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For other uses, see Prometheus (disambiguation).
1623 Dirck van Baburen, Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.jpg
Parents Iapetus and Asia or Clymene
Siblings Atlas, Epimetheus, Menoetius, Anchiale
Prometheus depicted in a sculpture by Nicolas-Sébastien Adam, 1762 (Louvre)
In Greek mythology, Prometheus (/pr?'mi?θi?s/; Ancient Greek: Προμηθε?ς, [prom??t?éu?s], possibly meaning "forethought") is a Titan, culture hero, and trickster figure who is credited with the creation of humanity from clay, and who defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity as civilization. Prometheus is known for his intelligence and as a champion of mankind and also seen as the author of the human arts and sciences generally. He is sometimes presented as the father of Deucalion, the hero of the flood story.
The punishment of Prometheus as a consequence of the theft is a major theme of his, and is a popular subject of both ancient and modern culture. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, sentenced the Titan to eternal torment for his transgression. The immortal was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, was sent to eat Prometheus' liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day (in ancient Greece, the liver was often thought to be the seat of human emotions). Prometheus was eventually freed by the hero Heracles.
In another myth, Prometheus establishes the form of animal sacrifice practiced in ancient Greek religion.
Evidence of a cult to Prometheus himself is not widespread. He was a focus of religious activity mainly at Athens, where he was linked to Athena and Hephaestus, other Greek deities of creative skills and technology.
In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy: Mary Shelley, for instance, gave The Modern Prometheus as the subtitle to her novel Frankenstein (1818).
2 Myths and legends
2.1 Possible Sources
2.2 Oldest legends
2.3 Athenian tradition
2.4 Other authors
3 Late Roman antiquity
4 Middle Ages
6.1 Post-Renaissance literary arts
6.2 Post-Renaissance aesthetic tradition
7 See also
The etymology of the theonym prometheus is debated. The classical view is that it signifies "forethought," as that of his brother Epimetheus denotes "afterthought". Hesychius of Alexandria gives Prometheus the variant name of Ithas, and adds "whom others call Ithax", and describes him as the Herald of the Titans. Kerényi remarks that these names are "not transparent", and may be different readings of the same name, while the name "Prometheus" is descriptive.
It has also been theorised that it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root that also produces the Vedic pra math, "to steal", hence pramathyu-s, "thief", cognate with "Prometheus", the thief of fire. The Vedic myth of fire's theft by Matarisvan is an analogue to the Greek account. Pramantha was the fire-drill, the tool used to create fire. The suggestion that Prometheus was in origin the human "inventor of the fire-sticks, from which fire is kindled" goes back to Diodorus Siculus in the first century BC. The reference is again to the "fire-drill", a worldwide primitive method of fire making using a vertical and a horizontal piece of wood to produce fire by friction.
Myths and legends
The Torture of Prometheus, painting by Salvator Rosa (1646-1648).
The oldest record of Prometheus is in Hesiod, but stories of theft of fire by a trickster figure are widespread around the world. Some other aspects of the story resemble the Sumerian myth of Enki (or Ea in later Babylonian mythology), who was also a bringer of civilisation who protected humanity against the other gods. That Prometheus descends from the Vedic fire bringer Matarisvan was suggested in the 19th century, lost favour in the 20th century, but is still supported by some.[failed verification]
Hesiod's Theogony and Works of the Days
The first recorded account of the Prometheus myth appeared in the late 8th-century BC Greek epic poet Hesiod's Theogony (507–616). He was a son of the Titan Iapetus by Clymene, one of the Oceanids. He was brother to Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. Hesiod, in Theogony, introduces Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus's omniscience and omnipotence.
In the trick at Mecone (535–544), a sacrificial meal marking the "settling of accounts" between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus. He placed two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of beef hidden inside an ox's stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the bull's bones wrapped completely in "glistening fat" (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices (556–557). Henceforth, humans would keep that meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angered Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution. In this version of the myth, the use of fire was already known to humans, but withdrawn by Zeus.
Prometheus stole fire back from Zeus in a giant fennel-stalk and restored it to humanity (565–566). This further enraged Zeus, who sent the first woman to live with humanity (Pandora, not explicitly mentioned). The woman, a "shy maiden", was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and Athena helped to adorn her properly (571–574). 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 great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth" (590–594). For his crimes, Prometheus is punished by Zeus who bound him with chains, and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus' immortal liver every day, which then grew back every night. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, with Zeus' permission, killed the eagle and freed Prometheus from this torment (521–529).
Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger. Prometheus brings fire to mankind as told by Hesiod, with its having been hidden as revenge for the trick at Mecone.
Works and Days
Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus and the theft of fire in Works and Days (42–105). In it the poet expands upon Zeus's reaction to Prometheus' deception. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from humanity, but "the means of life" as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus's wrath, "you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste" (44–47).
Hesiod also adds more information to Theogony's story of the first woman, a maiden crafted from earth and water by Hephaestus now explicitly called Pandora ("all gifts") (82). Zeus in this case gets the help of Athena, Aphrodite, Hermes, the Graces and the Hours (59–76). After Prometheus steals the fire, Zeus sends Pandora in retaliation. Despite Prometheus' warning, Epimetheus accepts this "gift" from the gods (89). Pandora carried a jar with her from which were released mischief and sorrow, plague and diseases (94–100). Pandora shuts the lid of the jar too late to contain all the evil plights that escaped, but Hope is left trapped in the jar because Zeus forces Pandora to seal it up before Hope can escape (96–99).
Angelo Casanova, professor of Greek literature at the University of Florence, finds in Prometheus a reflection of an ancient, pre-Hesiodic trickster-figure, who served to account for the mixture of good and bad in human life, and whose fashioning of humanity from clay was an Eastern motif familiar in Enuma Elish. As an opponent of Zeus he was an analogue of the Titans and, like them, was punished. As an advocate for humanity he gains semi-divine status at Athens, where the episode in Theogony in which he is liberated is interpreted by Casanova as a post-Hesiodic interpolation.
According to the German classicist Karl-Martin Dietz, in Hesiod's scriptures, Prometheus represents the "descent of mankind from the communion with the gods into the present troublesome life".
The Lost Titanomachy
The Titanomachy is a lost epic of the cosmological struggle between the Greek gods and their parents, the Titans, and is a probable source of the Prometheus myth. along with the works of Hesiod. Its reputed author was anciently supposed to have lived in the 8th century BC, but M. L. West has argued that it can't be earlier than the late 7th century BC. Presumably included in the Titanomachy is the story of Prometheus, himself a Titan, who managed to avoid being in the direct confrontational cosmic battle between Zeus and the other Olympians against Cronus and the other Titans (although there is no direct evidence of Prometheus' inclusion in the epic). M. L. West notes that surviving references suggest that there may have been significant differences between the Titanomachy epic and the account of events in Hesiod; and that the Titanomachy may be the source of later variants of the Prometheus myth not found in Hesiod, notably the non-Hesiodic material found in the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus.
The two major authors to have an influence on the development of the myths and legends surrounding the Titan Prometheus during the Socratic era of greater Athens were Aeschylus and Plato. The two men wrote in highly distinctive forms of expression which for Aeschylus centered on his mastery of the literary form of Greek tragedy, while for Plato this centered on the philosophical expression of his thought in the form of the various dialogues he wrote or recorded during his lifetime.
Aeschylus and the ancient literary tradition
Prometheus Bound, perhaps the most famous treatment of the myth to be found among the Greek tragedies, is traditionally attributed to the 5th-century BC Greek tragedian Aeschylus. At the centre 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. It has been suggested by M.L. West that these changes may derive from the now lost epic Titanomachy
Before his theft of fire, Prometheus played a decisive role in the Titanomachy, securing victory for Zeus and the other Olympians. Zeus' 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 humanity fire, Prometheus claims to have taught them the arts of civilisation, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. The Titan's greatest benefaction for humanity 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 humanity), Prometheus asserts that Zeus had wanted to obliterate the human race, but that he somehow stopped him.
Heracles freeing Prometheus from his torment by the eagle (Attic black-figure cup, c. 500 BC)
Moreover, Aeschylus anachronistically and artificially injects Io, another victim of Zeus's 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's downfall: Prometheus had been told by his mother Themis, who in the play is identified with Gaia (Earth), 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's potential downfall that the two reconcile in the final play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer or Prometheus Pyrphoros, a lost tragedy by Aeschylus.
Prometheus Bound also includes two mythic innovations of omission. The first is the absence of Pandora's story in connection with Prometheus' own. Instead, Aeschylus includes this one oblique allusion to Pandora and her jar that contained Hope (252): "[Prometheus] caused blind hopes to live in the hearts of men." Second, Aeschylus makes no mention of the sacrifice-trick played against Zeus in the Theogony. The four tragedies of Prometheus attributed to Aeschylus, most of which are lost to the passages of time into antiquity, are Prometheus Bound (Prometheus Desmotes), Prometheus Unbound (Lyomenos), Prometheus the Fire Bringer (Pyrphoros), and Prometheus the Fire Kindler (Pyrkaeus).
