Prometheus: The Titan Who Gave Man Fire
Many figures in Greek mythology only appear in one or two stories. Sometimes their stories were only told in a certain place or for a brief period.
Other characters loom large, figuring in many myths. The most famous gods and heroes appear constantly, seeming to have had a hand in every story the ancient Greeks ever told.
But a few characters fill a different role. They crop up time and time again, but aren’t as central to the story as someone like Zeus or Hermes.
One of these constant figures in Greek mythology is the Titan Prometheus. He appears over and over in the legends of ancient Greece, but even the most famous stories about him involve other gods and heroes that people remember more vividly.
From the time Zeus first fought to be king of the gods until Heracles undertook his famous labors, Prometheus was there.
He wasn’t one of the major gods of Greece. Yet long after the ancient era, he has endured as an important symbol in art and literature.
So who was Prometheus, and how does he figure into some of Greece’s most well-known myths?
Before the gods of Olympus took power, the universe was ruled by the Titans. Uranus, the heavens, and Gaia, the earth, had given birth to this older generation of gods.
Prometheus was one of the sons of the Titan Iapetus. His mother was the Oceanid Clymene, one of the 3,000 daughters of Oceanus.
After the twelve Titans, Gaia gave birth to six more children, but the three Cyclopes and three Hecatonchieres, or Hundred-Handers, were hated by their father and hidden away. While the Titans had positions under their father’s rule, Gaia’s more monstrous children were imprisoned.
Gaia asked the Titans to punish their father for the way he had treated the Hundred-Handers and the Cyclopes. Her son Chronus was the only one of the twelve willing to fight back against Uranus.
Chronus became the new ruler of the Titans with the defeat of Uranus. He quickly became a tyrant, obsessed with maintaining his position.
Believing that one of his children would someday grow powerful enough to overthrow him, he swallowed each of his wife Rhea’s babies at birth.
Rhea hid her sixth child, Zeus, on the island of Crete to save him. The Titaness tricked her husband into swallowing a stone instead by wrapping it in swaddling blankets.
Zeus grew into adulthood and eventually returned to challenge his father.
With the help of Metis, one of the Oceanids, he tricked Cronus into swallowing a mixture of mustard and wine that would force him to vomit. When Cronus threw up the children he had swallowed, they joined with their brother to overthrow the rule of the Titans.
The resulting war against the first generation of gods is called the Titanomachy. For ten years the gods fought one another for control of the universe.
Despite being Titans themselves, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus sided with Zeus in the war. Their brother Atlas was one of the chief generals on the side of Cronus.
In the play Prometheus Bound, from the 5th century BC, the writer Aeschylus expands on the role Prometheus played in the war against his fellow Titans. In the play, Prometheus claims to have counseled the Titans against going to war.
The name Prometheus is usually translated to mean “foresight.” Prometheus had the foresight to know that the war would not be won by pure strength, but by cunning and intelligence.
When the Titans refused to listen to his prophecy and insisted on a war against the upstart gods, Prometheus joined the side of the Olympians against them. His foresight and wisdom helped Zeus gain the upper hand many times.
As the war dragged on, Gaia eventually took the side of Zeus as well. She told them where her monstrous children, the Hundred-Handers and the Cyclopes, had been imprisoned.
Zeus and his allies freed Gaia’s children to fight with them. With the aid of the monsters, Zeus was finally able to defeat Cronus.
The Titans were cast into the deepest part of Tartarus, the hellish underworld, and the Hecatonchieres were set as their guards. Prometheus, as one of the few to take the side of the younger gods, was given a place of honor at Olympus.
Zeus became the new king of the gods, with his siblings ruling beside him. They established a new throne on Mount Olympus.
Each Olympian was given domain over a different aspect of the earth. Their allies in the war were given gifts and responsibilities of their own.
Valued for his foresight, Prometheus became one of the new king’s most valuable and trusted advisors. He was often consulted to mediate disputes and prevent disasters.
Unfortunately for Prometheus, the good favor he had earned during the Titanomachy was not to last.
While Prometheus was a friend of the Olympians, he truly loved humans.
The Greeks had many different myths regarding the creation of mankind, but according to some writings it was Prometheus himself who created the first mortals. Aesop, for example, claimed the Titan fashioned the first men out of clay and tears.
Prometheus is often shown in art fashioning men out of clay.
According to Plato, the gods had created men but Prometheus was the one who gave them their greatest gifts.
His brother Epimetheus, whose name meant “afterthought,” had carelessly given animals all the best tools for survival.
