In Greek mythology, Prometheus ("forethought") is a Titan known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals for their use. Zeus thne punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while an eagle ate his liver everyday only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day. His myth has been treated by a number of ancient sources, in which Prometheus is credited with (or blamed for) playing a pivotal role in the early history of humankind.
The Prometheus myth first appeared in the Greek epic poet Hesiod's (ca. the late 10th - early 20th centuries BC) Theogony (lines 507-616). He was a son of the Titan Iapetus by Themis or Clymene, one of the Oceanids. As a son of Iapetus he was also a brother of Atlas, Menoetius and Epimetheus. In the Theogony, Hesiod introduces Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus' omniscience and omnipotence. At Sicyon, 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 bull meat 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 the 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. Prometheus at once went to Athena with a plea for admittance to Olympus, and this she granted. On his arrival, he lit a torch at the fiery chariot of the Sun which presently broke from it a fragment of glowing charcoal, which he thrust into the pithy hollow of a giant fennel-stalk. Then, extinguishing his torch, he stole away, and gave fire to mankind. This further enraged Zeus, who sent Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, Pandora, the first woman, 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, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle or vulture, only to be regenerated, due to his immortality, by night . Years later the Greek hero Heracles would shoot the vulture and free Prometheus from his chains.
Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus in the Works and Days (lines 42-105). Here, the poet expands upon Zeus' reaction to the theft of fire. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from men, but "the means of life," as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus' 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 Theogony's story of the first woman, now explicitly called Pandora. After Prometheus' theft of fire, Zeus sent Pandora to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus. Pandora carried a jar with her, from which she released (91-92) "evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death.
Prometheus is the one who fashions man from inert clay only to find his brother has used up the positive traits. Angelo Casanova finds in Prometheus a reflection of an ancient, pre-Hesiodic trickster-figure, who served to account for the mixture of good and bad in human life, and whose fashioning of men 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 where he is liberated Casanova interprets as a post-Hesiodic interpolation.
Perhaps the most famous treatment of the Prometheus myth can be found in the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound
-- traditionally attributed to the 5th-century BC Greek tragedian Aeschylus
. At the center of the drama are the results of Prometheus' theft of fire and his current punishment by Zeus
; the playwright's dependence on the Hesiodic source material is clear, though Prometheus Bound
also includes a number of changes to the received tradition. Before his theft of fire, Prometheus played a decisive role in the Titanomachy
, securing victory for Zeus and the other Olympians. Zeus's torture of Prometheus thus becomes a particularly harsh betrayal. The scope and character of Prometheus' transgressions against Zeus are also widened. In addition to giving humankind fire, Prometheus claims to have taught them the arts of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. The Titan's greatest benefaction for humankind seems to have been saving them from complete destruction. In an apparent twist on the myth of the so-called Five Ages of Man
found in Hesiod's Works and Days
(wherein Cronus and, later, Zeus created and destroyed five successive races of mortal men), Prometheus asserts that Zeus had wanted to obliterate the human race, but that he somehow stopped him. Moreover, Aeschylus anachronistically and artificially injects Io
, another victim of Zeus' violence and ancestor of Heracles, into Prometheus' story. Finally, just as Aeschylus gave Prometheus a key role in bringing Zeus to power, he also attributed to him secret knowledge that could lead to Zeus' downfall: Prometheus had been told by his mother Gaea of a potential marriage that would produce a son who would overthrow Zeus. Fragmentary evidence indicates that Heracles, as in Hesiod, frees the Titan in the trilogy's second play, Prometheus Unbound
. It is apparently not until Prometheus reveals this secret of Zeus' potential downfall that the two reconcile in the final play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer
Prometheus Bound also includes two mythic innovations of omission. The first is the absence of Pandora's story in connection with Prometheus' own. Instead, Aeschylus includes this one oblique allusion to Pandora and her jar that contained Hope (252): "[Prometheus] caused blind hopes to live in the hearts of men." Second, Aeschylus makes no mention of the sacrifice-trick played against Zeus in the Theogony.
