The Fire of Prometheus and its Solar Origin

The fire of Prometheus blazes in man, drives him forward and makes him a restless being. But in all his activity he loses sight of the "clearing", the open, the primordial space in which all life and activity takes place. That is why it is important to pause, to allow oneself time, to give oneself space, to step aside so that the heart can become wide and engage with the open.

The Fire of Prometheus and its Solar Origin

If you investigate the origin of fire in the myths, you inevitably end up with the famous Greek titan Prometheus, who brought heavenly fire to mankind on earth through his bold deed. Several stories tell from where Prometheus took the fire. In one, he stole the flame from the workshop of Hephaestus. In another, he stole it from the hearth fire of the gods’ palace on Mount Olympus. And in a third, he even lit his torch directly on the sun.[1]  Since Prometheus had defied a prohibition by Zeus in stealing the fire, he was severely punished for his deed. Like a crucified man, Hephaestus forged him with chains to a mountain peak in the Caucasus. There, in the most hostile environment, he had to endure a long time in harsh solitude. But this was not enough martyrdom. Prometheus was also attacked every day by an eagle, which ate into the titan’s liver with its razor-sharp beak. The part of the liver that the eagle had consumed during the day always grew back at night, so that the torment was repeated every new day. His suffering was only redeemed by Heracles, who killed the eagle and finally freed Prometheus from the rock. From then on he wore a ring on his finger as a memorial, set with a stone from the mountain on which he had suffered for so long.[2]

The Titanic Rebel

Hardly any mythological figure of antiquity was more fervently revered by later poets and thinkers. Whether Goethe, Herder, Schlegel,  Nietzsche, Bloch or Marx, they all take sides with Prometheus and stylise him as the greatest martyr and saviour. Indeed, the impression is created that it is “the revolt against the gods that makes man a man”. [3]  If the titanic rebel had not risen above Zeus’ commandment through his sacrilege, we would still be uninspired today, without artistic gifts, without culture, without crafts, without sciences, without intellectual powers of reason. At least that is how it appears. But there is a veiled shadow of the Promethean deed that we have yet to remember. No matter how unanimous opinions about Prometheus may be, we should beware of henceforth viewing the myth only through the lens of familiar interpretive approaches, all of which confront us with only a half-truth. There can be no doubt that Prometheus is a true humanitarian and deserves our deepest sympathy. But what consequences his gifts have for human life, suffering and knowledge can only become clear if we investigate the images of the myth without presupposition.

As Hesiod relates in his Theogony, an assembly between gods and mortals once took place in Mekone, a kind of primordial sacrifice, as the authoritative model for all future offerings.[4]  It was a solemn arbitration that was to testify to the relationship humans had with the gods and would have in the future. At this sacrificial feast, Prometheus acted as the representative of humanity and sacrificed a bull, cunningly attempting to give the larger portion with the good pieces of meat to the people. The gods, on the other hand, he tried to fob off with the inedible leftovers, which appeared larger and more splendid at first glance, but in reality consisted only of skin and bones. Prometheus was not interested in a fair distribution, let alone a generous sacrifice of thanks. On the contrary, he unequivocally sided with the humans and claimed the best part for his charges. Zeus, however, saw through the sacrificial fraud and thought about how he could take revenge for the sacrilege. Angrily, he decided to hold back the fire so that the humans would never ignite it. Whereby it is nowhere said that Zeus had always intended to deny humans the fire and to shroud them in an unconscious darkness forever. He only makes his decision on the basis of the refused sacrifice. Prometheus could not have become the heroic bringer of fire at all if he had not first given the impetus for the continual concealment of the fire through the deception of the sacrifice. Prometheus’ actions ignite an ambiguous game. As a reaction to his deed, people are denied fire in the first place, only to have it finally brought to the inhabitants of the earth by him, of all people. We are dealing with a strange paradox whose double face gives us the key to interpretation. Everything in the Prometheus myth breaks down into a contradictory duality: the illuminating and the obscuring, the present and the absent, the hidden and the concealed, the given and the denied.

