• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Prometheus: Interloper or Patron Saint?

November 2018

Would we be better off without a god?

Before I invite upon myself a full-fledged inquisition, though it might be justly deserved, I’d better clarify my question. I don’t want, after all, to run the risk of being smitten right here where I sit—heedless of heaven and hell, tempting the Lord’s lash, typing away impieties as if the outcome mattered not. Doubtless, it does; I think myself faithful enough to acknowledge as much. I’m no insolent atheist, despite my best efforts. The supernatural urge is too strong. Nor am I a deliberately tendentious agnostic hoping to win a point.

Yet even still, steeped in faith or otherwise removed, one can wonder aloud and without fear of damnation: is the divinity a necessity, or is he a superfluity? Are we, sons of Adam and Apollo, daughters of Hera and Eve, improved by his presence or blighted by his wrath? Is he an impediment to the progress of man, or an instrument essential to his being?

In a word, are we better off with or without a god?

You’ll notice above the definite article “a” god, as if to imply there exist many from whom the religious gourmand can choose. The word I refrained from using was that God, as in that Abrahamic Abba, or father, who oversees our ostensibly Christian life. Rather than the Jewish Yahweh or the Christian progenitor of Christ, my question pertains to a pagan deity of an earlier time. He antedates not only Jesus but Zeus. He is Prometheus—most foresightful, ill-fated, and forgotten fathers of man.

In the development of man, Prometheus is considered to have played one of two roles. Potentially, he played both. He was either the creator or the prime benefactor of man—that laughably hairless and hungry beast. Bipedal, intellectual, guileless and without caprice, primordial man was no ordinary phenomenon on earth. He was a creature with a future, though always cognizant of his past and of his self. This intimate awareness of his own being distinguished him from every other animal inhabiting Gaea’s wide kingdom, but still, he needed help. Prometheus, ever generous, thought our plight worthy of his attention and our prospects sufficiently in need. Thus, he became the patron saint of Homo sapiens—wisest and most wretched of beings.

The Greek god went about assisting our atavistic fathers, cousins, and brothers (women didn’t yet exist in his halcyon Hellenic age) in two ways. The first, in what will come to no man shorn of a good meal as a surprise, had to do with our diet.

Man, before enjoying his own feast, was expected to propitiate the gods. Having been so auspiciously placed in the cosmos, on Gaea earth where the air was breathable and the toil light, it was the least he could do. After all, it was they who provisioned his every need in this and the next life. They strengthened his armies, gave him courage, and conferred upon him geniality and wit. They controlled the seasons, the harvests, and all the earth’s sustenance and growth. The seas were theirs, so too were the skies, and their tranquility—if to be had simultaneously—would require of man his attention, though more often, his devout supplication. The balance of the winds and the waves proved a fickle thing and only prayer could bring them in line. The bounty of the fisheries and the fertility of the soil was under the gods’ domain, and so long as man paid honors to their egos, both would continue in offering generous yields.

As in any religion—be it pagan or Christian, Hellenic or Hebraic—to sacrifice to the gods was a fundamental act. The Jews did so by offering to Yahweh a smorgasbord of goods: they rolled onto the altar their “firstlings”, their children (in the disquieting case of Isaac), or—less murderously—their crops. The Christians did it and still do it by way of the Eucharist, turning themselves into ecclesiastical cannibals every Sunday at noon.

The Greeks did it by burnt offerings. The gods, you see, at least in their Olympian iteration, had just endured a formidable war. The Titanomachy (or, the battle between the outgoing Titans and the incoming gods) lasted a grueling ten years (as did the Trojan War and Ulysses’ odyssey home). At the culmination of that long decade which transpired so long ago, Zeus and his gang were the clear victors.

Conquering the skies, they overthrew the now enervated ancien regime. At the losing side’s helm stood and fell Kronos—a god better known for castrating a father and consuming a son than for any admirably divine act. Having had evaded Saturn’s appetite for kin, Zeus—his youngest child—was able to see to his doom. Crowned the new god on high, Zeus then sent to Tartarus the old king and threw away the key. Most fellow Titans joined Kronos in this underground vault, but a select few were given sanctuary above ground on solid earth. Prometheus was one such liberated and lucky deity who landed on his feet.

