Above, Jean Delville's Prométhée.
Great writers are like wine - an exploit of upper-class socialites to masquerade sophistication, and they also tend to increase in prestige with age.
Yet for Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, it was only her first book, it was only the cusp of a new genre, and she was only nineteen. How could something so fresh taste so good?
Join 19:14 to explore the eternal plight of the Promethean.
This story, and most stories tend to do, starts with enterprise, and then the divvying of wealth from the Gods.
It was an impracticality to be poor, as it is now, and even the inadequacies of youth are rounded with time - poverty often the opposite. Mary Shelley came from a line of writers, intellectuals and entrepreneurs - her mother, Wollstonecraft, is an incredibly notable woman who would have been the most notable of her lineage if she had not raised such a notable woman herself. Lineages have been of import since the days mountains housed Gods; it was the Titans, first sundered from the Sky by the love of the Earth, who gave birth to their own executioners.
Heritage defines us. The same faculties that gave Shelley an unorthodox education laid barren her father’s economic life; he was kept afloat by donations from his many influential friends, but it should be noted that the sphere of life the man partook in was one of counter-establishment; anarchists, utilitarianists, feminists, philosophers and free-thinkers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the burgeoning 19th century rattle-tail cry for progress. Before age fifteen Mary had more exposure to the white-hot cerebellum of England than almost anyone in the country.
From Aaron Burr to Coleridge, there was one person that she would never be able to meet: her mother, Wollstonecraft, died shortly after giving birth. Her feminist essay A Vindication on the Rights of Women combined with her father Godwin’s Political Justice, and his network of critics and philosophers, made her an inheritor of biological talent, if such a thing existed, and an entrenched and critical upbringing. One could say Mary was as much a product of the writings of the time as she was the blood of her parents.
So important was heritage in a world of greatly concentrated power that the greatest Titan, Kronos, ate his own children in a bid to maintain his authority. Many years later, Mary benefitted greatly from her father’s kindness and intellectual connections - a privilege for anyone, especially a young woman. In her father’s words, “her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”
The consequences of pseudo-aristocratic intellectualism were not limited to England - Prometheus was, as myths were, created. Greek folklore is older than the writing itself, and even Ovid’s classics were written with a deep fascination of their origins. Contemporary writings of the oral tradition simply cannot exist; oral tradition was the fashion of the first stories, as the greatest stories start with a hint of a word at the corner of the mouth, and even in the age of impermeable media, campfire stories and party recollections exist with as much tenacity as they once did.
The social aspect of mythology, that followed the Mycenaean (the original inhabitants of Greece, of which little is known) origins of Zeus, Poseidon, Demeter and the like deeply contrast with the insular aspect of written literature. While some books are best read aloud, it would be madness to refute the existence of literature as the Shelleys knew it: written and read by candlelight, alone under the moon. In fact, it was in the Villa Diodati, rented by Lord Byron and John Polidori, that witnessed the fabled minds of the Shelleys at their best in the spoken manner; Frankenstein was written because it was Mary’s very best attempt at frightening her companions. A dark, stormy night near Lake Geneva was the locale of a new kind of tradition, and even coincidence saw an opportunity in the gathering!
The three days of their occupation took place in 1816 during the ‘Year of No Summer,’ where days were cloudy and the sun rarely shone. Perhaps the story of how these tales emerged is worth telling in its own fashion, but whatever occurred during those nights, both Vampire fiction through Polidori and science-fiction through Mary were birthed into the world. And they were not as words written, but sounds. The oral tradition has not disappeared - it exists, and will continue to exist, as long as people have hearts full of wonder and tongues to express it.
And such enters Prometheus.
There’s no need to be coy about him - the Greeks understood his name as literally ‘Forethinker.’ His brother, Epimetheus, was literally ‘Afterthinker,’ but might be more identified as hindsight in today’s verbiage. Despite the prominence of other Olympians in the cultural consciousness, it is Prometheus that seems to have endured as a meaningful symbol of something greater than himself. The existence of this god in the traditions of romanticist literature is undeniable; after Mary Shelley’s debut, Percy Shelley wrote an updated version of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Unbound. But who is Prometheus, and what does his story have to do with horror and hope, romanticism and enlightenment, these minds we call magnificent?
