Monday, 1 July 2013

Prometheus

Hello again, my dear friends!  I’m so pleased that you’ve decided, once again, to join us at the doors of the Classics Closet.  Because of a few hectic things going on with life, I’m not going to be able to give you the outing that I originally intended (which will still happen in the future), but I’m still going to give you something that should be equally as fun! 


Typically, we take some time to look at global celebrities who have been influenced by the civilizations of Greece and Rome, you know that because you’ve been going on these little excursions with us for a few months.  Today, however, we’re going to do a little survey of a titanic ancient Greco-Roman figure, and we’re going to explore some of the ways that he impacts our culture today.  Since we’re dealing with an ancient figure rather than just a celebrity, I’m going to have to give a little summary of the ancient figure. 


So, today, let’s take a little bit of time to look at the titan who made humanity the spectacular creatures that we are today.  Let’s talk about the fire-bringer:


Prometheus




According to Hesiod’s 8th-century BCE Theogony, Prometheus sought to deceive the almighty son of crooked-minded Cronos - Zeus.  During a meeting, which was meant to reconcile the differences between men and the gods, Prometheus decided to show his own dominance in wisdom over Zeus.  The titan cut up a bull and divided it into two parts:  the first consisted of all of the best parts of the bull wrapped in the bovine stomach (i.e. the best bits in a bad packaging), while the second consisted of meatless bones covered in a layer of fat (i.e. the worst bits wrapped in a good packaging).  The purpose of these two bundles was to set a precedent for future sacrifices.


Zeus noted the poor division of the possible offerings based on their outward appearances, and chose the one which seemed most suited to him by exterior:  the bones wrapped in fat.  Though bound by his own agreement to accept only bones and fat from sacrificed beasts in the future, the king of Olympus withdrew from mortals the gift of fire.  


Prometheus, without rhyme or reason, stole fire from Olympus, and presented it to man.  Both humanity and the titan were punished for such insolence:  the gods created Pandora, the progenitor of the race of women, to serve as a punishment for mortals, and Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucus Mountains where a great bird would descend and devour his liver every day so that it may regrow each night.  This was the punishment of Prometheus for twice helping man and twice deceiving the Olympians!


Let me summarize the above summary in an even more basic way:  Prometheus tricked the most powerful being in the universe - successfully - and was chained to a rock to have his liver ripped from his body by a gigantic bird daily.  Because this guy happened to be sympathetic toward the puny human race AND was smarter than Big Daddy Zeus, he suffers eternally.


It is this grand pursuit of uninhibited progress that reveals the darker side of Promethean foresight and development.  And while that’s all well and good for antiquity, the focus of this outing is now going to explore the, arguably, most popular reception of Prometheus in the modern world. 


First published anonymously in 1818, Mary Shelley unleashed upon the world a novel which was supposedly inspired by a dream that she had.  Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is a gothic novel that follows the life of an aspiring doctor from Geneva, Victor Frankenstein.  This young man becomes our modern Prometheus when he seeks to usurp power from God, and pursues to imbue inanimate bodies with life. 


Effectively, Frankenstein seeks to mirror a Roman variant of the Prometheus myth in creating life.  Though in the Hesiodic tradition, Prometheus was not the divine patron of humanity, in a later Roman adaptation of the myth, the Titan was responsible for crafting human life from clay.  After forming his oversized golem from various cadavers, and giving his creation breath, Victor abandons his creature to its own devices.  Whereas his titanic antecedent had taught man to hunt, read, and heal their sick as well as stealing fire from the gods to ensure the survival of his homunculi, Frankenstein abandoned his Adam without the foresight to give it more than the meager basics of existence. 


Shelley was writing a warning against the vast expansion of the Industrial Revolution, and was reminding her readers of the dangers of not keeping a vigilant eye on scientific advancements.  This dark, prophetic warning against the potential dangers of the Industrial Revolution was extremely influential in serving as a landmark for not only both gothic and romantic literature, but also for modern science fiction.  Shelley’s rendition of Prometheus has been re-envisioned over 130 times in other books of fiction, 50 fictional series, over 80 stage productions, nearly 600 times in individual comics, and 80 films.  By and far, Frankenstein has been one of the most influential receptions of this ancient Greek myth.    




Though Boris Karloff is most famous for portraying Shelley’s abominable re-envisioning of mankind on the silver screen, his is not the most interesting for the sake of this study.  Between 2004 and 2011, Dean Koontz co-authored a series of five novels which are collectively known as Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein.  Though these novels only share superficial similarities with Shelley’s original work, they provide an interesting insight into our understanding of the original Prometheus myth. 




In this series, which had a television film created in 2004, Victor Frankenstein is living in modern day New Orleans under the alias Victor Helios.  Helios, a nominal reference to the ancient Greek sun god who was later supplanted by Apollo, is misotheistically constructing humanoid life to his own specifications, and has been doing so for some two-hundred years.  His first-born, or first-crafted, was a patchwork of an assortment of criminal cadavers, the original Frankenstein’s monster, called Deucalion.  Through centuries of practice, however, Helios has improved his originally primitive creation method which was employed in crafting Deucalion, and has begun bio-engineering physically superior human-like creatures with which he plans to repopulate Earth.  In this regard, Koontz’s Prometheus-figure is actively trying to improve upon the creations of Zeus in order to prove his own superiority as a creator.             


Finally on the topic of the Frankenstein/Prometheus tradition, I feel obligated to very briefly mention the impact of this reception tradition on the world of table-top gaming.  For those of you who aren’t precisely sure what I mean by a table-top roleplaying game, I am referencing a phenomenon which rose to prominence in the 1970s under E. Gary Gygax and his cohorts called Dungeons and Dragons




I could draw some vague connections between flesh golems in D&D’s Ravenloft campaign setting and the Prometheus archetype, but this is not necessary because White Wolf Publishing, a rival company of TSR and Wizards of the Coast (the owners of the D&D franchise), released an entire series appealing to gamers with an interest in Gothic literature:  The World of Darkness




This game is different from the traditional fantasy setting of D&D which is filled with trolls and dragons because it is populated with vampires descended from the biblical murderer Cain, werewolves whose progenitors were ravenous men who had struck deals with dark forces, and Prometheans who are creatures reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein’s creation.  Though these Prometheans bear no more connection to the original Prometheus myth than those drawn from their literary originator Frankenstein, I thought that it was very interesting to realize that this connection is still being appreciated within certain communities.  Whereas many publishers have removed the sub-title of Shelley’s work choosing to only refer to the dark novel as Frankenstein with, at best, a mention of Prometheus in the foreword, White Wolf’s World of Darkness dedicated an entire race and series of books to the connective tradition of Prometheus and Frankenstein.        


Though this survey of the reception of the Prometheus tradition via Frankenstein is far from comprehensive, my mission today has been to familiarize you with some of the re-envisionings of the ancient Titan who once stole fire from the Olympians so that mankind could survive, thrive, and become the spectacular creatures that we are today.  Prometheus has come to embody not only the greatest technological and ideological potentials of mankind, but he also serves as a warning.  Those things which make our species great can be the same things that potentially bind and destroy us.  




 
 
 
 

5 comments:

  1. Shaun Luke Rice14 July 2013 at 18:29

    I read the latest post on CC and couldn't help but telling you: that last sentence made me think of robots...

    "Prometheus has come to embody not only the greatest technological and ideological potentials of mankind, but he also serves as a warning. Those things which make our species great can be the same things that potentially bind and destroy us." I take it that robots could literally bind and destroy us should they achieve artificial or even actual intelligence. The film 'I, Robot further' explains my point...

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