In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Ancient Greek: Προμηθεύς, “forethought”)[1] is a Titan known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals for their use. His myth has been treated by a number of ancient sources, in which Prometheus is credited with (or blamed for) playing a pivotal role in the early history of humankind.



[edit] Hesiod

Greek deities
Primordial deities
Aquatic deities
Chthonic deities
Personified concepts
Other deities
The Twelve Titans:
Oceanus and Tethys,
Hyperion and Theia,
Coeus and Phoebe,
Cronus and Rhea,
Mnemosyne, Themis,
Crius, Iapetus
Children of Hyperion:
Eos, Helios, Selene
Daughters of Coeus:
Leto and Asteria
Sons of Iapetus:
Atlas, Prometheus,
Epimetheus, Menoetius

The Prometheus myth first appears in the Greek epic poet Hesiod‘s (ca. the late 8th – early 7th centuries BC) Theogony (lines 507-616). He was a son of the Titan Iapetus by Themis or Clymene, one of the Oceanids. As a son of Iapetus he was also a brother of Atlas, Menoetius and Epimetheus. In the Theogony, Hesiod introduces Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus‘ omniscience and omnipotence. At a meal marking the “settling of accounts” between mortals and immortals, Prometheus plays a trick against Zeus (545-557). He places two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of ox meat hidden inside an ox’s stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the ox’s bones wrapped in “glistening fat” (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chooses the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices; henceforth, humans would keep the meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angers Zeus, who hides fire from humans in retribution. Prometheus, however, steals fire from Zeus and gives it back to humans for their use. This further enrages Zeus, who sends mortal man the first woman, presumably Pandora (590-93): “From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.” Prometheus, meanwhile, is chained to a rock where his regenerating liver is eaten daily by a vulture. [2] Years later the Greek hero Heracles would shoot the vulture and free Prometheus from his chains.[3]

Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus in the Works and Days (lines 42-105). Here, the poet expands upon Zeus’ reaction to the theft of fire. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from men, but “the means of life,” as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus’ wrath (44-47), “you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste.” Hesiod also expands upon the Theogony’s story of the first woman, now explicitly called Pandora. After Prometheus’ theft of fire, Zeus sent Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora carried a jar with her, from which she released (91-92) “evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death.”[4]

[edit] Aeschylus

Perhaps the most famous treatment of the Prometheus myth can be found in the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound — traditionally (but uncertainly) attributed to the 5th-century BC Greek tragedian Aeschylus. The drama is likely the first play of the otherwise non-extant Prometheia trilogy. At the center of the drama are Prometheus’ theft of fire and his subsequent punishment by Zeus; in this, Aeschylus’ dependence on the Hesiodic source material is clear. The Prometheus Bound also includes, however, a number of changes to the received tradition. Some of these changes are rather minor. For instance, rather than being the son of Iapetus and Clymene — and hence, Zeus’ cousin — Prometheus becomes the son of Gaea — and Zeus’ uncle. Also, the chorus makes a passing reference (561) to Prometheus’ wife Hesione, whereas a fragment from Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women calls her by the name of Pronoea.[5]

Other innovations are more substantial. Before his theft of fire, Prometheus played a decisive role in the Titanomachy, in fact securing victory for Zeus and the other Olympians; Zeus’ torture of Prometheus thus becomes a particularly harsh betrayal. The scope and character of Prometheus’ transgressions against Zeus are also widened. In addition to giving humankind fire, Prometheus claims to have taught them the so-called arts of civilization such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. The Titan’s greatest benefaction for humankind seems to have been saving them from complete destruction. In an apparent twist on the myth of the so-called Five Ages of Man found in Hesiod’s Works and Days (wherein Cronus and, later, Zeus created and destroyed five successive races of mortal men), Prometheus asserts that Zeus had wanted to obliterate the human race, but that he somehow stopped him. Moreover, Aeschylus anachronistically and artificially injects Io, another victim of Zeus’ violence and ancestor of Heracles, into Prometheus’ story. Finally, just as Aeschylus gave Prometheus a key role in bringing Zeus to power, he also attributed to him secret knowledge that could lead to Zeus’ downfall: Prometheus had been told by his mother Gaea of a potential marriage that would produce a son who would overthrow Zeus. Fragmentary evidence indicates that Heracles, as in Hesiod, frees the Titan in the trilogy’s second play, Prometheus Unbound. It is apparently not until Prometheus reveals this secret of Zeus’ potential downfall that the two reconcile in the final play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer.

Prometheus Bound also includes two mythic innovations of omission. The first is the absence of Pandora‘s story in connection with Prometheus’ own. Instead, Aeschylus includes this one oblique allusion to Pandora and her jar that contained Hope (252): “[Prometheus] caused blind hopes to live in the hearts of men.” Second, Aeschylus makes no mention of the sacrifice-trick played against Zeus in the Theogony.[6]

Most of these innovations are reflective of the play’s thematic reversal of the Hesiodic Myth. In Hesiod, the story of Prometheus (and, by extension, of Pandora) serves to reinforce the theodicy of Zeus: he is a wise and just ruler of the universe, while Prometheus is to blame for humanity’s unenviable existence. In Prometheus Bound, this dynamic is transposed: Prometheus becomes the benefactor of humanity, while every character in the drama (except for Hermes, a virtual stand-in for Zeus) decries the Olympian as a cruel, vicious tyrant.

