Zeus, son of Cronos, vies for power with the Titans of the preceding generation. Fearing the eclipse and truncation of their own divine power and position, the Titans fight back. All but two, rather; Prometheus, and his mother Themis. Why, one might ask, has such prominence been given to this Prometheus when the myth-cycles of the ancient Aegean are discussed? He’s no Olympian, nor is he a ferocious fighter or even a secondary participant in the belligerence of the Titanomachy.
To begin, one must place Prometheus in the context of the myths. Etymologically his name is ‘Forethought’, a powerful asset the Titan is delineated as utilising on multiple occasions in the myth-cycles. Of equal importance is the prominent role Prometheus plays in the fate and tribulations of mortals – a curious feature, given that such interference and influence is an Olympian habit that one might argue is almost exclusively their realm. So, Prometheus already stands as something of an iconoclast, a rebellious figure who refrains from the epic conflict between his race and the Olympians, and again as a divine agent of action and interaction regarding the mortals of the world beneath.
The importance of Prometheus in the ancient Greek myth-cycles cannot be overstated; like Zeus, Athena, and Ares, the consequences of Prometheus’ intervention in and intercession on behalf of mortals and their affairs carries substantial weight. Dependent, of course, upon the variation of the early creation myths one presumes, Prometheus is either directly responsible for the creation of mankind, or is present at their creation and notes that the Olympians have distributed all of their respective gifts to the animals preceding mortal man. In this circumstance Prometheus grants them the gifts of a civilised mind, encompassing art and literature, science and mathematical cognition, agricultural aptitude – the very tools needed by man to overcome the savage, primal gifts bestowed upon the animal kingdom.
The concept of bestowing ‘gifts’ upon mortals, men in particular, is also an important concept to bear in mind, for Prometheus’ next great boon is stealing fire, to then pass its secrets down to mankind. Some interpretations see this not as literal fire, with which to cook, heat, and chase away the primordial darkness of night (Nyx), but something more profound; in that the ‘fire’ represents the passion for inspiration, for the ceaseless pursuits of life and survival where the race of men may be threatened by potential extinction as other of the ages preceding them (particularly the irreligious iconoclasm of the Silver Age). Prometheus’ granting of gifts to mankind could also be seen to usher forth progress, across these demarcated ‘ages’; wherein each epoch or new generation is granted slightly more wisdom in civilising arts, paradoxically, as both Hesiod and Ovid remind us, tend to propagate man to further acts of dominion and self-sufficiency, ameliorating their sense of honour and gratitude to the divine powers, as well as eroding the bonds of friendship and the immutable laws’ of hospitality set down by Zeus (particularly those regarding safe haven and sanctuary, sharing the fruit of one’s oikos with a stranger, and the negative reception of the xenos in one’s lands).
Such gifts as Prometheus grants are not in isolation. The sacrifice at Mekone, seen to settle the dispute and supposed lovelessness between Zeus and mortals of the Iron Age (Hesiod’s supposed era), could be seen perhaps as Prometheus seeking to forestall the destruction of yet another age/race of man that the Emperor of the Olympians finds distasteful, rebellious, ungrateful; an increasingly self-reliant and capable age of man that approach the Gods not as supplicants seeking to propitiate and receive aid, but as a race beset by hardships that they struggle to overcome in their own capacity, blaming the Gods for the burdens of their mortal tribulation and adversity. Asabeia, if you will; a literal and wilful display of irreverence and contempt towards the Olympians whom mortal man is yet indebted to for the marvels created by the divine Pantheon, including the very animals that sustain man in his hunger.
We know from Homer and the Trojan myth-cycle of the Heroic Age, as elsewhere, the unpleasant consequences of hubris, and the immense affront to the Olympians that man’s pride in his own abilities and competence engenders. Diomedes’ rampage (Iliad V), the daimon upon him and super-powered with Athena’s divine favour, fells many a Trojan, wounds Aphrodite, but oversteps Athena’s mandate when he attacks Apollo. With Athena’s revocation of her condition to only attack Aphrodite, Diomedes’ great raging spirit ensures that even mighty Ares, god of war, flees the battlefield… from a mere mortal. Diomedes’ ultimate fate is less certain, though most traditions conclude that the great hero never made it home, nor saw his beloved wife again. Not as heavy a price as some, but as a favourite of Athena one could assume that divine favour provided commensurate protection against.