The Heavenly Place of Origin of the Fire

Prometheus unveils the fire for the people, but at the same time the fire also conceals something. Fire conceals its own source, the heavenly place of origin, the sun. As the sun-like origin of fire is forgotten, the memory of the gods also fades. And without remembrance, thanksgiving likewise fades. And to the extent that gratitude diminishes, the claim to power also increases. As a result, the offerings eventually cease. People only divide everything among themselves in a self-important way, without recognising, let alone appreciating, the solar origin of their gifts. Whereby “offering” in this sense does not mean a bloody sacrifice, but “sacrifice” (from Latin sacrificium) means, according to the etymology of the word: a making sacred [5]. This is precisely the decisive point, that man, who is gifted with the power of fire, does not misuse the works he creates with it and the fruits of knowledge he gains through it for his own purposes, but considers in all his actions how his achievements can serve the whole of creation. But the unchained Prometheus refuses the sacrifice. Analogously, man, intoxicated by his own abilities, begins to exploit nature and with it his sisters and brothers. Desirous of the fire of unrestrained self-empowerment, man refuses the healthy measure and its careful use.

This is the danger that arises when we consider the myth correctly and at the same time the task that arises in the sign of fire. And this, after all, is the reason why Prometheus must be forged on the rock by order of Zeus. The torment that Prometheus has to endure seems unjust and outrageous. But if we were to understand it not as a moral condemnation of imperious punishment, but as a profound symbol, it could be an urgent wake-up call. The bondage to the Caucasus is a necessary measure of the Promethean spirit which, without the boundary, would spread into the infinite and plunge everything into  fatal oblivion. Forgetting is certainly necessary and unavoidable at first. In Aeschylus’ tragedy, Prometheus boasts that he has closed people’s eyes “to their fate” and implanted “blind hope” in them instead.[6] The fact that people do not know their fate in advance, that the hour of their death is unknown to them, all this may be a hopeful consolation that makes going blind seem like a gift. However, it cannot be denied that the relief people experience through the closed gaze of fate casts a powerful shadow that waits in secret to be illuminated. The sincere view of truth into the connections of fate, into the depths of the soul, into the abysses of shadows, into the origins, all this must not remain closed forever. Therefore, Zeus wants to prepare a re-membering by means of the bondage, a re-membering that is born in a courageous questioning, a listening pause, a purified perception, a level-headed thinking power, a devoted readiness to sacrifice.

Archetype of the Restless Human Being

The name Prometheus translates as “the forward thinker”. Here the blind spot of the titan is revealed, because as the always-only-forward-thinker he never stops to reflect on the effect of his deeds. Prometheus thus becomes the archetype of the driven and restless human being who sensibly forgets the day of the sun, the 7th day of creation, on which God rested. Prometheus (before he becomes the insightful titan) never rests of his own free will, he remains tirelessly at the mercy of his creative urge. Without limitation, he would rush from deed to deed, from idea to idea, from thought to thought, as if in a frenzy. That is why he can only be released from the rock by the heroic deed of Heracles when he has internalised the Apollonian measure and his fire no longer stands in the way of the sun, darkening it. The eagle that gnaws painfully at Prometheus’ liver every day anew is to be understood in this sense. It is the unrecognised, undermining aggression of his own unbridled flight of thought that afflicts the organ of detoxification. Since the liver was considered the seat of vitality in ancient times, the eagle also reminds us that excessive fire is about to destroy the precious life forces.

Prometheus wants to illuminate and master everything by means of fire and does not even notice what the destructive shadow does in the process. This is why his intercessor, Okeanos, calls out to him: “Know thyself; reshape thyself into a new kind” [7].  Prometheus only truly recognises himself when he considers the shadow of fire (which flies at him in the form of the eagle) and thereby transforms his own being. The “know thyself” only becomes humanly possible through the moderation of the fire. And moderation in this case means nothing other than taking a step aside. Only when the fire frees the space and no longer dazzles the human eyes with its cheeky light does the purified perception open up and allow the mystery of the sun to step out of concealment into the open. Only then can the call of the Okeanos for transformation really become audible, a call for transformation that is addressed to all of us.

