About Zeus , Prometheus , and the punishment of the latter- Part Two

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.

Tityus-by-Titian

The Punishment of Tityus , by Titian

The painter José de Ribera  also made a painting of the punishment of Tityus in 1632. 

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.

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About Zeus , Prometheus , and the punishment of the latter- Part One

At the beginning of this post I want to remark that Zeus (as well as  characters related to him) is the  name given by the ancient Greeks to ‘someone’ or to a deity who was followed or worshiped in many places  in the ancient World and around the Mediterranean region by different names . Zeus was called Jupiter by the Romans, Amon-Ra by the Egyptians , etc , and Greek mythology and religion had their origins in or were influenced by  other places or cultures : West Asia, the so-called Indo-Europeans , and most notably the Mediterranean and the Near East .
But I will generally use the Greek names since nowadays  they are the most widely known .

The story of Prometheus and the narration of his punishment  have been told and retold in different ways throughout the centuries. From Antiquity to the present , poets , writers, philosophers and various thinkers on the whole made contradictory assumptions, conjectures , explanations , extrapolations , comparisons  and conclusions related to the story of Prometheus. But if one looks closer and in depth at how the story has been told , one can find patterns or variations specific to certain periods in the telling of the story across different centuries.

The punishment inflicted by Zeus has been called by some modern authors ‘problematic’. But it would be less problematic if the facts about what happened and if the details of the story were known better. One of the difficulties is that the details of this story became unclear and imprecise with the passing of time , especially after the beginning of the Christian era.

Prometheus and Hercules

I have read extensively about this topic , and I will try to show by using reasonable and plausible arguments based on my readings of those who wrote about this subject that the reasons for and the cause of the chastening of Prometheus  have been misunderstood and misinterpreted , and his importance has been inflated and overestimated , mainly during the last two centuries .

The poet Hesiod (who lived around 750 BCE ) mentioned Prometheus in his Theogony and in The Works and Days
In the Theogony , Hesiod shows Prometheus as a lowly challenger of the omnipotence of Zeus and as a trickster.
In the Works and Days , Prometheus appears as the source of man’s misery. He is punished for using trickery , for stealing and breaking the law , and he is the one to blame for mankind’s fall.

It is to be noted that if the story of Prometheus has had a real earlier historical origin at its basis , then the oldest sources related to this story are usually the closest  to the actual events that took place ,  and they show what happened in a more accurate way compared to later narratives. Therefore the story as it is told by Hesiod largely presented Prometheus in his true colors more than other more recent accounts that came up later on.

There are other clues that shed light on the way Prometheus was viewed in Antiquity.
When people in Antiquity deified someone and built temples for him (or her , but here we’ll suppose it’s a man we’re talking about) , it was their way of showing and recognizing that the one they deified had done great , outstanding and important things and had a significant historical greatness and importance.
Ancient writers , such as Lucian in the second century CE , stated the fact that for centuries before and during the start of the the Christian era ( a period of probably more than two millennia) there was no temple of Prometheus to be seen .
There was an altar for Prometheus and two other Olympian gods in Athens , but according to the classical philologist Ulrich von  Wilamowitz-Moellendorff , this altar was for another deity called Promethos, who was venerated during the torchlight run ,which celebrated the god of ceramics and not the fire giver. Promethos was the patron of potters in Athens , and was associated with Hephaestus and Athena. He was the one who would have helped Zeus by splitting his skull to give birth to Athena , and would have shaped Pandora before creating human beings (under the supervision of Zeus).He didn’t steal fire and he was not punished.

A second Prometheus did the trickery and the stealing and was punished. He is the Prometheus mentioned by Hesiod and Aeschylus , and his name later on prevailed. All the preceding arguments are proof that people in Antiquity knew Prometheus didn’t have greatness or historical importance , and that he didn’t help or benefit anybody by his theft of fire. It seems these facts and observations were overlooked by the romantic writers and the philosophers or artists who praised Prometheus in the 19th century.
By the way , the  person or deity for whom the greatest and biggest temples and monuments were built in
Antiquity , including a statue which was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World , was  Zeus/Jupiter.

