36. The act of Prometheus



The element ‘fire’ is – in relation with the light and life-providing sun – in most cultural experiences of prime importance. The Pythagorean Hestia (or ‘central fire’) was, according to Theophrastus in his treatise De Igne (‘On Fire’), unmovable (COUTANT, 1971). Copernicus quoted this view in his argumentation for a heliocentric world (DUHEM, 1958).


Fig. 239 – The act of Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods, as given in Pierio Valeriano’s ‘Hieroglyphica‘ (Lyon, 1586). The first (Latin) edition of this book (Basel, 1556) was initially an interpretation of the Hieroglyphica by Horapolion (fifth century). The latter treated the symbolic and allegoric meaning of the Egyptian hieroglyphs (printed in Venice in 1505 in the Greek language). In: CAMPBELL & MOYERS (1990).

The fire is a divine medium. Prometheus stole the fire of the gods (fig. 239). He became the symbol of the striving individual (against Jove, as the overpowering majority). The Dutch writer Carry van BRUGGEN (1919) specified this theme in a socio-historical context in her book ‘Prometheus‘. The book was written with erudition, but clearly from a dualistic point of view: unity and diversity are placed in contrast. She distinguished periods of individualism and collectivism in the European history. The Renaissance (Machiavelli) and the Enlightenment (Goethe) were seen as periods of individualism. Collectivism prevailed in the seventeenth century (Hobbes), the Napoleontic era (Playfair) and the nineteenth century. Van Bruggen’s distinction between political history based on the history of collectivism (wars, treaties, etc.) and a cultural history based on the individual endeavor in the field of art, science and philosophy is beneficial.

BAYLEY (1912/1968) pointed to the tetradic character of the word ‘fire’ and indicated the etymological link between fire and four. The root ‘fu‘  (feu, fuego, Feuer, fever, fire) is present in the name of the bird ‘Phoenix’ (fig. 240), the symbol of cyclical return. The name is a joining together of ‘fo‘ and ‘ix‘ and points to the Great Fire.


Fig. 240 – The Phoenix resurrects from its ashes. The phoenix carries in its name (fu + ix) the references to the Great Fire, where cyclic movement begins and ends. This illustration is from the book ‘De Avibus’ of Hugues de Fouilloy, probably published when he was prior of St.-Nicholas-de-Regny, between 1132 and 1152. ‘The Nb.w bird is potentially every heavenly and earthly form of mythological history’ (RUNDLE CLARK, 1949/50). In: de CLERCQ (1970).

DE SANTILLANA & VON DECHEND (1969) followed a slightly different etymological line in their book ‘Hamlett’s Mill’. ‘Prometheus’ was associated with the ‘pramantha‘, the rot that is used to make fire. The fire is a result of a fast rotary movement in a fire stone. The word ‘manth‘ or ‘math‘ indicates in Sanskrit the spinning movement of the cosmos, but as a verb it has two meanings: either drilling or to take away (to steal). This root is also found in the ‘mandala‘, the Boeddhistic representation of the universe (fig. 241).


Fig. 241 – A Tibetan mandala symbolizes the (Vajrayana) Buddhist view of the cosmos with a four-fold (division) and cyclic (movement) structure. In: MACKAY  (1975).

The mandala (‘the circle’) is the expression and visualizing of the universal four-fold. The four noble truths (dharma) of Buddhism, are (as given by KROM, 1930):

————————-  1. Life is suffering;

————————-  2. The cause of suffering is the longing;

————————-  3. The suffering ends when the longing stops;

————————-  4. This stage can be reached by following the Eightfold Path.

WHITMAN (1958/1965) noticed that the image of fire in the work of Greek poet Homerus (eigth century BC) was mainly limited to the ‘Iliad‘ and then in connection with death, offering and the destruction of Troy. Fire does occur about two hundred times in the ‘Iliad‘, and only ten times in its literary meaning. All other times the element signifies as a means of expression for the passion of the heroes and the glory of death. The ‘Iliad’ is full of imagery like the heat of the struggle and the tragically fire of sacrifice: ‘Fire is the one clearly imagistic motif which continues throughout the poem.’