Something of a Titanic turncoat, Prometheus allied himself with Zeus as the epic battle for the skies, earth, and seas got underway. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall and thought his best chance for survival would be to switch allegiance from the old guard to the new. Or maybe, if we’re to render this great story down to mere myth, the writers simply wanted him to appear prescient in that way (his name, after all, means “far-seeing”, making him not only Prometheus but sagacious). Whatever his motivation, Prometheus decided to join the winning side.

After that, however, things changed. His allegiance to Zeus became tenuous, his attitude capricious. He seemed more spirited and independent than the other gods and his feelings toward the tyrannical king of thunderbolts strained. Like a humanitarian and a secularist, his devotion moved from god to man.

Our audacious Prometheus thought he could pull a fast one on old Jupiter, burly king of the clouds. He noticed that in practicing their animal sacrifices, humans were giving away their best pieces of meat. The succulent loins, the thick chops, and the juicy flanks would drift to the skies while the entrails and the bones and the giblets would gather below. Being that meat was a relative delicacy for the Greeks (theirs was a nutritional profile reliant on things like olives, seafood, and other cultivated grains), it shouldn’t be so readily given away. Rather than give to insatiable, ethereal hands their choicest cuts, Prometheus thought that the Greek people should keep them for themselves. The people agreed and Prometheus showed them how.

Under the literal nose of Zeus, Prometheus informed them that they could, if they dared try, get away with duping the old lighting-slinger. To do so, they need only gather up the rejectamenta of the butchered animal and conceal them in a wad of fat. The most calorically-dense and therefore appetizing part of the beast, the fat lay immediately next to the meat. The thought was that beneath its shiny lipid veneer, the mounds of brisket and rump laid in wait. Believing as much and hungering for his dedicatory boon, Zeus, when given the option of meat wrapped in skin or entrails in fat, with “both hands” grabbed for the fat.

As it turns out, the edible portions of the animal (which typically took the form of a bull, a sheep, or a pig) were enclosed in the skin. Chewy, rubbery, and altogether lacking in nutrition, this was the part of the animal that Zeus was disinclined to taste. It’s the reason we adorn our walls with rather than ingest a hide. Prometheus knew too well the god’s gustatory preference, and succeeded in fooling Zeus. Having made his decision, the Greeks contented themselves with taking whatever Zeus left on the altar. It just so happened to be the wondrous, succulent meat that they sought.

Zeus, dual lord of hospitality, decorum, and the sky, didn’t take kindly to having been tricked. Seeking and getting his revenge, he proceeded to remove from humanity its access to fire. This, to a now carnivorous people, was a great loss. They’d only just tasted with one bite the pleasures of meat, for whose sanitary preparation fire was needed. How else were they to cook their spoils or, for that matter, purify their water or heat their homes? How would they further delineate themselves from the unenlightened beasts? Having succeeded in tricking Zeus and retaining for themselves civilization and meat, they’d become disinclined to their earlier pescatarian course and their barbaric life.

The acquisition of meat, due to the guile of Prometheus, was ill-gained. Of this there was no doubt, and to that end, it appears our human punishment was deserved. Why, then, did Prometheus feel himself compelled to steal fire back? Was he motivated by an unshakeable contempt of Zeus, a need to cut him low, or was he encouraged by an irrepressible feeling of responsibility for man? Being such a man, I like to think Prometheus magnanimous to the core—acting in my behalf out of the kindness of his heart for a lesser soul. But this thinking might be too solipsistic of me; perhaps, rather, he was nothing more than an indignant god with a bone to pick. It could be that he was in fact indifferent to humanity’s plight, so long as he landed his blows on Zeus.

