Prometheus: A Lesson in Civil Disobedience

Intentional or not, one of the first lessons that comes down to us from Greek mythology (from a Chronological perspective) is the necessity of civil disobedience. If we are to take care of ourselves, then we must act out against the express commands of authority.

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In the Promethean myth the authority figure is of course Zeus and, as with most authority, his power is justified solely by his position in the existing hierarchy, One of the earliest version of the story comes from Hesiod’s Theogeny, and in it Prometheus’ first act of civil disobedience comes at the ‘settling of accounts’ between mortals and the immortals.

During this sacrificial meal he is to prepare two offerings for Zeus to choose between, which will serve as the basis for future offerings to the gods. He prepares a selection of beef hidden inside an ox’s stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and bull’s bones wrapped completely in “glistening fat” (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus picks the second one, meaning that from then on humans will be able to keep the meet for themselves, and give the fat and bones to the gods.

Prometheus, who is credited with creating the mortal race, has acted to make sure that his wards will get the main benefit of their own labor.

This act, while not against the Zeus’ orders, nonetheless incurs his anger, and Zeus reacts by taking fire and the means of life away from humans. Prometheus promptly steals these back, and restores the ability of people to work to improve their own lives.

 The "Theft of Fire" by Prometheus from the sleeping Zeus and Ganymede. Ceiling painting in the grand staircase of the Augusteum, Oldenburg.

His punishment for this is ghastly, chained to a rock for all eternity, he is condemned to suffer an eagle eating his liver every day, only to have it regenerate at night so his suffering can continue. Zeus also unleashes Pandora upon the world, who brings “evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death”.

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This is a story set at the dawn of the human race and the first thing it tells us is that left to their own devices, those in power will take the best of what we have. Civil disobedience is to risk punishment in order to balance the scales a little. It is needed right from the onset of power exercised by others over us.

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