Betrayed by the Acts of Others? The Events that Led to Prometheus’s Perennial Punishment

Betrayed by the Acts of Others? The Events that Led to Prometheus’s Perennial Punishment

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The story of Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora is a popular myth of ancient Greece - one that has been told and retold throughout the ages. It is a tale of Prometheus, the son of a titan, who was punished for helping mankind. But it is also a myth that explains the creation of man, the birth of enlightenment, as well as the horrible beginnings of misery.

Creation of the Universe

The story goes that when the universe was being created, the earth formed out of chaos. The air came together while the land and seas solidified. Then the gods decided to put on the planet creatures that might live through the graces of the gods.

The job of creating man and animals was given to the titan brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus was wise, with the gift of foresight. He thought about what would be needed several years in the future. On the other hand, Epimetheus was rash and impulsive. Unable to plan for the future, he instead only cared about the past.

The brothers set about creating life upon the earth. Epimetheus quickly created animals that would live in the forests, swim in the seas, and fly through the air. Epimetheus was so impulsive that he gave these creatures several gifts: swiftness for some, flight for others, strength and frightening claws for the most terrifying animals.

While his brother crafted creatures with little thought, Prometheus toiled carefully over the creation of man from a lump of clay. Prometheus shaped man after the image of the gods and designed him to be nobler than any other beast.

  • Thieves of Fire in Ancient Mythology: Divine Creation and Destruction in the Hands of Man
  • Prometheus: The Creator of Man

Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena (detail), Painted in 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy, painted again by Jean-Baptste Mauzaisse in 1826. (© Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY 2.5 )

However upon completion of man, Prometheus discovered that his rash brother had bestowed all the gifts from the gods upon the animals and had left none for the humans. While the beasts were given strength, swiftness, hardened shells, and warm coats, man was left naked and weak with no means to live prosperously.

Prometheus Defies the Gods

Prometheus was overcome with sadness for his creations, whom were living painfully and harshly. So Prometheus came up with a plan to give man a great gift, one that will make them powerful against all the other beasts of the earth.

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, Heinrich Fueger, 1817. ( Public Domain )

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus and traveled to Mount Olympus in order to steal fire from the gods to give to mankind. With it came the beginning of civilization. Prometheus taught man how to craft tools and weapons from iron ore. He showed them how to plant crops and live through agriculture. With fire they learnt to survive cold winters and defy the seasons. With fire man began to thrive and become master over the animals.

The Punishment

Zeus was outraged. He decided to punish Prometheus and mankind for their transgression of the gods’ will. The punishment he devised was twofold.

First, Zeus commanded Hephaestus, the blacksmith for the God’s, to craft a creature so beautiful that it would plague the hearts of men. From a lump of clay, Hephaestus created the form of a woman. This woman was bestowed with gifts, such as a pleasing voice and unmatched beauty by the gods. They named her Pandora and she was commanded to marry Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus.

Zeus readies Pandora with Hermes in attendance, a painting by Josef Abel.

Prometheus warned his brother to be wary of accepting gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus did not heed this wise warning. Before Pandora departed Olympus she was given a box and told by the gods to never open it - under any circumstances.

At first Pandora abided by this rule, however her curiosity got the best of her. Eventually she opened the box to see what was inside.

Right away, innumerable evil creatures like disease, famine, and plague flew out of the box and began to spread around the earth. Pandora, in her fear, quickly shut the box, but she closed it before one last creature could escape, Hope.

Consequently, it is said that while evil haunts this world, mankind still has hope.

  • Crime and Punishment: Eternal Damnations as handed down by the Ancient Greek Gods
  • Pandora, the Goddess who Unleashed both Hell and Hope upon Humanity

Pandora by John William Waterhouse.

Prometheus was punished as well. He was sentenced by Zeus to spend eternity chained to a mountain with an eagle devouring his liver every day. Prometheus was an immortal, so each night his liver healed, only so that it may be ripped from his body again the next day.

Prometheus spent thousands of years suffering this punishment. Eventually he was chained to the mountain for so long that he became one with the rock; the whole time, looking on in agony as his creations, mankind, suffered from the creatures that were released from Pandora’s box.

In some versions of the myth Prometheus was eventually rescued by the hero Heracles. In other versions it is a vulture, not an eagle, that feasts on Prometheus’ liver. Regardless, the theme is a powerful one, and one that has been revisited and examined by artists and writers for centuries.

Prometheus Bound and the Oceanids, by Eduard Müller (1828–1895).

The myth of Prometheus can be viewed as a symbol of defiance of tyranny and authority, as well as a metaphor for human enlightenment and the disasters that can come from overreaching our limits.

Prometheus’s tragic tale remains one of the most popular of the Greek myths. The original creator of man, he sought to help us live well, while he heroically suffered the consequences. He is a reminder that human progress often comes from the selfless actions of others, and that, with every advancement, there are often those who accept sufferings on our behalf.

Knowledge mix

Here is a continuation of my analysis, ideas and comments concerning the story and the punishment of Prometheus, and an attempt to explain or interpret plausibly what happened between Prometheus and Zeus, and how Prometheus and his actions ought to be assessed and viewed.

I will consider the story of the one they called Zeus in Greek from the point of view of Euhemerism, which states that the gods were real great men or great heroes of the past who accomplished great things and were deified after they died.

According to this perspective, Zeus/Jupiter may be regarded as a very great man of the past who had the most advanced way of thinking, the most advanced teachings and the most advanced knowledge in the world and at the period of time he lived in.

As I mentioned in the previous posts about this topic, Prometheus would be best regarded as a mediocre man with little preparation or with limited potentiality for greatness or creativity, who lived alongside the great man who was later called Zeus or Jupiter, and who by jealousy, hubris, conceit, attachment to old ways of thinking, and by misguided actions, betrayed and tried to trick and hurt that great man who was his contemporary.

I will try to compare Prometheus (as accurately as possible) to historical characters or potential historical characters in order to give a better idea about his character, his personality, and his historical role.

I want to point out that Zeus as a historical person was not necessarily or literally a king or political ruler as he is sometimes portrayed. As the head or the greatest deity of the ancient Greek religion (and known by other names as the head of other ancient religions), Zeus was portrayed as a king or ruler practically in the same way as Jesus (the head and founder of the Christian religion) was described as a king and a just ruler by Christian writers and theologians.

The following comparison is not totally accurate, but it gives an idea about someone Prometheus could be approximately and reasonably compared to.

If Prometheus had lived at the time of Pythagoras, he would have been someone (more or less) comparable to Cylon of Croton .

Here is how Iamblichus describes Cylon in his Life of Pythagoras:

“Cylon, a Crotoniate and leading citizen by birth, fame and riches, but otherwise a difficult, violent, disturbing and tyrannically disposed man, eagerly desired to participate in the Pythagorean way of life. He approached Pythagoras, then an old man, but was rejected because of the character defects just described. When this happened Cylon and his friends vowed to make a strong attack on Pythagoras and his followers. Thus a powerfully aggressive zeal activated Cylon and his followers to persecute the Pythagoreans to the very last man. Because of this Pythagoras left for Metapontium and there is said to have ended his days.”

Cylon had no notable historical importance or greatness by himself, but he is remembered because he interacted with a very great thinker, mathematician and philosopher named Pythagoras. He tried to follow Pythagoras, but when he couldn’t or was rejected, he tried to hurt the great man.

The next comparison involves a fictional or hypothetical character (comparable to Prometheus) who would have lived at the time of Isaac Newton. This character (let’s just call him P) would have belonged to a somewhat well-to-do family, and would have been a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1668 and 1672, or (if not a student) would have been someone whose job or (non-academic) work was related to Trinity College and Cambridge.

P would have made the acquaintance of Newton at Cambridge, who sometimes invited him to his office or quarters, and showed him some of his mathematical and physical papers, and some blueprints or sketches related to the reflecting telescope he was designing.

P had no interest in and no potential for mathematical, philosophical, intellectual or scientific innovation or creativity. He generally had conservative religious and philosophical ideas and opinions, most likely reading very few books and sticking to the ideas of ancient thinkers such as Aristotle.

P visited Newton and inquired about his work and papers. He became more and more jealous of Newton, realizing or seeing that Newton might publish his papers and design a new telescope to be shown to the Royal Society in the near future, thus becoming known and famous and an important person. Newton started to notice P’s attitude and his envious words and behavior, but he didn’t give it too much attention, and tried to gradually distance himself from P, and to conceal his work and papers from others until he was ready to publish them or make them known.

People were able to write philosophical, scientific or pseudo-scientific papers at the time of Newton, and telescopes existed before Newton, but Newton was unique at the period of time when he was alive, in the sense that he was a very great man capable of great creativity and innovation in science, mathematics, (natural) philosophy, and the design of telescopes or scientific instruments (Newton’s interest in alchemy and occult studies will not be discussed here). This relates to the idea that humans might have known elementary or rudimentary ways to use fire (and related technology) at the time of Zeus and Prometheus, but Zeus was the one capable of using fire (and related technology or applications) in very creative, useful and innovative ways.

One day, P waited for an opportunity when Newton left his office for a short period of time without closing the door. He went into Newton’s office, or probably sent a close acquaintance or a servant of his to Newton’s office, and took away a number of Newton’s scientific and mathematical papers, as well as a sketch and a piece or two of the telescope Newton was designing.

It is evident that Newton was very angry and upset when he saw that his papers and work had been stolen. He knew from the behavior of P and his way of speaking before and after the theft that he was the culprit. He tried to talk to P, and he even reached out to P’s family, and tried to negotiate with them for weeks in order to get back what was stolen. P denied having anything to do with what happened, and even feigned to be shocked and offended when Newton said he just wanted his work and papers back and he wouldn’t hold anyone accountable and forget the whole thing if everything was returned.

Fortunately Newton had duplicates or drafts of most of his papers, but he had to rewrite some of the papers, and to remake the stolen pieces of the telescope he was building. He also had to keep quiet and wait for some time before he could get justice for himself and retribution for the culprit. During that time, P hid what he had stolen in his house. He sometimes showed the papers to some people he knew well, and tried to sell the telescope pieces and some of the papers but was unsuccessful. He tried to read Newton’s scientific papers but couldn’t understand them. He scribbled some nonsensical words or some poems or songs on some of the papers, and threw one or two papers away, but he kept most of them hidden.

Newton had to wait more than a decade, until he became a productive member of the Royal Society, or until he published the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and became a known, recognized and important scientific figure. Then he was able to act appropriately, exerted pressure on P and his family, and made P give him back what he had stolen and admit everything. P was deservedly, rightfully and justly punished and sent to prison for what he had done. Newton even had to punish appropriately one or two of P’s relatives for being involved in what had happened and for being P’s accomplices.

P was a mediocre person who acted out of jealousy and envy and tried to trick and hurt Newton, without benefitting anybody by his actions. Perhaps many centuries later or more than three millennia later, the details of what happened between P and Newton would become unclear, blurred or lost, and some people or writers would state or conclude (wrongly) that P was a benefactor or a hero who tried to help humans by his act of theft, and that Newton acted hastily or unfairly by punishing P, thus accusing Newton of concealing scientific knowledge and technology away from humans and of being unhelpful to humanity.

