who understands governance. When the liver is thwarted for too long (despite all his well thought-out, careful plans), dangerous frustration can result and the body can be damaged. Laughter, I am told by a friend who specializes in Chinese medicine, will help soothe the angry liver. So when I'm most frustrated (and my liver most at risk), I try to watch humorous programs on TV. Reruns of *M*A*S*H always work, and Cheers. Also HBO's Sex & the City. But much of what passes for humor on TV these days is written by, and for, maturity-challenged, twenty-something, male dysfunctionals. My liver, or inner "architect," is infuriated by such dreck. So I prefer to watch well-written, but gloomy things instead.
..As this recent depression deepened, I kept seeing an image of Prometheus being ravaged all night by a great vulture-like bird, but the image remained static, remote, nothing to do with me. Or perhaps it's that I froze it, unwilling to allow it any vitality. One reason I resisted is that my memory of his myth was that Prometheus had been torn apart all night by Zeus's bird — and for me, night is the sacred time, the only time of respite. Nocturnal myths can be valenced, or charged, positively or negatively — in other words, night can be seen as the sacred, rich, ripe womb of all creativity — or as a place of destruction and utter despair. A negatively charged nocturnal myth like Prometheus' could not be "living" me because it would violate my deepest perception of the night. Therefore, the image I kept getting had to be generic, part of the collective, but not personally relevant to me.
I began working on my website's Fire Deities page a few weeks ago. I found intriguing links for Greece's smith-god Hephaestus as well as for Prometheus, whose theft of fire clearly gave him the right to be on the page. I grokked the links carefully, enjoying the work, yet feeling only a minimal emotional connection to these deities.
Then late one night I discovered to my astonishment that I had made a mistake about Prometheus' myth, for his liver actually repaired itself during the night. It was during the day that Zeus' eagle (a sun-symbol, after all) tore Prometheus apart! Further, as one site pointed out, it wasn't just from Zeus that Prometheus stole fire — he stole it from the status quo, the "system," the "canon," the "way things are." Here's the passage that riveted my attention:
The world's enduring myths can be seen as a form of hypertext, with readers from succeeding generations adding layers of annotation as they recognize aspects of their own lives and struggles reflected in the ancient stories. Controversial New York artist and educator Tim Rollins is bringing the myth of Prometheus to the Web, with the help of a posse of young black and Puerto Rican artists who can relate to the story of a rebel Titan who steals fire from the gods, and incurs the wrath of the powers that be.... [From "NY Artist Helps Street Kids Steal Fire" by Steve Silberman at: http://www.wired.com/news/topstories/0,1287,6955,00.html]
So it's not just a "guy thing." It's societal, cultural, mythic, non-gendered. It applies to anyone seriously involved in the arts, education, community, humanitarian, and socio-environmental issues.
Those were the pieces I needed: night, art, rebellion, healing, fire.
Like many intense people, I'm a night person. That's when I heal. The too bright sun, the demands of clocks and colleagues — all these tear me apart. In the daytime, there's no respite. Time itself turns rabid and ragged. I'm clawed apart — always have been — and the projects birthed in the night, the rich and fertile night, arrive painfully stillborn and burnt black by day's sun, Zeus' eagle. It was right in front of me all the time, hidden in the glaring sunlight: the myth living the greater part of my creative life has been Prometheus.
It was a shock to recognize this, but also exhilarating, for it tells me that my nature really is to steal fire for others, but also for myself, for I too need that numinous magic, that gladness. (FYI: in Chinese medicine, my element is fire; in western astrology, both my moon and rising are in the fire sign of Sagittarius.)
For me, and perhaps for all the rest of us caught up in kindred ventures, that means that even if all our "big" projects are stillborn forever, we can still steal moments of gladness — for joy and gladness are fiery by nature, and must be stolen when the status quo crushes us so much that we risk forgetting the greater, underlying interconnectedness of all life, the "jeweled web," as Buddhism calls it. By rebelling against heavy, messianic gloom, we can steal those moments of gladness, of delight in simple, earthy things and, despite all disappointments, we can refuse to die bitter. That in itself is both solace and triumph.
