Skip to main content

Prometheus

PROMETHEUS

PROMETHEUS was one of the Titans of the generation of gods prior to the Olympian Zeus. According to the eighth-century bce Greek poet Hesiod, he became the major benefactor of the human race by introducing them to crafts, fire, and sacrifice. The ambiguous position that he occupied during the rule of the Olympians around Zeus is hinted at in his name of "forethinking one" and the presence of a twin brother, Epimetheus, the "one who thinks too late." Together they seem to form one personality, as Károly Kerényi (1956) has pointed out.

Origins of Myth

Prometheus is the major mediator between the world of the gods and that of humankind. If one takes Hesiod as starting point, his original encounter with the Olympian Zeus shows his ambivalence as benefactor and bringer of evil to the human race, evils in the form of limitations to human existence when compared to the eternal lives of the gods. He challenges Zeus to a duel of wits, as Zeus had similarly challenged Kronos, his father, and Kronos still earlier had challenged his own father, Ouranos, for sovereignty. As Jean-Pierre Vernant (1980) shows in a meticulous structural analysis of the existing mythical texts of Hesiod, the contest with Zeus also contains the paradigmatic mythical prototype of sacrificial rites for the Greek city-states. Prometheus divides an ox into two parts, one of which Zeus is to choose; one part hides the bones under an appetizing layer of fat, whereas the other part hides the meat under the unappetizing layer of the animal's stomach. Zeus, despite his all-encompassing foreknowledge (obtained by swallowing the goddess Metis, or Wisdom), fulfils Prometheus's expectations by choosing for himself the heap of bones, implying that humankind is to live on meat from then onwards (having partaken previously in divine nectar or "ambrosia," i.e. that which belongs to the "immortals," ambrotoi).

The outcome of the contest thus establishes paradigmatically the division between divinity and humanity while leaving a ritual channel of communication open through sacrifices. Here the ambiguities of the mythical structure are most pronounced. Both Prometheus and Zeus play a duplicitous game, as Zeus pretends in his choice that he does not see through the wiliness of Prometheus. Since he possesses ultimate foresight, however, his pretense at being angry at the deception through Prometheus becomes an arbitrary legitimization for punishing humankind with the withdrawal of fire, throwing humanity back to the stage of animality. Prometheus must then steal the fire to enable humankind to lead a civilized life, for which cooked food as well as sacrifices are basic preconditions. For this second "trickery" by Prometheus, the Olympians punish humankind with the gift of the first woman, Pandora, as fashioned by Hephaistos and endowed with sexual desirability by Aphrodite. Pandora, in spite of her inviting allure, brings humankind a box filled with all evils but also containing hope. Ultimately, she is the indicator of the lost immortality of humankind in the original state of living with the gods, though it is a state without mind or care, and linked to the acceptance of biological immortality through sexual procreation.

The structural opposition between surface appearance and true meaning or essence, between good that is hidden under evil, and evil that comes from well-intentioned deeds, is paradigmatically depicted in this myth of Prometheus who, like all the Titans, seems to straddle divine and human nature through his mediatory position: his thinking is called ankulomeitas ("crooked of counsel," "wily"); he is the one who "snares himself in his own trickery" (Kerényi, 1963). While trying to challenge Zeus for sovereignty through sacrificial partition, he establishes one of the main features of civilized lifenamely, those sacrifices that while opening a channel of communication to the divine world fix forever the separation of the human and the divine spheres: humans have to eat cooked meat, whereas the gods sustain themselves on the mere vapors of burned bones and fat. While Prometheus wants to benefit humankind by introducing fire, an element indispensable for sacrifices and civilization, he also brings about mortality for humankind, for Pandora is the gods' poisoned countergift to humans for a gift to the godssacrificethat hid its true naturebonesunder an appealing exterior. Since receiving this countergift from the gods, humankind has had to labor in the fields for sustenance, plant seeds in the earth and in womankind, and tend the fire to perform such tasks as smithery, pottery, cooking, and sacrifice (Detienne and Vernant, 1989, pp. 2186).