And here is in my opinion another fairly close comparison.

If Prometheus had lived at the time of Jesus, he would have been comparable to someone named Judas Iscariot.

This comparison might be regarded as somewhat controversial. It also seems that some writers are trying nowadays to rehabilitate Judas.

Whether one is religious or not, I think it ought to be evident that Jesus was the greatest man at the period of time when he was alive. Whether opinions and views about Judas change or not, I think that like Prometheus, he ought to be considered as someone who lived in the presence of a man of the greatest historical importance, and like Prometheus, he didn’t have intrinsic historical importance or greatness, but his actions were a “catalyzer” or a “catalyst” for subsequent important events.

From the ancient narratives, stories and myths about Zeus, it is known that he lived a long life and died at an advanced age. By the nature of his life, the one they called Zeus in Greek was able to hold Prometheus accountable and to justly punish him while he was alive.

What can be generally deduced from the narratives and opinions of the majority of authors, poets and writers who mentioned Prometheus from Antiquity to the eighteenth century (before Prometheus was made into a hero and benefactor without justification) is that Prometheus was a mediocre, unexceptional character who stole fire by envy, hubris and greed, without benefiting anyone. He was not able to do anything helpful or creative with fire the one who was capable of doing significant and creative things with fire was Zeus. What Prometheus did had nothing to do with rational thinking, concern for other humans, or humanism, as his story was frequently interpreted (or misinterpreted) in the last two centuries. Just arrogance, jealousy, hubris, misguided actions, and greed, followed a by well deserved and rightful punishment.

As an additional remark, at the end of the nineteenth century, in his introduction to the Prometheus Bound tragic play of Aeschylus, the philologist Nicolaus Wecklein described Prometheus as a “short-sighted forethinker”. Since the etymology of the name Prometheus either signifies “afterthought” or refers to stealing and theft, it would be best and more plausible to emphasize the meaning of “thief” or “theft”.

I hope this analysis provided reasonable, coherent, valid and correct explanations and interpretations concerning the story of Prometheus and his punishment. Hopefully additional or better arguments or some new evidence would emerge in the future, confirming or corroborating the analysis given in this post and the previous ones.

The Heroic Labors of Hercules

Apollo understood that Hercules’ crime had not been his fault—Hera’s vengeful actions were no secret𠅋ut still he insisted that the young man make amends. He ordered Hercules to perform 12 “heroic labors” for the Mycenaen king Eurystheus. Once Hercules completed every one of the labors, Apollo declared, he would be absolved of his guilt and achieve immortality.

The Nemean Lion
First, Apollo sent Hercules to the hills of Nemea to kill a lion that was terrorizing the people of the region. (Some storytellers say that Zeus had fathered this magical beast as well.) Hercules trapped the lion in its cave and strangled it. For the rest of his life, he wore the animal’s pelt as a cloak.

The Lernaean Hydra
Second, Hercules traveled to the city of Lerna to slay the nine-headed Hydra𠅊 poisonous, snake-like creature who lived underwater, guarding the entrance to the Underworld. For this task, Hercules had the help of his nephew Iolaus. He cut off each of the monster’s heads while Iolaus burned each wound with a torch. This way, the pair kept the heads from growing back.The Golden HindNext, Hercules set off to capture the sacred pet of the goddess Diana: a red deer, or hind, with golden antlers and bronze hooves. Eurystheus had chosen this task for his rival because he believed that Diana would kill anyone she caught trying to steal her pet however, once Hercules explained his situation to the goddess, she allowed him to go on his way without punishment.

The Erymanthean Boar
Fourth, Hercules used a giant net to snare the terrifying, man-eating wild boar of Mount Erymanthus.

The Augean StablesHercules’ fifth task was supposed to be humiliating as well as impossible: cleaning all the dung out of King Augeas’ enormous stables in a single day. However, Hercules completed the job easily, flooding the barn by diverting two nearby rivers.

The Stymphlaian Birds
Hercules’ sixth task was straightforward: Travel to the town of Stymphalos and drive away the huge flock of carnivorous birds that had taken up residence in its trees. This time, it was the goddess Athena who came to the hero’s aid: She gave him a pair of magical bronze krotala, or noisemakers, forged by the god Hephaistos. Hercules used these tools to frighten the birds away.

The Cretan Bull
Next, Hercules went to Crete to capture a rampaging bull that had impregnated the wife of the island’s king. (She later gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head.) Hercules drove the bull back to Eurystheus, who released it into the streets of Marathon.

The Horses of Diomedes
Hercules’ eighth challenge was to capture the four man-eating horses of the Thracian king Diomedes. He brought them to Eurystheus, who dedicated the horses to Hera and set them free.

Hippolyte’s Belt
The ninth labor was complicated: stealing an armored belt that belonged to the Amazon queen Hippolyte. At first, the queen welcomed Hercules and agreed to give him the belt without a fight. However, the troublemaking Hera disguised herself as an Amazon warrior and spread a rumor that Hercules intended to kidnap the queen. To protect their leader, the women attacked the hero’s fleet then, fearing for his safety, Hercules killed Hippolyte and ripped the belt from her body.

The Cattle of Geryon
For his 10th labor, Hercules was dispatched nearly to Africa to steal the cattle of the three-headed, six-legged monster Geryon. Once again, Hera did all she could to prevent the hero from succeeding, but eventually he returned to Mycenae with the cows.

The Apples of Hesperides
Next, Eurystheus sent Hercules to steal Hera’s wedding gift to Zeus: a set of golden apples guarded by a group of nymphs known as the Hesperides. This task was difficult—Hercules needed the help of the mortal Prometheus and the god Atlas to pull it off𠅋ut the hero eventually managed to run away with the apples. After he showed them to the king, he returned them to the gods’ garden where they belonged.

For his final challenge, Hercules traveled to Hades to kidnap Cerberus, the vicious three-headed dog that guarded its gates. Hercules managed to capture Cerberus by using his superhuman strength to wrestle the monster to the ground. Afterward, the dog returned unharmed to his post at the entrance to the Underworld.

The Middle Ages [ edit ]

Perhaps the most influential book of the Middle Ages upon the reception of the Prometheus myth was the mythological handbook of Fulgentius Placiades. As stated by Raggio, [60] “The text of Fulgentius, as well as that of (Marcus) Servius […] are the main sources of the mythological handbooks written in the ninth century by the anonymous Mythographus Primus andMythographus Secundus. Both were used for the more lengthy and elaborate compendium by the English scholar Alexander Neckman (1157-1217), the Scintillarium Poetarum, orPoetarius.” [60] The purpose of his books was to distinguish allegorical interpretation from the historical interpretation of the Prometheus myth. Continuing in this same tradition of the allegorical interpretation of the Prometheus myth, along with the historical interpretation of the Middle Ages, is the Genealogiae of Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio follows these two levels of interpretation and distinguishes between two separate versions of the Prometheus myth. For Boccaccio, Prometheus is placed “In the heavens where all is clarity and truth, [Prometheus] steals, so to speak, a ray of the divine wisdom from God himself, source of all Science, supreme Light of every man.” [61] With this, Boccaccio shows himself moving from the mediaeval sources with a shift of accent towards the attitude of the Renaissance humanists.

Using a similar interpretation to that of Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century updated the philosophical and more somber reception of the Prometheus myth not seen since the time of Plotinus. In his book written in 1476-77 titled Quaestiones Quinque de Mente, Ficino indicates his preference for reading the Prometheus myth as an image of the human soul seeking to obtain supreme truth. As Olga Raggio summarizes Ficino’s text, “The torture of Prometheus is the torment brought by reason itself to man, who is made by it many times more unhappy than the brutes. It is after having stolen one beam of the celestial light […] that the soul feels as if fastened by chains and […] only death can release her bonds and carry her to the source of all knowledge.” [61] This somberness of attitude in Ficino’s text would be further developed later by Charles de Bouelles’ Liber de Sapiente of 1509 which presented a mix of both scholastic and Neoplatonic ideas.

A brief history of extremism – from ancient Rome to al Qaeda

From wars in ancient Rome and medieval crusades to al Qaeda and ISIS, examples of extremist behaviour can be found almost as far back as our written histories extend. Here, expert JM Berger charts the history of extremism, and asks whether it’s right to think the problem is today worse than ever…

This competition is now closed

Published: August 5, 2019 at 10:00 am

When did extremism begin?

Before we can begin to answer that question, we have to agree on what extremism means. Some argue that extremists are simply people whose beliefs are far outside the mainstream of society. While this definition ensures that extremists can be found throughout history, it’s not consistent, because mainstream beliefs have changed so much over the centuries.

An easy and somewhat controversial example is the practice of racial slavery in America. Some scholars argue that slavery is not comparable to modern white racial extremism because it was the accepted norm in American society for so many years. Yet the English word “extremist” was first popularised during the debate over slavery, most famously used by Daniel Webster in reference to slavery’s most ardent defenders and detractors. More significantly, slavery was justified through an ideological belief in white supremacy, including both religious and ‘scientific’ justifications for racism, some of which still have adherents among today’s very modern white nationalists.

If the ideology that justified slavery is thus related to modern white supremacist beliefs, which most people agree are extremist, then isn’t slavery also a form of extremism? Shouldn’t we study both as part of a single category? In my book, Extremism, I argue that this phenomenon is better understood as a product of group dynamics – the belief that one’s own group cannot succeed or survive unless it is constantly and unconditionally set in opposition to another group.

What are extremism’s defining characteristics?

The unconditional nature of the opposition is key to this definition most normal conflicts (even violent ones) can be resolved in some manner that accommodates both parties, such as a fight that ends with a handshake, or a war that ends with a treaty. In contrast, extremists believe the ‘other’ must always be opposed, controlled or destroyed because its intrinsic nature and existence is inimical to the success of the extremists’ own group. For extremists, there can be no end to the opposition, except the destruction of the other group within the jurisdiction the extremists’ control. Under this definition, if an extremist movement abandons its commitment to hostile action against the other, it ceases to be extremist (although it may still be unproductive or unpleasant).

Examples in the history of extremism

Using this framework, examples of extremist behaviour can be found almost as far back as our written histories extend. One of the earliest and most famous examples comes from ancient Rome. Starting in 264 BC and continuing for more than a century, Rome engaged in a series of wars with neighbouring Carthage. By the end of this period, the advantage finally shifted to Rome.

But some believed victory was not enough, asserting that the continued existence of Carthage was an affront to Roman identity. The Roman Senator Cato the Elder was one of them, fabled to have ended every speech he gave – no matter what the topic – with the injunction “Carthage must be destroyed”, remembered today as the Latin phrase, “Carthago delenda est”. Cato’s viewpoint won out Rome razed Carthage to the ground in 146 BC after an extended siege, killing an estimated 150,000 residents and selling the survivors into slavery, in what Yale scholar Ben Kiernan calls “the first genocide”.

