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The Titan Prometheus in Greek Mythology

Updated on April 5, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Prometheus in Greek Mythology

Most of the deities of the Ancient Greek pantheon were worshipped in the belief that they could offer assistance in one form or other. Indeed, in many stories of Greek mythology a god or goddess would be offering assistance to a hero.

Two deities though were particularly noted for assisting man; one was the Olympian god Hermes, who was the “Friend of Man”, and the second was the “Benefactor of Man”, Prometheus.

The Story of Prometheus Begins

The story of Prometheus is a complex one and begins in a time before that of Zeus; although the basic details can be ascertained from the works of Hesiod (Theogony and Works & Days).

Prometheus was the son of the Titan god Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene; and at the time the cosmos was ruled by the Titans under the leadership of Cronus.

The parentage of Iapetus and Clymene made Prometheus brother to Epimetheus, Menoetius and Atlas, and the god was generally referred to as a second-generation Titan.

Each Titan was said to have had their own special gift, and Prometheus’ name meant “forethought”, with the Titan said to have the ability to prophesise the future. Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, conversely, had a name that meant “afterthought”.

Prometheus and the Titanomachy

The Golden Age of Greek mythology, as the rule of the Titans was referred to, would come to an end when Zeus rose up against his father, Cronus. A ten year war, known as the Titanomachy, would then take place.

Nominally the Titanomachy would pit the Titans against Zeus and his allies; but the sons of Iapetus did not all fight alongside their kin. Atlas and Menoetius would take up arms against Zeus, indeed, Atlas was said to have been the leader of the Titans on the battlefield; but Prometheus and Epimetheus did not. Prometheus could see what the outcome of the war would be, and so avoided fighting.

Statue of Prometheus

Eugeny1988 CC-BY-SA-3.0
Eugeny1988 CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

Prometheus Bringer of Life

The Titanomachy would of course end with victory for Zeus and his siblings; and as a result the Titans were punished .Of course, having not sided against Zeus, Prometheus and Epimetheus were not punished in the same way as their king; and indeed, Zeus gave the brothers the important task of filling the world with living creatures.

Animals and man were therefore crafted from clay and mud by Prometheus and Epimetheus, and the breath of life was breathed into the creations by Zeus. The two Titan brothers were then tasked with naming and equipping all the creatures with characteristics provided by the other gods and goddesses of Ancient Greece.

Epimetheus took charge of this task, but without the forethought of his brother, he ran out of characteristics to give to man. Prometheus though was unwilling to leave his new creation as naked and unprotected barbarians

Prometheus therefore went amongst the gods and stole wisdom from Athena, and also reason, so that man could prosper.

Prometheus and the Sacrifice at Mecone

Prometheus was well aware that when Zeus became aware of his thievery he would be angry, and so to placate the god Prometheus decided to teach how man should sacrifice to the gods. Even then though, Prometheus was acting as the “benefactor of man”.

Prometheus would have man cut up a bull, and divide it into two piles, one for the gods and one for man to keep. One pile comprised all of the best meat, and the second pile contained only skin and bone. This second pile though was made to look appetising by covering it in fat. Zeus was asked which pile he wanted for his sacrifice, and he chose the best looking pile, leaving the best meat for man; and therefore all future sacrifices would be made in the same way.

Prometheus Bringer of Fire

Zeus was of course angry to find he had been tricked, and so in retribution the supreme god took away the ability for man to make fire.

Prometheus would not allow mankind to suffer because of his trick, and so Prometheus went to Mount Olympus. There, the Titan god, entered the workshop of Hephaestus, and making use of a fennel stalk stole an ember of fire. Prometheus then travelled to Sikion on the Peloponnese, and taught the local population how to make, and use fire, so that mankind could never again lose the ability to make fire.

Prometheus Steals the Secret of Fire

Jan Cossiers (1600–1671)  PD-art-100
Jan Cossiers (1600–1671) PD-art-100 | Source

Pandora

Any anger directed towards Prometheus was not immediately evident, for again Zeus turned his anger on mankind.

Zeus had Hephaestus create Pandora from clay, and life was breathed into the creation. Zeus then had Pandora sent to Epimetheus, so that the new woman could be her wife. Accompanying Pandora was also a chest or jar, a supposed wedding gift from the gods, although Pandora was warned against looking inside it.

