Who was Prometheus and what did he do in Greek mythology?

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Introduction

The story of Prometheus is one of the most important and interesting in all of Greek mythology. The Promethean cycle of myths are concerned with some of the most profound issues. These include the creation of humans, the evolution of ritual, the emergence of technology and culture. In the tales of this Titan, he is a trickster god and a cultural hero who played a crucial role in the development of human civilization. The stories of Prometheus are not only remarkable tales they also offer a unique insight into the mindset of Ancient Greeks and their worldview.

A 17th century painting of Prometheus

The origins of Prometheus

The story of the Titan is one that has many affinities with figures from other mythologies around the world. Prometheus is the God of fire in Greek mythology because he stole fire from Olympus and shared it with humans. The Titan is very similar to other deities who stole fire, including those from Indian and Native American mythology. Moreover, the story of the Titan also has similarities with the Babylonian creation myth. Prometheus was a trickster god and many ways similar to other gods such as Loki from Norse legends. The origin of Prometheus is likely in Indo-European mythology. The Indo-Europeans spread out over much of Eurasia and were the ancestors of many ancient peoples, including the Greeks, Persian, Roman and Indian. Another possibility is that the story of the Titan travelled to Greece from Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, as was the case with other myths and fables. The story first appears in Hesiod’s great didactic poem Works and Days, that dates from the 7th century BC. It is possible that he obtained his version from the lost epic Titanomachy, that narrated the struggles between the Olympian Gods and the Titans.

Bust of Aeschylus

The stories and achievements of Prometheus

According to Hesiod Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and his mother was the Nymph Clymene, one of the Oceanids. He was the brother of the famous Titans Atlas and Epimetheus. It was once believed that his name is derived from the Indo-European word for ‘to steal’. Most scholars now believe that his name was derived from the word for forethought. According to legend, the Olympian Gods fought the Titans for control of the world and the cosmos [1]. The Olympians, under the leadership of Zeus were successful and they utterly defeated the Titans. However, the role of Prometheus in this cosmic conflict is not very clear. In one account he was one of the leaders of the Titans, along with his brother Atlas but he switched sides when he realized that the Olympians would be triumphant. What is evident from the work of Hesiod is that Prometheus remained a challenger of Zeus even after the war had ended [2]. This may draw on earlier tales that were recorded in the Titanmachory, which was possibly composed by a semi-legendary Corinthian poet. Hesiod and later poets portrayed Prometheus as cunningly subverting Zeus rule of the heavens and the world. The Titan and his brother Epimetheus played an important role in the creation of the first men. There are two known versions of the creation myth. The first has it that Prometheus created the first males out of clay and animated them with the help of Athena. However, in many accounts, the Gods made humans. In this version, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus played a crucial role. In the same story, the brothers shared among the creatures of the earth, gifts such as wings, fur, and talons, that would allow them to thrive. However, by the time, that they got around to men, they had nothing left, so that mankind only had its intellect and reason, to help them to survive. Prometheus felt sorry for men, who were naked and vulnerable to the other creatures. At this stage there were only male and no females in the world. This persuaded him to commit something audacious and which was viewed as an act of rebellion against the Gods [3].

Hercules freeing Prometheus

The crime and punishment of Prometheus

The Titan in the myths is always shown as being deeply concerned with the fate of humans. Much more so than Zeus, who was not a loving father God as in the great Monotheistic religion. The Olympian demanded sacrifices from humans, above all their meat and as a result, men went hungry and died. Prometheus came up with a trick. At a meeting between the Gods and humans to discuss the issue of sacrifice, Prometheus slew a bull. He dressed up the bones and entrails in appealing ways. Zeus was deceived and selected these instead of the meat of the bull. The Olympian had no choice but to continue with the practice of humans sacrificing bones and hides and as a result man could eat meat. This story is the origin of the unique Greek custom of sacrifice to the Gods. Zeus was naturally angered by this and he took away the gift of fire from humans. This was a disaster for mankind for without fires, they went cold and were at the mercy of wild animals. Moreover, Zeus also took away the means of living and people now had to work hard to obtain food. Prometheus was moved and devised a daring plan. He stole into Mount Olympus and entered the workshop of the God of Smiths Hephaestus and the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena. Prometheus stole fire from the workshop and hid it in a giant fennel stock. Prometheus then gave the fire to humans. He not only gave men the fire but also showed them what they could do with it. According to Hesiod, he showed them how fire could be used to make metals and other important technologies. This was a crucial development in culture and civilization.

