Throughout human history we humans have created gods to help explain our existence. We look to these deities to give meaning to our circumstances, our actions, our past and future, our blessings and our sufferings. That these gods, with their immortality and their extraordinary powers, are often given human form is an interesting paradox: we create them because they are NOT like us, and yet we domesticate them by giving them our bodies and other human characteristics.
The Greeks set the barre high when it came to numbers of immortals. They had gods for almost all aspects of human existence: love, war, hearth and home, harvest and hunting, wine, fire, message delivery, wisdom, fertility, and much much more. The Egyptians put up a stiff competition, so, too, the Romans. Then came the Jews, and after them the Christians and Muslims who dispensed with all but a single omnipotent being – though the Christians with their Trinity might be thought to be having two bob each way.
The Greek gods, despite their immortality and godly powers, reveal a range of familiar human characteristics. They are jealous and envious, they lie and deceive, they love and hate, they play favourites, they protect and they bully, they can be shockingly violent and they can soothe and heal. What is fairly consistent across all the gods, and humans too, is that if they have power, they want to hold on to it, while those who are powerless strive to get it. The problem for both gods and humans is you can’t have it all. As Shelley so aptly wrote in his Prometheus Unbound:
The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.
Shelley’s verse drama, Prometheus Unbound, takes off where Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound finishes. Prometheus Bound is the first and only surviving play of a trilogy known as the Prometheia. While there are distinctive differences in the approaches taken by Aeschylus and Shelley, they both present a Zeus who is stubborn and violent and vindictive, and a Prometheus who is wise and generous, also inclined to stubbornness, but always humane. (In some versions of the story, Prometheus, one of the immortals himself, fashions the mortal humans out of clay. He is often referred to as the creator of humankind. It seems entirely apt, albeit anachronistic, to describe him as humane).
The story of Prometheus is shaped around the enduring conflict between those with power and those with curiosity; the authority of rulers on the one hand, and the free will of ordinary people on the other; the exercise of the intellect versus god-given laws. The story is also concerned with the power that comes with knowledge.
There are several different versions of the Prometheus story, but all versions agree that Prometheus defied Zeus by giving the pitiful, uncivilised mortals fire. The story is set at a time not long after the creation of the world out of chaos. The humans in these times were a wretched, barbaric underclass. Prometheus took pity on them. He taught them how to build shelters, how to sow crops, how to hunt. Zeus ordered that whatever help Prometheus gave, he was not to give the humans fire. Zeus knew that fire was an immensely powerful possession.
Prometheus disobeyed. He hunted out the source of fire and carried it to the humans, ‘And fire has proved/ For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.’ With fire the humans learned to make proper tools, to cook their meat, defeat cold and disease; fire enabled them to pursue science and culture.
Zeus was furious. He ordered that Prometheus be chained to a mountainous crag, there to remain for all eternity, forced to suffer winds, ice and heat. And if this were not punishment enough, an eagle would attack every day and eat his liver; the liver would regenerate every night only to be attacked again come daybreak. Zeus, along with the ancient Greek dramatists could fashion highly imaginative violence.
Hephaestus, the god of fire, was ordered by Zeus to carry out the punishment. He didn’t want to do it, but like those at Nuremberg several thousand years later, he excused himself by saying he was only following orders. He acknowledged that ‘Power newly won [like Zeus’] is always harsh’ (line 31), but authority is authority and orders are orders. Hephaestus does what Zeus commanded him to do, and Prometheus is chained to the rock.
Prometheus defies the authority of Zeus and cops the punishment. But what is he being punished for? Is it because he disobeyed Zeus? Is it because he saved the human race (who might later constitute a threat to Zeus)? Is it because he exercised his own free will? Or is it because he gave the gift of knowledge to humankind and thereby empowered them? Or perhaps a combination of these possibilities? In which case, Prometheus’ actions resulted in multiple threats. (And there’s an additional element in this story that further threatens Zeus: Zeus knows that Prometheus holds the secret to his own eventual downfall.)
Similar themes percolate through the story of Adam and Eve, two more ‘first’ humans. Adam and Eve defy God’s authority by taking the apple from the tree of knowledge. Maybe they could have got away with a potato from the soil of stupidity – but not knowledge, not wisdom. Knowledge is power, wisdom even more so.
Alexander Pope wrote in his Essay on Criticism: ‘a little Learning is a dang’rous Thing’. Knowledge as something radical, that threatens the status quo, pervades the Christian era. This belief is still prevalent today in certain religious sects.
With the rise of fundamentalist interpretations in Christianity, Judaism and Islam across the globe, more and more people are forfeiting their free will to authority. Fundamentalism is exactly that: a way of life based on certain finite fundamental beliefs and behaviours. Fundamentalism holds things in place while world events whizz past at an ever increasing rate. Fundamentalism holds the believer in place while others grapple with the uncertainties and demands of contemporary life. For true believers doubt does not exist – and what a relief that is. There is no need to question, because all the answers are already at hand. Reason, memory, individual and idiosyncratic attachments are all neutralised. Religious authority cannot be questioned, its laws are immutable. All is pre-determined. Knowledge beyond religious lore is unnecessary, wisdom is heresy. Followers feel safe. And yet from those on the outside, they appear to be enslaved.
The certainties of structured religion keep adherents ignorant. But for the believers, far from feeling ignorant, they possess the truth, they have all the answers. Anyone who has tried to have a discussion with a fundamentalist of any sort – and fundamentalism is not the sole province of religion, there are plenty of political fundamentalists to be found, as there are fundamentalists on certain social issues such as abortion – knows that they argue from a closed position where everything is self-evident. There can be no argument.
People often wonder about the continuing relevance of the Greek myths to we moderns. Prometheus demonstrates free will, wisdom and courage; he shows the power that comes with knowledge. An immortal himself, he teaches by example what humans can achieve with courage, with risk-taking, with taking a stand for what is right. Zeus, in contrast, is the fundamentalist preacher/Ayatollah/Rabbi shoring up power, building a compliant army of the faithful, who will obey their leader without question.
Followers like this will burn down villages, they’ll rape and maim women and children, they’ll set fire to abortion clinics. Followers of fundamentalism will feed their children breakfast, strap bombs to their waist, wrap them in warm coats and kill them before lunch – and not need to give it any thought at all.