After I thought I had completed this essay, I came across Goethe's poem, "Prometheus" [also see below among the links] and found in it another way of expressing all this. It is with these lines that I now conclude:... Did you, by chance, suppose
that I should hate life,
flee into deserts,
not all my fancy dreams
had come to pass?
I sit here, shaping men and women
in my image,
a race destined, like I,
to suffer and to cry,
to savor joy, to laugh,
and disregard you
as I did.
____________________________________________________________________________________Note: If I thought I were alone in such thoughts, I would not have written such a personal introduction to this page, but I suspect that many others feel much as I do, and, hopefully, will welcome a new perspective on this ancient Titan.
So, let's turn to this alien, intimate stranger, Prometheus.......
Greek Kylix: Prometheus attacked by Zeus' eagle
Laconian kylix [link updated 12/27/01], circa 555 B.C., attributed to the Arkesilas Painter
[Added 12/25-26/01]: Although I'm not adding this link until nearly six months after beginning this page, this site from Karl Jones is the one that really started it all. It includes a fine selection of wide-ranging links to Prometheus. Among these was one about young artists "stealing fire." I clicked on it -- from that point on, everything changed (see directly below for the link I just mentioned).......http://www.wired.com/news/topstories/0,1287,6955,00.html
[Added 12/25-26/01-- also see opening essay]:....... This is "NY Artist Helps Street Kids Steal Fire" by Steve Silberman (updated 9/01). Here's the passage that riveted my attention last July:http://www.cnbc.cmu.edu/~noelle/fun/prometheus.htmlThe world's enduring myths can be seen as a form of hypertext, with readers from succeeding generations adding layers of annotation as they recognize aspects of their own lives and struggles reflected in the ancient stories. Controversial New York artist and educator Tim Rollins is bringing the myth of Prometheus to the Web, with the help of a posse of young black and Puerto Rican artists who can relate to the story of a rebel Titan who steals fire from the gods, and incurs the wrath of the powers that be.......who steals fire from the gods, and incurs the wrath of the powers that be....: that was my clue that Prometheus was far more than a "guy thing" -- he was relevant to any artist willing to steal fire and confront the status quo.
This is a brief, beautiful, moving poem, "Prometheus," by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated by Erich Harth and including another illustration of Prometheus stealing fire). If you've read the lengthy essay I have written above, you'll know why I love the ending (which I am repeating here):http://home.c2i.net/monsalvat/grkmyths.htm...Did you, by chance, suppose
that I should hate life,
flee into deserts,
not all my fancy dreams
had come to pass?
I sit here, shaping men and women
in my image,
a race destined, like I,
to suffer and to cry,
to savor joy, to laugh,
and disregard you
as I did.
From Monsalvat, an excellent site whose pages also appear on my Grail Lore page, comes "Wagner and Ancient Greece," an illustrated, interesting exploration into how Prometheus and other Greek myths influenced Wagner's work. For example, the character of Anfortas in Wagner's Parsifal:http://home-1.worldonline.nl/~hamberg/Frankenstein/title.html...Prometheus, like Amfortas and Telephus, had a wound that would not heal. As punishment for Prometheus giving fire to man, Zeus had him chained up in the Caucasian mountains.... It seems that Amfortas' sin was an active sin, like that of Prometheus, and he too was punished with an unhealing wound....Wagner had a profound influence upon the younger Nietzsche, who also used the tragic Prometheus theme:...Nietzsche contrasted the myth of Prometheus with the Biblical myth of the Fall. Prometheus, a male character, committed sacrilege by stealing from divine nature. His was an active sin. Eve, a female character, allowed herself to be deceived. Hers was a passive sin. To Nietzsche's observations might be added, that through Eve's fault mankind gained the knowledge of good and evil, whereas through Prometheus' actions mankind lost the knowledge of the future....The page is both intriguing and well done.