Others would soon follow this extremist path. One of the most infamous examples in the ancient world was a Jewish group known as the Sicarii, who violently opposed Roman rule and killed fellow Jews they saw as collaborators. They were reputed to have committed mass suicide under siege at the mountain redoubt of Masada in 73 CE.

In 657 CE, the new religion of Islam experienced its first outbreak of extremism, a sect known as the Kharijites, who are remembered for their zealous beliefs and brutal violence against Muslims who they believed had strayed from the true path.

Christianity was not immune to these dynamics either, at times launching crusades and inquisitions to violently root out sectarians and unbelievers they viewed as “infidels”. One of these, the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, wiped out a deviant Christian sect in France known as the Cathars. Legend (possibly apocryphal) holds that the commander of the Roman Catholic forces uttered a Latin phrase that is remembered today, somewhat altered in translation, as “Kill them all and let God sort them out”. Whether the words were said or not, the massacre of Beziers in 1209 killed 20,000 Cathars, and by the end of the Crusade the entire sect had been slaughtered.

Extremism came to the new world with the Spanish conquistadors who colonised the Americas starting in the 16th century. As some Spaniards expressed horror at the enslavement and extermination of indigenous people in the Americas, intellectuals of the day crafted racial and ideological arguments to excuse and even justify these horrors, arguing that the natural superiority of Spaniards justified the enslavement of the continent’s indigenous residents, “in whom you will scarcely find any vestiges of humanness”. These justifications were understood by 19th-century thinkers as one link in the chain that led to the American adoption of racial slavery – one of history’s most egregious and shameful extremist practices, which victimised millions of people of African descent over the course of hundreds of years.

At the end of the 19th century and into 20th, more familiar, modern examples begin to emerge, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the Reconstruction South, and its resurrection in a new form during the 1910s and 1920s. The group continues today, although with only a shadow of its former strength: about 3,000 adherents in 2016 compared to perhaps 4 million members in 1925.

Consequentially, the early 20th century also saw the rise of new and more virulent forms of anti-Semitic extremism. Although anti-Semitism has a long history, it reached genocidal heights in Nazi Germany, another movement we understand as extremist even though, for a time, it occupied the mainstream of German society. The Nazis killed six million Jewish people during their time in power, and millions of others, including disabled people, LGBTQ people and Soviet, Serbian, Roma and Polish civilians. Although the Nazis were defeated, their legacy lives on today in the form of (at least) dozens of neo-Nazi groups around the world.

Modern extremism

The 1980s gave rise to modern jihadist extremism: the mobile, transnational movement significantly spearheaded by al Qaeda which raised the issue of violent extremism to a global priority in 2001 on September 11 it was elevated still further by the rise of ISIS in the 2010s. Today, thousands of jihadist extremists take part in violent activities all over the globe, from terrorism to insurgency.

The same period has seen a resurgence of white nationalism and white supremacy in the United States and Europe, many of whom focus on Muslims as their chief enemy, pointing to the depravities of jihadism as part of their justification for their hate. But it’s not only white extremists who are targeting Muslims. In Myanmar, a new breed of Buddhist extremists seeks to exterminate Muslim Rohingya communities. In China, ethnic Uighurs who practice Islam are being incarcerated and ‘re-educated’ in concentration camps, a fact that too rarely features in discussions of extremism.

Today, it feels like the problem of extremism is worse than ever. There is some truth in that perception, although it is not the whole story. We don’t always frame our collective memory as a history of extremism maybe if we did, it would place current events in context. Anarchists assassinated French and American presidents a Russian tsar an Italian king and an Austrian empress (among others) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Terrorists of every stripe, many representing left-wing causes, killed 184 people in the United States alone during the 1970s, and many more in Europe. A Serbian nationalist fired the shot that is commonly perceived to have started the First World War (by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand). Serbian extremists emerged again with disastrous strength in the 1990s, committing acts of genocide against Bosnian Muslims. In 2019, the Christchurch, New Zealand, terrorist mass murder was inspired in part by Serbian nationalism.

Despite the pervasive role extremism has played in history, some elements of modern life can fairly be understood as making things uniquely worse. Chief among these is the rise of globally interconnected social media networks. Extremism is defined by its ideology – which stipulates identities and what sort of hostile action must be taken against the ‘other’ – and ideology must be transmitted in order to spread. Technologies that turbo-charge the transmission of ideology have a disproportionate effect on the spread of extremist ideas. Extremist movements can enjoy significant success by mobilising relatively small numbers of people when extremist ideologues or groups can reach millions on social media, instantly and at no cost, they only have to convert a fraction of a per cent of that audience in order to have a major global impact. That’s a significant factor in what happened with ISIS, and it’s a significant factor with white nationalism now.

In addition to helping the supply-side of extremism, social media and other online technologies also empower demand. Before the internet, it was harder for curious people and potential recruits to find information about extremist groups and make contact with their members. Now, anyone with a keyboard can quickly seek out extremist texts and even make contact with extremist recruiters, from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

How can we stop and prevent extremism?

Ultimately, the fight against extremism is embedded in our history, just as significantly as extremism itself. Although the march of progress is slow, the long arc of history bends toward justice – admittedly with one step back for every two forward.

The common thread among the movements discussed in this article is that almost all of them are history. Some have long tails – groups like the KKK and the Nazis continue to have adherents long past their sell-by dates. But their ability to influence world events recedes, even as new and different challenges arise. Extremist movements eventually fall, even if it takes hundreds of years.

We can’t take that for granted, however. Like violent crime, extremism is a problem that must be met with vigilance and policing. It is one of the perennial challenges of society left unchecked, it has resulted in unparalleled historical atrocities with death counts in the millions. We should learn the lessons of that history and prioritise accordingly, but we should not succumb to despair. We may never banish extremism from the human experience, but we can save lives and preserve societies by managing and understanding it.

JM Berger is the author of Extremism (MIT Press, 2018). He is a research fellow with VOX-Pol, an academic research network focused on researching Violent Online Political Extremism, and a PhD candidate at Swansea University’s School of Law, where he studies extremist ideologies. To find out more, visit

This article was first published by History Extra in May 2019


In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus had a reputation as being something of a clever trickster and he famously gave the human race the gift of fire and the skill of metalwork, an action for which he was punished by Zeus, who ensured everyday that an eagle ate the liver of the Titan as he was helplessly chained to a rock.

Prometheus (meaning "Forethought") was one of the ringleaders of the battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods led by Zeus to gain control of the heavens, a struggle which was said to have lasted ten years. Prometheus did, however, switch sides and support the victorious Olympians when the Titans would not follow his advice to use trickery in the battle.


According to Hesiod's Theogony, Prometheus' father was Iapetus, his mother was Clymene (or Themis in other versions) and his brothers were fellow Titans Epimetheus (Afterthought or Hindsight), Menoetius, and Atlas. One of Prometheus' sons was Deucalion, an equivalent of Noah, who survived a great flood by sailing in a great chest for nine days and nights and who, with his wife Pyrrha, became the founder of the human race.

In some traditions of the creation of humanity, Prometheus made the first man from clay, whilst in others, the gods made all creatures on Earth, and Epimetheus and Prometheus were given the task of endowing them with gifts so that they might survive and prosper. Epimetheus liberally spread around such gifts as fur and wings but by the time he got around to man, he had run out of gifts.


Prometheus' Crime

Feeling sorry for man's weak and naked state, Prometheus raided the workshop of Hephaistos and Athena on Mt. Olympus and stole fire, and by hiding it in a hollow fennel-stalk, he gave the valuable gift to man which would help him in life's struggle. The Titan also taught man how to use their gift and so the skill of metalwork began he also came to be associated with science and culture.

In a slightly different version of the story, mankind already had fire, and when Prometheus tried to trick Zeus into eating bones and fat instead of the best meat during a meal at Mt. Olympus, Zeus, in anger, took away fire so that man would have to eat his meat raw. Prometheus then stole the fire as in the alternative version. This also explained why, in animal sacrifices, the Greeks always dedicated the bones and fat to the gods and ate the meat themselves.

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The Punishment of Prometheus

Zeus was outraged by Prometheus' theft of fire and so gave the Titan an eternal punishment by having him taken far to the east, perhaps the Caucasus. Here Prometheus was chained to a rock (or pillar) and Zeus sent an eagle to eat the Titan's immortal liver. Even worse, the liver re-grew every night and the eagle returned each day to perpetually torment Prometheus. Fortunately for man's benefactor, but only after many years, the hero Hercules, when passing one day during his celebrated labours, killed the eagle with one of his arrows. In the Greek poet Hesiod's Works & Days we are told that Zeus punished man for receiving the fire by instructing Hephaistos to create the first woman, Pandora, from clay and through her all the negative aspects of life would befall the human race - toil, illness, war, and death - and definitively separate mankind from the gods.

Prometheus was worshipped in Athens, particularly by potters (who, of course, needed fire in their kilns) and there was an annual torch race held in the god's honour. Prometheus first appears in Greek art in a 7th century BCE ivory from Sparta and on Greek pottery from c. 600 BCE, usually being punished. The myth of Prometheus and his terrible punishment by Zeus was the theme of tragic poet Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.


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Prometheus, in Greek religion, one of the Titans, the supreme trickster, and a god of fire. His intellectual side was emphasized by the apparent meaning of his name, Forethinker. In common belief he developed into a master craftsman, and in this connection he was associated with fire and the creation of mortals.

Who is Prometheus?

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is one of the Titans, the supreme trickster, and a god of fire. In common belief, he developed into a master craftsman, and in this connection, he was associated with fire and the creation of mortals. His intellectual side was emphasized by the apparent meaning of his name, Forethinker.

Why did Zeus punish Prometheus?

Zeus, the chief god, who had been tricked by Prometheus into accepting the bones and fat of sacrifice instead of the meat, hid fire from mortals. Prometheus, however, stole it and returned it to Earth once again.

How did Zeus punish Prometheus?

According to one tale told by Hesiod, Zeus avenged himself on Prometheus by having him nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus and then sent an eagle to eat his immortal liver, which constantly replenished itself.

How is Prometheus depicted in Prometheus Bound?

Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound depicts Prometheus as not only the bringer of fire and civilization to mortals but also their preserver, giving them all the arts and sciences as well as the means of survival.

The Greek poet Hesiod related two principal legends concerning Prometheus. The first is that Zeus, the chief god, who had been tricked by Prometheus into accepting the bones and fat of sacrifice instead of the meat, hid fire from mortals. Prometheus, however, stole it and returned it to Earth once again. As the price of fire, and as punishment for humankind in general, Zeus created the woman Pandora and sent her down to Epimetheus (Hindsight), who, though warned by Prometheus, married her. Pandora took the great lid off the jar she carried, and evils, hard work, and disease flew out to plague humanity. Hope alone remained within.

Hesiod relates in his other tale that, as vengeance on Prometheus, Zeus had him nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus and sent an eagle to eat his immortal liver, which constantly replenished itself Prometheus was depicted in Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, who made him not only the bringer of fire and civilization to mortals but also their preserver, giving them all the arts and sciences as well as the means of survival.


