No Comment, Quotation — January 11, 2009, 12:02 am

Prometheus the Bringer of Fire

prometheus-bound

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First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves. They had no sign either of winter or of flowery spring or of fruitful summer, on which they could depend but managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish.

Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses’ arts, with which to hold all things in memory. I, too, first brought brute beasts beneath the yoke to be subject to the collar and the pack-saddle, so that they might bear in men’s stead their heaviest burdens; and to the chariot I harnessed horses and made them obedient to the rein, to be an image of wealth and luxury…

Hear the rest and you shall wonder the more at the arts and resources I devised. This first and foremost: if ever man fell ill, there was no defence–no healing food, no ointment, nor any drink–but for lack of medicine they wasted away, until I showed them how to mix soothing remedies with which they now ward off all their disorders. And I marked out many ways by which they might read the future, and among dreams I first discerned which are destined to come true; and voices baffling interpretation I explained to them, and signs from chance meetings. The flight of crook-taloned birds I distinguished clearly– which by nature are auspicious, which sinister–their various modes of life, their mutual feuds and loves, and their consortings; and the smoothness of their entrails, and what color the gall must have to please the gods, also the speckled symmetry of the liver-lobe; and the thigh-bones, wrapped in fat, and the long chine I burned and initiated mankind into an occult art. Also I cleared their vision to discern signs from flames, which were obscure before this. Enough about these arts. Now as to the benefits to men that lay concealed beneath the earth–bronze, iron, silver, and gold–who would claim to have discovered them before me? No one, I know full well, unless he likes to babble idly. Hear the sum of the whole matter in the compass of one brief word–every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus.

Æschylus (????????), Prometheus Bound (????????? ????????), 4th episode (ca. 415 BCE) (H.W. Smyth transl.)


America and the world are waiting, again, as they always do, for the Bringer of Fire.

“Prometheus” sounds in ancient Greek like the word “forethought,” and in the classical era these etymologies were taken seriously. The evolution of the Prometheus legend reveals the truth that the ancients thought could lie in a name. In the more archaic Greek writings, Prometheus appears as a figure of almost comic relief. And over time, Prometheus meant different things to the Greeks. First he appears as a foil to Zeus, and his hideous plight is tailored to show us the tragedy that befell those who defy the gods. He is a simple trickster, much like figures who appear in African mythologies. As we know, he stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mankind. But in the oldest writings his offense is a bit different—he deceived Zeus by giving him the choice of two different offerings from a sacrifice, one of meat and the other of bones wrapped in fat. Zeus chose falsely and was angered at the apparent treachery. But in consequence of this legend, in the Aegean culture, humans retained the meat from the animal sacrifice to feed themselves, leaving the bones and fat to be incinerated on the altar place. (Æschylus references this in the lines above: “thigh-bones, wrapped in fat, and the long chine I burned and initiated mankind into an occult art.”) In these fragments of the dark early days of Aegean culture we see again hints of sacrifice and confusion over whether it is animal or human; in fact Prometheus emerges as a sacrifice in redemption of the humans—though Prometheus himself is a titan, not a human.

Considering this troubling background, then, what Æschylus takes and does with the Prometheus material is remarkable. It’s plain enough what motivates him. Æschylus was born in a day when the state of Athens was a sort of amalgamation of petty dictatorships; the strong man had the say of life or death over his subjects. But by the time Æschylus was crafting his masterworks, the marvel of Athenian democracy had emerged. Under Athenian leadership, Greeks had checked Persian expansion across the Aegean. The primacy of Athenian arms, commerce and culture were widely recognized by their fellow Greeks. Æschylus was intent to rework the ancient materials to suit the needs of his day; he was producing a sort of foundation mythology. And Prometheus was a perfect vehicle for this undertaking.

