Pity the mortals, for they are cold.
Of all the powerful beings populating Greek myth, Prometheus always seemed the most generous towards our kind. According to some sources he moulded the first men from clay. According to most sources he stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. Crafty, haughty, but indomitable in his creative pursuit, Prometheus is perhaps more of a human ideal than we wish to admit.
(Mary Shelly does admit it in the title of her book Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus.)
For his crimes, Prometheus, the titan, was strung up naked on a cliff in the Caucasus and sentenced to an eternity of having his (regenerating) liver torn daily by an eagle. Frostbite and cold, and continuous pain was the price he paid for our warmth and grace.
According to the legends.
Kafka’s text of 147 words offers three alternatives. (Here is the original in German.)
There are four legends concerning Prometheus:
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 deepening 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 remained 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.
(Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir; found in Vintage Kafka.)
The text contrasts the various resolutions of the legend, specifically:
- No resolution
- Resolution in annihilation
- Resolution in oblivion
- Resolution in ennui
In traditional myth, Prometheus is eventually freed by Heracles with the blessing of Zeus. (To nominally honour the original punishment Prometheus agrees to wear a ring, set with a pebble from the cliff he was bound to—the first ring with a set stone!) Unlike that “happy ending”, all four resolutions above are typically Kafkaesque.
These may not be dénouements writers generally want to explore in their fiction, but the message is relevant: what do years of torture do to a (fictional, let’s stick to fictional) character? In fact, is there a meaningful ending to a cruel punishment? Heracles swaggers in to unlock your chains, Heracles swaggers out carrying away those chains. You’re still you. What next?
(I can’t answer that; if you’re writing a story along those lines, it’s your story.)
Prometheus was fundamentally good, if misguided or misaligned from the perspective of the gods. As such, he was chained to a cliff above ground; he saw the sun and felt the wind. He was not condemned to live out eternity somewhere dark and dank, like Tartarus, the deep chasm beneath Hades, where the genuinely evil reside.
The gods are partial to cyclical punishments with no resolution. So if you are looking for a character that is in dire need of a redemption story, start in Tartarus. Here are the most famous contenders:
- Sisyphus, the craftiest man who ever lived, punished for being craftier than the gods. He rolls a boulder up a hill but before he reaches the top the boulder rolls back down—every time. Hence Sisyphean tasks. (Sisyphus may be the father of the cunning Odysseus, who outwitted the Sirens in Kafka’s story discussed last time.)
- Tantalus, punished for stealing ambrosia and nectar from the gods and for serving his chopped up son for the gods to eat. Forever hungry and thirsty, he hangs from the bough of a tree surrounded by fruit he can never eat and lapped by a lake whose water he can never taste. Hence tantalising treats.
- Danaids, fifty daughters of Danaus, punished for slaughtering their husbands. In Tartarus, they perpetually fill up a leaking bathtub.
- Ixion, evildoer, punished for killing his mother, his father-in-law, for violating laws of hospitality and lusting after Hera. In Tartarus, he is bound to a wheel of fire that is always spinning.
- Tityos, titan, punished for trying to rape Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. His liver is ripped at by two vultures. (Similar to Prometheus.)
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only when Orpheus plays his lyre while visiting the Underworld, do the denizens of Tartarus pause their strained existence. That’s Ovid’s moment of reprieve for the worst offenders, but perhaps you can do better. Perhaps the condemned deserve an alternative ending.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque, specifically a sub-series on Kafka (all stories taken from Vintage Kafka).
- Kafka’s Harrow: On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in In the Penal Colony (1919).
- Kafka’s Hunger Artist: On Hunger Artist (1922) and the performance art of fasting.
- Kafka’s Invisibles: On invisibility in The Bucket Rider, Investigations of a Dog, Rejection, The Bridge.
- Shape-Shifters: On shape-shifting creatures and the Report to an Academy (1917).
- Cross-Breeds: On hybrid creatures, and in particular on the half-kitten, half-lamb in Crossbreed.
- Beautiful Frankensteins: On traits that make up original creatures, and in particular Odradek from The Cares of a Family Man.
- Inspired by Myth: Reinterpretation: On fresh retellings of myths, specifically The Silence of the Sirens.
- Inspired by Myth: Alternative Endings: