From the Birth of the Gods to That of Mortals
At the end of this opening fresco, we have already learned a number of things. Not only have the principal personages of Greek myth, the gods of Olympus, already appeared onstage, but the cosmos, the ordered and balanced universe willed into being by Gaia and Zeus, is finally established also. The forces of disorder and chaos, incarnated at least in part by the Titans and (even more so) by Typhon and the giants, have been brought to heel, either destroyed or sent down to Tartarus and firmly incarcerated in the inmost depths of the earth. Not only has Zeus demonstrated colossal force and unprecedented intelligence during these various conflicts, but he has, moreover, divided the universe impartially, according to the claims of justice, so that each divinity knows his rights and privileges, her roles and responsibilities. And as Zeus is henceforth at once the most powerful, the most cunning, and the most fair-minded of all gods, there is no turning back: it is he who controls the cosmos, the guarantor for all eternity of the harmonious, just, and beautiful order that must henceforth rule all things.
From this primordial narrative, philosophically speaking, three fundamental ideas can be deduced that we will need to bear in mind so as to understand what follows. They are of considerable interest in themselves, and besides, it is they that covertly inform most of the great mythic narratives, which resemble skillful, inventive, and colorful dramatizations of these abstract ideas—such that it is impossible truly to understand the adventures of Odysseus or Heracles or Jason, or the misfortunes of Oedipus, Sisyphus, or Midas, unless we grasp how these notions provide, so to speak, the underlying thread.
The first such thread is that the good life, even for the gods, should be defined as a life lived in harmony with the cosmic order. Nothing is higher than a justly conducted existence, in the sense that justice (in Greek: dikè) is first and foremost aptness, the condition of being at one with the organized and well-divided world that has emerged so painfully out of chaos. Such is henceforth the law of the universe, a law so fundamental that even the gods themselves must submit to it. For as we have seen, again and again, the gods are often far from reasonable. On occasion they even quarrel like children. When discord (eris) arises among them and, to settle their differences, one or another party begins to tell untruths—in other words, to say things that are not just, that are not adjusted to the cosmic order—they take a very big risk… . For Zeus can easily require them to swear an oath on the waters of the Styx, the divine river that flows through the underworld. And if their word conflicts with the truth, the erring divinity, however Olympian, is in a literal sense “put in his place”: for an entire year, Hesiod tells us, he is “deprived of breath,” recumbent on the ground, winded, voiceless. He is forbidden to lay hands on ambrosia or nectar, those divine foods reserved exclusively for Immortals. A “trance” takes possession of him for the whole year, and when he has finished with this initial round of deprivations, he is still “deprived of Olympus,” cut off from the other gods for nine whole years, during which he must accomplish various thankless and difficult tasks. For example, according to some mythological sources, Apollo revolted against his father, Zeus, thereby threatening to overturn the order of the universe by undermining its very protector. For his punishment Apollo is reduced to slavery and placed in the service of an ordinary mortal, as it happens a king of Troy, Laomedon, whose flocks he must watch like any common herdsman. For Apollo has committed hubris, a cardinal concept of which I have already spoken and which can be translated in different ways—arrogance, insolence, pride, immoderation—all of which convey something of the meaning of this sin against the cosmic order or against those who have shaped it, starting with Zeus himself. “Hubris” describes someone who has lost his way, or who rebels to the point of no longer respecting the hierarchy and apportioning of the universe instituted after the war against Typhon and the Titans. And in these circumstances the god who has transgressed is “brought to order,” like the commonest mortal, and is, so to speak, rehabilitated by the punishment imposed by Zeus. As you can see, not only does the law of the world, the cosmic justice deriving from the original settlement, apply to all beings, mortal or immortal, but also the corollary is that nothing is ever settled: discord is an ever-present menace. It may come from any direction, even from Apollo or some other god who loses his way through overweening passion, so that the work of Zeus and of the various heroic figures who pursue the ends of Zeus is never fully achieved, which in turn is why these mythological narratives are potentially endless. There is always a disorder to set right, a monster to combat, an injustice to correct… .
The second idea proceeds directly from the first. It is merely the reverse side of the same proposition: if the construction of a cosmic order is the most precious conquest of the Olympians, then it follows that the greatest sin that can be committed, for the Greeks, and one that the whole of mythology continuously diagnoses, is none other than this celebrated hubris—this proud immoderation that pushes individuals, whether gods or men, to step outside their place in the scheme of things. In essence, hubris is finally none other than the return of the dark forces of chaos or, to speak like a latter-day ecologist, a “crime against the cosmos” as such.
By contrast—and this is the third idea—the greatest virtue is dikè, or justice, which is defined in exactly opposite terms as a state of accord with the cosmic order. We all know that on the temple at Delphi—the shrine to Apollo—is inscribed one of the most famous mottoes in the whole of Greek culture: “Know Thyself.” The injunction has nothing to do with practicing what is called introspection, as is sometimes assumed today—in other words the attempt to know your innermost thoughts and unmask your unconscious self. It is not a question of psychoanalysis. The meaning is quite other: that you should know your limits. To know yourself is to know your “natural place” in the cosmic scheme. The motto invites us to find this just place within the great All, and especially to remain in it, to avoid sinning through hubris, through arrogance and immoderation. The injunction is often associated with another—“Nothing to Excess”—also inscribed in the temple at Delphi, and which has the same sense.
For mortals, the greatest hubris consists in defying the gods or, worst of all, in taking oneself for their equal. Innumerable mythological stories, as we shall see, turn upon this central question. One example, among others, is a version of the famous myth of Tantalus: Because he is in the habit of visiting the gods, and of being invited to their table on Mount Olympus, Tantalus ends by telling himself that he is not after all as different from them as might be imagined. He even begins to doubt that the gods, starting with Zeus, are in truth as clairvoyant as they claim to be and, in particular, that they really know everything about mortals. So he invites some of them to dine at his home—already a singular lapse of taste, but which might pass at a pinch were the invitation made in all humility and modesty. But the contrary is the case: to assure himself that they are not omniscient, nor more knowing than he, Tantalus tries to deceive them in the worst possible manner, by serving them as a repast none other than his own son Pelops! No chance: the gods are indeed omniscient. They know everything about us poor mortals—in which respect Tantalus has strayed further than can easily be imagined. They are immediately aware of his paltry and sinister maneuver and are disgusted by it. The punishment, as always in classical myth, fits the excesses of the crime. Is it by means of food that Tantalus has sinned? Then this is how he shall be punished: chained in the underworld, in the pit of Tartarus, he is condemned to suffer from hunger and thirst for eternity—but also from terror, since an enormous rock suspended just above his head threatens unceasingly to fall and crush him to inexistence—just to remind him that he is not immortal after all… .
The cosmos, harmonious order of things; dikè, or justice, which is to say agreement with the order of things; and hubris, resistance, the acme of disaccord or immoderation: these are the three passwords of the philosophical message that begins slowly to emerge from Greek myth.
However, we are still very far from having exhausted the meanings of this message. We are still at the stage of abstractions, so primitive and rustic that they might give an impression that Zeus is a sort of superrepresentative of officialdom, if not a traffic policeman: cosmos against chaos, civility against brute force, and so on. We shall need to complicate this picture little by little, in stages, and for one simple reason: this entire history so far has been narrated exclusively from the perspective of the gods. In other words, at the point we have so far reached human beings do not yet exist, and therefore have yet to be allotted their place in this well-regulated system set on course by the Immortals alone. The single most profound question that mythology now begins to confront, and that it will then pass on to philosophy, has a double aspect. First of all, why mankind? Why on earth, so to speak, do the gods feel the need to create a humanity that, without any doubt, will immediately introduce a significant quantity of disorder and confusion into this hard-won cosmos of theirs? And secondly, if we reverse the perspective and look at the matter from our own mortal standpoint (and we must keep reminding ourselves that all these myths were after all, and without exception, devised by us mortals: by Homer and Hesiod and Aeschylus and Plato and the rest!), how does mankind see itself as fitting into the vision of the world that is slowly emerging from this majestic structure? What place or room is there for us in this universe of gods, in this cosmic order that seems ordained expressly for them rather than for us mere mortals? More fundamentally, how should each individual conduct himself, given his or her peculiarities, tastes, shortcomings; given his or her familial, social, and geographical context; in brief, given everything that makes us singular? … How should each life be led, if we are to find a little happiness and a little wisdom in this divinely appointed whole?
It is in response to these questions that the myths narrated in this chapter attempt to provide a response: the myth of the golden age, or that of Prometheus, with its profound consequences for us mortals; the appearance on earth of Pandora, the first woman, who will turn all our destinies upside down… . But before coming to these core narratives, and by way of farewell to abstractions, I will give an initial example of the three ideas we have been considering, by looking at the extraordinary tale of Midas, after which we can return to our theme and take up the story of the creation of humanity, in all its strangeness.
The myth of Midas is, at least on the surface, pure comedy: one of those myths where hubris, or immoderation, vies with plain stupidity. As a result, most works devoted to Greek mythology pass over it in silence, or regard it as so unimportant that they mention it only in passing, as a fabliau without much import or significance. As we shall see, however, this is gravely mistaken: the Midas affair (as we would refer to it today) is on the contrary as profound as one could wish, provided of course that we take the trouble to see it in terms of the cosmological context that I have been describing.
I. Hubris and cosmos: King Midas
and “the golden touch”
Midas is a king. More precisely, he reigns over a region named Phrygia. Some say he is the son of a goddess and a mortal. Possibly so, but what is clear is that Midas is not a very bright king. He is even, to speak plainly, an arrant fool. He thinks too slowly, “after the fact,” too late. He acts without reflecting, and his stupidity, as we shall see, gets him into some dreadful scrapes.
The affair that interests us begins with the misadventures of another important character in Greek myth: Silenus, an inferior god, a secondary divinity, although nonetheless a son of Hermes (and a brother of Pan, according to some sources). Reference is sometimes made to “a silenus” to designate anyone of his stock. He possesses two remarkable characteristics. Firstly, his appearance is such as to frighten small children. He is of scarcely credible ugliness: large, fat, bald, and potbellied, he sports a monstrously flattened nose and horse’s ears, pointed and hairy, which give him a terrifying aspect. Aside from that he is a sensible and intelligent being. It is not for nothing that Zeus confides to him the education of his son, Dionysus, after delivering the latter from his own thigh. Having become, over the course of time, the companion of Dionysus, whose foster father he has been, Silenus has been initiated into the profoundest secrets of the god of wine and feasting, and is as a result an authentic sage … with the exception that, as part of the motley crew of roisterers who accompany Dionysus at all times, he sometimes goes heavy on the libations and abuses the bottle. Put differently, at the point where our story begins, Silenus is as drunk as a lord or, if you prefer, incapable of remembering his own name. As Ovid puts it—whose account I follow in the main—Silenus staggers under the double burden of age and wine, and when Midas’s followers come upon this inebriated and fearful-looking down-and-out, they lose no time in arresting and binding him with sturdy creepers so as to lead him straight to their master.
But it so happens that Midas, himself no stranger to orgies and other such generously fueled occasions, recognizes Silenus. And since he is well aware of the latter’s connections, both of family and of friendship, with Dionysus—a powerful god whose wrath is better avoided—he immediately orders the release of Silenus. What is more: in the hope of drawing down the favors of the god, he marks the presence of his guest, as befits the occasion, with lavish feasting that goes on for ten days and ten nights. At the end, Midas restores his new best friend to the young but very powerful Dionysus. The latter, in gratitude, naturally offers Midas a reward of his own choosing: “a desirable but dangerous gift,” as Ovid nicely puts it, because, as I have remarked already, Midas is not very bright. Moreover, he is avaricious and concupiscent. So inevitably he is going to abuse the generosity of the god—which is where the hubris starts. Midas comes up with an exorbitant demand, quite out of proportion: he asks the god to arrange things so that everything he touches turns instantly to gold! The famous “golden touch.” Imagine for a moment what this actually means: wherever he lays his hand, whatever he brushes against—whether vegetable, mineral, animal, or human—is instantly transformed into the precious yellow metal… . At first the imbecilic Midas is delighted, mad with joy. Like a child, on the road back to his palace he amuses himself by turning everything he encounters into gold. He sees an olive branch and, pop!—the beautiful green leaves turn to a tawny glittering orange! He picks up a stone, or a miserable lump of earth, or he pulls a few dry ears of corn, and all is ingots! “Rich, I am rich, I am the richest man in the world!” the poor fool keeps exclaiming, still without any inkling of what lies in store for him.
