In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Greek: Προμηθεύς, meaning “forethought”) is a Titan who sided with Zeus and the ascending Olympian gods in the vast cosmological struggle against Kronos and the other Titans. Prometheus was on the conquering side of the war of the Greek gods, the Titanomachy, as Zeus and the Olympian gods ultimately defeated Kronos and the other Titans.
Ancient myths and legends relate at least four versions of the narratives describing Prometheus, his exploits with Zeus, and his eternal punishment as also inflicted by Zeus. There is a single somewhat comprehensive version of the birth of Prometheus and several variant versions of his subjection to eternal suffering at the will of Zeus.
Prometheus has been a major inspiration as a symbol and archetype to inspire new generations of artists. His literary and mythological personage remains prominently portrayed in contemporary art and literary expression including Mary Shelley’s portrayal of Frankenstein as The Modern Prometheus.
The etymology of the theonym prometheus is debated. It has been theories that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root that also produces the Vedic pra math, “to steal,” hence pramathyu-s, “thief”, cognate with “Prometheus”, the thief of fire. The Vedic myth of fire’s theft by Mātariśvan is an analog to the Greek account. Pramantha was the tool used to create fire.
The oldest legends
The four most ancient sources for understanding the origin of the Prometheus myths and legends all rely on the images represented in the Titanomachy, the cosmological struggle between the Greek gods and Titans. Prometheus, himself a Titan, managed to avoid being in the direct confrontational cosmic battle between Zeus and the other Olympians against Cronus and the other Titans. Prometheus survived the struggle in which the offending titans were eternally banished by Zeus to the chthonic depths of Tartarus, only to survive to confront Zeus on his own terms in subsequent climactic struggles.
The greater Titanomachia depicts an overarching metaphor of the struggle between generations, between parents and their children, symbolic of the generation of parents needing to eventually give ground to the growing needs, vitality, and responsibilities of the new generation for the perpetuation of society and survival interests of the human race as a whole. Prometheus and his struggle would be of vast merit to human society as well in this mythology as he was to be credited with the creation of humans and therefore all of humanity as well. The four most ancient historical sources for the Prometheus myth are Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, and Pythagoras.
Hesiod and the Theogony and Works and Days
The Prometheus myth first appeared in the late 8th-century BC Greek epic poet Hesiod’s Theogony (lines 507–616). He was a son of the Titan Iapetus by the Oceanid Clymene. He was brother to Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. Hesiod introduced Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus’ omniscience and omnipotence. In the trick at Mekone, a sacrificial meal marking the “settling of accounts” between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus (545–557). He placed two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of beef hidden inside an ox’s stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the bull’s bones wrapped completely in “glistening fat” (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices.
Henceforth, humans would keep that meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angered Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution. In this version of the myth, the use of fire was already known to humans, but withdrawn by Zeus. Prometheus, however, stole fire back in a giant fennel-stalk and restored it to humanity. This further enraged Zeus, who sent Pandora, the first woman, to live with humanity. Pandora was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and brought to life by the four winds, with all the goddesses of Olympus assembled to adorn her. “From her is the race of women and female kind,” Hesiod writes; “of her 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.”
Prometheus, in eternal punishment, is chained to a rock in the Caucasus, Kazbek Mountain, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated by night, due to his immortality. The eagle is a symbol of Zeus himself. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules) slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from the eagle’s torment.
Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus in the Works and Days (lines 42–105). Here, the poet expands upon Zeus’s reaction to Prometheus’s deception. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from humanity, but “the means of life,” as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus’s wrath (44–47), “you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste.” Hesiod also expands upon the story of the first woman in Theogony’, She is now explicitly called Pandora (“all gifts”). After Prometheus’ theft of fire, Zeus sent Pandora in retaliation. Despite Prometheus’ warning, Epimetheus accepted this “gift” from the gods. Pandora carried a jar with her, from which were released (91–92) “evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death”. But foresight remained in the jar, depriving humanity from hope.
Prometheus is also taken as a reflection of an ancient trickster archetype, serving to account for the mixture of good and bad in human life, and whose fashioning of humanity from clay was an Eastern motif familiar in Enuma Elish; as an opponent of Zeus he was an analogue of the Titans, and like them was punished. As an advocate for humanity he gains semi-divine status at Athens, where the episode in Theogony in which he is liberated can be interpreted as a post-Hesiodic interpolation.
Homer and the Homeric Hymns
The banishment of the warring titans by the Olympians to the chthonic depths of Tartoros was documented as early as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey where they are also identified as the hypotartarioi, or the “subterranean.” The passages appear in the Iliad (XIV 279) and also in the Homeric hymn to Apollo (335). The particular forms of violence associated especially with the Titans are those of hybristes and atasthalie as further found in the Iliad (XIII 633-34). They are used by Homer to designate an unlimited, violent insolence among the warring Titans which only Zeus was able to ultimately overcome. This text finds direct parallel in Hesiod’s reading in the Theogony (209) and in Homer’s own Odyssey (XIX 406).
In the words of Kerenyi, “Autolykos, the grandfather, is introduced in order that he may give his grandson the name of Odysseus.” In a similar fashion, the origin of the naming of the “titans” as a group has been disputed with some voicing a preference for reading it as a combination of titainein (to exert), and, titis (retribution) usually rendered as “retribution meted out to the exertion of the Titans.” It should be noted that Prometheus was not directly among the warring Titans with Zeus though Prometheus’ association with them by lineage is a recurrent theme in each of his subsequent confrontations with Zeus and with the Olympian gods.
Pindar and the Nemean Odes
The duality of the gods and of humans standing as polar opposites is also clearly identified in the earliest traditions of Greek mythology and its legends by Pindar. In the sixth Nemean Ode, Pindar states: “There is one/race of men, one race of gods; both have breath/of life from a single mother. But sundered aurora collett us divided, so that one side is nothing, while on the other the brazen sky is established/a sure citadel forever.” Pindar comes quite close to Hesiod who before him had said in his Works and Days (108) “how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source.” The understanding of Prometheus and his role in the creation of humans and the theft of fire for their benefit is therefore distinctly adapted for understanding the role of Prometheus within the mythology of the interaction of the Gods with humans.
Pythagoras and the Pythagorean Doctrine
Censorinus stated in De die natali that, “Pythagoras of Samos, Okellos of Lukania, Archytas of Tarentum, and in general all Pythagoreans were the authors and proponents of the opinion that the human race was eternal.” By this they held that Prometheus’ creation of humans was the creation of humanity for eternity. This Pythagorean view is confirmed in the book On the Cosmos written by the Pythagorean Okellos of Lukania. Okellos further delineates the three realms of the cosmos as all contained within an overarching order called the diakosmesis which is also the world order kosmos, and which also must be eternal. The three realms were delineated as having “two poles, man on earth, the gods in heaven. Merely for the sake of symmetry, as it were, the daemons –not evil spirits but beings intermediate between God and man — occupy a middle position in the air, the realm between heaven and earth. They were not a product of Greek mythology, but of the belief in daemons that had sprung up in various parts of the Mediterranean world and the Near East.”