Prometheus: Titan God of Fire

The name Prometheus has become synonymous with fire-thief, although there is much more to the young Titan than his infamous theft. He was notably cunning, and had rebelled against his fellow Titans in the Titanomachy in favor of the victorious Olympian gods. 

In fact, Prometheus was believed to be a pretty good guy until he tricked Zeus, the chief Olympian god, twice – you know how that saying goes – and granted the human race access to fire the second time around.

Indeed, this lauded craftsman had done much more than simply giving humanity fire: he gave them knowledge, and the capability of developing complex civilizations, all for the big price of eternal punishment. 

Who is Prometheus in Greek Mythology?

Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and Clymene, although a few accounts have his mother listed as the Titaness Themis, as is the case in the tragic play Prometheus Bound, attributed to Greek playwright Aeschylus. In even rarer occasions, Prometheus is listed as the son of the river Titan Eurymedon and Hera, the Queen of the Gods. His siblings include the brawny Atlas, the negligent Epimetheus, the doomed Menoetius, and the handy Anchiale. 

During the Titanomachy, Iapetus, Menoetius, and Atlas fought on the side of old king Cronus. They were punished by Zeus following the victory of the Olympian gods. Meanwhile, those Titans, like Prometheus, who remained loyal to the Olympian cause were rewarded. 

There are a handful of significant myths involving Prometheus, where his forward-thinking and self-serving tendencies cause him a handful of problems. He stays on the back-burner in the tale of the Titan War, though he steps up to the plate when Zeus needed a trustworthy individual to craft the world’s first men; actually, it was due to his affection for man that Prometheus had tricked Zeus at Mecone, thus subsequently leading to his betrayal of Zeus and his brutal punishment. 

Prometheus’ son born from the Oceanid Pronoia, Deucalion, ends up marrying his cousin, Pyrrha. The two survive the great flood created by Zeus that was intended to wipe out mankind thanks to Prometheus’ foresight, and they go on to settle in Thessaly, a region in northern Greece. 

What does Prometheus’ Name Mean?

To distinguish himself from his younger brother and to reflect his uncanny wit, Prometheus’ name is rooted in the Greek prefix “pro-”which means “before.” Meanwhile, Epimetheus has the prefix “epi-”, or “after.” More than anything, these prefixes gave the ancient Greeks some insight into the personality of the Titans. Where Prometheus embodied forethought, Epimitheus was the embodiment of afterthought.

What is Prometheus the God of?

Prometheus is the Titan god of fire, forethought, and craft prior to the power-grab by the Olympians and the introduction of Hephaestus into the pantheon. It is additionally worth noting that Prometheus is accepted to be the patron god of human advancement and achievement per his theft of fire. The deed had enlightened mankind en masse, thus permitting the growth of vast civilizations and various technologies. 

By and large, Prometheus and Hephaestus both hold the title of a “God of Fire,” although since Hephaestus was largely absent as an influential god until he was whisked away to Olympus by Dionysus, someone had to keep fire in check and guide Greece’s artisans in the meantime. 

Unfortunately for Zeus, that guy had a penchant for disobedience.

Did Prometheus Create Man?

In classical mythology, Zeus ordered Prometheus and his brother, Epimetheus, to populate the Earth with its first inhabitants. While Prometheus fashioned humans from clay with the image of the gods in mind, Epimetheus formed the animals of the world. When the time came, it was Athena, the goddess of tactical warfare and wisdom, that breathed life into the creations. 

Creation was going swimmingly, until Prometheus decided that Epimetheus should assign positive survival traits to their creations. For being known for thinking in advance, Prometheus really should have known better. 

Since Epimetheus completely lacked any sort of ability to plan ahead, he assigned animals an excess of traits to increase survivability, but ran out of them when the time came around to give the same traits to humans. Oops. 

As a result of his brother’s folly, Prometheus attributed intellect to man. He further realized that, with their brains in-tow, man could use fire to make up for their glaring lack of self-defense. Only…there was one little problem: Zeus wasn’t completely willing to share fire that easily. 

Sure, Prometheus desired to make man in the image of the gods – which is all well and good – but Zeus felt as though actually granting them the ability to construct, craft, and develop past their primal selves was too empowering. At that rate, they could get to the point of challenging the gods themselves if they so wished – something that King Zeus will not stand for. 