He composed the Prometheia, a grouping of three plays, intended to be performed in sequence. Only one of them has survived, a magnificent trunk, Prometheus Bound. Fragments remain of the balance. But from what we have we can speculate about Æschylus’s rendition of the Prometheus legend in an informed way. Prometheus himself has become a far more heroic figure (in the modern, not old Greek sense) and a closer friend of humanity. Significantly, we learn that Zeus’s anger against him is not specifically from his decision to bring fire to the human race, but because Zeus had decided upon the complete extirpation of the species as a part of his remaking of the cosmos, and Prometheus, having pity on the humans and recognizing their potential, stopped this (he is punished for his “excessive love of humankind,” l. 123). Consequently, he calls Zeus a “tyrant,” a word that in his day meant something more like “king,” but on Æschylus’s lips comes closer to the modern meaning. Zeus appears in much of this work as an evil, petty figure driven by genocidal impulses. This was a daring thing for an Athenian writer of the fifth century BCE, and indeed history records that Æschylus faced death threats over his work from the devotees of religious cults. In fact, compare Zeus with Prometheus in this work: it is impossible to see anything superior about Zeus other than physical force and power; on a moral level, Prometheus emerges as the better endowed, and in the end Prometheus outwits Zeus not only in his mission to the humans, but also in attaining his freedom and redemption. Tellingly, Prometheus must endure torment and suffering to achieve this.

Prometheus Bound makes clear that the gift of fire is a metaphor for something else: ????, that “great principle of humanity which we call mind or spirit,” as Schelling put it. More specifically fire stands for the arts and sciences that Prometheus brought to the humans, the inspiration to use their intellectual faculties. This is the essence of the so-called Culture Speech, which is set out above—Prometheus shows humankind in its blighted original state and then shows the transformative power of culture, of the ????. It lies at the heart of Æschylus’s message.

Some writers compose for the amusement, or even the edification of their contemporaries. Others have a more transformative objective. They may seem to be writing for the audience that first hears their plays, but over time it becomes clear that the work is not time-bound, that it has a broader audience. Sometimes they even seem consciously to speak over the heads of their contemporaries to other times and places. Surely Æschylus is one of the first such writers who sought to move local audiences but ultimately aimed far beyond them. Prometheus Bound is a work that can be read and understood anywhere and any time. It is a sort of inner roadmap for humanity.

I was particularly moved by this material when I first attended a performance of Carl Orff’s “Prometheus.” The performance occurred, appropriately enough, in a concert hall filled with magnificent tapestries depicting the feats of Hercules, who one day would set Prometheus free and kill the eagle who tormented him. Carl Orff himself conducted. Orff set the material to a text drawn directly from Æschylus, not translated. The chorus and singers were coached for months in the rendition of the ancient Attic text, making it come to life with amazing sonorous properties emanating especially from the many long and sustained vowel sounds that effect Prometheus’s agony. I took the time to read Æschylus in translation before going to the performance, and struggled with the original, with Orff’s notes. On the first pass through I didn’t know what to make of it–but this work requires some patience and rewards those who approach it with care. Reading it again through the performance, I was electrified. Most strikingly, Orff unlocked Prometheus Unbound by reassembling the totality of the Prometheia. In his own lifetime, Æschylus had seen Athens arise from tyranny to embrace a new social order with a rich intellectual life. The playwright puts this in the context of the totality of the human experience. Humankind born into a world of darkness and disorder is guided by a spark which is both intellect and spiritual bond, and which offers transformative properties. It promises a better and more meaningful life. It promises the creation of an order more just in the universe—an order based on redemption rather than destruction. Indeed, Zeus himself comes to appreciate this as ultimately Prometheus perseveres and overcomes Zeus’s torment, bringing Zeus to realize his errors. For Æschylus, this new order turns on the dignity of humanity and on a respect for law in its highest sense, a legal regime of right which stands ultimately over humanity, and even over Zeus, the king of the Gods–that ultimately is the new “occult art” to which he aludes.

Orff put on the flysheet of his text as a motto this surviving fragment from the concluding work of the Prometheia–from Prometheus the Bringer of Fire. It is known to the scholarship as Fragment No. 104, and it is uttered by a chorus of the titans: “We have come to look upon these your great struggles, Prometheus. We have come to look upon your chains and sufferings.” The process of creation is inherently a process of suffering, it reminds us, but the product may be wondrous and a source of inspiration.

Listen to a recording of Carl Orff’s Prometheus performed by the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ferdinand Leitner, produced by Carl Orff in 1972 on an Arts Archive CD 43007-2.

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