Prometheus was the famous Titan god of fire. His name is thought to mean “forethought’. He is credited with molding mankind out of mud and clay. Unfortunately, his desire to improve the lives of his creations, resulted in constant conflict with Zeus.
Son of the Oceanid Clymene and the Titan Iapetus, he along with his brother Epimetheus fought for Zeus and the rest of the Olympians in the Titanomachy. However, after aiding Zeus and helping him win the war, he began to quarrel with him about his unfair treatment of humanity.
Often regarded as a trickster, Prometheus first tested Zeus by tricking the gods during a sacrificial feast. He then stole fire from the gods up in heaven and gave it to mankind, resulting in years of torture.
As punishment for his rebelliousness, Zeus chained him to a cliff and had an eagle feast upon his regenerating liver day in and day out. He also created the first woman, Pandora, to bring misfortune and calamity to the house of man.
Generations later, Zeus’ son, the great hero Heracles, came to the rescue by shooting the eagle and freeing Prometheus. While he made peace with Zeus afterwards, he would continue to be held in high regard as a spreader of knowledge and romanticized as a hero for his acts.
Hesiod’s Theogony states Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus, and his mother was the Oceanid Clymene. Most scholars agree, but there have been other references to him being the son of Iapetos and Asia, the Titan Eurymedon and Hera, or of Uranus and Clymene.
As far as the rest of his family goes, Prometheus was the brother of fellow Titans Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. The duo of Prometheus (Forethought) and Epimetheus (Afterthought) have been referenced countless times throughout Greek mythology.
Prometheus had three children: Deucalion, Hellen, and Aidos. Deucalion was eerily similar to Noah in the Christian Bible. Like Noah, he survived a great flood responsible for wiping out the rest of humanity, and he was able to do so by floating in a massive chest for nine days and nine nights. He and his wife Pyrrha were the only survivors, and they are credited with repopulating the human race.
Prometheus and the Titanomachy
Prior to the creation of humanity, there was a great battle between the Greek gods and a race of giants known as the Titans. The Titans not killed in the battle were driven to Tartarus to spend their days in eternal hell.
Despite being a Titan himself, Prometheus, whose name translates to foresight, convinced his brother Epimetheus to fight alongside him with the Olympian gods led by Zeus. In fact, Prometheus was one of the battle’s ringleaders, helping Zeus defeat the Titans and take control of the heavens in a struggle said to have lasted over a decade.
He switched sides in support of the victorious Olympians simply because the Titans refused to follow his advice to apply trickery and deception in the battle. His two other brothers, Atlas and Menoetius, remained loyal and fought with their fellow Titans against Prometheus, Epimetheus, and the Olympians. However, they and the rest of the Titans were defeated, proving it’s wise to follow someone with the name “forethought.”
Prometheus and the Creation of Man
As thanks for fighting alongside the Olympians in the Titanomachy and helping them win the decade long battle, Zeus entrusted the Titan brothers with the responsibility of creating every living thing, including man.
Epimetheus was tasked with blessing creatures with gifts of the gods. He gave flight to some creatures and the ability to race through grass or move through water to others. He gave the beasts sharp claws, soft fur, and glittering scales.
Meanwhile, Prometheus was busy shaping mud to make the first humans. They were formed to reflect the image of the gods. According to some authors, Athena brought the clay figures formed by Prometheus to life.
Despite looking like them, Zeus ordered the humans to remain mortal. They were also ordered to worship the gods of Mount Olympus from Earth below.
Why? Well, because Zeus saw the humans as subservient creatures, so he made them dependent on the Olympians for protection from the elements and monstrous creatures like the Hydra, Sphinx, or Nemean Lion.
However, Prometheus wanted to give his creations a greater purpose and completely opposed Zeus’ decree. So, when asked by Zeus how sacrifices were to be made, the cunning Prometheus devised a trick to give humans a bit more power.
Prometheus vs. Zeus
The relationship between Zeus and Prometheus began to sour when Zeus declared himself the sovereign ruler of both gods and men. In Prometheus’ eyes, humankind deserved much better than Zeus’ tyrannical treatment.
The Trick at Mecone
The rift between the Forethinker and the Thunderer really took shape at Mecone, where Zeus tasked Prometheus with divvying up the meat of a large ox into two separate meals. One meal was for the gods, while the other was for the humans.
As the creator of humans, Prometheus had an affinity for them. So, not content with his command, he tried tricking Zeus by wrapping a portion of bones in fat and covering a portion of fine meats with the animal’s insides.
Not expecting the trickery, Zeus went with the fat-covered bones, thinking it was the best portion. He was outraged when he discovered the deception and forbade humans from using fire to cook meat, keep warm, or for any other purpose.
Enraged by Prometheus’ trick, Zeus punished mankind by denying them the gift of fire. Prometheus felt this was unjust and felt sorry for man’s weakened state, so he climbed Mount Olympus and stole the fire from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos. According to myth, he was able to steal the fire by hiding it inside of a fennel stalk and bringing it down safely from Mount Olympus in order to help ease the struggles of man.
