Prometheus


In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan, the son of Iapetus and Themis, and brother to Atlas, Epimetheus and Menoetius. He was a champion of human-kind known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. Zeus then punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day.

Prometheus, in eternal punishment, is chained to a rock on Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in the Caucasus, where his liver is eaten out daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated by night, which, by legend, is due to his immortality. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles would shoot the eagle and free Prometheus from his chains.

His myth has been treated by a number of ancient sources, in which Prometheus is credited with – or blamed for – playing a pivotal role in the early history of humankind.

Perhaps the most famous treatment of the myth can be found in the Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound – traditionally attributed to the 5th-century BC Greek tragedian Aeschylus. At the center of the drama are the results of Prometheus’ theft of fire and his current punishment by Zeus; the playwright’s dependence on the Hesiodic source material is clear, though Prometheus Bound also includes a number of changes to the received tradition.

Before his theft of fire, Prometheus played a decisive role in the Titanomachy, securing victory for Zeus and the other Olympians. Zeus’s torture of Prometheus thus becomes a particularly harsh betrayal. The scope and character of Prometheus’ transgressions against Zeus are also widened.

In addition to giving humankind fire, Prometheus claims to have taught them the arts of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. The Titan’s greatest benefaction for humankind seems to have been saving them from complete destruction. In an apparent twist on the myth of the so-called Five Ages of Man found in Hesiod’s Works and Days – wherein Cronus and, later, Zeus created and destroyed five successive races of mortal men – Prometheus asserts that Zeus had wanted to obliterate the human race, but that he somehow stopped him. Moreover, Aeschylus anachronistically and artificially injects Io, another victim of Zeus’ violence and ancestor of Heracles, into Prometheus’ story.

Finally, just as Aeschylus gave Prometheus a key role in bringing Zeus to power, he also attributed to him secret knowledge that could lead to Zeus’ downfall: Prometheus had been told by his mother Gaia of a potential marriage that would produce a son who would overthrow Zeus.

Fragmentary evidence indicates that Heracles, as in Hesiod, frees the Titan in the trilogy’s second play, Prometheus Unbound. It is apparently not until Prometheus reveals this secret of Zeus’ potential downfall that the two reconcile in the final play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer.

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