Prometheus – Greek Mythology

Affiliate Disclosures

Prometheus is one of the Greek Titans. He is the son of the Titans Iapetus and Clymene and has three brothers: Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. Known for his intelligence, Prometheus is frequently credited with the creation of humanity from clay and having stolen fire from the gods to give it to the fledgling human race. His name appears to mean Forethinker, signifying his intellectual nature.

Who is Prometheus?

Prometheus plays an important role in Greek mythology. Seen as a patron of the arts and sciences, Prometheus is known as a champion for humankind.

Although he was a Titan, he sided with the Olympians during the war against the Titans. 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 the ox into two meals – one for the gods and one for mortals. Prometheus wanted to help mortals and ensure that they got the best part of the ox, 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 chose the latter, which set the precedent that sacrifices to the gods would be the fat and bones from an animal rather than the fine meats. Zeus, angered at being tricked and having been made a fool of in front of the other Olympians, retaliated by hiding fire from humans.

  • Prometheus Brings Fire
Prometheus brings fire
Prometheus Brings Fire (1817) by Heinrich Freidrich Fuger. Source.

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 discovered this treachery, he created the first woman, Pandora, and sent her to live among the humans. It was Pandora who would open the box she carried and release evil, disease and hard labor into humanity. It was only Hope that remained within the box.

Zeus then 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. Eventually, Prometheus was freed by the hero Heracles.

Prometheus chains eagle hephaestus

Prometheus’ dedication to humanity did not go unappreciated, however. 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.

Stories Involving Prometheus

Although Prometheus’ most well-known story is of him stealing fire from the gods, he features in a few other myths as well. Throughout, he utilizes his intellect to aid heroes. Some of the myths simply emphasize his compassion to humanity.

  • Prometheus Creates Humans

In later myths, Prometheus was credited with creating humans out of clay. According to Apollodorus, Prometheus molded humans out of water and earth. This draws parallels with the creation story of Christianity. In other versions, Prometheus created the form of a human, but Athena breathed life into it.

  • The Myth of Prometheus’ Son and the Flood

Prometheus was married to a daughter of Oceanus, 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 and Deucalion and Pyrrha were said to have been the only surviving humans, with all other humans having perished during the flood.

This myth strongly parallels the Bible’s Great Flood. Where in the Bible there was Noah’s ark, full of animals and Noah’s family, in the Greek myth, there is a chest and the son of Prometheus.

  • The Argonauts Are Disturbed

Although not technically involved, 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.

Significance of Prometheus in Culture

The name of Prometheus is still used frequently in popular culture and is one of the most popular inspirations for movies, books and artwork.

Mary Shelley’s classic gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, was given the subtitle The Modern Prometheus as a reference to the Western idea that Prometheus represented the human endeavor for scientific knowledge at the risk of unintended consequences.

Prometheus is used in art by many modern-day artists. One such artist is the Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. His fresco Prometheus is displayed at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound, which deals with the story of Prometheus defying the gods to give fire to humans.

The myth of Prometheus has inspired classical music, opera, and ballet. As a result, many are named for him.

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:

  • Prometheus represents the striving of humans and the search for scientific knowledge.
  • He is associated with intellect, knowledge and genius. The giving of fire to humans can be seen as symbolizing the gifting of reason and intellect to humans.
  • He also represents courage, bravery and selflessness as he defied the gods to help humans, at great risk to himself. In this way, Prometheus comes across as a hero of humanity.
Prometheus symbolism

Lessons from Prometheus’ Story

  • Unintended Consequences of Good Acts – Prometheus’ act of defiance against the gods benefitted 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.

Prometheus Facts

1- Is Prometheus a god?

Prometheus is a Titan god of forethought and crafty counsel.

2- Who are Prometheus’ parents?

Prometheus’ parents were Iapetus and Clymene.

3- Did Prometheus have siblings?

Prometheus’ siblings were Atlas, Epimetheus, Menoetius and Anchiale.

4- Who are Prometheus’ children?

He is sometimes depicted as being the father of Deucalion, who survived the flood of Zeus.

5- What is Prometheus best known for?

Prometheus is popular for stealing fire and giving it to humans at great risk to himself.

6- Was Prometheus a Titan?

Yes, although Prometheus was a Titan, he sided with Zeus during the uprising of the Olympians against the Titans.

7- Why did Zeus punish Prometheus?

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.

8- What was Prometheus’ punishment?

He was chained to a rock and each day, an eagle would eat his liver, which would regrow in an eternal cycle.

9- What does Prometheus Bound mean?

Prometheus Bound is the ancient Greek tragedy, possibly by Aeschylus, which details the story of Prometheus.

10- What were Prometheus’ symbols?

The most prominent symbol of Prometheus was fire.

Wrapping Up

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.