Betrayed by the Acts of Others? The Events that Led to Prometheus’s Perennial Punishment
The story of Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora is a popular myth of ancient Greece - one that has been told and retold throughout the ages. It is a tale of Prometheus, the son of a titan, who was punished for helping mankind. But it is also a myth that explains the creation of man, the birth of enlightenment, as well as the horrible beginnings of misery.
Creation of the Universe
The story goes that when the universe was being created, the earth formed out of chaos. The air came together while the land and seas solidified. Then the gods decided to put on the planet creatures that might live through the graces of the gods.
The job of creating man and animals was given to the titan brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus was wise, with the gift of foresight. He thought about what would be needed several years in the future. On the other hand, Epimetheus was rash and impulsive. Unable to plan for the future, he instead only cared about the past.
The brothers set about creating life upon the earth. Epimetheus quickly created animals that would live in the forests, swim in the seas, and fly through the air. Epimetheus was so impulsive that he gave these creatures several gifts: swiftness for some, flight for others, strength and frightening claws for the most terrifying animals.
While his brother crafted creatures with little thought, Prometheus toiled carefully over the creation of man from a lump of clay. Prometheus shaped man after the image of the gods and designed him to be nobler than any other beast.
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Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena (detail), Painted in 1802 by Jean-Simon Berthélemy, painted again by Jean-Baptste Mauzaisse in 1826. (© Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY 2.5)
However upon completion of man, Prometheus discovered that his rash brother had bestowed all the gifts from the gods upon the animals and had left none for the humans. While the beasts were given strength, swiftness, hardened shells, and warm coats, man was left naked and weak with no means to live prosperously.
Prometheus Defies the Gods
Prometheus was overcome with sadness for his creations, whom were living painfully and harshly. So Prometheus came up with a plan to give man a great gift, one that will make them powerful against all the other beasts of the earth.
Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind, Heinrich Fueger, 1817. (Public Domain)
Prometheus defied the will of Zeus and traveled to Mount Olympus in order to steal fire from the gods to give to mankind. With it came the beginning of civilization. Prometheus taught man how to craft tools and weapons from iron ore. He showed them how to plant crops and live through agriculture. With fire they learnt to survive cold winters and defy the seasons. With fire man began to thrive and become master over the animals.
Zeus was outraged. He decided to punish Prometheus and mankind for their transgression of the gods’ will. The punishment he devised was twofold.
First, Zeus commanded Hephaestus, the blacksmith for the God’s, to craft a creature so beautiful that it would plague the hearts of men. From a lump of clay, Hephaestus created the form of a woman. This woman was bestowed with gifts, such as a pleasing voice and unmatched beauty by the gods. They named her Pandora and she was commanded to marry Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus.
Zeus readies Pandora with Hermes in attendance, a painting by Josef Abel. (Public Domain)
Prometheus warned his brother to be wary of accepting gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus did not heed this wise warning. Before Pandora departed Olympus she was given a box and told by the gods to never open it - under any circumstances.
At first Pandora abided by this rule, however her curiosity got the best of her. Eventually she opened the box to see what was inside.
Right away, innumerable evil creatures like disease, famine, and plague flew out of the box and began to spread around the earth. Pandora, in her fear, quickly shut the box, but she closed it before one last creature could escape, Hope.
Consequently, it is said that while evil haunts this world, mankind still has hope.
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Pandora by John William Waterhouse. (Public Domain)
Prometheus was punished as well. He was sentenced by Zeus to spend eternity chained to a mountain with an eagle devouring his liver every day. Prometheus was an immortal, so each night his liver healed, only so that it may be ripped from his body again the next day.
Prometheus spent thousands of years suffering this punishment. Eventually he was chained to the mountain for so long that he became one with the rock; the whole time, looking on in agony as his creations, mankind, suffered from the creatures that were released from Pandora’s box.
In some versions of the myth Prometheus was eventually rescued by the hero Heracles. In other versions it is a vulture, not an eagle, that feasts on Prometheus’ liver. Regardless, the theme is a powerful one, and one that has been revisited and examined by artists and writers for centuries.
Prometheus Bound and the Oceanids, by Eduard Müller (1828–1895). (Public Domain)
The myth of Prometheus can be viewed as a symbol of defiance of tyranny and authority, as well as a metaphor for human enlightenment and the disasters that can come from overreaching our limits.
Prometheus’s tragic tale remains one of the most popular of the Greek myths. The original creator of man, he sought to help us live well, while he heroically suffered the consequences. He is a reminder that human progress often comes from the selfless actions of others, and that, with every advancement, there are often those who accept sufferings on our behalf.
Top image: Prometheus and Hercules by Christian Griepenkerl. (Public Domain)
By Van Bryan