May 23, 2009

Grandfather of the days

THE MOUNTAIN sat upon the plain
In his eternal chair,
His observation omnifold,
His inquest everywhere.

The seasons prayed around his knees,
Like children round a sire:
Grandfather of the days is he,
Of dawn the ancestor.

Emily Dickinson

May 22, 2009

"...freedom only after countless pains"

Heracles would eventually liberate Prometheus. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope these days is taking a tour of ancient Greek tragedy (but you'll find links and comments about current events below). This week the theme is Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus.

Why Greek tragedy? I'm convinced the tragic lens often is the one that applies best to current problems. In an earlier post about coal and Appalachia, I argued that we too often tend to view the world through a simplified action movie lens, with clear good guys who are all good and bad guys who are all bad (see former President Bush) and a happy ending. Would that it were so.

But back to the story at hand.

It is easy to see Prometheus as the archetypal rebel against tyranny and to view Zeus as an evil usurper. But Aeschylus was concerned with a deeper matter: how excess can be tempered and holy moderation can be achieved. He was all about avoiding excess and calling for moderation.

We only have the first play of his trilogy, but we know it ended with the release of Prometheus, who would aid Zeus with information that would allow him to remain in power.

Zeus, after violently overthrowing the old order, was excessive in his punishment and use of power. Prometheus, though he benefited humanity, was excessive in his pride and defiance, as some of his sympathetic visitors suggested.

Totalitarianism and the rule of force must give way to restraint and the rule of law. Prometheus and Zeus are symbols of forethought and reason on the one hand and power on the other--and these must be reconciled.

Too bad we can't see how Aeschylus got there. Too bad we haven't figured out how to get there ourselves.

Y'all have a good weekend and try not to get chained to any rocks.

SPEAKING OF BEING CHAINED TO ROCKS, this essay hopes we'll be liberated soon from the rock of market fundamentalism.

HEALTH CARE COSTS exceed wage gains in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia (and elsewhere in the US too). Meanwhile, it looks like the health care industry, after making a show of supporting reforms, is trying to sabotage President Obama's health care plan. Their main target is a public option which many see as the key to moving towards universal coverage.

REASON # 42949 why we need the Employee Free Choice Act here.

NOT COOL. WV's proposed state budget includes cuts in legal services for domestic violence victims.

MONKEY BRAINS aren't all that different from ours.


May 21, 2009

"Power newly won is always harsh"

Your kindness to the human race has earned you this.
A god who would not bow to the gods' anger--you,
Transgressing right, gave privileges to mortal men.
For that you shall keep watch upon this bitter rock,
Standing upright, unsleeping, never bowed in rest.
And many groans and cries of pain shall come from you,
All useless; for the heart of Zeus is hard to appease.
Power newly won is always harsh.

Those words are spoken by the metal working god Hephaestus at the beginning of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, the first and only surviving work of a tragic trilogy.

The Titan who gave humans the gift of fire and many others was brought to a remote spot in the land of the Scythians by Strength and Violence, the unquestioning agents of the new Olympian order. The lame Hephaestus regrets his task of fastening the bonds but is afraid to violate the orders of the new ruler of the cosmos.

In Greek mythology, the early days of the universe were scenes of violent struggle. Zeus has come to power in a bloody revolution against the old order and, like many in such situations, he is all too ready to use violence to crush any challenges to his rule.

Prometheus, whose name means foresight, saw it coming:

...I know exactly every thing
That is to be; no torment will come unforeseen.
My appointed fate I must endure as best I can,
Knowing the power of Necessity is irresistible.
...For bestowing gifts upon mankind
I am harnessed in this torturing clamp. For I am he
Who hunted out the source of fire, and stole it, packed
In pith of a dry fennel-stalk. And fire has proved
For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource....