The ‘fire’ stolen by Prometheus from the gods was most probably ordinary fire , but if it was some important property or material or discovery belonging to Zeus and to the ‘gods’ there is not much difference in the story.
In his book Les Mémoires de Zeus (The Memoirs of Zeus) , Maurice Druon gives an explanation of what might have happened. Prometheus tried to trick Zeus before stealing the fire , and Zeus decided to punish the mortal humans by taking away fire from them , but he intended to give back fire to the humans after a few months .

In any case Prometheus didn’t want to wait for Zeus to give back fire to humans , he was jealous of the power and abilities of Zeus and tried to trick him in order to hurt him or dethrone him and make him look bad , and there is no proof or mention, especially in the writings of the original ancient authors such as Hesiod , that after he stole fire he used it in a creative , beneficial or useful way for him or for the humans around him; the only ‘quality’ of the titan Prometheus mentioned by Hesiod through the theft of fire was trickery .
Even the  play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus was misinterpreted , since the author (if it really was Aeschylus ,who showed great praise , respect and admiration for Zeus in his other plays) was using irony, and as he made Prometheus talk in the play  he intended to show him as conceited and delusional .
Prometheus could have very well played with the fire he stole (along with a number of other humans who were around him) with no useful or creative result , and after some time he let that fire die away.
What added to the confusion and misunderstanding is that the detailed facts and the sequence of events related to the theft of fire , to what happened afterwards , and to the so-called Titanomachy or war with the Titans were lost with time and are not well known .

The play Prometheus Bound was most probably written by Aeschylus ca. 415 BC (probably even earlier) . It is interesting to note that at that period of time , poets and philosophers were writing works praising and honoring Zeus.
Cleanthes ( c. 330 BC – c. 230 BC) , Stoic philosopher and the successor to Zeno as the second head (scholarch) of the Stoic school in Athens ,wrote a hymn to Zeus .The largest surviving fragment of Cleanthes is the portion of the Hymn to Zeus, in which he declares praise and honour of Zeus to be the highest privilege of all rational beings.
Callimachus (310/305–240 BC) was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes . He also wrote a hymn to Zeus.
So it is improbable that at that time Aeschylus , who in all his other plays praised and extolled Zeus , could have written one play to damage and disparage the king of the gods. His  play about Prometheus was filled with irony and enveloped in irony.

For many centuries after the beginning of Christianity, and until the end of the eighteenth century, writers did not have a high opinion of Prometheus. The interest in Prometheus in the seventeenth century was from philosophers. 
Thomas Hobbes  saw the Titan as the reprovable example of political rebellion and democracy ( Hobbes thought the only pure and true source of power was monarchy).

A number of writers in the nineteenth century as well as in the twentieth thought that the Fathers of the Church made a parallel between Jesus Christ and Prometheus. In fact the Church Fathers (among them Tertullian) warned against establishing any kind of parallel between Prometheus and Jesus Christ, and described Prometheus as some sort of impostor when compared to God.

Some writers or authors tried to find or make comparisons and similarities between Hephaestus and Jesus Christ , or between Hercules and Jesus , etc. These comparisons (especially the one involving Prometheus) are far from accurate. 
Sometimes Prometheus has been compared to the character Loki in Norse mythology.Perhaps in Antiquity there was a common origin to Norse , Greek and similar mythologies which made them have some common characteristics, but it seems that Loki has been generally considered to be a bad trickster and a bad character , whereas Prometheus has been considered as a good trickster figure , this being the result of arbitrary unverified conjectures and interpretations , especially in the last two centuries.

The word Lucifer has been interpreted in different ways by different people , religions and cultures. When it was given the meaning of  ‘shining one’ , ‘morning star’ , or ‘light bringing’ , Prometheus , having stolen fire and apparently brought light, has been sometimes compared to Lucifer , adding to the unclear and contradictory comparisons made about him. Anyway if Prometheus is Lucifer , who is usually considered to be Satan or the Devil , then in this case Prometheus would have rebelled against Zeus ,who would be no other than God. So this whole unconvincing comparison is not profitable to Prometheus and does not show him in a good light.

