Fire from Heaven

Grace F. Knoche
The part of them [mortal beings] worthy of the name immortal, which is called divine and is the guiding principle of those who are willing to follow justice . . . — of that divine part I will myself sow the seed. — Plato, Timaeus

"Of that divine part I will myself sow the seed" — thus did Zeus, father of the gods and creator of the universe, sow deep within the soul of mortal man the seed of divinity. When this happened, no man can say. Whether Greek or Hebrew, Persian or Hindu, Mayan or Nordic, the story of man's travail in earthly existence but confirms his immortal essence; else how could he have survived the corrosion of greed that has marred his sojourn.

Granted that divinity is the backdrop of man's nature, how account for the turmoil and confusion, hatred and distrust, that have continued unceasingly, it would seem, since his Eden days. Is the serpent to be blamed for all evil? Surely he was but fulfilling a destined role in the drama of man's transition from an unconscious goodness to a self-conscious godhood. What, after all, did the serpent (maligned too long as a tempter) tell Eve? To taste of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge for "ye shall not surely die," as God or the Elohim well knew, but "your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Naturally Eve, seeing that the fruit was not only good for food, but also pleasant to look at, decided to try it, and then shared it with Adam. Thus did Adam and Eve, or the early races of humanity, cease to be "children" and start on the great cycle of experience, aware of the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood. So the Hebrew tale has it.

Who is man, and what his purpose? From what realm of experience did he come, and to what place or condition is he destined? These are the questions that remain of profound import after millenniums of searching. When all is said, what is the most potent influence in a man's life — his politics, his social standing, his bank account? All these will affect him in greater or less degree, but the governing factor, that which propels a man to action, or indeed to inaction, is his spiritual beliefs. They are the motivators of thought and decision, for a man's whole life is propelled from within. It matters little what brand of religion or philosophy, or even of so-called atheism, a man may profess. When the final accounting is taken, it is the quality of his spiritual conviction which will mark his destiny.

The trouble for so many centuries has been that we do not seem to know what are our spiritual beliefs. Nor do we seem able to rely on the age-old keys that have been left to posterity in scripture, legend and myth, by every world teacher. Our present-day involvement in the tree of scientific knowledge has blinded us to the point where we have missed the forest of wisdom lying close at hand, awaiting man's conquest. Even the tree of religious interpretation has become so matted with dogmatic parasites that it has lost its power to inspire. A fresh perspective is required, and perhaps a view of older trees of knowledge, of past beliefs held by peoples who in their age had a civilization just as advanced, if not more so in the things that count, may serve as stimulus to reflection.

What did Greek thought, for example, tell of the potential of man, of his origin and destined place once again among the gods? The legend of Prometheus, sung by the poets from Aeschylus of Greece to Shelley of our day, has traveled down the centuries. But it has remained as a curious mixture of fantasy and fact, because for the most part few have realized that Prometheus, that valiant god who so felt for man's plight that he stole the fire of Mind from the gods, is man's own redeemer who can only be unchained from the rock of matter by man himself.

Plato's story of Prometheus has a virgin beauty quite unsullied by overuse; perhaps its very simplicity has protected it.

It was long long ago, and there were gods only. The time had come when man and the animals must be born. So the gods fashioned them out of earth and fire and other elements, and when they were ready to be brought "into the light of day," Prometheus (or 'Forethought') and his younger brother Epimetheus (or 'Afterthought') were commissioned to "equip them, and to distribute to them severally their proper qualities." Epimetheus said to Prometheus: "Let me distribute, and do you inspect."

So Epimetheus went to work, and equipped the animal forms of various and sundry type. He did a masterly job — as far as he went. To some he gave swiftness, to others strength; to others again he gave wings, while to still others he gave close hair and thick skins to defend themselves against the winter. To one group he gave herbs to eat, while to another he allowed greater animals to prey upon them for food.

