The ancient, modern and contemporary Prometheus

It’s the two hundred years that the novel Dr. Frankestein, the modern Prometheus has been written by the English Mary Shelley, (1797–1851), when she was only 19 years old. This book tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young medical scientist who creates a grotesque, sapient creature with a scientific experiment, giving electric power to corpses mended together. This gothic novel originated during a competition with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, and the winner was the one created the most horrifying story. Very likely, Mary won this prize. Try to read this novel, as I did it, in the evening time, alone, loud voice; you probably will experience your nerves tense, heart beating faster, a sudden fear spreading around, for the ceaseless cascade of the events, and you will both support Frankenstein, both his creature, in a very ambivalent way.

Frankenstein belongs indeed to the Romantic movement, when the forces of nature were considered so strong and immense that human beings could not change or alter them, respecting the immense power of the cycle of life and death, love and hate; humans had just to go through it with passion and despair. At the same time, it is one of an early example of science fiction, and probably the first true science fiction story of the modern era, because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character makes a deliberate decision and turns to modern experiments in the laboratory to achieve fantastic results. However, science fiction was already largely present in mythology where flesh and electric power replaced clay and the power of Gods.

As a young boy, Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with studying outdated theories that focus on simulating natural wonders. When Victor is five years old, his parents adopt Elizabeth Lavenza, with whom Victor later falls in love.

Weeks before he leaves for the University, his mother dies; Victor, destroyed by his sorrow, buries himself in his experiments. At the university, he excels at chemistry and other sciences, soon developing, against the advices of a physician who before him tried to do the same and against the prohibition of the dean of the school of medicine, a secret technique to impart life to non-living matter. Eventually, he creates a humanoid, but due to the difficulty in replicating the human body, Victor makes the Creature tall, about 8 feet (2.4 m) in height and proportionally large. Once alive the creature is hideous. Repulsed by his work, Victor leaves him when it awakens. The Creature escapes.

He is Intelligent and in his first days of life, living alone in the wilderness he found that people were afraid of him, which led him to develop fear and hide from them. While living in an abandoned stable close to a cottage, he liked the poor family living there, and discreetly collected firewood for them. Secretly living among the family for months, the Creature learned to speak by listening to them and he taught himself to read after discovering lost books in the woods. When he saw his reflection in a pool, he realized his physical appearance was hideous, and it terrified him as it terrifies normal humans. Nevertheless, he approached the family: initially he was able to be friend with the blind father figure of the family, but the rest of them were frightened and they all fled their home, resulting in the Creature leaving, disappointed. He travelled to Victor’s family estate for revenge.

In the meanwhile, when Victor returns home when he learns of the murder of his brother William. Upon arriving in Geneva, Victor sees the Creature near the crime scene and climbing a mountain, leading him to believe his creation is responsible. Justine Moritz, William’s nanny, is convicted of the crime because of an evil plot thought by the Creature. Victor is helpless to stop her from being hanged, as he knows no one would believe his story.

With grief and guilt, Victor retreats into the mountains. The Creature finds him and demands that he creates a female companion like himself. He argues that as a living being, he has a right to happiness. The Creature promises that he and his mate will vanish into the South American wilderness, never to reappear, if Victor grants his request. Should Victor refuse his request, the Creature will kill Victor’s remaining friends and loved ones. Fearing for his family, Victor reluctantly agrees.

Victor works on the female creature, but he feels the premonitions of disaster, such as the female hating the Creature or becoming eviller than him, but more particularly the two creatures might lead to the breeding of a race that could plague mankind. He stops his galvanic work.

In Geneva, Victor is about to marry: the night following the wedding, Victor asks Elizabeth to stay in her room while he looks outside for the Creature. While Victor searches the house and grounds, the Creature strangles Elizabeth to death. From the window, Victor sees the Creature, who tauntingly points at Elizabeth’s corpse; Victor tries to shoot him, but the Creature escapes. Victor pursues the Creature to the North Pole but collapses from exhaustion.

Victor dies shortly thereafter, on the ship close to the North Pole of Captain Walton. He discovers the Creature on his ship, mourning over Victor’s body. The Creature vows to kill himself so that no others will ever know of his existence.
Frankenstein is defined as Modern Prometheus (etymology, the one who knows before) by Mary Shelley . As for the Ancient Prometheus: After the gods have moulded men and other living creatures with a mixture of clay and fire, Prometheus, together with his brother Epimetheus (the one who knows afterward), is called upon by Zeus and the other Gods to complete the task and distribute among the newly born creatures all sorts of natural qualities. Epimetheus sets to work but, being unwise, distributes all the gifts of nature among the animals, leaving men naked and unprotected, unable to defend themselves and to survive in a hostile world. Prometheus, worried for the future of humanity, steals the fire of creative power from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos and gives it to the mortals. Or, better, he teaches them how to light up a fire, a technical competence. This is what generally we know about the myth of the Ancient Prometheus: for the robbery of fire, for other tricks played against the Gods, and for loving humankind, he was punished by Zeus being bound to a rock, where each day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver, the centre of the emotions according to the ancient Greeks, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day. In some stories, Prometheus is freed at last by the hero Heracles. Another thing that it is worth to know is that Prometheus had told to Epimetheus not to accept the gift by the Gods a woman made of clay (does it recall our Genesis in the bible?) whose name was Pandora, the one who opened the forbidden box (as Eve who ate the forbidden apple) and unleashed upon humankind sorrow, diseases, plagues. We can see in this story a similarity between Prometheus and Frankenstein as the former refuses to create a female creature for his monster.

