I will continue my analysis, ideas and comments concerning the punishment of Prometheus, how it was viewed by various writers and thinkers, and what likely happened between Prometheus and Zeus.
A painting of Titian in 1548-1549 ( see the image below), representing the giant Tityus being punished in a way similar to that by which Prometheus was punished, was mistakenly thought to represent Prometheus for decades and even centuries, and was an inspiration for later painters who represented Prometheus (based on the erroneous identification of Titian’s painting). Tityus was punished for having violated or having tried to violate Leto/Latona, the mother of Apollo and Artemis/Diana.
Perhaps if the details of the story and the accurate sequence of events which led to the theft of fire by Prometheus were known ( see my previous post about the same topic), they would show and prove that Prometheus did not help or benefit anyone by his theft. The actions of Prometheus were caused by envy, jealousy, greed and treachery, he misused the thing he had stolen, played with it carelessly or ignorantly with no beneficial or creative results, and consequently he deserved to be chastised just as Tityus and other characters such as Tantalus deserved to be punished for their actions .
The view that Prometheus was a good benefactor and an important figure started at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, when a number of known writers, poets and thinkers more of less promoted this trend, which was partly based on the misinterpretation of the play Prometheus Bound (presumably) by Aeschylus. I’ll take a look at some of these views and comment on them.
In his youth , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem about Prometheus. In Goethe’s poem, Prometheus mentions his childhood and the disappointment of the prayers he addressed to the gods. From the poem it looks as if Prometheus had a deep feeling which led him to free himself from the gods.
This statement bears an amount of anachronism and contradiction with the mythological story of the gods: when Prometheus was a child , the future gods were still overpowered and ‘swallowed’ by their father (the Titan Cronus), then when Zeus grew up he stood up to his father and freed his siblings. As a child and as a man too, Prometheus followed the older established order of the Titans and must have followed any form of older religion or mentality or way or thinking related to the Titans. According to the mythological stories he was of the same generation as Zeus and the Olympians gods but he stayed with the old order of the Titans. It was Zeus/Jupiter who created a newer order , gave his brothers and sisters their positions according to their powers and abilities, and brought stability to the world. Prometheus didn’t accept this new order which was based on new ideas related to justice and pragmatism. If Prometheus was praying to anyone, then it is more reasonable to suppose that he prayed to whatever deities the Titans prayed to, and he disliked Zeus and his family and offspring for leaving the old ways of praying and thinking of the Titans and for innovating and creating new ways.
With time Goethe abandoned to a certain extent his interest for or liking of Prometheus. As he grew old, Goethe was compared by several writers to an Olympian god and to Zeus himself.
For example , Frederick Engels wrote in Feuerbach: The roots of the socialist philosophy :
“Goethe and Hegel, each of them was an Olympian Zeus in his own sphere, but they were neither of them quite free from German philistinism.”
And the German romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825) described Goethe as “the Olympian who rules the world from his throne” .
In the nineteenth century C.E., a number of writers and philosophers made unfounded allegations and extrapolations and began a certain trend which pictured Prometheus as a figure of free thought and anti-religion and a hater of all the gods. The fact is Prometheus himself was called a god and a Titan god .
When in some of his first writings Karl Marx tried to make of Prometheus a champion of anti-religion and a martyr of philosophy, portraying him as a freethinker who despised all gods, many critical remarks are in order : Marx read the play by Aeschylus and understood it literally, not taking into account that Aeschylus used a good amount of irony and intended to show Prometheus as delusional and arrogant. Marx also didn’t consider the fact that Prometheus was a Titan attached to an old form of ‘nobility’ , an old way of thinking and old traditions. When Prometheus said he hated all the gods , it’s reasonable to think that he meant by gods the people related to Zeus who were called (Olympian) gods and who represented a new order and a new way of thinking. He hated the Olympian gods, but he surely didn’t hate the Titan gods. In fact Prometheus was attached to these older Titan gods who stretched and ‘over-reached’ themselves more than they could and were limited in their sphere of action and were defeated, and he followed whatever old form of religion or belief which was accepted by the Titans. So the conclusions made by Marx about Prometheus’s freethinking and ‘atheism’ are extrapolated and unproven conjectures which seem to project the wishful ideals of Marx onto Prometheus.