For, as you have no doubt already guessed, what Midas takes for an absolute good turns out to be a deadly ill—literally so, bringing death and signaling the end of his idiot contentment. In effect, as soon as Midas is back in his by now sumptuous palace—whose walls and furnishings and floors he has obviously paved with shimmering gold—he asks to be brought food and drink. His joy has given him an appetite. But at the moment he grasps the goblet of cool wine to quench his thirst, his mouth fills instead with a nasty yellow powder. For gold is not good to drink … and when he seizes a leg of chicken handed to him by a servant and begins to eat with gusto, it nearly breaks his teeth! Midas now understands, a little late in the day, that he cannot rid himself of his new gift, and that he is plainly going to die of hunger and thirst. So he begins to curse all this gold that surrounds him, detesting it, just as he begins to detest the greed and stupidity that drove him to act without thinking of the consequences. Very fortunately for Midas, however, Dionysus (who has, of course, foreseen everything) is magnanimous. He agrees to relieve him of this gift that has become a curse. Here, according to Ovid, is how he addresses Midas:
“You cannot remain encased in the gold which you have so foolishly desired. Go to the stream which flows by the mighty town of Sardis, pick your way climbing the slope, up the tumbling stream, until you come to the river’s source. There plunge your head and body beneath the foaming fountain where it comes leaping forth, and by this means wash your sin away.” The king went to the stream as bid. The power of his golden touch imbued the water and passed from the man’s body into the source. And even to this day, receiving the seed of the original vein, the fields are hard and yellow, their soil soaked with water of the golden touch.
It is by bathing in the river that Midas recovers his normal condition. A richly symbolic moment: from the pure water of the river he is cleansed equally of his gold and of his folly. But the river itself will remain forever affected: it is claimed that, since this time, it continues to carry magnificent nuggets of gold. And the river is named the Pactolus, which even today remains in some languages a byword for treasure and good fortune.
However, I am not convinced that, from this distance in time, we can still make out the true meaning of this myth. Our modern temperament, marked by twenty centuries of Christianity, leads us to see the fable as signifying broadly that Midas sinned above all through avarice or concupiscence. For us, the moral of the story can be summarized roughly thus: Midas mistakes appearance for essence, and believes that riches or gold, together with the power and possessions they confer, constitute the ultimate end of human life. In which respect he confuses having with being, and appearance with truth. For which he is rightly punished. All well and good. But in reality the Greek myth goes much further. It possesses, albeit covertly, a cosmic aspect that is not remotely contained by the pious commonplace that “money does not equal happiness.”
With his golden touch, in effect, Midas became a sort of monster. Potentially it was the whole cosmos that he menaced: everything he touches dies, for his terrifying power converts the organic into the inorganic, the living into the inanimate, no less. He is in a sense the obverse of a creator of worlds, rather a sort of antigod, even a positively demonic figure. Leaves, branches, flowers, birds, the animal world at large—whatever he touches ceases to fulfill its place and function in the order of the universe, with which, until that instant, it existed in perfect harmony. It suffices for Midas to brush past them and they change their nature, and his destructive power is potentially infinite, without limits: no one can say where it might have ended. The cosmos as such might have found itself altered for the worse: imagine Midas traveling, and managing to transform the world into a gigantic metal ball, gilded but dead, totally deprived of those qualities that the gods had succeeded in conferring upon it at the outset, when the primordial settlement was made by Zeus after his victory over the combined chaos of Titans, giants, and Typhon… . The progress of Midas would be the end of all life and of all harmony.
If we must apply a Christian analogy, it needs to probe a lot deeper than we would initially think. Like the myth of Frankenstein, which takes its inspiration from German legends of the sixteenth century, the misadventures of King Midas in truth tell us a story of tragic dispossession.
Dr. Frankenstein, too, wanted to become the equal of the gods. He dreamed of giving life, like his creator. He spends his entire existence trying to revive the dead. And one fine day he succeeds. He collects cadavers, stealing them from the hospital morgue, and, drawing electricity from the sky, manages to galvanize the monster he has put together from decomposing corpses. At the start all goes well, and Frankenstein takes himself for a medical genius. But the monster takes on a life of his own, little by little, and manages to escape. Because of his abominable appearance, he sows terror and destruction wherever he goes, and in reaction he himself becomes nasty and threatens to lay waste to the land and its inhabitants. Tragic dispossession: the creature escapes from his creator, who is in turn frustrated. He has lost control—which, of course, in the Christian perspective, which dominates this story, signifies that the man who takes himself for God is heading for catastrophe.
It is in an analogous sense that we must understand the myth of Midas, even if the gods (multiple gods since we are talking about the Greeks) are not Christian. Midas, like Frankenstein, wants to acquire divine powers through his golden touch, straying far from any human wisdom (and far beyond his own somewhat challenged abilities): in effect he desires the power to overturn order. And like Dr. Frankenstein, he soon loses all control over his newly acquired advantages. What he thought himself in control of escapes him at every turn, so he is compelled to beg the gods, in this case Dionysus, to be turned back into a simple mortal again.
It is significant that this same threat—of chaos engendered by hubris—propels the sequel of the Midas myth, and this time the poor simpleton will be severely punished by Apollo.
How Midas received his ass’s ears: a contest
between Pan’s flute and Apollo’s lyre
Let us take our lead, once again, from the account given by Ovid.
It would seem that Midas has calmed down after the humiliating and disastrous business of the golden touch. He seems finally to have learned some humility, if not modesty. Far from the splendor and riches that he hoped for from his gold, he now lives a retired life in the forest. Far from his sumptuous palace, he is content with rustic simplicity; in the fields and meadows he likes to wander alone, or sometimes in the company of Pan, god of forests and of shepherds. You should know that Pan bears a striking resemblance to Silenus and his attendant satyrs. He is, in point of fact, a god of literally shocking ugliness: those who come upon him are rooted to the spot, seized with horror by the fear known as “panic,” which is named after Pan, as if in negative homage. In appearance, Pan is half man, half beast: covered in hair, horned, and bizarrely shaped, he sports the antlers and legs, or rather the hindquarters, of a goat. His nose is flattened, like that of Silenus; his chin protrudes; his ears are huge and hairy like a horse; his hair stands on end and is filthy, like that of a tramp… . It is sometimes claimed that his own mother, a nymph, was so terrified when he was born that she abandoned him. He was picked up by Hermes, who brought him to Olympus to show him off to the other gods—who (it is said) literally howled with laughter, amused beyond words by so much ugliness. Seduced by this deformity, Dionysus, who always likes whatever is odd and different, decided on the spot to make Pan one of his playmates and traveling companions at a later date… . Prodigiously strong and swift-footed, Pan passes most of his time chasing nymphs, and also young boys, whose favors he tries to obtain by all means to hand. It is even said that one day he pursued a nymph called Syrinx, who preferred to drown herself in a river rather than submit to his “advances.” … In one version of the myth, this Syrinx was transformed into a reed on the riverbank, whereupon Pan, taking hold of the still-trembling reed, is said to have fashioned it into a flute, thereby creating his signature instrument: the famous “Pan’s pipe,” which is still played today. Many centuries later, the composer Debussy would write a piece for this instrument (in reality for a transverse flute), which he would justly name Syrinx, in memory of the unhappy nymph… . And the god Pan was often to be seen, with Silenus and the satyrs, in the company of Dionysus, dancing demoniacally, feasting, and drinking wine to the point of delirium—which is to say that there is nothing especially “cosmic” about this particular god! He is no friend to order, rather a fervent advocate of all that is disordered and disorderly. He belongs clearly within the line of descent of the forces of chaos, to the extent that certain myths do not hesitate in claiming him for a son of Hybris, goddess of insolence and immoderation… .
From which we might deduce that Midas, as a companion of Pan, is perhaps not after all as settled and subdued as might seem to be the case. All the more so since his stupidity and slowness of wit are still firmly in charge of his poor brain. One day, while playing his famous flute to try to charm some young girls, the god Pan gets carried away by boastfulness—as often happens in such circumstances—and declares that his musicianship surpasses even that of Apollo. Unable to stop himself, and to cap everything in the hubris stakes, he goes so far as to openly challenge this Olympian adversary! A musical contest is promptly organized, between the lyre of Apollo and the flute of Pan, to be judged by Tmolus, a god of the mountain. Pan begins by blowing on his pipe: the sounds that emerge are raucous, uncouth, as befits the performer. They can be described as charming, of course, but it is a rough charm, even brutish: the sounds that his breath forces through the reed pipes are like those the wind draws from the trees. The lyre of Apollo, on the other hand, is a highly sophisticated instrument, which makes exact mathematical use of the relations between the length of the strings and their respective tension to produce perfect harmonic intervals, themselves symbolic of the larger harmony with which the gods have tuned the universe. Apollo’s lyre is an instrument both delicate and civilized: at the opposite extreme to the rusticity of the flute, its power to seduce is imbued with soft persuasion.
The audience falls under its charms and votes unanimously for Apollo—with one exception: the fathead Midas, who raises a dissonant voice amid the concert of praise for Apollo. Habituated as he is to the life of forests and fields, and as an ally of Pan, Midas has lost his veneer of civility. He now loudly and strenuously declares his preference—by a long shot—for the guttural noise of the flute against the delicate sonorities of the lyre. Woe to him! Apollo is not lightly crossed, and—as always in such cases—the punishment will fit the “crime”: the unfortunate Midas, having sinned against both hearing and intelligence, will be punished at the level both of his ears and his wits.
Here is how, according to Ovid:
The Delian god [Apollo] did not suffer ears so dull to keep their human form, but lengthened them out and filled them with shaggy, grey hair; he also made them flexible at the base and gave them power to move in every direction. Human otherwise, Midas was punished in this, that he wore the ears of a sluggard ass.
