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Prometheus (in Greek mythology)

Prometheus (prōmē´thēəs), in Greek mythology, great benefactor of mankind. He was the son of the Titan Iapetus and of Clymene or Themis. Because he foresaw the defeat of the Titans by the Olympians he sided with Zeus and thus was spared the punishment of the other Titans. According to one legend Prometheus created mankind out of clay and water. When Zeus mistreated man, Prometheus stole fire from the gods, gave it to man, and taught him many useful arts and sciences. In another legend he saved the human race from extinction by warning his son, Deucalion, of a great flood. This sympathy with mankind roused the anger of Zeus, who then plagued man with Pandora and her box of evils and chained Prometheus to a mountain peak in the Caucasus. In some myths he was released by Hercules; in others Zeus restored his freedom when Prometheus revealed the danger of Zeus' marrying Thetis, fated to bear a son who would be more powerful than his father. Prometheus is the subject of many literary works, of which the most famous are Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

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Prometheus (in astronomy)

Prometheus (prōmē´thēəs), in astronomy, one of the named moons, or natural satellites, of Saturn. Also known as Saturn XVI (or S16), Prometheus is an irregularly shaped (nonspherical) body measuring about 90 mi (145 km) by 53 mi (85 km) by 38 mi (62 km); it orbits Saturn at a mean distance of 86,588 mi (139,350 km) and has an orbital period of 0.613 earth days—the rotational period is unknown but is assumed to be the same as the orbital period. It was discovered by a team led by S. Collins in 1980 from an examination of photographs taken by Voyager 1 during its flyby of Saturn. Prometheus has several craters about 12.5 mi (20 km) in diameter and a number of linear ridges and valleys but appears to be less cratered than the neighboring moons Epimetheus, Janus, and Pandora. It is the inner shepherd satellite (a moon that limits the extent of a planetary ring through gravitational forces) of Saturn's F ring.

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Prometheus

Prometheus

Prometheus, one of the Titans in Greek mythology, was the god of fire. A master craftsman considered the wisest of his race, he was credited with the creation of humans and with giving them fire and various types of skills and knowledge. His name means "forethought."

Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and of either the sea nymph Clymene or the goddess Themis. Atlas* and Epimetheus ("afterthought") were his brothers; Hesione, daughter of the Titan Oceanus, was his wife.

Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus

nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful

When Zeus* and the other Olympian gods rebelled against the Titans, Prometheus sided with the gods and thus won their favor. He held Zeus's aching head so that Hephaestus (Vulcan)* could split it open and release the goddess Athena*. To show her gratitude, Athena taught Prometheus astronomy, mathematics, architecture, navigation, metalworking, writing, and other useful skills. He later passed this knowledge on to humans.

Champion of Humankind. Prometheus created humans by shaping lumps of clay into small figures resembling the gods. Athena admired these figures and breathed on them, giving them life. Zeus disliked the creatures, but he could not uncreate them. He did, however, confine them to the earth and denied them immortality. Prometheus felt sorry for humans, so he gave them fire and taught them various arts and skills.

Prometheus was given the task of determining how sacrifices were to be made to the gods. He cut up a bull and divided it into two portions. One contained the animal's flesh and skin, but they were concealed beneath the bull's stomach, the least appetizing part of the animal. The other consisted of the bones, wrapped in a rich layer of fat. Prometheus then asked Zeus to choose a portion for himself, leaving the other for humans. Fooled by the outward appearance of the portions, Zeus chose the one containing the bones and fat. Prometheus thus ensured that humans got the best meat.