One of the cornerstones of our understanding of Ancient Greek mythology is the Titanomachia, an epic bisected poem detailing the theogony (creation of the gods) and later the war between the Olympians - Zeus’ kin - and the Titans. What we do know of it is fractured, but Prometheus seems to have fought with the Olympians, despite being a Titan himself. Titanomachia predates Theogony, which itself predates almost all literature on the Greek Pantheon. Its secrets would prove invaluable. What time has stolen from us! Hesiod’s Theogony is our oldest surviving record of a similar story, and Prometheus’ multiple different interpretations by those who could read the Titanomachia at the time point to his role being smaller and pliable, but we will never know - what is lost is lost.
Tragedy. The Greeks loved it - from tragedy to comedy, to philosophy of both the natural and immaterial worlds, the threads that weave the world were plucked and pulled by Greek fingers. Prometheus Bound is one of the more famous tragedies and is a key part of understanding who the mythical Prometheus was - or perhaps, more importantly, what he meant to the people who were writing about him.
The role of the trickster god is almost universal - Anansi in West African cultures, Loki in the Norse pantheon, whose meddling saw Tyr lose his arm and Ragnarok begin, and even Hermes in Greece’s own series of independently-minded cults featured in stories of hubris and comeuppance, and proved to resonate further than stories of wars or struggle. Notably, this is because trickery and downfall are extremely human, in the sense that they only arise out of the mind and the body. Son of Helios, Phaeton, flew his father’s chariot too recklessly and burnt to smoulders, not because his body lacked a godly element, but because his mind was cocksure.
It is a universal tradition to anthropomorphise the elements - rationalising the apparent randomness of harvest as the whims of Demeter, or the seasonal decay as Persephone returning to her lover Hades, are as old as Ancient Greek society, perhaps even older. There is a deep link between pantheons, like how one stylisation of Zeus is Zeus Piter, meaning Father, and this sounds remarkably similar to the Roman equivalent - Jupiter. And while Prometheus is understood as being linked to forethought, there is an alternative etymology; pra matha is a term in Vedic Sanskrit (these Indian holy scriptures predate the earliest Greek literature, written by Homer, by at least four hundred years, most likely more) that means to steal. This might be a coincidence, but pra matha is found in the Vedic story of the theft of fire. Perhaps, then, this story was a flame kept alight by the very first people who came to dominate the lands between India and Greece, these Proto-Indo-Europeans. Frankenstein, for its prestige as a classic, is only two-hundred years old, while Prometheus’, or a story recognisably similar, might trace its heritage to before the domestication of the horse. There’s little doubt that this story, of an ancient theft of fire that enlightened humanity, has staying power.
The arrogance of those in power was something Mary Shelley witnessed personally during her tour of Europe, only a year after the end of the earth-shattering Napoleonic Wars (David Gates says around five million people died during the two-decade conflict). Technology of warfare and communication was improving; the world was on the precipice of extraordinary advancement. And for Zeus, when Prometheus offered him two meals, one of glistening fat that wrapped only bones, and an ox’s stomach that contained delicious meat, Zeus saw the pleasant meal and fell for his innocent trick. All that glitters is not gold; Zeus was angered, and in some versions of the story, punished humanity. Humanity has enjoyed living like the gods. Toil and pain were foreign to humanity. And in Hesiod’s tale, fire was taken by Zeus, and returned once more in a fennel stalk by Prometheus. But in Aeschylus’ version, and other versions that became popular, fire was from the Gods alone - this may seem like a small distinction, but the origin of these quintessentially ‘human’ inventions like fire and the arts are often debated as to their own origin in mythology.
Hesiod believes it is so innate that all Prometheus did was restore it. For Aeschylus, fire and the arts are so divine - so beyond our natural world - that they belong to the realm of the Gods, and we have simply inherited it. This particular version seems to be the one that the Romans like Ovid found most appealing; perhaps this is because, throughout the world, artists are wont to refer to their work as being different to the way someone builds a bridge or fixes a car. The word ‘muse’ refers to such divine Greek forces that represent the arts, and the popular phrase ‘it just came to me’ implies, oddly, that the ideas themselves have agency. Indeed, throughout the written world, there is an insistence that words and brushstrokes are ‘genius,’ a word not in reference to the artist but a guiding spirit that has allowed them such success.
Perhaps then Mary Shelley meant to say that Frankenstein, her story, was far less invented - a word that is seldom used to describe stories anyhow - and more discovered. The archetypal artist is twisted, maligned, and almost possessed by a need to create, and icons like Van Gogh, Plath and Woolf have become heroes to the afflicted because of their struggle. The role of creator has in it either extreme humility or ego; the philosophy of which, as these masters lived, places the creation of their works firmly outside the realm of human understanding. In other words, it may as well be a gift from the gods.