Of course, Midas is mortified by his new donkey ears. He cannot think how to conceal from the eyes of the world the ugliness with which he is now and forever saddled—an ugliness that points him out to others not merely as a creature without any ear, any musical sense, but also as an imbecile, with no more spirit than a ruminant. He tries to conceal his new attributes beneath a variety of headgear, bonnets, headscarves, with all of which in turn he carefully wraps his head—to no avail. His barber notices and cannot refrain from remarking: “But what has happened to you, your majesty? One would almost say you had grown donkey’s ears …” This barber has cause to rue his words, for niceness is no more Midas’s strong point than smartness: he threatens the poor man that if ever he reveals to anyone else what he has seen, he will be summarily tortured and killed. The latter does all in his power to keep the calamitous secret to himself. But at the same time (put yourself in his place), he burns with desire to tell his friends and family, and he trembles at the thought that someday, inadvertently, an indiscreet word might escape his lips. To unburden himself, he has an idea: “I will go and dig a big hole,” he says to himself, “and then I will confide my secret to the depths of the earth and cover it over again instantly. In this way I shall be relieved of a burden that is too heavy for me.” No sooner said than done. Our barber finds a corner of a field beyond the village, digs up the earth, shouts and even yells his message into the ground, then carefully fills the hole again and comes back home with a lighter heart. But the following spring, a dense patch of reeds has sprung up in the freshly dug ground. And when the wind blows, one can hear a voice raised, becoming louder and louder, proclaiming to whoever cares to listen: “King-Midas-has-ass’s-ears, King-Midas-has-ass’s-ears, King-Midas-has-ass’s-ears …”
And this is how Midas was punished by Apollo for his lack of discernment. You may say that in this instance it is not so easy to see how exactly poor Midas represented a threat to world order. Certainly, he defied a deity, even one of the principal gods, for of course Apollo (god of music and medicine) sits on Olympus. But surely it was in the end nothing more than a question of taste, where each party has a right to his opinions, and if Apollo was wounded then he was wounded merely in his self-esteem, if not his vanity. Consequently, his reaction seems excessive, or even a little ridiculous… . But this impression holds only for as long as we fail to attend to the workings of the story and (as before) remain content to see it through modern spectacles. For if we look more closely, what is involved here (as with the outcome of the struggle between Zeus and Typhon) is the discipline of music, which is not to be trifled with, for it involves nothing less than our relation with the harmonious disposition of the world. As I have explained, the lyre is a harmonic instrument, whereas the flute is melodic and can play but one note at a time. The lyre, like the guitar, can perfectly accompany song, and even if the Greeks were unfamiliar with harmony as understood by composers like Rameau or Bach, they nevertheless began to place different sounds in a relation of consonance, whereas with the flute this harmonizing of unlike sounds is impossible to achieve. Under cover of a purely musical competition, what is being played out in reality is the cardinal opposition of two worlds: that of Apollo, civilized and harmonious, versus that of Dionysus (whose proxy is Pan), as dissonant and disordered as one of his feasts, where events can turn to horror from one moment to the next. In the famous Bacchanalia organized by Dionysus and his followers—which is why they are called Dionysiac—the women or “Bacchantes” who surround the god sometimes give themselves up to orgies that go beyond our ordinary understanding: in the grip of Dionysiac frenzy, they pursue small animals and tear them to pieces, devouring them raw; sometimes it is not merely animals that they subject to the worst abominations, but also children or even adults—such as Pentheus, king of Thebes, torn to pieces and devoured by the Bacchantes, who in their frenzy mistake him for a boar. To understand how brutal the opposition is between these two worlds—the cosmic order of Apollo, the chaos of Dionysus—it is worth retelling a related myth, a more fearful variant upon this same musical contest, and one that stages the torture of the hapless Marsyas.
A sadistic variant upon the musical contest:
the atrocious torture of the satyr Marsyas
A parallel myth to the one that we have just been exploring, this story is very similar to the tale of the contest between Apollo and Pan. Except that in this case it is the satyr Marsyas who plays the role of Apollo’s adversary (or perhaps a silenus called Marsyas—there is not much to choose between these two types who belong in the retinue of Dionysus, both characterized by bodies that are half human, half animal, and of an ugliness matched only by their sexual appetites …). Now this Marsyas, like Pan, is also remembered as the inventor of a musical instrument, the “aulos” (in effect, a type of wind instrument with two pipes, which nonetheless plays only one note at a time). According to the Greek poet Pindar (fifth century BC), who is the earliest source for this story, it was in fact the goddess Athena who first devised and made this instrument.* The manner in which she conceived and then finally discarded it merits our attention, for it indicates why the sound of the flute is unacceptable to the ears of the goddess.
The story begins with the death of Medusa. According to myth there are three strange and maleficent beings named Gorgons. Their appearance is terrifying, far worse even than that of Pan, the sileni, and the satyrs combined: their hair consists of snakes; enormous tusks protrude from their mouths, like wild boars; their claws are of bronze; and their golden wings enable them to catch up with their prey in all circumstances… . Worst of all, their gaze instantly turns anyone unfortunate enough to look at them to stone! This is why we still call “gorgons” those marine plants that float stiffly in the water as if petrified by the baleful glance of one of these monsters.
Now, these three sisters, although terrifying to us, love each other tenderly. Two of them are immortal, but the third, named Medusa, is a mere mortal. She will be killed by Perseus, in circumstances that we shall encounter later on, and according to Pindar, it was while hearing Medusa’s sisters howling with grief, when Perseus exhibited the decapitated head of the Gorgon, that Athena first conceived the idea of the flute. As much as to say that this instrument came into being under circumstances far removed from the harmony and civility that characterize the lyre of Apollo.
It is from another poet, Melanippus of Melos,* who also wrote in the fifth century BC, that we learn the rest of the story, as follows.
Athena, whom you will recall is the goddess not only of war but also of the arts and sciences, is extremely proud of her new invention. And with reason. After all, it is not every day that someone invents an instrument that will still be played in every country on earth thousands of years later. However, realizing that her cheeks look ridiculously swollen and that her eyes pop out when she plays her “aulos” (and oboists will forgive me for saying that, to this day, they all have the same comical expression as Athena when playing!), she throws it to the ground and stamps on it in her rage. So we should note in passing that this instrument makes for ugliness, that it shatters the harmony of the face—another point against it. Hera and Aphrodite, about whom we know that charity is not their strong suit, never miss a chance to express their jealousy of Athena. Noticing the popping eyes and swollen cheeks of the music-making goddess, they burst into extravagant laughter. They even take to mocking her and imitating her foolish expression when she blows into the unfortunate pipe. Athena, mortified, retreats some distance in order to verify for herself how she looks while playing—finding the nearest body of water, a pool or lake, in which to examine her reflection. Once she is quite alone, sheltered from the scrutiny of the two wicked goddesses, she leans over the water and cannot fail to notice that, when she plays, her face is contorted to the point of becoming grotesque. Not only does she fling the instrument away, but she also places a terrible curse on whoever might find it and have the audacity to use it.
Now it so happens that this Marsyas, strolling in the woods, as is his habit, on the off chance of pursuing some hapless nymph or other, discovers Athena’s flute. And of course he falls under the charm of the pipe, which suits him to perfection since he himself embodies all that is discordant! And he practices it so often and so well that he ends by thinking himself superior to Apollo—to the point of challenging the god to a contest, in which he commits the fatal error of choosing the Muses as judges. Apollo accepts the challenge on one condition: that the victor can do as he pleases with the loser. Apollo wins, of course—in this respect continuing the good work of Zeus against Typhon and all manifestations of chaos: ensuring with his lyre the triumph of harmony over the harsh and savage melody of the flute. But this time he is not content, as he had been with Midas, to impose a simple punishment, lighthearted and suited to the crime in question. He has given ample warning: the winner can dispose of the loser as he pleases! In consideration of which, Apollo quite simply has the unfortunate Marsyas flayed alive… . The blood that spurts from Marsyas will become a mountain stream, and his skin will serve to mark the place of the grotto from which the waters will thereafter spring… .
In his Fables, Hyginus summarizes the story as follows (as elsewhere, I quote the original text to show how these myths were transmitted in antiquity):
Minerva [Athena] is said to have been the first to make pipes from deer bones and to have come to the banquet of the gods to play. Juno [Hera] and Venus [Aphrodite] mocked her because she was grey-eyed and because she puffed out her cheeks when playing. So she went to the forest of Ida, and, as she played, she viewed herself in the water of a pool, and saw that indeed she was rightly mocked. Because of this she threw away the pipes and vowed that whoever picked them up would be punished severely. Marsyas, a shepherd, son of Oeagrus, one of the satyrs, found them, and by practicing assiduously kept making sweeter sounds day by day, so that he challenged Apollo to play the lyre in a contest with him. When Apollo arrived, they chose the Muses as judges. Marsyas was departing as victor, when Apollo turned his lyre upside down, and played the same tune—a thing which Marsyas couldn’t do with the pipes. And so Apollo defeated Marsyas, bound him to a tree, and turned him over to a Scythian who stripped his skin from him limb by limb … and from his blood the river Marsyas took its name.
Ovid, who were he alive today would no doubt be writing scripts for horror films, describes in these terms the agony inflicted by Apollo (my comments, as always, are in italics):
“Why do you tear me from myself ?” he cried [referring, of course, to the fact that Apollo strips the skin of the satyr and, so to speak, separates him from himself]. “Oh, I repent! I repent! A flute is not worth such a price!” As he screams, his skin is stripped off the surface of his body, and he is all one wound: blood flows down on every side, the sinews lie exposed, his veins throb and quiver with no covering: you could count the entrails as they palpitate, and the vital organs clearly showing in his chest. The country people, the sylvan deities, fauns and brother satyrs, Olympus [father of Marsyas] … and the nymphs all wept for him, so that the fruitful earth was soaked, and soaking caught those tears and drank them deep into her veins… . Thence a stream was born, and had the name of Marsyas, the clearest river in all Phrygia.
The punishment is appalling, a thousand times worse than what was meted out to Midas. The two myths, that of Marsyas ( judged by the Muses) and that of Pan ( judged by Midas and Tmolus), are nonetheless very close to each other, to the point that they are often confused.* In both cases, music—the cosmic art par excellence—is at the heart of the myth, and both likewise involve a conflict between a god who prizes harmony above all else and, on the other hand, chaotic types armed with rustic instruments that can only charm coarse spirits such as Typhon and Midas. It is for this reason besides that Ovid describes Midas, after his misadventures with gold, as confining himself to the woods, like Pan, and in contact therefore with uncivilized tendencies. This is why—like a donkey—he prefers the harsh and savage notes of Pan’s flute to the harmonious and gentle chords of Apollo’s lyre. We need to be aware that this lyre, from which such harmonious sounds are drawn, has its own story. It is no ordinary instrument, but wholly divine in origin, according to another myth whose main source is in Homeric Hymns (dating probably from the sixth century BC):* according to which it was devised, constructed, and presented to Apollo by Hermes himself, at the end of a fairly extraordinary adventure that I shall now describe.
Hermes invents the lyre, instrument of
cosmic harmony; opposition between
the Apollonian and the Dionysiac
Hermes is one of Zeus’s favorite sons. Zeus even makes him his principal ambassador: the one he sends forth when something exceptionally important has to be done or communicated. Hermes’s mother is the beautiful nymph Maia, one of the seven Pleiades, themselves the “daughters of Pleione” and of the Titan Atlas, whom Zeus punished by making him bear the burden of the world on his shoulders. It is no exaggeration to say that little Hermes is extremely precocious. “Born in the morning,” the author of the Homeric Hymn tells us, “he was able to play the cithara by midday and by the evening had stolen the cattle of the archer Apollo …” For an infant who has been alive for merely a few hours, he is already an accomplished musician and expert thief! As soon as he opens his eyes on this world, barely emerged from his mother’s womb, we must imagine Hermes as chasing Apollo’s cattle. On his way, he discovers a tortoise in the mountains and bursts into laughter: immediately, merely by looking at it, he understands the use to which it may be put. He lifts it up and runs back home, where he eviscerates the poor creature, then kills a cow, stretches its hide across the shell of the tortoise, makes strings out of its guts, puts in the horns, and fits a crosspiece over them, stretching out the strings so as to tune them. The lyre is born, with which Hermes can produce sounds of perfect harmonic accuracy, more harmonious than Pan’s flute! Not content with this first invention, Hermes takes off in search of the immortal cattle of his elder brother.
Coming upon the herd, he selects fifty of them and, so that the theft will pass unnoticed, he leads them backward, turning their tracks around, reversing the marks of their hooves, and attaches makeshift wickerwork sandals to disguise his own footprints. He leads the beasts into a cave. Moments later, he works out—entirely of his own accord—how to invent fire, sacrifices two cows to the gods, and ends his first day by quenching the embers and scattering the ashes… . Then he returns home to his own shelter, where he had been conceived by Maia, where his cradle stands, and goes back to sleep with the air of an innocent newborn… . To his mother, when she complains and asks him where he has been, he merely replies that he has had enough of their poverty, and that he is going to become rich. We can already see why he will turn into the god of merchants, of journalists, and of thieves. The first day of this infant deity has been very well spent… .
