Who is Prometheus in Greek Mythology?
PROMETHEUS in Greek Mythology was the Titan god of fire, a son of the Titan Iapetus and one of the older Greek gods who sided with ZEUS in his fight against his father Cronus. His fame in Greek Mythology was due to his affection for humankind, to whom he gave fire.
The Origin of Prometheus
The war between Zeus and the Titan Cronus, known as the Titanomachy, was waged to decide who would become the supreme ruler of the heavens and the earth. Having escaped his siblings’ fate, who were Cronus consumed their birth, Zeus would return to free them from his father’s stomach, and so began the epic conflict between the Olympians and the Titans.
Whilst Cronus had a fearsome army of fellow titans, led by the mighty titan Atlas, Zeus was backed by the might of his siblings, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia and Demeter. However, these weren’t the only allies that Zeus would come to recruit. Interestingly, one of his most pivotal supporters was, in fact, a titan himself, one who would be known as Prometheus.
Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene. He was one of four brothers, and the other three were Epimetheus, Atlas and Menoetius.
The War Between the Olympians and the Titans
During the war with Zeus, Atlas and Menoetius sided with Cronus and would wage war upon the Olympians in vain. The other two brothers, Epimetheus and Prometheus, sided with Zeus during the battle. However, their roles in the conflict are never actually specified.
It’s plausible that Prometheus aided Zeus by using his great wisdom and intellect and possibly help Zeus understand the nature of the titans, their strategies for battle, and how best he could counter them.
It is mostly unknown why Prometheus didn’t side with his kind, much as it is unknown why Atlas was so hell-bent on leading the army against Zeus. One idea is that Prometheus was displeased that the titans did not listen to him when it came to strategy and that they were more inclined to fight with Atlas’s instinctual strength than the cunning of Prometheus.
Prometheus, who realized that Zeus would win such a battle, decided to cut his losses and join Zeus to spare himself of the inevitable defeat. His brother Epimetheus joined him.
Whilst we know little about the nature of Prometheus, he is thought to have been well-mannered, wise and undoubtedly modest. He was well-liked amongst the people, but none appeared to like him more than Zeus did. Grateful for both Prometheus’s and Epimetheus’s help in battle, Zeus rewarded the brothers with the duty of creating man and animals to populate the world.
Prometheus and Epimetheus — The Creation of Man
Prometheus, whose name meant “forethought“, was already established as one of the wisest beings in existence. Perhaps even more so than the gods themselves. But his brother Epimetheus whose name meant “afterthought“, was considerably less so and was prone to impulsive decisions and erratic nature.
It’s understood that before Prometheus had the chance to create man, Epimetheus had already given the best gifts to the animals of the world. The tiger received speed, the elephant received size, the gorilla received strength, and the birds received flight.
Epimetheus ensured that the animals received wings, shells, fangs, claws, hooves, and pretty much everything that would make them physically superior to man somehow. Realizing his rashness’s error too late, as he was often prone to do, he turned to his brother for help.
Prometheus now had the difficult task of making man superior, though, without being able to resort to the incredible gifts that had already been given to the animals. Therefore, he fashioned man to walk upright like the gods. Built them in shape and the form of the gods and proceeded to give them fire.
In her book, Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Edith Hamilton notes,
It just goes to show how much investment that Prometheus put into man and how much this little project meant to him. Given that Epimetheus had already given arguably the best traits to the animals, Prometheus was determined to provide men with a fighting chance. It also shows us how highly he thought of man, in that he created man in the image of the gods, those that were graceful, beautiful and beyond powerful.
Prometheus wanted humankind to be just like the gods. To rule the earth as the gods themselves ruled the heavens. The resourcefulness of Prometheus also shines through here, as he’s able to think outside of the box and give men something that his brother had not given to the animals—that being fire.
You might say that Prometheus was so in favour of man’s survival that he risks giving them fire in the first place, even though he understood its potency and likely was aware of how Zeus would react to this.
In another version of man’s creation in Greek mythology, the gods created humankind in a sort of trial and error effort. A race of gold, silver, brass, and iron men was created as an experiment.
In both cases, though, one fact is agreed upon—these races of men were exactly that ‘a race of men’. Women were not a part of the equation and would only come about later after Zeus had been deceived.
