THEOSOPHY, Vol. 54, No. 6, April, 1966
(Pages 164-168; Size: 14K)


[Article number (26) in this Department]

There is frequent allusion by platform speakers to Prometheus -- his tortures, his struggles, his endurance, etc. -- but nothing is said about another aspect of Prometheus' character that is emphasized in the original myth as recounted by both Hesiod and Gayley: Prometheus' trickery, his cunning. (In fact, Prometheus was called "the cunning trickster.") Prometheus was not punished for his original impudence in taking the fire without permission, though Zeus was naturally infuriated by it and was looking for an opportunity to punish Prometheus. This came when, during a conference between gods and men to determine the prerogatives of each, Prometheus tricked Zeus into taking the bones of the sacrificial bull, leaving the palatable portions for men. Zeus retaliated by taking the fire from mankind, whereupon Prometheus stole it in a "hollow tube." Only then did Zeus punish Prometheus directly, by having him chained to the rock, where he had to endure endless torture until Hercules (the Saviour) released him.

It seems to me there must be a great deal more to this myth than is usually suggested. Can you elaborate?

Comment on this question takes the student into that uncertain but intriguing area of myth, allegory, and legend which has occupied scholars all down the centuries. Precisely because this phase of human expression is, in a sense, indefinable, it is one that continues to attract the inquiring mind. In fact, both higher and lower Manas as well as the intuitive faculty can be applied in such a study. Hence it should be apparent that there is no conclusive or final resolution to a problem presented in the guise of a literary fable, a truth concealed by allegory.

In using a symbol to cover or disguise a truth, its creator achieves more than one result. The initial effect is to obscure or hide that truth from the casual and uncritical gaze. But, in addition, we find that a symbolic statement, because of its non-specific nature, is capable of many interpretations. It is evident from writings on the subject that any one symbol can be understood on various levels of comprehension. Certainly the idea of a God or gods is universally diffused, yet not limited to any one concept. Only the closed mind will deny the validity of the basic idea because it is expressed in differing forms. We should not say, This idea of God is right, that one wrong, but more properly, This concept represents a certain level of understanding and as the individual grows and changes, so will his understanding. So, because of its very flexibility and adaptability, the allegory or myth is most useful as a vehicle for ideas which concern the whole of mankind throughout its entire evolution. The more basic the concept, the more various the guises under which it may appear, or the more levels at which it can be understood.

This lengthy preamble brings us to a consideration of what is, on the surface, a story from the Greek pantheon. In her Mythology, Edith Hamilton writes:

We do not know when these stories were first told in their present shape; but whenever it was, primitive life had been left far behind. The myths as we have them are the creation of great poets. ... The Greeks made gods in their own image. Saint Paul said the invisible must be understood by the visible. That was not a Hebrew idea, it was Greek. ... Greek mythology is largely made up of stories about gods and goddesses, but it must not be read as a kind of Greek Bible, an account of the Greek religion. According to the most modern idea, a real myth has nothing to do with religion. It is an explanation of something in nature; how, for instance, any and everything in the universe came into existence: men, animals, this or that tree or flower, the sun, the moon, the stars, storms, eruptions, earthquakes, all that is and all that happens. ... There are many so-called myths which explain nothing at all. These tales are pure entertainment, the sort of thing people would tell each other on a long winter's evening. The stories are early literature as well as early science. But religion is there, too. In the background, to be sure, but nevertheless plain to see. From Homer through the tragedians and even later, there is a deepening realization of what human beings need and what they must have in their gods. ... The Greeks from the earliest mythologists on had a perception of the divine and the excellent. Their longing for them was great enough to make them never give up laboring to see them clearly.
So much for Greek myths in general.

Our questioner is concerned with the story of Prometheus, son of a Titan and aid to Zeus in his battle against these gods. Are we to view him as a hero, true benefactor of mankind? This aspect is expressed by Byron in his poem Prometheus:

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind....
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force:
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
To which his Spirit may oppose
Itself -- and equal to all woes,
And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
Its own concenter'd recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.
The questioner notes that the character of Prometheus is not represented consistently by various versions of the tale. Is he indeed the "cunning trickster" or is he rather the benefactor of mankind? This paradox can be resolved if we will accept the theory of varying interpretations of the symbol. If we see the stolen fire simply as fire and mankind as primitive man benefiting by this element so essential to his physical development, is this to say that the end justifies the means, that the welfare of the many is more important than the fact that an ethical principle has been violated? One can see political overtones if this position is taken. Then, shall we see "fire" as the fire of mind which needs a spark in order to kindle the awaiting fuel? When this fire is lighted, though at first but a flickering flame, it has potentiality of growing until it rivals that splendid light of mind possessed by the gods (or god-like men). Would any true god wish to deny this boon to mankind? An overtone here is of Zeus as a member of the priestly hierarchies.

