Prometheus: Thief of Fire
Who Was Prometheus?
Prometheus is remembered today as the Titan of Greek mythology who stole fire from the Olympian Gods for the sake of humanity and suffered a cruel punishment as a result. His name has become a byword for noble suffering, for wisdom and the pursuit of new knowledge over superstition and for standing up against the might of tyrants.
Mary Shelley subtitled her novel Frankenstein 'The New Prometheus' as a warning of the dangers of scientific innovation trespassing into areas best left to the control of divinity. By contrast, her husband, Percy Shelley, wrote a poem 'Prometheus Unbound' which celebrated heroic defiance against overweening tyranny pursued at any cost.
Here, we will explore the myths about Prometheus in more detail.
Prometheus’ Family and Descent
Descended from the Titan Iapetus, Prometheus belonged to an earlier race of gods, who ruled before Zeus overthrew Kronos and became King of the new generation of Olympian deities.
Prometheus’ mother was Clymene, the daughter of Oceanus or, according to some accounts, Themis, the Titan goddess of wisdom and good counsel. His brothers were Atlas, Menoetius, and Epimetheus.
Prometheus’ name means ‘forethought’ in contrast to that of his brother, Epimetheus, whose name means ‘afterthought’.
War Between the Olympians and Titans
Prometheus and the War with the Titans
When conflict broke out between the Titans, who were led by Kronos and the new generation of Olympians headed by Zeus, Prometheus initially tried to advise his fellow Titans on how to win the war by guile, rather than force, in accordance with a prophecy uttered by his mother Themis.
When the Titans refused to listen to his advice, Prometheus, along with his brother Epimetheus, changed sides and with his wise counsel, Prometheus assisted Zeus in gaining the victory over Kronos and the Titans. Their brother Atlas, however, continued to fight on the side of the Titans and after their defeat was forced to support the world on his head as a punishment from Zeus.
Prometheus and the Creation of Humankind
Once Zeus had secured his throne as King of the Gods, he ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to fill the Earth with animals and human beings.
Prometheus fashioned human beings out of clay. According to Aesop, Prometheus used his tears rather than water to moisten the clay, which is why human life can never be altogether free from sorrow.
Another story tells us that it was the task of the foolish Epimetheus (afterthought) to distribute all the different attributes among all the creatures of the Earth. To some he gave claws, others wings, or speed, or great strength. When Prometheus came to check how his brother was getting on, he found that whereas all the other animals had their various gifts that would enable them to survive and thrive in the world, there was nothing left for human beings. They alone were left naked, weak and defenseless.
In order to give human beings a chance of survival, Prometheus stole wit and craft from Athene and Hephaistos and gave them to mankind. These gifts have enabled humans to fend for themselves, building shelter, making clothing and using weapons to hunt and defend themselves.
This story, devised by the philosopher Plato, is an example of Prometheus’ willingness to always take the side of humanity over that of the Gods and to gift humanity with the knowledge and power that often seemed to the Gods to dangerously narrow the gulf between gods and mortals.
Sharing the Sacrifice: Prometheus Outwits Zeus
In the early days of humanity, it was their custom, when they sacrificed animals to the Gods, to burn up all the meat in offering to the deity, and to keep nothing of the sacrifice for themselves. This made it very hard for poorer people to honour the Gods; they had to choose between making the sacrifice and having any meat for dinner themselves.
Prometheus decided to do something about this situation. One evening, he slaughtered an ox and put all the meat in one pile covering it with the unappetising looking ox’s paunch, and in the other pile he put all the bones and entrails, covered with thick layers of fat.
Prometheus then asked Zeus to choose which pile he wanted for his share. Zeus selected the larger heap, rich with fat, only to find that he had chosen the heap of bones and entrails. From then on, the Greeks ate the meat from a sacrifice and burned up the inedible parts as a more symbolic offering to the Gods.
Prometheus Steals Fire for Mankind
Angered by Prometheus’ trick, Zeus took from humanity the use of fire altogether; the upstart mortals could see how they liked eating their meat raw. Rather than accepting the judgement of the ruler of the Gods, Prometheus decided once again to intervene on behalf of humanity. Ascending Mount Olympus, Prometheus found where Zeus kept fire hidden and placed the living flame within the hollow of a fennel stalk so that it should not be seen.
Coming down from Olympus, Prometheus ran joyfully with the flaming torch of fennel which is why, some say, the Greeks used to hold flaming torches in triumph when they ran races. Prometheus then restored the use of fire to humanity.
The Wrath and Vengeance of Zeus
When he realised that, yet again, Prometheus had defied and tricked him, Zeus’ wrath knew no bounds. He decided to sentence Prometheus to a terrible and everlasting punishment. He ordered that Prometheus be taken to the remote Caucasus mountains and be bound to a lofty crag with unbreakable bonds. Every day, an eagle would come and eat his liver, which would regenerate every night, only to be devoured again. In such agony and solitude was Prometheus sentenced to live out eternity.
The Prophecy and Negotiation with Zeus
For many long, lonely centuries, Prometheus remained chained to his rock, suffering torment. Occasionally, he was visited by his fellow Titans and other divine beings in the course of their travels and had the chance to exchange words with them.
The nymph Io, for example, turned into a cow and pursued by the maddening gadfly at the behest of the jealous Hera, found time to talk with him in the course of her endless wanderings.
By chance, one day, the three Moirae, or Fates, met close to where Prometheus was enchained and he was able to overhear their conversation. He heard them decree that if anyone were to father a son by the sea nymph Thetis, this child would certainly grow up to be greater than his father.
It happened that Zeus himself was at that time besotted with the sea nymph and was ardently trying to woo her. Thetis however did not reciprocate and so far had consistently eluded Zeus, using her power to change shape at will.
If Zeus succeeded in having his way with Thetis, the resulting offspring, if male, would be a being greater than Zeus himself and thus capable of overthrowing him, just as Zeus had once overthrown his own father, Kronos.
Having come into possession of this highly significant bit of information about the plans of the Fates, Prometheus used it to negotiate with Zeus for his release from the chains and the devouring eagle. After attempting to get his information from him by threats of further torments, Zeus relented and in exchange for the information about Thetis, he allowed the hero Heracles to kill the tormenting eagle and to release Prometheus from his chains.
The Gods then arranged for Thetis to marry a mortal king, Peleus, and in due course she gave birth to the mighty warrior Achilles.
Deucalion and the Descendants of Prometheus
Prometheus is supposed to have married a mortal woman called Asia and with her to have had a son called Deucalion. Deucalion married his cousin Pyrrha, who was the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora, the first mortal woman. Zeus was said to have created Pandora as a further expression of anger at Prometheus. She came to her marriage with Epimetheus with a jar containing all manner of evils and sorrows such as sickness, old age and death. Unable to restrain her curiousity, Pandora opened the jar and unleashed all these evils on the world.
As Decualion and Pyrrha were late to be the only survivors of a flood sent by Zeus, Prometheus is, indirectly the ancestor of us all.
More by this Author
The Greek Myth of Io, turned into a cow by Zeus and pursued through the world by a gadfly sent by jealous Hera.
The myth of Demeter and Persephone was of central importance in Greek religion, being at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries which gave hope of rebirth to a better afterlife.
Theseus is one of the most famous of the Greek heroes. This is the story of how he entered the deadly maze of the Labyrinth and encountered the Minotaur, half-man and half-beast.