In some versions, Zeus grew angry that Prometheus had given man fire, for he feared that humankind would be able to control one of the most destructive elements with fire. Not only would they be able to warm themselves and cook their food, but they would also be able to make their weapons and wage war wherever they saw.
Zeus believed that fire was too much of a gift for men to wield and think that man would not need the gods with fire. He intended to keep man subservient to them, helpless in striving to survive, and at the total mercy of those who ruled above them.
Zeus and Prometheus’s vision for man differed significantly, and it can be said that Prometheus probably wouldn’t have minded his creations rising and challenging the gods with the fire he’d given them. He’d probably have been tempted to encourage it, given that he seemed eager for humanity to grow and, therefore, possibly outgrow the gods themselves.
The fact that he gives them fire is proof of this enough, for as stated, ‘fire gives man the ability to not only care for themselves but also create art and build weapons.’ In this, fire becomes more than just a resource for men to use but more, so a metaphor for Prometheus was giving man the keys to the kingdom.
In another version of this tale, men already had fire, an element they presumably discovered independently. But they would find themselves stripped of such a comfort when Prometheus would trick Zeus in their favour.
The Gift of Fire to Humankind
At some point, Zeus gave Prometheus the task of deciding how his mortal creations would make sacrifices to him and the other gods. It would become known as the trick at McCone and is primarily one reason why Prometheus earned his signature as the trickster titan.
McCone is thought to have been the ancient Greek city known as Sicyon, and this is where this event took place. Sending an opportunity to give his creations an upper hand over the gods, Prometheus hatched up an idea.
He killed an ox and divided the creature in half. In one part, he placed the ox’s meat under the unappealing flesh of the ox’s stomach. In the second part, he put the bones of the ox under a thick layer of fat. After presenting these two portions to Zeus, Zeus decided that the thick layer of fat was unquestionably the better choice.
After realizing that the portion he had chosen contained only bones, he was outraged that he’d been tricked. Disgruntled by this deception, Zeus took fire away from man. Interestingly, Zeus’s choice of the bones would dictate how mortals would make their offers to the gods, allowing them to keep the animals’ meat for themselves and only needing to sacrifice the bones and the fat.
What’s even more interesting about this is that Zeus never tries to contest Prometheus despite being tricked. He accepts the decision, and, at this moment, we see Prometheus as not just a trickster but also a hero. He puts his well-being on the line to ensure the survival of his creation, furthermore showing us how much he loves and adores man that he is willing to deceive, even Zeus, so that that man may eat well.
Some might say that Prometheus certainly takes on a father’s role in that he goes above and beyond to ensure that his children do not starve. When Zeus took the fire away from man, Prometheus naturally felt responsible for humankind and did paint him to see the man now totally lost in the darkness. Unable to cook their food without fire and unable to keep themselves warm.
Seeking to aid his beloved creation, Prometheus snuck into the workshop of Hephaestus and Athena, where he was able to steal the fire back and bring it safely back to man. This would see man thrive again, where they would establish themselves as the dominant species and rule the earth’s natural order.
Prometheus’s risk of bringing fire back to man would catalyze the growth of the human species. Prometheus conceals the fire in most mythologies in a hollow fennel stalk to sneak it out of Olympus.
In honour of his daring move, the Athenians created a race in which the same team’s runners would pass between them a flaming torch. The winning team’s final runner would have the honour of using the fire on the altar of Athena.
These types of races would become the first relay races and mark the origin of the Olympic flame ceremony.
When Zeus realized what had happened, however, you can imagine how enraged he was—not only had Prometheus defied him in the first place by giving man fire, as well as having already been tricked by him to select the poorer sacrifice, Prometheus had now undermined his power by returning to man that which was taken. As if it needed to be said, consequences were coming.
The Vengeance Against Prometheus and Mankind — Pandora
Zeus woke up and chose violence/vengeance, and he took this vengeance in two parts. One part against humankind and one part against Prometheus.
Despite humankind, Zeus created what was considered a great evil to men, a thing so sweet and beautiful to gaze upon in the likeness of a shy maiden. The gods adorned her with gold and silver, dressed her in an embroidered veil, gave her blooming flowers and placed a spectacular crown of great beauty upon her head.
Because of the gifts they had given her, they named her Pandora—the gift of all.
