There are various creation myths of early advanced civilisation that try to explain the development of human beings. According to the ancient Egyptians, Thot created the first humans and Isis and Osiris their first pharaoh, Horus. It has to be noticed that there are certain similarities between various creation myths. Such as in the Christian version where Adam is created from clay, some Northern American Indian tribes as well as the Greek have a similar concept of the development of human beings. According to the Greek myth, Prometheus created the first humans. However, most people only know him from the saga of Heracles, in which he is rescued by the eponymous hero. The poem “Prometheus” is about one of these creation myths.
Of great significance is the year of origin: 1774. Goethe was 25 years old and a representative of the period of Sturm und Drang. In the same year the “Leiden des jungen Werthers” was published. Hence, these two pieces of writing show similarities in their basic ideas. Back to the poem: before analysing each stanza, the main characters – Zeus and Prometheus – should be looked at more closely. These two Greek gods form a contrast. Prometheus originate from the old generation of gods, the Titans. By contrast, Zeus belongs to the “new” gods. Even though Prometheus fought on the side of Zeus against his own generation, they are still opponents.
Thus, Prometheus rebels even in the first line of the first stanza: „Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus / Mit Wolkendunst“. This request of the Titan is quite ambitious as it opposes the supreme of all gods. On the one hand, the verb “Bedecke” literally alludes to the clouds, on the other hand it refers to Zeus, whose empire is the ether. He should hide behind “his” clouds. The expression “Wolkendunst” receives a new meaning in this context. Clouds consist of haze, at the same time, haze only seems to be. This leads to the following request: “[…] übe eines Knaben gleich / Der Disteln köpft / An Eichen dich […]“. This utterance compares Zeus with an immature child, whose abilities have to be tested before he is allowed to act. One can also interpret these lines more freely: “Dunst” can be a metaphor for Zeus’ behaviour. He pretends to be strong but seems to be guided by anger. Like a “Knabe” he should lead his “pseudo-fights” and take his anger out on “Eichen und Bergeshöhn”. Here, it is of significance that Prometheus requests him to destroy a tree, which compared to olive and lime trees does not serve humans. Zeus, the supreme of all gods, should not take out his unjustified anger, which is based on his jealousy, on what Prometheus has created. Moreover, the Titan adds: “[…] Musst mir meine Erde / Doch lassen steh’n […]”. With these words he emphasises that in spite of Zeus’ power over heaven and his “Wolkendunst”, he has no power over Earth, where Prometheus lives and rules. By using the parallelism “Und meine Hütte die [Zeus] nicht gebaut / Und mein Herd” Prometheus‘ creations are emphasised.
Already in the first stanza the narrator expresses despise towards Zeus; in the second stanza he even increases it. Prometheus distances himself from other gods, sometimes it even seems that he mocks them: “Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres / Unter der Sonn’ als euch Götter!” (line 14). The word “Sonn’” would usually be associated with something great and admirable; followed by “Ärmeres”, however, it decreases its positive connotation. Moreover, the gods do not owe their power to their own achievements but they foster it by “Opfersteuern / Und Gebetshauch” (line 16f.). This description is an allusion to the Christian church. At the time when Goethe wrote this poem, church and clergy subsist on the tithe, which is referred to with the word “Opfersteuern”, as well as on taxes that the people had to pay. While the third estate had to pay a lot of taxes, the second and first estate did not pay any taxes and had a lot of privileges such as hunting rights. The poem mentions that gods lived from sacrifices of children, beggars and fools “Nicht Kindern und Bettler / Hoffnungslosen Tore” (line 20f.). This enumeration names three groups of people that trust in authorities instead of being independent.
In the third stanza the narrator names an additional accusation: the gods did not fulfil their duty to care for those who pray to them. They took their sacrifice but betrayed those in need. The person speaking now has got a flashback. As a child he was not independent, but needed someone who helped him in life: “Nicht wußte, wo aus, wo ein” (line 23). Naturally, the young Prometheus looked for somebody more mature than him. In this stanza the motif of the sun appears, too. However, it appears through the eyes of a child and seems to be bright, wise and unapproachable. The use of conjunctive as well as the expression “mein verirrtes Auge” (line 24) suggest that the godly sun is only a fraud.
The following stanza elaborates Prometheus‘ accusation by asking four questions. The first one alludes to the Greek mythology. “Der Titanen Übermut” (line 30) refers to the battle between the old generation of the Titans and the new generation of Zeus, which the Titans finally lost. The second question is a rhetorical one, too, and asks who saved him from death and slavery. The answer is: nobody. The expression “Sklaverei” (line 32) is not only to be taken literally, but it also addresses mental slavery. Prometheus is not free in his thinking anymore, but has to adapt his behaviour to Zeus’ dogmas. Here again similarities to “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” can be found: the main character is in a similar situation as Prometheus. Prometheus, however, is not as determined as Werther. He has more power to escape from helplessness and immaturity. The last two questions are also rhetorical ones and can both be answered with yes.
In stanza five and six the word “glühen” appears again. As Zeus did not fulfil his duty to support Prometheus, Prometheus’ acknowledgment for the supreme god vanishes. He feels betrayed by him.
The fifth stanza is of great importance as Prometheus – representative for the literary period of Sturm und Drang – resigns his obedience towards the authorities. The preceding stanzas are now summarised. The relation between Zeus and Prometheus has become onesided, not fulfilling the unwritten treaty between authority and inferior: while the authority protects the weaker ones, the inferior honours and serves the superior. While the inferior kept their part of the treaty, Zeus did not fulfil his part. Hence, Prometheus also quits the treaty. Again, there are similarities to the ‘real’ 18th century. Clergy and aristocracy lived at the expense of the third estate, neglecting their duties. In the fifth stanza Prometheus also realises that there are entities superior to Zeus. “Allmächtige Zeit” and “ewige Schicksal” are used as metaphors1 for other factors that shape the life of the narrator. By using the attributes “allmächtig” and “ewig”, which are often associated with the Christian god, Goethe stresses that this god outranks the absolute ruler of that time. In front of him all estates are equal such as Prometheus and Zeus are equal in front of the goddess of destiny, the Moira.
The sixth stanza consists of only five lines and rises questions towards Zeus. In spite of lacking support (“Knabenmorgen/Blütenträume” line 50f.) Prometheus did not give up but has returned from the desert, being a metaphor for disorientation. The desert has lost against life, independency and creativity – as can be noticed in the last stanza.
After a long charge and a warning towards Zeus, Prometheus announces his conclusion. Now, he is an independent living being and has become creator himself. As a consequence he has replaced Zeus’ role as authority. He made a pact with creativity which he, according to the Greek saga, also fulfils. He shapes human beings according to his own image. Goethe’s phrasing suggests that shaping human beings means to teach them how to be independent. Again allusions to the Christian god, who created Adam in His own image, can be seen. Prometheus’ humans, too, are similar to himself, they “leiden”, “weinen”, “genießen” and “freuen sich” (line 55ff.). They do not respect former authorities anymore, but are free and independent. Prometheus gives them the freedom to decide for themselves – a freedom he had to fight for.
To sum up, “Prometheus” is a hymn to freedom of the individual. In this context it is still valid today, 200 years after being written.
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