The theft of fire is noticeably absent in Shelley’s book - in fact, the story of Victor Frankenstein, his friends and family, and his bestial creation, are beset by the winds of winter. The story opens on the inhospitable environment of the North Pole and the foolish men who travel there. Weather is dismal and precipitous throughout. One of the only instances of flash-pan genius is lightning striking an oak tree, whereby Victor puts an end to his obsession of alchemy. Alchemy has often been associated with paganism, heresy and the occult; al-khameia was an Arabic term for Egypt, a place where the diffusion of materials in logical ways dated back to the times of the Kemetic pantheon. For one to turn into lead into gold had once gripped the world before the ‘enlightenment,’ a period in which rationalist thinking championed by the likes of Voltaire and Kant, began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries. The reason for its decline was its greatest triumph; the Rights of Man, or the first French constitution, and the Napoleonic wars that ensued. It was Shelley and her companions that saw the struggles of enlightenment attitudes throughout Europe, as bloody revolution against the despotic regimes of post-Napoleonic Europe threatened to claim even more lives. The intellectual movement that followed enlightenment’s decline was the opposite of its empirical ethic - the romanticists had arisen.
Romantics were concerned of the popular and personal. The powerful, human art that flourished under their all-encompassing, authoritarian regime of Rome was not as much focus as the Medieval peace that Europe enjoyed. It was an insular, powerful belief in the human soul and the natural world it resided in; art and poetry, through the likes of Wordsworth and Friedrich, transitioned to the landscape. Byron and the Shelleys, instead of continuing the Classical sensibilities that the English institutions promulgated, turned to the romance - and one of the foremost principles of romanticism was a distrust of modernity, and by association, the advance of technology, should the human will be forgotten.
The role of paternal and maternal energy in Frankenstein is apparent; the story, written by a woman who was competing against deeply entrenched sexist attitudes, revolved around men and men possess almost all of the agency, except for Frankenstein’s wife, who is killed by the monster. These typical representations of woman as living for, and dying for, the men in their lives would be readily accepted by the literate male audience and the world as a whole - however, deeper into the book’s themes, and the sinister wrath of paternalism rears its head. Frankenstein is enamoured by great men, and in the process, takes the divine power of creation into his own hands. He plunges the world into disrepair by tampering with the natural order.
Hesiod’s Prometheus also witnesses a similar decline; Zeus sends the first woman to live with man as punishment for his return of fire, and this woman is called Pandora, or ‘all-gifts.’ Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus, marries her despite the latter’s better judgement, and the jar she carries is opened, releasing all of the world’s natural ills upon humanity. ‘Afterthought’ becomes clear here in Hesiod’s tale of the origin of natural evil. This, too, is a thread that runs through many different faiths - the Abrahamic religions believe in the sanctity of the Garden of Eden, and after the first woman Eve’s betrayal, the first sin, the Garden is no more, and God punishes humanity. The root of these natural evils places the responsibility on the Creator deity, who only acts in retaliation against a human, or moral, evil. This ideal of the ‘human’ efforts leading to physical consequence can be found expressed throughout the world, in tales of Gods and humanity fighting and falling in love with each other, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest written story, and Amaterasu’s disappearance, a famous Japanese myth.
Frankenstein also clearly represents the romantic reinterpretation of the myth of Satan - John Milton’s Paradise Lost formed a basis of understanding literature in the early nineteenth century, and the role of creation-turned-evil, turning against the modernist structuring of his thought, proves that evil was not innate to the body that Frankenstein reanimated, but was created by circumstance. The monster is not just man rebelling against science, and not just man’s hubris in playing God, but the soul rebelling against the essentialist idea of goodness.
