We Didn't Start the Fire
Prometheus and the divine theft
An Editorial by Barrett Bowers
Walking amongst the crowds in the Agora this afternoon, with all my business for the day concluded, I began to consider the monumental importance of a cosmic event that is oft ignored in our city. As our patron goddess, Athene duly receives most of our religious attention, but the fundamental fabric of our existence is never altered by Athene’s intervention in our lives; she grants us skill and wisdom, but these attributes would be ineffectual if not for one god’s concern about human welfare. If not for his intervention, we might have remained savages with no concern for reason, or, at worst, we may have long ago perished as a species. Thankfully, though, he stole the divine fire from heaven, although at a horrible cost to himself, and gave man the hope of a peaceful existence: this god, as we all know, was Prometheus.
Prometheus’ theft of the divine fire was far from a simple act, however, and many disagree about his motivation. Plato, for example, in Protagoras, states that Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, had distributed favorable qualities to all the beasts of the earth, but left man "naked and shoeless." Seeing the foolishness of his brother, Plato continues, Prometheus decided that in order to save man he must provide him with the arts of Hephaestus and Athena. Without the divine fire, however, these arts were useless. So, pitying man, he stole the forbidden fire as a gift. Enraged, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to chain him to a mountain in the Caucasus, where he would remain for "twelve generations," as Aeschylus notes (604). Here, as mortals, we sympathize with Prometheus. There is no doubt that this theft was noble and kingly!
But as I thought of his contributions to humanity, I was struck by the negativity with which Hesiod portrayed him. In his Theogony, he recounts the theft as mere trickery, remembering Prometheus’ previous scheme to give the gods the worse portion of sacrifices. In the aftermath of this incident, Hesiod writes, "the noble son of Iapetos deceived [Zeus] again / and within a hollowed fennel stalk stole the far-flashing / unwearying fire" (356-8). We all know that Prometheus defied Zeus’ will and the price he paid for doing so; we have all heard, as well, Prometheus’ impassioned defense in Aeschylus’ play; and we all feel, on a day to day basis, the benefits of the divine fire. There would likely be no civilization without it (Vandiver). But there is a darker side to this story, one forgotten over time; and while the details are hazy at best, it is worth assessing the possibility that Zeus was fully justified, by law and by ethics, to punish Prometheus.
Fire: a blessing or a curse?
The fundamental elements of human existence were altered by the divine fire. No longer simple beasts, we broke with the tradition of eating our meat raw. We advanced from clan based systems to civilization (Vandiver), and the evidence is all around us. But these changes were not necessarily positive. Again, Hesiod, that constant cynic, understood mankind to be slowly degrading, spiraling toward extinction (Harris and Platzner 189). Exactly why he thought this is worth consideration. There are numerous reasons, but I think that two are worth considering in detail.
Hesiod’s entire worldview differed greatly from our own. As a poor farmer in Boetia, Hesiod lived completely off the land, as his ancestors had before him (Trever 157). He saw his way of life as natural, something that should be emulated by further generations. The increase in sea trade worried him (Trever 159), as it was a push toward civilization. Civilization, to Hesiod, meant a large gap between the rich and the poor; and with that gap would come injustice (Trever 160). Therefore, the divine fire was inherently negative because it created a world in which the wealth was distributed unevenly. So for Hesiod, divine fire was no gift at all, for it directly contributed to a system that disadvantaged his way of life.
The divine fire also hurt Hesiod in an indirect way. Because Zeus was so infuriated with Prometheus for giving man the divine fire, he had to balance that with a ‘gift’ of his own: woman. Hesiod is very clear about his opinion of women. In the Theogony, he writes "Zeus who roars on high made women / to be an evil for mortal men" (391-2). So it becomes clear that Prometheus’ theft did not benefit mankind in any way at all; we were only hurt by it. It directly contributed to a disconnection with the gods, and it indirectly resulted in the creation of women.
It is obvious that one’s opinion of civilization and women, then, drives an interpretation of the story of Prometheus. Aeschylus’ thoughts just don’t add up if all of the consequences were negative for human kind. But the issue is really left unresolved by Hesiod and Aeschylus, because they both fail to address the divinity that fire gave to man, and the constant longing that comes with it. Before the fire was bestowed upon us, we were as other beasts, I assume; but afterwards, we sought what the gods have: immortality, knowledge, power. But these things are all out of our reach. Our dreams of immortality are crushed by death; our pursuit of knowledge is never ending, and we can never quite know the truth, nor see all sides at once; and in our quest for power, we slaughter and enslave one another, in a sense crushing a common dream. So how can one be persuaded that the fire benefited mankind? With these inherent problems in our nature, how can we assume that Prometheus gave us a gift?
The fact is that we must. We must assume that our lives, though sprinkled with pain and hardships, are better than they would have been without the fire; we must assume that our constant pursuit of knowledge is beneficial; and we must hope that power will not someday ruin us completely. And hope: hope is what Pandora didn’t let escape; hope is that quality not quite good, but not quite bad (Vandiver). Hope is the one thing that we must hold on to in order to survive the hardships, and we must hope that surviving is worthwhile. For without that hope, we would be nothing.
So dream on, for in ‘cursing’ us with woman, Zeus assisted us more than he knew; for our dreams, our hopes, our skills, can all live on in our progeny. Just remember that there are always at least two sides to every story.
Aeschylus. "Prometheus Bound." Classical Mythology. Ed. Kenneth King. 3rd ed. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001. 573-600.
Harris, Stephen L, and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology. 3rd ed. Moutain View: Mayfiled Publishing Company, 2001.
Hesiod. "Theogony." Classical Mythology. Ed. Kenneth King. 3rd ed. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001. 80-97.
Plato. Protagoras. 380 B.C. <http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/protagoras.html>
Trever, Albert Augustus. "The Age of Hesiod: A Study in Economic History." Classical Philology. 19.2 (1924): 157-68.
Vandiver, Elizabeth. "Immortals and Mortals." Classical Mythology. Recorded lecture. The Teaching Company.