Fire took a central place in the hermetic tradition of the European cultural history. This pagan-humanistic convention positioned the fire at the beginning of a process of purification with the aim to find the highest possible (the gold, the Philosophers Stone). ‘The Hermetic core’ said YATES (1964, p. 281), ‘is, however, veiled under the apparatus of Neoplatonism’. She gives the illustration of the four degrees of ‘furor‘, or enthusiasm, by which the soul re-ascends to the One. Ficino mentioned them in his commentary on Plato’s ‘Symposium‘:

 —————-  1. The ‘furor‘ of poetic inspiration, ruled by the Muses;

 —————-  2. The ‘furor‘ of religion, under Dionysius;

—————–  3. The ‘furor‘ of prophecy, under Apollo; and

—————– 4. The ‘furor‘ of love, under Venus.

It is possible, in this last, fiery love under Venus, to the find the way to the One. Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) connected the four winds (directions) with the expressions of yearning, to give them a tetradic-universal appearance. He introduced – in the first part, fifth dialogue of his ‘Gli eroici furori’ (The Heroic Enthusiasts) – an emblem with a four-parted face and a motto: ‘Novae ortae aeoliae’ (KUHLENBECK, 1907; p. 120)(fig. 242).


Fig. 242 – Two stars and a four-parted face, which blows to the ‘Four Corners of the World’. The four winds are an expression of the endless longing of the ‘furores‘ (enthusiasms). In: Giordana  Bruno – Eroici  furori (Zwiegespräche vom Helden und Schwärmer). Part I, fifth dialogue. p. 120 in: KUHLENBECK (1907).

The German occult writer and magician Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535) treated the ‘furores‘ in this sequence in his book ‘De occulta philosophia‘ (1533), the great magical manual of the Renaissance. ‘As for the fourth furor, coming from Venus, it turns and transmutes the spirit of man into a god by the ardour of love, and renders him entirely like God, as the true image of God.’

Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) used – in his ‘De gli eroicio furori’ (1585) and later in ‘De magia’ (1590/91) – extensively the imagery of Agrippa’s ‘De occulta philosophia’. Bruno’s magical world was, in many ways, more ‘conscious’  than Agrippa’s frame of mind. The four-fold division – with an emphasis on the last quarter – comes back in view.

YATES (1964, p. 262) described the tension between three- and four-fold thinking (as represented by Agrippa and Bruno) as follows: ‘It will be remembered that Agrippa’s book is divided into three parts, on elemental magic, celestial magic, and super celestial or religious magic, corresponding to the three worlds of the Cabalists. These divisions are also perceptible in Bruno’s ‘De magia’, but when Bruno comes to religious magic, he significantly omits all mention of the antiquity, sanctity and power of the Hebrew language, of the Sephiroth, and of the Hebrew and Pseudo-Dionysian orders of the angels.’ Bruno applied in the religion a four-division in stead of a three-partitioning: love, art, mathesis and magic are phases in the religious life of a Magus to attain the highest satisfaction:

1. Love is the living virtue and a carriage to the upper-heaven of godly ‘furor‘.

2. Art is the knowledge, necessary to catch the spirit of the world (in Bruno’s case this might have been an interpretation of Raymond Lull’s ‘Art‘)(YATES, 1964; p. 324).

3. Mathesis is about the abstraction, which can be built from the material. This means the old-established methods of the treatment of figures (‘mathemata‘) by Pythagoras and Plato, but also the new ‘magical’ approach to reality.

4. Magic can be divided in two kinds: good and bad magic. Good magic supports the soul on its godly journey. Bad magic does the opposite.

