Epimetheus, or The Spirit of Reflection

by David Malouf

© all rights reserved

We have all heard of Prometheus, great rebel against the gods and bringer to earth of a commodity, fire, which we have depended on from earliest times for much of what makes us human: campfires, cooked meat, the forging of iron into ploughshares, horseshoes, swords. What is not so well known is that Prometheus had a brother, also a titan and demi-god, but as his name suggests quite opposite in nature and habit of thought. Prometheus means he-who-thinks-before, Epimetheus he-who-thinks-after. Before and after. That seems clear enough. If Prometheus was quick and decisive, thinking ahead, his mind leaping swiftly to the essence of things, then Epimetheus must have been slow, perceiving only later or too late where events had been leading and what might have been required of him. His nature was sluggish. He had always to catch up slowly with what had already occurred.

But is this really what is intended by thinking-after? Mightn’t it equally suggest the opposite? That Epimetheus was not slow but on the contrary impulsive, acting first and only later grasping, by reflection, the significance of what his eager spirit had done. Clearly Prometheus was a rebel and Epimetheus was not. Perhaps it is here that we should seek the difference between two brothers whose stance with regard to the world and to the gods who are supposed to govern it has had so large an influence on our lives.

It was natural to Prometheus, whose spirit was always in search of something to oppose and act upon, that he should see the gods, and especially the chief among them, Zeus, as hostile, an embodiment of everything that stood between him and the world. He needed to see the gods as being outside himself, separate and above, before he could break free of them. And afterwards, to justify his rebellion, he had to proclaim them tyrants, unwilling to relinquish even a crumb of their power.

But Epimetheus thought otherwise. The gods for him were within. They were projections of the contradictory forces that made up his nature. Once named and given body, they could be grasped, contemplated, so that a man could deal cleanly and in the light with what otherwise might remain murky and confused. The gods for Epimetheus were aspects of his own life as thought. There was no line that could be drawn between what belonged to the gods and what was strictly his own, so the dark and sometimes risky business of dealing with them, all the details of observance, but of avoidance too, were for him ways of handling, in a dramatic way, the forces that were at work in his own soul. His awe before them was a proper, though cautious attention to the mystery of his own being, the secrecies of the heart and the crooked but crookedly straight ways in which his mind worked. He was impressed by his brother’s capacity for resentment but did not share it. As for the punishment Prometheus had incurred, the plunging hour after hour for all the hours of daylight of the eagle’s beak that tore at his liver, the growing back of the organ each night so that the torment could begin all over again at dawn–well, he had doubts about who it was exactly who was responsible for that, but grieved in a brotherly way for the affliction and out of loyalty and old affection spoke up and took his brother’s part.

Prometheus warned him then that the gods, who are in no way just, might seek to wreak upon him, Epimetheus, and those who were closest to him, a vengeance they could not work on the real culprit, who continued, even under the eagle’s beak, to defy them and curse.

Epimetheus listened to what his brother had to say and brooded upon it, but as we might expect took the warning in a different sense from the one Prometheus had intended.

Since the gods were within, the warning could only be against himself and what he might do in an underhand way, secretly, obscurely to harm himself. Prometheus had been quite specific. The gods in their duplicity would attack Epimetheus where he appeared most strong. That is, by pretending to reward him for his conspicuous piety. “What you must beware of,” Prometheus told him, “is any sign of the gods’ blessing, since what they will surely send you is an injury disguised as a gift.”

Epimetheus thought about this. He brooded. What sort of blessing? What sort of gift? And his brooding, which was the very essence of after-thought, became a dream. He saw floating towards him a woman of astonishing beauty and grace, and leading her an old man, a kind of rag-and-bone man or pedlar, one-eyed, wrinkled, but with a sprightliness of step that revealed quite clearly to Epimetheus, once he thought of it, who he must be. It was Hermes, messenger of the gods, who is also, since the one god may have several natures, a joker, trickster, the father of liars and thieves, and also the one who comes at last, in the form of an ephebe, to lead the soul to death. Only in this case he bore the form of an ancient pedlar, and what he was leading was a woman.

Epimetheus’ first thought was: I am dying. This woman is the embodiment of my death. And his second: She is both my death and the most abounding and all gifted source of life.

He woke then. The pedlar was gone. But the woman, in all her grace and beauty, still stood before him. Leaning down so that her breath touched his cheek, she lay her lips to his, breathed into his nostrils, and told him that she had been sent by the gods to be his wife, and that she was called Pandora because each of the gods had endowed her with a special grace or gift. She knew nothing of his dream, and when he told her of it, of the old man either.

“There,” she said, taking his hand and placing it on her breast where he felt the beating of her heart, “do I feel like a woman who comes only in a dream?”

They lived happily together, and, remembering the warning Prometheus had given him, and being fearful now for Pandora as well as for himself, Epimetheus warned her to accept no gift from the gods, however innocent it might appear, since any gift they sent might be an injury in disguise. He had quite forgotten, in the power of her presence, that Pandora was one.

And now Epimetheus began to brood on a new danger. The easiest way of harming him now, he thought, was to harm her, a thing he could not even bear to consider. And once more out of his brooding came a dream.

