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Chapter 24. Prometheus: The Greek Trickster. Prometheus. This Greek figure is perhaps the best-known example of a trickster as a builder of culture.

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Chapter 24

Chapter 24


The Greek Trickster


  • This Greek figure is perhaps the best-known example of a trickster as a builder of culture.

  • He stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings. Fire is necessary for the working of metal and thus underlies all technology. It also represents the basis of ancient as well as modern industry.

  • He is a god, but he takes the side of humans.

The trickster
The Trickster

  • A “liminal” creature; that is, he is on the threshold (Latin limen, liminis) between two worlds.

  • He is a part of society, but functions at its outer limits.

  • He lives between nature and culture and, because of his dual identity, is able to unmask or disorder the world of those with a more solid stake in the established norms of society.

  • He makes a contract with a dupe, and then breaks it. In the case of Prometheus, this is problematic because his dupe is the head of the gods.

Main sources for prometheus
Main Sources for Prometheus

  • Hesiod, a Greek poet, lived in about 700 B.C.E. and composed two poems,the Theogony and the Works and Days. The “Creation” section of Works and Days contains the story of Prometheus’ theft of fire. The excerpt in this chapter comes from Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem describing the nature and generations of the gods, and it is in this context that the poet tells the story of Prometheus.

  • Aeschylus was a Greek playwright who wrote Prometheus Bound in about 456 B.C.E. The play is a tragedy that details the sufferings of Prometheus for his rebellion against Zeus and foreshadows his eventual release at the hands of Heracles, Zeus’ son.

The order of prometheus adventures
The Order of Prometheus’ Adventures

1. Mekone: Prometheus cheats Zeus of the better sacrifice. Described in detail by Hesiod in the Theogony (Ch. 24).

2. Zeus withholds fire from humans. Mentioned by Hesiod in both the Theogony and the Works and Days (Ch. 3).

3. Prometheus steals fire for humans. Mentioned by Hesiod in both the Theogony and the Works and Days (Ch. 3).

4. Zeus punishes him by inflicting Pandora, the first woman, on humans. Described in detail by Hesiod in the Works and Days (Ch. 3).

5. Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock. Mentioned by Hesiod in both the Theogony and the Works and Days (Ch. 24).

6. Zeus allows his son Heracles to free Prometheus, to increase his son’s fame. This is mentioned in the first part of the story that Hesiod describes, in the Theogony (Ch. 24).

Mekone the test
Mekone – The Test

... gods and mortal men divided up (p. 355, line 20)

An ox; Prometheus audaciously

Set out the portions, trying to deceive

The mind of Zeus. Before the rest, he put

Pieces of meat and marbled inner parts

And fat upon the hide, and hid them in

The stomach of the ox; but before Zeus

The white bones of the ox, arranged with skill,

Hidden in shining fat.

Hesiod, Theogony

Mekone zeus role as a dupe is rationalized
Mekone – Zeus’ Role as a Dupe Is Rationalized

Zeus is presented as all-knowing: (p. 356, line 35)

[Prometheus] said, “Most glorious Zeus, greatest of all

The gods who live forever, choose your share,

Whichever one your heart leads you to pick”

He spoke deceitfully, but Zeus who knows

Undying plans, was not deceived, but saw

The trick, and in his heart made plans

To punish mortal men in future days.

He took the fatted portion in his hands…

Hesiod, Theogony

Mekone the results for prometheus
Mekone – The Results for Prometheus

Once again, Zeus is presented as all-knowing

Lovely Alcmene’s son, strong Heracles, (p. 355, line 8)

Killing the eagle, freed Prometheus

From his affliction and his misery,

And Zeus, Olympian, who rules on high,

Approved, so that the fame of Heracles

The Theban might be greater than before

Upon the fruitful earth; he showed respect,

And gave the honour to his famous son.

Hesiod, Theogony

Aeschylus prometheus the trickster as fully developed culture hero
Aeschylus’ Prometheus: The Trickster as Fully Developed Culture Hero

  • Aeschylus’ purpose in describing Prometheus is different from that of Hesiod. He is showing the nobility of Prometheus, his main character, at the expense of Zeus. Thus, he paints a picture of Zeus as a young god, a tyrant who had no special right to hold sovereignty over the other gods.

  • Prometheus was seen not just as a trickster stealing food because he was subject to his appetites. Rather, he was considered a full-fledged savior of humankind, the source of every advance, from agriculture to literature. In celebrating his gifts, human beings were expressing pride in the technology they had developed and the civilization they had built by using it.

Background the chorus
Background: The Chorus Culture Hero

  • Fifteen characters, with a leader.

  • Performed two very different roles:

    • Sang odes.

    • Functioned as a character through the leader.

  • Had a special relationship with the main character.

  • Provided scenery and background information through its odes.

  • Reacted to the events of the play, rarely acting.

Dramatic situation
Dramatic Situation Culture Hero

  • The excerpt on the next slide occurs near the opening of the play.

  • Prometheus has been brought out and fastened to a rock.

  • The chorus, who are daughters of Ocean, see him there and, filled with pity, ask the cause of his punishment.

  • In response, he describes the history of his assistance to human beings.

Can you see how fire is related to these accomplishments
Can You See How Fire Is Related to These Accomplishments? Culture Hero

... with no skill

In carpentry or brickmaking, like ants

Burrowing in holes, unpractised in the signs

Of blossom, fruit, and frost, from hand to mouth

Struggling improvidently, until I

Charted the intricate orbits of the stars;

Invented number, that most exquisite

Instrument; formed the alphabet, the tool

Of history and chronicle of their progress;

Tamed the wild beasts to toil in pack and harness,

And yoked the prancing mounts of opulence,

Obedient to the rein, in chariots;

Constructed wheelless vehicles with linen

Wings to carry them over the trackless waters;

(p. 358, line 36 ff.)

Click Here for Answer:

Activities like carpentry and brickmaking, agriculture and navigation rely on tools best made of metal. Writing and counting are done with a metal stylus. These metal implements are made through the use of fire. Mining relies on fire to separate the metal from other elements of the rock it is lodged in.

How about these
How About These? Culture Hero

... I

Compounded for them gentle medicines

To arm them in the war against disease.

And I set in order the forms of prophecy,

Interpreting the significance of dreams,

Voices, wayside meetings; ...

Taught them to inspect the entrails, of what hue

And texture they must be for heaven’s favor,

So leading them in to the difficult art

Of divination by burnt sacrifice.

And last, who else can boast to have unlocked

The earth’s rich subterranean treasure-houses

Of iron, copper, bronze, silver, and gold?

(p. 358, line 61 ff.)

Click Here for Answer:

Medicines are made by cooking and distilling herbs and other natural substances. Dream interpretation relies on writing, as explained previously. Divination is done with metal instruments made through the use of fire.