Shelley: Prometheus’s Theft of Fire Brings Plague of Meat-Eating

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The young Percy Bysshe Shelley followed John Frank Newton in interpreting Prometheus’s theft of fire as bringing to man the great plague of meat-eating. In Hesiod’s Works and Days (ll. 54-59), Zeus declares that Prometheus’s theft of fire will bring a great plague to men. Shelley quoted that line from Hesiod in Greek on the original title page to his polemical pamphlet A Vindication of Natural Diet, printed in 1813. Shelley’s use of Hesiod’s Prometheus reference reflects his interest in Greek learning, Prometheus, and myth-shaping.

Newton and Shelley fundamental reshaped Promethean myth to address vegetarianism. In Hesiod, fire brings plague to man by means of Zeus’s decision to punish man for the theft of fire. Zeus’s punishment of man was his gift of a woman, Pandora. John Frank Newton in The return to nature, or, A defence of the vegetable regimen, printed in 1811, translated Hesiod to imply that fire itself was a “gift of woe”:

You rejoice, O crafty son of Iapetus {Prometheus}, that you have stolen fire and deceived Jupiter {Zeus}; but great will thence be the evil both to yourself and to your posterity. To them this gift of fire shall be the gift of woe; in which, while they delight and pride themselves, they shall cherish their own wickedness.^

According the Newton, the plague that fire brought to humanity was eating cooked meat. Shelley read and supported Newton’s arguments about vegetarianism. Shelley’s eigraphical quote from Hesiod on the title page of A Vindication of Natural Diet followed Newton’s reshaping of Promethean myth. Shelley also included in a note to his poem Queen Moab (1813) this allegorical interpretation of Prometheus:

Prometheus (who represents the human race) effected some great change in the condition of his nature, and applied fire to culinary purposes; thus inventing an expedient for screening from his disgust the horrors of the shambles. From this moment his vitals were devoured by the culture of disease. It consumed his being in every shape of it loathsome and infinite variety, inducing the soul-quelling sinkings of premature and violent death.^

Shelley probably knew that Newton strongly misread Hesiod. Others surely did. The title page for the new, posthumous 1884 edition of A Vindication of Natural Diet replaced the quotation from Hesiod with one from Shelley’s Epipsychidion.

A Vindication of Natural Diet’s title-page quotation in Greek reflects in part Shelley’s classical learning. Shelley attended Eton from 1804 to early 1810. There he would have encountered Greek and Roman literature. He may even have studied Prometheus Bound:

One presumes some prior acquaintance on Shelley’s part with Thomas Morrell’s textbook of PROMETHEUS DESMOTES cum variis lectionibus, Stanleiana versione … in usum studiosae juventutis, published at and for Eton by M. Pote and E. Williams in 1798.^

At Harrow, another elite English school, Byron wrote, as a school exercise dated Dec. 1, 1804, an English translation of a passage from “Prometheus Vinctus of Aeschylus.” Shelley went from Eton to Oxford. In 1810 at Oxford, Shelley’s tutor directed him to read Prometheus Bound.^ In 1812, the twenty-year-old Shelley declared, “Classical reading, and poetical writing employed me during my residence at Oxford.”^ He also asserted his opinion that “the evils of acquiring Greek & Latin considerably overbalance the benefits.”^ Nonetheless, in December, 1812, Shelley ordered twenty-five Greek and Latin books. He noted:

I would prefer that the Greek classics should have Latin or English versions printed opposite. If not to be obtained thus, they must be sent otherwise.^

Shelley apparently intended to study the Greek texts carefully. Among the books Shelley ordered was “Aeschylus.”^ The Greek texts Shelley ordered included neither Homer nor Hesiod. Shelley may have already possessed these authors’ works from his study at Eton and Oxford. Shelley’s A Vindication of Natural Diet, with its title-page Greek quotation from Hesiod about Prometheus, was published sometime between April and May, 1813.^

Shelley was intensely interested in the figure of Prometheus and the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound. Shelley engaged with Prometheus much more extensively in subsequent work. Prometheus ideas figure centrally in The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein implicitly addresses vegetarianism. As an initially virtuous being, the creature describes himself as a vegetarian.^ The creature specifically mentions eating berries, nuts, roots, acorns, coarse bread, cheese, and milk. The creature also once ate some roasted “offals” that some travelers had left about a campfire. That term could mean waste parts of an animal, but the context favors discarded pieces of berries or nuts.^

Victor Frankenstein provides a striking counterpoint to the creature’s vegetarianism. When hunting down the creature, Victor “subsisted on the wild animals that crossed my path.” Victor acquired fire and utensils for eating by “bringing with me some food that I had killed” to gain the friendship of villagers. The creature tauntingly offers to Victor for food a dead hare.^

In Frankenstein, the Promethean daring of creating the creature did not in itself bring a plague to humanity. The cause of the creature’s violence was unsympathetic society. At least in Shelley’s view, an indicator of unsympathetic society was the plague of meat-eating supported by cooking meat with fire.

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