[Kim Seong-kon] Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Nov 14, 2017 - 17:38
Updated : Nov 14, 2017 - 17:38

Humans are weak and helpless. We have neither thick skin nor fluffy fur to protect us from severe cold. We lack the sharp teeth or claws that are necessary to hunt or fight predators. Fortunately, we have fire to warm us in winter and scare off beasts in the wilderness. Although fire has evolved into gas, electricity, and nuclear power in the modern age, it still is something we humans cannot do without.

In Greek mythology, Prometheus steals fire from Zeus to help the weak and helpless humankind. As a result, Prometheus is punished by Zeus. He is chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus where his liver is devoured daily by an eagle. But because he is immortal, his liver regenerates every night. Later, Hercules comes by and frees him. Had it not been for Prometheus’s invaluable forethought, humankind could not have survived and would have become extinct by now.

The name Prometheus means “foresight” while Epimetheus, which is his brother’s name, means “hindsight.” Prometheus is wise because he can foresee the future and move forward, whereas Epimetheus is foolish because he always looks back to the past and realizes his mistakes too late. Consequently, we all remember Prometheus, but few people know who Epimetheus is.

When Zeus creates Pandora, the first woman, and sends her to Prometheus in retaliation. Epimetheus, who cannot foresee the future, unwisely lets her in despite Prometheus’s admonition not to accept any gifts from Zeus. Pandora means “all-giving” which is an appropriate name for the first woman. She brings a jar, often mistranslated as a box, which she is not supposed to open. Out of curiosity, however, she opens the box and all the diseases of humanity escape from the jar. The only thing that remains is “hope.” Thus, humankind can endure and sustain thanks to the “hope” that still remains among us.

The mythology of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora teaches us valuable lessons. As for Pandora’s box, we learn that we should be discreet when receiving gorgeous gifts from someone without reason. We also learn that “curiosity killed the cat.” So many fairy tales tell us stories of those who are ruined due to their curiosity. So do the stories from the Arabian Nights. It is also noteworthy that like Eve in the Bible, Pandora, too, is blamed for the transgression and the degradation of humankind due to her vulnerability to temptation. Obviously, this originates from men’s prejudice against women.

We can also learn a valuable lesson from Epimetheus and Prometheus who signify the past and the future, afterthought and forethought, or slow learners and fast learners, respectively. If we benchmark Epimetheus who lacks foresight and is past-oriented, we are likely to make grave mistakes of taking in Pandora who brings catastrophe. Then inevitably we will be doomed and end up regretting. Sadly, it will be too late to straighten out our mistakes.

If we wisely follow future-oriented Prometheus, however, we will be remembered as heroes, even though we may be punished by some superpower. We may be chained to a rock and our liver may be eaten by a predator. Yet, our liver will be regenerated every day and surely Hercules will come to our rescue some day. Then we will be hailed as a pioneer of human civilization and protector of humankind. We will be esteemed as someone who has brought “a red flower” or “fire” to the international community, which will make people warm and the world bright.

Although Prometheus and Epimetheus are twin brothers, they are quite different. Prometheus who can see the future is wise and Epimetheus who can only see the past is foolish. If you look back on the past, there will be so many things you regret and you will be haunted by those dark memories and will become miserable. What is done cannot be undone. If you look to the future, however, you will be hopeful and bright.

There is a maxim in English: “He is wise who looks ahead.” It means only fools keep returning to the past. Like Prometheus, we should have foresight, instead of hindsight. We should be able to see what lies ahead of us, instead of hopelessly clinging to the dark past for good. Unfortunately, humans are the descendants of Epimetheus, not Prometheus. Nevertheless, we can still make a choice.

Between Prometheus and Epimetheus, between foresight and hindsight, and between the bright future and the dark past, what should we choose? The answer is so obvious. Yet we seem to foolishly regress into the labyrinth of the dark past, instead of soaring into the bright future. If we keep returning to the past, we will not be able to come back. We are at the crossroads now and should choose the right path. If we chose the wrong direction, we will be doomed. Which way should we take? The choice is ours. But one thing is clear. We should look to the future


By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at sukim@snu.ac.kr. -- Ed.

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