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Prometheus is more than just a Titan. His tale speaks of rebellion, innovation, and a quest for knowledge that forever changed the course of humanity. Of all the deities of the Greek pantheon, he emerges as a champion of humans and he paid the price for helping them. Let’s take a look at the origins, myths, and symbolism of Prometheus, one of the most loved of all the Titan gods.
Who is Prometheus?
Born from the union of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene, Prometheus had three noteworthy brothers: Menoetius, the embodiment of violent anger and rash action, Atlas, the stoic bearer of the heavens, and Epimetheus, the emblem of afterthought and hindsight.
Prometheus’ name translates to forethought, and his myths feature him as an intelligent figure. Although he was a Titan, he sided with the Olympians during the war against the Titans. Was this because Prometheus could foresee that the Olympians would win the war? If so, this paints him in somewhat of an opportunistic light, as someone who wants to be on the winning side, even if it means fighting against his own people.
The Olympians won the war and Zeus became the universal ruler, but Prometheus wasn’t happy with how he treated humanity. This disagreement resulted in Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to humans, for which he was severely punished by Zeus.
Prometheus Tricks Zeus
The disagreement began when Zeus asked Prometheus to divide an ox into two portions, one for the gods and one for mortals. Because Prometheus had created humanity, he had a soft spot for humans. He was faced with a dilemma: how to satisfy Zeus’s demand while protecting the interests of humanity.
So, he created two sacrificial offerings. One was the fine meat of the ox hidden inside the animal’s stomach and innards, while the other portion was simply the ox’s bones wrapped in fat. Zeus, guided by appearances, chose the pile that seemed the most appealing on the outside: the bones draped in rich, glistening fat. With his choice, Zeus inadvertently established a lasting tradition, from then on the gods would receive the bones and fat of an animal during sacrifices, leaving the nutritious meat for the mortals to consume.
When he realized that he had been tricked, Zeus was angry. Zeus decided to punish both Prometheus and humanity by taking away fire, a crucial tool and symbol of progress and knowledge, from the human world.
Prometheus Brings Fire to Humans
Feeling compassion for humans, Prometheus stole fire back for them by sneaking into Mount Olympus, where the gods lived, and bringing back the fire in a fennel stack. He then passed on the fire to humans. It’s in honor of this action that relay races were first held in Athens, where a lit torch would be passed from one athlete to another until the winner reached the finish line.
Zeus Punishes Prometheus
When Zeus learned of this, he was livid and sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment. He was cursed to spend the rest of his immortal life chained to a rock while an eagle pecked out his liver. His liver would regrow during the night just in time to be eaten again the next day. Prometheus suffered immensely, until he was freed by the hero Heracles.
Prometheus’ dedication to humanity did not go unappreciated, however. The people of Athens, in particular, worshipped him. There, he was associated with Athena and Hephaestus as they were also deities linked to human creative endeavors and technological innovation. He’s seen as a clever figure that defied the gods to give humanity the tools it needed to survive.
Other Myths Involving Prometheus
Although Prometheus’ most well-known story is the myth of him stealing fire from the gods, he features in a few other myths as well. In all these stories, he utilizes his intellect to aid heroes. Some of the myths simply emphasize his compassion towards humanity.
1. Prometheus Creates Humans
Prometheus was credited with creating humans out of clay. According to Apollodorus, Prometheus molded humans out of water and earth. This parallels the creation story of Christianity, where God creates Adam and Eve out of dust. In other versions, Prometheus created the form of a human, but Athena breathed life into it.
2. Myth of Prometheus’ Son and the Flood
Prometheus was married to a daughter of Oceanus named Hesione. Together they had one son, Deucalion. Deucalion was a central figure in a Greek flood myth in which Zeus floods the earth to wash everything clean.
In the myth, Prometheus warns his son that Zeus plans to flood the earth. Deucalion and Prometheus build a chest and filled it with provisions so that Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, could survive. After nine days, the waters receded. Deucalion and Pyrrha were the only surviving humans, as all the other humans had perished in the flood.
This myth strongly parallels the Bible’s Great Flood. Where in the Bible Noah’s ark, full of animals and Noah’s family, in the Greek myth, there is a chest and the son of Prometheus.
3. The Argonauts are Disturbed
Although not really a part of the myth, Prometheus is mentioned in the Argonautica, an epic Greek poem written by Apollonius Rhodius. In the poem, a band of heroes, known as the Argonauts, accompany Jason in his quest to find the mythological Golden Fleece. As they approach the island where the fleece is said to be located, the Argonauts look into the sky and see the eagle of Zeus as it flies into the mountains to feed on Prometheus’ liver. It’s so large that it disturbs the Argonaut’s ship’s sails.
Prometheus in Art and Literature
The character of Prometheus continues to resonate in contemporary culture and is a frequent source of inspiration for various forms of media, including movies, books, and art. The famed novelist Mary Shelley highlighted this in her seminal gothic horror work, “Frankenstein,” subtitled “The Modern Prometheus.” This subtitle highlights the central theme of her novel, exploring humanity’s pursuit of scientific knowledge and the potentially disastrous consequences of such endeavors.
In addition to literature, Prometheus’s influence extends to the realm of visual arts. Many artists today draw inspiration from his story. A prime example is the renowned Mexican muralist, José Clemente Orozco. His fresco entitled “Prometheus” can be found on display at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
The titan’s myth has also been featured in the field of poetry. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a major English Romantic poet, wrote an extensive lyrical drama named “Prometheus Unbound.” This work delves into Prometheus’s defiance of the gods, specifically his daring act of gifting fire to humanity.