Of course, Apollo eventually discovers what has happened. And when he gets hold of Zeus’s nursling he threatens to throw him into the pit of Tartarus unless he hands over the cows. Hermes swears by the gods (the phrase is apt) that he is innocent. Apollo brandishes him at arm’s length as if to hurl him far away, but Hermes invents so many excuses that Apollo laughingly lets him go, and the dispute is brought finally before the tribunal of Zeus … who also bursts into laughter at such precocity. In fact, he is altogether proud of his newborn son. The dispute between Apollo and Hermes runs its course until the latter produces his ultimate weapon, his lyre, which he begins to play with such artistry that Apollo (like Zeus) admits defeat, finally, and falls under the spell of this prodigious infant. Apollo, the god of music, is overwhelmed by the beauty of the sounds produced by this new instrument. In exchange for the lyre, he promises to make Hermes rich and famous. But the infant keeps bargaining and negotiating, and he secures in addition the job of keeper of the cattle for his elder brother’s entire herd! Apollo even offers him, for good measure, his shining whip and also the magic staff, which will serve as the emblem of Hermes, his famous “caduceus”—the story of which I will tell shortly… .
It is in this context that the lyre appears as the very type of divine instrument, and as the key attribute of Apollo. To fully understand the ramifications of the myth of Midas—usually and quite incorrectly considered as of minor significance—we must understand that, in the scheme of things, Apollo stands in for Zeus, as one of the Olympians who labor unceasingly to uphold the cause of cosmic order. This cause is just—deriving from the original settlement established by Zeus after his victory over the Titans—as well as beautiful, good, and harmonious. And on the other side, the earthbound forces of Chaos, including their multifarious lineage from Typhon onward, unceasingly threaten this fragile harmony. Apollo here represents an Olympian force: antichaos, anti-Titanesque, wholly identified with the famous injunction “Know Thyself,” which decorates his temple at Delphi, meaning: “Know your natural place in the scheme of things, and stay within its bounds!” No hubris, no arrogance, no immoderation such as would disturb the beautiful cosmic solution. If Apollo loves music, it is because music is a metaphor for the cosmos. Dionysus is, in many respects, the inverse of Apollo. Clearly he, too, is an Olympian, a son of Zeus, and we shall see later how he reconciles within himself both cosmos and chaos, eternity and time, reason and madness. But in the first instance, what strikes us about him is his “acosmic” aspect: addicted to feasting, wine, and sex to the point of the murderous lunacy that possesses the women who follow in his retinue. Dionysus, too, is a god of music, of course, but the music he prefers is not that of Apollo: neither gentle nor harmonious, but bestial and out of control. It does nothing to soften or civilize; on the contrary it expresses in openly indecent fashion the pulse of the most archaic passions, which explains why its chosen instrument should be the flute of Pan and of Marsyas.
Here is how the young Nietzsche described, with such precision and profundity, the difference between Apollo and Dionysus:
Apollo, as an ethical divinity, demands moderation from his followers and, so that they may observe self-control, a knowledge of themselves. Which is why, alongside the imperative of aesthetic beauty, runs the demand to “Know Thyself” and “Nothing to Excess.” Whereas arrogance and excess are considered the daemons most hostile to the Apollonian sphere, and therefore characteristic of the pre-Apollonian period, the age of the Titans, the world beyond the Apollonian: that is, the barbarian world… . To the Apollonian Greek, the effect aroused by the Dionysian seemed “titanic” and “barbaric.” But he could not conceal from himself that he too was also internally related to those deposed Titans… . Indeed, he must have felt that his entire existence, with all its beauty and moderation, rested on a hidden ground of suffering and knowledge, revealed to him once again through the Dionysian impulse. So Apollo could not live without Dionysus! The Titanic and the barbaric were, in the end, just as necessary as the Apollonian! And now let us imagine how in this world, artificially constructed on illusion and moderation, the ecstatic sound of Dionysiac feasting rang out with a constantly more beckoning and bewitching magic… . Let us try to imagine what the psalm-chanting Apollonian artist could have done—with his harp and its bloodless sonorities—faced with this daemonic popular song! … Excess revealed itself as truth. Contradiction, the ecstasy born of pain, spoke of itself directly from the heart of nature. And so, wherever the Dionysian gained ground, the Apollonian was abolished and destroyed.
Nietzsche, himself a fine musician, has consummately understood three essential things. Firstly, that the theme of a musical contest is not merely anecdotal but essential to Greek myth, and for a profound reason: because it places harmony at the center of art, it becomes a metaphor, an analogue of the cosmos, or, as Nietzsche himself writes: “a re-working of the world and its second casting.” Secondly, that the opposition between Apollo and Dionysus—here his representatives, Pan or Marsyas, are on stage, but everyone realizes that these are puppets, figures who merely stand in for Dionysus—is once again, as always (since the origins of the world), the old struggle of chaos and cosmos, of the Titanic versus the Olympian. Thirdly, that even if these two equally divine universes—the harmonious calm symbolized by Apollo, the conflicted and earsplitting din of Dionysus—are in appearance radically opposed, quite clearly they are in reality inseparable: without cosmic settlement, chaos will carry everything before it and all will be laid waste; without chaos, the cosmic order will ossify, and all life, all history will disappear.
At the time he was writing on Greek tragedy, Nietzsche was profoundly influenced by a philosopher, Schopenhauer, whom he still considered his mentor (but from whom he would subsequently distance himself). Now, this latter had recently published an important book, with what initially seems like an incomprehensible title: The World as Will and Representation. Without attempting to summarize this difficult and ambitious work, I can nevertheless draw attention to one of its principal themes: the animating conviction, for Schopenhauer and adopted by Nietzsche, that the universe is divided in two. On the one side, there is an immense chaotic flux—disordered, riven apart, absurd and denuded of sense, fundamentally the realm of the unconscious—which Schopenhauer calls “the will”; on the other side, there is a desperate opposing attempt to put things in order, to revert to calm, to achieve consciousness, to make harmonious sense of things, which is what Schopenhauer terms “representation.” Nietzsche applies this distinction to the Greek world. The universe of will, meaningless and pulling apart, corresponds to the original chaos of titanic forces—and the god who incarnates this best, at the hub of Olympus, is Dionysus. And the world of representation corresponds to the cosmic order established by Zeus, with its harmony, its calm, and its beauty. It follows that the lyre of Apollo belongs to the order of “representation,” and the flute—Dionysiac, Titanesque, chaotic, uncivilized, acosmic—belongs to that of Schopenhauerian will. Likewise, two distinct kinds of music will always be opposed to each other: the gentle, cosmic, and civilized order of harmony and on the other hand the chaotic, harsh atonality that mimics the unconscious passions of the will in its primitive state. In truth, all perfected music must, in imitation of the Greek cosmos, combine these two worlds… . Midas, a vulgar creature and close to the state of nature, leans to the Dionysiac. It is not by chance that Dionysus is his companion, like Silenus and Pan. Nor is it by chance that the followers of Dionysus are often half animal, half human, with immoderate sexual desires and ungovernable appetites for wild partying.
Put differently, what is played out or repeated in the little fable of Midas, apparently so anodyne, is once again the victory of Zeus over the Titans. And if it puts Apollo in such a fury, this is not because he is merely “piqued,” as is sometimes remarked so obtusely—for how can the judgment of a poor imbecile like Midas be of any concern to Apollo, a sublime deity?—but because he must of necessity combat hubris in all its forms. His Olympian mission is to root out hubris at its source: a light sentence for Midas, directed at where he has sinned (in and through his ears), taking care to fit the punishment to the crime—but atrocious suffering for Marsyas. Midas is a cretin, a rustic who understands nothing of the cosmic stakes involved in the musical contest. He deserves merely to be put back in his place, as one would rein in a poor beast, a donkey. A simple punishment suffices. But in the case of Marsyas an example has to be set: Marsyas is a menace, and unlike Midas he has issued a direct challenge to a god. We cannot understand the violence of his punishment until we see that such a challenge is all the more intolerable because the cosmic order is a fragile and even superficial victory: beneath this apparently ordered and peaceful settlement there is the unchained sea of chaos that threatens constantly to break its bounds. The fury of Apollo was difficult for contemporaries to understand, and some mythographers went so far as to invent an aftermath in which he repented for having killed Marsyas. But this is an elaboration, and not the property of the myth.
So we see that the story of Midas, which starts in somewhat comic mode, ends strangely in tragedy: equally, that one of the most reliable and most dramatic devices of Greek tragedy is to show with what brutality a threatened cosmos—as embodied by the gods—invariably reasserts its rights against the hubris of mortals… .
But let us not look too far ahead. Despite this small anticipatory digression, the place of mortals in the scheme of things at this point, and of men in particular (for there are also the animals to be considered), is not yet fixed. We know where the Titans are to be found, along with Typhon—in Tartarus, heavily chained and guarded by the Hecatoncheires—and we can gauge the menace they represented that is now securely contained. We also know the place or the role assigned to each individual god: the sea to Poseidon, the underworld to Hades, the earth to Gaia, the sky to Uranus, love and beauty to Aphrodite, violence and war to Ares, communication to Hermes, intelligence and the arts (cunning included) to Athena, the deepest darkness to Tartarus, and so forth. But what in the whole of this universe is the role assigned to mortals? No one can say at this stage.
The question is clearly crucial, since it includes (needless to say) the human beings who have devised all of these myths, this entire immensely sophisticated theological and cosmological mechanism. And if they did so, it was not merely to entertain themselves, but to make sense of the universe surrounding them and the life they should lead within it. To try and understand what they are doing on this earth, to try and sift the meaning of their existence. It is through three myths—that of Prometheus, that of Pandora (the first woman), and, famously, that of the golden age, each of which is inseparable from the others—that Greek culture will begin to respond to these fundamental questions. In his poem titled Works and Days, Hesiod carefully interwove these three narratives that were to have such a pervasive afterlife in Western literature, art, and philosophy. It is these stories that I now propose to follow. After which we can consider the major myths dealing with hubris and dikè: deranged acts of immoderation perpetrated by certain individuals, or heroic and just acts performed by those others known as “heroes.”
II. From Immortals to mortals: How
and why was humanity created?
In the works of Hesiod, who was the first to describe it, the myth of the golden age merges with that of the five ages of man, or, as the Greek more accurately has it, the “five races” of man. For this is above all what is at issue: Hesiod describes five distinct humanities, five human types who succeeded one another over the course of time, but who we can equally say remain potentially present within our current humanity.
This myth turns entirely upon the question of the relations between hubris and dikè.* It traces a fundamental connection between those human lives lived in harmony with the cosmos, with justice, and conversely those existences given over to the hubris of pride and immoderation. It is sometimes said that Hesiod’s poem was inspired by personal circumstances, which is perhaps partly true. Hesiod had just undergone a painful episode in his own life, involving a serious falling-out with his brother, Perses (to whom the poem is addressed): on the death of their father, Perses claimed more than his share of the family inheritance (and thereby sinned through hubris). He even bribed the authorities charged with adjudicating the case to find in his favor. It is therefore natural that the poem dedicated to him by his brother should treat of justice, or dikè. But Hesiod, by linking his personal affairs to questions of theogony and cosmology, enlarges the debate, so that the poem is by no means restricted to his individual case. On the contrary, it addresses in general terms, within the perspective of a cosmic order established under the aegis of the gods, the question of the difference between a good life, lived according to dikè, and a bad life, lived under the sign of hubris. Despite having the appearance of an ethical treatise, however, Hesiod’s poem goes considerably further. For he is the first to address the question that interests us most after cosmogony and theogony (the birth of the world, the birth of the gods): namely, the birth of humanity as we know it today. The fundamental issue, for us mortals, is to comprehend why we are here, and what we are in fact capable of in this world—divine and ordered, certainly, but where our mortal span (contrary to the gods) offers us but little time, with which we must do the best we can.