Bruno proposed, in the spirit of dualistic thinking, a complete reversal of the ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’, which were defined by John Scotus Eriugena some seven hundred years earlier. The ‘original’ (early-medieval) form of John Scotus allotted the three-division to the higher unification (the holy and/or invisible world), while the four-division was given to the lower unification (the human and/or visible world). Bruno saw, on the other hand, the higher unification as the domain of the tetradic division. He mentioned the natural beliefs of the Egyptians as the sources for this insight (which was, in fact, not far off the mark). The three-division was a material affair, with salt, sulfur and mercury as the main constituencies.

These ideas were suspiciously watched in the higher echelons of the Roman Catholic Church, because they had everything to do with the distribution of power. The allotment of the tetradic way of thinking to the Holy had far-reaching consequences. It was interpreted – in the view of oppositional thinkers – as undermining the power of God, since tetradic thinking does not recognize, by its very nature, a ‘higher power’ or a hierarchical division.

Bruno became a victim, and later a martyr of lower division-thinking: his life was ended in February 1600 on the stake, in a historic confrontation between the power of lower and the weakness of higher division-thinking. It is remarkable that this ‘power struggle’ was ended by fire, as a symbol of the ancient Celtic sacrifices connected with the elements (MATTHEWS, 1989/1993):

—————————-  1. Death by fire                         – burning at the stake

—————————-  2. Death by air                          – hanging

—————————-  3. Death by earth                     – burying alive

—————————-  4. Death by water                    – drowning

Two years after the violent death of Bruno, Tommaso Campanella (1568 – 1639) worked on his utopic world in the ‘Citta del Sole‘ (Heliaca or Sun City; first publication only in 1904!). A seven-fold city with four main streets and four gateways presented a model of the world. The city was governed by a tetrarch: a high priest, assisted by Power, Wisdom and Love. Power was engaged in military business and organization. Wisdom dealt with science and Love saw to procreation, education and medical care. The communistic regime took great care of astrology as a means to establish the right moment of action.

YATES (1964) pointed to the resemblance of the ‘Sun City’ with the ‘City of Adocentyn’ in the fourth book of the ‘Picatrix‘, a magical writing from the twelfth century, originally written in Arabic. This four-parted manuscript was a manual to catch the ‘spiritus‘ in the ‘materia‘: the first two parts deal with the manufacturing of a talisman, emphasizing the right material and the appropriate moment (under a lucky star) in a suitable environment. The third part was concerned with the material world (stones, plants, animals, etc.) compared with the star-signs. The fourth book, with the same theme, described the purification and ends with an address to the stars.


Fig. 243 – The four spheres of fire as given in Emblema XVII in Michael Maier’s ‘Atalanta fugiens’ (1618), with the caption: ‘Orbita quadruplex hoc regit ignis opus’ (The fourfold sphere reigns the work of the fire). In: de ROLA (1988).

Fire is depicted in Michael Maier’s ‘Atalanta fugiens’ (1618) as four spheres, representing the forces of the cosmos (fig. 243). The first sphere is the elementary fire (the heat of the first movement). The second and third spheres are mixtures (of energy), and the fourth sphere is of Apollo, including the (electro) magnetic forces. These last ones had been described some eighteen years earlier by William Gilbert (1540 – 1603) in his book ‘De Magnete magneticisque corporibus et de magno magnete Tellure physiologia’ (1600).

Another example of the magical approach to the four-fold world of fire was given by the painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669) and his copper etching ‘Doktor Faust in his Study’ (around 1652; Rijksmuseum/Amsterdam). A play was performed in Amsterdam under the title ‘The tragic history of Dr. Faustus‘ by Marlowe (BALTRUSAITIS, 1978) in the same period that this etching was conceived (fig. 244 gives a detail). Its theme was the struggle between good and bad, like it was told in the century-old story of Faust.


Fig. 244 – The wheel of fire as seen in a detail of an etching by Rembrandt van Rijn’s ‘Doktor Faustus in his Study’, finished in 1651. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. In:  BALTRUSAITIS (1978).