The etymology of the theonym prometheus is debated. The usual view is that it signifies "forethought," as that of his brother Epimetheus denotes "afterthought". [1] Hesychius of Alexandria gives Prometheus the variant name of Ithas, and adds "whom others call Ithax", and describes him as the Herald of the Titans. [13] Kerényi remarks that these names are "not transparent", and may be different readings of the same name, while the name "Prometheus" is descriptive. [14]

It has also been theorised that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root that also produces the Vedic pra math, "to steal", hence pramathyu-s, "thief", cognate with "Prometheus", the thief of fire. The Vedic myth of fire's theft by Mātariśvan is an analogue to the Greek account. [15] Pramant was the fire-drill, the tool used to create fire. [16] The suggestion that Prometheus was in origin the human "inventor of the fire-sticks, from which fire is kindled" goes back to Diodorus Siculus in the first century BC. The reference is again to the "fire-drill", a worldwide primitive method of fire making using a vertical and a horizontal piece of wood to produce fire by friction. [17]

Possible sources Edit

The oldest record of Prometheus is in Hesiod, but stories of theft of fire by a trickster figure are widespread around the world. Some other aspects of the story resemble the Sumerian myth of Enki (or Ea in later Babylonian mythology), who was also a bringer of civilisation who protected humanity against the other gods, including during the great flood, [18] as well as created man from clay. While the theory lost favour in the 20th century that Prometheus descends from the Vedic fire bringer Mātariśvan, it was suggested in the 19th century and is still supported by some. [19] [ failed verification ]

Oldest legends Edit

Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days Edit

Theogony Edit

The first recorded account of the Prometheus myth appeared in the late 8th-century BC Greek epic poet Hesiod's Theogony (507–616). In that account, Prometheus was a son of the Titan Iapetus by Clymene, one of the Oceanids. He was brother to Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. Hesiod, in Theogony, introduces Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus's omniscience and omnipotence.

In the trick at Mecone (535–544), a sacrificial meal marking the "settling of accounts" between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus. He placed two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of beef hidden inside an ox's stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the bull's bones wrapped completely in "glistening fat" (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices (556–557). Henceforth, humans would keep that meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angered Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution. In this version of the myth, the use of fire was already known to humans, but withdrawn by Zeus. [20]

Prometheus stole fire back from Zeus in a fennel stalk and restored it to humanity (565–566). This further enraged Zeus, who sent the first woman to live with humanity (Pandora, not explicitly mentioned). The woman, a "shy maiden", was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and Athena helped to adorn her properly (571–574). Hesiod writes, "From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth" (590–594). For his crimes, Prometheus was punished by Zeus, who bound him with chains and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus' immortal liver every day, which then grew back every night. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, with Zeus' permission, killed the eagle and freed Prometheus from this torment (521–529).

Works and Days Edit

Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus and the theft of fire in Works and Days (42–105). In it the poet expands upon Zeus's reaction to Prometheus' deception. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from humanity, but "the means of life" as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus's wrath, "you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste" (44–47).

Hesiod also adds more information to Theogony's story of the first woman, a maiden crafted from earth and water by Hephaestus now explicitly called Pandora ("all gifts") (82). Zeus in this case gets the help of Athena, Aphrodite, Hermes, the Graces and the Hours (59–76). After Prometheus steals the fire, Zeus sends Pandora in retaliation. Despite Prometheus' warning, Epimetheus accepts this "gift" from the gods (89). Pandora carried a jar with her from which were released mischief and sorrow, plague and diseases (94–100). Pandora shuts the lid of the jar too late to contain all the evil plights that escaped, but Hope is left trapped in the jar because Zeus forces Pandora to seal it up before Hope can escape (96–99).

Interpretation Edit

Casanova (1979), [21] [22] finds in Prometheus a reflection of an ancient, pre-Hesiodic trickster-figure, who served to account for the mixture of good and bad in human life, and whose fashioning of humanity from clay was an Eastern motif familiar in Enuma Elish. As an opponent of Zeus, the titan Prometheus can be seen as characteristic of the titans in general, and like other titans, was punished for his opposition. As an advocate for humanity he gains semi-divine status at Athens, where the episode in Theogony in which he is liberated [23] is interpreted by Casanova as a post-Hesiodic interpolation. [21] [24]

According to the German classicist Karl-Martin Dietz, in Hesiod's scriptures, Prometheus represents the "descent of mankind from the communion with the gods into the present troublesome life". [25]

The Lost Titanomachy Edit

The Titanomachy is a lost epic of the cosmological struggle between the Greek gods and their parents, the Titans, and is a probable source of the Prometheus myth. [26] along with the works of Hesiod. Its reputed author was anciently supposed to have lived in the 8th century BC, but M. L. West has argued that it can't be earlier than the late 7th century BC. [27] Presumably included in the Titanomachy is the story of Prometheus, himself a Titan, who managed to avoid being in the direct confrontational cosmic battle between Zeus and the other Olympians against Cronus and the other Titans [28] (although there is no direct evidence of Prometheus' inclusion in the epic). [18] M. L. West notes that surviving references suggest that there may have been significant differences between the Titanomachy epic and the account of events in Hesiod and that the Titanomachy may be the source of later variants of the Prometheus myth not found in Hesiod, notably the non-Hesiodic material found in the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus. [29]

Athenian tradition Edit

The two major authors to have an influence on the development of the myths and legends surrounding the Titan Prometheus during the Socratic era of greater Athens were Aeschylus and Plato. The two men wrote in highly distinctive forms of expression which for Aeschylus centered on his mastery of the literary form of Greek tragedy, while for Plato this centered on the philosophical expression of his thought in the form of the various dialogues he wrote or recorded during his lifetime.

Aeschylus and the ancient literary tradition Edit

Prometheus Bound, perhaps the most famous treatment of the myth to be found among the Greek tragedies, is traditionally attributed to the 5th-century BC Greek tragedian Aeschylus. [30] At the centre of the drama are the results of Prometheus' theft of fire and his current punishment by Zeus. The playwright's dependence on the Hesiodic source material is clear, though Prometheus Bound also includes a number of changes to the received tradition. [31] It has been suggested by M.L. West that these changes may derive from the now lost epic Titanomachy [29]

Before his theft of fire, Prometheus played a decisive role in the Titanomachy, securing victory for Zeus and the other Olympians. Zeus' torture of Prometheus thus becomes a particularly harsh betrayal. The scope and character of Prometheus' transgressions against Zeus are also widened. In addition to giving humanity fire, Prometheus claims to have taught them the arts of civilisation, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. The Titan's greatest benefaction for humanity seems to have been saving them from complete destruction. In an apparent twist on the myth of the so-called Five Ages of Man found in Hesiod's Works and Days (wherein Cronus and, later, Zeus created and destroyed five successive races of humanity), Prometheus asserts that Zeus had wanted to obliterate the human race, but that he somehow stopped him. [ citation needed ]

Moreover, Aeschylus anachronistically and artificially injects Io, another victim of Zeus's violence and ancestor of Heracles, into Prometheus' story. Finally, just as Aeschylus gave Prometheus a key role in bringing Zeus to power, he also attributed to him secret knowledge that could lead to Zeus's downfall: Prometheus had been told by his mother Themis, who in the play is identified with Gaia (Earth), of a potential marriage that would produce a son who would overthrow Zeus. Fragmentary evidence indicates that Heracles, as in Hesiod, frees the Titan in the trilogy's second play, Prometheus Unbound. It is apparently not until Prometheus reveals this secret of Zeus's potential downfall that the two reconcile in the final play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer or Prometheus Pyrphoros, a lost tragedy by Aeschylus.

Prometheus Bound also includes two mythic innovations of omission. The first is the absence of Pandora's story in connection with Prometheus' own. Instead, Aeschylus includes this one oblique allusion to Pandora and her jar that contained Hope (252): "[Prometheus] caused blind hopes to live in the hearts of men." Second, Aeschylus makes no mention of the sacrifice-trick played against Zeus in the Theogony. [30] The four tragedies of Prometheus attributed to Aeschylus, most of which are lost to the passages of time into antiquity, are Prometheus Bound (Prometheus Desmotes), Prometheus Unbound (Lyomenos), Prometheus the Fire Bringer (Pyrphoros), and Prometheus the Fire Kindler (Pyrkaeus).

The larger scope of Aeschylus as a dramatist revisiting the myth of Prometheus in the age of Athenian prominence has been discussed by William Lynch. [32] Lynch's general thesis concerns the rise of humanist and secular tendencies in Athenian culture and society which required the growth and expansion of the mythological and religious tradition as acquired from the most ancient sources of the myth stemming from Hesiod. For Lynch, modern scholarship is hampered by not having the full trilogy of Prometheus by Aeschylus, the last two parts of which have been lost to antiquity. Significantly, Lynch further comments that although the Prometheus trilogy is not available, that the Orestia trilogy by Aeschylus remains available and may be assumed to provide significant insight into the overall structural intentions which may be ascribed to the Prometheus trilogy by Aeschylus as an author of significant consistency and exemplary dramatic erudition. [33]

Harold Bloom, in his research guide for Aeschylus, has summarised some of the critical attention that has been applied to Aeschylus concerning his general philosophical import in Athens. [34] As Bloom states, "Much critical attention has been paid to the question of theodicy in Aeschylus. For generations, scholars warred incessantly over 'the justice of Zeus,' unintentionally blurring it with a monotheism imported from Judeo-Christian thought. The playwright undoubtedly had religious concerns for instance, Jacqueline de Romilly [35] suggests that his treatment of time flows directly out of his belief in divine justice. But it would be an error to think of Aeschylus as sermonising. His Zeus does not arrive at decisions which he then enacts in the mortal world rather, human events are themselves an enactment of divine will." [36]

According to Thomas Rosenmeyer, regarding the religious import of Aeschylus, "In Aeschylus, as in Homer, the two levels of causation, the supernatural and the human, are co-existent and simultaneous, two ways of describing the same event." Rosenmeyer insists that ascribing portrayed characters in Aeschylus should not conclude them to be either victims or agents of theological or religious activity too quickly. As Rosenmeyer states: "[T]he text defines their being. For a critic to construct an Aeschylean theology would be as quixotic as designing a typology of Aeschylean man. The needs of the drama prevail." [37]

In a rare comparison of Prometheus in Aeschylus with Oedipus in Sophocles, Harold Bloom states that "Freud called Oedipus an 'immoral play,' since the gods ordained incest and parricide. Oedipus therefore participates in our universal unconscious sense of guilt, but on this reading so do the gods" [. ] "I sometimes wish that Freud had turned to Aeschylus instead, and given us the Prometheus complex rather than the Oedipus complex." [38]

Karl-Martin Dietz states that in contrast to Hesiod's, in Aeschylus' oeuvre, Prometheus stands for the "Ascent of humanity from primitive beginnings to the present level of civilisation." [25]

Plato and philosophy Edit

Olga Raggio, in her study "The Myth of Prometheus", attributes Plato in the Protagoras as an important contributor to the early development of the Prometheus myth. [39] Raggio indicates that many of the more challenging and dramatic assertions which Aeschylean tragedy explores are absent from Plato's writings about Prometheus. [40]

After the gods have moulded men and other living creatures with a mixture of clay and fire, the two brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus are called to complete the task and distribute among the newly born creatures all sorts of natural qualities. Epimetheus sets to work but, being unwise, distributes all the gifts of nature among the animals, leaving men naked and unprotected, unable to defend themselves and to survive in a hostile world. Prometheus then steals the fire of creative power from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos and gives it to mankind.

