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.