Animals had fur to keep them warm and sharp teeth and claws to defend themselves and hunt for food. Humans were weak and vulnerable by comparison.
Seeing that humans had no natural defenses against nature or the elements, Prometheus took pity on them. He stole the mechanical skills of Hephaestus and the wisdom of Athena and gave them to humans so they could survive and prosper.
Some stories also say that this was the first time Prometheus gave humans the gift of fire. It would not be the last, though.
However the relationship began, it was clear that Prometheus loved mortals.
Unfortunately, Zeus didn’t always share that love. The king of the gods took little notice of mankind until the time came for him to claim his share of what they produced.
The rift between Prometheus and the king of the gods began over a sacrifice. The gods and men agreed that each should get a share of the food the humans raised, but neither party could agree on how to divide the sacrifice.
Humans and gods met at a site called Mecone to settle the matter.
Zeus turned to Prometheus, who had always given him good advice, to determine the best way to divide a sacrificial bull. It was obvious that Zeus felt the best parts of the animal should be reserved for the gods, but Prometheus had other ideas.
The Titan created two piles. The first had all the best cuts of meat, but was covered by rough hides and unappetizing scraps. The second had a few rich pieces of fatty meat on top, but concealed underneath were nothing but bones.
Presented with the choice, Zeus chose the sacrifice that looked most attractive on top but was mostly bones underneath.
Prometheus had outsmarted the king of the gods, and humans got to keep the best portion of what they grew. From that day forth, Greek temples gave sacrifices of bones and fat to the gods while humans ate the best meat.
While Zeus was known for his wisdom and justice, he also had a reputation for being easily angered. The trickery that had robbed him of the finest part of the sacrifice made the king furious, and he swore he would have revenge on both Prometheus and the morals he had helped.
Angry at being made to look like a fool and receiving only bones as a sacrifice, Zeus wanted revenge on mankind.
Humans had won the best pieces of meat, but that didn’t mean anything if the meat couldn’t be cooked. Zeus took fire away from the humans, a petty form of punishment for winning the best parts of the ox.
Prometheus, who was always sympathetic toward humans, saw how terrible this punishment really was for mankind. He knew that humans relied on fire for more than cooking.
Without fire they could not stay warm. Being left in the dark made them more vulnerable to attacks from animals and monsters.
Prometheus was determined to once again help the humans. He decided to steal fire back from the gods themselves.
Prometheus, however, who was accustomed to scheming, planned by his own efforts to bring back the fire that had been taken from men. So, when the others were away, he approached the fire of Jove [Zeus], and with a small bit of this shut in a fennel-stalk he came joyfully, seeming to fly, not to run, tossing the stalk so that the air shut in with its vapours should not put out the flame in so narrow a space.
–Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 15 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.)
His race to save men from the cold and darkness was later commemorated through an annual ceremony in Athens. Runners would form a relay, passing a torch until the last runner used it to light a sacrificial fire to Athena.
This relay lives on today in the tradition of the Olympic torch. The Athenian tradition spread throughout Greece with the original Olympiad and today the torch circles the globe.
When his first attempt to punish mankind failed, Zeus came up with another plan.
He went to Hephaestus, the gods’ smith, with orders to make a beautiful woman of clay. He named this woman Pandora.
Knowing that Epimetheus was not gifted with his brother’s foresight, Zeus sent Pandora to him. Prometheus cautioned his brother not to trust the beautiful woman, but Epimetheus ignored the warning.
Pandora, however, carried a terrible secret.
After she married Epimetheus, Pandora opened the jar she carried with her. Into it, Zeus and the gods had placed all the evils that would plague men.
Disease, sickness and other types of bad fortune came flying out. The only thing she was able to save in the jar was Hope.
Pandora had released all the punishments that Prometheus could not save mankind from. Her jar of ill-fortune marked the end of the peaceful Golden Age and introduced problems that men could never be rid of.
Zeus had finally gotten his revenge on men for the trick at Mecone.
Mankind had been punished, but Zeus still wanted Prometheus to pay for his trickery. Made even more angry when the Titan stole back the fire taken from men, Zeus came up with a truly horrible punishment for Prometheus.
Zeus took the Titan captive and had him brought to a desolate gorge in the Caucasus mountains.
He ordered Hephaestus to bind Prometheus to the rocks with unbreakable chains. Although the smith was reluctant to inflict punishment on a fellow immortal, he had no choice but to obey the will of the king.
Zeus sent a great eagle to attack Prometheus. The bird pulled out the Titan’s liver, swallowing it before flying away.
The punishment was continuous. Every night the Titan’s body magically healed itself and every day the eagle returned to attack again.
