A Doll's House, ankh, Bing Bong, Chorus, Comics, death, dithyramb, Dream, Endless Nights, Episcopal, god, graphic novel, Greek Drama, Inside Out, mortality, mythology, Neil Gaiman, Preludes and Nocturnes, Priapus, Prometheus, Prometheus Bound, protagonist origin, Sandman, Seasons of Mist, Skyrim, suffering, The PeaPicker, The Sound of Her Wings, Zeus
The notion of god is not lost on this former Episcopalian. Growing up in the church that I did god was, for the most part, a benevolent character that for some reason had decided to live in the clouds, bestow love and wisdom to human beings, and only ever ask that you not fall asleep during the Sermon. The god of Baptists on other hand, the god I was supposed to worship according to my teachers, principals, and abstinence-only guidance lectures, seemed to be a bit of a prick. This perception didn’t change as I aged. As I read more and more about god, and gods in general for that matter, the general impression derived was that the divine beings, who always seem annoyed or vexed by male homosexuality (lesbians don’t exist outside of pornography apparently) and masturbation, were colossal pricks. There are days when I miss that Episcopal god, because out of all deities I’ve come across he seemed to most accommodating, or at the very least that dude you could go fishing with on a Friday afternoon and have a beer with and just relax. Yeah his boyfriend is a little high maintenance, but the guy makes pretty good lasagna so you’re cool…for now.
The idea or role of god has been bouncing around in my head as of late, though the term god is something of a misnomer here. Perhaps titan is better. I’ve been considering more and more the character Prometheus for, apart from being the title of one of my favorite films, he seems particularly relevant as I approach graduating with my masters and becoming a teacher. The romantic image of Prometheus giving man the secret of fire and then suffering for attempting to help by spreading knowledge is a narrative I suspect all writers and teachers keep close to their secret hearts. We all want to change the world in our own way, and while this self-vision may be pathos, Prometheus will at some point make his appearance into the psychology of any person who teaches.
The narrative of Prometheus is defined by its very defiance. Zeus, upon overthrowing his father and becoming king of the gods assigned various jobs/aspects/locations/vocations/etc. to the other deities. Apollo became god of the sun, Hera became goddess of the home and mothers, Pallas Athena became champion of knowledge and wisdom, Ares the god of war, and so on until you get Priapus, which, dear lord did that really need its own deity?
Nevermind, just googled it, yeah it did.
When Zeus was finished metaphorically waving his dick around (you’re still seeing Priapus aren’t you, is that even attractive?) and establishing his kingdom decided he would eliminate mortals and create a new race, however Prometheus stole fire and gave it to humanity thus stymieing Zeus effort and incurring his wrath.
That is one interpretation of Prometheus, for as so often happens in mythology there are many different versions of the man’s character. Before you suggest that that’s stupid inconsistency please remember that there are well over 30 different denominations of Christianity and the core belief of that religion is to be a good person and be kind for the poor and that most of the differences between them are about when the wine turns into Christ’s blood. This image of Prometheus as the rebel Titan defying Zeus’s will have to be the functional model of the man as I discuss 50 dancing Greek dudes.
A few years back I went to a small bookstore in my hometown called The PeaPicker. It’s a charming little place with half the store being a wall of Harlequin romance novels. In the back on the opposite wall are the classics, and on the day I took my wife to go book shopping (an activity that I now recognize I have to do alone because my wife rarely reads anything that isn’t on her phone) I found a small Penguin Classics copy of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. At the time I was still an undergraduate, but I recognized the name Prometheus from a few slim mentions in high school, but mostly because I’d observed in my Norton Anthology of English Literature a play written by Percy Shelley entitled Prometheus Unbound. The title stirred something in me and I knew I had to buy the book. We returned to my wife’s, at that time fiancé’s, apartment and while she played Skyrim I read the play understanding at most three or four words. I placed Prometheus Bound on my shelf when I returned home and let it rest there until I heard its sirens call me once more.
Part of me wants to say it was watching Prometheus again lately, but in all honesty it’s likely because I’m about to graduate and start teaching and so there’s some pompousness on my part that I, like Prometheus, will be teaching man the art of fire which, in this case is writing. The realistic scenario is I’ll teach three kids what a semi-colon is.
I can at least teach somebody here a little bit about Greek Drama and the play. As the title suggests there’s a man by the name of Prometheus and he signs a six month lease on his apartment…
I really shouldn’t try to be funny.
