λ The Lucian of Samosata Project

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A Literary Prometheus | Prometheus es in Verbis

The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905.

At the time when this letter (for such it appears to be) was written, after the dialogues of Lucian gained a great deal of attention, there was a certain critic that labelled Lucian "Prometheus". This was probably because of the type or species of dialogues Lucian had engaged himself in as a kind of creation of his own. Lucian's answer in this letter, which is abounding in good-natured ridicule, contains a thorough defense of Lucian's manner of writing. May this letter serve as a testament to Lucian's great literary creativeness.
- Based on Francklin



So you will have me a Prometheus? If your meaning is, my good sir, that my works, like his, are of clay, I accept thecomparison and hail my prototype; potter me to your heart’s content, though my clay is poor common stuff, trampledby common feet till it is little better than mud. But perhaps it is in exaggerated compliment to my ingenuity that youfather my books upon the subtlest of the Titans; in that case I fear men will find a hidden meaning, and detect an Atticcurl on your laudatory lips. Where do you find my ingenuity? in what consists the great subtlety, the Prometheanism, of mywritings? enough for me if you have not found them sheer earth, all unworthy of Caucasian clay-pits. How much better a claimto kinship with Prometheus have you gentlemen who win fame in the courts, engaged in real contests; your works havetrue life and breath, ay, and the warmth of fire. That is Promethean indeed, though with the difference, it may be, that youdo not work in clay; your creations are oftenest of gold; [Section: 2] we on the other hand who come before popularaudiences and offer mere lectures are exhibitors of imitations only.

Literary Prometheus - mix of camel and piebald man; uncompromising mix


However, I have the general resemblance to Prometheus,as I said before — a resemblance which I share with the dollmakers —, that my modelling is in clay; but then there is nomotion, as with him, not a sign of life; entertainment and pastime is the beginning and the end of my work. So I must lookfor light elsewhere; possibly the title is a sort of lucus a non lucendo, applied to me as to Cleon in thecomedy:

Full well Prometheus–Cleon plans — the past.

Or again, the Athenians used to call Prometheuses the makers of jars and stoves and other, clay-workers, with playfulreference to the material, and perhaps to the use of fire in baking the ware. If that is all your ‘Prometheus’ means, youhave aimed your shaft well enough, and flavoured your jest with the right Attic tartness; my productions are as brittle astheir pottery; fling a stone, and you may smash them all to pieces.


But here some one offers me a crumb of comfort: ‘That was not the likeness he found between you and Prometheus; he meantto commend your innovating originality: at a time when human beings did not exist, Prometheus conceived and fashioned them;he moulded and elaborated certain living things into agility and beauty; he was practically their creator, though Atheneassisted by putting breath into the clay and bringing the models to life.’ So says my some one, giving your remark itspolitest possible turn. Perhaps he has hit the true meaning; not that I can rest content, however, with the mere credit ofinnovation, and the absence of any original to which my work can be referred; if it is not good as well as original, Iassure you I shall be ashamed of it, bring down my foot and crush it out of existence; its novelty shall not avail (with meat least) to save its ugliness from annihilation. If I thought otherwise, I admit that a round dozen of vultures would benone too many for the liver of a dunce who could not see that ugliness was only aggravated by strangeness.


Ptolemy, son of Lagus, imported two novelties into Egypt; one was a pure black Bactrian camel, the other a piebald man,half absolutely black and half unusually white, the two colours evenly distributed; he invited the Egyptians to the theatre,and concluded a varied show with these two, expecting to bring down the house. The audience, however, was terrified by thecamel and almost stampeded; still, it was decked all over with gold, had purple housings and a richly jewelledbridle, the spoil of Darius’ or Cambyses’ treasury, if not of Cyrus’ own. As for the man, a few laughed at him, but mostshrank as from a monster. Ptolemy realized that the show was a failure, and the Egyptians proof against mere novelty,preferring harmony and beauty. So he withdrew and ceased to prize them; the camel died forgotten, and the parti-coloured manbecame the reward of Thespis the fluteplayer for a successful after-dinner performance.


I am afraid my work is a camel in Egypt, and men’s admiration limited to the bridle and purple housings; as tocombinations, though the components may be of the most beautiful (as Comedy and Dialogue in the present case), that will notensure a good effect, unless the mixture is harmonious and well-proportioned; it is possible that the resultant of twobeauties may be bizarre. The readiest instance to hand is the centaur: not a lovely creature, you will admit, but a savage,if the paintings of its drunken bouts and murders go for anything. Well, but on the other hand is it not possible for twosuch components to result in beauty, as the combination of wine and honey in superlative sweetness? That is my belief; but Iam not prepared to maintain that my components have that property; I fear the mixture may only have obscured theirseparate beauties.


For one thing, there was no great original connexion or friendship between Dialogue and Comedy; the former was astay-at-home, spending his time in solitude, or at most taking a stroll with a few intimates; whereas Comedy put herself inthe hands of Dionysus, haunted the theatre, frolicked in company, laughed and mocked and tripped it to the flute when shesaw good; nay, she would mount her anapaests, as likely as not, and pelt the friends of Dialogue with nicknames —doctrinaires, airy metaphysicians, and the like. The thing she loved of all else was to chaff them and drench them inholiday impertinence, exhibit them treading on air and arguing with the clouds, or measuring the jump of a flea, as a typeof their ethereal refinements. But Dialogue continued his deep speculations upon Nature and Virtue, till, as the musicianssay, the interval between them was two full octaves, from the highest to the lowest note. This ill-assorted pair it is thatwe have dared to unite and harmonize-reluctant and ill — disposed for reconciliation.


And here comes in the apprehension of yet another Promethean analogy: have I confounded male and female, and incurred thepenalty? Or no — when will resemblances end?— have I, rather, cheated my hearers by serving them up bones wrapped in fat,comic laughter in philosophic solemnity? As for stealing — for Prometheus is the thief’s patron too — I defy you there; thatis the one fault you cannot find with me: from whom should I have stolen? if any one has dealt before me in such forcedunions and hybrids, I have never made his acquaintance. But after all, what am I to do? I have made my bed, and I must liein it; Epimetheus may change his mind, but Prometheus, never.