Angered by this trick, Zeus punished humans by withholding fire from them so that they would have to live in cold and darkness and eat meat raw. Prometheus promptly went to Olympus*, stole a spark of fire from Hephaestus, and carried it back to humans. When Zeus discovered what Prometheus had done, he swore revenge. He ordered Hephaestus to create a woman from clay, and he had the winds breathe life into her. Athena and other goddesses clothed the woman, whose name was Pandora.

immortality ability to live forever

Zeus sent Pandora as a gift to Prometheus's brother Epimetheus, who married her despite warnings from Prometheus not to accept any gift from Zeus. Pandora brought with her a box containing evil, disease, poverty, war, and other troubles. When Pandora opened the box, she released these sorrows into the world, and Zeus thus gained his revenge on humankind.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

Prometheus's Punishment. To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained the god to a rock on a mountain peak. Every day an eagle tore at Prometheus's body and ate his liver, and every night the liver grew back. Because Prometheus was immortal, he could not die. But he suffered endlessly.

Prometheus remained chained and in agony for thousands of years. The other gods begged Zeus to show mercy, but he refused. Finally, Zeus offered Prometheus freedom if he would reveal a secret that only he knew. Prometheus told Zeus that the sea nymph Thetis would bear a son who would become greater than his father. This was important information. Both Zeus and his brother Poseidon* desired Thetis, but they arranged for her to marry a mortal so that her son would not pose a challenge to their power.

Zeus sent Hercules to shoot the eagle that tormented Prometheus and to break the chains that bound him. After his years of suffering, Prometheus was free. To reward Hercules for his help, Prometheus advised him how to obtain the golden Apples of Hesperides, one of the 12 labors the famous hero had to accomplish.


immortal able to live forever

Legacy. The story of Prometheus's suffering and ultimate release from his torment has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Among the most important early works dealing with the myth were a series of plays written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus. Only one of these works, Prometheus Bound, survives. The Roman poet Ovid incorporated parts of the story in his work the Metamorphoses. Prometheus has also been the subject of more modern works of art, music, and literature by such individuals as the composer Beethoven and the poets Byron, Shelley, and Longfellow.

See also Atlas; Greek Mythology; Hercules; Pandora; Titans; Vulcan; Zeus.

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Prometheus

Prometheus a demigod, one of the Titans, who was worshipped by craftsmen; he is said in one legend to have made humankind out of clay. When Zeus hid fire away from man Prometheus stole it by trickery and returned it to earth. As punishment Zeus chained him to a rock where an eagle fed each day on his liver, which (since he was immortal) grew again each night; he was eventually rescued by Hercules.

In extended usage, Promethean fire is inspiration.

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Prometheus

Prometheus.
1. Symphonic-poem by Liszt. Orig. comp. (and orch. by Raff) 1850 as prelude to a setting of chs. from Herder's Prometheus Unbound. Re-scored by Liszt 1855.

2. Scenic oratorio in 5 scenes by Wagner-Régeny to lib. by composer after Aeschylus. Comp. and f.p. 1959 (Cassel).

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Prometheus

Prometheus In Greek mythology, the fire-giver. He created the human race, provided them with reason and stole fire from the gods. For this theft, Zeus had him chained to a rock where an eagle consumed his liver for eternity. In some myths, he was rescued by Heracles.

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Prometheus

Prometheus (Saturn XVI) One of the lesser satellites of Saturn, discovered in 1980 by Voyager 1, with a radius measuring 74 × 50 × 34 km; mass 0.0014 × 1020 kg; mean density 270 kg/m3; visual albedo 0.6.

