By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods is, like the story of Pandora’s Box, an important ‘origin-story’ from Greek myth.
But there’s much more to Prometheus than the ‘stealing fire’ story. Let’s delve into the world of Greek mythology, from over two thousand years ago, to see why Prometheus is such a central, and fascinating, figure in ancient myth.
Prometheus was the son of Iapetus and Clymene. Iapetus was a Titan, the Titans being the group of gods who preceded the Olympian gods, so-named because they resided on Mount Olympus.
Prometheus, then, was one of the first gods, a cousin of Zeus and a brother of Atlas, as well as two other Titans, Moneotius and Epimetheus. But Prometheus is also credited with creating the very first humans from clay, so he has a central place in the Greek pantheon. And he would continue to be a friend to mankind.
Curiously, Prometheus’ name is said to mean ‘forethought’, with his brother Epimetheus’ name literally meaning ‘afterthought’. However, an alternative theory states that the name Prometheus is cognate with the Vedic pra math, which literally means ‘to steal’, which would obviously make sense given the story of Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to humans (of which more below). So, although Prometheus may mean ‘forethought’, we cannot be sure – even though it’s often repeated as though it’s incontrovertible fact.
And the Vedic connection points up Prometheus’ links with other trickster gods in other civilisations. Most pantheons have one: Norse legends have Loki, while the Sumerians had Enki, and the Vedic texts had Mātariśvan, who even brought fire to humankind.
As with the tale of Pandora’s Box, the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods first turns up in the work of Hesiod, in his Theogony. (We’ve written about Hesiod’s other great poem, the Works and Days, here.) And as with the story of Pandora’s Box, which wasn’t actually a box at all, there is plenty that we get wrong, misremember, or simply do not know about the actual myth, as it was first outlined in Hesiod.
The tale of Prometheus is well-known because it explains how mankind came into possession of fire, thus enabling man to form civilisations. Or rather, it does and it doesn’t.
You see, Prometheus didn’t so much steal fire from his fellow gods and give it to humankind as steal fire back from the gods and give it back to humankind. In Hesiod’s telling of the story – and his is the earliest full account of the story of Prometheus – man already had possession of fire, but Zeus withdrew it. And it’s all because Prometheus tricked him. Or rather, tried to trick him.
Why did Prometheus steal divine fire from his fellow gods and give it to man (or rather, give it back to man) in the first place, though?
Once again, Hesiod lays out the backstory. It all goes back to a tasty bit of ox, which Prometheus served up for his cousin and the other gods, as well as for the first men. Prometheus, known for his cunning, served up the ox in two ways: to Zeus and the other gods, he offered up the ox’s stomach, which didn’t look very appealing as you can imagine. Inside the stomach, he had concealed the meat and entrails rich in fat, as well as the fleshy skin of the ox.
Meanwhile, to the men, Prometheus served up the ox’s bones, which he had concealed beneath a tasty-looking layer of the animal’s fat.
Zeus was annoyed. Why had Prometheus given the juicy-looking portions to the mere mortals, while he and the other deities were being served up nothing but the ox’s stomach? He called out Prometheus on this.
Prometheus – being cunning, remember – invited Zeus to choose whichever of the two servings he would prefer, in that case. But Zeus was too canny to be tricked, and promptly inspected the fatty bones and stomach full of juicy meat. Realising Prometheus had meant to trick him, he grew angry with his cousin for trying to give the juicy portions of the ox to mere men, and as retribution, Zeus denied man the power of fire.
Denied man the power of fire. Which, of course, suggests that man had formerly had it.
Curiously, this story – known as the trick at Mecone, after the place where the sacrificial meal took place – is also the origins of the ritual of burning the bones of an animal as an offering to the gods, after a meal.
So, thanks to Prometheus’ wily ways, he’d managed to lose mankind their fiery powers.
But Prometheus, being cunning and rebellious, outwitted his cousin, and stole the flare of eternal fire from Mount Olympus in, of all things, a tube of fennel. (The notes to Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World’s Classics) reveal that the stalk of the giant fennel contains a dry pith which burns slowly, and this makes it a handy means of carrying fire about the place.) He then took this flame to Earth, and gave it to men.
For this act he was punished by Zeus: chained to a rock and then subjected to the agonising ordeal of having his liver pecked out by an eagle. His liver would grow back every night, so Prometheus would have to endure the same fate every day for eternity.
It wasn’t for eternity. Because, as Hesiod records, Heracles saved Prometheus from further torture at the hands (or beak) of the eagle, and set him free. Prometheus was released from his punishment. And Heracles did this with the permission of Zeus, suggesting that the fearsome god had a forgiving nature … eventually.
In 1818, when the young twenty-year-old Mary Shelley was readying her debut novel for publication, she chose to subtitle it The Modern Prometheus. Her protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is a modern-day version of the son of Iapetus, stealing fire from the gods, ‘playing God’ by creating human life in a laboratory.
Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, himself liberated Prometheus from his grisly fate – regarding him as a hero for freeing mankind from a reliance on the tyrannical gods – in his poem, Prometheus Unbound, its title a pointed negation of the Aeschylus play about the same subject, Prometheus Bound.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.