There is no single coherent “Prometheus myth,” though, throughout its many iterations, there are common plot points and themes. The most recognizable versions are told by Hesiod in his Theogony (which he elaborates on in Works and Days) and Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound. In Hesiod’s version, it is not indicated that Prometheus (whose name means “forethought”) and his brother created man, but it is clear that he is mankind’s champion and benefactor—he will take the scorn and punishment of Zeus to make sure humans have the resources necessary for survival. Aeschylus’ tragedy, Prometheus Unbound, focuses on Prometheus’ incarceration and torture by Zeus through his agents. Most of the play is comprised of Prometheus in dialogue with the Chorus, Oceanus, and Io, describing his pain and the injustice of Zeus. Percy Shelley, romantic poet and husband to Mary Shelley, cites Aeschylus’ play as his main source material in the introduction to his own verse play, Prometheus Unbound. Though these two ancient sources do not describe Prometheus as the creator, other mythic traditions say that the gods delegated the creation of man to Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus (whose name means “afterthought”) (Hamilton 85).
In Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus, son of Iapetos and Clymene, is a wily trickster, resisting tyranny and attached with the epitaph, “crooked schemer” (Hesiod 19). We are told that “from the start [he] turned out a disaster to men who lived by bread” (Hesiod 18), despite his efforts to dupe Zeus by helping humanity. He tricks Zeus into leaving the best parts of an oxen to nourish men while the gods accept the fat and bones as offering, setting the trend for future generations. When Zeus punishes man for this transgression by taking from him “the means of life” (fire), Prometheus steals it back. For this, Zeus crafts the first woman (in Works and Days she is given the name “Pandora” meaning “Allgift”) to punish man, “For from her is descended the female sex, a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands—no fit partners for accursed Poverty, but only for Plenty” (Hesiod 20).
In Aeschylus, the narrative is much the same, but the present moment is centered around Prometheus’ imprisonment. Prometheus (in this narrative the son of Themis instead of Clymene) is admonished for “[giving] men honors they did not deserve,/possessions they were not entitled to.” The formal charges against him are his aide to mankind, although Prometheus reveals to his audience that he also knows a terrible secret about the ultimate downfall of Zeus through a future marriage. It is not-so-subtlety implied that this is the main reason Zeus continues his punishment into the foreseeable future, in hopes that he can extract this secret from Prometheus who, in his pride, will not budge.
Thematic Relevance to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Edit
In Edith Hamilton’s summary of the creation version of the Prometheus myth, she writes:
“Prometheus, then, took over the task of creation and thought out a way to make mankind superior. He fashioned them in a nobler shape than the animals, upright like the gods; and then he went to heaven, to the sun, where he lit a torch and brought down fire, a protection to men far better than anything else, whether fur or feathers or strength or swiftness.” (Hamilton 85)
This version is the obvious parallel to Shelley’s novel, which is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. The most apparent connection is that Victor, like Prometheus, has crafted a creature in something like his own image. He was not thinking of the creature’s well-being when he formed him in enormous stature (it was simply easier to form the minute details of the creature that way), and it was only incidental that the creature was especially equipped to survive extreme weather and climes. No attention was paid to making certain the creature’s features, when animated, would not deform; like Epimetheus, who forgot to leave any of the gifts for humans (having gifted them all to the animals), Victor has formed a living being without consideration for its own needs. Unlike Prometheus, Victor is not in this business as the benefactor of his creation—he is enchanted with the scientific potential of this discovery; the idea that this being will have emotions and a sense of independent personhood do not occur to him until it is too late. Once the creation is complete, and he is eventually confronted by his rebellious creature, he resembles more the tyrant-father Zeus who wishes to destroy what has been crafted. When he encounters the monster he exclaims, “Begone, vile insect! or rather stay, that I may trample you to dust!” This rhetoric is Biblical—it is creator threatening creation with oblivion; a wiping clean of the slate to begin again (as Zeus planned), or not.
In this sense, Victor becomes the “anti-Prometheus” and the creature, who endures being ostracized by society and the scorn heaped on him by Victor, takes up the role of Prometheus in exile. The characters do not line up in some clean one to one ratio between the two texts; there is slippage. The Prometheus we see in Aeschylus’ tragedy seems more aligned with the creature than Victor. Hephaestus, reluctantly chaining Prometheus to the mountain, addresses him:
“I must bind you
with chains of brass which no one can remove
on this cliff face, far from all mortal men,
where you will never hear a human voice
or glimpse a human shape and sun’s hot rays
will scorch and age your youthful flesh.” (lines 26-31)
And when Prometheus first speaks, he laments, “Look here and witness/how I am being worn down with torments/which I will undergo for countless years.” (lines 127-129).
Prometheus, like the creature, is punished with seemingly unending isolation. The very people he has labored to help are kept from him by extreme distance and terrain. The creature’s plea to his creator is hauntingly similar:
“You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow- creatures, who owe me nothing? they spurn and hate me. The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge. I have wandered here many days; the caves of ice, which I only do not fear, are a dwelling to me, and the only one which man does not grudge.” (Shelley 73)
He does not have the comfort that he has aided mankind. He wants so much to be good and indeed he was “benevolent and good; misery made [him] a fiend” (Shelley 73). While a guest at the cottage he chopped wood and helped provide for the small family during the winter. When he is rejected by them he cannot even bring himself to directly avenge himself on the people who most nearly hurt him—he avoids them and instead seeks out Victor, a more distant, more easily villainized figure. And even then, he is overwhelmed by his past actions. It’s easy to forget how young this articulate, intelligent creature is but it shows in his innocent, childlike plea when he asks Victor, “Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (Shelley 73).
Like Prometheus, the creature is at heart a “Rebel with a cause.” We are told by Hamilton that “Prometheus’ name has stood through all the centuries, from Greek days to our own, as that of the great rebel against injustice and the authority of power” (Hamilton 92). While at first the creature hopes to successfully interact with people, he resigns to isolation from man and requests that his creator form for him a partner, and that, if that wish is fulfilled,
“neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again: I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid, to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty” (Shelley 112).
This is very similar to the ending Percy Shelley envisions for Prometheus in his play, Prometheus Unbound, which was composed within a couple of years of Frankenstein. In his version of the myth, Prometheus and Asia retire to their own isolated haven:
“and all around are mossy seats,
And the rough walls are clothed with long soft grass;
A simple dwelling, which shall be our own;
Where we will sit and talk of time and change,
As the world ebbs and flows, ourselves unchanged.”
In a world that has rejected them, both Prometheus and the creature yearn for an isolated existence in the natural world with an intimate partner who will accept them as they are. Of course, for the creature, this is not to be.
For Victor, to whom women are ultimately alien, creating a female creature is simply too much. His first endeavor to create life is in many ways an attempt to return to a pre-Promethean mode; a mode in which new beings come from production, not reproduction. The punishment of Zues was Pandora, from whom is “descended the female sex, a great affliction to mortals” (Hesiod 20), which to Victor must seem an extreme punishment indeed.
At last, the creature is alone—even his creator, his enemy, dies—he no longer even has another to hate and is left with himself. Finally, it is through Prometheus’ gift to humankind that the creature will at last find absolution, casting himself on the flames of a pyre.
Works Cited and Additional Suggested Readings Edit
Hamilton, Edith, and Steele Savage. Mythology. New York: New American Library, 1969. Print.
Hesiod, M. L. West, and Hesiod. Theogony ; And, Works and Days. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan J. Wolfson. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.