Steal Your Fire, Drink Your Tea

Steal Your Fire, Drink Your Tea July 27, 2017

In the late nineteenth and into the twentieth-century a good many Unitarian congregations sponsored Prometheus Clubs. These were forums for dangerous ideas—some new ones, such as quantum mechanics, and some old ones, such as looking at nature as non-dual.

Prometheus. Chances are that if you’ve heard of him, you’ve learned that he’s the god eternally punished by Zeus for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity.

That’s only part of a very old story.

The ancient Greeks believed that the name Prometheus was made up of two words, pro, meaning “before,” and manthano, “to think”—“forethinker.” Pro-meteus—the fore-thinker, is contrasted to his brother, Epi-metheus, the after-thinker, who, one assumes, had 20-20 backward vision and a degree in arm-chair quarterbacking.

However, contemporary etymologists think that metheus may stretch all the way back to a Sanskrit root, mathnati, meaning “to steal.” This perhaps indicates that Prometheus was in an earlier incarnation a trickster god.

The Prometheus myth rhymes with some Hebrew mythology.

In Genesis, God attempts to keep the knowledge of good and evil out of the hands of humanity, but fails when Eve eats the fruit. As a consequence of their new knowledge, Eve and Adam are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Eve as Prometheus.

Later, Eve’s progeny attempt to build a tower which would reach heaven (Genesis chapter 11).

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.Tower_of_babel

 Fearing that humanity will reach heaven, God confuses human language, a clever way of suppressing human knowledge.

The motif is of divine—forbidden—knowledge and theft.

In the best-known part of the myth, Prometheus steals fire from Olympus and gives it to humanity. For this effrontery, Zeus binds Prometheus to a stone and condemns him to an eternity in which eagles rip out his liver each day. Thus, Prometheus has come to stand in for human knowledge and the persistent question of whether of not we human beings have gone too far in our knowledge—entered the realm of forbidden knowledge. (The best analogy nowadays is with fears concerning artificial intelligence.)

In another story, Zeus is about to choose which parts of sacrificed animals he wants and which parts human beings will be able to keep. Prometheus tricks Zeus into claiming the entrails, fat, and bones of sacrificed animals, allowing human beings to eat the tasty meat, an act that turned sacrifices into barbecues. Zeus was understandably displeased at having been tricked, and in some versions of the story this trick  prompted him to take fire away from humanity.

Prometheus stole it back, bringing fire down from Olympus in a fennel stalk.

In some stories, Prometheus is the creator of humankind from—what else!—clay.

Speaking of the bible, it should also be mentioned that Prometheus’ punishment is the first eternal punishment mentioned in literature.

In some stories, the great hero Hercules frees Prometheus from his torment. In other stories the torment goes on. In still others, the gods eventually have had enough and force Zeus to relent.

The European Romantics loved Prometheus. Mary Shelley’s full title for her novel is Frankenstein: the New Prometheus. That love for forbidden knowledge is what formed and propelled Prometheus Clubs.

I don’t know of any Prometheus Clubs that still exist. Nowadays knowledge isn’t so much forbidden as ignored. Non-dual reality? But that implies there’s no soul, and I like the concept of the soul, so . . .

One assumes that Zeus is very pleased.

Browse Our Archives