I will begin by briefly recounting the myth of the five ages or races, after which we shall dwell at greater length on the magnificent stories of Prometheus and Pandora, before attempting to assess what wisdom these fundamental narratives possess for mortals.
The myth of the golden age and
the five “races” of man
In the beginning, therefore, is the age of gold, a time of the greatest possible happiness, because men are still living in a state of perfect mutual understanding with the gods. At this epoch, all are still faithful to dikè, and all men are just. Which is to say they shun this troublesome hubris that consists in asking for more than one’s share and thereby misunderstanding at once who one is, as an individual, and what is the order of the world. At this epoch, according to Hesiod, men dispose of three wonderful privileges that all of us would surely wish to enjoy today. Firstly, they do not need to work, nor exercise a profession, nor gain a living. Nature is at this time so generous that she gives freely (as in the Garden of Eden, that parallel paradise lost of biblical myth) everything necessary for an easeful existence: the most delicious fruits, fatted flocks and herds on demand, freshwater springs and welcoming rivers, a clement and unchanging climate. In short, enough to eat and drink and clothe oneself so as to enjoy life without any worries. Secondly, these forebears know neither suffering nor illness nor old age, so they live sheltered from those ills that haunt ordinary mortal existence, from the misfortunes that strike all of us at some point, often unremittingly. Finally, although they are mortal, after all, they could be said to die “as little as possible,” without pain or anguish—“as if overtaken by sleep,” so Hesiod tells us. If they are “scarcely mortal,” it is simply that they have no fear of a death that comes as in the blink of an eye, without fuss. So that these first humans are very close to the gods, with whom, moreover, they share their everyday life.
When this race comes to an end one day by disappearing—“covered up by the earth,” in Hesiod’s phrase—these men do not die entirely. They become what the Greeks called “daimons.” We must be careful to dissociate this word from the negative connotations that subsequently accrued to it in the Christian tradition, and that we take for granted today: on the contrary, the meaning here is of just and protective spirits—comparable to guardian angels, if one wishes to continue a parallel with Christian tradition—able to distinguish dikè from hubris, good from evil, measure from immoderation. On account of their remarkable powers of discernment, Zeus charges them with the signal privilege of bestowing riches according to the good or evil actions of men. Moreover, suggesting that after their death this race of men continues in some sort to live—and even to live well—is the fact that once transformed into daimons, they remain on earth, among the living, rather than below it (in the underworld, where the wicked are punished by the gods).*
Next comes the age of silver, ruled by a puerile and malicious tribe, followed by the age of bronze, equally detestable, peopled by terrifying and bloodthirsty creatures, followed by the age of heroes—warriors like their forefathers, but valorous and noble, who end their days on the Isle of the Blessed Ones, where life is indistinguishable from the golden age. I will leave the description of these ages* to one side, so as to concentrate upon the last age, the age of iron, which is the epoch of now, of our own mortal existence. And here Hesiod’s description becomes overtly apocalyptic, so to speak. This epoch is manifestly the worst of all. In the age of iron, men ceaselessly labor and suffer hardship: there is not a single pleasure that is not immediately followed by pain; there is no good that is not mirrored, like the reverse of a coin, by some ill. Not only do men grow old very rapidly, but they also must work incessantly for their livelihood. And here we are still at the beginning of this era of iron, with worse to come. Why is this? Quite simply because humanity now lives in a state of hubris, of out-and-out immoderation that is not restricted—as in the age of bronze—to the brutality of war, but that contaminates every dimension of human existence. Possessed by jealousy, envy, and violence, humanity respects neither friendship, nor promises, nor justice under whatever form—to such a degree that the last of the gods to inhabit the earth and coexist with mankind are likely at any moment to leave definitively and return to Olympus. Here we are at the antipodes of the golden age, where men lived in a community of friendship with the gods, without working, without suffering, and (almost) without dying. The men of the present age of decadence are heading for catastrophe: if they persevere in their ways, as Hesiod believes (to judge from the quarrel with his brother), there will no longer even be a good side to the coin, only bad sides, and, at the end of it all, death without remedy. Wherein we see the final destructive ravages of an existence given over to hubris, in conflict with the cosmic order and—which is the same thing—in contempt of the gods.
This myth raised and still raises many questions. It has given rise to a bewildering diversity of interpretations. But one question seems to emerge from the rest, as self-evident: How and why did humanity pass from the age of gold to the age of iron? Why this decline, this dereliction by the gods? Or, to adopt a quite different biblical perspective (though apt enough in this context), how to explain this “fall” from a “paradise” that is henceforward “lost”? And these, precisely, are the questions to which the twin myths of Prometheus and Pandora respond quite overtly. Here again, let us be guided by the two poems of Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days, before touching on some later and different versions of the same myths, notably those of a philosopher, Plato, and a tragedian, Aeschylus.
The “crime” of Prometheus and the
banishment to earth of Pandora, first woman
and “greatest misfortune” of mankind
When we read Hesiod’s poem closely, it becomes clear that the myths of Prometheus and Pandora exist to explain the reasons for this passage from an age of gold to one of iron: eliding the three intervening ages, they set out to show how humanity has passed from one extreme to another. Of course, this transition seems catastrophic at first sight. And yet it speaks of us, and of our peculiar destiny, as entirely unique in a universe of gods and elements. And it is in terms of this destiny that we must pose the question of human existence, the question of what course we must seek and, if possible, find in this world. In other words, it is impossible to ponder the question of wisdom for mortals without taking account of their unique situation, however disastrous it may seem initially, within the surrounding cosmos.
But first I must say a few words about the character who plays the central role in our story, namely Prometheus. He is usually presented as one of the Titans. The truth is slightly different since he does not belong to the generation of Cronus. In reality, he is merely a son of Titans: more precisely, one of the children of Iapetus (a brother of Cronus) and Clymene, the ravishing sea-nymph “of the beautiful ankles”—in other words, one of the numerous daughters of the eldest of the Titans, Oceanus. In Greek, the name Prometheus is eloquently meaningful: “the one who thinks ahead,” who in other words is crafty, intelligent, in the sense that one says of a chess player that he is always a “step ahead” of his adversary. Prometheus has three brothers, for each of whom things will end badly—no doubt because in the aftermath of the war of Zeus against the Titans, the children of the latter are not exactly in favor with the regime. Firstly Atlas, who will be condemned by Zeus to carry the world by means of his “indefatigable” shoulders; then Menoetius, whom the master of Olympus soon strikes down with a lightning bolt because he finds him arrogant, and overflowing with hubris, and far too rash not to be dangerous; lastly Epimetheus. The name Epimetheus also possesses significance, exactly the inverse of Prometheus. Roughly, in Greek pro means “before” and epi means “after”: Epimetheus is he who understands “afterward,” who acts without thinking and is always a step behind, the familiar simpleton afflicted by esprit d’escalier, otherwise known as a plodding mind. He will be the principal instrument of Zeus’s vengeance against Prometheus and against mankind—a vengeance that, precisely, will translate men from the age of gold to the age of iron. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
When the scene opens, we are on a vast plain where men are still living in perfect harmony with the gods: the plain of Mecone. In the words of Hesiod, there they live, “protected, remote from ills, without harsh toil and the grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men”—easily recognized as a description of the golden age. These are still the best of times. On this particular day, for reasons not offered by Hesiod, Zeus decides to “settle all disagreements between men and gods.” In truth, this is business as usual for the ongoing construction of the cosmos. Just as Zeus has divided the world appropriately with his peers, the other gods, assigning to each his just share and giving “to each his own,” as Roman law would later express it, by the same token he must now decide what portion of the universe is allocated to humans: in other words, what is to be the mortal lot. For now is their moment. And, as part of this plan, in order to determine fairly what in future will belong to gods on the one hand and to mortals on the other, Zeus asks Prometheus to sacrifice an ox, and to share it out fairly, so that this apportioning will in a sense serve as a model for their future relations.
The stakes are clearly huge, and Prometheus, thinking he is doing well in his self-appointed purpose of aiding mankind—with whom, it is said, he always sided against Olympian interests, perhaps because he himself was descended from the Titans and, as such, not an automatic ally of these second-generation gods—lays a trap for Zeus: he divides the offering into two heaps, in one of which he places the better cuts of meat, such as men are pleased to eat, but wraps these in the hide of the animal. This hide is, of course, inedible, and for good measure—just to make sure that this first heap will look repugnant and have no chance of being chosen by Zeus as the portion destined for the gods—Prometheus places it all inside the unappetizing stomach of the sacrificed animal. In the other heap, he places the poorest parts, the ox’s white bones, carefully cleaned and therefore quite inedible as far as men are concerned, and slides them delicately beneath a fine layer of shining and very appetizing fat! We should remember at this point that Zeus—who after all swallowed his wife, Metis, who was herself cunning incarnate, and is, moreover, the most intelligent of all the gods—cannot possibly be duped by this ploy of Prometheus. He sees him coming, so to speak, and, enraged at the idea of being played for a fool, pretends to fall into the trap—while already planning and savoring the dreadful vengeance that he will visit on Prometheus and, by extension, on the whole race of mortals whom Prometheus thinks he is so craftily providing for. Zeus therefore selects the heap of poor cuts, the white bones wrapped in appetizing fat, and leaves the good meat for the humans.
Let us note in passing* that it does not cost Zeus very much to leave the good meat for the humans, and for one excellent reason: the gods on Olympus do not eat meat! They consume ambrosia and nectar, the only nourishment suitable for Immortals. This is an important point, and one that already announces one entire dimension of the misfortunes that await mankind when, through the fault of Prometheus, they leave behind the age of gold: only those who are going to die need to eat food, such as bread and meat, in order to restore their strength. The gods nourish themselves for pleasure, for amusement, and because their dishes are delicious; men feed themselves through necessity, primarily, so as to avoid dying even sooner than will otherwise and inevitably occur, one day or another. To keep the meat for the humans and give the bones to the gods: this is in effect to confirm that the former are mortals, soon exhausted by labor, always in quest of food, in the absence of which they fail, suffer, fall ill, and die, in short order—all of which is, of course, unknown territory as far as gods are concerned.
So Prometheus has attempted to deceive Zeus in favor of mankind, or so he thinks, and Zeus is furious. To punish them all, he withholds fire, which is a gift of the gods, by means of which men warm themselves and—above all—roast the foods that keep them alive. Cooking is, for the Greeks, one of the signs of man’s humanity, and what separates him decisively from both gods and animals: the gods have no need of food, and the animals on the other hand eat their food raw. And it is this identity that is lost to man as soon as Zeus withdraws fire. What is more, as a second punishment, “Zeus hid everything,” as Hesiod informs us somewhat enigmatically. What this means in effect is that, whereas in the golden age the produce of the earth was offered up in plain view and at all seasons to the appetite of men, henceforth seeds will be hidden in the earth and man must labor and sow in order to germinate the wheat, then reap it, grind it, and bake it in order to make bread. It is therefore—and the point is crucial—with the onset of work, a tedious activity if ever there was one, that the fall from paradise properly begins.
