By Brett Rogers and Benjamin Stevens
Early in Ridley Scott’s science fiction (SF) film Prometheus, archaeologists discover a cave-painting of what seems to be a human figure pointing at a group of stars. Having gathered strikingly similar images from ancient and prehistoric cultures around the globe, the archaeologists take this most recent discovery as confirming their theory about the origin of humankind: we were placed here, created, by extraterrestrials. The archaeologists refer to those extraterrestrials as ‘Engineers’. (“What did they engineer?” asks another character. “They engineered us.”)
But of course we viewers are encouraged to think of them as gods. One of the archaeologists, the film’s protagonist, is devoutly Christian, and when there is a mission to find any living ‘Engineers’ on a habitable planet at that group of stars, she is allowed to come along because the mission’s backer wanted it to include “a true believer.” It is therefore pointed when, later in the film after all has gone to hell, that same “true believer” gives voice to an evident truth: “We were so wrong.”
Prometheus thus raises a modern version of an ancient question: What if we are wrong about the gods? Have we been misled, or like those overeager archaeologists have we been misreading sacred texts, or treating as ‘sacred’ what is merely ancient?
Prometheus vividly exemplifies how modern science fiction is a rich site of classical reception. As we discuss in a recent essay in Oxford’s Classical Receptions Journal, this is evident as early as modern science fiction’s arguable point of origin, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Shelley’s novel famously envisions what would happen if a human being acted like God by creating (human?) life. It is thanks in part to Shelley’s vision that modern SF frequently depicts the result of scientific inquiry as an object lesson in unintended consequences.
Importantly, this seminal modern science fiction text represents itself as an outgrowth of earlier literature. The epigraph on its title page [University of Glasgow, Special Collections] consists of haunting lines from Milton: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me … ?” (Paradise Lost 10. 743-45). Since the speaker is Adam, the epigraph suggests a layered sympathy with the creature, and thus the novel raises some question or doubt about the act of creation and the creator himself.
Such doubt or ambivalence is also suggested by Frankenstein’s subtitle: “The Modern Prometheus.” As we note in our essay in some detail, this allusion to Greco-Roman mythology highlights a different interplay between humankind, technology, and the divine. In outline, Prometheus took pity on mortals, stole fire from Zeus, and passed this technology to humans. He thus gave humankind the means to better its condition (heat, warmth, cooked food, metallurgy) as well as to communicate with the gods (via burnt offering). Depending on the ancient text, Prometheus is also said to have given other gifts, including writing, mathematics, and astronomy.
But Prometheus’ generosity also led to greater suffering for humankind. Again depending on the ancient text, this includes the first woman, Pandora, created as a bane for men, and a sense of shame (aidôs), albeit alongside justice (dikê) as a necessary basis for society. Prometheus himself was famously punished for his action, chained to a rock where his liver was eaten daily by an eagle. Prometheus thus figures deep ambivalence about the benefits and unintended consequences of technology.
So what might knowledge of ancient Prometheus tell us about Scott’s film, and vice versa? Prometheus is the name of the spaceship. The mission’s backer, Peter Weyland, tells the crew that “Prometheus wanted to give man equal footing with the gods.” In context of the ancient stories, Weyland’s version is curious. Nowhere in our ancient sources does Prometheus seek to make mortals equal to the gods, only to aid them in survival. Weyland’s vision of ‘equality’ is presumptuous, even hubristic. (Spoiler alert: late in the film we learn that Weyland’s true purpose is hubristic indeed, as he seeks the Engineers in the hope that they can save him from death.)
But to stop at identifying Weyland’s or Scott’s version as simply ‘mistaken’ would be to miss a deeper feature of the film as an example of classical reception in science fiction. Although Weyland’s version of the myth does not ‘follow’ any known ancient version, neither was there an ancient ‘consensus’: there is no single, ‘true’ version of the Prometheus myth. We would be hard-pressed, then, to find truly decisive reasons to prefer any ancient version over Scott’s. Any take on Prometheus, or for that matter any ancient story comes from a certain perspective or position. As Weyland’s cynical representative acknowledges, everyone has an agenda.
In our view Prometheus is so aware of this as to be centered around the problem of ‘misreading’, whether it is of archaeological evidence and ancient myth, more recent literature and modern film, or even scientific method and knowledge. (See an overview of many of the film’s source texts.) Both as a work of art and as a site for reception, Prometheus seems to suggest that, for better or worse, ‘misreading’ is a fundamental feature of human knowledge. From this perspective, at the very least we may see Prometheus in light of how it responds to its own mythic tradition, the Aliens film series. Perhaps more adventurously, misreadings may be understood not as failures to comprehend or to revere the past, but as creative acts of reception suggesting new, hybrid possibilities for the future of human knowledge and the humanities, perhaps even — in the case of science fiction as of Greco-Roman myth — humankind.
We return, then, to the question of whether we have mistaken our gods, in particular by misunderstanding ancient texts, be they the Greco-Roman Classics or, as in Prometheus, the base pairs constituting our DNA. Have we been wrong about a fundamental part of the human condition? Even more disorientingly, are we on the verge of discovering or experiencing things about which the Classics, and the humanistic tradition they inspired, can in fact say nothing? Whether or not we think it is represented by Scott’s film, are we therefore in need of a new ‘modern Prometheus’?
Benjamin Stevens [on Facebook; on Twitter] is assistant professor of Classical Studies at Bard College, where he also contributes to the Language and Thinking program, the concentration in Mind, Brain, and Behavior, and the Bard Prison Initiative. A specialist in Latin literature and classical reception, Professor Stevens has written about Lucretius, Ovid, Pliny, and other ancient authors in relation to fields like linguistics, philosophy of mind, and sensorial anthropology, and is helping to pioneer the study of classical reception in comics, science fiction, and fantasy. He has a book on Catullus’ poetics of silence forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press. Professor Stevens has also published poetry of his own and is director of education for the Contemporary A cappella Society.
Brett M. Rogers is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Puget Sound. A specialist in Greek literature and classical reception, he has written on Greek drama, Plato, performance, and classical reception in comics and science fiction. His recent theatrical credits including serving as dramaturg for a production of Euripides’ Trojan Women (2007) and chorêgos for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (2009), and he is a National Program Scholar for the Ancient Greeks / Modern Lives program in the US. His current project is on troubling teachers in archaic Greek poetry and Athenian drama.
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Use of the images from Prometheus to illustrate the film in question under fair use.