[edit] Other authors

Some two dozen other Greek and Roman authors would retell and further embellish the Prometheus myth into the 4th century AD. The most significant detail added to the myth — found in, e.g., Sappho, Plato, Aesop and Ovid — was the central role of Prometheus in the creation of the human race. According to these sources, Prometheus fashioned humans out of clay. In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilizing arts.[7]

Although perhaps made explicit in the Prometheia, later authors such as Hyginus, Apollodorus, and Quintus of Smyrna would confirm that Prometheus warned Zeus not to marry the sea nymph Thetis. She is consequently married off to the mortal Peleus, and bears him a son greater than the father — Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Apollodorus moreover clarifies for us a cryptic statement (1026-29) made by Hermes in Prometheus Bound, identifying the centaur Cheiron as the one who would take on Prometheus’ suffering and die in his place.[7]

Reflecting a myth attested in Greek vase paintings from the Classical period, Apollodorus places the Titan (armed with an axe) at the birth of Athena, thus explaining how the goddess sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus.[7]

Other minor details attached to the myth, such as: the origin of the eagle that ate the Titan’s liver (found in Apollodorus and Hyginus); myths surrounding the life of Prometheus’ son, Deucalion (found in Ovid and Apollonius of Rhodes); and Prometheus’ marginal role in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (found in Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus).[7]

On a more humorous note, Aesop claims that the existence of homosexuality stems from Prometheus’ getting drunk while creating the first humans.[citation needed]

[edit] Comparative Myths

The two most prominent aspects of the Prometheus myth – the creation of man from clay and the theft of fire – have found their expression in numerous cultures throughout history and around the world:

[edit] The Creation of Man from Clay

  • In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, the god Enki created humans from clay.
  • According to Genesis 2:7, God made Adam from clay.
  • In Africa, the Yoruba culture holds that the god Obatala likewise created the human race.
  • In Egyptian mythology, the ram-headed god Khnum made people from clay in the waters of the Nile.
  • In Chinese myth, the goddess Nuwa created the first humans from mud and clay.
  • Mayan myth holds that Tepeu and Quetzalcoatl made the first humans from clay, but they were unsatisfactory.
  • The Hopi attributed the creation of humans to Spider Woman.

[edit] The Theft of Fire

  • According to the Rig Veda (3:9.5), the hero Mataricvan recovered fire, which had been hidden from mankind.
  • In Cherokee myth, after Possum and Buzzard had failed to steal fire, Grandmother Spider used her web to sneak into the land of light. She stole fire, hiding it in a clay pot.[8]
  • Among various Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, fire was stolen and given to humans by Coyote, Beaver or Dog.[9]
  • According to the Creek Indians, Rabbit stole fire from the Weasels.[10]
  • In Algonquin myth, Rabbit stole fire from an old man and his two daughters.[11]

[edit] Prometheus in other arts

Prometheus’ torment by the eagle and his rescue by Heracles were popular subjects in vase paintings of the 6th-4th c. BC. He also sometimes appears in depictions of Athena’s birth from Zeus’ forehead.

There was a relief sculpture of Prometheus with Pandora on the base of Athena’s cult statue in the Athenian Parthenon of the 5th century BC.

[edit] Worship

Prometheus had a small shrine in the Kerameikos, or potter’s quarter, of Athens, not far from the Academy. The Academy had its own altar dedicated to Prometheus. According to the 2nd-century AD Greek traveler Pausanias, this site was central to a torch race dedicated to Prometheus.

Pausanias also wrote that the Greek cities of Argos and Opous both claimed to be Prometheus’ final resting place, each erecting a tomb in his honor.

Finally, Pausanias attested that in the Greek city of Panopeus there was a cult statue claimed by some to depict Prometheus, for having created the human race there.[7]

[edit] Promethean myth in modern culture

Sculpture of Prometheus in front of the GE Building at the Rockefeller Center (New York City, New York, USA).

Sculpture of Prometheus in front of the GE Building at the Rockefeller Center (New York City, New York, USA).

The mythic Prometheus is the lyrical I of the poem “Prometheus” by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in which the character addresses God (as Zeus) in misotheist accusation and defiance.

The cloned horse Prometea, and Prometheus, a moon of Saturn, are named after this Titan, as is the asteroid 1809 Prometheus. The story of Prometheus has inspired many authors through the ages, and the Romantics saw Prometheus as a prototype of the natural daemon or genius.

The name of the sixty-first element, promethium, is derived from Prometheus.

Mary Shelley‘s 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”. This is a reference to the novel’s themes of the over-reaching of modern man into dangerous areas of knowledge.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is compared to Prometheus: “John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains and he withdrew his fire–until the day men withdraw their vultures.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound rewrites the lost play of Aeschylus so that Prometheus does not submit to Zeus (Shelley’s Jupiter), but supplants him instead in a triumph of the human heart and intellect over tyrannical religion. Lord Byron’s poem “Prometheus” also portrays the titan as unrepentant. For the Romantics, Prometheus was the rebel who resisted all forms of institutional tyranny epitomized by Zeus — church, monarch, and patriarch. They drew comparisons between Prometheus and the spirit of the French Revolution, Christ, Milton’s Satan, and the divinely inspired poet or artist.[citation needed]

Prometheus is a minor character in the novel The Big Over Easy, where he is a lodger in the home of the protagonist, Jack Spratt. Prometheus later marries Spratt’s daughter Pandora, despite the 4,000 year difference in their ages.

In Ayn Rand’s Anthem, the main character changes his name to Prometheus after being condemned for inventing the light bulb.

In Diana Wynne Jones‘s fantasy novel, The Homeward Bounders, Prometheus, as a character, plays a significant role.

Prometheus Books, a publishing company for scientific, educational, and popular books, especially those relating to secular humanism or scientific skepticism, takes its name from the myth.

Bristol England’s The Pop Group included studio and live versions of a song called “Thief of Fire,” on two of their albums.


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