The Prometheus myth

In addition to the biblical account of the Creation, Adam and Eve and the Fall, the Greek myth of Prometheus also lies behind the text. The myth says that:

  • Zeus, the supreme god of the Greeks (known to the Romans as Jupiter) asked Prometheus to create humanity from mud and water
  • Prometheus (whose name means ‘forethought') became a great benefactor to mankind, teaching them architecture, astronomy, navigation, medicine and a number of other useful skills
  • Prometheus later played a trick on Zeus, who retaliated by withholding the gift of fire from mankind. But Prometheus defied Zeus and stole fire from heaven to bring to earth. As a punishment, Prometheus was bound to a rock and every day a giant eagle ate his liver, which was miraculously renewed every night. He was eventually rescued from his suffering by Hercules, the Greek hero
  • As a further punishment, Zeus caused the beautiful but thoughtless Pandora to open a jar in which were imprisoned all the ills that afflict humanity – illness, old age, the need to labour, insanity and vice.

Admiration for Prometheus

Prometheus' daring in stealing fire from the gods made him an admired figure among writers of the Romantic and later generations. The German writer Goethe (see Literary context: The monster's reading) wrote about Prometheus in the 1770s, seeing him as a figure representing humanity's creative powers and the revolt against social and political restraint. The romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a critical essay about the play Prometheus, written by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Mary Shelley's sources

Mary Shelley will have been familiar with the myth from a number of sources:

  • her reading of Greek literature as a child and young woman
  • Byron published a poem called Prometheus in July 1816
  • in the same summer, just before beginning work on Frankenstein, she helped Byron by making a fair copy of Canto III of his poem Childe Harold, which contains references to Prometheus
  • her husband was working on his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) in Italy during the years 1818 and 1819, and probably discussed the poem with her earlier than this, while she was writing Frankenstein.

Shelley's Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus Unbound follows the view taken by Goethe in seeing Prometheus as a heroic figure who defies the tyranny of the gods on behalf of humanity. It is a kind of political allegory, aimed at the political oppressions of the day, and also concerns science and psychology.

Link with Frankenstein

Like the story of the biblical Creation and Fall, this myth can be applied to Frankenstein in a number of ways:

  • the punishment of Prometheus and the foolishness of Pandora in releasing evil and suffering into the world are a version of the Fall and the end of innocence as told in Genesis
  • Frankenstein can be compared with Prometheus in the way in which he steals fire by harnessing the power of lightning to animate his monster
  • but, like Prometheus, he also defies the supreme being and continues to pursue knowledge (symbolised by fire) until it has fatal consequences: a clear parallel with Frankenstein's crimes against nature.
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