This is an illustrated page on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, usually considered a modern-day Prometheus, but with significant twists that no longer fit my own conception. (Note: the site's author, like me, confuses the time when the eagle torments Prometheus, placing it in the night, not the daytime -- ignore this error.) Here is how she compares Prometheus and Frankenstein:http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Prometheus2.html: [Link updated 12/27/01]...Victor Frankenstein can indeed be seen as the modern Prometheus. He defies the gods by creating life himself. Instead of being the created, Victor takes God's place and becomes the creator. Just as Prometheus, Victor gets punished for his deeds. He is, however, punished by his creation whereas Prometheus was punished by the god who he stole from....(For those who are interested, if you go to the site's main page at: http://home-1.worldonline.nl/~hamberg/, you'll find a great deal of information on Mary Shelley as well as a complete online text of Frankenstein.)
This is a site on Hesiod's Prometheus from Michael Webster, Associate Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He offers notes on Prometheus for college students studying Hesiod:...Hesiod shows that he favors Zeus in another way when he casts Prometheus as the bad guy. In fact, Prometheus helps mankind by bringing them fire. Hesiod also leaves out the story of how Prometheus created men: a later writer called Apollodorus says that he "molded men out of water and earth" (Apollodorus 1.7.1). Prometheus' role as creator of men might help explain why he wants to trick Zeus and help men....The many notes and questions are thought-provoking and excellent.
The Torture of Prometheus (1868)
(From the Encarta site -- see directly below)
From the Encyclopedia Encarta comes a well written entry-level page (see the above painting linked to this page):http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Thebes/3803/Prome.html... Prometheus (mythology), in Greek mythology, one of the Titans, known as the friend and benefactor of humanity, the son of the Titan Iapetus by the sea nymph Clymene or the Titaness Themis....I find it interesting that his probable mother was a sea-maiden -- the contrast between the free-flowing mother and the fire-stealing, earth-bound, chained son is intense.
From Victor, a young Chinese student living in Australia, comes this illustrated page, "Prometheus Unbound," another entry-level page with fine data:...Prometheus was a cousin of Zeus; the son of a Titan, Iapetus, just as Zeus was the son of another Titan, Cronus....(Note: although Victor doesn't name his source, the page is actually a series of excerpts from the "Prometheus" entry in Pierre Grimal's invaluable Dictionary of Classical Mythology.)
Prometheus being chained by a reluctant Hephaestus (Vulcan) while Hermes watches
By Dirck van Baburen (1623)
From Rich Geib comes a well illustrated page with a brief introduction and a portion of Prometheus Bound, a tragedy written by Aeschylus (c. 430? BCE -- the translator isn't noted):"...Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. Every day, his liver was devoured by a giant eagle, only to regenerate overnight....."
http://www.theatrehistory.com/ancient/bates019.htmlMountainous country, and in the middle of a deep gorge a Rock, towards which KRATOS and BIA carry the gigantic form of PROMETHEUS. HEPHAESTUS follows dejectedly with hammer, nails, chains, etc....Of the four characters in this portion of the drama, Bia ("Strength"), one of the daughters of the Death-River Goddess, Styx, remains silent throughout. Prometheus speaks only at the end. The rest of the drama unfolds as a brutal, callous Kratos (her name can be translated as "Power" or "Force" -- she's another of Styx's daughters and sister to Bia) urges a sickened Hephaestus to do his duty and obey Zeus. The cruel words put into Kratos' mouth are difficult to bear and unfair to this mysterious goddess (whose name appears most significantly in the word, democracy). For Aeschylus to have forced her to serve as Zeus' hatchet man does her a great disservice. Even muffled in the dated language of this translation, I found this painful to read.