Prometheus as Trickster

When combining the philological analysis of Kerényi, which stresses the craftiness of the Titanic culture hero, with the structural reading of Detienne and Vernantwho rely on the logic of sacrificial practices as seen through the theoretical combination with the logic of gift-exchanges as proposed by Marcel Mauss (18721950)Prometheus becomes the archetype of the ambivalent and ambiguous trickster-god, who through the themes of theft and deception is structurally equivalent to such figures as Loki in Germanic mythology. In this respect Prometheus is also akin to figures such as Athena, Hermes, and Hephaistos, deities of crafts and craftiness. He removes humankind from the state of innocence as well as from barbarism (the eating of raw meat) by introducing knowledge and crafts, but he brings mortality as well.

While this structuralist reading of the myth follows closely the text of Hesiod and generally seems to fit the sacrificial practices of Greek city-states, it does not solve entirely all interpretative problems of the sacrificial logic in Greek ritual practices. A concentration on Homer instead of the reliance on Hesiod brings about a quite different theoretical conclusion about the message of the story, as Walter Burkert shows in his stressing of those aspects which have to do with the act of killing (1987, p. 3). Besides, the apportioning of bones and meat seems to have been a variable ritual practice in different Greek regions and furthermore dependent upon the purpose of the specific sacrifice (Henrichs, 1997, pp. 4244, on specific local practices, and Bremmer, 1997, pp. 2931, on the scarcity of Greek sources regarding the notion and practices of ritual performances).

The Bringer of Fire

In Athenian perception at least the ritual activities connected with the figure of Prometheus are elusive and scarce. Prometheus seems predominantly to have been honored as the bringer of fire. Thus, a torch procession or run took place at a still-unknown date during the so-called Promethia which proceeded from an altar in the Academy via the Kerameikos to an unknown destination. Literary fragments refer to Prometheus in the main as the protector of pottery and smithing crafts, thus putting him close to Hephaistos and Athena.

In contrast to the scarcity of references to ritual practices, the allegorical allusions to Prometheus as bringer of fire (as important ingredient of major crafts) connect him in most literary sources, from Plato to Publius Ovidius Naso and Apollodor, to the fashioning of the first human figures from earth and water. Yet, from Hesiod to Apollodor the emphasis of the creation of the first couple shows the gods as stringent, withholding knowledge or wisdom ("craftiness") from humanity, allowing them just to exist like other created animals. This pure "animality" of life leaves humankind as deficient, except if they would gain knowledge for developing those crafts which make civilized life possible and to attain the basis of that, foreknowledge or cognitive faculties for strategic planning in the first instance. It is here that the role of Prometheus as bringer of fire becomes as pronounced as the structuralist analysis tries to show. Most ancient philosophical and literary sources refer to the stealing of fire as allegorically connected to the gaining of "a fire within," either as cognitive faculty or as life-inducing force (the soul as animating force). In this respect, the stressing of Prometheus as the bringer of civilizational skills accords well with that generalized structuralist position elaborated by Claude Lévi-Strauss in all major publications that mythsin particular creation mythsproblematize everywhere: the opposition between nature and culture, pure life and civilizational achievements.

Thus the variations on the story as told by Hesiod seem all to point in the direction of a Greek (and later also Roman) perception of the ambiguities arising from the discrepancies between humankind's animality and reliance on means to surpass its deficiencies. These means are the crafty application of culture as extensions of a faculty of the mind, connected with the fire which Prometheus has to steal from the gods. Humans are then seen in the same hybrid condition, sharing traces of both categorizing domains of reality and imagination, the divine and the animal kingdom, much as their benefactor, the Titanic culture hero Prometheus is neither completely divine nor completely human.

Legacy

At least since the Aeschylean tragedy, the image of the rebellious nature of the culture hero as allegory to self-created humanity through their invention of civilizational skills or crafts has permeated European literary consciousness. The figure of Prometheus is punished through being bound to the Kaukasos mountains and tormented by an eagle that eats daily at his liver, yet he is unable to dieafter all, he is immortal. His character becomes a challenger of arbitrary and authoritarian divine rule as well as mediating benefactor of humanity, combined into the image of a culture hero who even in suffering does not renounce his deeds, but riles at the ruling gods and predicts their demise. Besides the use of the difference between planning foresight and rash unthinking action as human traits (Prometheus versus Epimetheus) which pervades the writings from Plato to the neo-Platonists like Marsilio Ficino (14331499), the notions of the rebelliousness combined with the power of self-fashioning (the pottery image of the creation of humankind from clay through Prometheus) appeal in particular to the age of the classics and of Romanticism, from Goethe to Hölderlin and Nietzsche.

