Contrary (to popular belief)

Ever have one of those days?

It seems as though EVERYone I encountered today has been all about the argument.  (Interestingly this phenomenon of contrariness is confined to the real world.  The interworld has been a kinder, gentler place today- LOVING my interworld peeps extra-specially hard today).

If I say ‘up’ it is, in all actuality, ‘down’- or so I’ve been told.  Black?  Nope.  Gotta be white.  Happy becomes miserable.  The good is really the bad.

So let’s go with that last one shall we?  If I’m to be contrary, let’s go all out.

In my continuing defence of all things Devil-ish, let’s flip that dichotomy on its head and view that contrary-ist of all contrary creatures from a slightly different mythological perspective.

If you’ve seen television shows set in NYC or holiday photos on Instagram, chances are you’re familiar with this sculpture that graces Rockefeller Centre:

Paul Manship’s gilded bronze portrayal of Prometheus giving fire to humanity is pretty recognizable as an icon of Americana and the American Spirit.

On the wall behind the fountain is a quotation from Aeschylus:

Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

I spoke briefly about the Watchers of the pseudipigraphal biblical literary tradition as one of the major influences on the development of the mythology of the fallen angels/Satan/demons and their leader.  I noted then that Azazel shared common traits and actions with the Greek Titan Prometheus.

The biblical Azazel and his followers were vilified and accused of negatively influencing humanity and setting us all up for eternal damnation since we accepted the gifts of science and learning the Watchers offered us.

Bad Azazel, and bad us- for taking those things that would help us out, keep us warm and fed, and drive us to discover more and more about this here world we live in- and the universe beyond.

Yet the Greek Prometheus has long been viewed as an archetypal hero and trickster figure.  He was responsible for the creation of humanity to begin with, and, in an effort to protect his creation, he disobeys the will of the leader of the Olympian gods (Zeus) and returns/gives the gift of fire to humanity.

As Aeschylus noted, Prometheus was responsible for teaching humanity the arts, science, technology… all those things that freed us from the servitude that Zeus would have had us labour under indefinitely.  Assuming we survived without fire.

For this protection and enhancement of the human condition, Prometheus was eternally punished.

Why was Prometheus punished?  The same reason that Azazel  (as Satan/Lucifer/Mephistopheles) came to be Evil Incarnate.

They disobeyed the dude in power- Zeus or Yahweh- take your pick.  They represented human development and learning- which was threatening to those in power.  Such knowledge and violation of the social order threatened the very fabric of the society.

So: Prometheus condemned to eternal suffering.

So: Science/technology/progressiveness=evil.

Still, according to Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound (and in contrast to Hesiod’s earlier Theogony in which he is more of a trickster figure than a hero, while Zeus is the wise and just ruler of the universe), Prometheus is the benefactor of humanity helping us to stand against the tyranny of the King of the Olympians.

Like Enki in the Mesopotamian creation epic Enuma Elish, Prometheus created humanity from clay (the same stuff that Yahweh used, incidentally) and continued to look out for our well-being- even in the face of opposition from other, often more powerful, gods.

Part of this care included providing us with technology and the civilizing arts so that we could better defend ourselves against the onslaught of divine interference and inexplicable- and frequently petulant- punishment that was wont to come our way on any given godly whim.

The motif of Prometheus as patron of humanity and the symbol of our ongoing search for knowledge was a favourite of the Romantic era, appearing in literature, art and music.  To the Romantics (not the band, the movement) he was the rebel who defied the institutional and religious oppression of scientific exploration and intellectual development.

That other rebel with a cause, Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, has much in common with Prometheus, and Shelley and Byron (to name but two) immortalized the Titan as a benefactor and champion of the human over the divine- and the divinity’s associated institutions- church, state, patriarchy…

Sure, there are warnings about the potential dangers his influence might cause.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus chillingly illustrates the risk of delving into the unknown and remains a cautionary tale that has become a descriptor for anything that eludes our current understanding and for science that has misfired through human hubris.

Seriously, who hasn’t heard of Frankenstein and his monster?  The concept is ubiquitous in popular culture (I saw Young Frankenstein on tv a couple of weeks ago.  Remains classic, and, for all its humour and silliness, retains the overarching tension between progress and the threat of going too far) and is still used by those who would criticize the advances of science and knowledge as ‘ungodly’.

