Prometheus in Greek Mythology – Origin Story, Symbols, Meaning, & Tricks
The mythical stories about the Titan Prometheus are full of sacrificial and altruistic acts for mankind. This Greek titan was completely devoted to seeing the human race come out of the dark and move into the light. For centuries, the ancient Greek poets and philosophers viewed him as the bringer of fire, intellectual reasoning, arts, and crafts.
However, his trickery and shenanigans often saw him lock horns with Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. His reputation was so renowned that some myths even proclaimed him as the creator of man. In this article, we shall explore some of the major mythological accounts of Prometheus.
Prometheus’s Story as seen in Hesiod’s Theogony
Most of what we know about Prometheus comes from an ancient Greek poet called Hesiod. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Hesiod talks in detail about not just Prometheus but other Greek Titans and Olympians. As a matter of fact, the Theogony is the oldest record we have about this Titan. Historians believe that Hesiod’s Theogony stretches as far back as the late 8th century BC.
In the Theogony, Hesiod describes Prometheus as a cunning Titan who always had something up his sleeve. Hesiod’s account depicts him as the relatively non-threatening, but wise, Titan that ended up doing more for the human race than his fellow gods. It is for this reason why the ancient Athenians revered and worshiped him. They had several temples and altars in his honor.
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Birth of Prometheus
Prometheus was the son of the Titan Lapetus and Clymene. His father, Lapetus, was the son of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth). This makes Lapetus the brother of Cronus, one of the first generations of Titans. His mother, Clymene (also known as Asia) was the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys.
Prometheus’s siblings were the Titans: Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. He had a son called Deucalion. Deucalion has a similar story to that of the Biblical prophet, Noah. Some myths say that Deucalion sailed with his family in a chest-like structure for nine days and nights after his world was ravaged by floods.
His Role during the Great Battle for the Heavens
At the start of the great battle (clash between Titans and Olympians), Prometheus sided with his fellow Titans. However as the battle proceeded, he switched sides and started fighting for the Olympians. The myth claims that he did this because the Titans refused to take his counsel.
As a result of his change in allegiance, the Olympians went on to defeat the Titans. Zeus, in particular, benefited a lot from his wise counsel and foresight. What this meant was that Prometheus and his siblings were one of the few Titans that did not get imprisoned by Zeus after the war was over.
Nonetheless, Prometheus and Zeus did sometimes have a go at each other. Prometheus’s direct lineage to the Titan Cronus (Cronus was his uncle) meant that some of the Olympian gods still did not trust him completely. Neither was Prometheus the most truthful or honest of the gods. He would go on to challenge the supremacy of Zeus. Sometimes he tried to make a fool of the king of gods. His numerous tricks and ruses are said to have infuriated Zeus on several occasions.
Prometheus’s Crimes and Trickery
One such trickery occurred when the Greek gods were receiving sacrificial meals from mortals. Prometheus hid beef inside the bowels of an ox and then hid the bones and carcasses of a bull inside a sumptuous looking fat. Subsequently, he presented those two items to Zeus as a sacrifice and asked Zeus to choose. Zeus, not knowing anything about this mischief, chose the good-looking fat. This enraged Zeus because Prometheus set a bad precedent for all humans (mortals) to follow. Since then, humans offered bones liaised with fat to the gods and then they kept the good and the delicious part of the meat for themselves.
As punishment for his deceits and insolence, Zeus took out his revenge on Prometheus’s beloved humans. Zeus took fire from humans. Without fire, humans were surely going to perish. Their advancement and scientific progress would definitely come to a halt.
Hearing of the tragedy that had befallen humans, Prometheus stole the fire back from Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. He then handed over this fire to mortals. This act of his marked the beginning of civilization and scientific progress for mankind. It is for this reason why he is regarded as the bringer of civilization to humans. He had an immense love for humans and equipped them with tools and techniques to fend off the wrath and plague that the gods sent their way.
In Hesiod’s Works and Days, the story goes on to say that Zeus decided to severely punish humans for accepting the gifts of Prometheus. Zeus dispatched Pandora to live with races of men. It is said that Hephaestus was the one who created Pandora. Athena then bestowed upon Pandora the most beautiful of ornaments and gifts. Before Pandora and her race of women left for earth, Zeus gave every one of them a special jar. He probably must have asked them not to ever open the jar. But then again, Zeus imbued in them a high sense of curiosity.
Epimetheus, disregarding the ‘forewarning’ of Prometheus, warmly accepted Pandora into the circles of men. With curiosity getting the better of her,Pandora went ahead to open the jar that Zeus gave to her and unknowingly released all its content on to the world. Hesiod tells us that the jar (or a box) contained the most loathsome and vile of things and events.