Some Greeks loved and respected the Ancient Prometheus, as the tragedy writer Aeschylus from Athens, in his “Prometheus Bound” has shown: here, Prometheus stands for the “Ascent of humanity from primitive beginnings to the present level of civilization.” He supports humankind, fight against the indifference of Gods, and shows a noble attitude to stand his daily torture.

There is more about the myth of Prometheus, which is told to us by Plato, the Greek Philosopher, that we are not so aware of: despite fire, provided by Prometheus with means to survive, humans risked becoming extinct because of mutual distrust, which prevented the formation of stable groups and relegated individuals to solitude. Concerned by the fate of mortals, Zeus then sent Hermes to Earth to distribute humility (the quality of being humble), a completely different virtue from the arrogance of Prometheus, and beyond humility also justice to all Humankind. One word is needed to explain the word humble: it originates from humus, the ground, the soil, the clay, the earth. Also, Human originates from the same root, humus. To be Humble or Human means to be concrete, to stick on the ground, to be realistic facing the human limits. While for technical competence, as the skills of lighting up a good fire, there are few experts to whom others must address in case of need, for humility and justice this does not happen, since all humans are provided by Zeus with them. According to the myth, it is in fact through, the gift of Zeus that the cities were born and the mortals have been able to get out of the feral, wild condition; and precisely in order to maintain this status, parents educate children in the virtue of humility. Human virtue is therefore teachable, and anyone is able to learn it. Of course, someone will prove to be less virtuous than others, but on the other hand this happens also in other skills.

Here we assist to a counter position between defining Prometheus as noble towards humanity and short sighted and arrogant toward the Gods: but what do these Gods mean? Can they represent nature’s laws and rhythms including the cycle of life and death? And could Prometheus embody technology, or better, the constant promise of technology, to prolong life, to ease pain and disease, to allow humans to eat cooked meals and not only raw meat, so to make beef tender and nice once cooked? (as Levi Strauss pointed out analysing mythology of South America, one fundamental concept in understanding human civilization in the world is this divide between the Raw and the Cooked.)

There is a sort of similarity between the old Prometheus and the modern Prometheus, but not so great as Mary Shelley choosing this subtitle wants us to believe: indeed, both of them challenge with hubris the rules imposed by the Gods and Nature, and try to do something good for the human beings, using technology, fire and electric power. Therefore, both stick on the technical skill, pioneers in developing technocracy. However, I would say that the mythological Prometheus was more successful in helping our evolution with the technology than that one depicted in the novel of Mary Shelley: the old Prometheus never left us alone, never betrayed us, even if we are full of vices, as opposed to Frankenstein, who abandons his Creature. The Creature, at the very time of his birth was not good or evil, was just guilty of being hideous, and yet was doomed because his “creator” was not able to better master his technology.

We assist with the character of Prometheus, it does not matter whether that one who belongs to the myth, or that of the novel, to the “war” between the people who wish to anticipate, create and change the future, therefore who embody progressive value, and the people who do not want to change the rules of ever, and whose value are static and tradition. In classic, traditional beliefs, hunger, poverty, illness and death are accepted whereas in progressive and innovative values, these conditions must be overcome, even if Monsters could be the consequence. Sciences proceeds in blind, through hypotheses, and experiments that can generates both wonderful and horrible things. From here, the awareness of a big divide between the modern, rational, logic attitude of the voyagers to the realm of Future and the irrational, poetic, humanistic attitude of the voyagers to the realm of the Past.

Many critics think the novel is shaped by the tragic events in Shelley’s own life. Her mother died days after she was born and Mary Godwin Shelley not only grew up without a mother’s love, but in the darkest times she considered herself as the mother’s killer. She became the stepdaughter of the new family, once her father married again, and was sent away by the new wife when she was only 14 years old. When she married Shelley, this was a scandal for her family, since she was giving herself away to a poet. With him she lost her first child, born prematurely. The first feminist and psychoanalytic interpretation of Frankenstein was by Ellen Moers, who read Shelley’s novel as a “sublimated afterbirth.” The author expels her own guilt both for having caused her mother’s death and for having failed to produce a healthy son for Percy, as his legal wife Harriet had done three months earlier. “Treat the person ill, and he will be wicked… Divide him a social being from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations- malevolence and selfishness”, and this was written as a commentary by Percy Shelly, Mary’s husband. The novel’s strength was to present the ‘abnormal, or monstrous, manifestations of the child-parent tie’ and in so doing, ‘to transform the standard Romantic matter of incest, infanticide, and patricide into a phantasmagoria of the nursery’.” Perhaps, writing Frankenstein and putting on paper the pain, sorrow, killing rage – in fact Shelley killed Justine, the nanny, whose job it is to raise the children in the absence of her mother, a symbolic way for Shelley to get out from depression, overcome trauma, and live a highly productive, and balanced, if controversial, life. The mythological Prometheus could be also the incarnation of the good nurse for the new-born humankind.

