TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 1.2. Der Kaukasus und Europa / Caucasus and Europe
SektionsleiterInnen | Section Chairs: Mzia Galdavadze (Tbilissi), Tornike Potskhishvili (Wien), Vilayet Hajiyev (Universität Baku) und Azat Yeghiazaryan (Jerewan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Two Great Symbols of European Culture –
Prometheus and Christ

Azat Yeghiazaryan (Jerewan) [BIO]



Christianity has been not only the rejection of antique culture, but, in a certain way, its continuation. If we want to understand the logic of European cultural development, we ought to remember this. But at the same time we have to underline that antiquity and Christianity were different types of culture. The following development of European culture was based on the conjoint of these different cultures, and this circumstance gives originality to the European culture. During the whole history of Europe its culture has combined the elements of antique pagan culture and Christianity. This elements made a contradictory unity and greatly influenced the life and mentality of Europeans. A comparison between two heroes of European culture- Prometheus and Crist-  may be sensible only in this context.

 Each of them is a creation of his cultural  area and his time; one of them was born in ancient Greece, the other – in the deserts of Israel. Just the origin of these heroes, their birthplaces show the principal differences between  them, Christianity came to Europe from the East and then divided into two branches – eastern and western.  Prometheus was a product of the first period of European history – of antiquity. Prometheus is a true  European hero(1). Christ was the hero of the second period, the period when  Christianity became the ideological and moral foundation of European life.   But European history put them in one range as symbols of different and subsequent periods of cultural development. And both of them largely defined the ways European culture would develop.  

Both of these protagonists of European culture were born as mythological heroes, and only later they entered literature: Prometheus as one of the protagonists of antique mythology, tragedy and poetry, and Christ as the hero of the Bible, of the New Testament. During the development of European civilization men of letters devoted many poems and other works to them. Below I will consider these figures as cultural and literary characters only, disregarding questions of religion and faith.

Prometheus and Christ sacrificed themselves for the sake of mankind. This is the main commonality they share. Their other characteristics are visibly different. Each of them has his specific place in his culture; Prometheus is a god, one of the elder gods of the Greek world, and Christ is one of the three faces of the single God of the Christian world, who gave his name to an entire religion. In his system Christ stands much higher than Prometheus in his world. They both devoted all their lives to mankind and won the eternal gratitude of men. However, they did it in different ways.   

Prometheus is a real antique hero, a proud and insubordinate god. He steals fire from gods and gives it to men making Zeus greatly indignant. And Zeus punishes him cruelly. Christ is an obedient God resigned to his fate. In this comparison one can find all the differences between antique pagan religion and Christianity.  Prometheus looks more attractive. He is a hero in the romantic sense: Karl Marx considered him to be the noblest hero of mankind. Remember the feeling of dignity with which Prometheus accepts his horrible punishment (In the play by Aeschylus they chained him to a rock, and the eagle of Zeus pecked his liver every day. At the end they threw him in the abyss). He was a real antique hero who knew his fate and accepted it without penitence. Nobody can deny the majesty of Prometheus’(2) image.

 But the image of Christ has nothing romantic. He, too, knew his destination, but he was afraid of it, he asked his father God to take away the temptation. While Prometheus was a proud and defiant God in every circumstance, Christ suffered as a human being even before his crucifixion. And perhaps the related pages of the Bible are its most impressive parts. But he went to his cross. The beauty of Christ’s image is the beauty of humility and humble firmness. And Christ, as a hero of mankind, as a symbol of culture, is noble and its grandeur may be is more visible than that of the antique hero.

What have Prometheus and Christ done for mankind? This comparison is, I think, the most important point in this issue. Prometheus gave men not only fire, but many essential skills and knowledge of life. He taught them to fight with nature. In the tragedy by Aeschylus one can find the enumeration of skills, which Prometheus gave men. It is a long one. Here are some lines from the speech of Prometheus:

First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand ; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves. They had no sign either of winter or of flowery spring or of fruitful summer, on which they could depend but managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish.

[459] Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses' arts, with which to hold all things in memory. I, too, first brought brute beasts beneath the yoke to be subject to the collar and the pack-saddle, so that they might bear in men's stead their heaviest burdens; and to the chariot I harnessed horses and made them obedient to the rein, to be an image of wealth and luxury. It was I and no one else who invented the mariner's flaxen-winged car that roams the sea. Wretched that I am—such are the arts I devised for mankind, yet have myself no cunning means to rid me of my present suffering. (Translated by H. W. Smyth)

Prometheus gives a long list of his gifts, and we see that those are doings of ancient cultural heroes. Prometheus was a really noble, possibly, the noblest hero of the antique world. He loved men, he says about it in Aeschylus’ tragedy, and his deeds are the best proof of his love. Christ loved mankind too. But there was something different in his love.

Now let us read the well known poem by Goethe, devoted to Prometheus. He appeals to Zeus: Why must I respect you?  It is the real voice of Prometheus. It is the voice of Aeschylus’ hero, the proud and indignant god, who didn’t want to obey any authority, even Zeus. And, then:

 Have you ever dissipated
The sorrow of a man, who was mourning,
Have you ever wiped the tears off the eye of a sufferer?

