The Theosophical Forum – August 1950

THE PROMETHEAN MYTH — M. A. Duncan

Myth was the favorite and universal method of teaching in archaic times.
      — Isis Unveiled, II, 493

Truth is that imperishable Fire which, like a sacrificial flame within the sanctuary of the temple, illumines man and differentiates him from the creatures of all other kingdoms. Inasmuch as man reveals a potential Divine Self merged in and obscured by a mortal and material envelope, the light from that fire of Truth within is inevitably dimmed, if not completely hidden by the dark and massive curtains of sense and matter. Today, a multitude of links, clues and evidence speak to him of his vast and glorious ancestry. Some see in such evidence a pretty but meaningless fabrication of "barbarian" imagination; others a confirmation by "primitive races" of certain cherished up-to-date dogmas; while the few revere and cherish these potent and suggestive clues of past glory, as the outer vesture of esoteric truths, which, known and understood, must unfold a drama of a god-born humanity, waning in spiritual power and vision, but gaining experience throughout the aeons of time.

What then is the veil through which the Seers and Masters of Compassion have sought to display before men's vision these forgotten records that are his rightful heritage? It is the veil of myth. Could we read aright the mythologies of all ages, we would have unrolled before our gaze the scroll of man's pedigree, the legend of a divine ancestry rising from the mystic deeps of immeasurable antiquity.

Classic mythology, therefore, is the mystic veil of Truth. To read it correctly is to evaluate its dim and shadowy figures at their proper worth; to sense in them the yet living and potent forms of fact whereof they are but the shadows; to lift at length the veil and seek face to face those realities whose presence these uncertain shadows now proclaim. To seek to do these things is to undertake a great quest, and one involving the exercise of moral courage, since it is a quest calling for a revolutionizing of long crystallized modes of thought natural to man, of the nature of the universe, the scale of time in which the drama of evolution has been enacted, and of the vast arena whereon it has its setting.

The quest involves, first, a complete and unqualified acknowledgment of man's innate divinity and divine origin; second, a willingness to concede periods of growth and evolution for man and our earth infinitely exceeding in scope those we have been accustomed to hold; third, a readiness to conceive of phases of existence for man and the worlds he inhabits utterly differing from those we are now acquainted with; fourth, a realization that, inasmuch as man in the course of his long train of earth-lives has passed through many progressive phases in physical, mental, and spiritual structure until he at last reached his present gross material form, so too, our firm substantial universe has progressively materialized from a purely etheric consistency to its present solid state.

Beyond all this there are still two vital concepts absolutely essential to the proper comprehension of mythology: a) an appreciation of the existence of a sublime Intelligence moving, inspiring, controlling every slightest vestige of change or growth in our universe; and b) a realization of the existence of great and advanced Souls who, by long ages of unselfish effort towards self-purification and renunciation for the welfare of others, have fitted themselves to become the channels or instruments to aid in the carrying out of the plan of the great Artificer of the Universe.

Can we revolutionize our crystallized notions of the existing scheme of things, as measured by the criterion of this twentieth century civilization, so as to conceive of the existence in the past of other worlds growing up under other conditions and nourishing civilizations grander and far different than ours? If so, then there is hope we may extract something of life and meaning from classic mythology. Is such an attainment worth the sacrifice?

We shall endeavor to present the Promethean myth, and after citing the story as it has come down to us from the bright dawn of Hellenic culture, we shall seek to lay bare the significance and truth of the myth by the light of interpretation given by that Promethean flame-bearer, H. P. Blavatsky; for she it was, who by her writings, rekindled in the materialistic thought of Europe the fires of spiritual intelligence. Perchance after a proper appreciation of the keys set forth in her works, Greek mythology will take on more real form, and the devout subscribers to the legends of old Hellas obtain more credit for insight and philosophical understanding of life and the universe. It is high time that some such justice were done the ancients when one volume of these old legends, designed for the use of youthful unformed and inquiring minds, opens with the words:

Wise men and scholars have spent their lives in trying to find out where these wonderful stories came from first, and different men have given different explanations. Of course no one believes the stories nowadays, nor has any one believed in them for hundreds of years. Yet, at one time, the foremost nations of the earth, the Greeks, and the Romans, not only believed the stories but worshiped the gods and made sacrifice to them. It is because the stories are so beautiful, and because so many painters, sculptors, and writers, both then and ever since, have used them for subjects, that today we are interested in them and must know about them if we are to understand what we read, and see, and hear.