The Clearing, the Open

To sum up, let us look again at the elusive paradox. Through the fire, light is kindled and light is extinguished at the same time. The more this dichotomy unveils itself, the closer we come to Apollo’s watchword, “Know thyself.” Or to put it in the words of Martin Heidegger[8]:

“Through the fire, being enters into unconcealment. All being becomes visible as being present, but being itself falls into oblivion, it remains unthought of and consequently in concealment. Yet being is already illuminated before the deed of Prometheus. Only it remains hidden – although illuminated – precisely because of the fire. For the light can invade the clearing. It’s open, and in it let the light play with the dark. But light never creates the clearing in the first place. The clearing is the opening to all that is present and absent. [9]

The clearing exists before the light of the fire ever illuminates the clearing. The fire makes visible that which is present in the clearing (that which exists), but it does not itself create openness. The openness – because it is shone upon too intensely – recedes behind the being and therefore remains unthought of. The being is only opened up in its being when the clearing becomes perceptible to us again as the open. The poet Friedrich Hölderlin also points to this when he writes, “Come into the open, friend!” [10]  In order for this longed-for movement into the open to take place, it is necessary – speaking in the images of myth – to distinguish between the Promethean fire and its sun-like origin. The mythical sun is not simply a source of light that makes the existent appear, but it points to the cleared, open primordial space, it clears the clearing, makes it free and light.

Whoever consciously steps out into the open experiences himself with the things in a common world-space. The Promethean fire alone is not enough to make this experience possible. The heart is the seat of the sun in the human being. What does it mean to be prudent? It means to allow oneself time, to give oneself space, to pause, to step aside, to surrender oneself, so that the heart becomes wide and in its expansion feels the open in an illuminating way. Only those who use the solar organ in this way for sentient thinking will deliver Prometheus from the rock and take his sacrifice from him. All things are in danger, but in prudent contemplation they can be saved and transformed. That is, whenever we no longer perceive things with our heart’s gaze as isolated from one another, but as things that are and can only be because they – like everything and all of us – are rooted in the lightened openness of existence. Therein lies the secret of the sun-fire spirit that calls everything and all of us into existence. Only when this thought dawns in our hearts in a tender morning light do we begin to suspect what tremendous, but at the same time wonderful, powers slumber in the fire.

This is my hope when we actually begin what it is
We wish for, and our tongues are finally unfastened,
And the word is found, and our hearts are lifted up and away,
And cogitations escape from a more drunken brow,
As the blossom of the sky, with the same start time as ours,
Opens to the open gaze the luminous becomes.
(from Hölderlin, Walk to the Land)

1 Karl Kerényi, Die Mythologie der Griechen, Band I: Die Götter- und Menschheitsgeschichten DTV, Munich 1966, p. 171

[2] The role played in this context by Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, Pandora, Achilles, Chiron, Dionysus and Persephone cannot be discussed in this article. The role of Prometheus as the creator of human beings must also remain unexamined. It should only be mentioned that it was the goddess Athena who animated the earthen bodies and breathed soul and spirit into them. Cf. on this: Martin Spura, Das verweigerte Opfer des Prometheus (The Refused Sacrifice of Prometheus), chapter 2.

[3] NZZ 2.12.2020, Thomas Ribi, Am Anfang der menschlichen Kultur stand ein Frevel

[4] Hesiod, Theogonie, Verse 535

[5] On the “essence of sacrifice” cf. Martin Spura, Das verweigerte Opfer des Prometheus (The Refused Sacrifice of Prometheus), chapter 4.2

[6] Aischylos, The chained Prometheus, verse 248

[7] Aischylos, ibid., verse 309 f.

[8] Martin Spura, ibid., esp. chapter 2, 4 and 7

[9] Martin Heidegger, Zur Sache des Denkens, Das Ende der Philosophie und die Aufgabe des Denkens, Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 1969, p. 72

[10] Hölderlin, Der Gang aufs Land (The walk in the country)

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Date: November 14, 2023
Author: Martin Spura (Germany)
Photo: fireball-Gerd Altmann auf Pixabay CCO

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