These innovations reflect the play's thematic reversal of the Hesiodic Myth. In Hesiod, the story of Prometheus (and, by extension, of Pandora) serves to reinforce the theodicy of Zeus: he is a wise and just ruler of the universe, while Prometheus is to blame for humanity's unenviable existence. In Prometheus Bound, this dynamic is transposed: Prometheus becomes the benefactor of humanity, while every character in the drama (except for Hermes, a virtual stand-in for Zeus) decries the Olympian as a cruel, vicious tyrant.
Some two dozen other Greek and Roman authors would retell and further embellish the Prometheus myth into the 4th century AD. The most significant detail added to the myth -- found in, e.g., Sappho
-- was the central role of Prometheus in the creation of the human race. According to these sources, Prometheus fashioned humans out of clay. In his dialogue Protagoras
, Plato asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus
to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilizing arts.
Although perhaps made explicit in the Prometheia
, later authors such as Hyginus
, and Quintus of Smyrna
would confirm that Prometheus warned Zeus not to marry the sea nymph Thetis
. She is consequently married off to the mortal Peleus
, and bears him a son greater than the father -- Achilles
, Greek hero of the Trojan War
. Apollodorus moreover clarifies for us a cryptic statement (1026-29) made by Hermes in Prometheus Bound
, identifying the centaur Cheiron
as the one who would take on Prometheus' suffering and die in his place.
Reflecting a myth attested in Greek vase paintings from the Classical period, Apollodorus places the Titan (armed with an axe) at the birth of Athena
, thus explaining how the goddess sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus.
Other minor details attached to the myth, such as: the origin of the eagle that ate the Titan's liver (found in Apollodorus and Hyginus); myths surrounding the life of Prometheus' son, Deucalion (found in Ovid and Apollonius of Rhodes); and Prometheus' marginal role in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (found in Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus).
On a more humorous note, the Roman fabulist Phaedrus attributes to Aesop a simple etiology for homosexuality, in Prometheus' getting drunk while creating the first humans and misapplying the genitalia.
The two most prominent aspects of the Prometheus myth – the creation of man from clay and the theft of fire – have found their expression in numerous cultures throughout history and around the world:
The Creation of Man from Clay
- In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, the goddess Ninhursag created humans from clay.
- According to Genesis 2:7 "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
- In Africa, the Yoruba culture holds that the god Obatala likewise created the human race.
- In Egyptian mythology, the ram-headed god Khnum made people from clay in the waters of the Nile.
- In Chinese myth, the goddess Nuwa created the first humans from mud and clay.
- Mayan myth holds that Tepeu and Kukulkán (Quetzalcoatl) made the first humans from clay, but they were unsatisfactory.
- The Navajo attributed the creation of humans to Spider Grandmother.
The Theft of Fire
- In Georgian mythology Amirani stole fire from gods and for that was chained on Caucasian mountains where birds would eat his organs and dogs would lick it back.
- According to the Rig Veda (3:9.5), the hero Mātariśvan recovered fire, which had been hidden from mankind.
- In Cherokee myth, after Possum and Buzzard had failed to steal fire, Grandmother Spider used her web to sneak into the land of light. She stole fire, hiding it in a clay pot.
- Among various Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, fire was stolen and given to humans by Coyote, Beaver or Dog.
- According to the Creek Indians, Rabbit stole fire from the Weasels.
- In Algonquin myth, Rabbit stole fire from an old man and his two daughters.
- In Ojibwa myth, Nanabozho the hare stole fire and gave it to humans.
- In Polynesian myth, Māui stole fire from the Mudhens.
- In the Book of Enoch, the fallen angels and Azazel teach early mankind to use tools and fire.
Prometheus in other arts
Prometheus: Poem of Fire
, Opus 60 (1910) by Alexander Scriabin
Prometheus, Symphonic Poem No. 5 (S.99) by F. Liszt.
Prometheus, opera using Aeschylus's original Greek by Carl Orff, 1968.