How does Prometheus Trick Zeus?

It is recorded that Prometheus tricked Zeus twice within Greek mythology. Below is a review of his first deception as it survives in the Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony, where Prometheus first shows his favorability towards the human race that he created. 

At the mythological city of Mecone – which is closely associated with the ancient city-state of Sicyon – there was a meeting between the mortals and the gods to determine the appropriate way to separate sacrifices for consumption. As an example, Prometheus was charged with killing an ox, which he then divided up between the succulent meat (and a majority of the fat), and the leftover bones. 

Prior to a decision being made, Prometheus discreetly covered the good bits of the sacrifice with the ox’s innards, and had coated the bones with the remaining fat. This made the bones look far more appealing than the supposed pile of intestines beside it. 

Once the masquerading of the sacrifice was finished, the Titan requested Zeus to select which sacrifice he would choose for himself. Also, since he was the king, his decision would choose the sacrifice appropriate for the other Greek gods

At this point, Hesiod argues that Zeus knowingly chose the bones so he could have an excuse to take out his anger on man by withholding fire. Whether or not Zeus was actually deceived is still up for debate. 

Regardless of his supposed knowledge of the trick, Hesiod notes that Zeus chose the bone pile and that the god of thunder had angrily exclaimed: “Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!”

In an act of revenge against Prometheus for the trick at Mecone, Zeus hid fire from man, leaving them both completely servile to the gods and freezing in the cold nights. Mankind was left defenseless against the elements, which was the opposite of what Prometheus desired for his precious creations. 

What Happens in the Myth of Prometheus?

The Prometheus myth first makes an appearance in Theogony, though survives in other mediums. In all, the story is a familiar one: it is the stuff of a classic Greek tragedy. (We can all thank dear tragedian playwright Aeschylus for making this statement literal).

Aeschylus’ three plays can be divided into a Prometheus trilogy (collectively called the Prometheia). They are known as Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, respectively. Whereas the first play focuses on Prometheus’ theft and confinement, the second reviews his escape at the hands of Heracles, Zeus’ son and a celebrated Greek hero. The third is left up to the imagination, as there is little surviving text.

The myth occurs sometime after Prometheus played his first trick on Zeus to ensure that mankind could eat well and not sacrifice food in honor of the gods, since they were already at a survivability disadvantage. However, because of tricking Zeus, the acclaimed King of the Immortals refused to give humanity fire: a crucial element that Prometheus knew they needed.

Distressed by the suffering of his creations, Prometheus blessed man with sacred fire in direct protest to Zeus’ tyrannical treatment of mankind. The theft of fire is considered to be Prometheus’ second trick. (Zeus definitely didn’t prepare for this one)!

To achieve his goal, Prometheus snuck to the personal hearth of the gods with a fennel stalk and, after capturing the flame, brought the now-flaming torch down to mankind. Once Prometheus steals fire from the gods, his fate is sealed.

Much more than the explanation of man’s self-reliance and distancing from the gods, the myth of Prometheus in Theogony additionally acts as a warning to the audience, stating that “it is not possible to deceive or go beyond the will of Zeus: for not even the son of Iapetus, kindly Prometheus, escaped his heavy anger.”

Is Prometheus Good or Evil?

The alignment of Prometheus is made out to be good – most of the time, at least. 

Although a supreme trickster that is renowned for his cunning, Prometheus is simultaneously painted as a champion of man, whom without his sacrifice would still be wallowing in ignorant subservience to the all-powerful gods. His actions and undying devotion to the plight of mankind mold him into a folk hero that has been admired and reconstructed into various forms over the centuries, with the next iteration even more affable than the previous.

What was the Punishment After Prometheus Stole Fire? 

To be expected, Prometheus received one cruel punishment from an enraged Zeus after the events of the primary Prometheus myth. As vengeance for stealing fire and for possibly destroying mankind’s subservience to the gods, Prometheus was chained to Mount Caucasus. 

And what would be the best way for Zeus to send a message and punish Prometheus? Oh yeah, having an eagle eat his infinitely regenerating liver. An eagle ate his liver daily, only to have the organ grow back in the night. 

So, Prometheus spends the next 30,000 years (according to Theogony) in an unending torture. 

