Abraham and Prometheus
Mythic Counterculture Rebels
The Mythic Countercultures
A new mythology is possible in the Space Age, where we will again have heroes . . . as regards intention towards this Planet.
William S. Burroughs, 1978
To hell with facts! We need stories!
Ken Kesey, 1987
Myth is as important to counterculturalists as historical fact, and perhaps more poignant. Avant-garde by nature, most countercultures engage the imaginal and the ideal, as well as the real. In his book Untimely Meditation: On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Human Life (1874), nineteenth-century Promethean philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche even suggested that we should eschew history in favor of myth. For Nietzsche, myth created feelings of spiritual community. History deadened such feelings.
With a few exceptions (possibly including our current historical moment), countercultures have been inspired, optimistic, one might say mythical historical episodes. Whenever people courageously and passionately engage in rule-challenging behaviors that attempt to liberate humans from oppressive limitations (or limitations perceived as being oppressive), excitement, conflict, and scandal—and therefore engaging stories—are sure to follow. And while modernist and postmodern novelists have shown us that stories can be constructed out of the most ordinary lives—indeed out of banality itself—myths emerge from heroism, whether victorious or defeated, whether lived or imagined. Sometimes by design, often by accident, countercultures—even such renunciate, contemplationist countercultures as the Taoists, Zen Buddhists, and Transcendentalists (as we shall later see)—produce legendary heroes who sometimes rise to the level of myth.
In Prometheus and Abraham, we have two of the West’s most resonantly countercultural myths. Prometheus is pure story—part of the pantheon of Greek gods—while the narrative of the Tribe of Abraham probably has at least some basis in historical fact.
Although I briefly discuss the possible historic Abraham, I am primarily viewing these apocryphal tales as myths, fulfilling their function as two different rebel archetypes whose styles and trials we still find manifested in countercultures today.
Prometheus: The Hacker God
Prometheus stole fire from the gods on behalf of mankind. That’s all some youthful hacker outlaws today need know to inspire them to adapt Prometheus as their icon, and to adapt the Greek deity’s name for their online monikers.
The actual Greek myth is a bit more complex. In a reductionist nutshell: Prometheus is a Greek god of Olympus, ruled by Zeus. He initiates animal sacrifices. One day during a sacrifice he sasses Zeus. He cuts up a bull and divides it into two parts: one containing the flesh and intestines wrapped up in the skin; and the other consisting of only bones and fat. Prometheus asks Zeus to choose his share; the rest is to be given to man. Zeus picks the bones and fat, making him bitter against Prometheus and against humankind. Zeus punishes the mortals by withholding from them the gift of fire. Prometheus steals it back. Then Prometheus—who is known to have the gift of foresight—further sasses the great god Zeus by predicting that one of Zeus’ children would one day dethrone him, but refusing to say which one. The enraged Zeus punishes Prometheus by binding him in steel chains to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. There, every day for eternity, an eagle is sent to tear and eat Prometheus’ liver. Every night, the god Prometheus’ immortal liver renews itself so that he can be tortured again in the next day’s light.
This was no mere story to the ancient Greeks. As Carl Kerényi writes in Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence, “This was sacred material. . . . Myth as it exists in its . . . primitive form, is not merely a story but a reality lived.” Further, the Greeks did not separate the gods from the humans to the extent that contemporary monotheists separate themselves from their singular deities. As Hesiod wrote, “The gods and mortal men sprang from one source.”
Likewise, our understanding of the Prometheus myth springs almost entirely from a single source, the work of the epic storyteller Aeschylus. (Hesiod has had less influence.) While Aeschylus is believed to have written at least four epics about Prometheus, the one that survives intact is Prometheus Bound. Prometheus Bound tells the story of Prometheus’ great suffering, and his arrogant and insubordinate self-assurance in the face of his tortures, but it does not give us his liberation. That was left to Percy Shelley, who wrote Prometheus Unbound in the 1810s.
