Prometheus: The Creator of Mankind Who Stole Fire from the Gods
The story of Prometheus is one of the most curious of Greek mythology. Over the centuries it has been enriched by poets and philosophers, and these days Prometheus personifies intelligence, even cunning, for his attempt to help mankind, although in the end he succumbed in his unequal struggle with Zeus. The mythology of Prometheus speaks of the creation of mankind, the birth of both civilization and suffering.
The Story of Prometheus
Prometheus, whose name meant foresight, was a demigod, the son of the Titan Iapetus and Clymene or Asia, both Oceanids and daughters of Oceanus. His brothers were the foolish Epimetheus (known as the “afterthinker”), Atlas and Menoetius. When the conflict erupted for power between the Olympian gods and the Titans, he took the side of the Olympians, although he was a Titan himself, and with his wise counsel gave the victory to Zeus.
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- Battle of the Gods, When Titans Took on Zeus
According to the satirist Lucian, Prometheus, created the first man with the help of the goddess Athena. Made from fire and clay, he was shaped after the image of the gods. The creation of the first man took place after the famed Clash of the Titans, and in the Orphic the clay used was a blend of soil watered down with the blood of the Titans.
In Roman sarcophagi, Prometheus is depicted making statues, while the goddess Athena can be seen sending them soul, with butterfly wings, to live in them and give them life (a curious similarity with the creation of Adam). It is said that Prometheus created a perfect creature in his first attempt. Hermes carried it to Mount Olympus, where Zeus treated him with the drink of immortality, leading him to find himself in the sky and becoming the planet Phaenon, the current planet Jupiter (although it is Saturn in other accounts).
Prometheus Creating Man in Clay, by Constantin Hansen. (Public domain)
The Creation of Animals and Mankind
The animals were created at the same time, although they were made by mixing materials of Earth and Fire. All beings and humans were created inside the Earth. When all beings inside Earth were invited to emerge to light, Prometheus and Epimetheus were assigned to give to every creature the features they should have.
Epimetheus persuaded his brother to allow him to do this job alone, which meant that Epimetheus was able to name an every being and give it the features he desired. When it was man’s turn, all he had left were a few hairs and nails, which rendered him vulnerable and powerless. Overcome with sadness, Prometheus undertook the protection of humans.
As the creator of mankind, Prometheus always watched their course on earth with interest and often disobeyed the commands of Zeus to provide mankind with some advantage. Did he try to help them because they were his creations and saw them as his children?
Prometheus Carrying Fire by Jan Cossiers. (Public domain)
Prometheus as the Protector of Mankind
In one story, the gods and mortals gathered to discuss their mutual privileges and especially, it seems, to determine which part of the carcass, offered for sacrifice, would go to each one of them. Prometheus split an ox into two parts. In the first share he put the skin, flesh and the entrails covered with the belly of the animal and to the other he put the bones from which he removed the meat, and had them covered up with the white fat.
Prometheus then asked Zeus to choose the share that would correspond to the gods. The rest was intended for humankind. Zeus chose the fat and when he found out that this share was only bones, he got angry with both Prometheus and mankind and decided not to resend them fire ever again.
In retaliation, Prometheus stole fire sparks from the wheel of the sun or from the furnace of Hephaestus on Lemnos island and gave it to mankind. The use of fire improved their lives. They made tools, cultivated the land and civilized themselves. Prometheus helped them acquire medical knowledge, prepare medications, and he taught them architecture, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy and navigation.
Pandora, by Thomas Benjamin Kennington. (Public domain)
Pandora and the Punishment of Zeus
Zeus punished the people by sending them Pandora, who brought with her a box. Authors do not totally agree when it comes to describing the contents of the box. Hesiod wrote of the terrible suffering that sprang from Pandora’s box, while others claimed that by opening it without precautions Pandora let go of everything that would contribute to the happiness of mankind.
But Zeus still wasn’t happy, he wanted a fuller revenge and wished for the extermination of mankind. He therefore unleashed a flood to drown mortals. Was he so afraid that mortals would stop obeying the gods? Again Prometheus was to prevent the destruction of mankind. In a story strikingly similar to the biblical tale of Noah’s ark, Prometheus told his son Deucalion and his daughter-in-law Pyrrha to build an ark in which they would close themselves and wander over the waves for nine days and nine nights.
Prometheus bound to a rock, his liver eaten by an eagle, in a print by Lucien. (Public domain)
As for Prometheus, Zeus ordered Hephaestus and his servants, State and Violence, to nail Prometheus to a steep peak of the Caucasus and then sent an eagle, born of Typhon and Echidna, to eat his liver. Bring immortal, the liver was renewed every morning. Zeus also swore in the waters of the Styx never to remove the shackles of Prometheus. Was it an exemplary punishment for “knowledge and compliance” for both gods and mortals?
- Betrayed by the Acts of Others? The Events that Led to Prometheus’s Perennial Punishment
- Thieves of Fire in Ancient Mythology: Divine Creation and Destruction in the Hands of Man
Prometheus hung for many years (from 30 to 30,000) from the rock until Hercules released him from his bonds. Zeus was glad for the feat of his son, so he decided to let Prometheus go. But because he had to keep his vow, and to ensure Prometheus would forever carry the weight of his punishment, he instructed Prometheus to make a ring from the steel of his chain and to set within it a piece of the rock upon which he was tied. Since then, people began to make and wear rings in honor of Prometheus who had suffered for mankind.
Top image: Prometheus, by Luca Giordano. Source: Public domain
By Natasa Tale
Grant, M. 1996. Myths of the Greeks and Romans. Penguin.
Hamilton, E. No date. “Mythology” in GrAdeSaver. Available at: https://www.gradesaver.com/mythology/study-guide/summary-prometheus-pandora-prometheus-and-io
Hansen, W. 2005. Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans. Oxford University Press.
Pontikis, N. No date. “Prometheus, Giver of Fire Mythology’s Original Rebel” in Myth Man. Available at: http://variousgods.com/prometheus.html
Theoi Project. No date. “Prometheus” in Theoi Greek Mythology. Available at: https://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanPrometheus.html