Raggio then goes on to point out Plato's distinction of creative power (techne), which is presented as superior to merely natural instincts (physis).

For Plato, only the virtues of "reverence and justice can provide for the maintenance of a civilised society – and these virtues are the highest gift finally bestowed on men in equal measure." [41] The ancients by way of Plato believed that the name Prometheus derived from the Greek prefix pro- (before) + manthano (intelligence) and the agent suffix -eus, thus meaning "Forethinker".

In his dialogue titled Protagoras, Plato contrasts Prometheus with his dull-witted brother Epimetheus, "Afterthinker". [42] [43] In Plato's dialogue Protagoras, Protagoras asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilising arts. [44]

Athenian religious dedication and observance Edit

It is understandable that since Prometheus was considered a Titan (distinct from an Olympian) that there would be an absence of evidence, with the exception of Athens, for the direct religious devotion to his worship. Despite his importance to the myths and imaginative literature of ancient Greece, the religious cult of Prometheus during the Archaic and Classical periods seems to have been limited. [45] Writing in the 2nd century AD, the satirist Lucian points out that while temples for the major Olympians were everywhere, none for Prometheus is to be seen. [46]

Athens was the exception, here Prometheus was worshipped alongside Athene and Hephaistos. [47] The altar of Prometheus in the grove of the Academy was the point of origin for several significant processions and other events regularly observed on the Athenian calendar. For the Panathenaic festival, arguably the most important civic festival at Athens, a torch race began at the altar, which was located outside the sacred boundary of the city, and passed through the Kerameikos, the district inhabited by potters and other artisans who regarded Prometheus and Hephaestus as patrons. [48] The race then travelled to the heart of the city, where it kindled the sacrificial fire on the altar of Athena on the Acropolis to conclude the festival. [49] These footraces took the form of relays in which teams of runners passed off a flaming torch. According to Pausanias (2nd century AD), the torch relay, called lampadedromia or lampadephoria, was first instituted at Athens in honour of Prometheus. [50]

By the Classical period, the races were run by ephebes also in honour of Hephaestus and Athena. [51] Prometheus' association with fire is the key to his religious significance [45] and to the alignment with Athena and Hephaestus that was specific to Athens and its "unique degree of cultic emphasis" on honouring technology. [52] The festival of Prometheus was the Prometheia. The wreaths worn symbolised the chains of Prometheus. [53] There is a pattern of resemblances between Hephaistos and Prometheus. Although the classical tradition is that Hephaistos split Zeus's head to allow Athene's birth, that story has also been told of Prometheus. A variant tradition makes Prometheus the son of Hera like Hephaistos. [54] Ancient artists depict Prometheus wearing the pointed cap of an artist or artisan, like Hephaistos, and also the crafty hero Odysseus. The artisan's cap was also depicted as worn by the Cabeiri, [55] supernatural craftsmen associated with a mystery cult known in Athens in classical times, and who were associated with both Hephaistos and Prometheus. Kerényi suggests that Hephaistos may in fact be the "successor" of Prometheus, despite Hephaistos being himself of archaic origin. [56]

Pausanias recorded a few other religious sites in Greece devoted to Prometheus. Both Argos and Opous claimed to be Prometheus' final resting place, each erecting a tomb in his honour. The Greek city of Panopeus had a cult statue that was supposed to honour Prometheus for having created the human race there. [44]

Aesthetic tradition in Athenian art Edit

Prometheus' torment by the eagle and his rescue by Heracles were popular subjects in vase paintings of the 6th to 4th centuries BC. He also sometimes appears in depictions of Athena's birth from Zeus' forehead. There was a relief sculpture of Prometheus with Pandora on the base of Athena's cult statue in the Athenian Parthenon of the 5th century BC. A similar rendering is also found at the great altar of Zeus at Pergamon from the second century BC.

The event of the release of Prometheus from captivity was frequently revisited on Attic and Etruscan vases between the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In the depiction on display at the Museum of Karlsruhe and in Berlin, the depiction is that of Prometheus confronted by a menacing large bird (assumed to be the eagle) with Hercules approaching from behind shooting his arrows at it. [57] In the fourth century this imagery was modified to depicting Prometheus bound in a cruciform manner, possibly reflecting an Aeschylus-inspired manner of influence, again with an eagle and with Hercules approaching from the side. [58]

Other authors Edit

Some two dozen other Greek and Roman authors retold and further embellished the Prometheus myth from as early as the 5th century BC (Diodorus, Herodorus) into the 4th century AD. The most significant detail added to the myth found in, e.g., Sappho, Aesop and Ovid [59] was the central role of Prometheus in the creation of the human race. According to these sources, Prometheus fashioned humans out of clay.

Although perhaps made explicit in the Prometheia, later authors such as Hyginus, the Bibliotheca, and Quintus of Smyrna would confirm that Prometheus warned Zeus not to marry the sea nymph Thetis. She is consequently married off to the mortal Peleus, and bears him a son greater than the father – Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Pseudo-Apollodorus moreover clarifies a cryptic statement (1026–29) made by Hermes in Prometheus Bound, identifying the centaur Chiron as the one who would take on Prometheus' suffering and die in his place. [44] Reflecting a myth attested in Greek vase paintings from the Classical period, Pseudo-Apollodorus places the Titan (armed with an axe) at the birth of Athena, thus explaining how the goddess sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus. [44]

Other minor details attached to the myth include: the duration of Prometheus' torment [60] [61] the origin of the eagle that ate the Titan's liver (found in Pseudo-Apollodorus and Hyginus) Pandora's marriage to Epimetheus (found in Pseudo-Apollodorus) myths surrounding the life of Prometheus' son, Deucalion (found in Ovid and Apollonius of Rhodes) and Prometheus' marginal role in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (found in Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus). [44]

"Variants of legends containing the Prometheus motif are widespread in the Caucasus" region, reports Hunt, [62] who gave ten stories related to Prometheus from ethno-linguistic groups in the region.

Zahhak, an evil figure in Iranian mythology, also ends up eternally chained on a mountainside – though the rest of his career is dissimilar to that of Prometheus. [63] [64] [65]

The three most prominent aspects of the Prometheus myth have parallels within the beliefs of many cultures throughout the world (see creation of man from clay, theft of fire, and references for eternal punishment). It is the first of these three which has drawn attention to parallels with the biblical creation account related in the religious symbolism expressed in the book of Genesis.

As stated by Raggio, [66] "The Prometheus myth of creation as a visual symbol of the Neoplatonic concept of human nature, illustrated in (many) sarcophagi, was evidently a contradiction of the Christian teaching of the unique and simultaneous act of creation by the Trinity." This Neoplatonism of late Roman antiquity was especially stressed by Tertullian [67] who recognised both difference and similarity of the biblical deity with the mythological figure of Prometheus.

The imagery of Prometheus and the creation of man used for the purposes of the representation of the creation of Adam in biblical symbolism is also a recurrent theme in the artistic expression of late Roman antiquity. Of the relatively rare expressions found of the creation of Adam in those centuries of late Roman antiquity, one can single out the so-called "Dogma sarcophagus" of the Lateran Museum where three figures (commonly taken to represent the theological trinity) are seen in making a benediction to the new man. Another example is found where the prototype of Prometheus is also recognisable in the early Christian era of late Roman antiquity. This can be found upon a sarcophagus of the Church at Mas d'Aire [68] as well, and in an even more direct comparison to what Raggio refers to as "a coarsely carved relief from Campli (Teramo) [69] (where) the Lord sits on a throne and models the body of Adam, exactly like Prometheus." Still another such similarity is found in the example found on a Hellenistic relief presently in the Louvre in which the Lord gives life to Eve through the imposition of his two fingers on her eyes recalling the same gesture found in earlier representations of Prometheus. [66]

In Georgian mythology, Amirani is a cultural hero who challenged the chief god and, like Prometheus, was chained on the Caucasian mountains where birds would eat his organs. This aspect of the myth had a significant influence on the Greek imagination. It is recognisable from a Greek gem roughly dated to the time of the Hesiod poems, which show Prometheus with hands bound behind his body and crouching before a bird with long wings. [70] This same image would also be used later in the Rome of the Augustan age as documented by Furtwangler. [71]

In the often cited and highly publicised interview between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on Public Television, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces presented his view on the comparison of Prometheus and Jesus. [72] Moyers asked Campbell the question in the following words, "In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves." To which Campbell's well-known response was that, "But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there's no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules [. ] No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself." For Campbell, Jesus suffered mortally on the Cross while Prometheus suffered eternally while chained to a rock, and each of them received punishment for the gift which they bestowed to humankind, for Jesus this was the gift of propitiation from Heaven, and, for Prometheus this was the gift of fire from Olympus. [72]

Significantly, Campbell is also clear to indicate the limits of applying the metaphors of his methodology in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces too closely in assessing the comparison of Prometheus and Jesus. Of the four symbols of suffering associated with Jesus after his trial in Jerusalem (i) the crown of thorns, (ii) the scourge of whips, (iii) the nailing to the Cross, and (iv) the spearing of his side, it is only this last one which bears some resemblance to the eternal suffering of Prometheus' daily torment of an eagle devouring a replenishing organ, his liver, from his side. [73] For Campbell, the striking contrast between the New Testament narratives and the Greek mythological narratives remains at the limiting level of the cataclysmic eternal struggle of the eschatological New Testament narratives occurring only at the very end of the biblical narratives in the Apocalypse of John (12:7) where, "Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven." This eschatological and apocalyptic setting of a Last Judgement is in precise contrast to the Titanomachia of Hesiod which serves its distinct service to Greek mythology as its Prolegomenon, bracketing all subsequent mythology, including the creation of humanity, as coming after the cosmological struggle between the Titans and the Olympian gods. [72]

It remains a continuing debate among scholars of comparative religion and the literary reception [74] of mythological and religious subject matter as to whether the typology of suffering and torment represented in the Prometheus myth finds its more representative comparisons with the narratives of the Hebrew scriptures or with the New Testament narratives. In the Book of Job, significant comparisons can be drawn between the sustained suffering of Job in comparison to that of eternal suffering and torment represented in the Prometheus myth. With Job, the suffering is at the acquiescence of heaven and at the will of the demonic, while in Prometheus the suffering is directly linked to Zeus as the ruler of Olympus. The comparison of the suffering of Jesus after his sentencing in Jerusalem is limited to the three days, from Thursday to Saturday, and leading to the culminating narratives corresponding to Easter Sunday. The symbolic import for comparative religion would maintain that suffering related to justified conduct is redeemed in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament narratives, while in Prometheus there remains the image of a non-forgiving deity, Zeus, who nonetheless requires reverence. [72]