The larger scope of Aeschylus as a dramatist revisiting the myth of Prometheus in the age of Athenian prominence has been discussed by William Lynch. Lynch's general thesis concerns the rise of humanist and secular tendencies in Athenian culture and society which required the growth and expansion of the mythological and religious tradition as acquired from the most ancient sources of the myth stemming from Hesiod. For Lynch, modern scholarship is hampered by not having the full trilogy of Prometheus by Aeschylus, the last two parts of which have been lost to antiquity. Significantly, Lynch further comments that although the Prometheus trilogy is not available, that the Orestia trilogy by Aeschylus remains available and may be assumed to provide significant insight into the overall structural intentions which may be ascribed to the Prometheus trilogy by Aeschylus as an author of significant consistency and exemplary dramatic erudition.
Harold Bloom, in his research guide for Aeschylus, has summarised some of the critical attention that has been applied to Aeschylus concerning his general philosophical import in Athens. As Bloom states, "Much critical attention has been paid to the question of theodicy in Aeschylus. For generations, scholars warred incessantly over 'the justice of Zeus,' unintentionally blurring it with a monotheism imported from Judeo-Christian thought. The playwright undoubtedly had religious concerns; for instance, Jacqueline de Romilly suggests that his treatment of time flows directly out of his belief in divine justice. But it would be an error to think of Aeschylus as sermonising. His Zeus does not arrive at decisions which he then enacts in the mortal world; rather, human events are themselves an enactment of divine will."
According to Thomas Rosenmeyer, regarding the religious import of Aeschylus, "In Aeschylus, as in Homer, the two levels of causation, the supernatural and the human, are co-existent and simultaneous, two ways of describing the same event." Rosenmeyer insists that ascribing portrayed characters in Aeschylus should not conclude them to be either victims or agents of theological or religious activity too quickly. As Rosenmeyer states: "[T]he text defines their being. For a critic to construct an Aeschylean theology would be as quixotic as designing a typology of Aeschylean man. The needs of the drama prevail."
In a rare comparison of Prometheus in Aeschylus with Oedipus in Sophocles, Harold Bloom states that "Freud called Oedipus an 'immoral play,' since the gods ordained incest and parricide. Oedipus therefore participates in our universal unconscious sense of guilt, but on this reading so do the gods" [...] "I sometimes wish that Freud had turned to Aeschylus instead, and given us the Prometheus complex rather than the Oedipus complex."
Karl-Martin Dietz states that in contrast to Hesiod's, in Aeschylus' oeuvre, Prometheus stands for the "Ascent of humanity from primitive beginnings to the present level of civilisation."
Plato and philosophy
Olga Raggio, in her study "The Myth of Prometheus", attributes Plato in the Protagoras as an important contributor to the early development of the Prometheus myth. Raggio indicates that many of the more challenging and dramatic assertions which Aeschylean tragedy explores are absent from Plato's writings about Prometheus.
As summarised by Raggio,
After the gods have moulded men and other living creatures with a mixture of clay and fire, the two brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus are called to complete the task and distribute among the newly born creatures all sorts of natural qualities. Epimetheus sets to work but, being unwise, distributes all the gifts of nature among the animals, leaving men naked and unprotected, unable to defend themselves and to survive in a hostile world. Prometheus then steals the fire of creative power from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos and gives it to mankind.
Raggio then goes on to point out Plato's distinction of creative power (techne), which is presented as superior to merely natural instincts (physis).
For Plato, only the virtues of "reverence and justice can provide for the maintenance of a civilised society – and these virtues are the highest gift finally bestowed on men in equal measure." The ancients by way of Plato believed that the name Prometheus derived from the Greek prefix pro- (before) + manthano (intelligence) and the agent suffix -eus, thus meaning "Forethinker".
In his dialogue titled Protagoras, Plato contrasts Prometheus with his dull-witted brother Epimetheus, "Afterthinker". In Plato's dialogue Protagoras, Protagoras asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilising arts.
Athenian religious dedication and observance
It is understandable that since Prometheus was considered a Titan and not one of the Olympian gods that there would be an absence of evidence, with the exception of Athens, for the direct religious devotion to his worship. Despite his importance to the myths and imaginative literature of ancient Greece, the religious cult of Prometheus during the Archaic and Classical periods seems to have been limited. Writing in the 2nd century AD, the satirist Lucian points out that while temples to the major Olympians were everywhere, none to Prometheus is to be seen.