Again he saw the old man, joker, thief, pedlar, who was also Hermes the messenger of the gods, and on this occasion it was a little casket he was bringing, all bound and sealed with wax. He saw Pandora open the door to him; saw her offer him food and drink; heard him ask her to take the little chest and look after it till one of her husband’s friends came to take it away–it wouldn’t be long; heard him warn her on no account to open it.

“No,” Epimetheus cried out in his dream. “Do not open the door, Pandora. Do not take the thing in.” But he said this too late or Pandora did not hear him. When he woke there it was in the hall, a box bound and sealed and softly glowing, with a sound coming from it that made the whole house vibrate and the air hum as if somewhere far off a string had been plucked and the long note was still sounding, and there was a smell too that filled the house with a spiciness of pine needles and sweet herbs, as if what the box contained was all the good things of the earth. Small as it was, all the richness and harmony of the earth seemed to be throbbing in it. It exerted an influence, but the influence, as far as Epimetheus could see, was benign.

Like Pandora, its arrival changed things. The house seemed finer, their lives too richer and more complete. Pandora was deeply drawn to it. She went back and back to stare at it, moved round it with a more exquisite grace, a dreaminess that to Epimetheus made her more beautiful than ever, more dreamlike in the spell it cast upon her and she on him. Only some time later did he recall his brother’s warning and the anxiety he had felt when he first saw the box in his dream.

So now it was the box he brooded on. It obsessed him, and he was surprised, and a little worried, that Pandora, who felt so drawn to the thing, should take its presence for granted, as if she had heard the sound it gave off before, deep in her memory, and had no need to feel curious about it; as if it restored to her something out of the world she had left behind and had not expected to see again. She was in no way tempted, so far as Epimetheus could tell, to open it. She had no need to. Or was she only pretending, to assuage his fears? He nagged and nagged at her. “Do not open the box, Pandora. Promise you will never open it.”

But he was the one who was curious; who feared the box but at the same time longed to know what it contained, and the more so because he suspected that she already knew and could not tell him since it was a secret, in the end, about herself. And his divided attitude to the thing made it glow even stronger, hum even louder, give off even more potently, more tantalisingly, its scent of another and richer world. And once more his brooding gave rise to a dream. He was playing handball with some friends in the garden, quite free of any thought but healthy exercise with companions in the sun. They leapt, shouted, shot the ball from hand to hand. All was movement and air and the glow of disciplined high spirits as foot and hand followed the ball.

Meanwhile, in the dark of the house, Pandora stood motionless before the box. An enchanting sound as of the humming of all the strings of the universe had drawn her to it. Sinking to her knees, she lowered her brow till it touched the lid.

Outside in the sun, Epimetheus, suspended on one foot, stretched out his hand. His fingertips just touched the ball, and Pandora, one hand on the cord that bound the chest, turned her face to where, in the shadows at the end of the hall, Epimetheus stood watching, a smile at the corner of his lips. For in his dream he was in three places at once: suspended on one foot on the ball-court, as a watcher in the hall, and in his own bed dreaming.

“Stop,” he cried, and his companions looked up astonished. But his other self, in the darkness of the hall, stood quiet, and his smile was one of grave complicity.

Her hands moved swiftly. The ropes parted, the casket swung open, and Epimetheus, out on the court, fell with his hands clasping his head and howled with pain. His flesh was on fire. His whole body was crusted with a million dark and furry bodies that glowed and stung and thundered.

He woke. He was quite unscathed. Only an ache still gripped his brow. He staggered out into the hall.

There was a box. It was open. Empty and glowing. And there before it was Pandora, sitting back on her heels and staring into it. When she turned towards him it was as if years had passed. The mark of the years was on her–hardship, illness, grief, and all the sorrows great and small that come with living. She was still beautiful but with the beauty that comes from age and endurance.

“What is it?” he asked. “What have you done?”
“Nothing. I have done nothing. I am mortal–didn’t you know? You see me now as I am. Isn’t that what you wanted? I told you I came with all the gifts, all the qualities, good and bad, of being mortal. Didn’t you understand what that means?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Yes. But I was concealing it from myself.” He took her hand. “Now I know it. Now I know you.” “Careful,” she warned. “You do not quite know me. It takes time,” and she drew back and fixed him with her gaze. “I can be deceitful.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I love disorder as well as harmony.”
“I bring love but also madness and every kind of infection.”
“One day I will die.”
“I know,” he said, and remembered then who it was who had brought her to him. “I have always known.

So were the gods avenged or were they thwarted, and the more thoroughly by the second brother than the first? Epimetheus and Pandora were the parents of the first mortals. Was he perhaps chosen by the gods to do, in a backward way and against their will, in the way of thinking-after, what they could not achieve without him?–the bringing into existence of the first generation that was human: mortal, disobedient, prone to every kind of disorder and wilfulness and pride, entirely divided among themselves, violent and unpredictable, but with the desire to know one another and the world, whatever the cost, and to know the gods as well, who, all powerful as they are, have no power to know themselves but by reflection.


David Malouf is Australia’s pre-eminent novelist. Most recent among his many literary awards is the inaugural IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Remembering Babylon. This piece is reproduced with permission from the literary magazine, Heat.

To find out more about this novelist, visit the David Malouf home page.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]