When this beautiful walking catastrophe had been created, both man and the gods beheld her with astonishment. From pandora came the first woman and the race of women after that.
In a more famous legend, pandora becomes the source of all misfortune for man out of utter curiosity. Amongst her gifts from the gods, she was given a box where each had placed something harmful inside. There they forbade the woman never to open the box. With that, Zeus sent pandora onto Epimetheus, who accepted her with great eagerness, considering her beauty.
Before this, however, Prometheus had warned his brother never to accept anything from Zeus, for he had likely seen the father of gods plotting against them and humankind. But being known for his retrospection, Epimetheus did not heed his brother’s warning. Pandora, who had grown curious about what was in the box that the gods had given her, eventually opened it, despite being told not to.
Upon doing this, out flew unimaginable plagues and disasters upon the world. Great terrors were unleashed from sorrow and mischief to tragedy and pain until pandora slammed the box shut. She was too late, however, for all the evils had escaped the box. Only one element remained inside the box, Hope.
Hope was the only good thing that had been stuffed in amongst the evils, and you might say that it remains to this day our most outstanding comfort when tragedy or horror falls upon us. Of course, that covered man’s punishment and man soon learned that tricking and defying Zeus was not something that one could get away with. Unfortunately, Prometheus soon learned it too.
The Punishment of Prometheus from Zeus
Zeus had Prometheus seized and taken to the Caucasus, a region between the black sea and the Caspian Sea, by his minions, strength, and violence.
Here Prometheus was chained and bound to a mountainside, Hesiod tells us in the theogony that Prometheus was told,
Not only was Prometheus’s binding torture enough, but Zeus sent an even more gruesome means to hurt his former ally.
As a punishment from Zeus to Prometheus for the theft of fire for humankind, he sent an eagle to prey upon Prometheus. An eagle that every day would tear apart the titan’s liver. A liver that would regenerate overnight, allowing for the torment to continue indefinitely.
However, there may have been more than one reason for this treatment of Prometheus, and that was because apparently, Prometheus was guarding a secret that would be detrimental to Zeus. It’s understood that Zeus would hear from fate, that one day a son would be born to him that would dethrone him, much as he had done to his father, Cronus.
However, only Prometheus knew the identity of the mother of this child, and he was refusing to spill the beans. As Prometheus remained bound in agony, Zeus would from time to time sent his messenger, Hermes, in an attempt to get Prometheus to disclose the identity of the child’s mother so that he could make sure he didn’t sleep with her. But Prometheus remained tight-lipped.
Despite the promise of more hardships if he did not speak, Prometheus never actually relinquished the information. According to Hesiod, he told Hermes that,
We learned that Prometheus was released after many generations, but why or how it’s not necessarily straightforward.
There is a story about a centaur named Chiron, who though immortal, was willing to die for Prometheus and allowed to do so.
Zeus appeared to accept Chiron as a substitute, but we were never told why he was willing to let Prometheus off the hook all of a sudden.
Another version exists that the great hero Heracles stumbled upon Prometheus during his 12 Labours and that he killed the eagle with an arrow before freeing the titan from his bonds. In any case, it would appear that Prometheus and Zeus reconciled and that after that, Prometheus would come to be celebrated as a figure that did not yield.
To the ancient Greeks, he would become a symbol of rebellion against both the injustices and the powerful authorities.
In another later myth, Prometheus would become not only the benefactor of the human race but the very creator himself.
The Great Flood in Greek Mythology
Greek scholar, Apollodorus of Athens, believed that after the Titanomachy events, Prometheus also moulded men out of the water and the earth. Others believe that humankind’s creation came from a cooperative effort by Prometheus and Athena—he who made him out of clay and she who breathed life into them.
In a story known as the deluge, we learned that the very first people, whether constructed by Prometheus or not, were wiped out entirely by a great flood that Zeus had sent. Many will see the link here to Christianity, whereby the Christian God floods the earth after warning Noah and his family to build an Ark to escape.
Similarly, in this Greek myth, there are two survivors of Zeus’s watery purge. These are Deucalion, the son of Prometheus and his wife Phrrya, the daughter of Epimetheus, and pandora.
