And so, at the agora, a public trial of one Prometheus: a stranger, a wanderer, who had gone about saying that he had the secret of lightning, to put it in a bottle and make it serve the purposes of man.
A trial for blasphemy. For sacrilege. For making of himself a threat to public safety. Public safety? Indeed. The Thunderer – Zeus himself – would avenge his name and the affront to his dignity and smite the whole city, if he were not silenced. His talk of catching and keeping the sacred lightning, his arrant hubris, was a threat to the life of every man of Athens. A capital crime.
With witnesses and evidence undeniable the case against Prometheus was made. Finally, it came his turn to make reply. He rose from his seat, turned to address the crowd, and answered them thus:
“Men of Athens, you accuse me today of blasphemy, of sacrilege. My words I will not deny, nor retract. Yes, I have the secret of the thunderbolt. Yes, you can harness it as a man harnesses an ox, for any purpose you should desire. Yes, with the simplest of devices affixed to your home you need nevermore fear the thunderbolt of Zeus. All of these things I have said. All are true.
“You have charged me with blasphemy. I am neither surprised nor dismayed: for men have always said such things. I ask: what know you of blasphemy? Of sacrilege? Who are you judge such matters?
“Hear this story:”
In the beginning, men were strong and shaggy, and lived without writing, or farming, or any contrivance of civilisation. They were fierce and brave, but were not without fear, for they feared three things above all. They feared the darkness, and they feared the destroyer.
The darkness lived in caves and in deep forest. Each night, Apollo (whose name they did not know) would depart, and the darkness would emerge from its hiding places. It would bring cold, and the hunter, and the crawling thing, and it would take the sight from man, and make him helpless.
The destroyer came rarely, but was very terrible. The sound of him! The smell of him, carried on the wind! He would sweep across the land, and all that lived would flee. Those who did not, or could not, the destroyer would consume, leaving only dead bones black and brittle.
Things would have remained forever thus, but for this: The Destroyer hated the Darkness, and The Darkness hated The Destroyer.
One day the destroyer came to a man – not in his full power, but small, the size of a fist – and spoke to him, saying: “You know me: I am the destroyer, the eater of all that lives. Hear me! Ally yourself with me, and I will keep the dark at bay. ” But the man was frightened, and ran.
Again and again the destroyer made his offer, to this man or that, until one day he approached a man unusual among his kind. He was wise, and answered the destroyer, saying “Tell me more. What more do you offer? What price must I pay? And how can I be sure you will not slay me?”
The destroyer answered him, saying “Keep me with you always, take me into your home. Feed me and tend me. I will keep the dark and the cold from you and your house. The hunter will not dare to approach me. My breath shall keep the creeping thing from you. Make for me a bed on which to lay, and I will not harm you or yours- I swear it. This also I offer: share your meat with me. The fat of it, and the marrow of the bones shall be mine. In return, I will change the flesh of it, and clean it, and make it soft and sweet. Here beside me lies some meat I have changed. Try it!
The man was hungry, for his hunt had not succeeded. He smelled the meat that had been changed, and tasted it, and it was fragrant and soft and sweet as the destroyer had promised. He considered the bargain offered him and decided to accept, and so he stretched out his hand and took with him the branch on which the destroyer stood. How they wailed when he arrived back at home! “He has brought the destroyer among us!”, they cried, “Slay him!” They ran at him, but he held the destroyer in his hand, and they could not approach him for fear.
And so the man and his children kept the destroyer among them always. They made a bed for it, and fed it, and shared their meat with it. They learned to give to it earth to change it into bright metal, with which they made axes to cut down the forests where the darkness and the hunter lived. They spread across all the land.
The destroyer did not keep his oath. As often as he could, he would escape from his bed, and he would grow great and slay and consume. But man had grow smaller and weaker – if wiser – and could no longer eat meat which had not been changed, nor keep back the hunter without weapons of bright metal. He could no longer live without the destroyer by his side always. He was bound by his ancient bargain, and so matters stand today.
“Men of Athens: you speak to me of sacrilege, of blasphemy. But what do I see in that lamp by the door? What lies slumbering in your hearth? He is here! He is here! The hater of life! The consumer, the ravager, the destroyer! You speak to me of sacrelige, when you have taken the great monster into your home, and share your meat with him, and teach your children to care for him, and keep him with them always. But always he hungers for all life, and to escapes his bed and consume. Never has he kept his oath, and you know this, but keep him with you nevertheless.
“I have not spoken of the Gods. Nor have I spoken of the third thing that men feared. With the Gods, men made another bargain, to ward them against this last thing. For more than the darkness, more even than the destroyer, men feared one another. In this, they were wise. Is it not in your hearts now to slay me?
The men of Athens considered the words of Prometheus, who offered them the secret of the thunderbolt. They spoke no word, but exchanged glances with one another, and nodded in agreement, and rose from their seats, and howling, fell upon him and tore him to pieces.
Humans – Homo sapiens – craves cooked meat. Most people do not thrive on a vegetarian diet. We need meat, and not just meat, but cooked meat. Think about that: the need to use fire is genetic – it’s in our DNA. It’s as necessary to us as our gut bacteria.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus offered the gods their choice of the fat or the meat for the sacrifice, and the gods chose the fat. But I think it goes back even further than that. Consider act of sacrifice as an archetype. It’s essence is this: you give something up, and it is given back to you – maybe not as much as what you gave up – but what you get back is changed. It is made holy.
Prior to the Gods, there was fire. These religious ideas – of sacrifice, of transformation – came from the greatest and most important discovery … ever, really. The discovery that makes us specifically human. The day we learned to cook.