Our young hacker friends have not deceived themselves in seeing Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods as a metaphor for technology. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Prometheus makes this abundantly clear, saying that he brought humanity architecture—“They knew not how to build brick houses to face the sun, nor work in wood. They lived beneath the earth like swarming ants in sunless caves.” And he brought humanity calendars—“They had no certain mark of winter nor of flowery spring nor summer, with its crops, but did all this without intelligence until it was I that showed them—yes, it was I.” And he gave them mathematics and writing—“And numbering as well, preeminent of subtle devices, and letter combinations that hold all in memory.” And he gave them transportation—“I harnessed to the carriage horses obedient to the rein . . . and carriages that wander on the sea, the ships sail winged, who else but I invented.” And most importantly, he gave them medicine—“Greatest was this: when one of mankind was sick, there was no defense for him—neither healing food nor drink nor unguent; for lack of drugs they wasted, until I showed them blendings of mild simples with which they drive away all kinds of sickness.”
While Aeschylus’ Prometheus is ever the boastful technological and scientific genius, this type was not smiled upon and richly rewarded by the ancient Greeks as it is today. And while Prometheus has been seen as an inspiration to some counterculturalists and artists since the Romantics lionized him in the nineteenth century, for the Greeks this was a cautionary tale. Hubris, or pride, was their greatest sin, and Prometheus was their greatest sinner. As with many followers of Christianity later on, scientific hubris was seen as the overstepping of boundaries that disturbed the divine order. In fact, the Greeks did not fully develop their technical sciences because of their fear of hubris. As R. J. Zwi Werblowski wrote in Lucifer and Prometheus, “for Aeschylos . . . Prometheus is in trespass . . . sinner he is, and not merely the hero of a righteous war of liberation against cruel tyrants, as a certain school would have it.” But in the following line, Werblowski reveals just cause for rejecting the Greeks’ own view of their mythology and adopting the Promethean stance when he writes, “Since Zeus’ order is that of a static cosmos, every human aspiration and effort is a revolt.”
The Greeks’ greatest sinner started getting some modern love when the Romantics embraced him at the start of the nineteenth century. Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound got the ball rolling. Shelley completed the missing parts of Aeschylus’ tale, liberating the Greek god from his eternal suffering and setting him up as a hero for the post-Enlightenment era. As Theodore Roszak writes, “Prometheus Unbound is a song of the heights, a dizzy rhapsody offered to flight and the transcendence of all limits.” Indeed, where the Greeks saw hubris, Shelley saw “the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.” If Prometheus is the champion of humankind against the cruel Greek god Zeus, Shelley uses the myth to unite mortals with God, defining man in Prometheus Unbound as “one harmonious soul of many a soul, whose nature is its own divine control.”
Soon Shelley’s friend, the revolutionary rascal Lord Byron, offered his own tribute to the Greek techno-god, offering the lines “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,/To render with thy precepts less/The Sum of human wretchedness/And strengthen Man with his own mind.” Deeper into the nineteenth century, Nietzsche, Keats, and most of all Goethe joined the Promethean ranks. Through the voice of Prometheus, Goethe expresses the Romantics’ exhaltation in human experience, their joie de vivre, their lust for life . . . and their revolution against authoritarian gods: “Look down, O Zeus, Upon my world, It lives. I have shaped it in my image,/A race like unto me,/to suffer, to weep,/to enjoy and be glad,/and like myself to have no regard of you.”
Prometheus and Lucifer
Though we are now some four centuries into the Enlightenment, Goethe’s use of the Promethean voice to scorn God’s authority remains a minority taste. The Promethean view has remained controversial, if not downright unpopular. The archetype that most closely resembles Prometheus in Judeo-Christian mythology is the figure of Lucifer (the angel of light), a.k.a. Satan, and despite the best efforts of Anton LaVey and Marilyn Manson, the Luciferian view is not about to win any elections.
