It’s funny how things change. These days, we think of our God as benevolent. He sees every sparrow fall. As Matthew 10:31 says, “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
However, back in the ancient days, we lived in fear and awe of the powerful forces around us. As a result, our relationship with the creators of those natural forces, our gods, has not always been a cordial one.
To the ancient Greeks, the gods were to be feared and placated with sacrifices. Zeus, king of all the gods, sent down his killing thunderbolts. The sun god sent his blessed rays, but they also baked the fields in time of drought. The gods, after all, did not love us. In fact, the creation of humans in the first place was an act of trickery foisted upon them by one of their hated enemies.
The constellations tell us much about that dim past. Aquila, the Eagle, sits low in the southeast right now, and near it, poised to strike a deadly blow, is Sagitta, the Arrow. How did the eagle get in such a fix? And why is its death a triumph for humanity and not a curse? Read on, gentle readers, and ye shall see.
The gods had fought a stupendous war for control of the universe with their hated predecessors, the Titans. They were immortal like the gods, so they were left imprisoned or in slavery by their defeat at the hands of the more-powerful gods.
The great patron of humanity was Prometheus, one of the Titans. The once-proud giant was now a toady to Zeus. But Prometheus had a decent spirit and a creative urge, so in his spare time he wrought from clay a race of beings with good hearts and mortal weaknesses.
The gods didn’t think much of the new human race. They demanded that humans search for food and sacrifice much of it to them or risk being swatted like flies.
What humans lacked was technology. They lived like animals. They died from diseases because they could not cook their food, and they perished from wild beasts because they could not forge effective weapons against them. The gods delighted in human weakness and spent many a lazy day watching humans perish.
Prometheus loved his human creations, and was ready to risk his own safety to give us comfort. He stole from the gods the secret of fire, the gift of unlimited energy to cook our food, forge our weapons and create, in effect, our great civilizations. He hid the fire in a hollow reed and gave it freely to humanity.
Zeus, the king of all the gods, did not take kindly to such duplicity. He chained Prometheus to the Caucasus mountains and sent his most loyal lackey to perform a particularly horrific punishment on the poor Titan. (Parents, please note: The following is not pretty.)
Here’s another thing that has changed: We think of the eagle as a noble bird, our national symbol. However, Zeus’s ignoble eagle performed with great pleasure every evil — theft, murder or kidnapping — that the god commanded. In this case, the bird pecked out and ate the liver of Prometheus. His liver grew back every day, and the eagle returned each day to extend the Titan’s agony.
Hercules, high in the east right now, was half man and half god and the greatest hero of his age. He set himself the task of freeing Prometheus. Before he broke the Titan’s chains, he let loose a poisoned arrow at the eagle and released Prometheus from his agony forever.
It is that titanic event we see commemorated in the stars of the Aquila, Sagitta and Hercules. Hercules had repaid humanity’s debt to its creator and benefactor. He had also freed humanity to grow and prosper using the great power that Prometheus had given it.
As the arrow flew upward to free Prometheus from his pain, the chains that had bound our human ingenuity and power were loosed as well.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at email@example.com or 740–363‑1257.