It would appear that Prometheus, who had foreseen the flood coming, was able to prepare for the world’s destruction and place both Deucalion and Phrrya into a wooden chest, which floated to the surface.
It would appear that once more, Prometheus had defied Zeus in ensuring humanity’s survival. Still, Zeus does not seem to object to this occasion because Deucalion and Phrrya were holy good people.
The two lone survivors made their way to an old temple once the flood had cleared, and there they would be told by a mysterious voice to collect the stones around them and throw them over their shoulders. In doing this, the stones began to transform into people or stone people, at least.
This race of stone people was a hardened versatile bunch, and to be honest, they probably would have needed to have been, given that they would be responsible for repairing the desolation left behind after the flood.
The Compassion of Prometheus
Prometheus is perhaps one of the fascinating titans, if not one of the most fascinating Greek mythology characters. For one, unlike his fellow titans, his name is far more fleshed out and celebrated. Not only does Prometheus maintain a pivotal role within Greek mythology, but he has also traversed into other works of literature, such as Prometheus Bound by the ancient Greek playwright, Aeschylus, and a famous poem titled Prometheus by the English poet, Lord Byron.
It’s easy to see why Prometheus became so popular. Not just amongst us, but amongst the ancient Greeks who would have appreciated Prometheus’s rebellious nature as something virtuous. As mentioned earlier, the fact that Prometheus defies Zeus can indeed be interpreted as a metaphor for the disregarding of power or the rebellion against an unfair or unjust system.
Prometheus here becomes not only the benefactor of man but also a symbol of true bravery and righteousness. He stands up for what he believes in and never compromises his ideals even though he endures agonizing torture.
Some have even made the comparison of Prometheus to one such as Jesus Christ, who you might say put his own life on the line for the sake of humankind or humankind sins in this instance.
He is also one of the most compassionate figures in Greek mythology. He desires to keep man safe and spare man of suffering, despite this being the very cause of his pain.
We also see this very same compassion when the princess Io, who Zeus had changed into a cow to keep her hidden from his jealous wife, Hera, stumbles upon Prometheus in her exile. Having been cursed thereafter by Hera to be tormented by a gadfly, Prometheus offers the princess his sympathy, in spite of the fact that the eagle is still chewing upon his liver.
In a way, the two characters have a lot in common. In that, they are both tormented by a creature sent upon them by the gods. But Prometheus’s ability to put aside his discomfort to bring relief to Io is without a doubt commendable and a real example of compassion.
As Lord Byron tells us in his poem, Prometheus,
Some might also argue that Prometheus is somewhat arrogant and chooses to defy Zeus at all, especially after seeing first-hand what he had done to his brothers, Atlas and Menoetius.
But I think it is less to do with arrogance and more to do with Prometheus’s inability to put aside his good intentions and love for man. You might say that he becomes so focused on ensuring mankind’s survival that he becomes blind to the perils that he will face at the hands of Zeus. Much as you might say, we become blind to the apparent pitfalls when we are too preoccupied or fixated on something or someone.
However, I think Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus is far more deliberate, not only because he wants what is best for humankind but also because he wants fair.
He repeatedly displeases Zeus and questions his tyranny through his actions, all the way up until he finally provokes Zeus’s anger and suffers the consequences.
We also cannot forget Prometheus’s cunning intelligence. Not only does he figure out a way to give man the advantage, even after his brother had given the animals all of the traits that would make them physically superior, but he also finds a way to sneak into Olympus and breach the workshop of Hephaestus, without him even knowing.
From there, he’s able to not only steal the fire by ingeniously hiding it in a hollow fennel stalk, but he’s also able to sneak it out without anyone realizing it. You might even say that Prometheus’s intelligence was on par, if not more advanced than Zeus, in that he’s able to trick Zeus in the way that he does.
Furthermore, he’s able to foresee all of Zeus’s attempts at deception, such as where he tells his brother Epimetheus not to accept anything from Zeus because he knew it would be deleterious for them. Unfortunately, Epimetheus was not so smart.
The ancient Greeks would have seen Prometheus as an inspiration, not just for the ordinary person but also for future revolutionaries. After all, what better figure to be inspired by than one who stood against the father of gods. Much like Prometheus stood up to those bigger than him, it would indeed cultivate the belief that man could rise against his oppressors and that everyone should stand up for what they believe in.