Of gods and men: the ultimate olympian


Prometheus steals back fire from Zeus to give to humans – Christian Griepenkerl, 19th century

Being in the United Kingdom during the 2012 Olympics was, I hate to admit it, uplifting. The Union Jack was retrieved from the purview of the National Front (UK’s more politicized version of Aryan Nation), and waved gleefully in the streets while the crowds cheered for anyone from anywhere who showed style, courage and spirit. And even though the Olympic logo looked like leftover pizza from a frat party, there was an unmistakable (and contagious) atmosphere of confidence, inclusiveness and pride–this in a country undergoing economic turmoil and where, unlike the US, a recession is not dressed up as a ‘down turn’.

I found myself ruminating on the story of Prometheus–the unrequited Titanic hero of Greek myth who was the inspiration for the first Olympic Games. In case you nodded off in Greek myth class, Prometheus was a counselor to the King of the Gods and gradually became a serious contender to Zeus’s celestial authority. He crossed the line when he stole fire from Zeus, who was withholding it from mankind so we didn’t get too uppity. The enraged (and fanatically jealous) Zeus shackled him to a rock in the Caucasus where an eagle came daily to snack on his liver, which always grew back–a symbol of eternal torment (though it may also suggest that the early Greeks knew about the liver’s regenerative powers, especially since the Greek word for liver–hepar–comes from the verb ‘to mend/repair’).

In some versions of the myth, man had already discovered how to control fire, but Zeus stole this knowledge after Prometheus tricked him into accepting less extravagant forms of sacrifice from Zeus’s mortal citizenry. The name Prometheus means ‘fore-thinker’ in contrast to his boneheaded brother Epimetheus, or ‘after-thinker’. He was a broker between gods and men–a defender of man who could also schmooze with His Nibs on Mount Olympus. (Or, if you prefer, an example of how the individual can usurp the powers of the State.)

The Olympic torch represents the fire that Prometheus stole from Zeus and its snatch and pass between gods and men is perhaps why the original Olympic event was the relay race. If you’re the kind of person who secretly feels that the Olympics is really about running, and wince a little over trampoline, synchronized swimming and air pistol events, you’re possibly tapping the well of historic memory.

Prometheus has long been a popular subject of Western art, as the hero/engineer who risked it all for civilization. He’s regarded as a champion of human endeavour but also as a sober reminder of its potentially dire consequences. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”.  But what is depicted in the art inspired by his story is almost always his punishment. Not his triumph. The only exceptions I’ve found so far are the one above by Austrian painter, Christian Griepenkerl; this one by 19th century German artist, Heinrich Fueger, where Prometheus already looks concerned about what might lie in store for him….

…and this one by the 17th century Flemish painter, Jan Cossiers, with its glorious, ‘Let’s see what you do about this, you pompous bastard’ expression on his face.  There are a seemingly endless number of portrayals of his suffering, with the freshly-picked liver, the voracious eagle, that blasted rock and the bound Prometheus; patiently enduring, earnestly philosophical or eternally agonized.

But in our obsession with suffering and divine retribution, let us not forget the act for which Prometheus was tortured. The control of fire was key to all human progress. Without it we would still be shivering in the mud, scooping out animal brains from rotting carcasses and dying of microbial pathogens from uncooked meat. Not to mention central heating, the combustion engine, pottery and metal-working. Looking around us now, one could argue that it may have been better if he’d left us alone. But Prometheus’s Grand Gesture was an ‘Olympian’ act, regardless. Like the most memorable winners of the Olympic Games, his victory was a stunningly executed and beautifully audacious feat.

Now that the 2012 Olympic Games are behind us, is there a way to continue to focus a bit more attention on our great achievements rather than on our dismal failures?  Not to gloat over our successes, but to remind us of what is possible. I for one could do with a little less liver-munching and a bit more slo-motion replay of that unlikely moment when Prometheus snatched the flame from Zeus’s sleeping hand, and with the power of all the gods against him–somehow, just somehow, made it across the finish line.

Because if he can do it, maybe we can too.

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About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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1 Response to Of gods and men: the ultimate olympian

  1. You do have a great point about the “Promethean” myth, that the human aspect of the story in paintings have been overlooked; there are plenty of eagles eating out poor Prometheus’s liver, the act of punishing him, but most artist seem to have missed the human side . . .a pivotal moment to illustrate or render.
    Than you for you comment

    Michael

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