Prometheus: god of in-between

At the heart of a cluster of manifest characteristics that constitute the trickster personality, one singularly stands out: they are gods of in-between. That is, tricksters easily slip back and forth across formerly impassable boundaries with ease, particularly between sacred and profane registers of existence. They are the out-of-bounds outlaws of this world, subverting social conventions in unrestrained and unthinkable ways. They are trick-players and shape-shifters, but by undergoing ridicule themselves they ameliorate the social faults of humanity and transform culture in unfamiliar ways.

A fine example of this leud taboo breaker, a god that straddles the finite and supernatural realms, is the Olympian rebel Prometheus who was securely fastened to a rock by Zeus’s edict for stealing “the flowery splendor of all-fashioning fire” and giving it to humanity. I should say, more accurately, he was nailed, wedged, fettered, shackled, harnessed and tortuously clamped in a solitary ravine for hunting out the source of fire and, having stolen it, presented it as a gift to the god-neglected and wretched humans. Bound and crucified, Prometheus paid the ultimate price for kicking against the goad of the status quo among the gods. Indeed, Prometheus found trouble for himself by his own cunning.

In this sense, Prometheus’s status among the gods is eminently unstable. He does not belong to the realm of humans, but at the same time he is banished from mount Olympus, a double outcast if there ever was one. Like some of the more bellicose philosophers, Prometheus inverted the pre-established priorities among the gods and valorized the lowly.

There is not ‘too much’ for this figure. No order is too rooted, no taboo too sacred, no god too high, no profanity too scatological that it cannot be broached or inverted. What prevails is toppled, what is bottom becomes top, what is outside turns inside (Mythical Trickster Figures, p. 37)

The asocial character of the taboo violation explains how the trickster, represented as the friend of humans, he who struggles with gods in order to ameliorate the human lot, may also be represented as an asocial being, he who ends up being banished from the community. Because he takes upon himself the gravest of social faults – breaking the rules upon which the social order depends – the trickster incarnates embryonically the expiatory being who will take upon himself the sins of humanity and set humans free, by virtue of the familiar process of redemption (p. 83)

The diametrically opposed characters of Prometheus and, say, Hephaestus, the one who regretfully carries out Zeus’s order to bind Prometheus, is analogously represented in the distinction between shamans and tricksters in North American Indian culture. According to this distinction, the shaman acts in good faith as a devout follower of the spirits he revers and is in return accepted by that other world, the supernatural. For the shaman, the spiritual experience is serious business. The supernatural spirits are to be worshiped, not mocked. The trickster-thief on the other hand seeks no divine aid or approval. Trickster is an outsider to superhuman powers, relying on his or her own wit rather than divine power.

It is true that both the shaman and the trickster-thief go into another world, and both engage in combat with spiritual beings. Nevertheless, there is a difference, a very significant one, I believe, between the shaman’s journey and that of the fire-bringer: the former goes with the aid and companionship of his tutelary spirit or spirits, while the trickster goes alone or is accompanied by companions who are as unendowed with supernatural powers as he. Moreover, the trickster rarely fights with the beings he encounters on his journeys: most typically he outwits them with a trick (pp. 103-4)

Doubtless, Prometheus outwitted the Olympian gods, namely Zeus, in absconding fire and delivering it to the aid of humans. It was not by power, that is, that Prometheus acquired fire, but by struggling with the social order of the gods by tricks. The outcome was not entirely successful, however, on his end. As most trickster narratives end, the trickster him- or herself must in the end pay the ultimate price in death, usually in one way or another falling prey to his or her own tricks. The trickster figure imaginatively has far-reaching political implications in resisting the underlying symbolic structure of society, but one is never guaranteed calculated success. As Prometheus discovered, considered dissent often ends tragically. That does not necessarily mean, however, that socio-political apathy wins the day. One must, at least, be aware of the costs.

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2 responses to “Prometheus: god of in-between”

  1. Matt Martin says :

    I must say, it seems you are quite severely misrepresenting the use of trickster figures in mythology. Roy Willis, research fellow in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, states regarding tricksters in Native American mythology:

    “Despite his different guises, he exhibits similar characteristics across the continent, the same tales occurring in widely separated areas. He can be a crafty joker and a bungler, who is usually undone by his own horseplay or trickery, ending up injured or even dead–only to rise again, seemingly none the wiser for his experience. At times utterly irreverent and idiotic, the trickster’s doings highlight, in an entertaining context, the importance of moral rules and boundaries.” (1993)

    Of course, this does not negate within the trickster mythology his cultural hero status:

    “At times the character’s dual roles as cultural hero and trickster are combined in one tale, as in the myth of how Raven stole the heavenly bodies.”

    Thus, the trickster can have a simultaneously beneficial and devastating impact on the community the trickster is involved with. In Prometheus’ case (whom I might add was a supernatural being himself, though a Titan), he brings humanity both fire and, indirectly, Pandora. I need not recount what Pandora brought humanity. In other words, there is a price for boundary transgression in these mythologies.

    That being said, there certainly is an element of necessity for the trickster within the overall cosmos-picture of any given mythology. However, his or her boundary crossing is rarely an act being encouraged for those listening to the story.

    In Norse mythology, Loki could be called a trickster extraordinaire–a prime example of the trickster in mythology. He is also a completely malicious, narcissistic bastard, but we’ll leave that observation alone for now.

    He continually outwits the gods, dwarves and titans, both to their benefit and their detriment. However, where he does benefit the Aesir and Vanir, it is usually by ingeniously solving a problem he himself created. Even when it is not a problem he creates, such as with the building of the wall around Asgard, Loki’s solutions are associated with injustice and deception, and Odin’s use of Loki’s wit is bemoaned as a portent of evil to come through violation of Asgard’s honor.

    More interestingly, Loki is not the only figure who “crosses boundaries”, as we see in the case of Freya and Odin. However, he is the only one who brings about disaster in doing so, precisely because he is doing it without regard to the wisdom of the Aesir/Vanir, and without thought of the consequences of his acts (i.e. he is acting alone, just as you point out). Indeed, he is ultimately the instigator of Ragnarok, though the gods ultimately overcome on behalf of humanity by sacrificing themselves to preserve the order of Yggdrasil.

    Of course, I am familiar enough with your genre of thought to know authorial intention and conventional interpretation is not only of little concern, but precisely what you are striving against. Furthermore, I would say rightly so for what you are trying to do. Nevertheless, as one greatly interested in mythology, I could not endorse such an approach (not that you need nor desire my endorsement). Your picture of “tricksters” seems to disregard the wisdom of the trickster mythologies themselves, and in an ironic way, silence the trickster’s own wisdom, even if it be only a wisdom by example.

  2. Matt Cullen-Meyer says :

    Thank you for your response. What you point out is highly relevant. Hopefully I address some of these concerns in my latest post.

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