In another version of the story, humankind already had fire. However, when Prometheus tried tricking Zeus into eating bones and fat rather than the best meats during a meal on Mount Olympus, Zeus took fire away from the humans, making them eat their meat raw. As in the other version, Prometheus stole the fire for mankind’s use.
This gave them the ability to harness nature and use it for their own benefit. With fire, humans could elevate their existence with warmth and cooked food. They could also forge weapons to defend themselves and wage war. Ultimately, Prometheus’ flames acted as a catalyst for the rapid progression of civilization.
To honor this act, the Athenians held a race in which teams of runners passed a flaming torch from one teammate to another. The final runner of the first-place team had the privilege of using the torch to light a sacrificial fire on Athena’s altar at the Acropolis. The race soon became tradition and marked the origin of the Olympic flame ceremony still taking place today.
Punishment of the Humans
In reaction to the theft of the fire, Zeus tasked Hephaestus with creating the most beautiful and devious creature ever made. Each of the gods gifted the creature with seductive gifts, and even they were amazed at her seductive guile and “beautiful evil.”
The creature’s name was Pandora, and she was the first woman in history. Against the advice of his smarter brother, Epimetheus accepted Pandora. Shortly after, she opened the jar brought with her from Mount Olympus. Out of it came a slew of pains and diseases not known to man until this point, and they have been plaguing humankind ever since.
Punishment of Prometheus
Next, it was time for Zeus to turn his anger towards Prometheus. Equaling his cruelty towards humanity, he chained the Titan to a rock and had an eagle tear apart his liver day after day. Each night, his liver would grow back to repeat the punishment indefinitely. This punishment went on for generations until Zeus’ son Heracles eventually came to his aid.
Freeing of Prometheus
Prometheus’ punishment went on for centuries, and if Zeus had his way, it would have lasted for an eternity. However, one day while travelling to the Hesperides during his celebrated labors, Zeus’ son Heracles, better known as Hercules, came upon the chained Titan and decided to free him.
As gratitude for Prometheus’ advice to send Atlas to retrieve the golden apples and help him complete one of his labors, Heracles shot the eagle with an arrow, freeing Prometheus from his enduring punishment. Afterwards, Zeus and Prometheus finally buried the hatchet and made peace with one another, settling their centuries’ old feud.
While the trick at Mecone and the theft of fire gave Zeus plenty to be angry about, he had yet another reason to punish Prometheus. As the “Forethinker,” he was the only one to know the identity of the only mortal woman Zeus could not sleep with.
According to prophecy, the offspring of their relationship would eventually overthrow Zeus, his father. Prometheus knew who this woman was, but he refused to tell Zeus her identity, giving him severe anxiety over his eventual fall from the top of Olympus.
Deucalion and the Great Flood
The first people created by Prometheus were at one point almost completely wiped from existence by a great flood caused by Zeus. Similar to the story of Noah, the only two humans to survive were Deucalion and Pyrrha, the son of Prometheus and his wife. However, rather than an arc, they survived by floating in a large chest.
After the waters receded, Deucalion and Pyrrha tossed stones over their shoulders to repopulate the earth. The stones they threw magically transformed into men and women. For the second time, humanity owed its existence to its creator, Prometheus.
Despite spending years in perpetual agony at the hands of Zeus for his love of humanity, Prometheus never expressed any regret for his rebellious acts. His resilience against oppression combined with his inquisitive spirit and the knowledge and progress he brought to humanity made him a favorite figure in Greek mythology.
In addition to his substantial role in mythology, he was also a regular figure in Greek art and literature. Not only was he worshipped in Athens by almost everyone, especially potters who relied upon fire for their kilns, but his figure was projected on a variety of pottery and artworks of the time. His image first appeared on a piece of ivory art created in 7th century BCE Sparta. He is also depicted, usually being punished, on Greek pottery dating back to 600 BCE.
In literature, the myth of Prometheus and his punishment was the central theme of the Greek tragedy Prometheus Unbound, written by the poet Aeschylus.
This tragedy was later used as the inspiration for a lyrical drama of the same name written by Percy Bysshe Shelley centuries later. Similar to the ancient Greeks’ view of the creator of man, Shelley imagined the Titan as a romantic hero. Readily escaping punishment to pursue the spread of knowledge and empathy for humankind.
Shelley’s wife Mary, however, had a different view of the legendary Titan. To her, he was more of a cautionary figure, representing the potential damage of altering the natural order. Her novel, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, raised ethical questions regarding the advancement of science and technology, which remain relevant to this day.
As a creator, hero, and rebel, Prometheus symbolizes our capacity to harness knowledge, seek truth, and capture the wondrous power of nature. He also serves as a reminder of how individual acts can forever change the world.
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