Sunday, August 1, 2010

Prometheus and the art of storytelling

It turns out there's a lot more to the Prometheus story than I thought. In the first place Prometheus it seems was a friend to mankind, he didn’t bring fire just to pursue a personal vendetta as I've suggested. Also his story is tied up with Pandora’s box, which was how Zeus punished mankind for acquiring fire.  So there’ll be a substantial revision and addition in due course.
I'm wandering into a byway now and I'm puzzling over the art or storytelling, and the origin of the Greek myths.  Firstly, how do you identify the “official” version of each story, secondly how far can you legitimately stray in the retelling?  For Greek myths Homer and Hesiod are (I believe) normally regarded as the authoritative versions. For now, lets just say it was Hesiod. The question is where did he get the stories from? Round the fireside when he was a child I suppose.  It would be “tell us the one about Prometheus and the fire” and “tell us the one about Pandora’s box”. And each visiting storyteller would embellish the tale in their own way, depending on their skill, their mood, how they judged their audience on that particular night, and other factors. So by the time the adult Hesiod picked up a pen he would have heard a dozen versions of each story. And at some stage, Hesiod, or if not him then someone, decided to weave Prometheus and Pandora’s box into one story, even though the two stories were in their origin entirely distinct. Is that how it worked?
Is there a way to get back to the underlying oral tradition that preceded the stories being written down? Presumably not. So perhaps I can defend any departure from the official version by saying, well yes this may not be the way Hesiod told it (or the Bible, in the case of Adam and Eve) but I've given you a plausible hypothetical reconstruction of ONE of the many versions that Hesiod heard before he wrote down the definitive account of Prometheus.
This is just musings. There will for sure be some academic work on this subject that I need to check out. But I'll be surprised if my musings are far from the mark.


  1. Your question "how far can you legitimately stray in the retelling?" brings to mind another question that I know prompts an opinion by your good senf - how far can one stray from the truth in an historical novel?

  2. Yes, there's an unwritten contract between the historical novelist and the reader that any fictitious people or events in the novel must be plausible within the framework of facts known to the best and latest historical research. If a work infringes this contract it can't be classed as an historical novel. I am given to understand that the Da Vinci Code is one such work. It’s easier to formulate this with respect to historical novels than the retelling of old myths, but I suppose there is a parallel.