Prometheus would be tortured like this day after day until Zeus allowed him to be freed.
Prometheus and Zeus both proved to be prideful and stubborn gods. Prometheus would not atone for disobeying Zeus. Zeus would not forgive Prometheus.
The Titan’s torture continued for centuries. Some say it went on for 30,000 years.
Aeschylus detailed Prometheus’s punishment in his play Prometheus Bound. The first part of a trilogy about the famous Titan, Prometheus Bound is the only one of the three plays to survive 2,500 years later.
In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is visited by several other figures from Greek mythology and tells them his story, as well as his visions of the future.
- Hephaestus and two of Zeus’s henchmen, Kratos and Bia, appear at the beginning of the play to bind Prometheus.
- The Oceanids, sea nymphs, arrive in a winged chariot. They ask Prometheus to tell them how he angered Zeus enough to deserve such a horrible punishment and are sympathetic to his pain.
- Oceanus, the father of the Oceanids, flies in on the back of a dragon. He offers to intercede with Zeus on the Titan’s behalf, but Prometheus warns that doing so would only direct the king’s anger toward Oceanus himself.
- The nymph Io happens upon Prometheus. Once a priestess of Hera, she had attracted Zeus’s attention. He turned her into a white bull to hide her from his wife, but Hera had learned of Io and sent a stinging gadfly to torment her. Io had spent years roaming the world in an attempt to avoid both Zeus’s advances and Hera’s jealousy.
- Finally the god Hermes arrives with a demand from Zeus. When Prometheus refuses to use his prophetic foresight for Zeus’s benefit, Hermes warns that the king will grow even more furious.
Prometheus tells Io that she will bear Zeus’s son, Epaphus. Many generations later, one of Epaphus’s descendents would give birth to a great archer.
Only when this archer was born would Prometheus be freed.
While Aschylus’s final plays, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer don’t survive, other sources tell us that the archer in the prophecy was most likely Heracles. But it would be many generations before that great hero could set Prometheus free.
In spite of enduring thousands of years of torture, Prometheus continued to help humans even when doing so went against Zeus’s commands.
The Golden Age had ended with Pandora’s curses, and Zeus had destroyed the men of the Silver Age during Prometheus’s captivity. The world was now in the Bronze Age, and once again Zeus grew angry with humankind.
As before, his anger was triggered by a sacrifice. The king of Arcadia had sacrificed a young boy in the name of the gods.
Zeus and the other Olympians were disgusted by this act. The men of the Bronze Age were known for their violence, but the sacrifice of a child was too cruel for the gods to overlook.
Zeus decided that humanity was beyond redemption and must be destroyed.
Once more, Prometheus would be the one to save humankind from complete destruction. While he could not stop Zeus from wiping out the vicious men of the Bronze Age, Prometheus would ensure that the human race would continue into the Age of Heroes.
Even though he was still bound by unbreakable chains, Prometheus had fathered a son, Deucalion. Ancient writers give different versions of who Deucalion’s mother was, but most say she was one of the Oceanids.
When Zeus ordered Poseidon to flood the world and destroy the human race, Prometheus warned his son to find safety. Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrah, fled to the top of the mountain.
Some versions of the story say that Prometheus advised Deucalion to build a chest to store the provisions he and his wife would need. The two floated on the chest to the safety of high ground.
Most historians believe that parts of the legend, including Deucalion’s chest, were influenced by stories of Noah and other Near Eastern flood myths. By the time of the late Roman Empire, the legend of Deucalion even said that he built an ark to save himself from the floodwaters.
When the flood ended, Deucalion and Pyrrah were some of the very few humans to survive.
Their first act was to offer a sacrifice to Zeus for sparing them. Then, they prayed in the temples of many different gods and goddesses for guidance in how they could repopulate the earth.
An oracle told them to throw their mother’s bones over their shoulders as they walked. Deucalion correctly interpreted this to mean stones – Gaia, the earth, was the mother of all creation.
The stones Deucalion threw became a new race of men, while Pyrrah’s became women.
The humans that rose from Deucalion and Pyrrah’s stones spread throughout the earth. With the other survivors they found, they repopulated the world.
Their own son, Hellen, became the ancestor of the Greek people. They called themselves Hellenes in his honor, and to this day Greek culture is often referred to as Hellenic.
By warning Deucalion, Prometheus had once again saved humanity from destruction. This time, however, he and the people he helped would not be punished.
Zeus was pleased with the sacrifice Deucalion and Pyrrah had made in his honor and saw that they were devoted to the gods. He allowed the people they created to flourish, beginning the Age of Heroes.