Whatever his motivation, Prometheus thought it wise or necessary or just plain exciting to enmesh himself further in man’s affairs. He darted off to heaven and found that brilliant antidote to darkness—fire. As if a child who’d maneuvered his way to the upper-reaches of the prohibited liquor or snack shelf, Prometheus proceeded to snatch the flames and head back south. Because of this theft, man was to be given all of the advantages of the flame and, by extension, of civilization.

Of course, some symbolism is at play; a myth wouldn’t so long persist if that essential element lacked. The fire that Prometheus stole wasn’t merely a means by which to cook raw meat, or to temper iron and steel, but the illumination of thought. It was, in a word, divine knowledge—a matter of mind beyond the understanding of man. Prometheus stole that which belonged strictly to gods. It wasn’t for mortals to keep. No matter how much it might help the latter, its requisition galled the former and, in a world defined by decorum, hierarchy, theocracy, and religious faith, it wouldn’t go unpunished.

Every century this side of antiquity knows how Prometheus’ story ends. The lame god of the forge Hephaestus proceed to take and imprison our favorite god in a mountainside hole. After having suffered that discomfort for a brief while, Zeus then commanded his blacksmith-in-chief to bound the fallen Titan to an open-air crag. Hesitatingly, Hephaestus does as he’s told; a lesser god, he sees before him the latitude of Zeus’ wrath and wants of it no part.

Shackled somewhere in the Caucasus (an odd etymon, it should be noted, to the current white or Caucasian race), Prometheus was left to suffer but not to die. Until the long-awaited intervention of Heracles, he was made to sit on a rock, hurling defiance toward Olympus whenever his energy permitted him to do so. He made a daily habit of spouting invectives up at the sky—at the bearded bully who was most responsible for his unenviable fate. But this pastime only occupied the evening hours. For by morning’s light, our patron saint was burdened with the incessantly hungry vulture who pecked at this abdomen—eviscerating him day after day. The organ of its desire, Prometheus’ liver, would grow by night in proportion to the amount the bird consumed by day. So his life went, in agony and interminability, for over a dozen generations until Heracles arrived.

Where, then, does this leave us as humans? Yes, we now have our fire and our divine insight, but are we in fact better off for having arrived at their possession? Doubling his revenge, Zeus sought to make an example out of us as he did Prometheus. The cost of our acquisition, it turns out, would be intractable toil and a hot, dirty, and dangerous flame. Hitherto, the gods had provided for man his every need. Now, he’d be made to work for his keep by the sweat of his brow—not unlike an ancient Adam expelled from his Edenic home.

He’d also have the burden of trying to tame fire, the new source of a civilized but precarious life. This was no small feat. While fire can build a civilization from the bottom up (providing superior illumination and nutrition, so far as it’s compared with the dark) it can just as quickly raze it to the ground. Ask any Neapolitan covered in ash or Californian watching all efforts of containment fail before her eyes and they’ll agree; fire is as often foe as it is friend.

Having said all that, I think, ultimately, we must look upon Prometheus with sympathy and with thanks. Intentions do matter and his were good. He wasn’t acting the part of a mere foil to Zeus—a trickster getting back at a conqueror for old affronts. He didn’t assist us only to spite the lighting-wielding god who’d damned to Tartarus the entirety of his kin. Rather, we humans had a special place in his Titanic heart. He carried out his endeavors always with our benefit in mind. He did so until the very end while being made, with every nibble of the vulture’s beak, to pay an excruciating price. At every step, he was an advocate for the improvement of man (a race, one might add, that wasn’t universally well-liked. Zeus hadn’t a kind word to say about us, nor did most other gods who thought it wise to second the king’s taste).

The answer, then, is this: indeed, we would not be better off without a god, without Prometheus, without that creator, benefactor, and educator of man. We thank him for his divine intervention, even if the consequences were unintended to the last. He may have been bound, but he was so in behalf of us. I think it only fair to return the honor and bind ourselves to him. With us, Prometheus persists and we thank him for his work—humanitarian of Hellas, patron of man.

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