Prometheus was one of the first Titans to join Zeus in his rebellion against Cronos. According to many legends, he was a wise advisor to the Olympians.
For this service, the Titan earned a place among the new gods. As Zeus’s rule began, Prometheus was valued for his counsel.
The amicable relationship was not to last, however. Beginning with the division of meat between the gods and men, Prometheus continuously took the side of the human race rather than that of his new king.
The punishment of Prometheus is an iconic image of Greek mythology, and it was the result of the Titan and the Olympian representing two different types of divinity.
According to legend, Zeus and Prometheus were once on very friendly terms.
The Titan and his brother, Epimetheus, had joined Zeus in the fight against their parents. By helping to overthrow Cronos and the older generation of Titans, Prometheus earned a place among the Olympians.
His name was often thought to have meant “foresight,” and the Titan proved himself adept at planning ahead. While the Titans had ignored his warnings against the war, he proved a wise counselor to Zeus and the Olympians.
The rift between them began when Zeus, who had previously taken little notice of mankind, saw that humans had become skilled in agriculture. Turning his attention to the bountiful crops and meaty animals the humans were raising, Zeus decided that the gods should have their share of the harvest.
The gods and men could not agree, however, on how the bounty was to be distributed. Each wanted the best, fattest cuts of meat for themselves.
Zeus called on Prometheus, who had always given him good advice, to settle the dispute. For the first of many times, the Titan would side with humanity over his king.
Prometheus butchered an ox and divided it into two piles. One was covered in thick, appetizing cuts of meat while the other was piled with bones.
Zeus, of course, chose the more attractive of the two piles as his own. The few pieces of choice meat, however, disguised a larger pile of bones and gristle.
Humans were allowed to keep the other pile, which was topped with bones and hide but contained mostly fatty meat. Prometheus had ensured that humanity would eat well, but had earned the anger of Zeus for his actions.
Zeus did not immediately vent his anger on Prometheus, however. He first punished the humans who had benefitted from the trick.
Fire had been a gift from the gods, so Zeus took it away from the people of Earth. Without fire, they could not make use of the meat they had won.
Prometheus, however, had the foresight to see that humans would suffer much worse than hunger if they did not have the gift of fire. Without it, they had no defense against cold, no way of warding off animals, and could not forge metal for tools and weapons.
The Titan decided to return fire to the people who needed it to survive. To do so, however, he would have to steal it from Mount Olympus.
When the gods were away, Prometheus went to Olympus and lit a fennel stalk with the hot embers in Zeus’s own fire. He raced back to Earth to give the burning stalk to humans before the fire could go out.
Humans survived because the Titan stole the fire of the gods for them. Both would be punished, though.
Zeus had Pandora, the first woman, fashioned to punish mankind. She brought all manner of disease and hardship with her to plague humanity.
Prometheus was taken to a distant mountainside and bound with unbreakable chains. Each day a giant eagle came to tear out his liver, which would grow back before morning so his suffering lasted for eternity.
Ancient writers gave different accounts of how long the Titan’s torment lasted. One put the span of his bondage at 30,000 years.
When Heracles journeyed west on his eleventh labor, he came across Prometheus. He shot down the Caucasian Eagle, ending the cycle of mutilation and regeneration that had caused Prometheus pain for many centuries.
Soon afterward, Zeus apparently freed the Titan at last. Afterward, Prometheus faded out of legend with some writers saying he was sent to the Isles of the Blessed.
The people of Greece had Prometheus to thank for many of the things that enabled them to survive. Without the Titan’s intervention, humanity would have starved or frozen to death.
Prometheus was still, however, guilty of a terrible crime in the Greek view of the world. Because he had violated Zeus’s commands, his punishment had to be considered just.
Zeus was a god of law and, as king of the Olympians, his decrees had to be obeyed. Prometheus, however, was of a different sort.
Elements of Prometheus’s story can be found in other mythologies of the ancient world. While the character is distinctively Greek, parts of his legend fit into the ancient trickster archetype.
Most polytheistic religions in history had some version of the trickster god. While Prometheus did not delight in mischief as many of them did, parts of his myth show the influence of this trickster type.
The Sumerian deity Enki, for example, was a god of both wisdom and mischief who stole fire for the benefit of humanity. The Vedic Matarisvan similarly brought hidden fire to the great sages of ancient India.
Even in Judeo-Christian belief, it is the fallen angels who teach man to use fire and make tools. As far away as Polynesia, the trickster Maui stole fire for mankind.
Not all thieves of fire were tricksters, however. There are other links between Prometheus and this archetype.
In Norse mythology, the trickster Loki is sometimes helpful to the Aesir gods, but more often antagonizes them. When Thor becomes enraged by Loki’s continual insults against him and the other gods, he has Loki bound to a rock with his own son’s entrails.
Like Prometheus, Loki is tortured by an enormous animal. In his case, a serpent positioned above him dripped venom into his face whenever his wife, Skaði, was not present to catch it in a bowl.
If Prometheus was modeled on an ancient trickster archetype, it was inevitable that he would fall afoul of Zeus as the god of law.
Many trickster gods in world mythology begin as friends to the more important gods, but are often of a different type. Maui, for example, was usually thought of as a demigod while Loki was not one of the Aesir.
Like Prometheus, however, these tricksters eventually angered the more lawful gods who had once welcomed them.
Because Zeus presided over law and justice, he could not let Prometheus’s insubordination go unpunished. Like a trickster god, Prometheus was harshly dealt with by a powerful god he had once been of service to.
In the fight against the Titans, some of the younger generations joined forces with the new gods of Olympus. Chief among these was Prometheus, who used his intelligence and foresight to help Zeus win the war.
The king of the gods valued his ally for the wise counsel he gave, but the relationship soon soured. The Titan continuously placed the needs of mankind over the commands of Zeus.
Prometheus first favored humanity in dividing the share of meat the gods would receive as sacrifices. When Zeus punished mankind by taking fire away from them, Prometheus stole it back to save them from destruction.
Although his actions had been undertaken with good intentions, they were still in violations of Zeus’s decrees. Prometheus was harshly punished by being chained to a mountainside and having his liver torn from his body on a daily basis.
The legend of Prometheus is a central one in the Greek view of humanity’s development, but many aspects of the story link it to a worldwide archetype. Stealing fire, losing the friendship of the gods, and being bound are all aspects of the trickster archetype.
Prometheus differed from other trickster figures, but key points of his story make it clear that his legend descended from this archetype. As a trickster type, it was inevitable that Prometheus would fall afoul of the lawful Zeus.