Realizing what grave error she had committed, Pandora quickly tried to shut the jar close. Before Pandora could shut the jar, every imaginable evil had escaped from the jar. The only thing that was left in Pandora’s jar was ‘hope’. Zeus felt that this was an appropriate punishment for the race of men that willingly accepted fire from the god of tricks, Prometheus.
Zeus Chains Prometheus
The god king of Olympia, Zeus, was not through with Prometheus yet. He devised a plan to permanently halt Prometheus from carrying out any further mischief on him or any of the other Olympian gods. Zeus chained Prometheus to a large rock for eternity. He then instructed his eagle to feast on the Titan’s liver every day. Due to his immortality, the devoured liver always regenerated, and the cycle of pain continued again and again. The Titan would go on to bore this excruciating pain for eons of years until finally, Hercules (also known as Heracles) came to free him from his captivity.
The mentioning of the liver in the myth is a very interesting point because the ancient Greeks considered the liver as the seat of emotions. It is therefore likely that Zeus was aiming at the emotions and feelings Prometheus had for humans. Perhaps Zeus wanted to strip off every emotions Prometheus felt for humans.
Prometheus’s Achievements, Attributes and Traits
In some myths, Prometheus is said to have created the first man with clay and fire. Afterward, the Titan, along with Epimetheus and Athena, bestowed upon the human race the gifts of reasoning, arts, and tools to use to survive. A contrary myth claims that he rather broke into the abodes of Athena and Hephaestus to steal those gifts for mankind. This explains why most myths associate him with science and craftsmanship.
Prometheus was famously praised for his steadfast commitment to the advancement of humanity. Every scientific and artistic breakthrough of that era was attributed to his divine providence. And while some gods and goddess busied themselves trying to destroy and toy with mankind, Prometheus rather championed the hopes and dreams of men.
Why was he committed to man? Perhaps, it is because they were his own creation. This made him go at lengths, oftentimes disobeying the other gods and Zeus himself, to protect and guide man into a better future.
Also, this Titan was an intellectually astute and a master craftsman. The ancient Greeks believed that he was the one that helped humans strive on and gain groundbreaking scientific knowledge. His name in ancient Athens symbolized intelligence and wisdom.
This Greek Titan was arguably the greatest trickster among the gods. On several occasions, Prometheus used his wits and brains to completely fool his fellow gods. And as Aeschylus described in his Prometheus Bound, he was punished several times for this. In some myths, he was seen as the God of fire because he stole fire from Olympus and gave it to man.
Other stories about Prometheus often illustrate him as a great Seer and someone who had vast intellectual abilities. In one incident, he showed Zeus a glimpse of the future where the latter would have his child grow to be strong and then topple Zeus from his throne in Olympus. Also, his abilities to ‘fore think’ and see into the future are what gave the Olympians an edge over the Titans in the great battle for the heavens.
Metaphorical meaning of Prometheus’s name
From a classical view point, Prometheus’s means “forethought”. Therefore, it is most likely that the ancient Greeks perceived him as someone who carefully considers or tries to anticipate future events. This explains why he is associated with scientific and artistic endeavor. All of those pursuits require high levels of foresight and forethought. From this angle, it can be reasoned that the Titan anticipated mankind’s need for warmth and cooking. Hence, he gave them fire. And that is exactly what science does. It anticipates a particular human need both in the present and the immediate future, and then conducts a scientific inquiry to meet those needs.
In many cases, this quest can place the person in grave harm. The forethought meaning of Prometheus fits perfectly into the Western classical view of him. The quest for knowledge and daring adventures does come with a price. Thus, it is a metaphor for our technological advancements and the tragedies that could be brought on us when we push ourselves to the limits.
Other Mythological accounts
The Titanomachy, written by an author around the 7th or 8th century BC, gives an account of the cosmic battle between the old Greek gods (Titan) and children, the Olympians. The Titan Prometheus does not directly take part in the battle. However, this story is differently told by Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound. In his account, he sides with the Olympians against his fellow Titans. Aeschylus considered Zeus punishments against Prometheus as a huge betrayal considering how the latter was instrumental in war. Also in this account, he did not only give humans fire, but he also exposed them to several wonderful arts, crafts and scientific techniques such as mathematics, physics, biology, and medicine. He was also portrayed as mankind’s shield against the wrath of Zeus as well as other gods.
In hindsight, Prometheus’s actions often resulted in the gods severing relationships with the human race. And in most cases, his actions indirectly brought untold suffering to mankind. This is because had he not stolen the fire and given it to the race of men, the gods would not have unleashed Pandora unto the world.
On the flip side of things, one could argue that trickery and deceit allowed humans to harness the benefits of fire (i.e. science and technology). But all of those progresses we have chalked had and will come at a huge cost- the contents of Pandora’s Jar . Perhaps this is the price the human race has to pay for its scientific progress and advancements. Prometheus myth therefore teaches us that nothing comes without a sacrifice.
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