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Prometheus

PrometheusBierce, fierce, Pearce, Peirce, pierce, tierce •Fabius, scabious •Eusebius •amphibious, Polybius •dubious • Thaddeus • compendious •radius • tedious •fastidious, hideous, insidious, invidious, perfidious •Claudiuscommodious, melodious, odious •studious • Cepheus •Morpheus, Orpheus •Pelagius • callipygous • Vitellius •alias, Sibelius, Vesalius •Aurelius, Berzelius, contumelious, Cornelius, Delius •bilious, punctilious, supercilious •coleus • Julius • nucleus • Equuleus •abstemious •Ennius, Nenniuscontemporaneous, cutaneous, extemporaneous, extraneous, instantaneous, miscellaneous, Pausanias, porcellaneous, simultaneous, spontaneous, subcutaneous •genius, heterogeneous, homogeneous, ingenious •consanguineous, ignominious, Phineas, sanguineous •igneous, ligneous •Vilnius •acrimonious, antimonious, ceremonious, erroneous, euphonious, felonious, harmonious, parsimonious, Petronius, sanctimonious, Suetonius •Apollonius • impecunious •calumnious • Asclepius • impious •Scorpius •copious, Gropius, Procopius •Marius • pancreas • retiarius •Aquarius, calcareous, Darius, denarius, gregarious, hilarious, multifarious, nefarious, omnifarious, precarious, Sagittarius, senarius, Stradivarius, temerarious, various, vicarious •Atreus •delirious, Sirius •vitreous •censorious, glorious, laborious, meritorious, notorious, uproarious, uxorious, vainglorious, victorious •opprobrious •lugubrious, salubrious •illustrious, industrious •cinereous, deleterious, imperious, mysterious, Nereus, serious, Tiberiuscurious, furious, injurious, luxurious, penurious, perjurious, spurious, sulphureous (US sulfureous), usurious •Cassius, gaseous •Alcaeus • Celsius •Theseus, Tiresias •osseous, Roscius •nauseous •caduceus, Lucius •Perseus • Statius • Propertius •Deo gratias • plenteous • piteous •bounteous •Grotius, Photius, Proteus •beauteous, duteous •courteous, sestertius •Boethius, Prometheus •envious • Octavius •devious, previous •lascivious, niveous, oblivious •obvious •Vesuvius, Vitruviusimpervious, pervious •aqueous • subaqueous • obsequious •Dionysius

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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)

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Prometheus

Prometheus

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

pruh-MEE-thee-uhs

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hesiod's Theogony

Lineage

Son of lapetus and Clymene

Character Overview

Prometheus, one of the Titans in Greek mythology , was a master craftsman and was considered the wisest of his race. He was credited with the creation of humans and with giving them fire and various types of skills and knowledge. His name means “forethought.”

Prometheus was the son of the Titan lapetus (pronounced eye-AP-uh-tus) and the sea nymph Clymene (pronounced KLEM-eh-nee). Atlas (pronounced AT-luhs) and Epimetheus (pronounced ep-uh-MEE-thee-uhs, meaning “afterthought”) were his brothers and Hesione (pronounced hee-SYE-oh-nee), daughter of the Titan Oceanus (pronounced oh-SEE-uh-nuhs), was his wife.

When Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the king of the gods, and the other Olympian gods rebelled against the Titans, Prometheus sided with the gods and thus won their favor. He held Zeus's aching head so that Hephaestus (pronounced hi-FES-tuhs), the god of fire and metalworking, could split it open and release the goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh). To show her gratitude, Athena taught Prometheus astronomy, mathematics, architecture, navigation, metalworking, writing, and other useful skills. He later passed this knowledge on to humans.

Friend to Humans Prometheus created humans by shaping lumps of clay into small figures resembling the gods. Athena admired these figures and breathed on them, giving them life. Zeus disliked the creatures, but he could not uncreate them. He did, however, confine them to the earth and denied them immortality, or the ability to live forever. Prometheus felt sorry for humans, so he gave them fire and taught them various arts and skills.

Prometheus was given the task of determining how sacrifices were to be made to the gods. He cut up a bull and divided it into two portions. One portion contained the animal's flesh and skin, but they were concealed beneath the bull's stomach, the least appetizing part of the animal. The other portion consisted of the bones, wrapped in a rich layer of fat. Prometheus then asked Zeus to choose a portion for himself, leaving the other for humans. Fooled by the outward appearance of the portions, Zeus chose the one containing the bones and fat. Prometheus thus ensured that humans got the best meat.

Angered by this trick, Zeus punished humans by withholding fire from them so they would have to live in cold and darkness and eat meat raw. Prometheus promptly went to Olympus (pronounced oh-LIM-puhs), stole a spark of fire from Hephaestus, and carried it back to humans. When Zeus discovered what Prometheus had done, he swore revenge. He ordered Hephaestus to create a woman from clay, and he had the winds breathe life into her. Athena and other goddesses clothed the woman, whose name was Pandora (pronounced pan-DOR-uh).