But Epimetheus was not as wise as he thought, and when he came to Man he found that he had used up all his materials. He was terribly perplexed and not a little embarrassed. He called his brother, and while Prometheus found all the animals to be excellently provided for, there simply wasn't a thing left for Man.

"Epimetheus, what have you done?" he demanded. "The hour is here when Man must come forth, and you have used everything. What do you mean by such waste? Couldn't you have managed your distribution more wisely?"

"Brother, forgive. I gave all I had," said the downcast Epimetheus. "I could not give that which I had not. You, Prometheus, older in wisdom and experience, must provide for Man."

Prometheus looked deep into his brother's heart and saw his simple goodness. He knew that Epimetheus was right. He could not give to Man that which he had not, for man was more than an animal. Man was a god, only he was still asleep and needed the fire of divinity quickened in his heart. Prometheus thought a great thought. "I will capture an ember of the fire of the gods and bring it down from heaven. This will make Man truly immortal, for once quickened with the flame of Mind he will have knowledge of Good and Evil and will be able self-consciously to follow the ancient roadway towards divinity."

Off into the blue ether Prometheus sped, into the Forge of the Gods where burned the everlasting Fire of Mind. Stealing an ember from the sacred hearth, so jealously guarded by Athena and Hephaestus, Prometheus swiftly descended again to Earth. Quickening his soul with the Fire of Heaven — lo! Man the Thinker arose, and now instead of being less qualified than the animals which Epimetheus had so well equipped, Man stood a potential god, conscious of his power, yet innately aware that henceforth he had to choose well between good and evil, and thus earn the gift that Prometheus had brought.

Unfortunately, as time went on, man used his power selfishly and with destruction, until soon he and his brothers were all but annihilated. Zeus noted with dismay the growing forgetfulness of man. Finally he called Hermes, his favorite messenger, to his aid:

"Go down to earth and instill into the heart of man the qualities of Reverence and Justice, so that equipped with the fire of knowledge he may likewise be touched with wisdom. Quicken all men, whether skilled or unskilled in the arts, so that every son of man will have power to become, if he choose, a benevolent force."

Hermes, swift as a bird in flight, shot to earth and touched all with Reverence and Justice. Henceforth all men, however unequal in talent, were all equal in divine potential.

Thus Plato reminds us, not only did Zeus sow the seed of immortality, but later, at the appointed hour, an ember of the gods fructified that seed into self-conscious awareness of godhood — this by Prometheus, whose daring and sacrifice for the sake of man made him the greatest of heroes.

Cycles succeeded cycles. Some were fertile with a harvest of spiritual achievement, others barren and desolate. The warmth of the fire of knowledge germinated both good seed and tares, so that soon man had a thicket of good and evil in his nature. But as long as they could the gods stayed near to mankind, instructing them in the sciences and the arts, in government, virtue and justice. Finally the growing race, arrogant with increased power, rebelled against their once loved instructors. So the gods quietly retired, but not without leaving a portion of themselves in the ember of Prometheus which remained deep within man's soul, so deep that no storm of circumstance, of pride or prejudice, would ever blow it out. Henceforth man would learn through suffering and pain, that benevolence and reverence was the way of the gods, while greed, selfishness and hate, were the ways of matter.

To this day there persists a deep-seated nostalgia, for something somewhere which will once again set things right. Very few persons feel spiritually secure. For a time we search in outer things for release of the spirit. But soon these turn to ashes, and we seek anew for light. This inner stratum of disquietude, of urgent longing for a wisdom and a peace once known, is universal. Yet never in sacred or profane history has the race been bereft of Truth. Periodically the flame recedes, but always before the final ember dies, a new Prometheus is at hand. When the call is sufficiently great, and men's souls have been chastened by the discipline of pain, another marathon runner of the spirit descends from the gods. We know them as world teachers, as Christs and Buddhas — those who "incarnate from age to age" that truth and goodness, reverence and justice might again have dominion.

(From Sunrise magazine, August 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition