by Nancy Bernbrock
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have for you today two erudite papers related to Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Our first speaker, the noted Jungian analyst, Dr. Dan Brainbank, has a case history of interest, and our leading anthropological researcher, Dr. Maude H. Mead, has what she calls a “note” on a new discovery that is relevant to our topic. And now,
without further ado, Dr. Brainbank. You’ll introduce your own title?
Yes. Thank you , Dr. Floyd. My presentation is entitled ‘ ‘Prometheus: The Reconnecting of an Unbound Ego.”
Ladies and gentlemen , I have here (waving a large, over-stuffed manila folder) the case history of a patient who exhibits classic symptoms of the alienated ego neurosis, as well
as paranoia and projection. He calls himself Prometheus, and also alludes to himself as Christ, but I have reason to believe he may actually be Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Gasps of astonishment from the audience .)
This patient first came to my attention a year or so ago when he chained himself to a ledge of the Hyatt Regency-you may have seen the incident on the news. I was called to the scene to attempt to “talk him down,” and I found him in a very unstable mental condition, totally disoriented and in considerable, but unexplainable, pain. He was initially very
uncommunicative, and it took me several interviews to learn his ”story.”
It seems this Prometheus believed himself to be a god who had been chained to a precipice of ” icy Rocks in the Indian Caucasus” -the Hyatt Regency-by another, more powerful and vengeful god called Jupiter. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that neither the Indian Caucasus nor Jupiter exists except in the imagination of this tormented man. Prometheus maintained that he was being punished by Jupiter for his theft of fire and attempts to save mankind from ignorance and destruction.
Now there are three significant points in this delusion which I would like to discuss briefly before I get into the actual transcript of one of our early interviews: ( 1) Jupiter, to whom Prometheus admittedly gave power, is clearly Prometheus’s own Self, or for you Freudians, Super-ego. (2) The theft of fire is an unmistakable symbol of the ego’s (Prometheus’s) assertion, or grasping for consciousness. This assertion, as one would expect, resulted in alienation from Self, which Prometheus projected as the figure of Jupiter. (3) The Savior complex, rare but not unknown in these classic alienation cases, reflects the patient’s somewhat biased view of traditional Christianity.
We will consider these points in more detail after I read you the transcript of one of our most successful early conversations. Notice how spatially and temporally disoriented Prometheus appears, and yet how clear and distinct his illusions of pain and torture are. You’ 11 find his language strange, but eloquent. He’s obviously an intelligent, well educated man. I might add that although this interview took place in my office, the subject believed himself to be hanging from the ledge. I quote from the transcript:
Analyst: Good morning. I’m Dr. Brainbank, and you’re
Prometheus: … Know ye not me,
The Titan? He who made his agony
The barrier to your else all-conquering foe? (1.117- 19).
Analyst: Ah yes, Prometheus. How are you feeling today?
Prometheus: No change , no pause, no hope! Yet I endure
The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones.
Heaven’s winged hound, polluting from thy lips
His beak in poison not his own, tears up
My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by ,
The ghastly people of the realm of dream,
Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged
To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds
When the rocks split and close again behind:
While from their loud abysses howling throng
The genii of the storm, urging the rage
Of whirlwind, and afflict me with keen hail (I. 31-43 ).
Analyst: I see. Well … do you know where you are?
Prometheus: . .. hung . . . here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life (l.19- 22).
Analyst: How long have you been here?
Prometheus: Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years … (1.12- 14).
Analyst: Who did this to you?
Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all Spirits
But One . . . (1.1- 2).
Analyst: How do you feel about Jupiter?
Prometheus: (Glaring heavenward) [One] wingless, crawling
Shall drag thee, cruel King, to kiss the blood
From these pale feet, which then might trample thee
If they disdained not such a prostrate slave (1.48-52).
I interrupt the transcript here to point out some interesting symbolism in Prometheus’s replies and to discuss for a moment our patient’s Savior complex.
Prometheus’s suffering, as I mentioned before, is characteristic of the alienated ego, as is his impression of being in the wilderness. His frequent use of words like ”wrench,” “split,” and “tear,” and his images of gulfs, ravines, and abysses or of dividing or being torn apart are unconscious acknowledgments of his alienated state, as is his hostility for Jupiter-his separated Self. As we discovered later, the patient’s anima, shadow, and parent figures had split off as well, and appeared to him as separate personages attempting either to help or torment him. Prometheus calls the anima Projection Asia, and she seems most benign and helpful to him. The shadow projection sometimes takes the form of Jupiter and at other times becomes Mercury, or the Furies, or various and sundry “spirits” and “voices” Prometheus hears from time to time .
The “crime” for which Prometheus believes he is being punished is, according to him, the theft of fire. Actually, there was no theft-Prometheus asserted his ego in grasping for knowledge and consciousness, symbolized by the fire. It is very common in such cases for the patient to perceive his assertion as a “crime” and to suffer psychological punishment
as a result. Jung compares the act of assertion to Adam and Eve ‘s eating of the forbidden fruit-the source of their consciousness and knowledge, as well as the cause of their expulsion from paradise into a world of suffering, toil , and death .
It seems reasonable to assume that Prometheus’s suffering, though largely psychosomatic, was real enough to him to be a factor in his identification with Christ. You’ll notice that,
at least to this point, Prometheus has not named Christ or called himself by that name, but the identification is undeniably there . His illusion of being chained to the cliff is analogous to Christ’s position on the cross. When I first saw Prometheus, he was in that attitude. The patient himself says he is hung, nailed, to the ledge . Further, he speaks of
being pierced with spears, of having “quivering wounds, ” and bloody feet-clearly identifications with the wounds of Christ.
There is more here than a standard persecution complex. The patient’s identification with Christ indicates that he sees Jupiter and God as parallels. The traditional Christian dogma has been inverted here-God is seen as an oppressor of Christ and of mankind. I found this very puzzling until, in our later conversations, I became convinced that these associations grew out of Prometheus’s disenchantment with the institution, not the precepts, of Christianity. He has come to view the powerful, dogmatic church organization as
oppressive and tyrannical, an institution that does not exist for the people, as it should, but for which the people exist.
I’ve been working with Prometheus for almost a year now, and his is a very interesting case. I haven’t time today to give you a complete case history, but I’d like to briefly outline our progress.
Although Prometheus expressed a change of heart toward Jupiter early in the course of his therapy-he said he no longer hated Jupiter-he was still haunted and tormented by hallucinations of Furies and spirits, and visions of revolution and bloodshed and the crucifixion. At one point, the patient had a vision of Mercury, who , he said, was sent by Jupiter to bargain for some secret Prometheus was supposed to have . Because he couldn’t remember the secret, Prometheus agreed to undergo hypnosis to see if he could recall it. While he was in a hypnotic trance, however, he experienced a phantasm of Jupiter who repeated a horrific curse Prometheus had much earlier pronounced against him.
Once the curse had been recalled consciously, Prometheus began to progress more rapidly. He came to recognize reality more frequently, and I sensed a genuine change in his feelings about Jupiter-signs, I feel, of real metanoia, which is prerequisite for achieving a healthy ego-Self balance. I’d like to clarify here that metanoia does not necessarily mean repentance, as some members of our society have maintained, but it can also mean “a change of mind.” In this sense the term applies to Prometheus.
And there you have, in a severely condensed form, the case history of Prometheus, the classic case of an alienated ego on its way to wholeness. I feel very encouraged now. It’s
only a matter of time until Prometheus’s projection of Jupiter will vanish. Of course , that can only come about with the help of Asia. You’ll pardon me, I hope, for personalizing
Prometheus’s anima; he speaks of her so often I’m afraid I have begun to think her real myself at times. I’d hardly be surprised if she should drop into my office some day.
There is one more puzzling development in the Prometheus case, and since I have no explanation for it, I throw it open to you ladies and gentlemen for solution . The problem is this: Lately, Prometheus has begun to call me Demogorgon . . . .
(Applause from the audience . The society president, Dr. Floyd, rises to introduce the next speaker.)
Ladies and gentlemen , our distinguished colleague
Dr. Maude H . Mead will present her paper entitled “The
Knee Beyond Reason.”
