YES OF COURSE THERE ARE SPOILERS.
Over on LJ, Cavalorn did a great piece dissecting the mythic resonance of various elements of Prometheus, understandably focussing on the legend of Prometheus himself.
For the uninitiated, Prometheus was a Titan (giant) who created man, gave him fire (having nicked it from the gods) and was then punished by the gods by having his liver pecked out every day by an eagle. For ever. The gods don’t mess about when they spank you.
I’m not going to re-hash any of what Cavalorn said about the wounded and self-sacrificing elements of our pasty-ass “Titans”, but if you’re the one person left on the internet who hasn’t yet read the above-linked piece, go there immediately and read it. I think he’s right in so far as I think all those things are in the film, along with some very obvious Christian imagery.
Did you read it? Are you back now?
Ok. The Prometheus myth is a more modern version of the Vedic myth of Mātariśvan. The name translates literally as “growing in the mother”, but in fact refers to a sacrificial fire, a messenger of light who brings light and fire to the sages. I think what Scott has done is tie together the roots of the mythologies of Veda, Greece, the Celts and Christianity. I think the Celts are key to this.
Where do I get the Celts from? Well, we have elements that appear in Arthurian legend, which actually originate in Celtic mythology, and those elements are: –
– a severed, talking head.
– the vessel that contains life and that heals
– the wounded king, synonymous with the wounded land.
The severed heads pop up like mushrooms after rain all over the Alien franchise: Ash, Bishop – in Prometheus we get two for the price of one, with an Engineer’s head re-animated by the scientists sticking what looks like a turkey thermometer in behind its ear and running a current through it; and then later, David’s severed, talking head. Heads are depicted in the “temple” area of the Engineers’ mound, and another is depicted as looking out of the top of that mound.
So in addition to Prometheus, I believe there is a link waiting to be drawn between the Engineer and the Celtic myth of Bran, whose story goes like this:
Bran was the grandson-of-Belenos-the-sun, son of the sea-god Llyr (there’s a little thematic link to Prometheus here, who was the son of an Oceanid mother). As Prometheus was a titan (a kind of giant), so Bran was a giant who protected Britain.
Bran had a magic cauldron into which the dead could be placed, after which they would spring out, revitalised, but unable to speak. After Bran was wounded while fighting, leaving him unable to walk, he asked his followers to cut off his head and bear it to a mound in London, where it should be placed facing the continent so it could protect the lands. To – I imagine – everyone’s surprise, after his death, Bran’s Amazing Protective Giant Head went on talking.
It was finally buried on a mound in London (the mound in question lies under what is now the Tower of London, and Bran – whose name meant “crow” still protects us from invasion in the form of the ravens which legend says must never leave the tower). So the LV-223 mounds, each of which seem to be surmounted by a head and each of which contain a head, would appear to have a direct link to the Celtic myth.
ANYWAY, back to the myth: in the middle of all that talking-severed-head-lugging, King Arthur turned up and had an attack of Christianity. He dug Bran’s head up to prove we did not need to be protected by magic (he was wrong), and let his newfangled Christian myths cross-pollinate vigorously with native Celtic myth.
Consequently, Bran’s life-giving cauldron morphed into the Holy Grail – a cup which, when drunk from, would cure any ill / grant immortality / totally give you the winning lottery numbers – and heal the barren land (I think that’s what we see an Engineer doing in the beginning of the film, though whether he is doing it on Earth, or on LV-223, I don’t know).
At this point, with Arthurian legend, ancient Celtic legend and Christianity all busy feeling one another up in the corner, the legend of the Fisher King – a sort of coopted version of Bran’s myth but New! And with added Christ! becomes relevant.
The Fisher King story has fuzzy edges. In some versions there is one king, wounded in the groin (or sometimes legs); whose lack of fertility affects the land and leaves it barren. In other versions there are two kings, father and son, both wounded, though the son less so – he is able to get about. In the legends, knights are sent in a quest to find the “Holy Grail” – the means of healing the king(s) and the land.
