Wednesday, 1 December 2010


Though ultimately the protectors of mankind, the gods are also its masters. Though capable of care and affection towards humanity, they are quick to punish men and women who attempt to rise above their servitude – and those who aid them in such action. Just one such being who fell foul of divine authority was Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek lore. Powerful, wily and cunning, Prometheus laboured tirelessly to improve the lot in life of his greatest creation – mankind – in defiance of Zeus himself, and paid the price in the form of ageless torture.
Sculpture in New York City, by Lee Lawrie.
Born a grandson of Earth and Sky and a cousin of Kronos, unlike many of his brethren, Prometheus sided with the younger gods in the War of the Titans (to read the story of this, please click here), and lent his strength to Zeus. One of four sons of the Titan Iapetus, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were to be the champions of mankind, though Epimetheus lacked his brother’s sound reasoning. Of the two remaining brothers, the most powerful was the Titan Atlas, famous for his punishment for siding with the Titans, when Zeus ordered him to bear the unbounding weight of the Heavens on his shoulders for eternity. The last brother, Menoetius, joined Atlas in the Titanomachy, but was struck by one of the thunderbolts of Zeus and cast into Tartarus.
At the creation of the beings which would populate the world, the gods fashioned their forms from clay, and ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to furnish all the animals with unique qualities. Over eager, Epimetheus convinced Prometheus to allow him to do the deed, and won over the Titan to his plan. Epimetheus then turned to the animals and contrived to make all beings equal, so that the powers of one beast would be laid low by another. To some he distributed thick hides to protect from winter’s chill, to others terrible claws to cause other beasts to fear them, to other hooves to swiften their movements across the world. But not possessed of his brother’s wisdom, Epimetheus soon realised that he had used up all of the defining traits on his animals, and possessed nothing to give to men, “for while the other animals were all very carefully provided for, humankind was naked, shoeless, without bedding and defenceless”. Realising his brother’s mistakes, Prometheus considered the problem for a while. Deciding to make man the blessed race, Prometheus crept into the House of the gods, and stole the ingenuity of Athena and the crafts of Hephaestus, and imparted them into man, so that they would employ their mastery over the elements to overcome the weakness of their form.

Prometheus Bound
Sculpture by Nicolas-S├ębastien Adam.
Angered by the Titan’s daring, the gods wished man to acknowledge divine superiority, and held council to discuss how man would honour them. Carving up a great bull, they decided which portions should be burned and gifted to the gods, and which would be retained and eaten by man. Determined that the gods would receive the better half, that is the delicious meats and finest innards, and that man should be humiliated by accepting the bones, gristle and fat, Zeus ordered Prometheus to give him the rightful portion. But the Titan was cunning. He divided the carcass into two piles, one was fat and bones, yet covered with the thinnest layer of fine meat, whilst the other pile contained all the finest parts of the animal, yet covered by the animal’s unsightly stomach. Prometheus came before the King of the gods and asked him to choose which he would like. Confused, the Thunderer replied:

                  “ 'Son of Iapetus, outstanding among all the lords,

                     My good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions'.

                    So chided Zeus, whose designs do not fail. But crooked schemer Prometheus,
                    smiling quietly and intent on deceit, said to him,

                    'Zeus greatest and most glorious of the eternal fathers, choose then

                    whichever of them the spirit in your breast bids you'. ”

                                      - PROMETHEUS DECEIVES ZEUS

Selecting the more enticing portion crowned with rich meat, in his fury Zeus saw the Titan’s trick. Ever since, whenever men sacrificed, the bones and fat were burned on the altar, and the finest meats were eaten. In his rage, Zeus hid from man the secrets of fire, and cursed them to endure the cold forever.
But Prometheus cared for men. He defied the King of the gods once more, sneaking into the House of the gods, he took a spark from their fire and, concealing it within the pith of a fennel, came down to Earth and granted the secrets of fire to men. Spying the far-beaconing flares of fire among mankind, Zeus was enraged. Ordering Prometheus to be taken to the far flung edge of the world, he ordered the gods to:

                 “ Nail him to the rock; secure him on this towering summit
                   Fast in the unyielding grip of adamantine chains.
                   It was your treasure he stole, the flowery splendour
                   Of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men – an offence
                   Intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer,
                   Till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus.”
                                         - PROMETHEUS IS CONDEMNED

The Torture of Prometheus
Painting by Jean-Louis-Cesar Lair.
Not only this, but Zeus commanded a great eagle to torment Prometheus, to every day peck out his liver. Every night, the Titan’s liver would regrow, and every day the bird would devour it anew, for eternity. As for man, Zeus devised a punishment for their acceptance of forbidden gifts. He ordered Hephaestus to mix earth and water and to imbue it with human voice and strength, and model its form upon those of the immortal goddesses. Athena he ordered to teach this new creation the crafts of weaving and faculty of scheming, and Aphrodite the secrets of charm. The creation he named Pandora, meaning ‘All gift’, as all the denizens of Olympus had had a hand in its creation. For Pandora was the first woman, and from Pandora was descended the female gender, conceived on Olympus as the ultimate curse of man, dooming them at once to lives of servitude and misguided obsession. Prometheus looked on in despair from his mountainous prison, bemoaning his fate, until the day when he will be released from his shackles...
The story of Prometheus is an important, yet oft forgotten, chapter of the creation of man in Greek legend. His role as patron of mankind, and punishment for it, moved the minds of great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance and beyond, just as the stoicism of his brother Atlas did too. Perhaps Prometheus was one of the first tragic heroes? The story of Prometheus is mentioned throughout the Classical corpus, the most enduring excerpts however, are to be found in readily available texts on Amazon:

United Kingdom
His Role in the Creation of Man:
Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics)
(A philosophical text, though containing the story of Prometheus and Epimetheus in Protagoras 320d)
His Trickery and the Creation of Pandora:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Nice and readable, mentioned in both the Theogony and Works and Days)
His Punishment:
Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: The Suppliants; Seven Against Thebes; The Persians (Classics)
(A sympathetic treatment of the Titan, short and readable)
United States

His Role in the Creation of Man:
Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics)
(A philosophical text, though containing the story of Prometheus and Epimetheus in Protagoras 320d)
His Trickery and the Creation of Pandora:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Nice and readable, mentioned in both the Theogony and Works and Days)

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