Greek myths are often retold with their simplest explanations. Often, however, they could be seen with far more complex interpretations.
Both ancient people and modern scholars had many theories and interpretations for the myths that were told. These could vary according to time and place, and some might not have ever been widely believed.
One story that has many meanings in Greek mythology is that of Prometheus. While his tale explained how mankind received the gift of fire, there is much more to know about the story of Prometheus.
Many people are familiar with the legend of how Prometheus stole fire for mankind against the will of Zeus. For helping humanity, the Titan was sorely punished.
This was not the first time Prometheus had helped the human race, however. Zeus had taken away fire in the first place because of Prometheus’s kindness toward humanity.
When asked to settle a dispute over whether the gods or humanity should get the best share of meat, Prometheus had worked for the good of mankind. He tricked Zeus into taking a share that looked appealing but was mostly bone and scraps.
Prometheus was also a friend to mortal men and worked to help them. According to some versions of his story, there was a good reason for this favor.
Several ancient writers and philosophers, including Plato and Sappho, claimed that Prometheus did more than just help mankind. He had also created them.
Like many other cultures, the Greeks believed that the first humans had been made of clay. While a few versions of this creation legend were given, one of the most popular said that Prometheus had been the one to sculpt them.
Plato went further by giving Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, a major role in the creation of all life.
According to one of his texts, the gods had roughly fashioned humans and all the animals out earth, fire, and the elements. They left the two Titans with the task of equipping the new creatures for life.
Epimetheus enthusiastically dove into the task and started handing out the gifts that the gods had provided without any thought of equal distribution.
Prometheus’s brother gave out claws, sharp teeth, speed, tough hides, and other gifts that would help both predators and their prey. Some creatures were endowed with so many of these gifts that they were incomparably strong.
When it came time to equip the humans, there was nothing left for them. The other animals had the natural weapons to hunt and defend themselves, but humans were left weak and vulnerable. They did not even have thick fur to keep them warm.
Prometheus, in this story, took pity on mankind for the first time. He gave the defenseless men the skills of Athena and Hephaestus to create tools, clothing, and weapons.
Prometheus was a Titan and, eventually, an enemy of Zeus. Both of these factors meant that he had little to no religious following in Greece.
In the 2nd century AD, the writer Lucian pointed this out. He said that there were temples to the Olympians everywhere in Greece but none to be found for the Titan who had supposedly created mankind.
The exception to this was in the city of Athens, where Prometheus was viewed much differently than he was elsewhere in Greek culture.
It is no coincidence that the writers who expanded on the Prometheus story the most were Athenians. Plato’s philosophical works and the plays of Aeschylus both featured the Titan more than any other Greek writer did.
According to them, Prometheus had been responsible for giving men fire and, with it, the ability to create tools. Without this, culture would not have been possible and men would have been no better than animals.
This gift linked Prometheus to two important gods. Athena was the goddess of wisdom and craftsmen, while Hephaestus was the smith god.
Both of these gods were particularly important in Athens. Athena was, of course, the city’s patron while Hephaestus was the father of its founding king, Erichthonius.
In Athens alone, Prometheus had a cult dedicated to his role as mankind’s patron. He was worshipped alongside Athena and Hephaestus as a god who gave mankind technology and intelligence.
Many Greek philosophers believed that Prometheus knew exactly what would happen if he helped mankind.
Folk etymology, the explanations the Greeks themselves gave for the gods’ names, said that the Titan’s name was related to his intelligence. The name Prometheus came from the Greek word for “foresight.”
His brother Epimetheus, meanwhile, was named for the opposite. His name implied a lack of foresight.
This popular translation of the names was used to explain Prometheus’s character and the stories that involved his brother.
During the war with the Titans, for example, Prometheus had sided with Zeus because he had the foresight to see how they could win. The older Titans would not accept his council, but Zeus and the Olympians recognized his skill in strategy.
When Zeus took fire away from humans, he had only been looking to keep them from cooking the meat they were not sacrificing to him. Prometheus, however, could foresee the additional problems that this would cause.
Humans relied on fire for more than cooking. Without the ability to keep warm, scare away predators, and work with metal, the entire human race would die without fire.
Furthermore, Prometheus could foresee the threat of Pandora while his brother could not. Prometheus, knowing that Zeus would punish mankind in some way, warned Epimetheus not to accept any gifts from the gods but his foolhardy brother was swayed by the woman’s beauty.
Particularly in Athens, stories were expanded to include more instances in which Prometheus could discern the course of events. While he was not a prophet, he had the wisdom to see how things would likely play out.