It is evident that when we try to discern the significance of Prometheus, Zeus, fire, mankind, the result will not be definitive but rather a series of expanding meanings. That this approach is in accord with theosophical ideas is brought out by H. P. Blavatsky in her consideration of Prometheus. In discussing both Prometheus and Phoroneus she states that the names bear "not one, nor even two, but a series of esoteric meanings." If this can be said of a name, how much more must it also apply to the story of the hero and the interpretation of his actions. Her account of "this grandest of all myths" says of Prometheus:

He is the representation of humanity -- active, industrious, intelligent, but at the same time ambitious, which aims at equalling divine powers. ... Prometheus having endowed man with that "wisdom which ministers to physical well-being," but the lower aspect of manas of the animal (Kama) having remained unchanged, instead of "an untainted mind, heaven's first gift", there was created the eternal vulture of the ever unsatisfied desire, of regret and despair coupled with "the dreamlike feebleness that fetters the blind race of mortals", unto the day when Prometheus is released by his heaven-appointed deliverer, Herakles. (S.D. II, 525; 412.)
An interesting suggestion is that by interfering with normal development, the gift of Prometheus became a curse. H.P.B. writes:
It was not in the programme of natural development that man -- higher animal though he may be -- should become at once -- intellectually, spiritually, and physically -- the demi-god he is on earth, while his physical frame remains weaker and more helpless and ephemeral than that of almost any huge mammal. ... For the Host that incarnated in a portion of humanity, though led to it by Karma or Nemesis, preferred free-will to passive slavery, intellectual self-conscious pain and even torture ... to inane, imbecile, instinctual beatitude. ... while saving man from mental darkness, they inflicted upon him the tortures of the self-consciousness of his responsibility -- the result of his free will -- besides every ill to which mortal man and flesh are heir to. (S.D. II, 420-21.)
As to the nature of Zeus and his relation to mankind, the statement is made that he represents the "Host of the primeval progenitors, of the PITAR, the 'Fathers' who created man senseless and without any mind." They are "spiritually lower, but physically stronger, than the Prometheans." H.P.B. sees Zeus as both god and tyrant, quoting from Mrs. Anna Swanwick's The Dramas of Æschylus:
We have, thus, the Titan, the symbol of finite reason and free will (of intellectual humanity, or the higher aspect of Manas), depicted as the sublime philanthropist, while Zeus, the supreme deity of Hellas, is portrayed as the cruel and obdurate despot, a character peculiarly revolting to Athenian sentiment. (S.D. II, 412 fn.)
She then explains that "The 'Supreme Deity' bears, in every ancient Pantheon -- including that of the Jews -- a dual character, composed of light and shadow."

The student will do well to read carefully the references in The Secret Doctrine on the subject of Prometheus for further information. The entire panorama of evolution as suggested by this myth is a vast one. A final quotation will add a hopeful note:

Man will rebecome the free Titan of old, but not before cyclic evolution has re-established the broken harmony between the two natures -- the terrestrial and the divine; after which he becomes impermeable to the lower titanic forces, invulnerable in his personality, and immortal in his individuality, which cannot happen before every animal element is eliminated from his nature. (S.D. II, 422.)

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


Philosophical poetry plays a very special part between philosophy and religion and science. It may now be said that what was once called "philosophy" no longer exists. The name has remained as a general label covering various kinds of researches such as sociology, psychology, logic, etc. Nothing corresponds any longer to what, scientifically speaking, formed the connecting link -- metaphysics, of necessity, presented, with an accuracy which rendered them unacceptable, ideas which have only an indefinable existence, which are only suppositions, not even hypotheses, which often admit of contradiction without being shaken by it. Metaphysics carried into the scientific realm conceptions which really belong to the domain of the will. These metaphysical ideas cannot claim to have a place in science, but is that a reason for refusing to consider them? They belong to another order of truth: artistic truth. They are in a latent condition only, in a state of possibility. 

DENIS SAURAT: Gods of the People

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