(Dr. Meade rises.)
For many years I have read the lines
. . . regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise .
in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound without paying any particular attention to the term “knee-worship. ” Imagine my surprise when, working with an ancient Greek manuscript
fragment, I discovered a reference to a previously-unknown religious cult called the Gonuproskunontes, or knee worshippers. My discovery set me off on a long, arduous, and often fruitless investigation that has, however, had some amazing and far-reaching results.
I have not been able to learn much about the ceremonies and beliefs of this cult; they seem always to have been shrouded in mystery, and are likely to remain so. But I have
found indications that the group dates back to pre-Mycenaean times. New explorations at Parnassus have uncovered remnants of a small temple, dated about 600 B.C., that I feel sure was a major shrine of the mysterious cult of knee worshippers. The site is at about mid-slope of Parnassus, some twenty yards below and slightly to one side of the great stone Omphalos (World Navel). It seems very likely to me that further exploration will uncover an identical shrine-or the site of one-parallel to the first, but slightly to the other side of the Omphalos.
Judging from the evidence at the site, and what we know of the rituals of other ancient Greek “mysteries,” I would guess that the initiates of the Gonuproskunontes were required at certain times to bring sacrifices to the shrines and prostrate themselves before the polished stone ” Great Knee.” The offerings seem to have consisted mainly of jars of ointments and aromatic oils, small linen pillows stuffed with wool or straw, and bright strips of fabric-probably once tied around the statues on feast days.
We may never have more specific information about just what the Gonuproskunontes believed or what their religious practices were, but the influence of this obscure cult was once so widespread and so powerful that it has left its mark on the ancient Greek civilization, and still exists, though usually in drastically altered forms, in modern civilizations throughout the world.
Mircea Eliade, in Myth and Reality, cites an example bearing evidence of the widespread influence of the knee worshippers. According to Scandinavian mythology, Eliade says, the parents of iron were born when one of the gods clapped his left knee four times with both hands. This, no doubt, is the aition for the origin of knee worship in the Scandinavian
cultures, but, although there was, no doubt, a similar myth in Greek, there is no mention of it nor have any fragments of such a myth been found.
One of the earliest and most widespread evidences of the Gonuproskunontes’ influence on the ancient Greek culture is the appearance of Gonukruptoi or ceremonial knee coverings in both black- and red-figure vase paintings. For centuries experts have considered these to be pictures of hoplite warriors in their customary battle-greaves. A closer look, however, has revealed two types of “greaves” in the paintings: plain, unadorned battle-greaves and elaborately carved and decorated “greaves,” probably made of gold and/or silver. The elaborate type are obviously unsuited for battle and, therefore, are not greaves at all, but the ceremonial and religiously symbolic knee coverings-Gonukruptoi-of the initiates and priests of the Gonuproskunontes. Studies are underway at the present time to determine what the relationship is, if one exists, between the practice of knee worship and the custom of shielding the knees in battle . Remnants of the knee worshippers are evident in the Greek folk costumes worn today (those of the men, of course; the women apparently were excluded from the cult). The costumes include white knickers, tied at the knees with bright blue ribbons like the colorful strips of fabric pictured on a crumbling wall at
The modern western version of the Gonukruptoi has no conscious religious significance , as I see it, but has become attached to the world of sports. Plain , padded , fabric versions of the ceremonial knee coverings are common at nearly every basketball or volleyball game, most soccer matches, and many tennis tournaments. Although it is rather sad to see a once-sacred object be so profaned, at the same time it is exciting to note the far-reaching influence of this obscure religious cult.
Another modern corruption of the practice of knee worship still retains a religious significance . That is the custom of kneeling to worship, common in many large western and eastern religions. This custom is an obvious inversion-or perversion-of the ancient practice.
Of course, this new information about knee worship doesn’t significantly change the meaning of Shelley’s poem, but it does raise some intriguing questions about how Shelley
knew of this interesting cult. The most surprising aspect of this discovery is that, despite the wide influence of the Gonuproskunontes and the numerous modern vestiges of the
cult, the knee worshippers remained undiscovered for so long.