Writing in late antiquity of the fourth and fifth century, the Latin commentator Marcus Servius Honoratus explained that Prometheus was so named because he was a man of great foresight (vir prudentissimus), possessing the abstract quality of providentia, the Latin equivalent of Greek promētheia ( ἀπὸ τής πρόμηθείας ). [75] Anecdotally, the Roman fabulist Phaedrus (c.15 BC – c.50 AD) attributes to Aesop a simple etiology for homosexuality, in Prometheus' getting drunk while creating the first humans and misapplying the genitalia. [76]

Perhaps the most influential book of the Middle Ages upon the reception of the Prometheus myth was the mythological handbook of Fulgentius Placiades. As stated by Raggio, [77] "The text of Fulgentius, as well as that of (Marcus) Servius [. ] are the main sources of the mythological handbooks written in the ninth century by the anonymous Mythographus Primus and Mythographus Secundus. Both were used for the more lengthy and elaborate compendium by the English scholar Alexander Neckman (1157–1217), the Scintillarium Poetarum, or Poetarius." [77] The purpose of his books was to distinguish allegorical interpretation from the historical interpretation of the Prometheus myth. Continuing in this same tradition of the allegorical interpretation of the Prometheus myth, along with the historical interpretation of the Middle Ages, is the Genealogiae of Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio follows these two levels of interpretation and distinguishes between two separate versions of the Prometheus myth. For Boccaccio, Prometheus is placed "In the heavens where all is clarity and truth, [Prometheus] steals, so to speak, a ray of the divine wisdom from God himself, source of all Science, supreme Light of every man." [78] With this, Boccaccio shows himself moving from the mediaeval sources with a shift of accent towards the attitude of the Renaissance humanists.

Using a similar interpretation to that of Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century updated the philosophical and more sombre reception of the Prometheus myth not seen since the time of Plotinus. In his book written in 1476–77 titled Quaestiones Quinque de Mente, Ficino indicates his preference for reading the Prometheus myth as an image of the human soul seeking to obtain supreme truth. As Raggio summarises Ficino's text, "The torture of Prometheus is the torment brought by reason itself to man, who is made by it many times more unhappy than the brutes. It is after having stolen one beam of the celestial light [. ] that the soul feels as if fastened by chains and [. ] only death can release her bonds and carry her to the source of all knowledge." [78] This sombreness of attitude in Ficino's text would be further developed later by Charles de Bouelles' Liber de Sapiente of 1509 which presented a mix of both scholastic and Neoplatonic ideas.

After the writings of both Boccaccio and Ficino in the late Middle Ages about Prometheus, interest in the Titan shifted considerably in the direction of becoming subject matter for painters and sculptors alike. Among the most famous examples is that of Piero di Cosimo from about 1510 presently on display at the museums of Munich and Strasburg (see Inset). Raggio summarises the Munich version [79] as follows "The Munich panel represents the dispute between Epimetheus and Prometheus, the handsome triumphant statue of the new man, modelled by Prometheus, his ascension to the sky under the guidance of Minerva the Strasburg panel shows in the distance Prometheus lighting his torch at the wheels of the Sun, and in the foreground on one side, Prometheus applying his torch to the heart of the statue and, on the other, Mercury fastening him to a tree." All the details are evidently borrowed from Boccaccio's Genealogiae.

The same reference to the Genealogiae can be cited as the source for the drawing by Parmigianino presently located in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. [80] In the drawing, a very noble rendering of Prometheus is presented which evokes the memory of Michelangelo's works portraying Jehovah. This drawing is perhaps one of the most intense examples of the visualisation of the myth of Prometheus from the Renaissance period.

Writing in the late British Renaissance, William Shakespeare uses the Promethean allusion in the famous death scene of Desdemona in his tragedy of Othello. Othello in contemplating the death of Desdemona asserts plainly that he cannot restore the "Promethean heat" to her body once it has been extinguished. For Shakespeare, the allusion is clearly to the interpretation of the fire from the heat as the bestowing of life to the creation of man from clay by Prometheus after it was stolen from Olympus. The analogy bears direct resemblance to the biblical narrative of the creation of life in Adam through the bestowed breathing of the creator in Genesis. Shakespeare's symbolic reference to the "heat" associated with Prometheus' fire is to the association of the gift of fire to the mythological gift or theological gift of life to humans.

The myth of Prometheus has been a favourite theme of Western art and literature in the post-renaissance and post-Enlightenment tradition and, occasionally, in works produced outside the West.

Post-Renaissance literary arts Edit

For the Romantic era, Prometheus was the rebel who resisted all forms of institutional tyranny epitomised by Zeus – church, monarch, and patriarch. The Romantics drew comparisons between Prometheus and the spirit of the French Revolution, Christ, the Satan of John Milton's Paradise Lost, and the divinely inspired poet or artist. Prometheus is the lyrical "I" who speaks in Goethe's Sturm und Drang poem "Prometheus" (written c. 1772–74, published 1789), addressing God (as Zeus) in misotheist accusation and defiance. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), a four-act lyrical drama, Percy Bysshe Shelley rewrites the lost play of Aeschylus so that Prometheus does not submit to Zeus (under the Latin name Jupiter), but instead supplants him in a triumph of the human heart and intellect over tyrannical religion. Lord Byron's poem "Prometheus" also portrays the Titan as unrepentant. As documented by Raggio, other leading figures among the great Romantics included Byron, Longfellow and Nietzsche as well. [39] Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus", in reference to the novel's themes of the over-reaching of modern humanity into dangerous areas of knowledge.

Goethe's poems Edit

Prometheus is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which a character based on the mythic Prometheus addresses God (as Zeus) in a romantic and misotheist tone of accusation and defiance. The poem was written between 1772 and 1774. It was first published fifteen years later in 1789. It is an important work as it represents one of the first encounters of the Prometheus myth with the literary Romantic movement identified with Goethe and with the Sturm und Drang movement.

The poem has appeared in Volume 6 of Goethe's poems (in his Collected Works) in a section of Vermischte Gedichte (assorted poems), shortly following the Harzreise im Winter. It is immediately followed by "Ganymed", and the two poems are written as informing each other according to Goethe's plan in their actual writing. Prometheus (1774) was originally planned as a drama but never completed by Goethe, though the poem is inspired by it. Prometheus is the creative and rebellious spirit rejected by God and who angrily defies him and asserts himself. Ganymede, by direct contrast, is the boyish self who is both adored and seduced by God. As a high Romantic poet and a humanist poet, Goethe presents both identities as contrasting aspects of the Romantic human condition.

The poem offers direct biblical connotations for the Prometheus myth which was unseen in any of the ancient Greek poets dealing with the Prometheus myth in either drama, tragedy, or philosophy. The intentional use of the German phrase "Da ich ein Kind war. " ("When I was a child"): the use of Da is distinctive, and with it Goethe directly applies the Lutheran translation of Saint Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, 13:11: "Da ich ein Kind war, da redete ich wie ein Kind. " ("When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things"). Goethe's Prometheus is significant for the contrast it evokes with the biblical text of Corinthians rather than for its similarities.

In his book titled Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence, C. Kerényi states the key contrast between Goethe's version of Prometheus with the ancient Greek version. [81] As Kerényi states, "Goethe's Prometheus had Zeus for father and a goddess for mother. With this change from the traditional lineage the poet distinguished his hero from the race of the Titans." For Goethe, the metaphorical comparison of Prometheus to the image of the Son from the New Testament narratives was of central importance, with the figure of Zeus in Goethe's reading being metaphorically matched directly to the image of the Father from the New Testament narratives.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Edit

Percy Shelley published his four-act lyrical drama titled Prometheus Unbound in 1820. His version was written in response to the version of myth as presented by Aeschylus and is orientated to the high British Idealism and high British Romanticism prevailing in Shelley's own time. Shelley, as the author himself discusses, admits the debt of his version of the myth to Aeschylus and the Greek poetic tradition which he assumes is familiar to readers of his own lyrical drama. For example, it is necessary to understand and have knowledge of the reason for Prometheus' punishment if the reader is to form an understanding of whether the exoneration portrayed by Shelley in his version of the Prometheus myth is justified or unjustified. The quote of Shelley's own words describing the extent of his indebtedness to Aeschylus has been published in numerous sources publicly available.

The literary critic Harold Bloom in his book Shelley's Mythmaking expresses his high expectation of Shelley in the tradition of mythopoeic poetry. For Bloom, Percy Shelley's relationship to the tradition of mythology in poetry "culminates in 'Prometheus'. The poem provides a complete statement of Shelley's vision." [82] Bloom devotes two full chapters in this 1959 book to Shelley's lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound. [83] Following his 1959 book, Bloom edited an anthology of critical opinions on Shelley for Chelsea House Publishers where he concisely stated his opinion as, "Shelley is the unacknowledged ancestor of Wallace Stevens' conception of poetry as the Supreme Fiction, and Prometheus Unbound is the most capable imagining, outside of Blake and Wordsworth, that the Romantic quest for a Supreme Fiction has achieved." [84]

Within the pages of his Introduction to the Chelsea House edition on Percy Shelley, Bloom also identifies the six major schools of criticism opposing Shelley's idealised mythologising version of the Prometheus myth. In sequence, the opposing schools to Shelley are given as: (i) The school of "common sense", (ii) The Christian orthodox, (iii) The school of "wit", (iv) Moralists, of most varieties, (v) The school of "classic" form, and (vi) The Precisionists, or concretists. [85] Although Bloom is least interested in the first two schools, the second one on the Christian orthodox has special bearing on the reception of the Prometheus myth during late Roman antiquity and the synthesis of the New Testament canon. The Greek origins of the Prometheus myth have already discussed the Titanomachia as placing the cosmic struggle of Olympus at some point in time preceding the creation of humanity, while in the New Testament synthesis there was a strong assimilation of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew prophets and their strongly eschatological orientation. This contrast placed a strong emphasis within the ancient Greek consciousness as to the moral and ontological acceptance of the mythology of the Titanomachia as an accomplished mythological history, whereas for the synthesis of the New Testament narratives this placed religious consciousness within the community at the level of an anticipated eschaton not yet accomplished. Neither of these would guide Percy Shelley in his poetic retelling and re-integration of the Prometheus myth. [86]

To the Socratic Greeks, one important aspect of the discussion of religion would correspond to the philosophical discussion of 'becoming' with respect to the New Testament syncretism rather than the ontological discussion of 'being' which was more prominent in the ancient Greek experience of mythologically oriented cult and religion. [87] For Shelley, both of these reading were to be substantially discounted in preference to his own concerns for promoting his own version of an idealised consciousness of a society guided by the precepts of High British Romanticism and High British Idealism. [88]

Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus Edit

Frankenstein or, the Modern Prometheus, written by Mary Shelley when she was 18, was published in 1818, two years before Percy Shelley's above-mentioned play. It has endured as one of the most frequently revisited literary themes in twentieth century film and popular reception with few rivals for its sheer popularity among even established literary works of art. The primary theme is a parallel to the aspect of the Prometheus myth which concentrates on the creation of man by the Titans, transferred and made contemporary by Shelley for British audiences of her time. The subject is that of the creation of life by a scientist, thus bestowing life through the application and technology of medical science rather than by the natural acts of reproduction. The short novel has been adapted into many films and productions ranging from the early versions with Boris Karloff to later versions including Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film adaptation.