With the Goddess in mind, her dear friend Pallas nearly overcame her in practicing the arts of war; enraged, Athena kills Pallas, later taking the name as one of her (many) epithets. So too with the aetiological myth of Arachne, a weaver of such immense talent as to declare herself better than the goddess – Arachne’s fate, once bested by Athena in weaving, is to spin forever, the silken threads of the spider, a transformative damnation. The prevarication Agamenmnon displays upon finally reaching home after the Trojan war, where his adulterous wife Clytemnestra goads him into walking upon Tyrian purple (a gesture of such excessive pride to mar or soil such opulent finery beneath one’s road-dusty feet) nonetheless gives way to the man’s hubris, and ensures the leader of the Achaeans a violent, unpleasant end. Indeed, few of the Achaeans return home inviolate and safe after the sacking of Troy; most encounter and succumb to myriad punitive circumstances at the hands of the Olympians or their agents for the violation and sacking of Troy’s temples and the rape of Cassandra (dragged as a sanctuary-seeking supplicant from a statue of Athena). So too does man’s disrespect toward the Gods or excessive pride in their own cleverness warrant divine retribution – Sisyphus’ perennial toil with the great rock up a hill that would simply roll down again should prove sufficient a lesson to not attempt to deceive the Gods.
Returning to Prometheus and the Iron Age of man, the Titan seeks to resolve the dispute between man and Olympian amicably, in that man will offer sacrifice to the Gods in respect and worship, yet will partake and thus enjoy some of the offering. Zeus, as the God-King of the Olympians, is given the first choice of which part to accept hereafter, Prometheus’ intercession to benefit man being the deceitful arrangement of the portions, dressing the delectable, nourishing meat of the sacrifice in the stomach, whilst covering the inedible bones with the glistening fat – the latter, for appearance’ sake, appearing the easy choice. Zeus accepts this, either deceived by the Titan, or knowingly to engender sufficient grounds for retribution against an age of man he already is displeased with. Thus, Zeus takes away fire from man, leaving man cold and reeling in torment of the darkness.
It is this outcome that serves as the catalyst for Prometheus’ greatest gift, the fire, which he steals from Zeus and returns (or grants) to man; Zeus in his rage binds Prometheus to a mountain, there to have an eagle devour the Titan’s liver each day, only for it to regenerate each night – and thus is Prometheus destined to endure, until a (semi) mortal hero (Herakles) one day frees him. Prometheus is not the only one with gifts to bestow, for man’s woes and harms are multiplied from the supposed ‘boon’ of Pandora (all-gifts), the race of woman who Epimetheus (after-thought) accepts on man’s behalf, despite warnings from our favourite benefactor. Pandora, who carries the jar (pithos, or perhaps an amphora, if one were to take a remarkably pessimistic extrapolation of wine and the ills and excesses alcohol can create), opens it and releases all manner of additional suffering upon man, it is not merely toil and physical hardship from the elements and the Gods, so too must man now contend with disease and sickness (among other innumerable evils). What remains in the jar is hope – synonymous with the very fire that animates man’s conscious rejection of retreat, of relenting in the face of insurmountable obstacles. It is this gift that is Prometheus’ greatest benevolence of all.
My preferred interpretation, such as it is, stands to reason that Prometheus intercedes time and again on man’s behalf to save us, to increase our ability and capacity to care for ourselves, to endure privation and hardship, to strengthen and improve and ultimately, survive. In mankind does Prometheus see the future; for the Titan, fore-thought is his great burden, yet with such an immense talent, he also possesses the sole opportunity to intervene and alter events. While the modern world may yet retain an appreciation for the Olympian pantheon and the mythic traditions of ancient Greek culture, the daily worship of, and obeisance to, such divine powers has all but faded from the world in millennia past. Thus, Prometheus, his race wronged by the heavy-handed wrathful might of Zeus, sees in mortal man a mirror of himself – a rebel, a wilful iconoclast seeking to overcome the oppressive tyranny and the hypocrisy of Zeus’ rule.
In mortal man has Prometheus found his avenger, and though such vengeance takes hundreds of years to truly unfold, Prometheus plants the seeds for an age of man, imperfect and flawed as the Titans, to overcome the divine hegemony of the Olympians, to re-shape the world as they desire, and ultimately, to abandon Zeus and his pantheon as dusty artefacts, legends and myths, never again to receive their apportioned share of the sacrifice.
For further reading, I recommend:
Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days
Homer Iliad & Odyssey
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound
Euripides Oresteia, Elektra, & The Trojan Women
Ken Dowden’s Uses of Greek Mythology
Morford & Lenardon’s Classical Mythology (9th ed.)
J Larson Ancient Greek Cults
Guest post composed for the ‘Catalogue of Heroes’ for fellow Fantasy author, D E Olsen, of the excellent (and free) Eagle’s Flight: First Chronicle of Adalmearc.