Fire was not his only benefit:

...What I did
For mortals in their misery, hear now. At first
Mindless, I gave them mind and reason. --What I say
Is not in censure of mankind, but showing you
How all my gifts to them were guided by goodwill.--
In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds, but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

He taught humans to use tools and build houses and ships, measure the seasons, do arithmetic, domesticate animals, use medicinal herbs, interpret prophecies and dreams, use minerals and more. Zeus, on the other hand, was scornful of humans and may have wished to see them wiped out and replaced by a new model.

In his agony, Prometheus is visited by the Titan Oceanus and his daughters, who form a sympathetic chorus. He has a hostile interview with Hermes, messenger of Zeus. And he meets with Io, the unfortunate woman courted by Zeus who was turned into a cow by the jealous Hera and tormented by a gadfly.

Prometheus reluctantly relates to Io the course of her future wanderings and suffering, but, like him, she is destined to eventually be released from punishment. And one of her descendants, the future Heracles, is destined to free him from bondage.

It may sound like this is a story with a simple good guy (Prometheus) and a bad guy (Zeus), but the tragic spirit is too deep for that . Aeschylus is going after something else. About which more tomorrow.

ON THE BRIGHT (GREEN) SIDE, here's a nice item from CNN about how the Veteran's Conservation Corps is helping returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan with green jobs and a healing environment.

THE FUNCTIONS OF POVERTY. In case you missed yesterday's link to a great Washington Post story on how expensive it is to be poor, here it is again. That article reminded me of this classic essay in sociology by Herbert Gans titled The Uses of Poverty: the Poor Pay All.

DIRTY POOL. Here's a look at how employers have intensified their fight against union organizing in recent years.

IT'S WHAT WE DON'T KNOW that really bugs us.



May 20, 2009

The rest of the story (and a canine obituary)

Chiron tutoring Achilles. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Goat Rope is in the midst of a series on Everything You Always Wanted to Know (or not) About Greek Tragedy. You'll also find links and comments about current events. This week Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound is on the menu.

Most people who know anything about Prometheus myths know that he was chained at Zeus' command to a rock in the middle of nowhere and had his liver torn out daily by a vulture for giving humans the gift of fire. But there's a good bit more to the story that might be good to know before looking at Aeschylus' tragedy.

His punishment was not destined to last forever. It seems that over time Zeus recognized that his punishment was over the top. It was arranged that the great hero Heracles would free Prometheus.

Prometheus, for his part, overcame some of his haughtiness and earned favor with Zeus by warning him not to have a fling with the sea nymph Thetis, who was destined to give birth to a son who would be greater than his father. That would have been the only way that Zeus could have been overthrown. Fans of Homer will recall that Zeus married her off to the human Peleus, whose son was the great warrior Achilles.

One requirement for his pardon was that Prometheus wear a ring made from his chains with a stone from the mountain to which he was chained. That's where the custom of wearing rings came from.

Some other traditions say that Prometheus' suffering was fated to continue until another immortal agreed to go to the underworld in his place. This was done by the wise centaur Chiron (aka Cheiron), who was weary of life and suffering from an accidental wound from a poisoned arrow of Heracles.

Next time: the play itself.


It is with regret that we announce the passing of Lily, the Spousal Unit's 17 year old dog. She was rescued as a pup from a dump in Brazil and had a pretty good run. Her full name was Lilushka Grushenka Arcadia Aureliania Jose Maria Santiago la Bella Garcia Lorca de Unamuno Ortega y Gasset. We wish her a fortunate rebirth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha.

BEING POOR is expensive.

HITTING HOME. Here's a good resource from the Economic Policy Institute on how the economic downturn is affecting people.

URGENT CICADA UPDATE here. Sneak preview: they like prime numbers.

WHILE WE'RE AT IT, here's an item on what makes Komodo dragons so dangerous.


May 19, 2009


Hesiod and the Muse but Gustave Moreau. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to an ongoing series about Greek tragedy, along with links and comments about current events. The topic at hand is the myth of Prometheus, which is the subject of Aeschylus' play Prometheus Bound. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.

The earliest source on the myth of Prometheus is probably from the Greek poet Hesiod, who probably lived in the 8th century BC. He left two major works, Theogony and Works and Days. The former is one version of how the universe and gods came into being. The latter has some of that, along with advice on farming. Prometheus appears in both.