I’m going to go off-road for a second here and talk about David. There’s a very obvious David and Goliath element to the waking of the one remaining Engineer, but the way Scott has executed that scene, the whole thing is almost a three-cup shuffle. Although the Engineer is physically enormous, the “Goliath” slain by David is actually Weyland, who is depicted with a big old lump on his forehead (Biblical David slew Goliath by aiming a stone at his forehead). Where Biblical David severed the head of Goliath in triumph, in this scene it is our David whose head is severed by the giant Engineer. It is worth noting that Biblical David is credited with being erudite, skilled, an ancestor of Jesus and the king of Israel. He also started off herding sheep. Perhaps here we have our two kings: one is Weyland, depicted as so wounded he can only move when encased in a robotic suit: and David, heir to him in every way but the genetic, who is himself 100% robot.
However, there are a number of entertaining ways you can read this. Weyland could be the elder king, and David the younger. The Engineers could be the elder king and humanity the younger. Yet it is Elizabeth Shaw – herself a “barren land” (a barren land who has been “cured” by the Grail) – who bears the wound, and once you start looking at the number of ways these themes apply, not to one or another character, but to all of them, you quickly come up against an almost mad, almost holographic echo, where any one character is capable of demonstrating multiple elements of this myth.
If the black goo is the Grail – the very stuff of life – and remember, our first Engineer drank it in a way which indicated that it is a holy sacrament – then are the maps found on Skye and in other ancient cave paintings in fact maps to the Holy Grail?
If the Engineers left maps for us to get to the Holy Grail, why would the remaining Engineer be so angry that Weyland came to him asking for more life?
When David switches on the holo-memory of the ship and we see the ghosts of Engineers running through the halls and into the “temple” with the Grail vessels and the giant head, we assume that they are running from something – a monster, or some event, or some infection – which we cannot see. We haven’t explored the possibility that they are not running FROM but TO. Did they lose control of the Grail, or were they sacrificing their bodies as a host for it?
Were they angry with us precisely because we refused to sacrifice ours?
More to the point: is the purpose of the human genome to be sacrificial host for the Grail? Are we the fallen, bad children who ran away from the authority of god?
There are a lot of other “nods” to mythic references – not just earlier Alien franchise stuff, either. For instance, during the introductory talk, Shaw and Holloway pony up something that works like/looks suspiciously like the Lament Configuration/Lemarchand’s Box, and if you recall, that configuration ultimately contained “Infinite Light”… which ties us back, again, via Mātariśvan to the Vedic Surya; and via Bran to Belenos, the sun god.
Then there’s the stuff that just looks badly done and out of place. Why are the scientists so shit at science? Helmets come off, regardless of possible contagion in the atmosphere, and regardless of the much larger potential for the humans to contaminate the new planet. At no point does anyone tell David off for this. The geologist can’t think of anything at all to look at on an entirely alien planet. In temperatures of minus 12, nobody’s breath steams. When running away from a giant rolling metal doughnut, run straight ahead instead of at 90°. And you can bring a 2000-year-deceased head back to life – eeeasy! Plus, who knew a robot has ROOTS?
Is it deliberately badly done? Or was nobody saying what needed to be said, ie: “Jesus, guys – that mythic stuff is brilliantly dense, but partly as a result, the action stinks and there’s enough wood in most of these characters to actually crucify them on.”
I’m about to re-watch Lawrence of Arabia because I think the real key to Scott’s take on this lies in David’s two quotes from that film: “The key is not minding that it hurts”; and “There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing.” (Of course, David is “no man”. Weyland echoes that phrase: “There is nothing,” as he dies).
Elizabeth uses a very similar phrase she inherited from her father, suggesting that meaning is a choice made by the interpreter, not an inherent quality of that-which-is-being-interpreted: “it is what I choose to believe.”
I won’t be surprised if this ends up being a “make of it what you will” unexplained amalgam of myths, and in many ways I hope that’s precisely what it is. The alternative is trite.
I hope that it is what you choose to believe. It is nothing, and no man needs nothing.