A perusal of H. P. Blavatsky's works suggests that possibly something more than mere beauty has procured for these myths their immortality; hence, in place of treating them "briefly and literally," it may be very worth our while to examine the Promethean Myth at length and endeavor to evoke the spirit which inspired its origin and character.

Prometheus, the Light-Bringer, comes before us as a great-souled brother of the Titan line rising out of the beginning of things in Hellenic thought, a giant lord of earth when man, as man, was not. Legend has it that the huge contest between gods and Titans had ended, leaving the gods masters of Olympus and the Titans relegated to the realms of Tartarus. Prometheus, their regent, mighty though deposed, looked upon those beings that should be men; beheld them endowed with all that was vouchsafed the animal world but lacking that which should render them superior to their fellow animals. Prometheus, the "Fore-seer," took upon himself to dare the wrath of Zeus himself that these lesser fellows upon earth should achieve a great destiny. Mounting the dawn-lit battlements of the gods, he seeks the gleaming chariot of the Sun. Here at the flaming source of universal light the recreant Titan kindles his own torch, bears it again to earth and gives to earth's superior creation the flame that is to make them men. Not heedlessly or blindly did Prometheus procure this boon to man, but with a full foreknowledge of the doom that must be his — to bow before the flaming anger of a "jealous" god; to suffer captive anguish in unworthy chains upon a lonely peak where ravening vultures should each day devour the flesh that with the night should be made whole again to furnish forth new anguish for the morrow. Such was the fate he gloriously incurred, and having met with it disdained to accept succor. His was the flaming hero spirit that should cry

     I would not quit
This bleak ravine, these unrepentant pains. . . .
Pity the self-despising slaves of Heaven,
Not me, within whose mind sits peace serene.
     — Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act I, Sc. i

Such was the legend of Prometheus and such his sublime significance to the Hellenes — a type of the compassionate spirit spurred by adamantine will to the endurance of utmost ill that those of lesser power may rise and live.

Titan! to whose immortal eyes
     The sufferings of mortality,
     Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity's recompense?
A silent suffering and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe.
      — Byron, Prometheus

Is it not possible that this legend is not wholly myth? Is it too gross a violation of the "established" canons of modern science to suppose some lurking vein of truth hid deep within the root of the matter to which that vagrant and deplorably fertile imagination (!) of old Hellas attached itself in the development or acceptance of this tale?

"How ridiculous!" says your matter-of-fact man in the street. "Who ever heard of 'giants' outside of fairy tales?" "And as for the 'chariot of the sun' —why, hasn't science measured, tested, analyzed and otherwise investigated the secrets of that source of light?"

Nevertheless, there are those who have heard of giants quite apart from fairy tales, and science may yet have occasion to do some hurry-up researching in order to keep its votaries posted as to the origin and doings of these same Brobdingnagian specimens. And as to this fatal term — "chariot of the sun" — there are suns and — "suns"; if a race of people possess that exalted and poetic vision which leads them to a lofty and artistic conception of the forces of nature, it surely does not therefore follow that all they say of these forces is false!

Indeed there is much of truth in this legend, and to come upon it we have to bear in mind H. P. Blavatsky's words to the effect that in these ancient myths gods and mortal heroes invariably are but personifications of "lands, islands, powers of nature, elements, nations, races and sub-races." In the legend of Prometheus, we are confronted with a record of one of the great cyclic steps in human evolution which took place far, far back in the beginning of the Fourth Race — the birth of MIND in the heretofore senseless Third Race. As H. P. B. says, the Promethean myth

belongs to neither Hesiod nor Aeschylus; but, as Bunsen says, it "is older than the Hellenes themselves," for it belongs, in truth, to the dawn of human consciousness. The Crucified Titan is the personified symbol of the collective Logos, the "Host," and of the "Lords of Wisdom" or the HEAVENLY MAN, who incarnated in humanity. — The Secret Doctrine, II, 413