Zeus sent Pandora as a gift to Prometheus's brother Epimetheus, who married her despite warnings from Prometheus not to accept any gift from Zeus. Pandora brought with her a box containing evil, disease, poverty, war, and other troubles. When Pandora opened the box, she released these sorrows into the world, and Zeus thus gained his revenge on humankind.

Prometheus's Punishment To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained the god to a rock on a mountain peak. Every day an eagle tore at Prometheus's body and ate his liver, and every night the liver grew back. Because Prometheus was immortal, he could not die. Instead he suffered endlessly.

Prometheus remained chained and in agony for thousands of years. The other gods begged Zeus to show mercy, but he refused. Finally, Zeus offered Prometheus freedom if he would reveal a secret that only he knew. Prometheus told Zeus that the sea nymph Thetis (pronounced THEE-tis) would bear a son who would become greater than his father. This was important information. Both Zeus and his brother Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun) desired Thetis, but they arranged for her to marry a mortal so that her son would not pose a challenge to their power.

Zeus sent Heracles (pronounced HAIR-uh-kleez) to shoot the eagle that tormented Prometheus and to break the chains that bound him. After his years of suffering, Prometheus was free. To reward Heracles for his help, Prometheus advised him how to obtain the golden apples of the Hesperides (pronounced hee-SPER-uh-deez), one of the twelve labors the famous hero had to accomplish.

Prometheus in Context

The myth of Prometheus reflects an interesting change over the centuries regarding the ancient Greek gods and how followers viewed them. In the earliest versions of the myth, recorded by Hesiod in the seventh or eighth century bce, Prometheus was portrayed as a betrayer of the gods who was rightfully punished for his wickedness. Prometheus and his trickery, it is suggested, was the reason that humans suffered in their labors instead of being able to perform their work quickly and easily. In later versions of the myth, recorded two hundred years or more after Hesiod's text, Prometheus was depicted as a hero who defied the gods in order to help humanity. This reflected a growing view among the ancient Greeks that the gods were not infallible and all-powerful, but instead displayed many of the same faults as humans.

Key Themes and Symbols

An important theme in the myth of Prometheus is the idea of humans and gods as adversaries, or opposing groups. In the myth, Prometheus creates humans in the image of the gods. Zeus, however, does not think that people deserve to keep the best meats for themselves and becomes angry when he discovers that Prometheus has tricked him. He punishes people by keeping fire away from them so they cannot cook their meat. Ultimately, even though humans receive the power of fire, disease and other awful things are released into the world by the gods as revenge. In the myth, fire symbolizes knowledge; Prometheus represents the teacher of humankind and provider of useful information and skills.

Prometheus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The story of Prometheus's suffering and ultimate release from his torment has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Among the most important early works dealing with the myth was a series of plays written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus (pronounced ES-kuh-luhs). Only one of these works, Prometheus Bound, survives. The Roman poet Ovid incorporated parts of the story in his work the Metamorphoses. Prometheus has also been the subject of more modern works of art, music, and literature by such individuals as the composer Ludwig van Beethoven and the poets Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The myth also loosely inspired Mary Shelley to write the novel Frankenstein, the subtitle of which was The Modern Prometheus.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

A popular modern interpretation of the myth of Prometheus is that there are some things humans are not meant to know about. This dangerous knowledge is symbolized by fire, but could represent anything—nuclear fission, cloning, tissue regeneration, or artificial intelligence, to name a few. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research a current debate about one of these issues and make a list of the pros and cons involved in the quest for new knowledge. Then write a brief essay on what you think about the issue.

SEE ALSO Atlas; Greek Mythology; Hephaestus; Heracles; Pandora; Titans; Zeus

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Prometheus

PROMETHEUS

In ancient Greek mythology the hero Prometheus (meaning forethought) rose up to the heavens to light a torch from the Sun's fire, then brought it back to Earth for humankind. This fire, stolen from the sun god Helios, transformed humankind into something superior to other living beings. As retribution, Zeus sentenced Prometheus to be chained to a rock while an eagle forever gnawed at his liver; Hercules killed the eagle and freed him. Zeus's divine justice included a ruse for Prometheus's brother Epimetheus (meaning afterthought). He received the gift of an all-good, incomparably beautiful wife, Pandora, who came accompanied by a box that was never to be opened. Pandora could not resist the temptation and opened the box, releasing upon humankind a manifold of miseries and evils—along with hope.