Note the underground, underworld overtones of the Prometheus myth. He suffers his agonies by sunlight. The night heals him. And he is possessed by what Edgar Allan Poe called “the imp of the perverse,” the prankster spirit. When he first plays tricks on Zeus, leaving him with the meatless animal gristle, the scene appears without provocation. As Kerényi says, “he is a cheat and a thief. . . . By undertaking to deceive Zeus’ mind, Prometheus shows himself to be . . . wanting.” He further asserts that Prometheus displays “a certain crookedness of mind, ranging from deceitfulness to inventiveness.” Human ambivalence about our own clever aspirations and efforts has created an indelible ideational link between inventiveness and criminality. Nietzsche was moved to embrace the criminality of creativity. In The Birth of Tragedy he asserted, “The best and brightest that man can acquire they must obtain by crime.” He goes on to quote Shelley’s Prometheus in support. As a champion of man, the Greek god might be seen as representing their version of original sin. Kerényi says, “Prometheus shows himself to be man’s double, an eternal image of man’s basically imperfect form of being.”
Werblowski, in his book Lucifer and Prometheus, finds correspondences between the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Promethean myth, and the notion of “the cosmogonic jester of primitive peoples.” For some cultures, the jester is an acceptable part of the cosmic whole, but in both the Greek pantheon and the Judeo-Christian cosmology he is relegated to the shadows.
For Werblowski, both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan appear as rebels against a similar sort of cosmic authority: Prometheus disturbs “the order of Zeus . . . perfect, regulated and static.” Milton’s Satan, meanwhile, is “a rebel against a rather passive God’s immutable decrees, [and he] becomes the symbol of the power-carrier who strains every muscle, nerve and fiber against a supreme and unrelenting, and ipso facto cold and hostile fate.”
Furthermore, Milton—who despite his rather sympathetic and romantic portrayal of Satan affirmed his Christian faith by also condemning him directly and repeatedly—echoed the Greeks in giving creativity, commerce, and technology to the Prince of Darkness. Werblowski: “the fact that [in Paradise Lost] Satan’s followers build, dig for gold, make music and philosophize, means that man’s total culture is condemned.”
Regarding one of Milton’s episodes involving warfare between the forces of God and Satan, Werblowski further observes, “The real point of the incident lies in the equation of goodness with nature on the one hand, and of the satanic power-craving and explosive hubris of technique and machinery on the other.”
And you thought idle hands were the Devil’s workshop. The Anti-Prometheans Versus the New Prometheans
Given the Luciferian echoes of Prometheus, it shouldn’t surprise us that conservative theologians abhor the romanticization of this myth. But would you expect enlightened mainstream scholars like Roger Shattuck and counterculturalists like Ted Roszak to also sound the cry of “get thee behind me, Prometheus!”? If a strong anti-Promethean current among sophisticated thinkers surprises you, you must be momentarily forget- ting some of those other gifts of scientific discovery and technological invention—the split atom and the hydrogen bomb, global warming, bioweaponry, and corporate technocracy.
Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography presents a 342-page argument, one might even call it a screed, in favor of limiting human knowledge and invention. Shattuck finds some literature answerable for man’s hubristic follies, including Shelley’s Prometheus, Goethe’s Faust, Dante’s Ulysses, Byron’s Don Juan, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and even the good Christian Milton’s glamorized Satan in Paradise Lost. Shattuck expresses a longing for a different sort of hero. “Since we seem to be so fascinated by human creatures who aspire to exceed their lot and to attain godhead, how shall we ever reconcile ourselves to a countervailing tradition of heroism in humility and quietism, in finding and in accepting our lot? The line that connects Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.”
As you can see, Shattuck throws up an impressive list of alternative thinkers—one might even call it a list of counterculturalists—in opposition to the Promethean impulse. We can’t avoid a startling conclusion: there are anti-Promethean and pro-Promethean countercultures. In fact, the division over the Promethean impulse can be used to characterize the main opposition between the major countercultural tendencies of today.
The anti-Promethean counterculturalists include a whole host of familiar types, including: back-to-the-land hippies, introspective followers of Eastern and Eastern-influenced New Age religions, certain types of feminists, certain types of anarchists, and certain types of environmentalists. We could even make the case that the anti-Promethean countercultures share traits with Abraham’s counterculture, discussed later in this chapter. They tend to be anti-urban, primitivistic, tribal, and moralistic. At the extreme of this tendency we find the newly influential (at least within the underground) anti-civilization anarchist theorist John Zerzan, who provides ideological inspiration for Seattle’s “black-clad anarchists” who famously rioted at the World Trade Organization conference in their town in 1999, inspiring many imitators around the globe in succeeding years.