Hesiod's vision of the origin of things is anything but serene and orderly a la Genesis. The universe began with a void or chaos and many struggles, wars and reversals led to the triumph of the Olympian gods under the leadership of Zeus.

Prometheus, whose name means forethought was a Titan, a member of an earlier generation of immortals. He could foresee the outcome of the struggle between the older generation of Titans and that of the gods and sided with Zeus in the struggle.

His foresight wasn't much help in keeping him out of trouble. He initially enraged Zeus by a trick over a sacrificial meal. A dispute arose as to who got which part of a sacrificial ox. Prometheus tricked Zeus by disguising the best portions and allowing Zeus to choose. Zeus picked the part that just contained fat and some bones, while the humans got the good parts.

Zeus retaliated by withholding from men the secret of fire (and by creating the mischievous race of women to plague mankind, but that's a different story). You probably know the rest of the story. Prometheus stole the divine fire and gave it to humans. Then, according to the Theogony,

Cunning Prometheus he [Zeus] bound with unbreakable and painful chains and drove a stake through his middle. And he turned on him a long-winged eagle, which ate his immortal liver; by night the liver grew as much again as the long-winged bird had eaten in the whole day...

Thus it is not possible to deceive the mind of Zeus or escape his judgment. Even the trickster Prometheus, Iapetus' son, was not able to escape the heavy consequences of his anger. In spite of all his cleverness he lies helplessly bound by a great chain.

The punishment wasn't destined to last forever, but we'll see tomorrow that it lasted long enough.

IT'S ABOUT TIME. The new federal budget will expand protections for workers.


CLIMATE CHANGE. From Coal Tattoo, here's a look at the prospects of climate change legislation.

SENDING MESSAGES. Here's an interesting article on evolution and consumption.

ANNALS OF SOCIAL SCIENCE. Here's an item about path finding sociological research that involved walking around with untied shoelaces (for real).


May 18, 2009

The first rebel

Ouch! That had to hurt. A 17th century painting of Prometheus by Jacob Jordaens, courtesy of wikipedia.

Welcome to Goat Rope's latest series on Everything You Always Wanted to Know (or not) about Greek Tragedy. If you want to skip this part, you can scroll down for links and comments about current events. If, on the other hand, you are a budding or a seasoned classics dork, please click on earlier posts.

Aeschylus was the earliest tragedian whose works survive. Out of dozens and dozens of his plays, only seven survive, which is a real tragedy. Included among his surviving works is the only intact trilogy, the Orestes cycle, which includes the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

I'm going to start a survey of his work with Prometheus Bound, the first and unfortunately only remaining work of a trilogy on the Titan who rebelled against Zeus to help humanity and paid a terrible price.

This is a deep myth, one that predates Aeschylus by centuries and has continued to inspire art and thought for thousands of years afterward. But it was Aeschylus' version that made the biggest impression.

Later generations of religious and political radicals would seize on the Titan who stole the fire of the gods and gave it to helpless humans as the founder of their line.

The English poet Percy Shelley, the archetypal romantic rebel, wrote a revolutionary play in 1820 called Prometheus Unbound. His widow Mary Shelley would subtitle her novel Frankenstein as The Modern Prometheus (although the analogy doesn't quite seem to work).

Another rebel, the young Karl Marx, in his doctoral dissertation on The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature called Prometheus "the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar."

Herman Melville in Moby-Dick compared Captain Ahab to Prometheus:

God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

And, while we're at it, the rebellious composer Franz Liszt composed a work in his honor.

All of which is to say, this story has legs. More to come...

CHEW ON THIS. From Democracy Now, here's an interview with Michael Pollan on the politics of food.

CAP AND TRADE. Here's Paul Krugman on current climate change proposals.

UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT. West Virginia's recently privatized workers compensation system is messing with people again. This looks like it could be a nice little fight.

THE UNION PREMIUM. Yet another study shows that unionized workers get a better deal.