Prometheus' torment by the eagle and his rescue by Heracles were popular subjects in vase paintings of the 6th-4th c. BC. He also sometimes appears in depictions of Athena's birth from Zeus' forehead.
There was a relief sculpture of Prometheus with Pandora on the base of Athena's cult statue in the Athenian Parthenon of the 5th century BC.
Prometheus had a small shrine in the Kerameikos
, or potter's quarter, of Athens
, not far from the Academy
. The Academy had its own altar dedicated to Prometheus. According to the 2nd-century AD Greek traveler Pausanias
, this site was central to a torch race dedicated to Prometheus.
Pausanias also wrote that the Greek cities of Argos and Opous both claimed to be Prometheus' final resting place, each erecting a tomb in his honor.
Finally, Pausanias attested that in the Greek city of Panopeus there was a cult statue claimed by some to depict Prometheus, for having created the human race there.
Prometheus and Liver Regeneration
The mythological story that Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus mountain and his liver was eaten every day by an eagle only to "regenerate" in the night has been used by scientists studying liver regeneration as an indication that ancient Greeks knew that liver can regenerate if surgically removed or injured. Because of the association of Prometheus with liver regeneration, his name has also been associated with biomedical companies involved in regenerative medicine.
Promethean myth in modern culture
The mythic Prometheus is the lyrical I of the poem "Prometheus" by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in which the character addresses God (as Zeus) in misotheist accusation and defiance.
On the American Thrash Metal band Trivium's new album, Shogun, there's a song entitled " Of Prometheus and the Crucifix" which describes the events of Prometheus and him giving fire to mankind.
The cloned horse Prometea, and Prometheus, a moon of Saturn, are named after this Titan, as is the asteroid 1809 Prometheus. The story of Prometheus has inspired many authors through the ages, and the Romantics saw Prometheus as a prototype of the natural daemon or genius.
The name of the sixty-first element, promethium, is derived from Prometheus.
Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus". This is a reference to the novel's themes of the over-reaching of modern man into dangerous areas of knowledge.
In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, John Galt is compared to Prometheus: "John Galt is Prometheus who changed his mind. After centuries of being torn by vultures in payment for having brought to men the fire of the gods, he broke his chains--and he withdrew his fire--until the day men withdraw their vultures."
In Ayn Rand's Anthem, the main character changes his name to Prometheus after he runs away from the oppressive civilization he used to live in.
Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound rewrites the lost play of Aeschylus so that Prometheus does not submit to Zeus (Shelley's Jupiter), but supplants him instead in a triumph of the human heart and intellect over tyrannical religion. Lord Byron's poem "Prometheus" also portrays the titan as unrepentant. For the Romantics, Prometheus was the rebel who resisted all forms of institutional tyranny epitomized by Zeus — church, monarch, and patriarch. They drew comparisons between Prometheus and the spirit of the French Revolution, Christ, Milton's Satan, and the divinely inspired poet or artist.
Prometheus is a minor character in the novel The Big Over Easy, where he is a lodger in the home of the protagonist, Jack Spratt. Prometheus later marries Spratt's daughter Pandora, despite the 4,000 year difference in their ages.
Prometheus and other gods feature in the novel Ye God! by Tom Holt. It is set in the 20th Century but Prometheus is still chained to the rock, even though he and the eagle are now friends and it keeps him up-to-date with events.
In the game Age of Mythology: The Titans, Prometheus is a near Indestructible Titan, whom the Heroes will have to face and kill so as to save humanity from destruction. In the game, he is seen in two different levels.
In Diana Wynne Jones's fantasy novel, The Homeward Bounders, Prometheus, as a character, plays a significant role.
Prometheus Books, a publishing company for scientific, educational, and popular books, especially those relating to secular humanism or scientific skepticism, takes its name from the myth.
Bristol England's The Pop Group included studio and live versions of a song called "Thief of Fire," on two of their albums.
The Black Metal band Emperor recorded an album inspired by the story of Prometheus entitled Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise.
In the television series Stargate SG-1, the first battle cruiser built with technology taken from aliens was called Prometheus.