Prometheus has defied the will of Zeus and so the titan is bound to a rock by the god Hephaestus who pities him, and the rest of the play is Prometheus talking with the Chorus, various gods and heroes that appear, all while standing in a pseudo-crucifixion stance. If that doesn’t sound terribly exciting remember this is an age before indoor plumbing and Netflix so you had to find some way to spend a Friday night apart from boy-boffing (only if you’re in Athens though). Fortunately for the reader though Prometheus does not mince words and explains outright to the Chorus why he has suffered this fate:
Now, for your question, on what charge Zeus tortures me, I’ll tell you. One succeeding to his father’s throne at once he appointed various rights to various gods, giving to each his set place and authority. Of wretched humans he took no account, resolved to annihilate them and create another race. This purpose there was no one to oppose but I: I dared. I saved the human race from being ground to dust, from total death. (27).
If this isn’t clear enough they simplify the matter on the following page:
Chorus: Your gift brought them great blessing.
Prometheus: I did more than that: I gave them fire. (28).
Greek Drama is a difficult animal to tackle when arguing about relevance to contemporary society. Most people would hear the name drama alone and immediately picture a naked man covered in meat screaming about Marxism and Jingle Bells. Ahh, how I love the legitimate theatre. Greek drama especially seems to have been reserved to a few handfuls of academics and rich people who like to feel smart, and I recognize that most people will live their entire lives without sitting down to actually read this play. Despite this I’m not resigned and I can least share a few interesting facts before I get to Neil Gaiman.
Greek Drama was the institution that refined the genre of tragedy, you know that thing that happened to Bing Bong in Inside Out (*in hushed whispers* NEVER FORGET). Originally tragedy, and I had to consult an actual PhD in Greek Drama for this information by the way, thanks Dr. Streufert, was known as “dithyramb.” It was basically a long poem set to dance while 50 people danced to it. Another playwright by the name of Thespis decided one day, “Hey let’s take one guy out and make the play around him!” This would eventually create the figure of the protagonist, a narrative structure everyone recognizes, and the remaining 49 people would become “The Chorus.” Drama would continue to develop eventually introducing the deuteragonist (the second dude who isn’t the hero) and then multiple characters, but my principle concern here is Prometheus Bound and the oddity of the play.
Reading this book in the context of mythology is rather interesting because, if you had to read Edith Hamilton like I did growing up, the character of Zeus seems reminiscent of the Christian god, until you really dig into actual mythology. Prometheus talks to the Chorus often of Zeus and one passage near the end strikes me:
I swear that Zeus, for all his obstinacy, shall yet be humbled, so disastrous shall this marriage prove which he proposes—a marriage that shall hurl him out of throne and sovereignty into oblivion. […] There is no god but I who can reveal to him the way to avert this ignominy. I know it all. So let him sit on, serenely confident in his celestial thunders, brandishing thunderbolt—that will not save him: His fall will be sure, shameful, unendurable! (47).
In my notes written on a cheap yellow legal pad I have the words written, “Political attack on unchecked power” and after that a quote I have “Even Zeus bows to necessity.” It’s difficult to understand the fallible lack of omniscience in deities if you grew up immersed in the Christian monotheism that I did. God seems all-knowing and yet reading Prometheus Bound it becomes clear that being a god does not make one immune from fault or pride. Prometheus as a character alone seems to possess foresight yet even this does not make him immune from having some kind of character.
Looking at this play I struggled to find some correlation, some literary connection, and when looking at gods and goddesses I look to Neil Gaiman.
The Sandman series is perhaps the most literary re-imagining of mythology in our time period, not to mention one of the most outstandingly original series in the last two decades. I remarked to several of my friends in a bi-weekly graphic novel book club that I truly hate Neil Gaiman because the man could sneeze in his hand and manage to turn it into art, and then probably have Dave McKean do the cover for it using nothing but medical waste and cat calendars. The series currently stands as ten books of the collected single issues along with the most recent work Overture (which was *meh,* let’s be honest) and Endless Nights (which was *dude*) and follows the adventures of “Dream” one of the “Endless” beings that govern over a fabric of existence. Dream is only one of seven siblings: Destruction, Delirium (who used to be Delight), Despair, Desire, Destiny, and, to quote from Seasons of Mist “And there’s Death.”