Hey!  Prometheus should be the official mascot of the New Atheists!  I should suggest it to them…  But I digress.  More about those guys later.

Bumbling created monsters aside, the Titan himself remains referenced all over the place: in the recent prequel of the Alien franchise (a film about exploration and science- and the potential pitfalls of both), an episode of Supernatural (‘Remember the Titans’), and as the name for the first interstellar spacecraft on the show Stargate: SG-1 (which was created using technology stolen from a race of aliens who enslaved humanity by posing as gods…).

Prometheus:  Not just for sculpture anymore.

But getting back to the Prometheus/Devil correspondence for a second, there were gnostics (my very favourite heretics) who identified Lucifer- ‘the Light Bearer’- with the Greek Prometheus.  I’ll explore that little morsel in detail after talking more about the biblically-based Devil Dude, but it is in equations such as these that we have the origin of Jungian-based examinations of this particular archetype.

R.J. Zwi Werblowsky’s 1952 work, Lucifer and Prometheus, delves into concepts of sin (bible) vs. hubris (Greek), and the ‘attractiveness’ of Milton’s Satan.  Werblowsky points out the negative and positive attributes that are embodied in the character, and the overall ambiguity of Prometheus, Christ and Satan in the development of Christian mythology.

This duality is oh-so-very gnostic and oh-so-very out of keeping with the strict dichotomy of good and evil that is usually bandied about in discussions re. God vs. the Devil.  We like Milton’s Satan.  We are drawn to him and his other incarnations (like Alan Cumming’s characterization in God, the Devil and Bob).

Why?  Because, to paraphrase Werblowsky, Prometheus and the Devil represent both the short-comings of the world and humanity and our eternal drive to make sense of and make better (to civilize) our confusing, tragic, complicated and all too frequently un-civilized universe.

How is that EVIL and something from which we should be dissuaded by threats of hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation?!?!?

Don’t get it.

Unless calling that impulse EVIL and vilifying all those who stand in opposition to the institutions (political and/or religious) and their ideas of GOOD is nothing more than blatant manipulation for the express purpose of maintaining power and control over the huddled masses…?

But then,who listens to me?

Apparently, I’m contrary.

*P.S. Science vs. belief showdown on the telly last night: A show I hadn’t seen before- ‘Body of Proof’- with Brad from ‘Boston Legal’, Seven of Nine and Dana Delany. 

Evidently it’s been cancelled. 

Anyway, the episode in question was about a supposed ‘demonic possession’.  That whole idea pisses me off (unless it’s ‘The Exorcist’- that film is CLASSIC).  While there are certainly more things, Horatio, and all that, this continuing perpetuation of the suggestion of externalized evil…. aaargh.   

I thought that the show did a good job dispelling the superstition as a medical (pharmaceutical, actually) source for the behaviour was found.  But then it ended with a nod- however much in passing- to the existence of the external force again.  Disappointing.  Science had won the day- and then the writers brought the supernatural back into it. 

Poor Prometheus.  Once again, his sacrifice is squandered.  Sigh.

Bob

Brief Disclaimer:  This post is not really about myth and symbol, but it is very much about the best of humanity.  I wrote about heroes here and described them as people who establish something new and better- after leaving behind the old, tried and less-than-true ways of being.  Such people identify an issue or something lacking in society and work to amend the injustice, lack of knowledge or evident inequality, with their actions and example. Contemporary heroes affect change in an attempt to leave the world a better place.  It’s a hot, humid Saturday here in TO which gets me thinking about summers past- and the music that was the soundtrack of those long-ago summer days.  Which lead to memories of July 13th, 1985- “The Day the Music Changed the World”- and the man who started it all.

I feel like I’ve known him from waaaaay back, so I’m hoping he wouldn’t mind me leaving the ‘Sir’ off of his name.

Once upon a time Bob Geldof was a musician and singer in a band from Dublin.  The Boomtown Rats spent a fair chunk of a couple of decades in the ‘all time favourite’ spot on my personal list, and even today I get a little overwhelmed when I hear songs like

or

(likely their best known song- and one of the first popular songs I learned to play on the piano).  ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ was about school violence in the US, specifically a school shooting in California.  The song hit number 1 in the UK, but was denied airplay in the US as radio stations feared lawsuits and negative reaction from the religious right.

