Musings on the Origins of Prometheus
What does an ancient poem written in Sumerian cuneiform and a modern motion picture have in common?
Prometheus was Ridley Scott’s 2012 prequel to Alien. It promised answers yet only created more questions. And while I am not going to make any predictions on where it, or the films that will follow are going, I would like to comment on where I think it came from.
There are those that will tell you that the premise of the film is to be found in a host of older movies, and they will list Quatermass, Space Odyssey, Leviathan, Contact, Forbidden Planet and a bunch of other films that tangentially bear a resemblance in theme or plotline to the 2012 epic.
However, what they are not telling you is where these ideas came from originally. Who was the first writer to discuss genetic manipulation, creating the human species in the image of powerful super-humans and populating the Earth with their genetic descendants, and then try to wipe them out when they disappointed their god?
Sadly, the name of the author is not known, but the title of his book is. Can you take a guess? Did you say the Bible?
Well, if you did, then you are wrong. That was not the first source. It did, however, take inspiration from it (by which I mean plagiarize).
I will come back to this ‘original’ epic in a moment. First, a little more background.
Fantasy and Science Fiction have their roots in traditions far more ancient than you might believe, pre-dating all other literary forms. These ancient stories still inspire movies and books today, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a good example. It takes as its premise human evolution, and explores themes such as immortality, religion and advanced technology, which, as you will soon see, derives from various sources, including the earliest known literature.
It is this prime-source that I want to examine, as it underlies much of the traditions that followed.
So what was the inspiration for Genesis, for the Greek myth of Prometheus, and of course, for Ridley Scott?
I am talking about the Epic of Gilgamesh. This is a series of five poems, dating to approximately 2100 BCE. These were later expanded into twelve narratives. In them, we hear about the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his various adventures. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world where Gilgamesh is obsessed with becoming immortal.
While the texts are not terribly explicit (they do not overtly describe spaceships and alien overlords, for example) there is a good deal which can be interpreted as being technological in nature, and furthermore, of a very advanced kind.
In particular, genetic manipulation and human cloning. I can almost hear you choking on your cornflakes as you read this.
“Cough, cough . . . Did he say cloning? In 2100 BCE?”
Yes, I did.
There are many ancient texts that discuss the origins of mankind, including the Bible, which has two distinct creation myths. You probably know these, but I will recap them anyway.
In the first version, God creates man and woman at the same time. But in the second story (still part of Genesis) God created man, then used man’s genetic material to create a woman.
And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
In this version, we have a clear case of cloning, although the result is not an identical twin, but its gender opposite.
Other origin myths prefer a more basic approach to creation. Rather than performing surgery on a donor, they start from scratch, so to speak, creating man from dust, or clay, usually mixing in some kind of genetic material as well.
In the following, we can see some clearly identifiable inspiration for Ridley Scott. In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus was commanded to create man, which he did, shaping him from clay. The goddess Athena then breathed life into him. Prometheus made man stand upright, like the gods, and gave him fire (technology).
There are obvious elements here that echo the movie, and you might think that this is where the nexus of the plotline came from. But wait, there’s more.
In the epic of Gilgamesh, the god Ea decides to create servants. A lesser god is slain, and Ea uses his blood, mixed with clay, to make the first men.
Later, there is much regret that mankind does not conform to god’s will, so they are destroyed (in a flood). But mankind survives, and ultimately thrives.
Later, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, wishes to seek out the gods and attain immortality. He travels far in his search, ultimately learning that it is unattainable.
This is an even closer version of the plot of Prometheus.
In the movie, we also see a lesser ‘god’ slain in order to create mankind. In a ritual sacrifice, one of the Engineers gives his life to provide DNA into the Earth’s barren waters. The black he goo drinks is akin to the clay in Gilgamesh, and the ‘flesh of the god and the clay’ are used to make man.
Millions of years later and mankind has evolved. But we are unworthy, and ‘God’s’ judgement is that we should be terminated. A group of Engineers are tasked with mankind’s destruction.
Meanwhile, on Earth, humans ask questions about their origins, eventually seeking out the gods that made them. Some have spiritual reasons for wanting to know, but Weyland, just like Gilgamesh, is desperate for life and wants to live forever. He also travels far to find the creator and obtain the secret of immortality, but, like Gilgamesh, he also fails.
The similarities between the movie and the ancient epic are startling. So consider this. Next time you watch Prometheus, remember that it is an interpretation of the oldest science fiction story ever written.
main image © Yale University Babylonian Collection