Heracles freeing Prometheus, relief from the Temple of Aphrodite at Aphrodisias
Athens was the exception, here Prometheus was worshipped alongside Athene and Hephaistos. The altar of Prometheus in the grove of the Academy was the point of origin for several significant processions and other events regularly observed on the Athenian calendar. For the Panathenaic festival, arguably the most important civic festival at Athens, a torch race began at the altar, which was located outside the sacred boundary of the city, and passed through the Kerameikos, the district inhabited by potters and other artisans who regarded Prometheus and Hephaestus as patrons. The race then travelled to the heart of the city, where it kindled the sacrificial fire on the altar of Athena on the Acropolis to conclude the festival. These footraces took the form of relays in which teams of runners passed off a flaming torch. According to Pausanias (2nd century AD), the torch relay, called lampadedromia or lampadephoria, was first instituted at Athens in honour of Prometheus.
By the Classical period, the races were run by ephebes also in honour of Hephaestus and Athena. Prometheus' association with fire is the key to his religious significance and to the alignment with Athena and Hephaestus that was specific to Athens and its "unique degree of cultic emphasis" on honouring technology. The festival of Prometheus was the Prometheia. The wreaths worn symbolised the chains of Prometheus. There is a pattern of resemblances between Hephaistos and Prometheus. Although the classical tradition is that Hephaistos split Zeus's head to allow Athene's birth, that story has also been told of Prometheus. A variant tradition makes Prometheus the son of Hera like Hephaistos. Ancient artists depict Prometheus wearing the pointed cap of an artist or artisan, like Hephaistos, and also the crafty hero Odysseus. The artisan's cap was also depicted as worn by the Cabeiri, supernatural craftsmen associated with a mystery cult known in Athens in classical times, and who were associated with both Hephaistos and Prometheus. Kerényi suggests that Hephaistos may in fact be the "successor" of Prometheus, despite Hephaistos being himself of archaic origin.
Pausanias recorded a few other religious sites in Greece devoted to Prometheus. Both Argos and Opous claimed to be Prometheus' final resting place, each erecting a tomb in his honour. The Greek city of Panopeus had a cult statue that was supposed to honour Prometheus for having created the human race there.
Aesthetic tradition in Athenian art
Prometheus' torment by the eagle and his rescue by Heracles were popular subjects in vase paintings of the 6th to 4th centuries BC. He also sometimes appears in depictions of Athena's birth from Zeus' forehead. There was a relief sculpture of Prometheus with Pandora on the base of Athena's cult statue in the Athenian Parthenon of the 5th century BC. A similar rendering is also found at the great altar of Zeus at Pergamon from the second century BC.
The event of the release of Prometheus from captivity was frequently revisited on Attic and Etruscan vases between the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In the depiction on display at the Museum of Karlsruhe and in Berlin, the depiction is that of Prometheus confronted by a menacing large bird (assumed to be the eagle) with Hercules approaching from behind shooting his arrows at it. In the fourth century this imagery was modified to depicting Prometheus bound in a cruciform manner, possibly reflecting an Aeschylus-inspired manner of influence, again with an eagle and with Hercules approaching from the side.
Creation of humanity by Prometheus as Athena looks on (Roman-era relief, 3rd century AD)
Prometheus watches Athena endow his creation with reason (painting by Christian Griepenkerl, 1877)
Some two dozen other Greek and Roman authors retold and further embellished the Prometheus myth from as early as the 5th century BC (Diodorus, Herodorus) into the 4th century AD. The most significant detail added to the myth found in, e.g., Sappho, Aesop and Ovid was the central role of Prometheus in the creation of the human race. According to these sources, Prometheus fashioned humans out of clay.
Although perhaps made explicit in the Prometheia, later authors such as Hyginus, the Bibliotheca, and Quintus of Smyrna would confirm that Prometheus warned Zeus not to marry the sea nymph Thetis. She is consequently married off to the mortal Peleus, and bears him a son greater than the father – Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Pseudo-Apollodorus moreover clarifies a cryptic statement (1026–29) made by Hermes in Prometheus Bound, identifying the centaur Chiron as the one who would take on Prometheus' suffering and die in his place. Reflecting a myth attested in Greek vase paintings from the Classical period, Pseudo-Apollodorus places the Titan (armed with an axe) at the birth of Athena, thus explaining how the goddess sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus.