Twentieth century Edit

Franz Kafka wrote a short piece titled "Prometheus," outlining what he saw as his perspective on four aspects of this myth:

According to the first, he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.
According to the second, Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.
According to the third, his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself.
According to the fourth, everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.
There remains the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.

This short piece by Kafka concerning his interest in Prometheus was supplemented by two other mythological pieces written by him. As stated by Reiner Stach, "Kafka's world was mythical in nature, with Old Testament and Jewish legends providing the templates. It was only logical (even if Kafka did not state it openly) that he would try his hand at the canon of antiquity, re-interpreting it and incorporating it into his own imagination in the form of allusions, as in 'The Silence of the Sirens,' 'Prometheus,' and 'Poseidon.'" [90] Among 20th century poets, Ted Hughes wrote a 1973 collection of poems titled Prometheus on His Crag. The Nepali poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota (d. 1949) also wrote an epic titled Prometheus (प्रमीथस).

In his 1952 book, Lucifer and Prometheus, Zvi Werblowsky presented the speculatively derived Jungian construction of the character of Satan in Milton's celebrated poem Paradise Lost. Werblowsky applied his own Jungian style of interpretation to appropriate parts of the Prometheus myth for the purpose of interpreting Milton. A reprint of his book in the 1990s by Routledge Press included an introduction to the book by Carl Jung. Some Gnostics have been associated with identifying the theft of fire from heaven as embodied by the fall of Lucifer "the Light Bearer". [91]

Ayn Rand cited the Prometheus myth in Anthem, The Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, using the mythological character as a metaphor for creative people rebelling against the confines of modern society.

The Eulenspiegel Society began the magazine Prometheus in the early 1970s [92] it is a decades-long-running magazine exploring issues important to kinksters, ranging from art and erotica, to advice columns and personal ads, to conversation about the philosophy of consensual kink. The magazine now exists online. [92]

The artificial chemical element promethium is named after Prometheus.

Post-Renaissance aesthetic tradition Edit

Visual arts Edit

Prometheus has been depicted in a number of well-known artworks, including Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus fresco at Pomona College [93] [94] and Paul Manship's bronze sculpture Prometheus at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

Classical music, opera, and ballet Edit

Works of classical music, opera, and ballet directly or indirectly inspired by the myth of Prometheus have included renderings by some of the major composers of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this tradition, the orchestral representation of the myth has received the most sustained attention of composers. These have included the symphonic poem by Franz Liszt titled Prometheus from 1850, among his other Symphonic Poems (No. 5, S.99). [95] Alexander Scriabin composed Prometheus: Poem of Fire, Opus 60 (1910), [96] also for orchestra. [97] In the same year Gabriel Fauré composed his three-act opera Prométhée (1910). [98] Charles-Valentin Alkan composed his Grande sonate 'Les quatre âges' (1847), with the 4th movement entitled "Prométhée enchaîné" (Prometheus Bound). [99] Beethoven composed the score to a ballet version of the myth titled The Creatures of Prometheus (1801). [100]

An adaptation of Goethe's poetic version of the myth was composed by Hugo Wolf, Prometheus (Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus, 1889), as part of his Goethe-lieder for voice and piano, [101] later transcribed for orchestra and voice. [102] An opera of the myth was composed by Carl Orff titled Prometheus (1968), [103] [104] using Aeschylus' Greek language Prometheia. [105] A tradition has of course grown among critics of finding allusions to Prometheus Bound in Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. [106]

Rudolf Wagner-Régeny composed the Prometheus (opera) in 1959. Another work inspired by the myth, Prometeo (Prometheus), was composed by Luigi Nono between 1981 and 1984 and can be considered a sequence of nine cantatas. The libretto in Italian was written by Massimo Cacciari, and selects from texts by such varied authors as Aeschylus, Walter Benjamin and Rainer Maria Rilke and presents the different versions of the myth of Prometheus without telling any version literally.


Normative Judaism is not pacifist and violence is condoned in the service of self-defence. [7] J. Patout Burns asserts that Jewish tradition clearly posits the principle of minimization of violence. This principle can be stated as "(wherever) Jewish law allows violence to keep an evil from occurring, it mandates that the minimal amount of violence be used to accomplish one's goal." [8] [9]

Nonviolence Edit

Judaism's religious texts endorse compassion and peace, and the Hebrew Bible contains the well-known commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself". [2] According to the 1937 Columbus Platform of Reform Judaism, "Judaism, from the days of the prophets, has proclaimed to mankind the ideal of universal peace, striving for spiritual and physical disarmament of all nations. Judaism rejects violence and relies upon moral education, love and sympathy." [6]

The philosophy of nonviolence has roots in Judaism, going back to the Jerusalem Talmud of the middle 3rd century. While absolute nonviolence is not a requirement of Judaism, the religion so sharply restricts the use of violence, that nonviolence often becomes the only way to fulfilling a life of truth, justice and peace, which Judaism considers to be the three tools for the preservation of the world. [10] : 242

The biblical narrative about the conquest of Canaan, and the commands related to it, have had a deep influence on Western culture. [11] Mainstream Jewish traditions throughout history have treated these texts as purely historical or highly conditioned, and in any event not relevant to later times. [12]

The Second Temple period experienced a surge in militarism and violence aimed at curbing the encroachment of Greco-Roman and Hellenistic Jewish influence in Judea. Groups such as the Maccabees [13] the Zealots, the Sicarii at the Siege of Masada, [14] and later the Bar Kochba revolt, all derived their power from the biblical narrative of Hebrew conquest and hegemony over the Land of Israel, sometimes garnering support of the rabbis, [15] and at other times their ambivalence. [16]

In Modern times, warfare conducted by the State of Israel is governed by Israeli law and regulation, which includes a purity of arms code that is based in part on Jewish tradition the 1992 IDF Code of Conduct combines international law, Israeli law, Jewish heritage and the IDF's own traditional ethical code. [17] However, tension between actions of the Israeli government on the one hand, and Jewish traditions and halakha on the conduct of war on the other, have caused controversy within Israel and have provided a basis for criticisms of Israel. [18] Some strains of radical Zionism promote aggressive war and justify them with biblical texts. [19] [20]

Forced conversions occurred under the Hasmonean kingdom. The Idumaens were forced to convert to Judaism, either by threats of exile, or threats of death, depending on the source. [21] [22]

In Eusebíus, Christianity, and Judaism Harold W. Attridge claims that “there is reason to think that Josephus’ account of their conversion is substantially accurate.” He also writes, "That these were not isolated instances but that forced conversion was a national policy is clear from the fact that Alexander Jannaeus (c. 80 BCE) demolished the city of Pella in Moab, 'because the inhabitants would not agree to adopt the national custom of the Jews. ' " Josephus, Antiquities. 13.15.4. [23]

Maurice Sartre has written of the "policy of forced Judaization adopted by Hyrcanos, Aristobulus I and Jannaeus", who offered "the conquered peoples a choice between expulsion or conversion". [24]

William Horbury has written that "The evidence is best explained by postulating that an existing small Jewish population in Lower Galilee was massively expanded by the forced conversion in c. 104 BCE of their Gentile neighbours in the north." [25]

Kingdom of Himyar Edit

After the conversion of the kingdom of Himyar in the late 4th century to Judaism, [26] two episodes of "coercion and brutality" by Himyar Jewish kings took place during the fifth and early sixth centuries. [27] Thirty-nine Christians were martyred in the third quarter of the fifth century, [27] and a massacre of Christians took place in 523. [27] The Yemeni Jewish Himyar tribe, led by King Dhu Nuwashad, offered Christian residents of a village in Saudi Arabia the choice between conversion to Judaism or death, and 20,000 Christians were massacred. [28] Inscriptions show the great pride he expressed after massacring more than 22,000 Christians in Zafar and Najran. [29]

Eye for an eye Edit

While the principle of lex talionis ("an eye for an eye") is clearly echoed in the Bible, in Judaism it is not literally applied, and was interpreted to provide a basis for financial compensation for injuries. [30] [31] Pasachoff and Littman point to the reinterpretation of the lex talionis as an example of the ability of Pharisaic Judaism to "adapt to changing social and intellectual ideas." [32] Stephen Wylen asserts that the lex talionis is "proof of the unique value of each individual" and that it teaches "equality of all human beings for law." [33]

Capital and corporal punishment Edit

While the Bible and the Talmud specify many violent punishments, including death by stoning, decapitation, burning, and strangulation for some crimes, [34] these punishments were substantially modified during the rabbinic era, primarily by adding additional requirements for conviction. [35] The Mishnah states that a sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years – or seventy years, according to Eleazar ben Azariah – is considered bloodthirsty. [36] [37] During the Late Antiquity, the tendency of not applying the death penalty at all became predominant in Jewish courts. [38] According to Talmudic law, the competence to apply capital punishment ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple. [39] In practice, where medieval Jewish courts had the power to pass and execute death sentences, they continued to do so for particularly grave offenses, although not necessarily the ones defined by the law. [39] Although it was recognized that the use of capital punishment in the post-Second Temple era went beyond the biblical warrant, the Rabbis who supported it believed that it could be justified by other considerations of Jewish law. [40] [41] Whether Jewish communities ever practiced capital punishment according to rabbinical law and whether the Rabbis of the Talmudic era ever supported its use even in theory has been a subject of historical and ideological debate. [42] The 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Maimonides stated that "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death." [35] The position of Jewish Law on capital punishment often formed the basis of deliberations by Israel's Supreme Court. It has been carried out by Israel's judicial system only once, in the case of Adolf Eichmann. [41]

The Book of Esther, one of the books of the Jewish Bible, is a story of palace intrigue centered on a plot to kill all Jews which was thwarted by Esther, a Jewish queen of Persia. Instead of being victims, the Jews killed "all the people who wanted to kill them." [43] The king gave the Jews the ability to defend themselves against their enemies who tried to kill them, [44] numbering 75,000 (Esther 9:16) including Haman, an Amalekite that led the plot to kill the Jews. The annual Purim festival celebrates this event, and includes the recitation of the biblical instruction to "blot out the remembrance [or name] of Amalek". Scholars – including Ian Lustick, Marc Gopin, and Steven Bayme – state that the violence described in the Book of Esther has inspired and incited violent acts and violent attitudes in the post-biblical era, continuing into modern times, often centered on the festival of Purim. [4] : 2–19, 107–146, 187–212, 213–247 [45] [46] [47] [48] [49] [50] [51] [52] [53] [54]

