Prometheus against Zeus. First Scene. (Vernant Jean Pierre)

Prometheus against Zeus. First Scene. (Vernant Jean Pierre)

How to assign the relative positions of gods and men? Settling matters by brute force is no longer thinkable here. Humans are too weak; a mere flick of the finger would reduce them to nothing. But neither can the immortals negotiate an agreement with the mortals, as if between equals. Some solution must be found that depends neither on excessive force nor on an understanding among peers. To bring about such an arrangement—necessarily makeshift and skewed—Zeus calls on a figure named Prometheus. He also suits the bizarre method to be used for deciding between gods and men, for settling competition between them. And why is Prometheus the right choice for the job? Because, in the world of the gods, his own status is ambiguous, ill defined, paradoxical. He is considered a Titan; actually he is the son of Cronus’s brother Iapetus, so it is his father who is a Titan; Prometheus is not really one himself. But neither is he an Olympian, for he does not come from that stock. He does have the nature of a Titan–as does his brother Atlas. Zeus eventually comes to punish both of them. Prometheus has a rebellious spirit, clever and insubordinate, and always quick to find fault. Why does Zeus give him the task of working out this business? Because, as a not-quite-Titan, Prometheus had not joined with the Titans fighting against Zeus. He adopted a neutral position, took no part in the struggle. In fact, several traditions say that Prometheus actually counseled Zeus, and that without his advice—since he is a trickster, a wily fellow—Zeus would not have won. In that sense he is an ally to Zeus. An ally, but not a recruit or a comrade in arms: He is not in Zeus’s camp; he is autonomous, his own man. Zeus and Prometheus have much in common with regard to intelligence and mentality. Both are known for subtle, crafty minds—for that same quality. Athena represented among the gods and Odysseus embodied among men—wiliness. The wily trickster manages to pull his coals out of the fire when the situation seems utterly desperate; he finds a way when every door is blocked; and to achieve his ends he has no compunction about lying or setting snares for the opponent or using every trick in the book. Zeus is like that and so is Prometheus; they share that quality. Still, there is an enormous distance between them: Zeus is a king, a ruler who holds total power in his own hands. On that count Prometheus is absolutely not in rivalry with Zeus. The Titans were the rivals of the Olympians, and Cronus the rival of Zeus, since he wanted to hold on to his throne when Zeus determined to become ruler in his stead. But Prometheus never imagines himself king; not for a moment is he competing with Zeus on that score. The world Zeus created—that world of allocated powers, that hierarchical world ranked by levels, by differences in status and honor—Prometheus belongs to that world, but his standing in it is rather difficult to define. And all the more complex in that Zeus later condemns him and orders him chained, then eventually releases him and reconciles with him: His personal destiny swings back and forth between hostility and harmony. One might say that within that orderly universe, Prometheus is an expression of internal dissent. He is not seeking to supplant Zeus, but within the system Zeus has established, Prometheus is that small voice of contention inside the gods’ world something of a 1968-style rebellion on Olympus. Prometheus’s relationship with men is one of complicity, of a common nature. His condition is similar to that of humans, because they too are ambiguous creatures: They contain both some strain of the divine—they did live side by side with the gods, early on—and at the same time a strain of animality, of bestiality. So both in men and in Prometheus, there are contradictory elements.

