Prometheus: Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.
Chorus: Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?
Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.
Chorus: A great benefit was this you gave to mortals.
Prometheus: In addition, I gave them fire.
Chorus: What! Do creatures of a day now have flame-eyed fire?
Prometheus: Yes, and from it they shall learn many arts.
— Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Wherever we look, every nation and culture has its stories, fables, and heroic legends. Often safe from religious and political censorship, these apparently harmless myths and tales live on for millennia embodying various types of knowledge: the book Hamlet’s Mill, for example, convincingly shows that many myths are full of astronomical lore. Above all, however, these traditions address our inner nature. Each story gives us the chance to identify with the leading characters, while its plot deals in passing with different positions that show us our own strengths and weaknesses. In this way we can reflect and gain understanding to apply to our own lives. If we are prepared to, we can peel the veils and filters from a story layer by layer and so reach its core theme concerning the inner self. Let’s try to do this together with the wonderful ancient Greek stories of Prometheus.
After the coming into being of the world, the stories tell us, everything had found its place. But one creature, capable of lofty thought, was still missing. When Kronos ruled Olympus, the deathless gods decided to fashion a golden race of mortal men. Knowing of the divine seed that slumbered in the Earth, only recently separated from the heavenly aether, Prometheus mixed clay and running water. He shaped this into likenesses of the all-controlling gods, including also qualities taken from all the animals. This is how the first humans came into existence. In the course of ages, after Zeus had banished the ancient gods to Tartarus, humans populated the Earth, but lumbered witless as if in a dream. They did not know how to see, hear, or understand, or how to create things with their hands. Prometheus’s empathy led him to steal for them the forbidden divine fire hidden by Zeus, which allowed him to teach them skills and sciences that used all their potentials.
Angered by the theft, Zeus plotted revenge on both humanity and its benefactor. He had Hephaestus, smith of the gods, create a beautiful virgin, Pandora, who was furnished with disastrous gifts by Athena, Aphrodite, and other gods. When a box she was carrying was opened on Earth, all evils and diseases escaped from it and spread among mankind. One single good thing, Hope, had not escaped when she clapped the lid closed. Meanwhile Prometheus was dragged to earth’s remotest wilderness and bound to a rock over a terrifying abyss with chains that could not be undone. Every day an eagle came and ate from his liver, which would regenerate each night. He endured this torment for centuries until the hero Hercules set him free.
This myth calls to mind stories of divine fire brought to mankind in many other traditions. According to H. P. Blavatsky:
The allegory of the fire of Prometheus is another version of the rebellion of the proud Lucifer [“light-bringer”], who was hurled down to the bottomless pit, or simply unto our Earth, to live as man. The Hindu Lucifer, the Mahasura, is also said to have become envious of the Creator’s resplendent light, and, at the head of inferior Asuras (not gods, but spirits), to have rebelled against Brahma; for which Siva hurled him down to Patala. But, as philosophy goes hand in hand with allegorical fiction in Hindu myths, the devil is made to repent, and is afforded the opportunity to progress . . .” — The Secret Doctrine 2:237n
Also in Hinduism are the Manasaputras or “sons of mind,” who brought mankind the fire of thought. In the Nordic Edda the name of the god Loki — a blood brother of Odin — comes from the old word liuhan, “to illuminate.”
What then is the inner significance behind these particular stories? Long ago the early human race had undergone a certain amount of evolution but “thinkers” had not yet been born: nature had succeeded in developing a suitable body but the soul-giving principle, the fire of self-conscious thought, had not yet been awakened. Adam and Eve, to a certain extent, existed in paradise without self-awareness. Like Lucifer, Prometheus is an allegorical representation of the incarnation of our higher self, the awakening of the active, self-reflective capacity for thought. This subject is therefore of the highest significance for human evolution. As Blavatsky wrote:
It is owing to this rebellion of intellectual life against the morbid inactivity of pure spirit, that we are what we are — self-conscious, thinking men, with the capabilities and attributes of Gods in us, for good as much as for evil. Hence the rebels are our saviours. . . . It is only by the attractive force of the contrasts that the two opposites — Spirit and Matter — can be cemented on Earth, and, smelted in the fire of self-conscious experience and suffering, find themselves wedded in Eternity. — The Secret Doctrine 2:103
By the gods allying themselves with us for this period of development, it became possible for us to attain knowledge and wisdom. But why was Prometheus harshly punished? Other legends suggest a motive; for instance Genesis reports:
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. — 3:22-4
As with Pandora’s box, all evil in this world arose from the joining of the spiritual with the human world. Many commentators see in this a question of guilt, but this misses the crux of the matter: Adam and Eve are driven out of paradise because, with the power of thought, there is no longer any paradise for them. The human being, equipped with the divine capacity for self-reflective thought, can use this newly-won strength to create or destroy, to accomplish wonderful things or great crimes. One day we will ascend again and establish a human race worthy of the gods, but there is still a long way to go in overcoming “I am I” (egoic awareness) to reach “I am” (universal consciousness).
This evolutionary process is also clearly reflected in symbolism. Spirit, represented by a vertical line, is linked with the material world, represented by a horizontal line. Together these give rise to the cross, the son or third logos. If this logos becomes active, as with the awakening capacity for thought through the incarnation of the higher self, then this cross begins to turn. The turning of the cross produces the swastika, a symbol found in many religions. Quite a number of terracotta discs were found under the ruins of ancient Troy that contained this symbol in two forms: and . Again, Pramantha, the Vedic divine carpenter, unites himself with Arani, nature or Maya (illusion). They produce the divine boy Agni, god of fire. In the Bible too, Joseph is a carpenter, a master builder, and Mary is very reminiscent of Maya. Their child is mankind, with the fire of self-aware thought bestowed by the Holy Spirit. The son of the creator nailed to the cross — is he not a symbol of this process that speaks the same clear language as the legend of Prometheus, spirit chained to the cross of matter? As Blavatsky says, “the Crucified Titan is the personified symbol of the collective Logos, the ‘Host’, and of the ‘Lords of Wisdom’ or the heavenly man, who incarnated in Humanity” (The Secret Doctrine 2:413).
We are also told that the suffering of Prometheus — the “one who foresees” — will end. He who has sacrificed himself for mankind is redeemed out of pity by the demigod Hercules, a son of Zeus, despite the fact that he may not take off the indestructible chains (karma). Still, the vulture — our base nature — will no longer come to eat the Titan’s liver. Human mental development, accelerated by the incarnation of the higher self, became unbalanced, with physical and moral development unable to keep pace. Once we regain our inner equilibrium, we will recognize our true destiny and nature, release the god chained within us, and as mankind conquer the darkness of ignorance.
(From Sunrise magazine, Fall 2007; copyright © 2007 Theosophical University Press)
World Spiritual Traditions