The title comes from the following zen koan: “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”
Prometheus was one of the second generation of the Greek “old gods,” overthrown during the Titanomachy. After this usurping, he was a meager troublemaker to the omnipotence of Zeus, and one of the things he did to bother the Olympians was creating men from clay. After this, he again tricked Zeus by stealing fire from the gods and brought it to man (a motif that is repeatedin the Book of Enoch, Georgian, and Native American myths). For his troubles he was bound to a rock and tortured by a raven who pecked at his liver (or heart).
Fire is a powerful symbol; it can mean
…transformation, purification, the life-giving and generative power of the sun… impregnation, power, the unseen energy in existence… manifested as flame symbolizes spiritual power and forces, transcendence and illumination, and is a manifestation of divinity or of the soul, the pneuma…
– An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper (1978)
Pneuma is a Greek word for breath, and an antiquated term for the soul. The soul is something that sets us apart from nature in traditional Christian theology. Only humans have souls, and this has something to do with how they are made in imagio dei, or the image of God. We have some part of the mind of God, which gives us inherent value independent of our utility or function. While animals are described as having nephesh, the “breath of life” given to man, it’s traditionally understood to be inferior to the nephesh belonging to man. Yet E. W. Bullinger clarifies the essence of that word
The usage of the word Nephesh by the Holy Spirit in the Word of God is the only guide to the true understanding of it. It will be seen that the word “soul”, in its theological sense, does not cover all the ground, or properly represent the Hebrew word “Nephesh”. The correct Latin word for the theological term “soul” (or Nephesh) is anima; and this is from the Greek anemos = air or breath, because it is this which keeps the whole in life and in being. The first occurrence of Nephesh is in Gen. 1:20, “the moving creature that hath life (Nephesh)”.
– It is used of the lower animals four times before it is used of man; and out of the first thirteen times in Genesis, it is used ten times of the lower animals.
Whereas in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were vegetarians (Gen 2:16-17), it was only after the original sin that flesh was permissible to eat (Gen 9:3). And this came after God’s instructions that the earth would become difficult and inhospitable (Gen 3:17-19). Life out of the garden became life out of balance, and the precedent was set for the “lessening” of the rest of creation. Soon animals became a part of sacrifice (Lev. 1). If animals and other parts of creation have a soul that lives on after death, as others believe, it is alien to man’s experience, outside our understanding, and not immediate to our perception.
As Aristotle wrote, the operation of our intellect differentiates us from animals (though he meant it as the defining aspect which does so, not the active cause of that difference). Our soul is ours, and remains with us until “…the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:7). But the difference in the experience of man and nature raises the question, is the soul worth having? One needs only to examine “The Absurd” in which meaningfulness escapes us, and the total depravity in which we live; constant war and strife, sickness and sorrow through which we hope to escape to a place where we are one with God. The rest of creation does not experience this; a dog is content with a dog’s life, a tree is content to be a tree, and presumably rocks aspire to nothing more than their existence as a stone below a river, under a mountain, or beside the shore. Again, to the best of our perception, the existential struggles of other forms of life and non-life are not apparent to our understanding.
Humans are constantly searching and trying to redefine their existence. In this manner we are homeless; we have to define our place in reality because we have set ourselves outside of it, whether through traditions of Cartesian dualism or that more parochial anthropocentric exceptionalism for which “civilization” is most successful. In our angst, and our despair, we are truly cursed with freedom, something again we cannot perceive in non-human forms because of our anthropocentric form of understanding.
Based on our evil behavior in that freedom, and the struggles and torments we face because of our own inability to make completely satisfactory choices with clear and agreed meaning, it would seem that the soul is a great burden, more than a blessing. If it really does set us apart from other creatures, God must hold onto the souls of non-human forms, and protect them from this terrifying self-awareness that confuses our every step, lead us out of the garden, and makes our lives a tormenting search for meaning. The traditionalists would be correct then, that we are the only creatures with souls, but this begs the question, are we really blessed by that fact?
Belief in an afterlife holds that after it’s time, the eternal aspect of a being’s existence remains with God; through the christian framework we hope that through our decisions, our souls also go to rest with God. Yet had we remained in that original state, God would have held onto our soul all this time. The myth of Prometheus (and his counterparts) gives us an interesting contrast to the exceptionalist traditions that God gave man a soul and him alone. When, as the Christian myth says, we ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, did we steal what we now call our soul? Did we “kill God” and erase his existence from our natural experience because of the seizure of intellect, as Prometheus stole the spirit and passed his intelligence on to humans?
From the moment we put on leaves, we have been different from the other beasts in the wild. Death then is the hope that our soul is returned to it’s creator, despite our theft and selfish abuse of it’s worth. But should the case remain that God breathed the nephesh into the body of man, the soul still seems like a terrible crux to carry.
So did God curse us with a soul for our disobedience and pride, or did we steal the soul when we killed God and decided to be our own authority?
Either way, I think the Promethean myth of fire-stealing was lost from Judaism and Christianity’s narrative traditions – it doesn’t put humanity in a positive light, by any means. But it does humble us in our place against nature, the noumenon, atman, the thing-in-itself, and everything else beyond ourselves. It both reminds us that our soul is not ours, and provides a reassurance of death as a return to that numinous force beyond our transient experience.