What all of this has to do with narrative medicine? From Narratives of our patients, using our illness plot, divided in diachronic order as this:

1) Before the illness…
2) Something changed in my body…. I wanted… I did not want….I felt…I went… I said… The doctor said …People by my side…
3) Now, I want… I don’t’ want….I feel…I go… I say… The doctor say …People by my side…
4) For the future I want…
5) How did you feel writing your story?

In step 4… “For the future I want” we could apply in an extremely roughly and dichotomic way these categorizations: people with a disease who are in favour of Prometheus, since they keep hoping and despair if technology is not going to solve their conditions, up to wishing to defeat death with every weapon, not accepting the limit imposed by Nature (which are dynamic limits since life has prolonged its duration over the last decay); and those who do not care about technological improvement and don’t hope that tomorrow a wonder drug will be discovered by research. The second group wants to see Kindness, Lightness, in their future, a nice relationship among the people around, albeit the illness imposes its pace, limiting the functionality both of the body and the mind. It is interesting that when they refer to doctors they divide them in two main categories: “technical” and “human.” Technical doctors are the Promethean progenies, those who excel in medical skills, are Evidence Based Driven and Disease Driven. There is no person behind for them, mainly the patient, or the target organ. Human doctors, by contrast, are those who are able to care, to guarantee their presence, to be humble in doing active listening and to behave in the moral proper way, encountering the patient’s wish and values.

Narratives of contemporary doctors are mainly Promethean, particularly in young students who take Evidence Based Medicine and Science as a source of certainties, and not probabilities, neglecting the human factors, and with the teleological approach that for Every Disease there is for sure A Remedy. Death is something that for physicians, nurses, pharmacist and scientists is considered a human failure: our contemporary society does not respect enough, people who die are hidden away, sent to die away from their loved ones in hospice.

What do the doctors write? Well they are mainly Promethean, with the exception of professionals of care working in neonatology and in palliative care with terminally ill patients, and we have to bear in mind that people who work in palliative care are highly stigmatized and kept apart from their colleagues who are able to “heal” the patient, to “resurrect” the people from intensive care- To me this is like that in contact with birth and death, and for the latter the courage to be praised to deal with this aspect of nature, in these two phases of life, that professionals allow themselves to become more human, cooperative, kind, and full of virtues.

At the conclusion I wish to bring to the attention the constant divide with which we scientists are trained to use our mind: aut, aut, or, or, either one is a Technical doctor or he is a Compassionate Doctor. The wish, desire, reasons is that in the future both these qualities could be put together, in a et et, and and situation, using the different kind of Intelligences we are gifted, the rational logic one, the emotional one, the visual one, the artistic one and even the music one.

And there is more: the Japanese culture has meditated for centuries on impermanence and on withering, and dying. The have developed a technique which is called “Wabi- Sabi”. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.] The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常 mujō), suffering (苦 ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 kū).

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. They include the accepting of the withering of the flowers, the imperfection, the ending situation: moving away from materiality, the being always able to find a solution, to accept human and natural boundaries.

Yes we can indeed look forward, as Prometheus, old and new, and this is an innate human impulse and however appreciate, or, if we are not able, to contemplate the limit of our skills, and our essence.


Written by

Epidemiologist and counselor – 30 years of professional life in health care. Classic humanistic background, including the study of Latin and ancient Greek, followed by scientific academic studies, chemistry and pharmacology. First years of career, in private international environment. I worked in medical research, moved to health care organization, getting academic specialization in Epidemiology. Later, in consultancy and health care education. Counselor with transactional analysis orientation. Currently, director of Innovation in Health Care Area of Fondazione ISTUD, an independent not for profit Italian Business School with an humanistic approach acknowledged by the Italian Ministry of Researech.. Active member of the board of Italian Society of Narrative Medicine, tenured professor of Narrative Medicine at Hunimed, Milan, and in 2016, referee for World Health Organization for “Narrative Method in Public Health.” Writer of the book; “Narrative medicine: Bridging the gap between Evidence Based care and Medical Humanities,” edited with Springer and of international publications on narrative medicine in scientific journals. Last book “The Languages of care in narrative medicine: words, space and sounds in the healthcare ecosystem”. Lecturer in different international contexts from Academy to Public and Private Foundations.

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