 In these words, I think, we hear another voice, the voice of a Christian man. The “sorrow of a man, who is mourning, the tears in the eye of a sufferer” could hardly concern Prometheus. This is a Christian motif. It is possible that Goethe was not the most Christian poet of Germany, but he, unquestionably, was greatly influenced by Christian culture. 

As to Christ’s personality, a great amount of literary works are created and devoted to him, but I would like to offer to your attention a poem by Hovhannes Toumanyan, an Armenian poet of new times (1869 – 1923). To my mind, this poem is one of the best expressions of the essence of Christ’s mission. The poem is called “Christ in the Desert”. 

His forehead was darker than the desert in night darkness.
He thought how to spread the light of love in the dark desert of mankind’s life.

In these words we see the real image of Christ as it was perceived by millions of believers. A God, who wished to spread the light of love, differs greatly from Prometheus. Prometheus gave men very concrete things – fire, arts and skills which men need in everyday life. And he could count his deeds because of their concreteness. All his endeavors were very matter-of-fact, whereas Christ’s mission is related to spirit and morality. It was a colossal task. And it was very difficult to complete, too. Prometheus considered his gifts to men as accomplished.  Christ only dreamed of it. These are the last lines of Toumanyan's poem: He was sitting alone on a stone in the desert And was pondering...And further:he was sitting downcast And thought silently about the world.

He is discouraged because he didn't see the results of his endeavors. And this might be the reason why He was arrested and crucified while Prometheus won people’s respect and gratitude. Prometheus accomplished his mission. Christ couldn't accomplish his, it was impossible. And we see a great and deep sorrow  in his downcast position. I suggest Toumanyan caught the essense of Christ. It was easy to give men  knowledge and skills. Prometheus was a god and managed to do it. But it was an impossible task to change the nature of mankind. And Christ wanted to do it. That is why he was sitting in the desert downcast.

 I would like to remind a well known piece of New Testament: “Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels and have not charity, I am becomes sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffered long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunted not itself, is not puffed up.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (I Corinthians 13).        

These words themselves are very significant to understand the revolutionary changes in European mind committed by Christianity. The moral values came to first plan, and so radically that charity became the main value, above even the faith. One can compare this scale of values with that of ancient Greece’s. The highest values there were the victory in any way, the straight and indignation, and ancient Greece heroes may trick and deceive if they need it for victory. But in this case the contradiction of “Prometheus gifts” and The Christian values are important. The image of Christ in the European conscious was tightly tied with this apology of charity.          

It is not my goal to analyze the literary works devoted to Prometheus. We can find their scrutiny in the works of Russian researcher Aleksey Losev one of the best specialists of antique philosophy, mythology and literature. However, I would like to mention the work of Horace, the Roman poet. It is radically different from the tragedies of Aeschylus. Horace reproaches Prometheus for his gift to men. He thinks fire spoiled men. He also claims that Prometheus put malice and “madness of a lion” in men. Even more interesting in this case is the author’s belief that Prometheus cared only about the bodies of people, the calamities they suffer and enmity between them. This is a somewhat unexpected approach towards one of the most beloved antique heroes. But there is logic in such a reading of Prometheus especially when we look at his heroic exploit in terms of Christian morality. In the times of Horace moral problems had begun to worry mankind.     

Men followed the advice of Prometheus and made great progress. They learned to fight with nature and win; they created a great number of machines and came to computers. They moved along this way so successfully, that it seems everything is done; our knowledge and skills have greatly developed, to the point that we are able now to ruin this world and nature.

After all it is possible to reveal certain logic in that humankind gave birth first to Prometheus and then Christ. When men solved their problems with nature and stood on earth firmly they faced with the necessity of moral improvement. Hence the creation of Christ’s character is one of the highest expressions of human development. However moral progress took place so slowly that we can even doubt whether it has ever taken place. It is for this reason that having preserved a good deal of his charm Prometheus has lost his significance. A new Prometheus would have little to do. Whereas Christ’s figure is not losing its vitality for His mission is not complete yet.



1.Actually this type of ancient hero has its parallels in the Armenian and Georgian mythologies and may be considering as an Antique and Caucasian hero. In particular, in the Armenian oral tradition this hero lived at least two thousand years – from the pagan epic songs to the medieval epic “Daredevils of Sassoun”. He was a stubborn /insubordinate/ hero too, he is either chained to a rock, as Artavazd – the hero of ancient epic songs,  or locked in a rock, like the hero of “Daredevils of Sassoun” Meher the Young. They helped or tried to help the human beings. But in Armenian epic tradition this hero has contradictory image – in some plots he is an evil, a negative hero. 
2 SeeЛосев А. Ф. Проблема символа и реалистическое искусство, М., 1976.

1.2. Der Kaukasus und Europa / Caucasus and Europe

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Azat Yeghiazaryan: Two Great Symbols of European Culture – Prometheus and Christ - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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