They appeared in a fantastic ‘To Sir With Love’ spoof on SCTV:

I can remember madly searching for a blank VHS tape when it popped up on my television.  I still have the tape.

Their songs were largely ‘story songs’- telling tales of people and places, slices of life in particular environments at particular times.  It’s interesting that they hardly seem dated or out of comprehensible context, despite the fact that they were mainly referring to characters in places like Dublin or London in the 1970’s and 19080’s.

The songs had elements of social criticism wrapped up in the lyrics- often about the lousy lot of the working class in the ‘Banana Republic’ that was Ireland at the time.  A ‘septic isle’ under the thumb of politicians, police and priests.  A place that was rapidly losing its young people to emigration- or the ongoing conflicts in the North.  It was a place that had banned the band from performances due to their outspoken critique of the nationalism, influence of the church and corrupt politicians that they felt were destroying their native land.

‘Banana Republic’ is a fantastic example of how social commentary can be voiced in an articulate yet still entertaining manner.  Bob’s lyrics were often biting, but they demonstrated an incredibly clever mastery of language and turn of phrase.  The songs of the Rats always said something, and they said it in a tuneful, and often playful, manner.

“The purple and the pinstripe mutely shake their heads

A silence shrieking volumes, a violence worse than they condemn

Stab you in the back yeah, laughing in your face

Glad to see the place again- it’s a pity nothing’s changed.’

In 1984 Bob saw a BBC news report about the drought and famine in Ethiopia.  Out of his horror at the images he saw came this:

He and Midge Ure wrote a song and started a movement to raise money as a response to perceived inaction on the part of world leaders to intervene in the tragedy that was unfolding in Africa.  It was the impetus for other musicians to take up the battle cry, and it brought extensive coverage to the issue.

Bob visited Ethiopia to see the extent of the tragedy for himself and realized that a large part of the reason that African nations were in such states of emergency was due to the repayments of loans to Western banks.  The song wasn’t going to be enough to even scratch the surface.

So he and Midge got back to work and planned and executed an unprecedented stage show that would join the world together for one day in a desperate and despairing plea for action in the face of incredible need.  By July 13, Bob was exhausted and in pain with a back injury, but his intensity over the course of the day and through the entirety of the live broadcast can be seen in this clip:

He continually reminded the audience why we were all there.  It wasn’t just the greatest rock show ever staged, there was an underlying purpose that made the trappings and egos of popular music irrelevant and ridiculous (the day that ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas’ was recorded he famously admonished all the participants to ‘leave ego at the door.”).

The clip also demonstrates just how far we’ve come- technology- and communications-wise, anyway.  Today a simple electronic money transfer in support of hurricane victims can be completed in a matter of seconds.  In 1985 there was more involved, and Bob knew that he had to drive the message home and maintain the intensity of the day so that people would get off  their butts and DO something to help.

The way we thought about popular music and its ability to affect social change was forever altered.

A lot of people have done similar things since then.  They have used celebrity in positive ways and raised money and petitioned governments on behalf of many people in need of aid and intervention.  But he was the first to see the worldwide possibilities that could come with the exploitation of love of music.  No one has used music and story as a means of communication as earth-shatteringly as did Sir Bob Geldof.

He has continued his charitable movements for Africa and global peace, achieving success- and his share of critics- over the subsequent decades.  His caustic straightforwardness has earned him derision and some enemies.  He can be an insufferable jerk. He has amassed a fairly vast personal fortune- and may or may not have paid taxes on some of it.  His personal life has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs and negative publicity.  He is an unlikely hero in many ways.

Bob used the tools that he had to hand- his background as a songwriter/musician, his connections in the music and music journalism industries, and a seemingly endless supply of energy and passion- to start a worldwide movement that is still resonating in our popular culture.  He was recognized, at 34, with an honorary knighthood by the Queen, yet refused to sit on his laurels.  He continues to fight for social justice and reform in a number of spheres.

Joseph Campbell defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself.  Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society.  Sir Bob most definitely qualifies.  And he also writes some pretty wicked tunes.

P.S. If you didn’t get to experience it when it happened, definitely take the time to watch Live Aid in its entirety.  Over and above the significance of the day, it featured some incredible- and some never-to-be-repeated- performances.  It was truly a day of wonder.