When Zeus destroyed the people of the Bronze Age, a few survived other than Deucalion and Pyrrah. Io, by then returned to her human form, and her son Epaphus were in Egypt at the time and were spared.
Nine generations later, Epaphus’s descendent Perseus was born. Perseus grew up to be one of the most legendary heroes in the world.
Perseus rescued and married the African princess Andromeda. One of their sons, Electryon, became the father of a beautiful woman named Alcmene.
As was the case for many beautiful women in Greek mythology, Alcmene drew the attention of Zeus.
After Zeus deceived her by disguising himself as her husband, Alcmene gave birth to a son. She named her baby Heracles in an effort to please Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife.
The Twelve Labors of Heracles are among the most famous and memorable legends in Greek mythology. Completing them would earn Heracles his place with the gods of Mount Olympus.
His eleventh task, stealing the apples from the garden of the Hesperides, would put him on the path to freeing Prometheus.
The Hesperides were beautiful nymphs of the sunset, and their garden was in the far west. In it grew golden apples that were said to grant immortality to anyone who took a bite of them.
The Hesperides, however, served Hera. She had sent a hundred-headed dragon to guard over the apples.
On his way to the garden Heracles happened to pass by the gorge where Prometheus was chained.
Having already killed many of the greatest beasts in the world, he didn’t hesitate when he saw the great eagle that had come to eat the Titan’s liver. He shot it down with arrows, fulfilling the prophecy Prometheus had made to Io about a great archer that would be descended from her line.
Heracles was able to break the chains that held Prometheus to the stone, which wouldn’t have been possible if Zeus had not allowed it. The king of the gods had finally freed Prometheus from his torture.
As thanks for his freedom, Prometheus helped Heracles complete his task.
Prometheus’s brother Atlas, who held the earth on his shoulders as punishment for fighting against Zeus in the Titanomachy, was the father of the Hesperides. Prometheus told the hero where to find Atlas, who would be able to enter the garden unharmed.
Without guidance from Prometheus, Heracles would have been unable to defeat both the nymphs and the dragon and would never have become one of the gods.
The stories aren’t clear on what happened to Prometheus after he was freed from his torture. The final play in Aeschylus’s trilogy may have provided details, but only a few short fragments remain.
Prometheus Bound hints that the Titan eventually told Zeus that having a child with the sea goddess Thetis would cost him his throne. This was the information Hermes demanded at the end of the play.
Prometheus had told Io that only he could save Zeus. The two had been at a stalemate for thousands of years over the identity of the woman who could lead to Zeus’s downfall
To prevent Prometheus’s prophecy from being fulfilled, Zeus ordered Thetis to marry a mortal instead. Her son Achilles grew to be one of Greece’s most famous heroes.
Zeus retained his power and Prometheus earned his freedom by helping the king.
Over the centuries, the legends concerning Prometheus grew and changed. He became an important figure in the mythology, creating and saving mankind over and over again.
Aeschylus helped to cement Prometheus’s place in culture with his famous play. The Titan was given a voice and personality that resonated with people through the ages.
Prometheus became a figure that people wanted to identify with. He was a character that stood up for mankind even when it resulted in extreme punishment.
While the ancient Greeks may have taken the story of Prometheus’s punishment as a warning against defying the gods, later thinkers admired the courage and resolve Prometheus displayed.
Prometheus became a symbol for righteous rebellion and freedom of thought.
When Percy Blythe Shelley imagined his own version of Prometheus Unbound in the 19th century, he wrote a character that refused to submit to the tyranny of Zeus. Prometheus remained defiant, illustrating the triumph of human intellect over blind obedience.
Credited for giving humans wisdom and the knowledge of tools to help them advance, Prometheus became a symbol for intellectualism and creative thought.
Works of rebellion against religious institutions or oppressive governments often alluded to Prometheus. Modern thinkers admired him for being willing to sacrifice himself in defense of intellectual freedom.
In art, Prometheus has been a popular figure since the Roman era. While artists in the past used the story of his creation of humanity as a parallel to the Biblical creation of Adam, modern artists have embraced Prometheus as a way to show modern ideals with a classical subject.
One well-known example of Prometheus in art is the Bronze sculpture of him in New York’s Rockefeller Center. One of the city’s most famous landmarks, it celebrates human innovation.
From a prophetic Titan to an allegory of the power of the human mind, Prometheus has endured over thousands of years. While not everyone knows the myths behind the name, in granting humans wisdom and risking himself to ensure their survival, Prometheus is as much of an important symbol now as he was in the ancient past.