You Are Prometheus

As I prepare for a new school year by revisiting mythologist Joseph Campbell’s works along with Greek myths, I find my mind frequently turning to current events and thinking about what our world will need from my students when they finish their classroom time. Teaching is a political act; teaching English is an intensely political act because English teachers challenge young people to come to a greater understanding of the world and their place in it through texts we choose for specific reasons. Will you place Ayn Rand or Thoreau before a young mind? Baldwin or Fitzgerald? Homer or Hinton?  Will you ask your students to hand back the received wisdom of last year’s lecture? Will you guide your students to find their own voices, articulate their understandings, identify truths as old as Earth? That’s politics. For me, teaching is also an act of patriotism; those discoveries I help my students to make are discoveries about themselves in a specific, remarkable, beautiful place: the United States. It is still clearly that if you look past our rodeo clown president.

 This has everything to do with Joseph Campbell’s observations about the importance of myth. Campbell says that myths come from the human imagination, and they take us into the world and then back into our imaginations. Myths honor the mystery of our being children of the earth, children of the cosmos; through myths we can find our place in that mystery. Doing this requires letting go of fear and desire, letting things be, and being with them. This requires trusting the body as well as the mind.

Myths show us the way. In fact, the myth of Prometheus is the myth of our time. Prometheus, whose name means forethought, is one of the Titans whom Zeus spares a trip to hell because Prometheus takes the side of the Olympians during the Titanomachy. Prometheus is a warrior. The war between the Titans and the Olympians lasts ten years, and he is all in. As a warrior, Prometheus confronts the facts of death and its imminence every day. His intense awareness of the ephemeral nature of life leads him to his next task: creating it. And then the next task: fighting for it. The first task comes by way of Zeus, who represents the awesome life-giving force of the earth, as a reward to Prometheus for sticking with him during the war.

 So Prometheus shapes man from the earth and from his tears, and Athena breathes life into this new creation, which walks upright like the gods. Thus, our substance is divine and full of creative energy. Prometheus sees the potential within his handiwork, so he goes the road and brings fire to man. He just up and takes it from Zeus; he does not ask permission to follow his vision of what we might make of the divine within us--all the potentialities. The prospect of civilization and all its gifts of higher thinking and being emanating from man really irks Zeus, who can be irrational, capricious, unhinged. But Prometheus is OK with Zeus’s bad mood. In fact, this trickster and thinker and dreamer ups the game when he tricks Zeus into accepting animal bones rather than meat for sacrifices to him until the end of time. Prometheus again dares to take on the great power of earth by giving the better portion--the meat--to humans.

In a fit of pique, Zeus takes fire away from man, leaving him to eat raw meat like the beasts. But Prometheus will not be kept from pursuing his goal. He goes back and steals fire again and gives it back to man. And there it stays: fire--civilization, creativity, passion, possibility. It’s all there because Prometheus believes in what he is doing, and he is prepared to defend his work despite the cost. And Zeus is not done exacting his price. It seems strange that Zeus, the energy of life personified, would fight Prometheus rather than work with him. By challenging Prometheus, though, he is inviting him to defend his work, to testify that to its worthiness. When I think of this myth in this way, the story stops me in my tracks. How beautiful is that? Every trial is an opportunity to be better. Who but the truest of friends will push you hard so that you don’t quit on yourself?

In this light, Zeus becomes the head of quality control for Prometheus. His tests go on. He has Hephaestus build a beautiful woman who will wreak havoc on man. Off Hephaestus goes to his workshop, and he whips together this amazingly beautiful woman called Pandora. The Olympian blacksmith sends her packing with a beautiful jar that he says she should never open--so of course she does. That jar is filled with disease, strife, plague--anything that could ruin your day--and, at the bottom, hope--which tends to get stuck down there. Hephaestus delivers her to Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, whose name means afterthought or hindsight, because Prometheus knows better than to accept gifts from Zeus. Epimetheus falls for the beautiful woman and marries her, Pandora takes the lid off her jar and introduces struggle to the world, and here we are today. Like Zeus, Pandora introduces to man all those things that might keep him from realizing his potential. Nevertheless, she is essential to the life of man in the same way Zeus is essential to Prometheus. And let’s not forget she is stunning: Life is stunning. To engage that life-giving force is to accept the dangers that come with being alive and pursuing a dream. She is the ultimate eye exam: How clear is your vision?

Prometheus never lets the circumstances of the moment cause him to deviate from his course--any more than we should let the swamp dweller cause us to deviate from our primary responsibilities as citizens. He embraces his creation, humanity, and he will nurture it come what may. Even when Zeus, who’s annoyed with Prometheus over these humans’ experiencing their own godlike nature as well as Prometheus’s refusal to tell the big guy which one of his kids will dethrone him, sends Force and Violence to chain Prometheus to a rock in the Caucasus and then has an eagle peck at his liver--the site of intelligence and of the soul-- every night, Prometheus holds his ground. That right there is your basic definition of character.

Not until Chiron the Centaur agrees to die for Prometheus and Heracles kills the liver-eating eagle does Zeus free Prometheus. Prometheus, for all his spunk, intelligence, and willpower, cannot save himself; he needs the support of others who care for him. (The same is true for Heracles, who is known for his brawn rather than his brain. Perhaps one of his key forms of strength is his knowing his limitations.) Zeus sees that Prometheus is worthy, and he honors the amazing truth that he, emblem of life-giving power, is one with the creative force that animates life. Chiron and Heracles validate the divine essence of human life when they come to Prometheus’s rescue.

 So. How do we live lives worthy of this commitment? That’s the question for me. That’s the question I will raise in a week, when I will enjoy the privilege of sharing the road with a bunch of kids who very likely will not welcome the challenge of The Odyssey. So will begin a taxpayer funded search for the fire that makes life beautiful. One friend said to me this summer that teaching is a life, not a job. Another friend reminded me that having so many souls in my care is a big responsibility. These statements are true.  This awesome responsibility that is my life is also a political act. It’s about living a life worth fighting for.  It's our story.


  1. Shared with my favorite cousin who teaches in NYC. You are both super people to me. Truly.


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