Here is the scene: Gods and men are gathered as usual. Zeus is present, there in the front loges, and he commands Prometheus to work out the allocation of goods and privileges between the gods and men. What will Prometheus do? He brings in a great bovine a splendid ox, which he slaughters and then butchers into parts. He makes up two portions, not three. As Prometheus prepares them, the portions will express the difference in status between gods and men. That is, the way the animal is butchered will delineate the divide between men and gods. How does Prometheus do it? The way it is routinely done in Greek sacrifice: The animal is slaughtered, the hide stripped off, and then begins the butchering. In particular: A first step is to strip bare the long bones of the fore and rear limbs, the ostea leuka; they are trimmed so as to leave no meat on them. This accomplished Prometheus gathers all those white bones together. He ties them into one hunch and wraps it in a thin layer of tempting white fat. That is one portion. Then he goes on to prepare a second. In this one Prometheus puts all the krea—the fleshy parts, everything that can be eaten, and that edible meat is wrapped in the animal’s hide. Then this bundle—the rough hide holding all the edible food from the beast—is in turn wrapped in the animal’s gaster, or stomach the slimy, ugly, repellent belly sac. So the division is as follows: one portion appetizing white fat wrapped around only bare white bones and the other, a somewhat disgusting stomach sac filled with all the good edible parts inside it. Prometheus lays the two portions on the table in front of Zeus. The king’s choice will determine the dividing line between men and gods. Zeus looks at the two portions and says, “Ah Prometheus, you’re so crafty, so sly—and you’ve made the shares very different. Prometheus looks at him with a little smile. Zeus, of course, is aware of the ruse, but he goes along with the rules of the game. He is invited to choose first, and he agrees. Looking very confident, he picks the more appealing portion—the packet wrapped in succulent white fat. Everyone is watching; he undoes the packet and discovers the meatless white bones. He explodes in a horrific rage against this fellow who set out to trick him. Thus ends the first act of this story, which has at least three. By the close of this episode, it is already determined how men will enter into relation with the gods: through sacrifice, like the one Prometheus carried out in killing the animal. On the altar outside the temple, aromatic herbs are set afire and they send up a fragrant smoke; then white bones are laid on the branches. The gods’ share is the white bones, shiny with grease, that rise up to the skies in the form of smoke. Men, meanwhile, get the rest of the animal, which they will consume either grilled or boiled. On long iron or bronze skewers they thread chunks of meat, notably the liver and some other appealing parts, and set them to grill directly on the flame. Still other chunks are put into great cauldrons to boil. Roast some cuts, boil others: Henceforward men must eat the meat of sacrificed animals and send the gods their share—that is, the fragrant smoke. What’s startling about this story is that it seems to show that Prometheus managed to fool Zeus and slip men the better part of the sacrifice. Prometheus provides men with the edible portion — camouflaged as something inedible, repugnant—and gives the gods the inedible portion, disguised in that delectable, gleaming layer of fat. His conduct is deceitful, for the appearance is misleading: The good is wrapped in the ugly and the bad in the beautiful. But did Prometheus actually give men the better part? Here again things are ambiguous. Certainly mankind does get the edible share of the sacrificed beast—hut that’s because men need to eat. Their condition is the opposite of the gods’; they cannot live without continually feeding themselves. Men are not self-sufficient; they must draw energy from resources in the surrounding world, and without them they perish. What defines humans is that they eat bread and sacrificial meats, and that they drink the wine of the vine. The gods have no need to cat. They know not bread, or wine, or the flesh of sacrificed animals. They live without nourishment, they take in only pseudofoods, nectar and ambrosia, the foods of immortality. The gods’ vitality is thus entirely different in nature from mankind’s. Man’s is a subvitality, a subexistence, a subforce; an energy with moments of eclipse. It requires constant refueling. As soon as a human being puts forth some effort he feels tired, exhausted, used up, hungry. In other words, in the distribution Prometheus has worked out, the better share is indeed that hides meatless bones within the more appetizing package. Because, actually, in the beast or the human, the white bones is the thing that is truly precious, that is nonmortal, that does not die; bones do not decay, they form the architecture of the body. The flesh disintegrates, decomposes, but the skeleton represents permanence; what is inedible in the animal is what is not mortal, what is immutable—what therefore comes closest to the divine. For the people who invented these stories, the bones are all the more important because they contain the marrow, that substance the Greeks saw as linked both to the brain and to the semen. The marrow represents an animal’s continuing vital force down through the generations; it ensures fecundity and progeny. It is the sign, that one is not an isolated individual but a bearer of offspring. So in the end, what the gods get through Prometheus’s hoax is the animal’s life force, whereas what men receive—the meat—is only dead animal. Men must nourish themselves by a chunk of dead animal; and this division marks them for good as mortal in nature. Humans are henceforward the mortals, the ephemeral creatures, as opposed to the gods, who are nonmortals. Through this distribution of foodstuffs, humans bear the stamp of mortality, while the gods bear that of perpetuity. Which Zeus clearly understood. If Prometheus had simply made up two portions, with the bones on one side and the meat on the other, Zeus might anyhow have chosen the bones—and thus the vital force—of the beast. But since everything was distorted by misleading appearances, since the meat was hidden inside the gaster and the bones disguised in glistening fat. Zeus saw that Prometheus had meant to fool him. So he decided to punish him. Naturally, in this battle of cunning between Zeus and the “Titan” Prometheus, each of them is looking to outwit the other, each is playing against the other like a chess match, with underhanded gambits to confound the opponent, to put him in check and mate. It is a contest that Zeus ultimately wins, but he is thrown off balance by the Titan’s maneuvers.

 

 

 
The Universe, The Gods And Mortals
Vernant Jean Pierre



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