The Poetic Presentation of Prometheus.

The Director of The Lighthouse , Robert Eggers has openly declared that the character of ‘Ephraim Winslow’ (played quite brilliantly by Robert Pattinson) is meant to symbolise the greek god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humanity, Prometheus. There are scenes that definitely reproduce the essential elements of this myth but there is also, far more complexity to his character and that of ‘Thomas Wake’ (played quite magnificently by Willem Dafoe) than just a simple one to one correlation. I will in my next piece be looking closer at the film and its mortal and mythic elements, but here for now is my short history of how the myth of Prometheus has been adapted by some of the greatest artists to have ever pondered upon the true importance of the story.

From a thief to a revolutionary figure, the classic Promethean myth has witnessed great changes through the works of Hesiod, Aeschylus, Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Al Shaby and Hughes. Hesiod’s Theogony and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound explore the reconciliation model and do not provide any direct ammunition for rebellious human instincts but undoubtedly there are already hints here pointing in that direction. In the Theogony Hesiod recites the history of the cosmos as a series of usurpations of power culminating in the final usurper Zeus. Zeus’s coronation is meant to represent mankind’s evolution from savagery to civilization.

On the pretext of determining the right offering that mankind should make to the new boss, Prometheus offered Zeus two piles of ox’s body and tricked him into choosing the bone-and-fat pile, keeping meat for man; a trick because of which Zeus deprived mankind from using fire and a literal return to a Dark Age, which Prometheus then stole back for the sake of mankind. The first step of Zeus’ revenge against humankind was the creation of the first woman, Pandora, and then he went on to punish the trickster Prometheus in a truly horrific way.

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus is the only surviving play of a trilogy and its authorship is still hotly debated today. Prometheus has been bound to a rock in a remote part of the world for having given mankind the gift of fire and Zeus is acting like a petty-tyrant towards the other Titans. Aeschylus is clear on the conflict here between force and justice. His theme must have resonated deeply to the Athenian audience who had only recently expelled a real tyrant Hippias in 510 BCE. Zeus had been normally portrayed in Aeschylean drama as the defender of justice, yet a radical shift is under way towards the status of Prometheus now being portrayed as the benefactor and defender of mankind against the tyrannical and arbitrary power of Zeus, the supreme leader. The other two plays in the trilogy survive only in fragments but it seems that Zeus is in the end reconciled with Prometheus. The world was not yet ready for a romantic revolutionary.

Prometheus (1774) by Goethe was originally planned as a drama, but not completed, became a poem. It is a hugely important artistic contribution to the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) phase of The Romantic Movement which witnessed an explosion in Promethanism with Goethe in Germany and Byron and Shelley (husband and wife) in England. Prometheus in Goethe is now a creative and rebellious defiant spirit which is rejected by a God (Zeus) who is now acting as an opposing force. Prometheus angrily defies his leader and asserts his intrinsic right to revolt and comes close to undermining the whole structure of the Natural Order with his audacious atheism as he dares insulting gods:

I should respect you? For what?

Have you ever soothed

The pain that burdened me?

Have you ever dried

My terrified tears?

Was I not forged as manhood

By almighty Time

And everlasting Destiny,

My masters and yours?

(Goethe 13)

This could have been spoken by David the android from USCSS Prometheus or by any of the hosts in the second season of HBO’s science fiction drama, Westworld. I will go into more detail in another essay but for now the resonances are clear as the very substance of the Promethean story begins to evolve.

English romantic poets such as Byron and Shelley now focused unsurprisingly on the political part of the Promethean mythology which is hardly a surprise as The French Revolution had only occurred 30 years earlier and its aftermath was still convulsing the political establishment of both France and England. Prometheus Unbound is a four-part lyrical drama by Percy Bysshe Shelley first published in 1820 and inspired by the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. However, the focus this time is upon the suffering of Prometheus through the eternal punishment he is condemned to by Jupiter (Zeus) and his subsequent release and the fall from power of Jupiter. This time there is no reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus as there had been in the previous renditions. Furthermore, in this revolutionary iteration Jupiter losses the support of his subjects and falls from power allowing the long-suffering Byronic hero, Prometheus to be set free.

Shelley’s Prometheus Bound is a fiercely revolutionary text championing hope, idealism and free will and a mighty response to the devastating tsunami of revolutions and economic changes tearing across 19th century England. In Act IV Shelley gives us an image of an ideal world that a successful revolution should realise:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory

This is the myth of Prometheus as revolutionary inspiration.

Byron’s poem follows the opposing forces theory as created by Goethe. Prometheus’ rebellious spirit will suffer the eternal punishment with Titanic fortitude and throw it straight back at Zeus:

All that the Thunderer wrung from thee

Was but the menace which flung back

On him the torments of thy rack;

The fate thou didst so well foresee,

But would not to appease him tell;

And in thy Silence was his Sentence,

And in his Soul a vain repentance,

And evil dread so ill dissembled,

That in his hand the lightnings trembled.

(Byron 265)

Prometheus is asserting his individuality by undergoing such an ordeal. The Promethean spirit is to endure the punishment and outmaneuver Zeus in the process. There will be no reconciliation this time as the torture Prometheus undergoes authenticates his very right to rebel in the first place after having chosen to return the gift of fire back to mankind.

Ted Hughes in his twenty-one-poem sequence, Prometheus on His Crag continues the theme of punishment, suffering and redemption. Prometheus is chained to a rock and his liver is eaten daily by a vulture as punishment. This torture is eternal as decreed by Zeus. Of course, as a Titan he is immortal so the punishment being eternal is irrelevant, but the pain is not.

However, he feels self-satisfaction:

And now, for the first time

Relaxing

Helpless

The Titan feels his strength. (Hughes 286)

Prometheus believes in his cause and it is not yet the martyrdom of the Son of God but as close as a Greek God can get. His is more of the revolutionary spirit that surely finds a kinship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his statement in the opening lines of The Social Contract (1762) that:

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.

One man thinks himself the master of others but remains more of a

slave than they are.

Time and again, in poem 15, the revolutionary spirit expresses an undying desire for freedom despite his torture:

…But he could see

Himself wading escaping through dark nothing

From aeon to aeon, prophesying Freedom–

It was his soul’s sleepwalking and he dreamed it.

Only waking when the vulture woke him

In a new aeon

to the old chains

and the old agony

(292–3).

For this is the revolutionary spirit no matter the torture inflicted by countless regimes it will keep going until these rebels realise their freedom and reshape the world.

Every one of the above poems I have discussed have produced a different facet of the myth of Prometheus. Taken together these poems do form a representation and reflection of the human revolutionary spirit that is itself shaped and molded by that very process from which it was first created but there is more. Ovid elaborates on Hesiod’s account of Prometheus as creator of man:

Though all the beasts

Hang their heads from horizontal backbones

And study the earth

Beneath their feet, Prometheus

Upended man into the vertical –

So, to comprehend balance.

Then tipped up his chin

So to widen his outlook on heaven.

(Tales from Ovid, 8)

This could be straight from Frankenstein. Now it is Dr Frankenstein making a new life form in his ‘‘workshop of filthy creation’’ not Prometheus making men from clay this time. It is now time to turn to Mary Shelley’s monstrous horror story to find out more about Prometheus and the Promethean spirit located in humanity’s aspiration to raise himself above the level of the beasts using fire but in its contemporary iteration and become independent of both nature and the Gods in an act of defiance worthy of Shelley’s or Byron’s Prometheus, with the suffering and punishment incurred possibly far greater than even Prometheus might have endured and the consequences to humanity as whole, Zeus-like in its genocidal potentiality.

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