The theory or conjecture stating that Zeus punished Prometheus hastily while he was still a new inexperienced ruler , and then with time became wiser and more just , doesn’t hold water.
First of all ,there’s a big difference if we consider that the death of Zeus’s father and the theft of fire took place at the end of the Titanomachy or at the beginning of this war (which was  won by Zeus). If the theft of fire took place after the death of Cronus and at the start of the conflict with the Titans , then this theft was an integral part of the conflict , and the punishment of Prometheus came as one of the results of winning this struggle. Zeus/Jupiter must have taken his time to try to reason with Prometheus and his father and brothers (to no avail), and he tried to observe (for a number of years during the conflict with the Titans) what Prometheus was doing with the thing he had stolen.
He must have noticed that Prometheus was playing carelessly with what he had stolen ; if it was fire which was
stolen , Prometheus probably kept it somewhere hidden in his house , making usage of it in rudimentary uninventive ways with no creative or useful results , and when some people he knew came to his house he showed them that fire and played , danced or frolicked with them around it.
Prometheus wasn’t at all interested in benefiting humans or in innovative technology ; it’s also possible that he could have obtained that fire by other means if he wanted , and humans possibly had basic or elementary  ways to make fire. These humans could have represented all existing humans , or they probably were a local group of humans living in the vicinity of Prometheus , Zeus , and their relatives.
In any case, Prometheus was envious of Zeus because he was the one who could make a really resourceful and innovative usage of fire , and by stealing fire he was trying to hurt Zeus.
If Zeus had seen that there was a good reason for or a beneficial purpose resulting from what Prometheus had done, or that there were attenuating circumstances in favor of the theft done by Prometheus , he (Zeus) would have been the first one to acknowledge it. But he must have found none.

There are two versions of what happened to the father of Zeus after he was defeated. One version says that after defeating his father , Zeus sent him to Tatarus or killed him.
Another version states that Cronus had bad and good traits, but his good qualities outnumbered his bad traits ,
and after Zeus helped his siblings, stood against his father and defeated him (it is best to assume this took place at the beginning of the war with the Titans) , he was reconciled with him and sent him to rule the Isles of the Blessed . Zeus surpassed his father and went beyond the abilities of his father . At the same time he  must have taken or inherited the good qualities that his father had (and also inherited good qualities from his mother), which helped him become a good and just ruler afterwards. This version of the facts is more plausible than the first one.
On the other hand , Iapetus (the father of Prometheus) had more bad traits than good ones (arrogance, limited capabilities, haughtiness) ; he was defeated by Zeus and ‘ sent to Tartarus’ at the end of the war with the Titans. Prometheus could not go beyond the potentialities of Iapetus , he stayed in the shadow of his father , and followed the old traditional narrow-minded ways of the Titans ; he had his father’s bad traits and was punished with his brothers and father by Zeus .

Not all Titans were bad or were ‘sent to Tartarus’ by Zeus. Some Titans were good , but Prometheus was not one of the good Titans  .
An example of a good (or not so bad) Titan (or Titaness) is the mother of Zeus , Rhea , and also Leto/Latona , who gave Zeus two important children: Apollo and Artemis/Diana.

When the circumstances changed and  the time was right ,  Herakles/Hercules freed and rescued Prometheus . Hercules did not do it in spite of his father Zeus , but according to his will and to his instructions . As Hesiod stated in the Theogony ,  Zeus wanted to give his son more  glory by letting him free Prometheus .
It can be rightly said that when Zeus punished Prometheus it was justice , and when he released him it was (also) justice.

In addition to books (concerning ancient mythology and religion)  I have read and mentioned in my page about religion related books  , here are some more reference works related to this post:

Divine Commerce: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Mythology , by John Kaessner.

 A Zeus wronged by Prometheus and an Aeschylus wronged by the critics. The Compassion of Orthodoxy: The Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus , by Robert L. Houbeck, Jr.
This article contains one of the best analyses I have read about the story and punishment of Prometheus.

 From Myth to Symbol. The Nineteenth-Century Interpretations of Prometheus , by Caroline Corbeau .


This topic is to be continued in another post.