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"The Prometheus Syndrome"
Bettina L. Knapp. New York, 1979.

Myth is to be understood as the narration of a primordial experience, not necessarily personal but rather, transcendental; not something invented for the sake of entertainment, though it may be also that, but rather, a living and burning reality that exists in the psyche and culture of a people. A myth is ectypal [it deals with the existential world] and archetypal [it deals with eternal experiences]. Existence on these two levels contains past, present, and future within its structure.

A myth, then, lives outside temporal time. . . . It flows in a cyclical, sacred, or eternal dimension. Myth-time is reversible. The events narrated in the Prometheus myth are perpetual; they were understood by the ancient Greeks according to their cultural canon, by men of the Middle Ages in terms of their concepts, and so on. In that the myth is ectypal, it reveals and relives "the structure of reality." It may then become the model or the prototype of the period or periods that brought it into being, and it reflects in its many transformations and recountings throughout the centuries the needs, obsessions, and longings of the individual cultures.

Myths cannot be understood merely on an intellectual level if they are to be experienced fully. [They not only stir us with their poetry, their images, but with their praxis, their action in the everyday world. The myth may give energy to a hero, to an entire culture.] Each culture has its own myths, which are frequently adaptations of others. . . . The popularity of certain myths at particular junctures in civilization explains the needs and deficiencies as well as the positive attributes of the society.

The Prometheus myth is an Occidental phenomenon. It entails, psychologically, the birth and development of the individual's ego -- that is, it strengthens the factor within the psyche that relates and adapts to both inner and outer realities. [Ms. Knapp sees Prometheus as representing the ego.] "Once the ego acquires the strength and courage necessary to steal Zeus's fire -- or symbolically speaking, transforms amorphous visions into the creative act, the existing psychological and social structures are displaced. To accomplish such a feat, the ego has to do battle in a solitary struggle."

Prometheus represents the archetype of the defiant, rebellious and gigantically ambitious type who refuses to submit to the existing structure and thus to destiny. . . . The testing of his values helped him transcend his individual needs and wishes. He saw beyond his immediate situation and realized during his ordeal that he was dealing with collective wills and factors that would be instrumental later in his reintegration into the pantheon of gods. In the end, Prometheus is the child grown into man -- the "would be" artist has become the artist "who is."

Fire is the purest form of substance. Symbolically, it has come to indicate consciousness, intellect, will, and compulsion. It has also been regarded as sacred energy, as a transcending power. . . . For the primitive, fire was "soul stuff" charged with dynamism. . . . To possess it was to know power -- to be on an equal with the gods. Fire is also libido (psychic energy). And for the metaphysician, it means spiritual illumination. . . . Bachelard explains fire in the following manner:

"Thus fire is a privileged phenomenon that can explain everything. If everything that changes slowly is explained by life, everything that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is ultralife. Fire is intimate, and it is universal. It lives in our hearts. It lives in the sky. It reveals depths of substance and offers itself as love. It descends once again into matter and hides as a latent force, like hatred or vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one that can contain two contrary valorizations, good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cooking and apocalypse. . . . It is well-being and respect. It is a tutelary and a terrible good, good and evil. It can contradict itself; it is, therefore, one of the principles used to explain universal substance."

In Prometheus's case, fire and lightning indicate intuition, the idea bursting upon him as a flash. . . . Hence, Prometheus had given man the most potent of all instruments: fire as a source of infinite energy and power that could transform matter and elements. Fire was so powerful a force that it could not be touched. . . . Fire is equally powerful as cognition. It gave birth to what Bachelard labels "the Promethean complex," the compulsion to "know as much as our fathers, more than our fathers, as much as our masters, more than our masters."

Prometheus's titanic characteristics aroused dissatisfaction with the social structure of his day and prevented him from yielding to Zeus's established order. What was paradoxical and made Prometheus unique among the Titans was the fact that he was conscious of his act and of its many consequences. He was both fire as energy and power, fire as intellect and rational principle, as is the individual who strikes out on his own on a psychological, aesthetic, philosophical, scientific, or religious level. He, too, may possess that titanic fire that urges him to liberate his vision.

 

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