And, whether acknowledged or not, whether discussed or ignored, these themes have moulded modern understanding of the soul, and of man’s futility to mould it. Milton’s work, interpreted in a post-Napoleonic world, is far more story than doctrine. Like Prometheus’ tale, it is not a description of the natural world as an expression of the immaterial soul, reinterpreted with time and new voices. It was Mary’s husband who wrote “Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God …”
So crucial is it that Shelley invokes Milton in the later removed epigraph:
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? –
Frankenstein’s monster is given far more ‘humanity’ than his so-called human creator, and the fact that he has no mother is important subtext throughout the novel. After all the sins he commits, murdering many to spite his father, the monster seems distraught and lost - like an abused child. It is here that the true horror of Shelley’s science-fiction becomes clear, as the wrath of the gods or the wars between men pale in comparison to the miracle of life created by life, one of the most personal and demanding experiences anyone can experience. She twists the natural order by having the monster be made, not born, out of the cadaver no less. This gift and monumental progress for science leads to Frankenstein’s mental decline, as he refuses to take responsibility for his own creation, and the deaths of many at the hands of a monster that does not know love nor life. It is a world without divine punishment, and although that may at one point seem fairer, Shelley beautifully illustrates how ignoble and disorderly humanity can become. In the frigid north the monster outlives his creator, and the men caught in the middle have only to wonder how this man could have possibly thought of himself like the next Prometheus - Frankenstein dies loveless, and nobody celebrates his sacrifice. This is not the tale of a man poetically chained and tortured for giving fire - this is the story of a man obsessed with power and cowed to responsibility. Mary’s frigid storytelling does not seek much fire or enlightenment; her romanticist leanings do not want a recreation, or progression, of the mythical Prometheus. It is clear that the most important word in ‘The Modern Prometheus’ is not the god’s name, but ‘modern.’
The very term ‘monster’ may predispose the audience against the character, but Shelley’s astute writing makes it clear that the monster is far less how the audience should understand him, but how the audience should understand Frankenstein’s own perspective. And by doing so, she shatters it - the romantic notion of the ‘blank slate,’ that people are born sinless, is engendered to us through the Monster being created not from a new body, but by a cadaver that Frankenstein used while at Ingolstadt University.
Hegel’s Master and Slave treatise, which precedes Shelley’s work by a few years, helps one understand the dynamic between master and creation. The relationship between the two, despite its skewed power dynamic, predicates the self- understanding of both parties. Without the slave, the Master cannot judge himself superior, and despite the master’s power of him, the Slave cannot continue to exist without the master’s maligned power, lest his entire worldview be transformed. These systems permeate throughout their understanding of the world as well - this phenomenon is best represented today under the feminist and Marxist critique of ‘internalised oppression.’
For Frankenstein, the existence of his creator makes him a master - but this role only gives him pain and, later, grief. And for the monster, who is robbed of his innocence and has not been guided by any authority figure, finds himself only able to define his relationship with the world with his First Other - he exists to torment his creator, not out of malice alone, but out of the fear that all people possess to meaningfully act upon the environment and justify their own existence.
Indeed, when Frankenstein passes, his life dominated by the wish to see his twisted creation put to rest, it is only the monster who watches his passing - both have defined themselves by the other’s existence, and the light that should have set them both free has only punished them. Those acts of cruelty and horror by the monster are lamented by him; he renounces his will to live, one of the most human things anyone can do, and drifts out into the cold ocean to die alone, so that no one can know of his story. The agency of the monster is without question, even if he has decided to end his life there, not in violence, but out of exposure. The image of the monster washing away from the ship Frankenstein sailed is perhaps the strongest in the entire book. Like great romantics, Shelley gives life to an idea in the mind - of who this monster truly is - and uses it to its full effect.
In fact, the premise and narrative of the story are so infectious that a hundred years later, Whale’s Frankenstein changed the landscape of cinema and set forth a reinvention of the classic that allows any child in the English-speaking world to hear the name ‘Frankenstein’ and know, somehow, there was a monster made. Perhaps then that Mary Shelley was not speaking of Frankenstein as the Modern Prometheus. This gift of extraordinary prose and epistolic narrative has inspired the entire field of science-fiction, and through its denizens, the fields of Gothic and cinematic horror. Shelley may fit the form of a Modern Prometheus more than any other, but one cannot have the title without suffering what Prometheus did for his gift - eternal punishment. How could this woman be subject to such a thing?
Another miracle attributed to Prometheus is to have created humanity from clay - a wide-spread creation myth with reports in Hindu, Abrahamic, Babylonian and Korean texts, to name a few. This creation, while seemingly as important as some texts in Genesis are for Christians, did not see much contemporary celebration. For all his fame in our classically-minded society, and his great presence in tragedy and epic, Prometheus was never worshipped by the majority of the Ancient Greek population. Athena’s Temple saw thousands of visitors in Athens, and Zeus’ Temple perhaps even more. Demeter, the Goddess of the Harvest, was crucial to full stomachs. It is also important to note that Greek myth, like the stories of Athena’s birth and Heracles’ labours, were just that - stories. Some even drew away from them, believing that the Gods’ stories were too complex and fanciful for poets to put to words, and by doing so actively threatened their careful relationship with the Pantheon.