Greek vase paintings as well as sculptures are not clear about the position of the Promethean figure: he is often either juxtaposed with Atlas (the Titan holding up the earth at the Western end of the ancient mythical geography) or shown with Herakles, who finally releases him from his sufferings by killing the eagle; Herakles is himself a distant descendant of Io, whose punishment by Hera for her illicit union with Zeus is likened by Aeschylus to the fate of Prometheus, as Io is eternally tormented by a hornet and driven to madness. The notion of Prometheus as indirect bringer of the evil of mortality may make sense of interpretations which identify his figure in the circle of deities of the underworld in the combination of Dionysos and the earth goddess Demeter, as Aeschylus hints at the descent of Prometheus from Gaia-Themis.

See Also

Culture Heroes; Fire; Gods and Goddesses; Hesiod; Tricksters, overview article; Zeus.

Bibliography

Bianchi, Ugo. "Prometheus, der titanische Trickster." Paideuma 78 (1961): 414437. Reprinted in Selected Essays on Gnosticism, Dualism and Mysteriosophy. Leiden, 1978.

Brelich, Angelo. "La corona di Prometheus." In Hommages à Marie Delcourt, pp. 234242. Brussels, 1970.

Bremmer, Jan N. "Religion, Ritual, and the Opposition of Sacred vs. Profane." In Ansichten Griechischer Rituale, edited by Fritz Graf, pp. 932. Stuttgart, 1998.

Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Berkeley, 1983.

Detienne, Marcel, and Jean-Pierre Vernant, eds. The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks. Chicago, 1989. A collection of superb contributions, all from a strongly structuralist perspective, to Greek sacrificial notions through analysis of myths and pictorial representations, with emphasis on the equivalence of sacrificial and culinary practices.

Duchemin, Jacqueline. Prométhée: Histoire du mythe, de ses origins orientales à ses incarnations modernes. Paris, 1974.

Dumézil, Georges. Loki. Paris, 1948. An extension of the Indo-European parallels with concentration on one divinity of the Germanic pantheon. Dumézil stresses the impulsive intelligence of the trickster figure through comparison with Syrdon of the Ossetes and thus indirectly with Prometheus.

Henrichs, Albert. "Dromena and Legomena." In Ansichten griechischer Rituale, edited by Fritz Graf, pp. 3371. Stuttgart, 1998.

Kerényi, Károly. "The Trickster in Relation to Greek Mythology." In The Trickster, by Paul Radin, with commentaries by Károly Kerényi and C. G. Jung, pp. 173191. New York, 1956. Kerényi's most incisive treatment of Prometheus, supported by a comparison to tribal myths from North America. It stresses the trickster-like qualities of the mediator and the crooked thinking of the Titans.

Kerényi, Károly. Prometheus: Archtypal Image of Human Existence. New York, 1963.

Köpping, Klaus-Peter. "Absurdity and Hidden Truth: Cunning Intelligence and Grotesque Body Images as Manifestations of the Trickster." History of Religions 24 (February 1985): 191214. A treatment of Prometheus from a comparative perspective, emphasizing the theme of the trickster as deceived deceiver. Prometheus is shown to be one instance of the ambiguity and ambivalence of the mediator as culture hero, a theme that continues in the European literary tradition, as seen in the dialectic between the wisdom and folly of the picaro, or rogue.

Pisi, Paola. Prometeo nel culto attico. Rome, 1990.

Séchan, Louis. Le mythe de Prométhée. Paris, 1951.

Turcan, Robert. "Note sur les sarcophages au Prométhée." Latomus 27 (1968): 630634.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre. Myth and Society in Ancient Greece. Atlantic Highlands, N. J., 1980. See the chapter titled "The Myth of Prometheus in Hesiod." An exemplary and controversial analysis of Hesiod's account through philological and semantic investigation, leading to a demonstration of the structural logic of the myth, with no hint of the trickster qualities.

Klaus-Peter KÖpping (1987 and 2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Prometheus." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Prometheus." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/prometheus

"Prometheus." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/prometheus

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.