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Promethean Myth Essay, Research Paper

Discuss the relationship between Prometheus and Faustus, paying particular attention to the use of cultural myth.

The beautiful fables of the Greeks, being proper creations of the imagination and not of the fancy, are universal verities. What a range of meanings and what perpetual pertinence has the story of Prometheus. Ralph Waldo Emerson

The influence and legacy of the Promethean myth can be traced through history. From Hesiod to Shakespeare, Marlowe to the Coen Brothers, the Promethean motif has been reused and recycled until it holds a distinctly familiar, yet strangely obscure grip on the imagination. What is the reality behind this myth and how does our own contemporary reality compare with a three thousand year old Greek fable? One aspect that we can relate to is the impotence of Prometheus. This is highlighted in Marlowe?s Dr Faustus; this impotence is inextricably linked with the conflict between the representatives of man (Prometheus and Faustus) against a superior power. To explore these links, it is first prudent to trace the history and influence of the Promethean myth.

The history of this recognised cultural myth is difficult to ascertain, certainly Aeschylus loosely based his play on Hesiod?s two poems Theogony and The works and Days, but where can the origin of such a fable be found? History tells us that the early civilisations made sacrifices to their various ?Gods?; an animal would be butchered, the fat, bones and entrails would be wholly burnt and the smoke would ascend heavenward. The meat could then be eaten thus ensuring no waste. Hesiod?s version of the myth about Prometheus?s and Zeus?s choice seems to have been composed to explain why people didn?t have to burn the parts that were good to eat (an etiologic myth). This is just one example, however, of the fire creation story which can be traced throughout many early global cultures, from Norse to Aboriginal: witness Krishna?s claims that ?Brahma is the bringer of light for rebirth? in Indian mythology. James Frazer gives many examples about the original theft of fire from a wide variety of cultures in his essay .

There is no doubt that the Promethean tradition has become an everyday aspect of literary and artistic society: Shakespearean lines such as ?Women?s eyes are the source of true Promethean fire? to ?And faster bound to Aaron?s charming eyes, than is Prometheus tied to the Caucaus? 4 illustrate this, (Nietzsche also argues that Hamlet is a Dionysiac Promethean hero)5 . The great Romantic Poets offered their interpretations of the myth; Byron?s ?Prometheus? and P B Shelley?s sequel ?Prometheus Unbound?. Milton used the Promethean myth to shape his characterisation of Satan in Paradise Lost; indeed The Book of Genesis can be seen as an example of the complete Promethean myth: Adam?s temptation with forbidden knowledge and subsequent fall from grace completely encapsulates the Prometheus/Faustus myth. In this case it is an example of a Greek myth being appropriated and assimilated into Christian, Jewish and Islamic dogma. A more contemporary example is Hitler?s description of Napoleon : ?He is the Prometheus of Mankind?6 and the recent Coen Brothers Movie ?Fargo? in which William H Macy?s character is depicted as a complex example of the Promethean hero. Or Mickey Rourke?s characterisation of a post second world war Faustus, in which he sells his soul to the devil (Robert De Niro) in order to become ?Johnny Angel: a crooner with a pair of tonsils to me yeh weep?(sic) in Allan Parker?s movie ?Angel Heart?. It is however, Marlowe?s Dr Faustus, based on the English Faust book where we find what is essentially the core of the Promethean myth, the fall of man from (a) God. This loss of power and subsequent impotence can be clearly seen in the characterisation of Faustus.

The powerless hero, or power crazy fool. The perceived view of the venerable Doctor Faustus can depend on whether you view him as a hero in the Promethean mould or simply an over ambitious iconoclast. John Cutts explains ?that the romantic notion of him as a Promethean figure stealing fire from heaven to illuminate and emancipate man otherwise shackled to crippling medievalism, leads on to the Goethean extension of saving Faustus from alien destructive forces?7 . To see him in this light, we must investigate his lack of power. In order for him to satisfy his craving for Demigod status he sells his soul to Lucifer with certain provisos, one being ?that Mephistopheles shall do for him, and bring him whatsoever?8 . This condition (like all the conditions) he is demanding, although initially agreed to by Mephistopheles, turns out to be flagrantly ignored. When Faustus inquires ?Now tell me, who made the world??9 , Mephistopheles simply replies ?I will not?. As to the nature of heaven, Mephistopheles is vague revealing only that they are ?within the bowels of these elements?10 To Faustus, Mephistopheles is merely an extremely efficient travel agent and a ?Cooperesque? music hall magician. Faustus in selling his soul for ultimate power is sold short and thus is rendered impotent. This is clearly illustrated when he attempts a reconciliation with God in order to save himself, but finds that he is not strong enough in body and spirit. It is this tragedy of the spirit that exemplifies the Promethean hero. Of course Prometheus too was rendered impotent – the son of the Titan Iapetus, himself a Titan, held in check by Zeus, a younger deity. This impotence is born from the conflict between that Higher power and the human (Faustus/Prometheus) character.