What inspired Aeschylus to write his drama of Prometheus Bound, a work which has immortalized in the human mind that "mythical" hero as a sublime and selfless Titan offering up a mutilated sacrifice of his own soul and body on the altar of humanity's weal — cursed of Zeus and clawed of vultures? The simple fact that the poet and dramatist was an Initiate and had glimpsed the supernal glory of that mystic offering of salvation for which the Titan stands. Let us invest this fire-bringer with all of grandeur and celestial splendor that we may, since that which he represents transcends the power of mortal mind to comprehend. That which the most ardent and devout Christian claims in reverence and worship for his equally "mythical" Adam and Eve that trod the blessed precincts of Eden before the 'curse' — all that, this Prometheus is worthy of, since he is that Adam and Eve of humanity in personification, or, at least, one aspect of these.

Prometheus bringing fire to man symbolized that spiritual and psychological event in racial history when man's physical body "belonged to the earth and the monads remained on a higher plane altogether," as H. P. B. explains. At that period the evolutionary cycle was on a descending arc; physical and intellectual materialization becoming more and more pronounced; while those bright spirits — denizens of another sphere than ours, dwelling apart, unsorrowing and unsullied — looked down upon this mindless race of beings; saw them with unknowing instinct dishonor the creative power with which they had become endowed.

In their compassion, those lofty hierarchs of the upper worlds voluntarily "fell." From the resplendent abode of "Apollo," from the "palace of the Lord of Light," they came netherward — luminously lovely, rainbow-robed, "sons of the fire mist" and like to dazzling angels "trailing clouds of glory" did they "come from God," which was their home, down to the dim and sunless house of wan mortality. This occurred, say the Theosophical teachings, at the beginning of the Fourth Race, when the earth was peopled by monsters, huge animals, gigantic creatures of human shape, and creatures neither to be called man nor beast, but with resemblances to each. Material evolution was creeping upward, from the dim and waning glories of the past the atmospheric universe had waxed nebulous; nebulosity had in its turn assembled itself and taken on mass and form; form through vast centuries of time had grown from vagueness into definitude, substance, and at last solidity.

While all this drama of materialization was weaving and working its evolutionary patterns on planetary spheres, spiritual and divine consciousness was seeking vehicles wherein to find imbodiment and make descent, planetary spirits were informing human principles with the power to manifest in dynasties of celestial beings. With the advance of intellect and matter, these airy denizens became ever more "of the earth earthy," until at the beginning of the Fourth Root Race the human principle, as before stated, was enwrapped with the solid physical casing with which we are today familiar — "human" because of the benign descent, the voluntary and self-sacrificing "fall" of the beneficent "sons of mind" who from the high heavens of spiritual existence brought down to earth the "Fire." That Fire from the gleaming chariot of Apollo they themselves were and by their entry into human bodies made of each human being a ray from the infinite sun. Because they fell man is today a potentially divine being, a celestial ray imprisoned in "coats of skin." These physical impedimenta it is his destiny to dominate, control and spiritually inform to the extent that they shall become the fit vehicle for the expression of the Real Lord — the Prometheus, fettered and feasted on by ravenous passion and desire within the outer casing of flesh.

H. P. Blavatsky points out most clearly in her Secret Doctrine that the "curse" so often referred to in relation to the birth of consciousness in man — the ability to know good from evil — lay not in the acquirement of that knowledge itself, which had to come sooner or later, nor yet in the acquirement of the creative faculty, the rightful heritage of the race, but in the disease and suffering engendered by a misuse of a power heretofore exercised blindly and instinctually. This is strikingly illustrated in the words from her works:

The divine Titan has then suffered in vain, and one feels inclined to regret his benefaction to mankind, and sigh for those days so graphically depicted by Aeschylus, in his "Prometheus Bound," when, at the close of the first Titanic age (the age that followed that of ethereal man, of the pious Kandu and Pramlocha) nascent, physical mankind, still mindless and (physiologically) senseless, is described as —