Prometheus had already warned his brother about accepting gifts form the god, but Epimetheus nevertheless married Pandora, and of course Pandora eventually opened Pandora’s Box. Once Pandora’s Box was opened, all of the world’s ills were released, and so mankind would suffer there after.

Prometheus Bound by Hephaestus

Dirck van Baburen (circa 1594/1595–1624) PD-art-100
Dirck van Baburen (circa 1594/1595–1624) PD-art-100 | Source

Prometheus Bound

Few individuals, be they man or god, had angered Zeus as many times as Prometheus had, but eventually Zeus did vent his anger at the Titan.

The final act of disobedience of Prometheus occurred when the Titan refused to reveal details about a prophecy foretold of Zeus’ downfall.

Zeus therefore devised a form of punishment that was designed to last forever. Prometheus was chained to an unmovable rock in the Caucasus Mountains with unbreakable chains designed by Hephaestus. Then, each day an eagle would attack Prometheus plucking out the Titan’s liver and eating it. Each night though, the liver would regenerate, and so Prometheus would be wracked with intense pain for eternity.

Prometheus and Heracles

Carl Rahl (1812–1865) PD-art-100
Carl Rahl (1812–1865) PD-art-100 | Source

Prometheus Unbound

Prometheus was encountered bound by Io, as the nymph, in the form of a heifer wandered the world, but more famously the Titan was encountered by the Greek hero Heracles.

Heracles was in need of the assistance of Prometheus, and so making use of his bow and arrow, shot down the eagle and released the Titan. This act though did not anger Zeus, for Heracles was one of his favourite offspring, and there was even reconciliation between Prometheus and Zeus, for the Titan told Zeus further details about the son of Thetis being more powerful than his father; Zeus was currently chasing after Thetis, a chase that soon stopped.

Children of Prometheus

Prometheus in Greek mythology was said to have had one son, Deucalion. Deucalion was born to Pronoia, the Oceanid nymph of Mount Parnassos; Pronoia is sometimes referred to as the wife of Prometheus.

Deucalion himself is often given the title of “Saviour of Man” for the son of Prometheus, pre-warned by his father of the impending Deluge, built himself a vessel which saved him and Pyrrha. Subsequently, Deucalion and Pyrrha would repopulate the world.

Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound

In antiquity a trilogy of works titled the Prometheia were written; three works historically attributed to Aeschylus, an early Greek writer. The three parts were titled Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer; although only Prometheus Bound has survived into modernity in tact. The trilogy is an adaptation of the basic myth told by Hesiod, with embellishments.

Prometheus Unbound was also the title of the lyrical drama written by Percy Shelley, based loosely on the work of Aechylus, although in the Shelley drama, Zeus falls from power, allowing the release of Prometheus.

Arguably the most famous use of Prometheus in literary work comes from Percy Shelley’s second wife, Mary Shelley, for the full title of Mary Shelley’s most famous work is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Similarities between Dr Victor Frankenstein and Prometheus can be seen through the creation of life, and the imbuing of characteristics.

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 2 years ago

    Many thanks for taking the time to look for this hub - Prometheus is one of those figures that has inspired so many artists and writers over the generations, and was one of the first figures that I read about, many years ago.

  • rjbatty profile image

    rjbatty 2 years ago from Irvine

    I didn't scroll through your existing works so did not know that you had already done a story about Prometheus. Like your other writings, it's a pure education. Thanks for sharing your vast knowledge of the subject(s).

  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 3 years ago

    Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment Vibrant. Yes, Thetis would give birth to Achilles, with the father being Peleus. Colin

  • Vibrant Black profile image

    Vibrant Black 3 years ago

    It was interesting to read that it was Prometheus who told Zeus the details about the son of Thetis being more powerful than his father (it was Achilles if I'm not mistaken). of course Zeus doesn't want that, hence, he quit chasing her haha! Very informative Sir Colin, thumbs up.

  • Colin Quartermain profile image
    Author

    Colin Quartermain 3 years ago

    Wendi many thanks for reading and the compliment as well. Colin

  • wendi_w profile image

    wendi_w 3 years ago from Midwest

    Really nice hub, informative and well written.

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