However, that is not all. Mankind certainly didn’t get off scot-free. Hephaestus, who is totally a thing now, creates the first mortal woman. Zeus grants this woman, Pandora, breath and sends her to Earth to sabotage man’s advancements. Not only that, but Hermes gives her the gifts of  curiosity, deception, and wit. He was a bit of a trickster himself, after all, and didn’t shy away from any dirty work when it came to Pandora’s creation. 

The combination of Pandora’s gifts lead to her opening the forbidden pithos – a large storage jar – and plaguing the world with ailments before unknown. Pandora is married to Epimetheus, who willingly ignores Prometheus’ warnings to not accept any gift from the gods, and the couple have Pyrrha, the future wife of Deucalion.

In ancient Greece, the myth of Pandora explains why such things like disease, famine, misery, and death exist.

How does Prometheus Escape?

Even if Prometheus’ punishment lasted a very long time, he did eventually escape his tortuous imprisonment. There are multiple ways that scholars have recorded his great escape, with minor variations between just who freed Prometheus and the circumstances under which he was freed.

The Labors of Heracles

The tale of Heracles’ 11th labor came to be after King Eurystheus of the Tiryns dismissed both previous labors of the slaying of the Hydra (a multi-headed serpentine monster) and the cleaning of the filthy Augean Stables (oxen stables that were coated in 30-years worth of total grime).

To sum it up, Eurystheus decided Herc needed to snatch some golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, which were wedding gifts to Hera from her grandmother, the primordial Earth goddess Gaia. The garden itself was guarded by a giant serpent by the name of Ladon, so the entire endeavor was super dangerous.

Anyways, the hero had no idea where to  find this heavenly garden. So, Heracles journeyed through Africa and Asia until he eventually came across poor Prometheus in the midst of his eternal torment in the Caucasus Mountains. 

Luckily, Prometheus actually knew where the garden was. His nieces, the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas, resided there after all. In exchange for the information the chained Titan had, Heracles shot the eagle sent by Zeus to torment him and freed Prometheus from his adamantine bindings.

After Heracles killed the eagle, Prometheus not only gave Heracles directions, but he also advised him to not go in alone and to instead send Atlas in his stead. 

Comparatively, Prometheus could have been freed during Heracles’ 4th labor, where Zeus’ son was tasked with capturing the destructive Erymanthian boar. He had a centaur friend, Pholus, who resided in a cave near the Erymanthus Mountain where the boar lived. When dining with Pholus prior to his trek up the mountain, Heracles opened an intoxicating wine that attracted all other centaurs to it; unlike his companion, many of these centaurs were violent and the demi-god shot many of them with poisoned arrows. In the bloodbath, the centaur Chiron – son of Cronus and trainer of heroes – accidentally was shot in the leg. 

Although trained in medicine, Chiron could not heal his wound and gave up his immortality for Prometheus’ freedom. 

Something About Thetis…

In an alternative myth about Prometheus’ escape, he apparently had some juicy information about Zeus’ latest fling, Thetis, who was one of 50 daughters of the ancient sea god Nereus. But, he wasn’t about to just tell the man that had imprisoned him anything he wanted. 

Ever the forward thinker, Prometheus knew that this was his chance at freedom and he was determined to withhold the information until he was out of his chains.

Therefore, if Zeus wanted to know Prometheus’ secret, then he would have to free him. 

The revelation was that Thetis would bear a son that would be more powerful than his father, and therefore the kid would be a threat to Zeus’ power. Talk about a mood-killer!

After Zeus became aware of the risk posed, the affair abruptly ended and the Nereid was instead wedded to an aging king, Peleus of Phthia: an event that indicated the beginning of the story of the Trojan War. 

Also, since the wedding celebrations neglected to invite Eris, the goddess of strife and chaos, she brought the infamous Apple of Discord in retaliation.

Zeus’ Favorites

The final possibility of escape that will be touched on is a lesser-known retelling. Apparently, one day the young twins Apollo, the Greek god of music and prophecy, and Artemis, the goddess of the moon and hunt, (and occasionally Leto, too) begged Zeus to let Heracles free Prometheus as they believed he had suffered enough.

If you haven’t noticed yet, Zeus adores the twins. As any doting father, he bent to their will and Zeus allowed Prometheus to finally achieve freedom.

