Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene. Even though a Titan himself, together with his brother Epimetheus, he sided with Zeus during the Titanomachy. However, after helping Zeus to achieve victory in the war, he started a quarrel with him over his supposed unfair treatment of humanity. This led to Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods and gifting it to humanity, which resulted in Zeus chaining Prometheus and sending an eagle to prey upon his continually regenerating liver. After some time, Zeus’ son Heracles shot the eagle and freed Prometheus, and the Titan subsequently made peace with his savior’s father.
Even though modern scholars tend to disagree, as far as the Ancient Greeks were concerned, the name “Prometheus” had been derived from the Greek prefix pro- (“before”) and the verb manthano (“to learn,” “to be increased in knowledge”), making Prometheus the “Forethinker,” that is, the One Who Thinks Ahead. Analogously, Prometheus’ brother’s Epimetheus was the “Afterthinker,” i.e., the One Who Thinks Afterward.
Through his smart counseling, Prometheus played an essential part during the war between the Titans and the Olympians. Even though himself a Titan, together with his brother Epimetheus, he sided with Zeus and escaped the brutal punishments that his other two siblings, Atlas and Menoetius, received after the old order of gods was eventually defeated.
Things, however, got sour between Prometheus and Zeus soon after Zeus had established himself as the sovereign ruler of all gods and men. The primary cause for this was Zeus’ tyrannical treatment of humankind, which, in the eyes of Prometheus, deserved a far better master.
The rift between the Thunderer and the Forethinker seems to have started at Mecone when Zeus charged Prometheus with the task of dividing the meat of a great ox into two meals, one for the gods and the other one for the humans. Ever the lover of the latter, Prometheus tried tricking Zeus by producing one portion of bones wrapped in fat, and another one consisting of the finest meat covered with the ox’s insides. Strangely enough, Zeus chose the fat-covered bones, thus setting a precedent which allowed humans, from that day forward, to keep the meat for themselves and sacrifice only the bones to the gods.
Angered by Prometheus’ trick, Zeus tried punishing humankind by hiding from them the gift of fire. Prometheus didn’t think this just, so he stole the fire from Olympus and brought it back to earth in a fennel stack. In honor of this act, the Athenians instituted a race, during which runners of the same team passed between them a flaming torch until the last runner of the winning team had the privilege to use it to kindle the sacrificial fire on the altar of Athena on the Acropolis. This, of course, marked the origin of both relay races and the modern Olympic flame ceremony.
It was now Zeus’ turn to react and react he did: he tasked Hephaestus with molding a creature as beautiful and as devious as no mortal had ever seen before. Even the gods – all of whom had gifted this being with seductive gifts – were amazed when they saw the “beautiful evil” it embodied, the “sheer guile” of her appearance. This creature was Pandora, the very first woman in history: “of her,” writes Hesiod, “is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”
To make matters worse, soon after coming to Earth, Pandora was foolishly accepted by the afterthinking Epimetheus, against the better advice of his much smarter brother. Once this happened, Pandora promptly opened the jar she had brought with herself, and out of it all kinds of diseases and pains gushed forth, plaguing humanity ever since.
As gruesome as this punishment for humanity had been, it didn’t seem to alleviate Zeus’s anger. So, he decided to punish Prometheus as well. Once again, he was as cruel as one can be: he had the Titan chained to a rock in the Caucasus and sent an eagle to prey on him. Every day the eagle tore a part of Prometheus’ liver which grew back again during the night so that the unbearable torment could go on indefinitely.
In addition to the theft of fire, Zeus had one more reason to be mad at Prometheus. Namely, being a Forethinker, Prometheus was the only one who knew the identity of the mortal woman Zeus wasn’t allowed to sleep with since it had been prophesized that the offspring of this marriage was destined to overthrow his father. And the Titan wasn’t interested in telling Zeus anything more than this for no reason whatsoever.
Neither Zeus nor Prometheus backed down in their hardheadedness for centuries. And who knows how many eons their struggle would have gone on if it hadn’t been for Zeus’ son, Heracles, who happened upon the chained Prometheus on his way to the Hesperides. Whether Heracles shot the eagle and freed Prometheus as a sign of gratitude for the latter advising him to send Atlas to fetch the golden apples and complete his labor – or it was the other way around, we may never know for sure. However, we do know that Zeus allowed this to happen and that afterward he and Prometheus buried the hatchet and finally made peace with each other.
At a later date, Prometheus was promoted from being a benefactor of the human race to being its very creator.
Apollodorus says that before stealing the divine fire and gifting it to humankind, Prometheus had also “molded men out of water and earth.” Other authors claim that the creation of man was a joint effort by Prometheus and Athena, who breathed life into the clay figures shaped by the Titan.
Two stony remnants of the clay Prometheus used to fashion humanity – as we learn from the traveler Pausanias – could be seen at Panopeus in Phocis as late as the second century AD. Apparently, these two stones were situated in a ravine and had “the color of [sandy] clay.” Furthermore, they seem to have smelt very much “like the skin of a man.”
Regardless of whether they had been created by Prometheus or not, the first people were at one point wiped out almost completely from the face of the earth by a Great Flood sent by Zeus. The only two of them to survive were Prometheus’ son Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha. Afterward, these two repopulated the earth by throwing stones over their shoulders, which then magically turned into men and women. So, it would seem that in more ways than one, humanity owes its existence to its champion and benefactor, Prometheus.
Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound” is one of the most famous plays ever written, and it deals with the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus in detail. In Hesiod’s “Theogony” and his “Works and Days” you can read a less flattering account of the “man-loving” thief Prometheus and the subsequent creation of Pandora. As always, Apollodorus is more than concise, summing up the whole story of Prometheus in just a few sentences. Finally, find out what’s the deal with the remnants of Prometheus’ human-shaping clay in Pausanias’ “Description of Greece.”
Prometheus' symbol was the Fire.
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