No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven’s ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!
What Does Prometheus Symbolize?
Since ancient times, many have interpreted Prometheus’ story in a number of ways. Here’s some of the most common interpretations:
- Knowledge and Intelligence: Prometheus’s name itself means “forethought,” and he is often associated with wisdom and knowledge. His theft of fire from the gods can be seen as a metaphor for gaining knowledge, particularly the kind that advances civilization, such as the knowledge of fire, tools, and various arts.
- Rebellion and Defiance: Prometheus is perhaps most famous for his defiance of Zeus, the king of the gods, when he stole fire and gave it to mankind. This act of rebellion against divine authority is one of the most powerful aspects of his character and has made him a symbol of resistance and the struggle against tyranny.
- Humanity’s Champion: Prometheus’s actions, including the creation of mankind from clay and the gift of fire, position him as a protector and benefactor of humanity. Despite the potential for personal suffering, he prioritizes the well-being of humans over obedience to the gods.
- Suffering and Endurance: After defying Zeus, Prometheus was punished with eternal torment, chained to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver daily, only for it to regrow and the agony to be repeated. This plight has made him a symbol of endurance and resilience in the face of endless suffering.
Prometheus and Biblical Narratives: Some Similarities
When we carefully examine the myth of Prometheus, it’s clear that there are some striking similarities with biblical narratives. While the details, context, and the implications of these myths differ, the similarities are noteworthy. Here are some of the most significant.
1. Creation of Humanity
In the Prometheus myth, Prometheus is credited with creating humans from clay. This parallels the biblical account in Genesis where God forms man (Adam) from the dust of the ground. There are, however, a few other myths in Greek mythology about the creation of humans, and there’s no accepted version.
2. The Gift of Knowledge
Prometheus is known for giving humans fire, which was seen as a critical turning point for human civilization. Fire may also represent knowledge and understanding. This can be paralleled to the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge that Eve eats and shares with Adam represents a similar transfer of knowledge, with equally transformative effects.
3. Punishment for Defiance
Both in the Prometheus myth and the Bible, the acquisition of knowledge leads to punishment. Prometheus is punished by Zeus for stealing fire and giving it to humans. Similarly, Adam and Eve are punished by God for eating the forbidden fruit and acquiring knowledge of good and evil. In both versions, the gods preferred humans to remain ignorant.
4. The Great Flood
The tale of Deucalion, Prometheus’s son, shares striking similarities with the biblical story of Noah. In both accounts, the world is destroyed by a flood because of divine displeasure with humanity. In each case, a righteous man (Deucalion/Noah) is warned of the forthcoming deluge and survives with his family by building an ark.
5. Promethean and Christ-like Sacrifice
In some interpretations, Prometheus’s suffering can be likened to the passion of Christ. Both Prometheus and Jesus Christ are seen as figures who endure suffering for the sake of humanity. Prometheus is punished for giving fire (knowledge) to humans, while Jesus is crucified, according to Christian belief, to atone for the sins of humanity.
Some Themes in Prometheus’ Main Myth
Unintended Consequences of Good Acts: Prometheus’ act of defiance against the gods benefited all of humankind. It allowed humans to progress and begin to develop technologically and thus made him a sort of hero. This act of kindness towards humans is swiftly punished by the gods. In everyday life, acts of similar good faith are often punished or can have unintended consequences.
Trickster Archetype: Prometheus is the epitome of the trickster archetype. His most well-known story involves him tricking the king of the gods and then stealing a prized element from right under their noses. Just as the trickster archetype’s actions often act as a catalyst, Prometheus’ gift of fire to humanity was the spark that started all of human technological progress.
Consequences of Overreaching: This theme, particularly evident in adaptations of the myth like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, addresses the potential consequences of overreaching one’s boundaries, especially in the pursuit of knowledge and progress. Prometheus’s suffering is a result of his crossing a line set by Zeus, just as Victor Frankenstein’s creation turns against him. However, as humans, we root for Prometheus and we appreciate his actions. From the gods’ point of view, though, he’s a rebel who disobeys Zeus.
Prometheus is a Titan god of forethought and crafty counsel.
Prometheus’ parents were Iapetus and Clymene.
Prometheus’ siblings were Atlas, Epimetheus, Menoetius and Anchiale.
He is sometimes depicted as being the father of Deucalion, who survived the flood of Zeus.
Prometheus is popular for stealing fire and giving it to humans at great risk to himself.
Yes, although Prometheus was a Titan, he sided with Zeus during the uprising of the Olympians against the Titans.
Zeus hid fire from humans because Prometheus had tricked him into accepting a less desirable form of animal sacrifice. This started the quarrel that led to Prometheus being chained.
He was chained to a rock and each day, an eagle would eat his liver, which would regrow in an eternal cycle.
Prometheus Bound is the ancient Greek tragedy, possibly by Aeschylus, which details the story of Prometheus.
The most prominent symbol of Prometheus was fire.
Prometheus’ impact is felt throughout many cultures today. He’s used as the inspiration for various forms of creative expression. In addition, he’s involved in what can be seen as a Hellenic flood myth while also paralleling the creation of humanity as described in the Bible. However, his greatest contribution was his act of defiance against the gods, which allowed humans the ability to build technology and create art.