     "Seeing, they saw in vain,
Hearing, they heard not, but like shapes in dreams,
Through the long time all things at random mixed."
      — Op cit, II, 411

The effect of an acquirement of new and higher powers without the transmutation of existing taints and tendencies is elsewhere in the same work strikingly commented on and the resulting evils pointed out where the writer says:

Prometheus having endowed man, according to Plato's "Protagoras," with that "wisdom which ministers to physical well-being," but the lower aspect of manas of the animal (Kama) having remained unchanged, instead of "an untainted mind, Heaven's first gift" (Aeschylus), there was created the eternal vulture of the ever unsatisfied desire, of regret and despair coupled with "the dreamlike feebleness that fetters the blind race of mortals" (p 556), unto the day when Prometheus is released by his heaven-appointed deliverer, Herakles. — Op cit, II, 412-13

Many who have read and delighted in the Promethean legend must have been struck by the seeming conflict between Prometheus — the fallen Titan — and Zeus the ruler of the gods; taken literally, the dignity and rectitude of the Light-bringer would seem to suffer seriously in thus resisting the great ruler of gods and men. This discrepancy, so marked in Aeschylus' drama, is referred to and explained in The Secret Doctrine wherein the author says:

The translators of the drama wonder how Aeschylus could become guilty of such "discrepancy between the character of Zeus as portrayed in the 'Prometheus Bound' and that depicted in the remaining dramas" (Mrs A. Swanwick). This is just because Aeschylus, like Shakespeare, was and will ever remain the intellectual "Sphinx" of the ages. Between Zeus, the abstract deity of Grecian thought, and the Olympic Zeus, there was an abyss. The latter represented during the mysteries no higher a principle than the lower aspect of human physical intelligence — Manas wedded to Kama, Prometheus — its divine aspect merging into and aspiring to Buddhi — the divine Soul Zeus was the human soul and nothing more, whenever shown yielding to his lower passions — the jealous God, revengeful and cruel in its egotism or I-AM-NESS. Hence, Zeus is represented as a serpent — the intellectual tempter of man. — II, 419

It has already been pointed out that the heavenly achievement of Prometheus was a conscious and voluntary sacrifice, a willing martyrdom; as such this bringing of fire and entering with it into the prison cell of the flesh has both past and present significance. It symbolizes the deeply significant cyclic evolutionary achievement already spoken of, and it likewise has reference to that crucifying of the god within by the bodily desires and passions in their riotous carnival of each day's life here on earth. As H. P. Blavatsky says:

The gift of Prometheus thus became a CURSE —though foreknown and foreseen by the HOST personified in that personage, as his name well shows it is in this that rests, at one and the same time, its sin and its redemption. For the Host that incarnated in a portion of humanity, though led to it by Karma or Nemesis, preferred free-will to passive slavery, intellectual self-conscious pain and even torture — "while myriad time shall flow" — to inane, imbecile, instinctual beatitude. Knowing such an incarnation was premature and not in the programme of nature, the heavenly host "Prometheus" still sacrificed itself to benefit thereby, at least, one portion of mankind. But while saving man from mental darkness, they inflicted upon him the tortures of the self-consciousness of his responsibility — the result of his free will — besides every ill to which mortal man and flesh are heir to. This torture Prometheus accepted for himself, since the Host became henceforward blended with the tabernacle prepared for them, which was still unachieved at that period of formation. . . . — Op. cit., II, 420-1

This drama of the struggle of Prometheus with the Olympic tyrant and despot, sensual Zeus, one sees enacted daily within our actual mankind: the lower passions chain the higher aspirations to the rock of matter to generate in many a case the vulture of sorrow, pain and repentance. . . .

When man understands that "Deus non fecit mortem" (Sap, I, 13), but that man has created it himself, he will re-become the Prometheus before his Fall. — II, 422

Such are some of the Truths whose jewelled lights gleam through the translucent veil of an ancient, and authentic legend, which, like all true legends, is but a rehearsal of the deeds of the human soul.


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