‘Das Volksbuch vom Doktor Faust’, with a first edition in 1587, brought the theme anew under the attention of the public. The first publications of the play of Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593), dedicated to the magical doctor, dated from 1604 and 1616. That is more than ten years after the involuntary death of the writer (STEANE, 1969/1986). The two editions have a different length. The A-text from 1604 contained 1517 lines and the B-text from 1616 has 2121 lines. Goethe (1788) gave, more than a century later, in his two-parted ‘Faust’ a greater acquaintance of the cabalistic magician, while in more recent times the German writer Thomas Mann (1875 – 1955) provided a new interpretation of ‘Doktor Faustus‘ (1947), with a connection to music.

The symbolism of the elements and of fire became extremely etheric in the hands of Nicolas-Pierre-Henry MONTFAUCON DE VILLARS (1719/1976), also known as Comte de Gabalis. This serious dreamer was born in 1635 near Toulouse and moved in 1667 to Paris, where he published pamphlets. His major work was called ‘Le Comte de Gabalis ou Entretiens sur les Sciences secrètes’ (1670). It was published in Amsterdam in 1700 by Lejeune with woodcuts ‘qui n’ont aucun rapport avec le texte‘ (which had little reference to the text). Various editions were later reedited and adapted (1715/1921). The English edition had the caption:

                                                               We seek to serve that thou mayest

                                                                illumine thy Torch at its Source

The message of the magicians implied, in Mountfaucon’s view, that the elements were possessed by spirits:

——————–  fire                          salamanders

——————–  air                           sylphs

——————–  earth                       gnomes

——————–  water                 nympfen/undines

The salamander has long been known in the alchemists’ world as a symbol of the (living) material, which could resist fire (fig. 245).


Fig. 245 – The salamander in the fire is an alchemistic symbol, which points to the indestructible nature of matter. This (part of an) illustration was given in the didactic text of the ‘Physiologus‘, with stories of natural history, written in the cloister of Aldersbach, around 1300. Bayrische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. lat. 2655. In: SCHNEIDER et al. (1977).

Count de Gabalis had a direct influence on Alexander Pope’s poem ‘The Rape of the Lock’, which was first published in 1714 (HALSBAND, 1980). Both works are time-documents of the early eighteenth century, written in a time characterized by WIRTH (1882/1890, p. 56) in his book on the history of trade-crises’: ‘Ein alter Geschichtschreiber nennt 1720 ein Jahr, so merkwürdig wegen der ausserordentlichen und romantischen Projecte, Vorschläge und Unternehmungen, beides von Privaten und von der Nation, dass man dieses Jahr in beständigen Andenken erhalten sollte.’ (An old historian called the year 1720 particularly noteworthy because of the extra-ordinary and romantic projects, suggestions and undertakings, both from the private sector and on a national level, that one should keep this year in a fond memory).

Max Wirth pointed to the stock market-crash of that year in London and Paris, which ended an unprecedented period of economic exaltation and speculation. This ‘play with fire’ made its economic victims, like it had done with the ill-famous ‘tulip’-craze in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century – when the prices of tulip-bulbs reached fabulously heights and  then collapsed (fig. 246). This pattern has been repeated many times afterwards. Fire, as a godly element, hurts the most.


Fig. 246 – Satire of tulip mania by Jan (II) Brueghel, c. 1640.  Painting in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem.



Fig. 247 – Bulb fields near Vogelenzang (Photo: Marten Kuilman, 2011).

BALTRUSAITIS,  Jurgis  (1978).  Le Miroir – Essai sur une legende  scientifique.  Revelations science-fiction et fallacies. Elmayan, Le Seuil, Paris. ISBN 2-02-0049485-6

BAYLEY, Harold (1912/1968). The Lost Language of Symbolism. An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairy-Tales, Folklore, and Mythologies (Vol. 1 – 2). Ernest Benn Ltd., London. Barnes & Noble Inc., New York.