Nietzsche tried for a while to interpret the story of Prometheus as involving someone who stood against divine power (i.e Zeus), someone who opposed the morality related to Christianity and Judaism, which was based on sin, and who showed that even sacrilege and theft can be dignified. Again I think this is wishful thinking by Nietzsche and an attempt to project on Prometheus his own aspirations , ideas and opinions. Prometheus disappeared from Nietzsche’s work together with the appearance of the philosopher’s new central character : the Übermensch.
I think the writer who went the furthest in his glorification of Prometheus was Percy Bysshe Shelley , who wrote the drama Prometheus Unbound and published it in 1820 .
The author of The Necessity of Atheism chose the wrong person to elevate to the post of hero or champion. Shelley ought to have taken into account the very plausible fact that Prometheus was most likely an intellectual mediocrity and someone who was attached to old traditions, old mentalities and probably an old form of religion related to the group of people he belonged too, the ones who were subsequently called Titans, who outreached themselves, were limited in their thinking and their actions, and who consequently lost their dominion and power and were defeated by Zeus and his siblings. Prometheus had nothing to do with freethinking , advanced thinking or technological innovation. He was no better than his fellow Titans (who were punished) other than by the fact that he tried to use guile and trickery, but he didn’t succeed at what he did. He did not benefit others by his act of theft, was outsmarted by Zeus and got what he deserved.
The poet or writer has the responsibility to tell the truth and give a fair and reliable account of past events, even if he does that in a literary, stylish or figurative way.
While calling Zeus/Jupiter “The Oppressor of Mankind” in his play, Percy Bysshe Shelley must have known that Zeus was called “The Lord of Justice”, “The patron of hospitality and guests” , “The keeper of oaths” , “Soter ,(Savior)”, “Jupiter Optimus Maximus Invictus” ( by the Romans), along with too many other epithets and names.
Shelley wrote a Hymn of Apollo. He praised the son but disliked the father, although Apollo’s father was known to be the ruler, the greatest and the most important of the Olympian gods . Perhaps some inconsistency is to be noticed here.
Moreover, according to Apollo’s mythology, after he was born he was known to have said : “May the lyre and the bow be dear to me forever , and I will prophesy to mortals the unerring will of Zeus”.
Shelley took a story told in ancient myths, poems, narratives and religions, a story which had plausibly true historical events as its basis, and he twisted that story and made the one who was known to have never been defeated or dethroned (i.e. Zeus/Jupiter , Optimus Maximus ,Victor, Invictus , Stator , as he was called by the Romans ) end up being vanquished. He also made the envious mediocrity who was defeated and justly punished look like the victor in events and conditions which never took place. He tried to represent Prometheus as some sort of dissenting intellectual or innovator who requested reforms, while the one who brought real reforms, changes and new ideas and equitable rules was Zeus/Jupiter, whereas Prometheus was a jealous, unexceptional individual following the older, established ways and traditional ideas of the Titans.
By misinterpreting the Prometheus Bound tragedy and by writing Prometheus Unbound, Shelley has likely done more harm than good, in the sense that he has recklessly distorted ancient known stories and events and he has acted irresponsibly, without caring about the veracity or the consequences of his writings.
As an additional note , according to Wikipedia , “Paul Johnson, in his book Intellectuals , describes Shelley in a chapter titled “Shelley or the Heartlessness of Ideas “. In the book Johnson describes Shelley as an amoral person, who by borrowing money which he did not intend to return, and by seducing young innocent women who fell for him, destroyed the lives of everybody with whom he had interacted, including his own.”
