On stealing from the gods

Creation of Man by Prometheus – Wikimedia Commons (Livioandronico2013)

In our ancient literatures, we frequently encounter stories about how mortals obtained something that was withheld from them or forbidden to them by the gods, or brief allusions to such stories.  What is stolen may be something significant as concerns wisdom, forbidden knowledge, and access to divinity itself.  Divine trickery may be involved.  And the theft may be followed by divine anger and punishment.  This article will briefly review and compare three such myths, that of the eating from the ‘tree of knowledge’ in the Garden of Eden, the Greek myth of the theft of fire on behalf of humanity, and a similar Vedic myth about the stealing of fire.

In the Book of Genesis, we read about the creation as follows –

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul … And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.  But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die … And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”

[Genesis Chapter 2 Verses 7, 16-17, 22; KJV; my emphases]

In these passages, we see a setup with three key elements.  There is creation of a man from dust, creation of a woman, and a prohibition combined with a threat.  Now the story continues –

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made … And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:  For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil … And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”

[Genesis Chapter 3 Verses 1, 4-5; KJV; my emphases]

Here another persona appears on the scene, whose intelligence is recognized in terms of ‘craftiness’, yet who is vilified as the ‘serpent’.  This otherwise unknown individual disparages the divine threat and facilitates the mortals to take what was forbidden and in some sense to empower themselves thereby.  When God discovers what has happened, he punishes the troublesome trio in different ways, but then honestly acknowledges that he has indeed been outdone by these malcontents, and, specifically, that at least the man has achieved some element of knowledge that makes him ‘as one of us’, that is, like the gods.

“And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life … And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil …”

[Genesis Chapter 3 Verses 14, 22; KJV; my emphases]

We can already see some clear parallels between this myth and the myth of Prometheus, who is an intermediary between the gods and humans, in a somewhat similar way to the snake.  In that story, Prometheus is ‘clever’ and ‘cunning’ enough to play a trick on Zeus.  This trick angers Zeus, who then withholds something precious from mortals, here, fire, which is then stolen for mortals by Prometheus, resulting in benefit for humans and terrible punishment for Prometheus.

“So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian race of mortal men who live on the earth.  But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk.”

[Hesiod, Theogony, lines 561-565; translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White; my emphases]

Here again we see many of the same themes as in the Genesis story.  Just like in the Genesis story, Prometheus is able to trick, outmanoeuvre and disobey Zeus.  Zeus is likewise angered and Prometheus is likewise punished.  Meanwhile, humans are able to benefit marvellously.  Indeed, the control and us of fire was one of the first and most important technologies developed by humans.  As such, even though it is not spelled out in this telling of the myth, we can easily understand that it would seem to be a quasi-divine achievement by humanity.

Although the clearest and most renowned narration of stealing fire for humans is this Greek myth of Prometheus, something similar is also indicated in other traditions.  In the Rig Veda, we hear about how Mātariśvan stole fire from the gods and brought it to humans, although the details are a little obscure and the passages are somewhat tricky to translate.

“Agni, hidden thus, as if he had run away on his own— him did Mātariśvan lead here from the far distance, stolen from among the gods.  You are he whom mortals seized, o you who convey oblations to the gods, since you, son of Manu, guard all sacrifices according to your resolve, youngest one.”

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 3 Sūkta 9 verses 5-6 by Ṛṣi Viśvāmitra Gāthina; translation of Prof. Jamison & Prof. Brereton]

Here, the connection with ritual provision of the gods share of the sacrifice through fire, a pan-Indo-European practice, has also been made, in a way that somehow loosely parallels of the similar story of the sharing of victuals with the gods that precedes the stealing of the fire by Prometheus, and that involved the trickery of Prometheus that so angered Zeus to begin with.  Specifically, Prometheus invites Zeus to choose between two portions of the great ox, one which appears inedible but in fact is the prime cut, and the second which appears meaty but is in fact all bones.

“Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat.”

[Hesiod, Theogony, lines 539-541; translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White]

Zeus seemingly allows himself to be fooled (perhaps in a similar way to the God of Genesis, who perhaps knows in advance how things will play out), and according to the passage below, this explains why mortals offer mere bones to the gods in ritual sacrifices from then on, rather than the prime cut of the animal which is being shared out between gods and men.  All the same, Zeus still becomes angry, leading to the withholding of fire described above.

“But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars.”

[Hesiod, Theogony, lines 552-556; translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White; my emphasis]

Interestingly, according to other Greek sources, Prometheus actually created humanity (or at least man) from clay, and stole fire precisely in order to give life to this clay creation, in a way that seems to roughly cohere with the Genesis account set out above, where we read about creation of Adam from dust and giving life to that creation by breathing into his nostrils.  Further, in the Prometheus myth, woman is created as by Zeus as a curse for man, in an account which equals the Genesis account in its rather misogynistic nature, even if the exact details of how the first woman is implicated in the curse on man do differ.

“And he bade famous Hephaestus make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face … And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argus, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature.”

[Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 61-70; translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White]

A slightly different aspect of the Vedic plot narrative quoted above is the suggestion that fire ran away and hid on its own,  According to other passages, and as further elaborated in later texts, fire was hiding in water, and it may have been one of the gods who discovered him there –

[Gods:] Great was that caul and sturdy it was, enveloped in which you entered the waters.
All your bodies in their multiple forms, o Agni Jātavedas, did a single god see.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 10 Sūkta 51 verse 1 by Ṛṣi Agni Saucīka; translation of Prof. Jamison & Prof. Brereton]

Interpreting this Vedic myth, Dr. Danielle Feller explains –

“This myth of Agni’s disappearance, or of his hiding, has mostly been explained as a reminiscence of the dawn of humanity, when the fire was not yet a secure possession and mankind had to make its difficult acquisition, the even more difficult apprenticeship of its preservation, and subsequently of its production … the myth of Agni’s hiding reflects first and foremost the fire’s unreliability, instability, impermanence …”

[The Sanskrit Epics’ Representation of Vedic Myths, p.50]

The Vedic myth of the stealing of soma, which I will describe in a future article, is also somewhat analogous to this one.

Trickery, disobedience, anger, punishment, misogyny, and mortals becoming like the gods are key themes running through the Greek and Book of Genesis narrations.  The Rig Veda account is briefer and more obscure.  These tales were all profoundly important within the original cultural context, and have also had immense influence on subsequent culture, albeit in different ways.  The Greek figure of Prometheus has been rather more lionized than the rather mysterious ‘serpent’ figure of the Book of Genesis.  Indeed, this Greek myth has inspired the works of many modern artists, writers and musicians.  For Ludwig van Beethoven, in his ballet ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’, the myth becomes a metaphor for the European Enlightenment, whereby the bringing of fire to humankind is now transformed into the bringing of the arts and sciences of the Enlightenment tradition by gods and muses.

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