The vengeance of Zeus

Zeus was enraged, when he learned about the theft and there are two versions of how he punished Prometheus. He ordered Hephaestus, the deity of metalworkers and artisans to create a human woman. The other Olympians were ordered to give her a gift, so she would be alluring. For example, Aphrodite endowed grace on her head and desire to weaken her limbs and bodies. Pandora was the first woman and at this stage and she can be compared to Eve. A jar or box was given to her and in this was filled with every source of misfortune, including sickness and death. Zeus presented Pandora, whose name can be translated as one who brings gifts to Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. Now the Titan was a trickster, and he was suspicious of Pandora. However, Pandora opened her jar and from it flew out all the world’s misfortunes. This ended a Golden Age for men, and they had to struggle with many things and also, they became mortal according to Hesiod [4]. Pandora’s Box doomed men and women to suffer for all time. There is another version of the tale concerning Zeus and Prometheus. Zeus seized the Titan and nailed him to a mountain in the Caucusus for stealing fire and giving it to humans. He then sends a vulture to eat the immortal liver of the God of Fire. Every day the vulture would eat the intestine and it would grow back and this cycle was expected to persist for all eternity. This cruel torture of the Titan continued for many centuries. According to some account, the great hero Hercules freed Prometheus from his savage torment [5]. There was an important cult to the God of Fire in Athens. It appears that the Titan was particularly worshipped in Athens and not so much in the rest of Greece.

The meaning of Prometheus

Prometheus was the creator or at least the preserver of the human race. In many ways, he is shown to be the true father of people and not Zeus. In many ways, Prometheus is the most important cultural hero in Greek mythology. Comparative mythology has shown that in many cultures there are figures who give people the gifts of civilization [6]. This is embodied in Prometheus theft of fire from Mount Olympus. Greeks had little or no knowledge about their early history and the development of civilization. The story of Prometheus allowed them to explain the dawn and the development of culture and civilized life. For example, the story explained as to why humans evolved very differently to animals. Because they had no natural advantages such as fur or claws’ they had to rely on technology. For the Greeks, technology, as a result of fire, such as metalworking was crucial in the survival of the human race and its flourishing. The Promethean cycle of myths Prometheus was also a trickster but he also embodied so much more to the Greeks. He was the personification of forethought and this was important in the rational life, which was essential for civilized living. The Greeks believed that reasons and civilization were inextricably linked, and this is embodied in the figure of Prometheus. In the story of Pandora, we are offered an understanding of the Greek concept of theodicy, that is the reason for evil in the world [7]. While Prometheus may have saved humanity, he was also responsible for its many misfortunes. His theft of fire at once allowed people to become civilized it also doomed them to suffering. The Promethean myths are also cautionary tales. For the Greeks, it showed that excessive knowledge, was dangerous because it could lead to the offence (hubris) against the Olympian Gods, who were notoriously vengeful. The dangers of too much knowledge was a common theme in Greek mythology, for example in the story of Icarus and Daedalus <ref<Graves, p. 78</ref>. While the Classical World valued reason and technology it was very aware that this may lead to unintended and disastrous consequences.

Prometheus and Western Culture

The story of the Titan was to inspire many Athenian dramatists. The great tragedian Aeschylus wrote at least four plays based on the Promethean Cycle. The only surviving drama is Prometheus Unbound, one of the masterpieces of Classical drama [8]. Plato used the figure of Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus in his dialogue Protagoras, to explain the nature of virtue and how it derives from forethought or reason [9]. Many Greek poets such as Sapho, referred to the Titan as did many Roman authors. Many Classical philosophers regarded Prometheus as expressing fundamental truths about human nature. The tales of the Titan also inspired the works of many sculptors and potters. In the Renaissance, and later many painters depicted scenes from the life of the Titan. In the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, there was a renewed interest in the myth of Prometheus. They were seen as evidence of the importance of reason and what it could achieve. The Romantics had a much more ambiguous view of Prometheus. He was seen as a rebel against the divine order by arguably the German language’s greatest poet, Goethe. For many Romantics the story expressed the essential attributes of people, which is constantly striving. The myth of Prometheus partly inspired the story of Frankenstein and its warning against the unintended consequences of technology and knowledge. The Romantic conception of the myth is one that has had a lasting influence on modern culture. Promethean is now an adjective in English, and it means original, daring, and innovative.

Conclusion

The myths about the Titan, Prometheus offer some unique insights into the Classical World. These stories about the personification of forethought explained the evolution of civilization and its evolution. Moreover, it also offered a version of the creation of humans. The myths also demonstrate the importance of reason and its importance for culture. Prometheus is the Greek cultural hero par excellence. However, the stories also expressed the Greek view that while knowledge and reason were essential that they could result in unintended consequences. The story of the theft of fire from Olympus was also used to explain why there are so much evil and suffering in the world. Many modern authors and poets used the figure of Prometheus to express the dangers of technology and science and human striving.

Further Reading

Beall, E.F., ‘Hesiod's Prometheus and its Development in Myth’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1991), pp. 355–371 Allen, Nick. "Cyavana Helps Ashvins, Prometheus Helps Humans: A Myth About Sacrifice." Comparative Mythology (1). (2015): 13-22.

References

  1. Buxton, Richard GA. The complete world of Greek mythology (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), p. 111
  2. Hesiod, Works and Days, vi
  3. Buxton, p. 113
  4. Hesiod, Works and Days, iv
  5. Graves, Robert. Greek Myths (London, Pelican, 1985, p. 112
  6. Dougherty, Carol. Prometheus (London, Taylor & Francis, 2006), p. 141
  7. Dougherty, p. 120
  8. West, Martin L. "The Prometheus Trilogy." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 99 (1979): 130-148
  9. Plato, Protagoras, 2.6