Poppies, Crabs, and Prometheus: Why We Hate The Great

(Photo Credit to the incredible Bryan Larsen's "Prometheus," 2020.)

Legends tell of the Titan Prometheus (which means Forethought), who is sometimes said to have been the one who fashioned the race of Man from clay. In other versions, the Gods made all the creatures of the Earth, while Prometheus and his lesser-known brother Epimetheus (meaning Afterthought) were tasked with giving talents and skills to everything in the world. Epimetheus, being understandably shortsighted, gave out all the gifts like scales, fur, and feathers randomly, and when he had come to Man, had nothing left to give.

Prometheus, however, took pity on Man in his naked state, and proceeded to raid the workshop of Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalworking. In the forge he stole fire, and, hiding it within the hollow of a fennel stalk, brought it back to Man as a gift. He showed the new race the way to use it, and, with it, how to work with metal. When Zeus, the king of the gods, discovered this theft, he was enraged. Furious, he captured Prometheus and chained him to a rock in the far east. An eagle lived on the rock, and would descend to devour Prometheus’ liver. However, because he was cursed by Zeus, each night it would regrow, simply to be eaten again. Eventually, Hercules would show up and kill the eagle, but that’s another story.

What’s the take away here? Do mankind a favor, teach them the hidden knowledge that has the power to dramatically improve their lives, and receive nothing but cruel punishment. Not a great deal, huh? Unfortunately, because myths are meant to (among other things) instill the cultural morals of the time, this one teaches us that the Greeks actually demonized a certain degree of aspiration- “don’t take what belongs to the gods.” This is demonstrated similarly in the myth of Icarus and Daedalus (Icarus burned and fell when he flew too close to the sun), as well as the tale of Helios’ son Phaethon (who tried to drive his father’s sun chariot and was struck down by Zeus before he burned the world to a crisp).

This phenomenon is often called “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” which originated from a story that famed historian Herodotus recounts in his book, Histories:

[Periander] had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the wheat, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Cypselus, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Cypselus, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner.

This story was retold by Aristotle, and eventually began to include poppies specifically in the story of a Roman king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. However, this phenomenon isn’t limited just to the Greeks and Romans- it appeared in the English language as early as the 1700s, and in the United States by the 1800s.

The story represents a larger issue: far too often, we demonize the successful and hate those that we think are better than ourselves. Now, there is an argument to be made that it’s not the success itself that we hate, but the superiority expressed by those that have succeeded, but I would bet that it’s simply a cop out. For an insecure person, the success of others is perceived as an attack on one’s self worth. On the other hand, a person who has a strong sense of self-value, the success of others serves as inspiration- “a rising tide lifts all ships.”

There is something similar that we can see with crabs. If you were to take a decent number of freshly caught crabs and throw them in a bucket, the crabs on top can easily crawl out. However, because the crabs in the middle are jealous (or, dare I say, crabby…), they will pull down the crabs at the top and ensure that they all die together. It’s almost as if they were saying, “if I can’t get out, neither can you,” and when you think of that sentiment, you can draw the conclusion to humans fairly easily.

Fundamentally, there are two opposing philosophies at work here:

The strong man says,

“I will build myself up to be something great, and perhaps others will see the heights I have reached and know that they, too, can manage the climb.”
The weak man, however, says

“I cannot bear to see anyone above me, let us tear down anyone who thinks that they are better than we are here at the bottom.”

The great irony of this second ideology is that it makes everyone worse off- and this has been demonstrated scientifically. Researchers in New Zealand conducted a study regarding “how students perform when their position in a class is reported with different levels of perceived privacy.” The study showed that as many as 70% of students were concerned with their results being private. Worse, this concern actually caused them to do as much as 20% worse than when their scores were kept private. These students were so worried about their peers that they, intentionally or unintentionally, dumbed themselves down

Understand this- either you will choose to shine as a beacon that lights the way for others to follow, or you will cower from the light and curse that it shows you for what you are. Like attracts like- will you stand on the shoulders of giants or tear down the statues of great men past?

Choose strength- and go steal the fire from the gods.

“Thousands of years ago the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burnt at the stake he’d taught his brothers to light, but he left them a gift they had not conceived and he lifted darkness from the face of the Earth.”

― Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
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