DeFlip Side #83: Bright Beacon, Dark Origins


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

The Summer Olympics have officially begun, tonight’s opening ceremonies in Beijing culminating with that grandest Olympic tradition, the lighting of the Olympic Torch. But that in itself proved to be a somewhat Olympian feat for the 2008 summer games. Thanks to China’s troubled human rights record, the international torch relay was targeted by activists doing their level best to extinguish the so-called eternal flame before it could arrive in Beijing. Some Pro-Tibet protesters in Paris even succeeded.

Of course this is no big deal, since the flame is just a symbol. But all the unrest and news coverage started me wondering: a symbol of what, exactly? I had vague notions that the torch stood for things like hope and global unity through friendly competition. But I knew it couldn’t be that simple. What I didn’t know was just how weird, complicated and downright disturbing the truth really is.

So let’s start at the beginning. We all know the Olympics spring from Greek tradition, and the torch is no exception. In fact, the modern torch is ignited at the site of the last Temple of Hera in Olympia, by using mirrors to concentrate the rays of the sun.

These lofty proceedings take their cue from the Greek myth of the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man. If you know anything about Prometheus it’s probably that he’s the guy chained to the rock, tormented by vultures tearing out his liver each day, only to have it grow back every night, thus perpetuating his agony ad infinitum, absque viscus. But what you probably don’t know is that many ancient Greek scholars—Plato and Ovid among them—actually credit Prometheus with creating man; and he’s kinda the Greek mythical equivalent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

It all started when Prometheus tricked Zeus into accepting fat and bones as sacrificial offerings from humans instead of meat. Incensed, Zeus withheld fire from mankind, saying they could eat their meat raw. But Prometheus, siding with humanity, hatched a plan. He talked his way onto Mount Olympus and once there he lit a torch on the sun. Ever stealthy, he blew the torch out before leaving, but hid an ember of charcoal in a hollow fennel stalk and smuggled it back to mankind.

Upon seeing fires springing up all over the Earth, Zeus did not respond kindly. His retribution was two-fold. First, he chained Prometheus to the mountainside for his transgression. And in a seeming act of kindness, Zeus decided to compensate Prometheus’s brother, Epimetheus, for the loss to the family necessitated by Prometheus’s eternal punishment. He created a beautiful woman for Epimetheus to marry.

But this woman was Pandora, who famously opened a certain box that loosed all manner of ills into the world, including old age, labor, sickness, insanity, vice and passion. And thus did woman become the burden of man. And thus did Zeus achieve his ultimate revenge against Prometheus and mankind alike, all over a chunk of smoldering charcoal.

So from the outset you have some fairly disturbing stuff linked to the Olympic flame, woven directly into its mythological origins—sacrifice, trickery, torture, forbidden knowledge, wrath, retribution, gender prejudice. Yet these concepts, dark though they may be, are still just abstract elements in an ancient myth cycle. It gets much worse.

Fast forward a few millennia and these eldritch fairytales become a driving force behind one of the darkest and cruelest chapters in human history.

Tradition dictates that Zeus chained Prometheus to the Caucasus Mountains, a modern day dividing line between Europe and Asia. And from this region, according to the German Romantic worldview of the 18th Century, came the first, most perfect specimens of man—hence was the word Caucasian coined for the so-called Aryan race. To back up their contention that humanity sprang from Europe, the Romantics pointed to Mt. Ararat in the Southern Caucasus mountains as the landing place of Noah’s Ark after the Flood. All of these theories laid the pseudo-scientific groundwork for the racial ideals espoused by the anti-Semitic Nazis.

And they were the inspiration for the modern torch ceremony that we know so well. Though it seems like a grand tradition, it’s only about 70 years old—a propaganda stunt dreamt up by a Nazi sympathizer named Carl Diem to usher in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. What better way to prop up Hitler’s loony delusions of mystically divine Aryan origins than to give the Berlin Olympics a symbol that would evoke ties to Classical Greece, which the Nazis saw as a direct forerunner of the German Reich.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joesph Goebbles embraced the idea, and was personally on hand to stage-manage the first torch lighting, all to illuminate the glories of the Third Reich. I guess he got tired of just burning books and needed something to do before masterminding Kristallnacht. Sadly, we all know how the rest of the story unfolds. Suffice it to say that the Olympic torch is 0-for-2 thus far.

And while my last bit of torch-related esoterica isn’t exactly a third strike, it does suggest yet another bizarre connection. In doing research for this segment, I naturally dragged out my two-volume set of The Greek Myths as translated by Robert Graves. Upon looking up Prometheus in the index, I found that Graves posited the words “forethought” and “swastika” as possible translations of the name. It was a very intriguing discovery, in light of all I had learned, yet maddening for all that, because Graves just leaves it there and never elaborates. In my quest to figure out just what the hell he meant, I could only find a couple of fringe websites claiming that Graves thought the swastika was a Sanskrit symbol of the solar fire that Prometheus stole. Of course, without actual books or credible sources to back this idea up there’s no confirming its veracity. But it’s an intriguing and curious connection nonetheless.

And it just further serves to highlight the dodgy and somewhat dubious pedigree of a tradition that most people see in a positive light. But when you examine the shadows dancing on the fringes of the Olmypic torch—a darkness born of mythical theft and torment, of whacked-out racial theories and prejudice, of anti-Semitic barbarism and genocide—it forces you to wonder: Why are we so keen on keeping this particular flame alive?