A somewhat more moderate representative of the anti-Promethean counterculture is Theodore Roszak, the author whose book The Making of a Counter Culture put that word into popular circulation in 1969. Roszak—part of a cabal of countercultural critics of technoculture that also includes Jerry Mander, author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death—looks to Mary Shelley’s 1804 book, Frankenstein: The New Prometheus, for an unambiguously oppositional take on the Promethean legend.
Ironically, Ms. Shelley was married to Percy Shelley, the man who first portrayed Prometheus as a romantic figure. Mary slyly took her husband’s obsession with the glory and power of technology and the Promethean spirit and subverted it. She created the persona of Dr. Frankenstein, a mad scientist whose attempt to engineer new human life (think today of biotech, cloning, artificial life, robotics) backfires, creating a monster that brings death and destruction to Dr. Frankenstein’s village, and to the doctor himself. Like Roger Shattuck, Roszak believes that the Greeks were correct in fearing the hubristic pursuit of human knowledge and technological development. But Roszak goes even further, seeing the modern world’s obsession with scientific and technological advance as a product of a macho, masculine culture. He contends that “Mary [Shelley] was aware of how easily the line can be crossed between Promethean yearnings and macho posturing.” Indeed, Prometheus is a severely masculine God. Sounding not a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Aeschylus’ Prometheus portrays softness and surrender as womanly characteristics to which he will not succumb, saying, “Deem not that I, to win a smile from Jove,/Will spread a maiden smoothness o’er my soul/And importune the foe whom most I hate/With womanish upliftings of the hand.”
While Prometheus’ strutting machismo may embarrass some of us today, that’s not enough to stop a new culture of wired-up technophiles (women included) from identifying with the Promethean spirit. The New Promethean counterculture is a peculiar conglomeration of: computer hackers and other technological experimenters, upbeat neo-hippie electronic music ravers, digital business mavens, and corporate technocrats who still believe in the power of technology to democratize communications and change the world (while making them extremely rich), political libertarians, and visionary artists using new technology to help us see in different ways. At the extreme of this tendency we find the Extropians, who believe in using technology to give us godlike powers, a notion called transhumanism or posthumanism. Extropians believe that we are on the verge of becoming an immortal, post-biological, spacefaring new species. More popular and diffused are the Promethean countercultural communities that have come together online to steal the fire of music from the gods of the music industry (e.g., Napster and its replacements), and the open source fanatics who believe that all digital code should be shared and used freely. Counterculturalist Robert Anton Wilson spoke for the upcoming wired-up technophile culture back in 1983 when he wrote, “This is not a civilization in collapse but a Prometheus rising!”
Counterculture Is Promethean in Essence
The technological enthusiasts who make up cyberculture, and the political libertarians, are the ones who specifically fly the Promethean flag. But in a broader sense, the Promethean spirit is the essential countercultural spirit, as defined by this book. As explained in the next chapter, we see countercultures as fostering individual freethinking and knowledge, and an aesthetic of constant change. A careful examination of the anti-Promethean countercultures discussed earlier would not only uncover some of these Promethean qualities within them, but would reveal them as Promethean at the core despite their anti-technological bias.
For instance, most of these countercultures show a strongly humanistic character. Prometheus, who deemed humanity worthy of endless gifts and powers as well as a previously unthinkable degree of independence from the gods, is an ancient embodiment of what today has come to be called humanism. And Prometheus’ humanism, although to some eyes reckless and libertine, is humanism nonetheless.
But counterculture—including its putatively anti-Promethean forms—is essentially Promethean in an even more important and fundamental way: all countercultures, apparently anti-Promethean or otherwise, are archetypally Promethean in terms of their relationship with authority. This applies to authority in general as well as to the authorities or gods of a specific counterculture’s time and place. As Prometheus went against Zeus and the gods of Greece, so today’s anti-technological countercultures refuse to blindly worship technology, itself one of the great prevailing gods of our era.