This is to be contrasted with the mythological tales and stories about Zeus/Jupiter, the lord of justice who gave each his due, who ‘easily humbles the proud and raises the obscure, and easily straightens the crooked and blasts the proud’ (from Hesiod’s Works and Days).
Zeus had numerous relationships with many women, but he was known for taking care of and protecting the women who birthed his children, and his offspring , from Hercules to Apollo and Perseus and others, were regarded as heroes, gods, demi-gods and founders of dynasties who were helpful and beneficial to mortals and humans. Although he sometimes had disputes with his wife Hera, Zeus knew she was his wife, the principal and most important woman for him, and he always treated her accordingly , and always managed to get along and reconcile with her.
To be complete one should also consider the point of view of Euhemerism , and it’s a relevant and important one .
Euhemerism essentially states that gods were great men who were deified after their death, and seeks the source of mythology in history .
According the this view, Prometheus would appear as a man with little preparation or with limited, misused potentiality for greatness or creativity, who lived alongside a really great man who was later called Zeus or Jupiter ( he was known by other names in other places and religions too), and who by jealousy, hubris, conceit, attachment to an old established order and old ways of thinking, and by misguided actions, betrayed and tried to trick and hurt the very great man who was his contemporary. Prometheus possibly helped Zeus or worked under his supervision for a short period of time, then he stole from him by jealousy and greed and was deservedly punished for it.
As a very great man of the past, Zeus/Jupiter must have had the most advanced way of thinking, the most advanced teachings and the most advanced knowledge and ‘theories’ in the world he lived in.
I also think Zeus/Jupiter was the same person as one of the first important biblical patriarchs mentioned in the Old Testament, but his story was somewhat modified. Perhaps I will expand and develop this idea in the future.
Sometimes a man attached to a religion or a set of rules and moral prescriptions comparable or even similar to those recommended by Christianity, and having limited abilities and living in the presence of a real great man and innovator, may by jealousy, greed, arrogance and conceit, break the rules he is supposed to be attached to, and steal from the great man he is jealous of, trying foolishly to show he is strong and brave, keeping the thing he stole to himself or in his abode, failing to do anything creative or useful with it, thus somewhat contradicting himself and proving to be worthy of being punished.
If Prometheus ought to be made the symbol of anything, then he ought to be considered as the symbol of mediocrity, envy, jealousy, greed, trickery, cheating, antis-science, anti-innovation and attachment to old traditional established ideas and to old ways of thinking and acting.
For about two centuries a number of writers have inflated the story of Prometheus and taken it in different directions. Consequently it can be said that they have been responsible of imagining, following and honoring a false idol, since they made him a symbol of things he had nothing to do with.
At times these were different and opposite ‘things’, such as being a symbol of irreligion and free thought, and being a symbol of religion more or less comparable to the founder of Christianity.
Perhaps these writers and thinkers should have taken the following guideline or principle into account:
When you don’t know the details of a (very ancient) story, or the sequence of events which caused something to take place, you should not jump into conclusions and produce speculative conjectures, project your own ideals or preconceptions on somebody, and/or make of somebody the symbol of things or qualities he has nothing to do with, especially when these conclusions and conjectures are based on uncertain and doubtful facts of the past, and when there are other facts or evidence providing more plausible and reasonable interpretations of the story or events in question.
As a consequence of all the arguments given above and in Part One of this topic, I think it is inappropriate and simply wrong to use the name of Prometheus for a series of books related to free thought and advanced cultural or philosophical subjects, because someone like Prometheus has simply nothing to do with these subjects. In fact I think it is someone with the intellect and the abilities of Zeus who would be more interested in and inclined towards reading books about advanced science, philosophy, and similar subjects .
The books and reference works I cited in my previous post about this topic are also relevant here.
I will add one more related reference work here:
The Justice of Zeus , by Hugh Lloyd-Jones .
This topic is likely to be continued in a third post.