Other scholars, including Jerome Auerbach, state that evidence for Jewish violence on Purim through the centuries is "exceedingly meager", including occasional episodes of stone throwing, the spilling of rancid oil on a Jewish convert, and a total of three recorded Purim deaths inflicted by Jews in a span of more than 1,000 years. [55] In a review of historian Elliot Horowitz's book Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence, Hillel Halkin pointed out that the incidences of Jewish violence against non-Jews through the centuries are extraordinarily few in number and that the connection between them and Purim is tenuous. [56]

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and historian Elliot Horowitz state that Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, may have been motivated by the Book of Esther, because the massacre was carried out on the day of Purim [4] : 4, 11, 315 [57] [58] [59] [60] but other scholars point out that the association with Purim is circumstantial because Goldstein never explicitly made such a connection. [61]

Radical Zionists and settlers Edit

The motives for violence by extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank directed at Palestinians are complex and varied. While religious motivations have been documented, [62] [63] [64] [65] the use of non-defensive violence is outside of mainstream Judaism and mainstream Zionism. [66] [67] [68] [69]

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, urged that Jewish settlement of the land should proceed by peaceful means only. [70] Contemporary settler movements follow Kook’s son Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982), who also did not advocate aggressive conquest. [70] Critics claim that Gush Emunim and followers of Tzvi Yehuda Kook advocate violence based on Judaism's religious precepts. [71] Ian Lustick, Benny Morris, and Nur Masalha assert that radical Zionist leaders relied on religious doctrines for justification for the violent treatment of Arabs in Palestine, citing examples where pre-state Jewish militia used verses from the Bible to justify their violent acts, which included expulsions and massacres such as the one at Deir Yassin. [72]

After Baruch Goldstein carried out the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994, his actions were widely interpreted to be based on the radical Zionist ideology of the Kach movement, and were condemned as such by mainstream religious and secular Jews and praised as such by radical Zionists. [4] : 6–11 [73] [74] [75] [76] Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba in the southern West Bank and head of the "Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria" has made speeches legitimizing the killing of non-Jews and praising Goldstein as a saint and martyr. Lior also said "a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail". [77] [78] Lior publicly gave permission to spill blood of Arab persons and has publicly supported extreme right-wing Jewish terrorists. [79]

In July 2010, Yitzhak Shapira who heads Dorshei Yihudcha yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, was arrested by Israeli police for writing a book that encourages the killing of non-Jews. In his book "The King's Torah" (Torat HaMelech) he wrote that under Torah and Jewish Law it is legal to kill Gentiles and even in some cases to kill the babies of enemies. [80] [81] Later in August 2010 police arrested rabbi Yosef Elitzur-Hershkowitz – co-author of Shapira's book – on the grounds of incitement to racial violence, possession of a racist text, and possession of material that incites to violence. While the book has been endorsed by radical Zionist leaders including Dov Lior [62] and Yaakov Yosef [82] it has been widely condemned by mainstream secular and religious Jews. [62]

Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin Edit

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir was motivated by Amir’s personal political views and his understanding of Judaism's religious law of moiser (the duty to eliminate a Jew who intends to turn another Jew in to non-Jewish authorities, thus putting a Jew's life in danger [83] ) and rodef (a bystander can kill a one who is pursuing another to murder him or her if he cannot otherwise be stopped). [5] : 91 Amir’s interpretation has been described as "a gross distortion of Jewish law and tradition" [84] and the mainstream Jewish view is that Rabin's assassin had no Halakhic basis to shoot Prime Minister Rabin. [9]

Extremist organizations Edit

In the course of history there have been some organizations and individuals that endorsed or advocated violence based on their interpretation to Jewish religious principles. Such instances of violence are considered by mainstream Judaism to be extremist aberrations, and not representative of the tenets of Judaism. [85] [86]

    (defunct) and Kahane Chai[87][88][89] (defunct): formed by members of Gush Emunim. [90] (defunct): an organisation operating in Israel from 1950 to 1953 with the objective of imposing Jewish religious law in the country and establishing a Halakhic state. [91]
  • The Jewish Defense League (JDL): founded in 1969 by Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City, with the declared purpose of protecting Jews from harassment and antisemitism. [92]FBI statistics show that, from 1980 to 1985, 15 terrorist attacks were attempted in the U.S. by members of the JDL. [93] The FBI’s Mary Doran described the JDL in 2004 Congressional testimony as "a proscribed terrorist group". [94] The National Consortium for the Study of Terror and Responses to Terrorism states that, during the JDL's first two decades of activity, it was an "active terrorist organization". [92][95]Kahanist groups are banned in Israel. [96][97][98]

Views on violence against Islam Edit

While Judaism contains commandments to exterminate idol worship, according to all rabbinic authorities, Islam contains no trace of idolatry. [99] Rabbi Hayim David HaLevi stated that in modern times no one matches the biblical definition of an idolater, and therefore ruled that Jews in Israel have a moral responsibility to treat all citizens with the highest standards of humanity. [99]

Following an arson incident in 2010, in which a mosque in Yasuf village was desecrated, apparently by settlers from the nearby Gush Etzion settlement bloc, [99] [100] [101] the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger condemned the attack and equated the arson to Kristallnacht, he said: "This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe." [102] Rabbi Menachem Froman, a well-known peace activist, visited the mosque and replaced the burnt Koran with new copies. [103] The rabbi stated: "This visit is to say that although there are people who oppose peace, he who opposes peace is opposed to God" and "Jewish law also prohibits damaging a holy place." He also remarked that arson in a mosque is an attempt to sow hatred between Jews and Arabs. [102] [104]

Some critics of religion such as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer argue that all monotheistic religions are inherently violent. For example, Nelson-Pallmeyer writes that "Judaism, Christianity and Islam will continue to contribute to the destruction of the world until and unless each challenges violence in 'sacred texts' and until each affirms nonviolent, including the nonviolent power of God." [105]

Bruce Feiler writes of ancient history that "Jews and Christians who smugly console themselves that Islam is the only violent religion are willfully ignoring their past. Nowhere is the struggle between faith and violence described more vividly, and with more stomach-turning details of ruthlessness, than in the Hebrew Bible". [106] Similarly, Burggraeve and Vervenne describe the Old Testament as full of violence and evidence of both a violent society and a violent god. They write that, "[i]n numerous Old Testament texts the power and glory of Israel's God is described in the language of violence." They assert that more than one thousand passages refer to YHWH as acting violently or supporting the violence of humans and that more than one hundred passages involve divine commands to kill humans. [107]

Supersessionist Christian churches and theologians argue that Judaism is a violent religion and the god of Israel is a violent god, while Christianity is a religion of peace and that the god of Christianity is one that expresses only love. [108] While this view has been common throughout the history of Christianity and remains a common assumption among Christians, it has been rejected by mainstream Christian theologians and denominations since the Holocaust. [109] : 1–5

  1. ^ ab Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition. Michael J. Broyde, 1998, p. 1
  2. ^ ab *Reuven Firestone (2004), "Judaism on Violence and Reconciliation: An examination of key sources" in Beyond violence: religious sources of social transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Fordham Univ Press, 2004, pp. 77, 81.
    • Goldsmith (Ed.), Emanuel S. (1991). Dynamic Judaism: the essential writings of Mordecai M. Kaplan. Fordham Univ Press. p. 181. ISBN0823213102 . CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
    • Spero, Shubert (1983). Morality, halakha, and the Jewish tradition. KTAV Publishing House, Inc. pp. 137–318. ISBN0870687271 .
  3. ^ Carl. S. Ehrlich (1999) "Joshua, Judaism, and Genocide", in Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Judit Targarona Borrás, Ángel Sáenz-Badillos (Eds). 1999, Brill.
  4. ^ abcd
  5. Horowitz, Elliott S. (2006). Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence. Princeton University Press. ISBN0691124914 .
  6. ^ ab
  7. Stern, Jessica (2004). Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, Jessica Stern. HarperCollins. ISBN0-06-050533-8 .
  8. ^ ab The Columbus Platform: The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism, 1937
  9. ^
  10. "The Co-existence of Violence and Non-Violence in Judaism" . Retrieved 2010-12-09 .
  11. ^
  12. Burns, J. Patout (1996). War and its discontents: pacifism and quietism in the Abrahamic traditions. Georgetown University Press. p. 18.
  13. ^ abHalacha File: The Halacha of Rodef and the Rabin Shooting. (2004-11-20). Retrieved on 2010-10-27.
  14. ^ Sandra L. Bloom, Michael Reichert, Bearing witness: violence and collective responsibility. Routledge, 1998. 978-0789004789
  15. ^Lemche, Niels Peter, The Old Testament between theology and history: a critical survey, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 315–316:"The [Biblical] story of the 'morally supreme people' that defeats and exterminates another, inferior, nation was part of the ideological baggage of European imperialists and colonizers throughout the nineteenth century. It was also carried by European Jews who. migrated to Palestine to inherit their ancestral country … In this modern version of the biblical narrative, the Palestinian population turned into 'Canaanites', supposed to be morally inferior to the Jews, and of course the Arabs were never considered their equals … The Bible was the instrument used to suppress the enemy".
  16. ^Greenberg, Moshe, "On the Political User of the Bible in Modern Israel: An Engaged Critique", in Pomegranates and golden bells: studies in biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern ritual, law, and literature, Eisenbrauns, 1995, pp. 467–469:

No "national" commandment such as that of "conquest and settling the land" occurs in any of these [Judaic] summaries [of the Torah]… [arguments for applying herem to modern Israel] introduces a distinction that Scripture does not recognize nowhere are the obligations referred to in the summaries contingent on the achievement of the land-taking or the destruction of Israel's enemies. To suppose that they may be set aside or suspended for the accomplishment of national ends is a leap far beyond scripture. The [biblical] injunctions to take the land are embedded in narrative and give the appearance of being addressed to a specific generation, like the commandment to annihilate or expel the natives of Canaan, which refers specifically to the seven Canaanite nations. Now, had there been any inclination to generalize the law [of extermination], it would have been easy for the talmudic sages to [do so]. But in fact the sages left the ancient herem law as they found it: applying to seven extinct nations.

Sin has changed [since biblical times] crime has changed. We bring a different sensibility to our reading of the sacred texts of the past, even the Torah. There are passages in it which to our modern minds command crimes, the kind of crimes which our age would call "crimes against humanity". I think of the problematic section in the Mattot [Numbers 31] which contains the commandment to exact revenge against the Midianites by slaying every male and every female old enough to engage in sexual intercourse. I used to think that were they [Midianites] suddenly to appear, no Jew would be willing to carry out such a commandment. Then Baruch Goldstein appeared on the scene, and he was followed by Yigal Amir and now I am not sure. I find the commandment to commit genocide against the Midianite unacceptable. To accept the commandment to do the same to "the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Peruzzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites" seems to me to make permissible the Holocaust, the attempted genocide of the Jewish people.

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