What Did Prometheus Do that Angered Zeus?
The punishment of Prometheus in Greek mythology is memorable for its cruelty. The Titan was bound to a mountainside for thousands of years while a giant eagle tore his body apart every morning.
What could inspire such a harsh punishment, though?
Prometheus made the mistake that many tortured souls of Greek mythology had made – he had broken the laws of the king of the gods. Violation of divine law could lead to some of the terrible punishments imaginable, as Prometheus found out.
According to some stories, the friendship between Prometheus and humankind began long before Zeus took any notice of the mortals on earth.
Soon after the gods of Olympus took power, the Titan and his brother, Epimetheus, were given the task of distributing gifts among all the living things that had been created by Gaia.
Prometheus, whose name meant “foresight,” carefully considered what each creature would need to survive. His brother, “hindsight” however, gave out boons with little planning.
Epimetheus raced ahead in his work. He handed out claws and sharp teeth that allowed predators to hunt, speed to escape danger, and warm fur to protect against the elements.
Because Epimetheus lacked the foresight to plan his work, some animals received more gifts than they should have. Great predators were given every advantage he could offer, so when it came time to give humans their gifts there was nothing left.
Humans would have no fur to keep them warm in the winter, no claws or teeth to hunt meat, and no great speed or strong senses to keep them safe. Naked and unarmed, they were nearly helpless.
When Prometheus saw this, he was moved to pity. He gave humans the gift of fire to make up for their lack of natural advantages.
Fire kept them warm at night, frightened away predators, and allowed their weak eyes to see in darkness. Humans could cook food to make up for their dull teeth and learn to forge weapons to use in place of natural claws.
Some people would later saw that Prometheus himself had created the first humans. Whether he made them himself or simply ensured their survival, he had become their greatest benefactor.
Eventually, Zeus took notice of how well humans were doing because of the Titan’s gift. The gods demanded a share of mankind’s achievements.
Humans had become accomplished hunters and farmers. They agreed that the gods were entitled to a share of their bounty, but the two sides could not agree on how to divide the food.
At the holy site of Mecone Zeus met with humans to choose his share of their goods. He called on his trusted advisor, Prometheus, to help ensure a distribution he felt would be favorable.
As a friend to the humans, however, Prometheus again interfered to make sure they would not be left without.
He butchered a great bull to be the first sacrifice and created two piles from its remains. Zeus would be given his choice.
The first pile had all the best cuts of rich and fatty meat, but was covered by rough hides and unappetising scraps. The second had a few rich pieces of juicy meat on top, but concealed under these were nothing but bones.
Given the choice, Zeus chose the sacrifice that looked most attractive. When he discovered that his selection was mostly bones, he was furious.
Prometheus had outsmarted the king of the gods, and humans got to keep the best portions of meat to sustain themselves. From that day forth, Greek temples burned offerings of bones and scraps to the gods while humans ate most of the richest meat.
The king of the gods, however, was known for his violent temper. Zeus could not let Prometheus’s trick go unpunished.
At first, Zeus sought only to punish humans for the trick at Mecone.
He saw that the rich meat they had won was useless to them without fire. Humans could not eat raw meat, so their victory over him would do little good if he took that away from them.
Prometheus had given humans fire in the first place, so he knew how essential it was to their survival. By taking away the source of their heat, Zeus had done far more than prevent them from enjoying a warm meal.
The Titan decided to once again give humans the gift of fire. This time, he would have to steal it from Mount Olympus itself.
When the gods were away, he crept into Zeus’s own house. He lit a fennel stalk with the embers of the gods’ fire and flew to earth before it could be extinguished.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods themselves, against Zeus’s explicit will, to save mankind.
Prometheus had not just helped men several times, but he had cheated Zeus twice.
In the first instance, the Titan had simply outwitted the king of the gods. But stealing fire for the humans was an act of theft and disobedience that Zeus could not let go unpunished.
Zeus was the god of law and the king of all the other deities. It was his right and duty to ensure that unlawful acts were punished.
His first act was to punish mankind once again for receiving the stolen gift.
‘Son of Iapetos (Iapetus) [Prometheus], surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire–a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.’
-Hesiod, Works and Days 42 ff (trans. Evelyn-White)
Zeus had Hephaestus, the smith god, fashion a beautiful woman. Into Pandora the gods fit every evil thing that would plague mankind, horrible plagues like disease and old age.
Pandora was sent to Prometheus’s own foolish brother, Epimetheus, to unwittingly unleash her terrible curses on humans. They received fire, but their lives would be short and full of pain as a punishment.
The worst punishment, however, was reserved for Prometheus. The rule of law could be cruel in the Greek world, and in punishing the Titan Zeus showed himself to be as merciless as any human ruler.
Prometheus was chained to a mountainside with unbreakable fetters. The enormous Caucasian eagle was sent to tear his liver out of his body.
This torture was continuous. Every morning his body healed itself and the eagle returned to tear at it again.
The torture of Prometheus would continue through two ages of man. Only when Heracles arrived would the eagle be killed to put an end to thousands of years of torment.
Zeus’s punishment was cruel and painful, but to the Greeks it was just. There was no law higher than that of the gods, and disobedience to the king of Olympus was deserving of a terrible sentence.
Prometheus had saved mankind many times, but the people of the Greek world understood his terrible punishment to be just and deserved.
The Titan Prometheus was always a benefactor of mankind, giving them so many gifts that some writers claimed that he was their creator.
When humans were created, he gave them the gift of fire. But by tricking Zeus into allowing humans to keep the best meats for themselves, the Titan earned the god’s ire.
Zeus punished mankind by taking away the gift of fire, leaving them freezing and defenceless. Once again coming to humanity’s aid, Prometheus stole fire from the home of Zeus himself to ensure the survival of mankind.
Prometheus helped humans, saving them from destruction, but both he and mankind were punished terribly. Pandora was sent to bring disease and old age to men, while Prometheus was sentenced to thousands of years of torment.
While the punishment of Prometheus was cruel, the Greeks understood it as more than just an act of anger on the part of Zeus. As the king of the gods his word was law, and in breaking that law the Titan Prometheus had earned a terrible punishment.