These people did not write much, so what is left seems like common understanding; Hesiod’s Theogeny and Aeschylus Prometheus Bound are tragic tales, vague interpretations of long-standing oral tradition, and meant to espouse the wisdom that the writers found of their own time. The discrepancies between the two, painting almost entirely two different characters with different progenies, shows their concern was not of doctrine or faith, but of a concerning story. And such a story it was: the idea of a god that sought to enlighten man and for this was punished eternally may sound familiar. The Hellenic ideal of a ‘fellow sufferer who understands’ would concentrate over time, eventually developing into the Hellenic Iesus Christos, whose punishment liberated humanity. The tragedy of the young, the pure of heart, passing before their time, like Achilles, passed from Hellenism into popular western culture. Apostle John and Paul’s own Hellenic trappings show just how much of this story connected with them; Prometheus’ story and character were, and are, instruments of the writer above all else.
Left and above, Constance Hansen’s Prometheus Creating Man from Clay, 19th century. Prometheus is instructed by Athena - this story comes from the Bibliotheca of Psuedo-Appolodorus, compiled first or secondary AD, during the height of the Roman Empire and its obsession with Greek myth.
Suffering, like Prometheus, was not foreign to Mary Shelley’s life. The image of the young romantic, fighting for the human spirit and enlightening the world, rose to prominence in the blazing-hot youth of the likes of Mary and her husband, Percy.
Lord Byron, another almost-fanatic that was also at the Villa Diodati, became so obsessed with the classics and tales of Prometheus and his kin that when Greece rose up in violent rebellion against their oppressors, the Turks, it was the opportunity to turn his petty words into action. A poet became a war-hero. His involvement in gathering the Philhellenes, foreigners who came to Greece’s aid, was instrumental to her survival. But it was the cost of these endeavours that history remembers: Byron died of disease contracted during the Siege of Missolonghi in 1834. Still, his light burns on - a light picked up by his daughter, none other than Ada Lovelace.
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source.
From Prometheus, a poem by Lord Byron
And while her father’s death inspired, not all of the Villa Diodati’s visitors saw glory in their final moments. Byron knew of one other radical romantic who died before his time. As did his wife, Mary Shelley. Percy Shelley went sailing with a few friends on a boat that Mary had seen as unseaworthy. He and his crew were not experienced enough for such a trip; they sailed anyway. Percy went overboard. They found his body days later. And when they had to burn it, his friends wept and cherished his waterlogged body. Mary Shelley would have to convince his friend to return the only thing that, miraculously, survived the cremation - his small, calcified heart. He was 29. His last work, the Triumph of Life, remains unfinished.
The plight of the Promethean is one of constant reinvention and the transformation of pain into power. The romantic notion of the soul’s triumph and metamorphosis relies on the Promethean to light it; all parents, in their own way, are Prometheans, creating life and living eternally altered lives, a form of punishment, to nurture it. Perhaps it would be saccharine to believe it is selfless what Mary Shelley was able to do in 1818 - but she is dead, and you are not, and her words are all the more powerful for it. The coincidences and faculties of modern living shock and twist us, our natural shapes, into unnatural forms, and Shelley’s The Last Man, one of the first dystopian novels, remains an insight into what this world could become. The Promethean explores, wonders, dares, creates, and is punished for creating. There is something intoxicating in the synthesis of something new, of harnessing genius, or there may just be something sobering about it instead and the rest of life is a drunken dawdle.
But these stories are rarely told by the subject; stories are told by those who love us, and Percy’s unquenchable radicalism can be read through Mary’s work, just as her liberating and human prose can be found deeply influential in Percy’s.
For Percy Shelley, who wrote the timeless Ozymandias, a New York Times article of all things gave us one last gift. Mary Shelley, and her son, also named Percy, understood the last remnant of their father as his heart, but In 1885, upon another elucidation, the miracle of Percy’s unburnt heart may just have been a misunderstanding. The most likely thing to have survived cremation would be something waterlogged - not a heart, but a liver.
Below, Thomas Cole’s Prometheus Bound. It shows the god chained and awaiting the eagle’s arrival. As eternity continues, the eagle always plucks his liver.