This is where Prometheus commits a second act of larceny, a second crime of lèse-majesté: he quite simply steals fire and brings it back to earth again! This time, the fury of Zeus overflows, and his unleashed anger knows no bounds. He, too, will devise a ruse, and what a ruse, to punish these mortals whom Prometheus would protect. He orders Hephaestus to fashion, at a moment’s notice, using water and clay, the figure of a young girl “who will be pleasing in form,” a woman with whom these idiot humans will all fall abjectly in love! A whole pleiad of gods contribute a talent here, a grace or charm there: Athena teaches her to weave; Aphrodite bestows absolute beauty, along with the gift of arousing such desire “as causes painful yearning” and provokes “cares which leave you broken.” Put differently, Pandora (for it is of her that we speak) will be seduction incarnate. Hermes—go-between, god of oratory and merchants, a sly one, himself a seducer and a bit of a trickster—gives Pandora “the mind of a dog and deceitful ways,” which is to say that she will always ask for “more than enough” (Hesiod again), signified by “the mind of a dog.” She will be insatiable, on all levels: food, money, gifts. She always wants more. And more sexually, of course, where her appetite is likewise without limit. Potentially, at least, her orgasms never end—whereas the men, no matter how they try, are very soon spent. As for her “underhand ways,” these signify that she will seduce anyone, since all arguments, all ruses, all the most tantalizing untruths are but grist to her mill. To complete this charming tableau, Athena also makes her a present of beautiful adornments, Hephaestus fashions a diadem of matchless refinement, and other divinities add their share: the Graces, the Hours (daughters of Zeus and Themis), and again the goddess of persuasion herself all contribute gifts, so that in the end, as Zeus tells himself with a bitter laugh, the unfortunate humans will be absolutely powerless to avoid this trap, this “calamity for the men who live by bread,” this bionic woman, sublime but in reality to be dreaded, who will “rejoice their hearts” to the point that the simpletons “will cherish their own undoing.”
We should note here the resemblances between the ruse of Prometheus and the answering ruse of Zeus. They correspond at every point: as always in a harmonious cosmos, the punishment must match the crime. Has Prometheus tried to deceive Zeus by playing on appearances (hiding the inedible bones under the crisp fat and, conversely, dissimulating the good beef in the revolting stomach cavity of the ox)? What of it! Zeus, too, will play at illusions: his gift has all the external trappings of a promised land, but at bottom she is the queen of bitches and is anything but a gift for whoever is at the receiving end!
Moreover, this ravishing and unstoppable young beauty has a name, Pandora, which is at once eloquent and wholly deceptive. In Greek it means “she who possesses all the gifts,” because, as Hesiod says, “all the gods on Olympus had given her something”—unless, as others suggest, the name means “she who has been given to men by all of the gods.” Both interpretations are apt: Pandora possesses outwardly all possible and all imaginable virtues in terms of seduction (if not in terms of morals, which is another matter entirely …). At the same time, she has decidedly been sent down to men from the gods in concert—who are determined to punish them.
So Zeus brings this sublime creature to life, then asks Hermes to conduct her to Epimetheus, the poor simpleton who acts first and thinks afterward, when it is too late and the damage is done. Prometheus had, however, warned his brother on no account to ever accept any gift from the gods of Olympus, for he knew full well that they would try to avenge themselves on him, and through him on mankind. But of course Epimetheus walks right into the trap, falling madly in love with Pandora. Not only will she now give birth to other women who will similarly and in every sense spell ruin for men, but in addition she will open a strange “jar” (soon to be known in mythology as “Pandora’s box”), in which Zeus has taken care to place all the ills, all the misfortunes, and all the sufferings that will thereafter rain down on mankind. Only hope itself will remain shut up in the bottom of this fateful container! This can be interpreted in two ways. Either we may assume that humans will not even be allowed the means to cling onto the life raft of hope since the latter commodity remains in the box. Or we can interpret it as follows, which seems to me more apt: namely that hope will indeed persist, but is by no means to be thought of as a blessing conceded by Zeus. Don’t deceive yourselves, in other words: hope, for the Greeks, is not a gift. It is rather a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope is to remain always in a state of want, to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain in some sense unsatisfied and unhappy. When we hope to get better, this means that we are ill; when we hope to be rich, this means we are poor; so hope itself is more of an evil than a good.
Whatever the case, here is how Hesiod describes the episode in Works and Days. I quote it at length, since it shows clearly the links that connect these three myths (I offer a few comments in italics):
Epimetheus gave no thought to what Prometheus had told him, never to accept a gift from Olympian Zeus but to send it back lest some affliction befall mortal men: but he accepted the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood [as always, Epimetheus understands things after the fact, when it is too late]. For formerly the tribes of men on earth lived remote from ills, without harsh toil and the grievous sicknesses that are deadly to mortals [the myth of the golden age, to be shattered when Pandora appears on the scene]; those who must die soon grow old in misery… . But the woman unstopped the jar with her hands and let it all out, bringing sorrow and mischief to mankind [the jar that will soon become known infamously as “Pandora’s box”—Hesiod does not tell us where it comes from, or how; what is certain is that Zeus is responsible for filling it with its detestable contents]. Only Hope remained inside, secure in its dwelling, beneath the lip of the jar, and did not fly out, because the lid fell back in time by the providence of aegis-bearing Zeus [“aegis,” from the Greek aigos meaning “goat” and referring to the famous shield made from the hide of the goat Amalthea, which had suckled Zeus in his infancy and was said to be impervious to arrows]. But for the rest, countless troubles roam amongst men [Zeus having placed in the jar all possible and imaginable ills with which to punish humans: sicknesses of every sort, pains of every kind, fear, old age, death … ]; for the earth is full of evils and the sea is likewise full. Sicknesses visit men by day, and others by night, uninvited, bringing ill to mortals; for resourceful Zeus deprived these ills of voice [they befall us without our being able either to foresee or prevent them]. Thus there is no way to escape the purpose of Zeus [namely, to punish mortal men].
And this is the reason why, because of Pandora, or rather by means of Pandora, we were cast out of the golden age.
In addition to this terrible punishment—which seems to target Prometheus only indirectly since it does not affect him personally but rather affects those whom he sought to defend and protect, namely humans—there is another punishment that does indeed affect the son of Iapetus directly: he is to be chained by strict and painful bonds to the top of a mountain, and Zeus unleashes a gigantic eagle against him, who each day devours his liver. For Prometheus’s liver is (of course) immortal and is restored each night, only for the agonizing torture to begin afresh each day… . Later, much later, Prometheus will finally be freed by Heracles. In this subsequent version of the myth, long after Hesiod, Zeus has sworn by the river Styx—an oath that cannot under any circumstances be retracted—never to free Prometheus from his rock. But Zeus is proud of the exploits of his son Heracles and does not wish to disavow him. At the same time, he has no wish to renege entirely on his oath, so he accepts that Prometheus should be freed, but on condition that the latter forever wear a small piece of this same rock attached to a ring! It is said that this little accommodation with the heavens is the origin of one of our most everyday adornments: the ring set with a precious stone… .
But let us return to our humans, and their new reality, as set out so mercilessly in the myth of Pandora. It contains at least three lessons that we should try to understand if we are fully to appreciate what happens next.
Three philosophical lessons, drawn from
the myth of Prometheus and Pandora
Firstly, if Pandora is truly the first woman, as Hesiod insists, this means that during the golden age, before the famous division of the ox performed by Prometheus at Mecone, men lived by definition without women. There was certainly a feminine principle at work in the world, and notably a whole bevy of feminine divinities, but the race of mortals was exclusively male. This implies, logically, that they were born not of the union of man and woman but solely by the will of the gods and according to means chosen by the gods (no doubt sprung directly from the earth, as other myths invite us to believe). This point is crucial, for it is this birth from the union of man and woman that will make mortals truly mortal. Remember that, in the golden age, humans do not truly die or, more accurately, they die as minimally as possible: they slowly fade away, in their sleep, without anguish or suffering and with never a thought of dying. Moreover, after their demise they remain in some sense alive since they turn into “daimons,” those guardian spirits charged with dispensing wealth to men according to individual merit. Henceforward, however, with the appearance of Pandora, mortals are wholly and entirely mortal, and for a reason that has true philosophical depth: it is because the dimension of time, as we know it, along with its cortege of ills—aging, illness, death—has finally arrived on the scene. You will recall how Uranus, and Cronus in his wake, were averse to letting their children see the light of day: Uranus barricaded them in the womb of their mother, Gaia, whereas Cronus devoured each one outright until Zeus’s mother, Rhea, hoaxed him and made him swallow a decoy—a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of her actual son. The real reason for this savage urge to prevent their children from being born is twofold: not only to prevent an eventual conflict in the course of which the ruling king might lose his power and be usurped by his own issue but also, and more profoundly, to block the operations of time and change, and consequently that form of death symbolized by the succession of generations. A stable and ordered cosmos: that is the ideal of every sensible sovereign, but giving birth and succession always implies, more or less, the ruin of this beautiful idea of fixity. Now, henceforth, the idea of descendance becomes firmly established—by which we also see that children come to occupy a somewhat ambiguous position, to say the least: we love them, of course, but they also symbolize our demise—in which respect the Greeks seem less sentimental, and perhaps less simplistic, not to say less simpleminded than we have become today… .
Next, as in the Bible, the banishment from a golden age is accompanied by a truly ruinous calamity: namely labor. Henceforth, in effect, men must earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, and for two reasons. Firstly, as I have already mentioned, because Zeus has “hidden everything,” has buried in the earth the fruits by which men exist, notably the cereals with which we make bread, so that these must now be cultivated if we are to feed ourselves. And then there is also the ravishing Pandora to be contended with, and along with her, as the Theogony insists, “the whole race and tribe of women, scourge of mortals”:
They dwell with their husbands but are no fit partners for accursed poverty [to speak plainly, they are never supportive in misfortune], but only in time of plenty. As in thatched hives the bees feed the drones, whose nature is to do mischief, and while they busy themselves all day and every day until sundown laying the white honeycomb, the drones stay inside in the sheltered cells and pile the toil of others into their own bellies.
Not exactly a feminist point of view, I agree, but the epoch in which Hesiod lived was not our own. Be that as it may, things are finished as far as the beautiful golden age is concerned, in which men feasted with the gods each day and saw to their needs in all innocence, without ever bending to the necessity of hard labor. But worst of all, if one may say so, is that women are clearly a mixed rather than an unadulterated evil.
The alternative would be too simple, and this is the third lesson imparted by the myth: human life is tragic, in this specific sense that there is no good without evil. Man, as Zeus intended by his joyless laughter, is now entirely outplayed, caught in a trap with no possible escape. If he refuses to marry so as to avoid his patrimony being devoured by drones (i.e., by women, who always want more), he will unquestionably accumulate more wealth. But to what end? On whose behalf will he go to all this trouble? And when he dies without children, without heirs, his accumulated riches will end up in the hands of some distant connection for whom he has no use! He will die a second time, so to speak, because, deprived of heirs, nothing will survive of him. Mortality squared! No, he must therefore marry if he wants heirs, but here the trap is sprung once again: there is the added consideration that his children may be worthless, the worst of all misfortunes for a father! To sum up, in either case the good is inevitably accompanied by an equal or greater ill.
Of course, Hesiod’s text seems inveterately misogynist—and so it is read today in most universities. Today, Hesiod would surely be proscribed and forbidden to teach on campus. But we should also understand that times have changed, that our age is not that of Hesiod, and that, beyond their shock value, we must see his propositions above all in their connection to the question of human mortality. For clearly the supreme misfortune to befall men in the age of iron is that they no longer melt away as formerly in the good old days of gold. When we substitute being born of the earth (in a manner decided and regulated by the gods) to being born of a sexual union, the new life given by woman has as its counterpart a new death, preceded by suffering, labor, illness, and all the ills associated with aging, none of which were known to the denizens of the age of gold.
From which once again arises the critical question that underlies the entire structure of myth as we see it taking form in Hesiod: What is a good life for mortals? Contrary to the major monotheist religions, Greek mythology does not promise us eternal life or paradise. It merely attempts, like its godchild philosophy, to be lucid about the human condition that is ours. What is to be done other than try to live in harmony with the cosmic order or, if we are bent on avoiding anonymity in death, try to become famous through glorious deeds? Along with Odysseus, we must convince ourselves that this life can be preferable even to immortality.
But let us at this point get to the end of the story, as it was imagined, or at least as it was formulated, after Hesiod.
