Postwar Symbolism in Prometheus and Vulture

Jamie D. Aprile, PhD
13 November 2015

In the second installment of a series of posts, archaeologist and Landmarks Docent Jamie D. Aprile examines the classical myth of Prometheus with modern eyes. Read about the use of classical Greek and Roman mythology in modern and contemporary art in Aprile’s first post.

Koren Der Harootian was no stranger to the horrors that humanity inflicts upon itself. As a small child he witnessed friends and family members die in the Armenian genocide of 1915, after which he came to the United States with his remaining family in 1921. Following World War II he, like many artists, reflected upon the shocking technological developments the conflict generated—most significantly the new threat of atomic power. The disjunction between the dream of the postwar future and the reality of the destructive potential of the atomic age was just becoming known to the American public when Der Harootian created Prometheus and Vulture (fig. 1) in 1948. In keeping with his preference for mythological and religious subjects, he chose the ancient Greek god Prometheus as an ample source for symbolic significance in a time of rapid and fearsome technological change.

The ancient Greeks believed Prometheus opened the door to mortal ingenuity and innovation by granting gifts of culture and civilization to humanity, but he suffered for defying the will of Zeus, king of the gods. In Prometheus Bound (5th century BCE), the playwright Aeschylus informs us of the many skills Prometheus taught mankind, including navigation, agriculture, healing, smelting, reading, and writing; but more powerful than all of those was the gift of reason—the ability to think and develop, and not just react to the environment. Furthermore, Hesiod (Theogony, 8th century BCE) tells us that Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting an inedible animal sacrifice so humans could benefit from the nourishing red meat, an expensive and rare delicacy for ancient people. Zeus recognized the ploy and withheld fire from humanity as punishment. When Prometheus subsequently stole fire from Mt. Olympus as a gift for humans, Zeus punished the acts of treason by binding him to a mountain and sending an eagle each day to rip out his liver, which Prometheus’ divine body regrew every night (fig. 2).  

A greek plate
Figure 2, Atlas and Prometheus, 6th Century BCE. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Rome. ARTstor [online]. New York: New York. Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.artstor.org). Laconian kylix showing the punishments of Atlas and Prometheus. The mountain is symbolized by a column.

Although in the myth Prometheus was later freed by Hercules, Der Harootian chose to depict the god still undergoing this torture. Thick, heavy chains twist the figure into an uncomfortable position, his head thrown back in expectation of the agony the swooping bird will inflict. Looking closely we see that Prometheus himself no longer looks like a man (fig. 3). Instead his face is pointed and beak-like with no real distinction between the nose and chin. The eyes of both man and bird are round and wide with an expressionless stare (fig. 4). Here, Der Harootian makes his most interesting choice. For Zeus’ sacred eagle, an instrument of divine and righteous punishment, he substitutes a vulture, symbolic of death and decay. 

Detail of Prometheus with bird-like features 
Figure 3, Detail of Prometheus and VulturePhoto by Ben Aqua.

Detail of vulture
Figure 4, Detail of Prometheus and VulturePhoto by Ben Aqua.

The artist suggests that man and animal are one and the same, a carrion bird feeding on  death and destruction, yet at the same time tortured for creating the agent of its own devastation. Prometheus and the vulture become a hermeneutic circle commenting on the potential danger of ingenuity, even when it appears to originate in divine inspiration. Since humanity became more god-like when it harnessed the profound power of the atom, it takes on the role of Prometheus in the story. But humans are not gods, and their punishment, righteous or not, leads only to more death. By transforming the symbols of an ancient tale, Der Harootian captures the raw emotions of the postwar world and maintains contemporary relevance by encouraging society to reflect on the promethean endeavors of progress and innovation.