Seize the fire!

“Didn’t I seize the fire of ideas and make them leap, tear, fly, sing”  – Tom Paulin

“A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point out frauds, to take sides; start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”  – Salman Rushdie

I would like to propose Prometheus as the patron saint of insight. Prometheus has the perfect credentials, associated throughout history with creative thinking and courage, his destiny bound by his empathy with the human race, and with a name which literally means ‘forethought’ (he could see into the future).

Prometheus was credited with the creation of humanity (out of clay) in the earliest versions of his story, which goes back to the beginning of Greek mythology almost 3,000 years ago.  Hesiod first introduces Prometheus as a trickster figure in his Theogony and Works and Days around 800 BC, fooling Zeus with his cunning, and extracting a terrible revenge (including Pandora’s jar, not box) on himself and the human race,  Apollodorus summarises the story succinctly in his collection of Greek myths, summarizing many different versions of the myth:

“Prometheus moulded men from water and earth and gave them also fire, hiding it from Zeus in a fennel stalk.  But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus (this is a Scythian mountain).  On it Prometheus was nailed and bound for many years.  Each day an eagle swooped on him and ate the lobes of his liver, which grew back each night.  And Prometheus paid this penalty for the theft of fire until Hercules released him later.” (Apollodorus, Library I.vii.1)

Trickster characters are common across all mythologies, from Prometheus to the North American’s Coyote to the Norse god Loki (or Loge as he appears in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle).  Dionysus, Maui, Anansi and Kitsune (Japanese for fox) are other examples of such characters who are often associated with transformation of the world, often through transforming their shape or controlling nature.  Such characters have many heroic qualities, although they rely more on intellect than strength to influence the world.

The most famous version of the Prometheus myth is by Aeschylus (c 525-456 BC), who pits the rebellious and sympathetic Prometheus against a tyrannical Zeus (Athens had recently become a democracy), and places gifts to humanity of hope and fire at the heart of the action.  The myth was already showing its flexibility (as all great stories do) to adapt to new times and changed contexts, and around the same time the story also appears in Aesop’s Fables.

“Prometheus: Besides this I gave them fire;  Chorus: And now do creatures of the day possess bright-faced fire?; Prometheus: Yes, from which they will learn many new skills.”  (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, 248-54)

The Romantic poets recreated the myth again, focusing on Prometheus as a rebel and a symbol of human suffering.  In a period which valued creativity, imagination and freedom, Goethe, Byron and the Shelleys identified Promethean spirit with their artistic freedom of expression:

“Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed – but man; equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless; exempt from awe, worship, decree; the king over himself; just, gentle, wise – but man.”  (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, 3.4, 194-197, c. 1820)

Prometheus statue at the Rockefeller Centre, NY

Finally, in modern times the myth continues in music, visual art, ballet and literature, often focusing on Prometheus long association with human progress especially in the realms of science and technology.   In the last 20 years there have been two “reimaginations” of Aeschylus’s play by very different British poets, Tom Paulin and Tony Harrison (which was also made into a TV film).  Tony Harrison’s version follows the themes of much of his work with a strong environmental (and sometimes political) message, set against the landscape of northern England and the 1980s miners’ strike, with an apocalyptic view of the negative consequences of Promethean progress and the destructive power of  technology.

Tom Paulin uses fire as a metaphor for ideas rather than technology (see the opening quote), focusing on political themes, especially Prometheus’ association with democratic principles and his empathy with the human condition, and alluding to the recent history of Ireland and particularly Eastern Europe (his version was being written at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall):

“He’s fed you lies; Zeus hijacked both the history and the state we made; That’s why I broke with him and brought the people fire.”  (Tom Paulin, Seize the Fire)

Prometheus, like other myths and stories, is a rich source of ideas, able to evolve and adapt to many different contexts, but retaining an essential truth about the human condition.

So what does this have to do with insight?  Myths, legends and stories have immense power to connect with the human imagination (including that of any audience), and yet to impart an essential truth or a core message which will stay with them.  Wrap key messages in powerful stories, and your insights will have much greater power to influence.

More importantly, focus on the Promethean virtues of creative thinking and courage, and use  your storytelling to persuade clients to agree with your vision of the meaning of your data for their future business strategy.  Seize the fire!


Seize the Fire by Tom Paulin (1990)

Prometheus by Carol Dougherty (2006)

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