The reasons for our banishment from
the golden age: the Prometheus myth
as told by Plato and Aeschylus
I am sure you must have asked yourselves the following question: Why after all must humans be punished for a crime they have not committed? There has been hubris on the part of Prometheus, clearly, since he has dared to defy the gods and to deceive them by hiding the good cuts of beef under a revolting exterior and giving the bad cuts an appetizing aspect. But why are men to be blamed for this business? And why should humans be put in their place so remorselessly by Zeus, given they had nothing to do with this deception and have done nothing wrong?
Although contemporary mythographers are in the habit of doing so, I have some scruples about proceeding as if naturally from a tale told by Hesiod in the seventh century BC to a work written in quite another context, three centuries later, namely the pages devoted to the myth of Prometheus in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, named after one of the greatest of the Sophist philosophers. This shift involves not only a different epoch—and three centuries, which is hardly a negligible consideration—but also a change of register: from myth to philosophy. However, despite these reservations, the philosophical outlook of Plato, albeit quite different from that of Hesiod, does offer a perspective on his poems that is both illuminating and plausible. According to Plato, Prometheus did not simply steal fire from Hephaestus; he also stole the arts and sciences from Athena, exposing mortals to the risk of one day or another thinking themselves the equal of the gods. In which event, humanity would without any doubt be sinning through hubris! It is therefore possible that this, in effect, is what was already at stake on the plain of Mecone, at the moment the sacrificial ox was being divided… .
According to Protagoras, then—at least as dramatized in Plato’s dialogue—the disagreement between men and gods can only be fully understood if we take into account the whole story, going back to a time before men existed, when in effect there were only gods on earth.
One fine day, the gods decide, for a reason Protagoras does not specify (perhaps they were bored, all by themselves?) to create a race of mortals, which is to say animals and men. So they set about it enthusiastically and create, by means of earth and fire, “and various mixtures of both elements,” little statuettes in various forms. Before bringing them to life, they ask Epimetheus and Prometheus to divide the various attributes between these creatures accordingly. Epimetheus begs his brother to let him do the distribution himself, and first he sets about allocating to those animal species deprived of reason. How does he proceed? Epimetheus is not as stupid as he might seem, and his distribution of qualities is even very adept: he constructs a “cosmos,” a perfectly balanced and viable system of life, arranging things so that each species has its chance of survival against the others. For example, with the small animals such as sparrows or rabbits, he gives to the one wings to fly away from their predators, and to the other (for the same reason) speed in running and burrows in which they can take cover from danger. Here is how Protagoras describes the labors of Epimetheus:
In his allotment of qualities he took care to equalise the odds, and in everything he devised he took precautions so that no species should be eradicated by another. When he had sufficiently provided means of escape from mutual destruction, he contrived their comfort against the variations in season sent by Zeus, clothing them with thick hair or hard carapaces sufficient to ward off the winter’s cold, but effective also against heat; and he planned that when they went to sleep, the same coverings should serve as proper and natural bedclothes. He shod each species, too, some with hooves, others with hard and bloodless claws. Next he ordained different sorts of food for them—to some the grass of the earth, to others the fruit of trees, to others roots; some he allowed to gain their nourishment by devouring other animals, and these he made less fertile, while he bestowed abundant fertility on their victims, and so preserved their species.
In short, Epimetheus conceived and put into effect what ecologists would today call a perfectly balanced and self-regulating “biosphere” or “ecosystem”—what the Greeks called quite simply a cosmos, a harmonious whole, just and viable, in which each species can survive alongside and even in coexistence with the others. This confirms that nature—at least in mythology—is indeed an admirable arrangement. In which case you will perhaps ask why Epimetheus deserves to be treated as a simpleton who always understands everything too late?
Here is Protagoras’s answer:
But, as everyone knows, this Epimetheus was not an especially well-advised individual, and before he realized it he had used up all the available attributes on brute beasts deprived of reason, and was left with the human race, quite unprovided for, and did not know what to do with them. While he was puzzling over this, Prometheus came to inspect the work. He found the animals well provided for, in all respects, but man naked, unshod, with no natural covering for sleep, and unarmed… . Prometheus, therefore, at a loss to provide whatever means of protecting man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the mechanical arts, together with fire (for without fire these skills could neither have been acquired or employed), and bestowed them on man as his gift.
Here we see how Prometheus has committed a double crime, which will incur a double punishment—namely sanctions against himself, in the form of the terrifying eagle that daily devours his liver, but also against mankind, to whom Zeus will send Pandora and, along with her, all the ills thereafter associated with the fallen human condition. So in what, exactly, does this double crime consist?
Firstly, Prometheus has behaved like a thief: without any permission he enters the workshop shared by Hephaestus and Athena to steal fire from the former and the mechanical arts from the latter, which is already highly punishable. In so doing, however, Prometheus—again without the permission of Zeus—endows men with an entirely new power, a quasi-divine power of creation, which we can be certain (without following Plato’s commentary on other aspects of the myth that need not concern us here) will one day or another lead humans, tempted as they are to commit hubris, to take themselves for gods. For as Protagoras points out, thanks to these gifts of Prometheus that are, properly speaking, divine, men are henceforth the only animals capable of making artificial, “technical” objects: shoes, skins, clothes, produce drawn from the earth, etc. In other words, like the gods, they, too, truly become creators. What is more, they are the only creatures to be able to articulate sounds in such a way as to give sense to them; the only creatures to invent language, which again brings them considerably closer to the gods. Admittedly, as these gifts come directly from the Olympians, from whom Prometheus has stolen them, humans will by the same token be the only creatures to know that gods exist, and to construct altars to them and honor them. Despite which, given that they never stop behaving badly toward one another, to the point that they are in constant danger of destroying themselves as a species—contrary to animals, who from the outset form a balanced and viable system of checks and balances—humans are permanently threatened by hubris! What Prometheus has just confected, therefore, is a species that is prodigiously dangerous and worrying for the cosmos as a whole, and he has done so without the consent of Zeus. So now we can more easily understand the anger of Zeus, and why he regards the deceptions of Prometheus as disgraceful and reckless, and why likewise he intends not only to punish this child of Titan but mankind in general, in order (precisely) to put men in their place and discourage them once and for all from yielding to the temptations of hubris. This is what is truly at stake in this myth: to ensure that mortals, despite the gifts made by Prometheus, do not take themselves for gods.
It is to this same conclusion that a consideration of the play about Prometheus by the great tragedian Aeschylus fundamentally leads us, nearly two centuries before Plato dramatized the myth through the voice of Protagoras.
In effect, in Prometheus Bound we learn from the outset that Zeus already distrusts mortals, from the moment he divides the world and organizes the cosmos, after seizing power from his father Cronus. Here again, let us read Aeschylus’s own words so as to habituate ourselves to hearing how the Greeks expressed these matters, five centuries before our common era:
“No sooner was he seated on his high, paternal throne [the throne of Cronus, whom Zeus has just overturned with the aid of the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires] than to the various Gods he allotted privileges, and parceled out his empire [which is when the real business of creating a cosmic order begins]. But of miserable men he took no account; rather it was his wish to wipe out man and rear another race: and no one contravened these designs but I, Prometheus. I alone had the audacity, and saved mankind from stark destruction and the road to Hades [in other words, to hell, often named after the god who rules over it]. For which reason I am bowed under the weight of these grievous pains, a pitiful spectacle for all to see [referring, of course, to the chains that bind him and to the eagle that devours his liver]. For having shown pity to man, I am judged unworthy of pity in return …”
No doubt this is so, but once again the question presents itself: Why? A little further on in the play, Prometheus boasts of all the benefits he has brought to mankind. When we read the list, as in Plato, we understand precisely why Zeus would not look kindly on this species that risks—rather as ecologists fear today—being henceforth the one species on earth capable, merely as a function of the technology it wields, of carrying immoderation to the point of threatening the cosmic order itself:
“But listen to my tale of mortal’s sufferings—how at first they were as children, and I gave them sense, and endowed them with reason. I say this not in contempt of men, but to show the gifts with which I showered them. First of all, they had eyes but they saw to no avail, they had ears but they did not understand: like phantoms huddled in dreams, they wandered in confusion the length of their days, knowing neither timber-work nor brick-built dwellings basking in the light—but dug holes for themselves, like swarming ants in the burrows of their unsunned caves. They had no foresight of winter’s cold, nor of the springtime decked with flowers, nor yet of summer’s heat with melting fruits, but managed everything without judgement. Until I invented for them the difficult art of telling the rising of the stars from their setting. Likewise, I devised for them that most beautiful of all inventions, the science of numbers, and the art of combining letters with which to retain the memory of all things, which made it possible to cultivate the arts. And it was I that first yoked unmanaged beasts to serve the collar and the pack-saddle, and take upon themselves, to man’s relief, the heaviest labour of his hands: and I harnessed horses and made them docile to the rein, to be an image of wealth and luxury. Who else but I contrived the mariner’s cloth-winged vessels that roam the seas? Such are the manifold inventions that I perfected for mankind, yet have myself no means to rid me of my present suffering.”
Prometheus is extremely generous, but he quite misses the point of the difficulty that preoccupies Zeus—a problem that resurfaces (once again) in contemporary ecology—and it is no coincidence that the image of Prometheus is omnipresent in this latter context. In the eyes of Zeus, Prometheus’s boast sounds like the most incriminating confession of guilt, and what the son of Iapetus the Titan puts forward in his defense is, from the perspective of the Olympians, the most terrible of self-indictments. What Greek mythology dramatizes here, with clairvoyance and profundity, is the definition (entirely modern, moreover)* of a species whose freedom and creativity are fundamentally at odds with both nature and cosmos. Promethean man is already the man of science, capable of ceaselessly creating and inventing, manufacturing machines and devices likely one day to emancipate himself from all the laws of nature. This is, precisely, what Prometheus bestows on men when he steals the “spirit of the arts,” which is to say the capacity to deploy and even to devise all sorts of inventions. Agriculture, arithmetic, language, astronomy—all of which will serve man as means to step outside his human condition, to elevate himself arrogantly above the other creatures, and thus to disturb the cosmic order that Zeus has so painfully and so recently succeeding in implementing! In short, contrary to the other living species—whose lives were set in motion by Epimetheus as a perfectly self-regulating and immutable system, at all points unlike what will come to characterize mankind, as soon as men are equipped with arts and sciences—the human species is alone among mortal creatures capable of hubris, the only species capable of defying the gods and disturbing, even destroying, nature itself. And it is obvious that Zeus can only look upon this development with a jaundiced if not an evil eye, to judge by the punishments he metes out to Prometheus and mankind alike.
From here it takes but a short step to arrive at the notion of eradicating humanity completely, a threshold that certain mythological accounts do not hesitate to cross.
The flood, and the ark of Deucalion
and Pyrrha, according to Ovid:
destruction and rebirth of humanity
One fact is henceforth clearly established: the tendency for hubris to become engrained once humanity is armed with new powers of creativity allied to the sciences and scientific prowess, all of which Prometheus has stolen from the gods. Hubris threatens constantly to embroil mortals in vice and lead them to commit more and more crimes against a just order. Several ancient mythographers follow a description of the golden age (these are more or less corrupt versions of Hesiod) with a more celebrated episode: that of the deluge or flood with which Zeus decided to destroy humanity in its current form, in order to start afresh—exactly as in the Bible—with two righteous individuals, a man and a woman: namely Deucalion, son of Prometheus, and Pyrrha, the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. Both are described as simple and upright souls, who live just lives according to dikè, remote from the hubris that characterizes the rest of a humanity foundering in decadence.* The first poet to give a detailed and complete account of the deluge—prior to which there are only scattered allusions, insufficient to make a coherent narrative—was Ovid. At the start of Metamorphoses he offers a plausible version of the myth and links the deluge to a particular event that might be seen as occurring in the present epoch, namely the age of iron, and that is a direct consequence of the moral dereliction to which humanity has been reduced in this period. The episode concerns Lycaon, a Greek king who tries to deceive Zeus in the most abominable manner. Ovid sets the stage by evoking the existence of a race, during or after the age of iron (the chronology is not clear), fashioned by Gaia from the blood of the giants slain by Zeus—in order that some trace of her former offspring might remain. She gives these beings a “human face,” but they bear the indelible trace of their origins and are essentially characterized by violence, the taste for slaughter, and contempt for the gods.
