Prometheus was one of the Titans – the gods who descended from primordial deities, and preceded Olympian gods and goddesses. His name meant “forethought;” he proved he deserved it by showing a gift of premonition and prophecy when he sided with the Olympians during the war with the Titans. He knew beforehand who the winners would be and chose to cooperate with the bringers of the new order. However, his defiant and unyielding nature rebelled whenever he felt that the Olympians did not have the interest of humans at heart. Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus (“afterthought”) did not get imprisoned in Tartarus after the war with the Titans because they had displayed their loyalty to the Olympians. Zeus entrusted them with the task of creating humans, which Prometheus accomplished using mud (clay), into which the goddess Athena breathed life. Prometheus fell in love with his earth-born creation, imperfect though it was. Epimetheus was a slower, plodding, deliberate and more earthy shadow side of his quick-witted and brilliant brother, endowed with the gift of foresight and fiery intuition. Athena, as Graves writes in Greek Myths, had taught him “architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, medicine, metallurgy, and other useful arts, which he passed on to mankind.” Further says Graves:
“One day, when a dispute took place at Sicyon, as to which portions of a sacrificial bull should be offered to the gods, and which should be reserved for men, Prometheus was invited to act as arbiter. He therefore rayed and jointed a bull, and sewed its hide to form two open-mouthed bags, filling these with what he had cut up. One bag contained all the flesh, but this he concealed beneath the stomach, which is the least tempting part of any animal; and the other contained the bones, hidden beneath a rich layer of fat. When he offered Zeus the choice of either, Zeus, easily deceived, chose the bag containing the bones and fat (which are still the divine portion); but punished Prometheus, who was laughing at him behind his back, by withholding fire from mankind. ‘Let them eat their flesh raw!’ he cried.”
Athena helped Prometheus to enter Olympus in secret. He lighted a torch at the chariot of the Sun, broke from it a glowing charcoal and hid it inside a fennel stalk. The image of fire hidden inside a tube does remind one of the kundalini snake fire coiled in the spine. Prometheus descended to the earth under the cover of darkness and presented humankind with the gift of fire. He paid dearly for his crime, though, for Zeus chained him to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and ordered a ferocious vulture to tear at his liver all day. The pain was unbearable and never-ending, as the liver would grow back each night.
As further punishment, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create the first woman ever out of clay. Her name was Pandora (“all gifts,” “all giving”) and she was gifted to Epimetheus as his wife. She brought with her the infamous jar, which Prometheus had warned his brother to keep closed at all cost. Her curiosity was stronger than any admonishments and she opened it releasing all the calamities and evils that plague humankind: old age, disease, insanity, destructive emotions, etc. Only Hope stayed inside the jar to prevent people from losing their minds or committing suicide.
It is worth pointing out that the story of Pandora comes from one author – Hesiod. Graves comments:
“Hesiod’s account of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora is not genuine myth, but an antifeminist fable, probably of his own invention.”
Like Eve in the Old Testament, Pandora (supposedly) brings evil and mischief on humanity. The famous Pandora’s box was not a box, however, but a jar (Greek ‘pithos’).
In ancient Greece, the pithos was used for storage of food, especially grains, seeds and wine. Pithoi were so large that they were also used as grave jars, so they were symbolically associated both with nourishment and death. Pandora, the first woman, was endowed with all gifts from the gods but she also brought pain, suffering and darkness to the world. She was gifted with beauty and all the divine graces by the Olympic gods. We can look at her as the one who brought gifts to humans that were indispensable for their growth and wisdom. She opened humankind to their own darkness and thus in fact enlarged their existence. She was both a life- and death-force.
Prometheus’ plight was stopped by Heracles, who pleaded with Zeus to pardon the Titan. Chiron, who had been accidentally wounded by Heracles and longed for mortality, went to Tartarus in Prometheus’ stead, and in this way relieved Prometheus’ suffering. Zeus, in turn, relieved Chiron being moved by his selfless sacrifice. Prometheus, not unlike Jesus, was a god who experienced what it was like to be human and suffering the slings and arrows constantly piercing the flesh. In his Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann points out that:
“It should be noted that the very beginnings of civilization, of human life, millions of years ago, are marked by the successful ‘quest for fire’; prescientific theories of our origins used to speak of earlier ‘primal’ humans, ‘living free in the wild,’ but these creatures cannot be called human. Fire is the only one of the elements that humans can produce themselves; it thus symbolizes the similarity of mortals and gods.”