In Greek literature the story of Prometheus can be found in three sources: Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days (eighth century b.c.e.) and Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound (fifth century b.c.e.). (Aeschylus's drama is the only extant part of a trilogy that began with PrometheusFire-Carrier and concluded with Prometheus Unbound.) Plato's Protagoras also provides a version of the myth in which Prometheus steals technai (technics) from Hephaestus and Athena, after which Zeus commands Hermes to give human beings a sense of justice and shame so that they might live with their new abilities (Protagoras 320d-322d). Plato further has Prometheus mentioned as a giver of problematic gifts in the Gorgias (523d-e), the Politicus (also known as Statesman (274a), and the Philebus (16e). After Plato, however, it is significant that Prometheus does not have a prominent place in Greek or Roman or even medieval European literature.

In modern culture, however, Prometheus plays a more significant and somewhat altered role. As Karl Kerényi (1963), among others, notes, he often represents a creative rebellion against the limitations of the human condition, for which he is unjustly punished. Although humanity pays for its productive creations, Prometheus is to be admired for his courage and the heroic self-sacrifice that accompanies technological progress. At the same time, new discoveries, driven by hope springing eternal, repeatedly bring forth negative unintended consequences. In counterpoint to such a Promethean fate, Ivan Illich (1972) presented the image of Epimethean Man, who in retrospect learns to practice what, in the early-twenty-first century, is called the "precautionary principle."

Among the many modern reflections on the Prometheus story are the short lyric poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774) and the poetic play, Prometheus Unbound, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819). The Dirck van Baburen painting Prometheus BeingChained by Vulcan (1623) is representative of a novel visual interest. Ludwig van Beethoven's Geschöpfe des Prometheus (ballet, opus 43, 1801) and Erocia (third symphony, opus 55, 1801) both reveal the composer's personal sense of confrontation with Promethean struggles. The best-known modern adaptation is, however, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1816).

More recently Carl Orff's opera Prometheus (1968), Richard Schechner's performance work The Prometheus Project (1985), and Tony Harrison's film Prometheus (1998) all link the story to technology, although in different ways. Orff's music has been described as anticipating technomusic. Schechner's performance employs projected images to connect Hiroshima and pornography. In Harrison's film, miners from a closed colliery pit are melted down and made into a golden statue of Prometheus, which is then trucked by Hermes across Europe from Dresden to Auschwitz and eventually to Greece. Allegorically, Hermes, the messenger god in mythology, returns the current age to the immortality of ancient Greece; so too each epoch age revives the original impulse of the promethean myth and this recurrent hope: Carrying the human torch back to its source, like an Olympian returning home, connotes carrying on with humanity, its eternal re-emergence rising from human ashes and senseless destruction to rebirth, with glories restored and horrors transcended.

Finally the extent to which the Prometheus story may serve as a continuing vehicle for reflections on issues related to science, technology, and ethics is indicated by simply noting the titles of the following books: John M. Ziman's Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic Steady State (1994); Thomas Parke Hughes's Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that Changed the Modern World (1998); Norman Levitt's Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture (1999); Darin Barney's Prometheus Wired: The Hope for Democracy in the Age of Network Technology (2000); Arthur Mitzman's Prometheus Revisited: The Quest for Global Justice in the Twenty-first Century (2003); and William Newman's Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature (2004).


MARY LENZI CARL MITCHAM

SEE ALSO Faust; Frankenstein; Playing God.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Illich, Ivan. (1972). Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

Kerényi, Karl. (1963). Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence, trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Pantheon. First German publication, 1946. A Jungian commentary that references Goethe's poetry more than Aeschylus's drama.

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