Prometheus’ Prominence in Romanticism

The Romantic Era of the later 18th-century is marked by a significant movement in art, literature, and philosophy that encapsulates the intuitive imagination and primal emotions of the individual while exalting the simplicity of common man. 

Primarily, the largest Romantic themes are the appreciation of nature, introspective attitudes towards the self and spirituality, isolation, and the embracement of melancholy. There are a number of works where Prometheus has clearly inspired the content, from John Keats to Lord Byron, although the Shelley’s are undeniable champions of adapting Prometheus and his myth to the Romantic lense. 

First, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is an early science-fiction novel by the famed novelist Mary Shelley, second wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, written originally in 1818. Most people are familiar with it being known simply as Frankenstein, for the central character, Victor Frankenstein. Like the Titan Prometheus, Frankenstein creates complex life against the will of a higher, authoritative power and like Prometheus, Frankenstein is eventually tormented as a result of his undertakings. 

Comparatively, “Prometheus Unbound ” is a lyrical Romantic poem written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the beloved husband of the aforementioned Mary Shelley. Published initially in 1820, it flaunts a veritable cast of Greek gods – including a number of the 12 Olympian gods – and acts as Shelley’s personal interpretation of the first of the Prometheia by Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. This particular poem places a great emphasis on love as a ruling force in the universe, and Prometheus is eventually freed from his torment in the end.

Both works reflect the prominent influence of Prometheus and his sacrifice on the modern individual: from doing any and all for the pursuit of knowledge to looking at fellow man with appreciation and admiration. According to the Romantics, Prometheus transcends limitations enforced by established authorities and, by and large, the universe. With that mindset, anything is achievable…as long as it is worth the inevitable risk.

How is Prometheus Depicted in Art?

More often than not, artworks oftentimes depict Prometheus enduring his punishment on Mount Caucasus. In ancient Greek art, the chained Titan can be seen on vases and mosaics with the eagle – the imposing symbol of Zeus – within sight. He is a bearded man, writhing in his torment.

On that note, there are a handful of notable modern artworks depicting Prometheus at his height. His modern interpretations focus more so on his celebratory theft of fire than his eventual fall from grace, emboldening his character as that of a champion of humanity rather than a pitiful example of the gods.

Prometheus Bound

The 1611 oil painting by Flemish Baroque artist Jacob Jordaens details Prometheus’ gruesome torture after he stole fire in favor of man. The eagle descending onto Prometheus to devour his liver takes up a large portion of the canvas.

Meanwhile, a third visage is looking on with eyes downcast on the Titan: Hermes, the messenger of the gods. This is a reference to the play, Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus, where Hermes visited Prometheus on the behalf of Zeus to threaten him into divulging information regarding Thetis. 

Both figures are notorious tricksters in their own way, with Hermes himself having been threatened with being thrown into Tartarus by his elder brother, Apollo, after he stole and sacrificed the sun god’s prized cattle the day after he was born. 

The Prometheus Fresco at Pomona College

At Pomona College in Claremont, California, prolific Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco painted the fresco titled Prometheus in 1930 during the early years of the Great Depression. Orozco was one of many artists to spearhead the Mexican Mural Renaissance and is viewed as one of three muralist greats – referred to as the Los Tres Grandes, or The Big Three – alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Orozco’s works were largely influenced by the horrors he witnessed during the Mexican Revolution. 

As for the fresco at Pomona College, Orozco cited it as the first of its kind outside of Mexico: it was the first mural done by one of the Los Tres Grandes in the United States. Prometheus is shown stealing fire, surrounded by pale figures that represent mankind. Some of the figures appear to be embracing the flame with arms outstretched while others embrace their loved ones and turn away from the sacrificial fire. In a separate panel on the west-lying wall, Zeus, Hera, and Io (as a cow) gaze upon the theft in terror; to the east, centaurs are being attacked by a giant serpent. 

Although Prometheus has many interpretations, the fresco encapsulates the human drive for acquiring knowledge and expressing creativity in the face of oppressive, destructive forces. 

Bronze Prometheus in Manhattan

Constructed in 1934 by American sculptor Paul Howard Manship, the iconic statue entitled Prometheus resides in the center of the Rockefeller Center in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Behind the statue is a quote from Aeschylus: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”

The bronze Prometheus embodied the building’s theme of “New Frontiers and the March of Civilization,” bringing hope to those struggling from the ongoing Great Depression. 

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