What Was Prometheus’s Punishment for Giving Fire to Humans?
To understand the punishment of Prometheus, you first have to know what his crime was.
When the gods of Mount Olympus first took power, Zeus paid little attention to the mortal humans that lived below them on earth. That changed when he became aware of how productive mankind had become.
The human race had learned how to grow grain and raise livestock to feed themselves. They had also mastered the use of weapons to kill wild game.
The gods were entitled to a portion of the food that the humans grew and hunted. Like an earthly king collecting taxes from his people, Zeus came to the humans to demand his share of the bounty.
Of course, Zeus thought he was entitled to the best portions of everything. For the humans, however, keeping the fat and protein from the best cuts of meat was a matter of survival.
Zeus asked Prometheus, known for his insight, to help decide the matter. At the sacred site of Mecone the humans and the gods agreed to settle their dispute over the nature of sacrifices.
The Titan butchered an ox and created two piles of meat.
The first had all the best cuts of meat, but was covered by unappetizing scraps and hides. The second pile had a few good looking pieces of meat placed on top, but underneath those was hidden all the bones.
As Prometheus had known he would do, Zeus chose the sacrifice that looked the best on the surface. From that day forth, Greek temples gave sacrifices of bones and fat to the gods while humans ate the best meat.
Prometheus had broken no laws, but Zeus had been embarrassed and outsmarted. He took fire away from humans as a punishment, reasoning that the fine meat they had won would go to waste if they could not cook it.
The Titan knew, however, that taking fire away from humans was a far greater punishment than just denying them cooked meat.
Fire kept humans, who lacked the fur that covered animals, warm at night and frightened away predators. Without it they could not craft with metal or ceramics either.
So Prometheus again went against Zeus. While the god was away, he went into Zeus’s own house and stole fire from his hearth to give to the humans.
This time, Prometheus had done far more than just embarrass Zeus. He had gone against the will of the king of the gods, breaking the law in both his theft and his defiance.
As the god of law, Zeus was bound to punish him harshly.
While many of those who defied the gods, including the elder Titans who had fought against them, were imprisoned in Tartarus, Zeus had other plans for his one-time ally.
Prometheus was seized and brought to a desolate mountain. In the play Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus claimed he was dragged there by Kratos, the personification of Zeus’s power, and Bia, the embodiment of force.
Hephaestus was with them, a reluctant participant according to Aeschylus. But the skill of the smith of the gods was required to chain a divine being like Prometheus.
Hephaestus was the only god who could craft unbreakable chains that were strong enough to hold a Titan. Prometheus was bound with such chains and secured to the mountainside.
This was not the end of his punishment, though. While being eternally bound on the rocks, left exposed to the sun’s heat and the freezing temperatures of winter, was a punishment in itself, Zeus planned something far more painful.
Ha! Behold! What murmur, what scent wings to me, its source invisible, heavenly or human, or both? Has someone come to this crag at the edge of the world to stare at my sufferings–or with what motive? Behold me, an ill-fated god, chained, the foe of Zeus, hated of all who enter the court of Zeus, because of my very great love for mankind. Ha! What’s this? What may be this rustling stir of birds I hear again nearby? The air whirs with the light rush of wings. Whatever approaches causes me alarm.
-Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 115 ff (trans. Weir Smyth)
Unfortunately for Prometheus, the sound of wings did not signal an end to his suffering. It was only the beginning.
Zeus sent the Caucasian Eagle, an enormous bird with a monstrous appetite, to torture the chained Titan. The massive bird attacked Prometheus, clawing at his stomach until it tore out his liver.
The bird ate the liver as it flew away, leaving Prometheus in agony.
As an immortal god, however, even being torn apart by the eagle did not kill the Titan. His body healed itself every day and his liver grew back.
Every day when he was healed, the eagle would return. Prometheus’ stomach was ripped open every day so the Caucasian Eagle could once again pull out his liver and devour it.
When modern criminals are convicted of a crime, their sentence includes a period of time for their punishment. For Prometheus, however, the time was interminable.
In some versions of his story, Prometheus was given a vague idea of how long he would suffer. A prophecy stated that he would have to wait for thirteen generations for a descendant of Io, one of Zeus’s lovers, to free him.
Other sources gave him no such glimmer of hope, however. In those versions of the tale, the Titan was tortured for thousands of years.
Eventually, the distant descendant of Io was born. Like the prophecy said, he was a great archer from a line of celebrated heroes.
Heracles had no intentions of finding Prometheus when he set out on his eleventh labor. He was searching for the Garden of the Hesperides, to steal one of the golden apples of immortality the nymphs guarded.
On his journey, he happened to come to the place where Prometheus was bound at the moment the eagle attacked. Without hesitation, the great hero drew his bow and shot.
Several years before, Heracles had dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s venom. The poisoned arrows could kill any target, so the great Caucasian Eagle died with a single shot.
In gratitude for ending the eagle’s perpetual attacks, Prometheus helped Heracles find a way to get the apple without risking the dangers of the garden. The Titan’s brother, Atlas, was the father of the Hesperides and was the only being other than Hera who could get past the nymphs without risking an attack.
The Greeks understood that Heracles would not have been allowed to kill the great eagle if it had not been the will of Zeus. The death of the Caucasian Eagle was a sign that the king of the gods was ready to show mercy.
Soon after his encounter with Heracles, Prometheus was set free. Despite enduring ages of torment he appeared to hold no ill will toward Zeus and, in fact, delivered a long-withheld prophecy that saved the king of the gods from one day being overthrown.
The chaining of Prometheus is one of the most famous punishments in mythology.
The Titan had embarrassed Zeus by tricking him into taking an inferior share of a sacrificial bull. When the god retaliated against the humans who had benefited, Prometheus again helped them by stealing back the fire that Zeus had denied them.
Stealing fire from the home of Zeus himself was not only an act of theft, but was also a defiance of the will of the king of the gods. As such, it was a crime that warranted a severe punishment.
Prometheus was chained to a rocky mountainside with unbreakable bonds. Not even a god could break or wear down the heavy chains.
Every morning the Caucasian Eagle attacked him, tearing open his stomach and eating his liver. As a god his body healed and regenerated, so the eagle attacked every day for many ages.
The arrival of Heracles signalled an end to ages of torment and pain. The hero, with the implied approval of Zeus, killed the Caucasian Eagle and ended the torture of Prometheus.
Soon afterwards, the Titan was set free. His act of stealing fire had resulted in thousands of years of constant agony.