Anti-tech, back-to-the land countercultures often advocate the transfer of agriculture and other fundamentals of survival, like sources of energy and water supply, to the individual domicile or small self-sustaining community. In doing so, they reclaim the capacity for autonomous survival by providing for themselves basic necessities that today are almost universally purchased from a vast agro-industrial establishment. In doing so, they withhold power over individual and community life from that establishment and refuse to feed its authoritarian and economic agendas. Thus, even the low-tech solar power sources and collectivist organic gardens of rural, countercultural, supposedly anti-Promethean alternative communities represent, in their own way, a boldly Promethean gesture.
Finally, as long as the philosophic expansiveness of the Enlightenment project continues to be reduced to a mere obligation to endlessly increase production and consumption without regard for quality of experience or environmental distress, the “anti-technological” counterculture will remain an important countervailing force.
Abraham and the First Dropouts
God said to Abraham, go for yourself from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.
God said to Abraham kill me a son/ . . . man, you must be putting me on.
While a countercultural rebel iconoclast myth of Abraham comes down to us from the Midrash tales of the second century, Abraham’s identity as history’s first self-exile, or dropout, is traced all the way back to the Old Testament. In the original Bible, Abraham hears the voice of God and leaves behind his home in Ur in search of spiritual renewal in the land of Canaan. (Later, some Kabbalists interpreted “Canaan” to mean “a place of dynamism, tension, or change.”) This simple story has been interpreted by many as the primal exile experience.
Even after leaving Ur for their new home in Canaan, the first Jews maintained their dropout/outsider identity. While generous with the herders living there (at least initially), they separated themselves ideologically. In the Old Testament, Abraham declares, “I dwell among you, but I am an alien.” Of course, this sense of intentional otherness echoes down the ages, and remains with us today. Indeed, hipster individuals and communities positively revel in it.
The dropout Abraham was the first Jew. At this essential level, his story has generated a religion of exile and dissent.
While Reform Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg was touring to promote his book Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, his overriding message was that Judaism is an “eternal countercultural.” In his book, Hertzberg declares, “Abraham, the first Jew, is the archetypal Jewish character. As the leader of a small, dissenting minority living precariously on the margins of society, he defines the enduring role of the Jew as the outsider. The recurring themes of Jewish history—otherness, defiance, fragility, and morality—are present in his life.”
Drawing from the Bible, Hertzberg paints a picture that would be familiar to some members of the modern hippie Rainbow Tribe. “God tells Abraham to leave his birthplace to go with his wife Sarah to a distant land. There they dwell in tents like Bedouin. . . . They are strangers among the tribes of idol worshippers.” But alienness doesn’t necessarily connote alienation. Hertzberg writes, “A man of immense charity, he opens his tent on all four sides. The hungry and miserable can come to him in a straight line, not wasting a step to look for the entrance.” Abraham’s open-handed generosity and impatience with unnecessary boundaries (tear down the walls!), turnstiles, and formalities are archetypally countercultural. And Abraham goes even further in practicing voluntary communalism. “In the land of Canaan, where water is the most precious of commodities and herders survive only if their flocks can drink, Abraham digs wells and takes the unprecedented step of making them available to everyone.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a product of the New Left counterculture of the 1960s, views Abraham as the primal revolutionist. In his book Jewish Renewal, he asserts, “Almost four thousand years ago, an idol worshipper named Abram revolutionized human history by trusting in a Being he could not see. Together with his wife Sarai, he left civilization behind and became a spiritual pioneer. So began Jewish history.”
In her book, Remember My Soul, Lori Palatnik asserts that God’s command to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 to “go . . . from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” demands some interpretation because “at this point in the Torah, Abraham has already left his land and his birthplace.” Palatnik believes that God is asking Abraham “to make a journey not just of the body but of the soul. He is asking him to leave the comfort of the assumptions he holds about the meaning of life.” She later refers to this process as “leaving the familiar,” an apt metaphor for any countercultural process.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman a.k.a. R. U. Sirius and Dan Joy. Copyright © 2004 by Ken Goffman. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.