For a different point of view from mine, see this glowing 1906 analysis (author unnamed) of Prometheus Bound:In grandeur of conception and imagery it has never been surpassed, not even in the works of Shakespeare, for here is the very essence of tragedy, her inmost spirit revealed in its sternest mood, in all its prostrating and annihilating force.....I found no "grandeur of conception and imagery" in this work -- only horror. However, I like what the author says about the first play in this Promethean trilogy (FYI: Prometheus Bound is the middle one):...The subject of the first play is the transgression of Prometheus, who brings fire to mankind, whereby they become no better, and confers on them other benefits, as he himself relates to the chorus when bound to the rocks. From love of mortals he roused their reason; he taught them to make dwellings, showed them the stars, the use of number and writing--mother of the Muses. He tamed horses and built ships, taught the virtues of healing potions, the various modes of divination, and how to turn to account things dug out of the earth. He it was who taught mortals all they know....This illustrated page from Theatre History provides well chosen excerpts from the tragedy as well as good commentary.
José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949)
Claremont College (see directly below)
[Link updated 12/27/01]
From the Montgomery Gallery at Pomona College in Claremont, California comes this powerful page on "Prometheus," José Clemente Orozco's 1930 mural, located in the dining hall at Pomona College:http://www.artsednet.getty.edu/ArtsEdNet/Resources/Murals/Orozco/...The fire that Prometheus stole is traditionally understood to symbolize wisdom and enlightenment, and the myth, therefore, represented an apt metaphor for the task of the college. There may also have been a degree of personal identification in the choice of subject: Orozco, whose work was still largely unappreciated in 1930, saw himself as an heroic rebel whose efforts to enlighten, like those of Prometheus, were spurned and punished. It is also interesting to note in this context that, as a boy, Orozco's right hand had been badly injured in an explosion; in the mural, Orozco shows his hero reaching for the fire, intent on bringing it to earth. The reception to Prometheus' heroic act is mixed; while some of the figures below respond eagerly, most turn away, preoccupied by their own concerns....
Also focusing on Orozco's "Prometheus" is this fine page on Mexican American Murals from the Getty Museum. Follow the internal links for detailed, fascinating information on Orozco, his times, and his art.http://www.iupui.edu/~lmena1/tamayo.html
This is another Latino artist, Tamayo, whose interesting red-toned 1959 "Prometheus" will be found if you scroll halfway down this page and click on the title. Unfortunately, no background information is provided either for the artist or for the work.http://www.artline.com/galleries/haslem/raisonne/raisonne6.html
Prometheus and Zeus' Attacking Eagle (1989)
Artist: Gabor Peterdi
(Jane Haslem Gallery -- see directly below)
From Jane Haslem's Gallery comes further data on the above painting as well as eight pages filled with more of Gabor Peterdi's intriguing work. (FYI: the lay-out is along a long horizontal axis so you'll need to scroll horizontally to the right.)
[12/25-26-/01: unfortunately, although this site was fine when I annotated it last July, it has now disappeared -- if anyone ever finds an updated location, please let me know.]
I don't like this disturbing image (above) from "Glassman," and yet it haunts me. The site offers no background information on it, and nothing on the artist. If you want more, you'll have to contact the site's webmaster.
Heracles Frees Prometheus by Slaying the Eagle
(Black figure krater from c. 610 BCE, by the so-called Nemos painter)
(Tinted but taken from Dr. Barry Powell's Classical Myth, Ch.13 site)
[12/25-26/01: link no longer available -- I've e-mailed to see if there's an update]
5 July 2001,
Author's Concluding Notes:
How does it all end? Prometheus's agony ends when Heracles shoots the eagle/vulture of Zeus. Since Heracles is Zeus' son, he is pleased with his son's skills and allows him to unchain Prometheus. There are conditions, but that's another story (for more information, see the conclusion to a site already mentioned above: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Thebes/3803/Prome.html).
Carl Kerenyi: Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence (Bollingen Series LXV.1: Princeton UP, 1963/1991): a classic -- powerful and evocative.
Richard Tarnas: Prometheus the Awakener: An Essay on the Archetypal Meaning of the Planet Uranus (Spring Publications, 1995): argued convincingly -- a fascinating read.
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