The myth of Prometheus explains how human beings first discovered fire, and it is so ancient that it almost certainly predates the Greeks. It happens early in their mythology even by their own standards, because Prometheus lived in the dim times before the Greek gods were first born.
That’s right, there was a world of Greek mythology before the Greek gods that we know. This was known as the age of the Titans, when Cronus and his monstrous ilk held sway over the heavens. It was a time of endless night and pure terror, and human beings were little more than animals. Prometheus was the youngest of the Titans, and the kindest. He saw the pitiable state of the human beings and felt his heart moved. He wanted to do something to make their lot in life less miserable, but there was nothing he could do.
Then came the day when Zeus, the first of the Olympian Gods, overthrew the Titans in the Titanomachy. Prometheus fought on the side of Zeus, so he survived. He became powerful and honored in the new court of the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus. But he saw that the poor, lowly humans still suffered. So he decided to give them the divine secret of fire.
The Gift of Fire
Fire was no common thing at this time. It had been a secret of the Gods from the Titans down to the Olympians, and it was strictly forbidden to give this gift to any of the animals below the gods. Even though he knew that Zeus would certainly punish him if he ever found out, Prometheus went one night to the place where the sacred fire was kept, took a bit away, and carried it down from Mount Olympus to the people.
It is telling of the extreme antiquity of the story that Prometheus transported the fire to human beings directly and handed it to them as if it were a physical object. This is because the story comes from a time before human beings had the ability to make fire on their own. They had to capture it from natural sources like erupting volcanoes or a forest fire, and you can probably imagine how difficult and dangerous that was. Then they had to carry it and maintain that fire as they moved away from the source and around the countryside, and this brought with it great difficulty and danger. If the fire was allowed to go out, then the tribe was doomed. But the fires did not go out, because the people respected Prometheus’s gift. The fires have not gone out to this day.
Unfortunately, fate was not so kind to Prometheus. Zeus and the other gods discovered that he had broken their taboo and given the gift of fire to the tiny people that crawled on the surface of the Earth below them, and their rage knew no bounds. They decided to punish Prometheus not just once, but forever and ever. Although they could not take the secret of fire back from mankind, they could make sure that Prometheus suffer eternally for what he had done. So they found a rock by the sea, and they chained Prometheus to it.
Every day from then on, if this myth is be believed, a eagle would land on the helpless, supine form of Prometheus. This eagle would dig into his living flesh with its sharp beak and talons, and it would tear out his liver. To the Greeks and other ancients, the liver was considered to be the seat of the human soul. So it was Prometheus’s liver that was torn out by the Eagle, who would rip it up and eat it. Every night Prometheus would return to life and his liver would grow back. Every day the eagle would descend upon him again and attack. This has gone on for hundreds of thousands of years, and if the myth is to be believed, then it is still going on today.
Many people take this myth as a parable of the dangers of wit and innovation. They feel that the story shows that, although the people around them may benefit tremendously, the genius and the inventor suffer fresh pains every day. Perhaps it is from the misuse of their inventions. After all, there are other legends of Prometheus and Zeus that remain more obscure. For example, one myth says that Prometheus tricked Zeus into taking only the inedible parts of the sacred bull when it was sacrificed, leaving the edible parts for the people. One can easily see how this religious practice, when carried out among the ancient Greeks, led to a lot of food for everybody at any religious ceremony. The legends agree that Prometheus was a smart guy. It is too bad that he had to suffer for it.
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