Let us pause for a moment at this account of the deluge, and imagine ourselves transported to the age of iron or, even worse, to the epoch of those born from the blood of the giants—in other words, a time of rampant hubris. Zeus, who has been told that humans are behaving rather badly, comes to make a tour of inspection on earth, to see for himself how far humanity has fallen. And what does he find? That the situation is far worse than he had been told! Everywhere assassins and thieves are in control, men who despise the order of things established by the god. So as to make his own observations, incognito, and avoid falsifying the results by being recognized, Zeus takes human form and wanders up and down on the earth. Thus he arrives in Arcadia, which is ruled by a tyrant named Lycaon (Greek for “the wolf”). Zeus gives a sign to the common folk of the region that a god has arrived. Impressed, they begin to pray to him. But Lycaon bursts into laughter. And in keeping with a pattern that we shall often encounter, and which recalls the episode of Tantalus, Lycaon decides to challenge Zeus, to see if he is truly a god, as he claims, or on the contrary a mere mortal.
Lycaon decides to murder Zeus while he is sleeping, but before putting this grievous plan into effect, he cuts the throat of an unfortunate prisoner who had been sent by the king of a people called the Molossians as a hostage and then dismembers him. Some parts he boils, and others he roasts, with the bright idea of serving it all up to Zeus for his supper! A fatal error, because—witness Tantalus—Zeus has seen and understood everything in advance. His thunderbolt speaks, and the palace of Lycaon falls around the tyrant’s head. He manages to escape, but Zeus changes him into a wolf—the same Lycaon, still as wicked, with the same eyes shining with bloodlust, but now turned against his new fellow creatures, toward which he becomes the most ferocious of predators… . Here is how Ovid describes the scene, near the beginning of Metamorphoses—from which I quote, so that once again you may see the style and brilliance with which these myths were communicated to contemporaries. Here Zeus is speaking in the first person, from Mount Olympus, where he has called an extraordinary assembly of all the gods. It is they whom he addresses, to share his experiences, to inform them that he is ready to destroy the human race, and to give them the reasons for his decision. As always, my own comments are in brackets:
“During that night, while I was heavy with sleep, he planned to kill me by an unexpected and murderous attack; such was the experiment he adopted in order to test the truth [in other words, to discover if Zeus is a god or otherwise]. And not content with this, he took a hostage who had been sent by the Molossian people, cut his throat, boiled some parts of him that were still warm with life, to make them more tender, and others he roasted over the fire. But no sooner had he placed these before me on the table than I, with my avenging thunderbolt, brought the house down upon his head… . Seized with terror, he flees to safety, and, gaining the silent fields, howls aloud, attempting in vain to speak words. His mouth of itself gathers the foam of his rage, and with his accustomed lust for blood he turns against the sheep, delighting still in slaughter… . His garments change to shaggy hair, his arms become legs. He turns into a wolf, yet retains some traces of his former shape. The same gray hair, the same fierce aspect, the same gleaming eyes, the same picture of bestial savagery. I have so far struck one house, but more than one deserves to perish! For wherever the earth extends, there menaces the same furious Erinye [one of the goddesses of vengeance—indicating that there are crimes to be punished everywhere]. You would think it a universal conspiracy of criminals. Let us not drag our heels. Let them all pay the penalties they have so richly deserved. This is my decision and it is irrevocable.”
And the punishment, as you have guessed, is the flood. Zeus initially thinks of destroying humanity by means of his favored weapon, the thunderbolt, as used against Lycaon. But then he reconsiders: the scale of destruction required is so great—no less than the entire earth needs to be rid of a corrupt humanity—that the bonfire required would risk setting fire to the whole universe and burning Olympus itself. So it is with water that Zeus will implement his will, and by water that the human race will perish. Zeus takes care to shut down those winds, such as the mistral, that chase the clouds away and bring dry weather and warmth. On the other hand, he unleashes—like hounds—the humid vapors, heavy with dark clouds, swollen with the rain that now begins to fall in thick, heavy drops. For good measure, he asks Poseidon (Neptune) to strike the ground with his trident so that the rivers leap from their beds and the ocean waves are unleashed from their moorings. Soon the entire earth is covered in water. Ovid notes that seals with shapeless bodies replace goats in the meadows; dolphins are to be seen amid the trees; wolves are found swimming side by side with sheep and tawny lions, whose only thought now is to save their skins… . The daughters of Nereus, one of the sea gods, are amazed to discover entire cities still intact beneath the waters… . In short, men and beasts, this whole small world of mortal creatures, ends by being swallowed. Even the birds die: exhausted from flying above the limitless waters, they allow themselves to drop and be swallowed up. And those who avoid the waters, by one means or other, are sooner or later brought down by hunger—since clearly there is no more food.
The whole world is dead … except for two beings, two humans whom Zeus has taken pains to spare. Here, again, we are very close to the biblical story. For at the moment when Zeus announces his decision to destroy the human race in its entirety, the assembly of gods is in effect divided. Some go along with Zeus and even whip up the fever to exterminate. But others on the contrary point out that an earth without mortals is likely to be a very boring and empty place: Are they to let this marvelous microcosm be roamed by wild beasts alone? And then, who will look after the altars? Who will make sacrifices and honor the gods if there are no men left to attend to these chores? The truth of the matter—though it is I who make this point, which is only implicit in Ovid—is that without mankind, the entire cosmos in effect is given over to death, to lifelessness.
And here once more we touch on one of the most profound themes of Greek myth: if the cosmic order were perfect, if it were indeed characterized by a faultless and immutable equilibrium, time would simply come to a stop, which is to say all life, all movement, all history. And even for the gods there would be nothing more to do or see. From which it is clear that primordial chaos, and the forces that it periodically causes to erupt, cannot and should not disappear completely. And humanity—with all its vices and its generations succeeding one another indefinitely as a consequence of Pandora, whose legacy is that men are now “truly” mortal—is likewise paradoxically indispensable to life. It is a magnificent paradox, which we might rephrase thus: there is no life without death, no history without succession, no order without disorder, no cosmos without a minimum of chaos. This is why, faced with the objections raised by several of the gods, Zeus agrees to spare two humans, in order that humanity might replenish itself. But which two humans? They have to be two exceptional beings so that this species can at least begin again from a sane and solid basis. Exceptionally, this does not mean that they should be persons of consequence. On the contrary, the pair in question are two simple but honest souls, pure of heart, who live far from hubris and according to the precepts of dikè, honoring their gods and respecting the order of things. Who are they? Their names are Deucalion and Pyrrha. As I have said, the former is a son of Prometheus. Hesiod at no point tells us the name of his mother, nor does Ovid, but Aeschylus suggests that she may be a daughter of Oceanus, an Oceanid therefore, by the name of Hesione. As for Pyrrha, she is the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. In a sense, then, these are humans from the age of iron, and this is business as usual for the continuity of the species. But it is also a restarting from zero, from a man and woman who, as far as the entirety of this new future is concerned, which is to say our present humanity, may be considered as the first man and the first woman.
How are they to repeople the earth? In a manner that is extremely curious and recalls primitive ritual rather than anything associated with Pandora—which is just as well, if things are to get off on an improved footing. Alone, frightened, lost in a gigantic and deserted universe, Deucalion and Pyrrha, having constructed (like Noah) a very solid ark, after nine days of uninterrupted deluge, come to rest on the heights of Mount Parnassus, which has been carefully preserved from inundation by the will of Zeus. There the couple encounters some charming nymphs, known as the Corycian nymphs because they inhabit a grotto, the Corycian cave, in the side of Mount Parnassus, just above Delphi. Deucalion and Pyrrha then make their way to the sanctuary of Themis, the goddess of justice, to whom they address their prayers and their pleas: asking how to survive after the cataclysm and, above all, how to restore a lost humanity. Themis takes pity on them, and here is how she responds (as always, with the oracles—at first hearing—somewhat enigmatically):
“Leave the temple, cover your faces, remove the girdle of your garments, and cast over your shoulders without looking the bones of your grandmother.”
It has to be said that these instructions seem strange, and our two unhappy humans are very confused. What exactly does the goddess mean? They reflect and finally they understand: to cover your face and remove the girdle of your garments is to adopt the ritual appearance of priests when they offer sacrifice to the gods. It is a sign of humility, of respect—the opposite of the hubris that led humanity into catastrophe. As for the bones of their grandmother, clearly this does not mean—as Deucalion and Pyrrha fear initially—that they must go and profane some cemetery or other! The grandmother in question is, of course, Gaia, the earth—or, to be more precise, the great-grandmother of Deucalion and Pyrrha, mother of Iapetus, who was himself the father of Prometheus and Epimetheus, who are in turn the fathers of our two survivors. And the bones of Gaia are, quite simply, the stones on the ground. The oracle’s pronouncement just required a little thought. Completely awed, and still fearing that they have misunderstood, Deucalion and Pyrrha nevertheless pick up some stones and cast them over their shoulders. What happens next is a miracle! The stones begin to soften. Mixing with the earth, they become flesh; veins appear on their surfaces, which in turn fill up with blood. Those thrown by Pyrrha become women, and those thrown by Deucalion become men, all of whom bear the mark of their origin: the new humanity will be a race inured to work, like the stone from which they have sprung, inured to a life of fatigue, hard as rock!
This leaves the animals, which all have likewise perished in the deluge. Happily, under the sun’s heat, the waterlogged earth warms up and in this tepid mud, “as in the womb of a mother” (Ovid), animals commence slowly to be born, emerging into the light and coming to life, innumerable species, not only the old familiar species but also some quite new varieties.
The world is on the march again. Life resumes its course once more, and the cosmic order surmounts both of the evils by which it was menaced: chaos, on the one hand, which was always on the brink of resurgence, given a humanity immersed in hubris, and on the other hand deadly boredom and stultification, were mortal creatures to have vanished entirely from the face of the earth. And here we realize that only now is the cosmogony, the construction of a cosmos, well and truly complete.
It is also at this point, therefore, that the crucial question—where mythology and philosophy join hands—can finally be framed in all its amplitude: What is it that constitutes a good life for these mortals? And it is only with the figure of Odysseus that we begin to address this question in detail. It is not enough for us to place ourselves in the position of the gods, which we have done hitherto, adopting a theogonic perspective. After all, what concerns us at bottom is how we should relate as humans to this grand conceptual edifice. Let us assume, for argument, that we subscribe to the Greek vision of the world, that we believe the universe is a harmonious and regulated whole, and that we—finite creatures—are destined irremediably to die: in these circumstances, what are the conditions, the principles, of a good life? Besides, these hypotheses are somewhat less rebarbative for us, today, insofar as they possess some contemporary currency: when everything is weighed, it is quite possible that the universe is in effect an ordered whole, as the ancient Greeks believed. Contemporary science inclines on various counts in this direction. Each day, the discoveries of biology or in physics lead us closer to thinking that there are indeed self-regulating ecosystems, that the universe is ordered, that species are evolving in the direction of increased adaptation, and so on. As to mortality, helped on by the secularization or disenchantment of the world, in the democratized West (at least) we are collectively ever more inclined to think that the idea of immortality promised by religion is doubtful. The idea, therefore, that wisdom may consist in accepting the hypothesis of a cosmic order on whose stage human beings appear but briefly seems more relevant than ever before. This is also why the voyage of Odysseus, involving an unmistakable transition from the perspective of the gods to that of simple mortals, and describing how one individual can and must find his place in the cosmos so as to arrive at the good life, speaks so vibrantly to us today.
Let us try better to understand the why and wherefore of this: it involves the whole question of a wisdom for mortals, which is well worth our pursuit.