It’s funny how things change. These days, we think of our God as benevolent. In Luke 12:17, God sees every sparrow fall, and “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Back in the ancient days, we lived in fear and awe of the powerful forces around us. As a result, our relationship with the creators of those natural forces, our gods, has not always been a cordial one.
To the ancient Greeks, the gods were to be feared and placated with sacrifices. Zeus, king of all the gods, sent down his killing thunderbolts. The sun god sent his blessed rays, but they also baked the fields in time of drought. The gods, after all, did not love us. In fact, the creation of humans in the first place was an act of trickery foisted upon them by one of their hated enemies.
The constellations tell us much about that dim past. Aquila, the Eagle, sits low in the southwest right now, and near it, in flight to strike a deadly blow, is Sagitta, the Arrow. How did the eagle get in such a fix? And why is its death a triumph for humanity and not a curse? Read on, gentle readers, and you shall see.
The gods had fought a stupendous war for control of the universe with their hated predecessors, the Titans. They were immortal, like the gods, so they were left imprisoned or in slavery by their defeat at the hands of the more-powerful gods.
The great patron of humanity was Prometheus, one of the Titans. The once-proud giant was now a toady to Zeus. But Prometheus had a decent spirit and a creative urge, so he wrought from clay a race of beings with good hearts and mortal weaknesses.
The gods didn’t think much of the new human race. They demanded that humans search the world for food and sacrifice much of it to them or risk being swatted like flies.
What humans lacked was technology. They lived like animals. They died from diseases because they could not cook their food, and they perished from wild beasts because they could not forge effective weapons against them. The gods delighted in human weakness and spent many a lazy day watching humans perish.
Prometheus loved his human creations, and was ready to risk his own safety to give us comfort. He stole from the gods the secret of fire, the gift of unlimited energy to cook our food, forge our weapons, and create, in effect, our great civilizations. He hid the fire in a hollow read and gave it freely to humanity.
Zeus, the king of all the gods, did not take kindly to such duplicity. He chained Prometheus to the Caucasus Mountains and sent his most loyal lackey to perform a particularly horrific punishment on the poor Titan. (Parents, please note: The following is not pretty.)
Here’s another thing that has changed: We think of the eagle as a noble bird, our national symbol. However, Zeus’ ignoble eagle performed with great pleasure every evil – theft, murder, or kidnapping – that the god commanded. In this case, the bird pecked out and ate the liver of Prometheus. His liver grew back every day, and the eagle returned each day to extend the Titan’s agony.
He needed a hero, and luckily the greatest of all the ancient heroes waits nearby. Hercules, often classed as a summer constellation, still hovers in the west.
Legends about his exploits go back farther than history records. Even before the ancient Greeks, he was seen as the “kneeling man” in many cultures. As he kneels, he places his left foot on the head of the giant dragon Draco, who stretches below him in the northern sky.
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the stars that make up Hercules represented the highest ideals of bravery and headstrong heroism and the lowest depths of insanity and depravity.
Heracles was half mortal human and half immortal god, born as he was from an unfortunate liaison between Zeus, the king of the gods and a mortal woman. Life started out badly for Heracles. He had the misfortune of being born out of the dalliance of Zeus, the king of the gods, and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Zeus’ wife, Hera, was extremely jealous of Zeus’ many mortal lovers, but there wasn’t much she could do to get revenge against her more powerful husband.
Instead, she took it out on the mortals. Hera had a grudge against Heracles from his birth, and he had to face her considerable wrath his entire life.
When he was still in his crib, Hera sent a couple of serpents to wring the life out him. Such was his physical strength that, even as a baby, Heracles wrung the life out of the snakes instead.
Heracles grew to a man with the strength of a god, and all the weaknesses that a hard mortal life can engender. In a fit of madness visited upon him by Hera’s evil spell, he murdered his children.
When sanity returned, the remorseful hero went to the Oracle at Delphi to beg for atonement. The Oracle ordered him to serve Eurystheus, King of Mycenae, for one year. It was Eurystheus who ordered the hero to embark on his famous twelve labors.
The night sky is littered with the carcasses of the great beasts that Heracles killed during his adventures. His bloody presence is particularly felt over the springtime sky. Among his famous labors, he killed the Lernean Hydra, visible as a long string of stars low in the southern spring sky. He also killed the Nemean Lion, which is said to be the constellation Leo, which rises again in the early spring.
Just below Leo in the southern sky is Cancer, the giant crab, slain by Hercules as he battled the Hydra. The Crab and the Hydra were the nasty household pets of Hera. She sent them to bedevil humanity in general and Hercules in specific.
Released from his labors, Hercules tried to make a life for himself. He married the young and beautiful Deianeira, daughter to a king. But the hero habit was a hard one to break.
In direct defiance of the gods, he set himself the task of freeing Prometheus. Before he broke the Titan’s chains, he let loose a poisoned arrow at the eagle and released Prometheus from his pain forever.
It is that titanic event we see commemorated in the stars of the Aquila, Sagitta, and Hercules. Hercules had repaid humanity’s debt to its creator and benefactor. He had also freed humanity to grow and prosper using the great power that Prometheus had given it.
As the arrow flew upward to free Prometheus from his pain, the chains that had bound our human ingenuity and power were loosed as well.
These days, Prometheus is mostly forgotten. Even in ancient times, he was worshipped only by small cults who valued the benefits that technological advancements have brought us.
However, Prometheus can still teach us a lesson or two. Technology is a double-edged sword. In the modern age, Prometheus has come to represent the lonely genius working for the betterment of humanity but whose efforts can also bring unintended and tragic consequences. The atomic bomb won a war for us, but 73 years later, that double-edged sword is poised to cut our throats to this very day.
As we advance into a new technological age filled with screens and emotionally unsatisfying human “interconnectedness,” we may well consider that Mary Shelley subtitled her great novel Frankenstein with these prescient words: The Modern Prometheus. The old gods and their mixed feelings toward humanity have not died. They still live, quite tragically, in the human heart.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.