Greek Mythology: Prometheus

One of the most important Greek mythological figures in shaping humankind today is Prometheus. He is a Titan, culture hero, and a trickster. He is credited with the creation of humanity from clay and who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to human civilisation. But instead of being rewarded for his bravery, Zeus gave him a sentence of eternal torment. You’ll get to learn about just what that eternal torment was throughout this post. The first recorded account of the Prometheus myth appeared in the late 8th-century poet Hesiod’s Theogony (507-616). He was the son of the Titan by Clymene, one of the Oceanids. His brothers were Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. One of the reasons why I like this myth so much is because of how much it relates to humanity today. Though we have the science to disprove mythology, it is still an interesting concept on the basic nature of the creation of humans.

I probably need to start by explaining who Prometheus was and how he came to be known as shaping humans. Zeus gave the task of creating man and beasts to the Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus was said to be wise and possessed the gift of foresight and often considered what would be needed several years in advance. His brother Epimetheus swiftly created creatures that would live in forests, swim in the seas and fly through the air with the gift of flight. He was quite impulsive and bestowed many gifts upon these creatures, like swiftness, strength and frightening claws. The animals and their characteristics that we see today are all down to Epimetheus. Prometheus, on the other hand, took his time and worked hard to create man from a lump of clay. He aimed to shape man after the image of gods and allowed them to walk upright so that they might look towards the heavens. Zeus, a massive egotist, didn’t like the idea of something being similar to gods so made humans mortal so that they would be lesser beings. When man was completed Prometheus discovered that his brother had bestowed all the gifts from the gods upon animals, and left none for the humans. Man was left naked and weak, with no means to live prosperously. With determination, he defied Zeus and travelled to Mount Olympus and stole fire from the gods, and gave it to man. It was with fire that man began to thrive and become superior to animals.

In the trick of Mecone (535-544), a sacrificial meal marking the ‘setting of accounts’ between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus. The sacrifices would set a precedent for future sacrifices. Prometheus placed two sacrificial offerings before Zeus: a selection of beef hidden inside an ox’s stomach, and the bull’s bones wrapped fully in ‘glistening fat’. Zeus chose the bull’s bones, which meant that humans would keep the meat of the beet for themselves, and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. Zeus wasn’t the nicest guy and was furious that he had been tricked into thinking the bones were more plentiful than the actual meat, So he hid fire from humans. There are other versions of the myth, but in this version of the myth humans already had access to fire but Zeus just took it away from then. Prometheus, being a man of the people, stole the fire back in a giant fennel-stalk and restored it to humanity (565-566). This angered Zeus even more, as he took this to be being made a fool of. Zeus sent the first woman to live with humanity (literally sent women to humans as a punishment, bit sexist Zeus don’t you think?). The woman, named Pandora, was a ‘shy maiden’, and was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and Athena had helped to adorn her properly. Hesiod writes ‘From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth’. Also, if you’re thinking is this the same Pandora from Pandora’s box, then you would be correct.

Pandora was commanded to marry Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, despite warnings from Prometheus to not accept gifts from Zeus. Before Pandora departed Olympus she was given a box and was warned by gods never to open the box under any circumstances. Knowing humankind, she did. And when did, an endless amount of evil creatures flew out of the box and began to disperse themselves across the earth. Creatures like disease, famine, and plague began to spread across the world and ruin mankind. Pandora, knowing she’d messed up quickly shut the box. She closed the vessel on one last creature, Hope. And while it remains in the box and evil plagues the world, mankind will still have hope.

Prometheus did not go unpunished either. He was sentenced by Zeus to spend eternity chained to a mountain, whereupon every day an eagle would fly down and devour his liver from his body. As Prometheus was an immortal, his liver simply regrew and the wound healed. This meant the eagle could swoop down for all eternity, and devour his liver every single day. Prometheus spent thousands of years in this punishment but was said to never have regretted his decision to steal the fire. A real man of the people is how he continued to be celebrated throughout mythology. Mary Shelly’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’, as a homage to scientific progress and the dangers that may come with it.

Well, I know that was quite a bulky post but the creation of man is an important one otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here today. I hope you enjoyed, and comment below what modern connotations of Prometheus exist today!

Until next time,
-S

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