BRUGGEN, van, Carry (1919). Prometheus. Een bijdrage tot het begrip  der ontwikkeling van het individualisme in de literatuur (2 dln).  Nijgh & Van Ditmar, Rotterdam.

CAMPBELL,  Joseph & MOYERS, Bill (1990). Mythen en bewustzijn. De kracht  van  de  mythologische verbeelding (The Power of Myth, 1988). Teleac; Uitgeverij De Haan/ Unieboek b.v., Houten.

CLERCQ, de, Charles (1970). La Nature et le sens du ‘De Avibus’ d’Hugues de Fouilloy. pp. 279 – 302 in: Miscellanea Mediaevalia, 77. Methoden in Wissenschaft und Kunst des Mittelalters. Albert ZIMMERMANN (Ed.). Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin.

COUTANT, Victor E. (Ed./tr.) (1971). Theophrastus’ De Igne. A Post-Aristotelian View of the Nature of Fire. Van Gorcum, Assen/Huma-nities Press, New York.

DUHEM,  Pierre  (1958).  Le Système du Monde.  Histoire des  doctrines  cosmologiques de Platon a Copernic. Tome I – IV. Hermann, Paris.

HALSBAND,  Robert (1980).  The Rape of the Lock and its illustrations.   Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0-19-812098-2

KROM, Nicolaas (1930). Baraboedoer. Het heiligdom van het Boeddhisme. Paris, Amsterdam.

KUHLENBECK,  Ludwig (Ed.)(1907). Giordano Bruno – Gesammelte Werke. Band V. Eugen Diederichs, Jena.

MACKAY, A.L. (1975). Kim Su-Hong and the Korean Cartographic Tradition. Imago Mundi (The Journal of the International Society for the History of Cartography), 27 (Second Series, Vol. I; Imago Mundi Ltd., Lymphe Castle, Kent).

MATTHEWS,  Caitlin (1989/1993). De Keltische traditie (The Celtic Tradition). Ankh- Hermes, Deventer/Element Books, Longmead, England. ISBN 90-202-1032-7

MONTFAUCON, Bernard, de (Comte de Gabalis) (1719/1976). L’Antiquité expliquée et representée en figures. 5 Vol., Florentin Delaulne, Paris.  Reprint of the English 1721/1722 edition (tr. David HUMPHREYS):  Antiquity explained and represented in sculptures. Garland Publ. Inc. New York/London. Band I/II. ISBN 0-8240-2085-5

ROLA, de, Stanislav Klossowsli (1988). The Golden Game. Alchemi cal Engravings of the Seventeenth Century. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

RUNDLE CLARK, R.T. (1949/1950). The Origin of the Phoenix. Historical Journal. University of Birmingham. Part I (1949): Pp. 1 – 29; Vol. II, No. 1; Part II (1950): Pp. 105 – 140; Vol. II. No. 2.

SANTILLANA,  de,  Giorgio & DECHEND, von, H. (1969). Hamlet’s Mill. An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Macmillan and Comp., London/The Riverside Press, Inc. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

SCHNEIDER,  Ambrosius; WIENAND, Adam; BICKEL, Wolfgang & COESTER,  Ernst (1977).  Die Cistercienser.  Geschichte, Geist, Kunst. Wienand Verlag, Köln. ISBN 3 87909 074 2

STEANE,  J.B.  (1969/1986).  Christopher Marlowe. The Complete Plays.  Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. ISBN 0-14-043037-7

WHITMAN,  Cedric H.  (1958/1965). Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. LCCC 58-7252/ISBN 0393003132

WIRTH,  M. (1882/1890). Geschichte der Handelskrisen. J.D. Sauerländer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

YATES,  Frances A. (1964). Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Routledge & Kegan Paul/The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0 7100 2336 5

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