The motif of one man toiling against the odds, whether in fiction or factorial reality, such as the histrionic intrigue that is the political arena; the example of a defiant hero or rebel risking all for the many is very familiar to us. But, ?The rebellion must be crushed? Darth Vader11 coolly expostulated. Prometheus is up against Zeus, leader of the Gods. This head to head contest is very unevenly matched (as are Faustus and Lucifer). Zeus is never seen in Aeschylus? play, but we have a fair indication of how Aeschylus wants the audience to view him. Strength and Violence treat the fallen Titan akin to a mere mortal ?Why do you not hate a God who is an enemy to all the gods?12 . Aeschylus uses the introduction of Oceanus and Io to develop the core drama of the play – Prometheus defiance to Zeus and as Nietzsche puts it, his ?Ubermensch?13 tendencies. Io also serves to illustrate the might and cruelty of Zeus?s immense power ?Tormented in ever restless exile by the cruelty of Hera?14 . Hera is merely an extension of Zeus?s all encompassing power. During these scenes Prometheus is silent, he has turned his attention away from the outer world and is concentrating on his inner one: ?turn your thoughts elsewhere; now is not the time to speak?15 . Meditation on his far off salvation appears to be his only comfort. Faustus?s conflict stems from his pride and he subsequently refuses to recognise the mercy of God ; ?But Faustus offence can never be pardoned?16 . As Douglas Cole states ?the Doctor?s hyperbole is a measure of his despair?17 . He is suffering from the spiritual loss of power. His inability to accept God?s redemption becomes his poena damni18 . Marlowe has exploited this irony in the dramatic terms of the play; the hero although faced with the two supreme powers Good and Evil is rendered impotent due to his own lack of human spirit and therefore this renders his salvation impossible. We can see Prometheus as a socialist figure waging a battle for the common man. Faustus nearly achieves this status; he is in danger of sounding like Lenin when he exclaims to the academics ?I?ve seen what is better?. Instead he metamorphosis into a bourgeois capitalist, fighting for himself and only himself. Faustus and Prometheus do however, share the similarity that their struggle has become internalised, it is now a fight for the human spirit.

The struggle of the individual against a superior power is a very common emblem to us today, from Malcolm X to Saddam Hussian (depending on your point of view of course) . The history of this cultural myth can be traced back to human necessity; when in our embryonic stage of intellectual development we needed to make sense of our surroundings, in our effort to begin to explain the unexplainable the myth was born. A myth that fledgling religions absorbed and made their own so completely that the original myth has very nearly been eclipsed. But when does myth become reality again? Did Jimi Hendrix really sell his soul to the devil in order to ?wield the axe? as a modern day Faustus or what can we make of Ruben ?Hurricane? Carter, the innocent boxer forced to struggle against an unyeilding power for freedom – a real life Prometheus? Bob Dylan sums up:

?Here comes the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame

for something that he never done, put in a prison cell, but one time he coulda been

the champion of the world?19

The circularity of the reality myth reality theme is still evident and as pertinent today as it was when we still sacrificed animals to gain the gods? benevolence, as is the continuing struggle (as illustrated by Prometheus and Faustus) to recognise and understand our own fragile spirit.


Primary texts

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, Penguin Classic Edition 1961

C. Marlowe, The Complete Plays, Penguin Classic Edition 1969

Secondary texts

S. Radhakrishnan ed, The Bhagavagita, HaperCollins 1993

J. Fraser, Myths of the Origin of Fire – an essay, Hacker Art Books, as cited in Pyne SJ (1991) Burning Bush – A fire history of Australia (Allen & Ungin 1991)

W. Shakespeare, Love?s Labour Lost, Norton Critical Edition 1997

W Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, Norton Critical Edition 1997

F. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Penguin Classics Edition 1978

F Nietzsche, A Nietzsche Reader, Penguin Classic Edition 1977

A. Hitler, Mien Kampf, Hutchinson 1969

JP Cutts, The Left Hand of God, Haddonfield House 1973

D Cole, Suffering and Evil in the Plays of Christopher Marlowe, Princeton Press 1962

The Holy Bible, Gideons Edition 1980

J Milton, Paradise Lost, Penguin Classics Edition 1996

Secondary Sources

Essay Plan collaboration with Anna Whitsed

E & J Coen, Fargo, Polygram Filmed Entertainment 1996

A Parker, Angel Heart, Newline Cinema 1987

G. Lucas, STAR WARS, Lucas Films 1977

B Dylan, Hurricane, Rans Horn Music 1975

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