According to Aeschylus, for example, Io came across Prometheus as she fled from both Zeus and the gadfly Hera had sent to torment her. The Titan advised her that her torments would end when she accepted Zeus’s advances not because he had power over fate, but because he knew how Zeus would likely react.
Eventually, people even believed that Prometheus had once been responsible for keeping Zeus in power. Aeschylus claimed that Themis had foretold that Zeus would be unseated if he had a child with a Titaness, but Prometheus had been the one to deliver the warning.
Many scholars, however, do not agree with the popular interpretation of the Titan’s name. Instead, they think that the Prometheus story was inspired by a much different ancient archetype.
Some believe that the name was not original to the Greek language, but had instead been derived from a much earlier root. It may be related to the Vedic phrase pra math, “to steal.”
In this interpretation, the Titan’s theft of fire predated other aspects of his story. The idea that fire had been stolen from the gods for the benefit of humanity was an ancient and widespread one.
From North America to Australia, variations on this archetype existed. Most often it was a trickster god, who was usually a thief, that gave fire from the gods.
In the Pacific Islands, for example, Maui stole fire from the mythical Mudhens. The San people of southern Africa said that their trickster deity had turned into a mantis to sneak fire from beneath an ostrich’s wings.
Around the world, fire was seen as something that had been kept hidden and out of reach from humankind. Only a divine thief could have brought it to men.
The story closest to that of Prometheus is, unsurprisingly, the Vedic one. According to the Rigveda, fire was hidden from humanity and stolen back by Matarisvan.
The idea that Prometheus was directly inspired by this story is contested by some scholars, but there seems to be support in other Indian terms. Fire-drills, which were used since prehistory to start fires, were called pramant, a seemingly-related word.
The theft of fire in the story would seem to indicate that, like other mythological thieves, Prometheus had once been thought of as a trickster god. He served the same function as other thieves in this story, although he took on a more noble role in later retellings.
The Prometheus story as one of a trickster god also seems to be supported within Greek mythology. While they are portrayed very differently, Prometheus has many similarities to the more well-known trickster of Greek lore.
Hermes is most commonly called Greek mythology’s trickster god. He was a cunning thief who was known as a troublemaker from the moment of his birth.
The stories of Prometheus and Hermes had some unexpected similarities that might support the idea that the Titan had once been a trickster as well.
Hermes was said to have killed two of the cows and burned some of the meat, creating the first sacrifice. This story is at odds with the legend of Prometheus dividing the first sacrifices, but likewise credits a thief with the rites.
In some stories, the two gods also had the same job. Hermes was the herald of Zeus, and some early writers said that Prometheus had been the herald of the Titans before their war.
Prometheus was famously punished by Zeus in a horrific way. He was chained to a mountain where a giant eagle tore his liver out of his body each day.
Because he was a god, Prometheus was not permanently harmed by this. His liver would regenerate each night, allowing the torture to continue day after day.
To the Greeks, however, this was more than just a physical punishment. The torture was emotional as well.
The ancient Greeks believed that the liver was where human emotion was contained within the body. The eagle did not just cause pain when it tore out the Titan’s liver, it also caused anguish by removing his emotions.
The fact that Zeus sent an eagle to do this task was also symbolic. The bird was an emblem of the king of the gods.
The story of Prometheus’s punishment, therefore, had a much deeper meaning than just a physical torment.
Zeus, through his sacred bird, removed the source of the Titan’s emotions each day. The empathy, love, and kindness that had led Prometheus to defy Zeus’s will were taken away.
Each morning, however, the Titan’s liver would grow back again. The torment of Prometheus was that his emotions would return each day, only to be torn away again and again.
The Prometheus story has remained a popular one from Greek mythology. While the simplest interpretation of the story is that it explained how humans got the ability to make and control fire, it served many other functions in Greek belief.
In some retellings, the Prometheus story was also the legend of how humanity had been created. The Titan had either fashioned mankind or gave people the gifts that allowed them to survive.
In Athens, it was the story of how people became industrious and skilled. Prometheus was worshipped alongside Hephaestus and Athena as one of mankind’s greatest benefactors.
Some saw it as a story of foresight and intelligence. Prometheus had helped mankind and the gods not just out of kindness, but also because he could think ahead to foresee the consequences of others’ actions.
Many scholars now believe that the original story was not one of foresight and the spread of knowledge, but of trickery. Before Hermes, Prometheus may have been the trickster thief of Greek mythology.
Finally, the punishment of Prometheus could be interpreted as an emotional rather than purely physical one. The liver was the seat of emotion, and Prometheus had his feelings torn out by an avatar of Zeus each day.