Just as the serpent did in biblical paradise, so Prometheus brought the gift of knowledge and consciousness to humanity. That gift also encompassed the experience of our inherent darkness symbolized by the opening of Pandora’s jar. Pandora and Epithemeus were very vital players in the story: forethought without afterthought is heartless and cruel, fire without darkness and water can be destructive. As Prometheus was, we are also chained to this rock of a planet, destined for endless rebirths into the samsara. The myth of Prometheus also encompasses endless suffering and a feeling of hopelessness, being chained to one’s circumstances, the necessity of cruel sacrifice, weariness of life, and palpable, gnawing pain. There is a short parable by Franz Kafka, which mirrors this aspect of the myth:
“There are four legends concerning Prometheus:
According to the first, he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.
According to the second, Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.
According to the third, his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, the gods forgotten, the eagles, he himself forgotten.
According to the fourth, every one grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.
There remained the inexplicable mass of rock.–The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.”
In his interpretation of Prometheus’s story, C.G. Jung focuses on the guilt inherent in individuation and on the mortal risk for those who tear sacred secrets from the gods:
“Genesis represents the act of becoming conscious as a taboo infringement, as though knowledge meant that a sacrosancy barrier had been impiously overstepped. I think that Genesis is right in so far as every step towards greater consciousness is a kind of Promethean guilt: through knowledge, the gods are as it were robbed of their fire, that is, something that was the property of the unconscious powers is torn out of its natural context and subordinated to the whims of the conscious mind. The man who has usurped the new knowledge suffers, however, a transformation of enlargement of consciousness, which no longer resembles that of his fellow men. He has raised himself above the human level of his age (‘ye shall become like unto God’), but in doing so has alienated himself from humanity. The pain of this loneliness is the vengeance of the gods, for never again can he return to mankind. He is, as the myth says, chained to the lonely cliffs of the Caucasus, forsaken of God and man.”
C.G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW7, para 243
The only redemption possible is when the hero pregnant with divine knowledge brings it back to humanity and enriches the collective with new values:
“… the first step in individuation is a tragic guilt. The accumulation of guilt demands expiation. …
Individuation cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity. That is the guilt which the individuant leaves behind him for the world, that is the guilt he must endeavor to redeem. He must offer a ransom in place of himself, that is, he must bring forth values which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective personal sphere. Without this production of values, final individuation is immoral and – more than that – suicidal. The man who cannot create values should sacrifice himself consciously to the spirit of collective conformity. … Only to the extent that the man creates objective values can he and may he individuate. Every further step in individuation creates new guilt and necessitates new expiation. Hence individuation is possible only as long as substitute values are produced. Individuation is exclusive adaptation to inner reality and hence an allegedly ‘mystical’ process. The expiation is adaptation to the outer world.
…individuation… means farewell to personal conformity with the collective, and stepping over into solitude, into the cloister of the inner self. Only the shadow of the personality remains in the outer world. … But inner adaptation leads to the conquest of inner realities, from which values are won for the reparation of the collective.”
Collected Works of C.G. Jung volume 18: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous, paragraphs 1094-1098
What are the values of Prometheus? On the one hand, he denotes the positive aspects of fire: foresight, intuition, growth, civilization, mastery of the earth. His gifts also have to do with just rebellion against oppressive authority. But on the other hand, Prometheus’ gift of fire brought us destruction and an excessive focus on development without regard for sustainability. The gift of Epimetheus is afterthought: reflecting whether the neverending, ongoing progress of civilization beneficial to the human collective? Pandora – like the earth goddess Gaia – is the balancing symbol of the other side – nature suffering under the boot of the tyranny of progress.
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