Sandman Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes is not the best book in the series, that station is (I hope TJ reads this and notes I took the time to write this down) the second Volume A Doll’s House, but the final chapter in the book makes the entire story worth it. Dream, in the beginning has been captured by group of cultists attempting to capture Death thereby ending human mortality. Instead they capture Dream and lock him in a bubble for a hundred years until he finally escapes. The reader follows him as he retrieves his armor and magical objects and at the end of his journey, in the issue The Sound of Her Wings he finds himself in a slump, not sure how to continue when he’s joined by a young woman:
There are few introductions in any literary work quite as magical, or paradigm altering as Death’s. The woman herself is often considered the second hero of this series and has inspired not only individual spin-offs but countless artistic pieces by fans and, thank goodness, scores of what now exists as the most tasteful female cosplay for girls wishing to avoid creepy dudes with a Powergirl or Red Sonja fetishes. Death, who is the physical manifestation of Death, talks to Dream and, like any good older sister, calls him out on his crap:
The reader may by now be wondering what does this have to do with Prometheus Bound and Greek Drama? What do comic books have to do with literature, mythology, and theism?
Well be patient, there’s one more passage to cite. Death takes Dream with her as she gathers souls to take to the “other side” and Dream is able to see how much the Endless affects the lives of mortals, and how much he, as one of them, has forgotten his own station:
I find myself wondering about humanity. Their attitude to my sister’s gift is so strange. Why do they fear the sunless lands? It is as natural to die s it is to be born. But they fear her. Feebly they attempt to placate her. They do not lover her. Many thousands of years
ago I heard a song in a dream, a mortal song that celebrated her gift. I still remember it.
“Death is before today: Like the recovery of a sick man, Like going forth into a garden after sickness.
“Death is before me today: Like the odor of myrrh, Like sitting under a sail in a good wind.
“Death is before me today: Like the course of a stream; Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.
“Death is before me today: Like the home that a man longs to see, After years spent as a captive.”
That forgotten poet understood her gifts. My sister has a function to perform, even as I do. The Endless have their responsibilities. I have responsibilities. I walk by her side, and the darkness lifts from my soul. I walk with her, and I heat the gentle beating of mighty wings…”
Despite centuries of difference in time, cultural values, paradigms, emotions, artistic expectations, and philosophies both Aeschylus and Gaiman touch upon the idea that not even the gods had all of existence figured out. Dream is technically one of the “Endless,” a being that surpasses gods (I need to remember to appease the Internet Nerd Gods lest I suffer their wrath), and as the lord of dreams he governs over the dreams and ambitions of mortals, but even he is not immune to ignorance, pride, or fault. Looking back to Prometheus then, and wondering briefly about that Episcopalian god I left behind long ago, I think of Death.
Recently I looked at the symbol she wears around her neck. It’s an ankh, an Egyptian symbol standing for life and its essence. I bridged this topic at the book club and was dealt with the platitude, “Without life, death has no meaning.” This was painfully cotton candy pathetic, as most platitudes are, but not untrue. Death and Prometheus are possessed with a sight that surpasses the beings that surround them, there’s a reason that Death is Dream’s older brother, and both are ultimately rejected. Fire and death are lessons all of us must learn because they are balances. Fire is light and energy that pierces the dark, ripping at its near endless seems trying to defy it’s all encompassing power, but without the dark fire has no purpose.
The lessons of Death and Prometheus are lessons about suffering, and for that reasons they are the ones many of us have to learn at some point. I’ve retained enough lessons from my time in the Episcopal Church to remember that one lesson. Suffering in life in inevitable, whether it be from the choices you make, or from your own fear of the unknown, but everyone has to suffer if they’re going to acquire some kind of knowledge. Without some manner of pain or hurt there is no knowledge. Prometheus saw this, and as punishment Zeus sent an Eagle to eat his liver once a day.
Prometheus would eventually be freed from this punishment by Hercules as one of the Twelve Struggles he had to endure after killing his wife and family, and while there some comfort in this I’m still not sure why the man, the Titan has been bouncing around in my brain. It might be a phase of life-issue, grad-school ending and life about to begin, or else it may be my wife’s now daily conversation about having children. I don’t believe babies normally eat livers, but I suppose that’s a lesson I’ll have to learn, and maybe pass along to the progeny when they’re ready unless I can talk my wife out of it.
Then again “even husbands bow to necessity” when necessity comes in the form of a wife.
All passages from Prometheus Bound come from the Penguin Classics Edition which was translated by Philip Vellacott. I recognize that translations can be crappy or unreliable at times, but it’s the only edition I had on hand. If I’ve butchered the original intent of Aeschylus that fool knows where to find me.