I wanted to write about Prometheus, but I couldn’t find the right peg to hang him on, so I just ended up feeling pretentious, as if I was secretly aspiring to be outed in Pseuds Corner. I was going to propose that we are all somehow in defiance of the gods, that the wars that rage within us are analogous to mortal conflict with the deities of time immemorial. But it was a stretch. It felt thin. I was reaching in a vain attempt to add portent to my musings, looking for a mythic aspect to stir cynical 21st century souls.
I did my tokenistic research, reading Byron’s Prometheus (1816), Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), and the somewhat controversial Australian poet James McAuley’s Prometheus (1956). I was reminded that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) carried the subtitle The Modern Prometheus. I consulted Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (1942), scanned various Wikipedia pages, and refamiliarised myself with famous depictions of Prometheus in painting and sculpture. I found out that that golden figure that overlooks the ice rink at New York’s Rockefeller Center is Prometheus – strange that the bringer of fire should be the overlooker of ice! I also discovered that the powerful-looking eagle in Peter Paul Rubens’ Prometheus Bound (1618) was painted by another artist, a specialist painter of animals called Frans Snyders.
So, what makes this mythical defier of gods so interesting? For those who need their memories refreshed, Prometheus was a titan from Greek mythology who, against the wishes of Zeus, king of the gods, gave fire to humankind. He took pity on mortals and bestowed on them the means of their elevation – light, heat, protection, inspiration. Unimpressed by such largesse, Zeus condemned Prometheus to eternal suffering. He was chained to a rock where each day an eagle would descend to feast on his liver, which would regenerate endlessly to ensure his trial would be prolonged. The majestic bird of prey was, of course, representative of Zeus himself, the ordeal being given the deistic attention it deserved. The eagle was eventually slain by Heracles, thus ending Prometheus’ ordeal. No more liver for that naughty bird!
But why the liver? Why not the heart? Or the eyes? Or other vital organs? In seeking an answer to that question I stumbled across a brilliant article from the Journal of Hepatology (my regular bedtime reading – not!) where I learned that Prometheus is a beloved figure of liver experts, and that he had an evil antecedent named Tityus, a bastard child of Zeus who was a subterranean giant (according to one myth, he was brought to full term as a baby by Gaia, the Earth Goddess) who attempted to rape the goddess Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, and was thereafter imprisoned in Hades where two vultures feasted nightly on – yes, his liver. The same article informed me that not only did Ancient Greece regard “the liver as the seat of life, soul, and intelligence”, but “in antiquity, the liver was also thought to be the seat of passion and desire” i.e. the libido, therefore doubling Prometheus’ punishment.
The various accounts of both the stories of the heroic Prometheus and the villainous Tityus emphasise the regenerative power of their respective livers, attributed to their immortality but pointedly, ensuring the eternal nature of their torment. Is that perpetual agony the source of the fascination these figures provoke? Or is it more connected to the gratuitous violence of having a raptor rend their flesh and with reptilian brain seek out a precious vital organ to bloody its beak? Do their trials speak to tremors of foreboding, our inherited mortal dread? Or were these myths and their depictions of suffering the progenitors of what I’ll call our ‘car wreck impulse’ – that macabre compulsion we have to take in a glimpse of a car crash as we pass it, first to reassure ourselves that we were not the victim, and second to see how bad it could have been? Death and suffering as reassurance? As warning? Is it the same impulse that brought people to public floggings and executions? Are there possibly elements of latent sadism or cruelty in the mix? Do we derive a secret pleasure from knowing the suffering is someone else’s, not ours?
Perhaps all of those possibilities are applicable in one way or another because they all trigger a recognition of our shared human experience – if you don’t want to call it compassion or empathy you could call it fellow feeling. All ancient myths and stories are essentially mirrors that show the best and worst of us. They reveal our frailties and vanities, our capacities for hurt and shame, but also illustrate our better selves, capable of sacrifice, courage and redemption. In the Prometheus story then, what was being reflected back at us?
Prometheus was a friend to those weaker than him, and to help them defied those more powerful than him. His is a hero story. The outlaw. The rebel. The champion of the defenceless. He gains our admiration as he stands between us and those who would oppress us. He steals something of great value and bequeaths it to us without charge, but at great cost to himself. Eternal suffering is the price of his altruism. And yet he endures. And because his suffering is righteous, he is ennobled by it. Zeus, the authority figure, becomes the pantomime villain at whom we boo and hiss. His vengeance is both cruel and excessive, its motivation petty, its implication mean-spirited and unloving of those who stirred the act of defiance. The Father-God is exposed as vain and egotistic, callous in his wielding of power.
Is the story encouraging us to resist authority, or to be cowed by it? Is it advocating temerity or meekness? Is it simply saying that no good deed goes unpunished? Stick your neck out and it’s liable to get chopped off – mind your own beeswax and you’ll live not to fight another day. Perhaps it is saying that the Gods are always watching and there will always be consequences for any crime committed against them. As mentioned above, it is also a demonstration of power. Of Godly power. That’s one thing I love about the Gods of Olympus – they were always getting down and dirty with mortals. So if you messed with them, shit got real, and it got real quick. Punishment didn’t come in half-measures. Which is dramatic and entertaining and outrageous, but it doesn’t make many of us shudder in apprehension now.
It has been a long time since those gods were consulted through oracles or offered sacrifices at temples or festivals. If I shake my fist at the sky, I don’t really expect divine retribution to be visited upon me and mine. Nor do I expect Zeus to be consorting with blushing virgins in the form of a swan or a shower of rain. Quite simply, and with apologies to fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the gods do not walk among us. So, if you’re not a subscriber or featured contributor to the Journal of Hepatology, why would Prometheus speak to you now?
Hasn’t it got something to do with suffering? I do not believe in original sin. But I do believe we all have shadows. We all have parts of ourselves that we would prefer remained in the dark. We have greater and lesser demons that exert different holds over us at different times in our lives. They are awakened and they are becalmed, but they never truly go away. They are the presence of pain that dwells within us. They are our own admonishments, our own censure. But if there are no gods to offend, against whom have we transgressed?
In Christianity, the Lord’s Prayer asks that our trespasses be forgiven. In the Qur’an, Muslims ask to be shown “the straight way”, and in Hinduism a request is made to receive the “supreme sin-destroying light”. These are all admissions of guilt, of frailty, of imperfection. Gods are perfect in form if not in character. They are exemplars that we can never live up to, but their existence is enough to leave an engrained template in our subconscious that never ceases speaking to our sense of inadequacy. The imperative from above is “Aspire to be like us. But know that you never can be like us!” No wonder Prometheus wanted to stick it to them.
So maybe my initial idea wasn’t far off, after all. We try to emulate an idealised version of ourselves (you know, the one modelled on gods!) and we never succeed because it is an impossible task. And then we punish ourselves for failing. And then we do it again. And again. And again. And then we see Prometheus chained to the rock and we’re like “brother, we’ve all been there!”
And because his suffering is righteous, he is ennobled by it.
Are we ennobled by our suffering? I doubt we would describe our own ability to endure pain that way, but I think we very readily recognise it in others. By definition it is a passive transformation, and not one that we can advertise the coming of. But I do think the facing of demons is desirable. And it is necessary to be mindful of what power we wield over ourselves. We may have to wrestle it back to a place within us where it will be used more kindly. I mean, I don’t mind an eagle eating my liver every now and then, but every single day for the rest of eternity? That might be a bit much.
How’s your liver? How’s your eagle? Have you stuck it to the gods recently?