In the television series Star Trek: Voyager, a Federation starship called Prometheus is stolen by Romulans.
In the television series Xena, Prometheus is bound by the Greek gods, causing mankind to lose his gifts of fire and the ability to heal ourselves.
In rap group Jedi Mind Tricks's song "I Against I" rapper Jus Allah rhymes "Beast deceiving us ways devious possessing my peeps to walk the streets with stolen heat like Prometheus."
In the play A Raisin in the Sun written by Lorraine Hansberry, one of the characters says to the other, "Good night, Prometheus" (88).
In the video game God of War 2, the player encounters Prometheus. He is bound in chains as a huge bird eviscerates his torso. Prometheus begs the player to kill him (and thus end his eternal torment) by throwing him into the Fires of Olympus.
In the MegaMan ZX series, Prometheus is one of the antagonists along with his partner, Pandora.
In Nickelodeon, there is a series of short animated episodes called Prometheus and Bob, wherein Bob is a primitive caveman and Prometheus is a skinny purple alien who tries to teach Bob about technology.
The Prometheus Award is given by the Libertarian Futurist Society for Libertarian science fiction.
In the video game, Chrono Trigger, the true name of Robo is Prometheus. In the following game Chrono Cross, Robo is a stand-alone program, known as the Prometheus Circuit, within the supercomputer FATE, that seals FATE away from access to the Frozen Flame.
In the video game, Soul Calibur Legends, the character of Sophitia Alexandra says that she closed a door with the same seal that Prometheus was chained.
In the popular trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh! the character of Prometheus has been transformed into a dark lord named "Prometheus, King of the Shadows."
Other figures in Greek mythology punished by the gods include:
- Alexander, Hartley Burr. The Mythology of All Races. Vol 10: North American. Boston, 1916.
- Beall, E.F., Hesiod's Prometheus and Development in Myth, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1991), pp. 355-371
- Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz, edds. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York, 1984.
- Fortson, Benjamin. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
- Judson, Katharine B. Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest. Chicago, 1912.
- Lamberton, Robert. Hesiod, Yale University Press, 1988. ISBN 0300040687
- Swanton, John. "Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians." Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 88: 1929.
- Verdenius, Willem Jacob, "A Commentary on Hesiod: Works and Days, Vv. 1-382", Brill, 1985, ISBN 9004074651
- West, M.L., "Hesiod, Theogony, ed. with prolegomena and commentary", Oxford: Clarendon Press 1966
- West, M.L., "Hesiod, Works and Days, ed. with prolegomena and commentary", Oxford: Clarendon Press 1978
- Westervelt, W.D. Legends of Maui – a Demigod of Polynesia, and of His Mother Hina. Honolulu, 1910.
- Williamson, George S. The Longing for Myth in Germany: Religion and Aesthetic Culture from Romanticism to Nietzsche (Chicago, 2004).
- Theoi Text, Theogony
- Theoi Text, Works and Days
- Theoi Text, Prometheus Bound
- Theoi Mythology, Prometheus
- Theoi Mythology, Pronoea
- GML, Prometheus
- Encyclopedia Mythica, Prometheus
- Messagenet, Prometheus
- Prometheus, a poem by Noevel (French)
- Prometheus, a poem by Byron
- Book "Prometheus Bound" (for free download - two volumes about 600 pages)
- O fogo e as chamas dos mitos (text in Portuguese) by Betty Mindlin (Essay about the origin of fire, the stealing of fire, the keeping of fire by different South-American indigenous cultures).
- Michalopoulos, George K., and DeFrances, Marie C., Liver regeneration, Science 4 April 1997: Vol. 276. no. 5309, pp. 60 - 66. ("The ancient Greeks recognized liver regeneration in the myth of Prometheus. Having stolen the secret of fire from the gods of Olympus, Prometheus was condemned to having a portion of his liver eaten daily by an eagle. His liver regenerated overnight, thus providing the eagle with eternal food and Prometheus with eternal torture.")