Other minor details attached to the myth include: the duration of Prometheus' torment; the origin of the eagle that ate the Titan's liver (found in Pseudo-Apollodorus and Hyginus); Pandora's marriage to Epimetheus (found in Pseudo-Apollodorus); myths surrounding the life of Prometheus' son, Deucalion (found in Ovid and Apollonius of Rhodes); and Prometheus' marginal role in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (found in Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus).
"Variants of legends containing the Prometheus motif are widespread in the Caucasus" region, reports Hunt, who gave ten stories related to Prometheus from ethno-linguistic groups in the region.
Zahhak, an evil figure in Iranian mythology, also ends up eternally chained on a mountainside – though the rest of his career is dissimilar to that of Prometheus.
Late Roman antiquity
The three most prominent aspects of the Prometheus myth have parallels within the beliefs of many cultures throughout the world (see creation of man from clay, theft of fire, and references for eternal punishment). It is the first of these three which has drawn attention to parallels with the biblical creation account related in the religious symbolism expressed in the book of Genesis.
As stated by Olga Raggio, "The Prometheus myth of creation as a visual symbol of the Neoplatonic concept of human nature, illustrated in (many) sarcophagi, was evidently a contradiction of the Christian teaching of the unique and simultaneous act of creation by the Trinity." This Neoplatonism of late Roman antiquity was especially stressed by Tertullian who recognised both difference and similarity of the biblical deity with the mythological figure of Prometheus.
The imagery of Prometheus and the creation of man used for the purposes of the representation of the creation of Adam in biblical symbolism is also a recurrent theme in the artistic expression of late Roman antiquity. Of the relatively rare expressions found of the creation of Adam in those centuries of late Roman antiquity, one can single out the so-called "Dogma sarcophagus" of the Lateran Museum where three figures are seen (in representation of the theological trinity) in making a benediction to the new man. Another example is found where the prototype of Prometheus is also recognisable in the early Christian era of late Roman antiquity. This can be found upon a sarcophagus of the Church at Mas d'Aire as well, and in an even more direct comparison to what Raggio refers to as "a coursely carved relief from Campli (Teramo) (where) the Lord sits on a throne and models the body of Adam, exactly like Prometheus." Still another such similarity is found in the example found on a Hellenistic relief presently in the Louvre in which the Lord gives life to Eve through the imposition of his two fingers on her eyes recalling the same gesture found in earlier representations of Prometheus. .......
Nightmares, Ravages Of A Prometheus, Free And Unchained
What of life, mortality and blessings of virgin ground
Philosophy, religion and *Prometheus unbound
Of Mother Nature, illuminations and transcendence
Science, and vanity of weakened mortal dependence
Light keeping darkness, destruction, life has now earth so stained
From horrors of gifting new god, Prometheus unchained?
Should we, of flesh and bones, such magnificent heights aspire
As did Prometheus, myth tells stole Olympus's fires
Titan of old, that sought to make mortals into dark Gods
Giving humans that which evil gifts with sly winks and nods
Temptation, powers and greed sent to we of mortal flesh
To further ensnare and our weaken souls deeply enmesh!
What of Light, warmth and beauty of a glowing sunny day
That heart endearing enchantment of morn's first call to pray
Was there not enough to satisfy man's lustful desires
Without need for that of creation gifted by fires
Or dark truth, perhaps Prometheus did correctly see
Search to expand into evil, mortals lusts to be free!
Are we so weak that evil, its darkness always remains
Unbreakable bindings, of ours and Prometheus's chains
Or can we ever through enlightenment, seeking hearts find
That merciful key, that both hope and divine light reminds
Will award salvation and blessings that every soul needs
Vanquishing inherent savagery from our altered seeds?
What of arrogance that humanity has now embraced
That audacity of our thought, science has God replaced
Or Prometheus was hero- savior of all mankind
When instead flame given us was to our mortal souls bind
Into abyss of growing pride and shallow vanity
A curse upon earth and in turn, all of humanity!
Was Prometheus's gift a curse, poisonous Trojan horse
A black scourge, that sets man on a most calamitous course
Into gaping jaws of turmoil, blight of horrendous might
Race into dark and darker, black echoes of a lost night
Or shall we wake to this truth of truths to joyously find
Only divine light, God's love and light will heal eyes so blind!
Robert J. Lindley, from fragment- Oct12th, 1978
renewed,edited,expanded and finished, May17th,2020
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