The Titan Prometheus is a Greek God, best known for stealing the fire from the Olympians and gifting it to humanity. He’s considered a Champion of Humankind, the patron of creativity and sciences. In this blog post, we’ll explore the Greek mythology, folklore, history, and symbolism behind Prometheus.
Fire is creation. But also destruction. It represents the divine qualities, the duality of nature. Those who wield it have the ability to engage and control their environment. Some scientists argue that fire is what makes us humans.
The ability to fight off beasts, light the night, and cook our food gave us an opportunity to evolve into what we are today. And today, we’re closer than ever to explore the dark pits of the unknown universe. Can you see how powerful fire is?
Ancient Greeks understood this. The mythology of the Titan Prometheus is their attempt to accept and respect this divine gift. His sacrifice is what made everything possible.
He defied the natural order, the authority of Zeus, and levelled the field for mortals and immortals.
I consider Prometheus a personal archetype, a manifestation of the qualities I want to encompass one day. At the same time, he also represents darker personality traits I need to be aware of.
But before we dive deep into the symbolism, let’s take a look at the mythology.
Who is the Titan Prometheus?
Prometheus is the son of the Titan Iapetus and Oceanid Clymene. He’s one of the few Titans who sided with Zeus in the infamous Titanomachy.
His name means forethought, in contrast with the name of his brother Epimetheus which means afterthought. Another theory is that the name derives from the Proto-Indoeuropean word pra math, to steal. In this case, to steal the fire.
This is quite significant because the myth of a trickster deity that steals the fire from the Gods exists in many different cultures.
The Sumerian myth of Enki, the Babylonian Ea or the Vedic Mātariśvan all have similarities with each other, suggesting that Prometheus is an archetype crossing multiple cultural barriers. Indeed, we find that similar qualities are present in every myth; a champion of humanity, a protector!
In Greek mythology, we find that his role is far more significant.
Did Prometheus Create Humans?
Many people aren’t aware of this but one of the primary legends behind the Titan God is the creation of humanity!
After the Titanomachy ended, Zeus imprisoned all of the Titans in Tartarus as a punishment. But he spared the two brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus, for siding with him.
The Olympians awarded them with the task of creating all men and beasts. Prometheus shaped them with mud and the Goddess Athena breathed life into them.
When they decided to distribute the different skills and qualities, Epimetheus foolishly gave almost every gift (speed, strength, claws, fur) to the animals, leaving humans exposed.
So, Prometheus helped Man stand upright, like the Gods, and gave him fire and intelligence!
How did Prometheus Betray Zeus?
One of the constant narratives in the mythological stories surrounding Prometheus is how deeply he cares about humanity.
Even though he’s the supreme trickster figure, his machinations are against the authority of the Divine. His ultimate goal is to protect humans against the iron fist of the “tyrannical” Zeus. We can observe this in Theogony; he’s presented as an antagonist to the divine order.
At the “Trick at Mecone”, the Olympian Gods are to settle how the sacrificial animals are to be shared between mortals and immortals.
Prometheus slaughters an ox and divides it into two piles. The first pile has all the good meat and plenty of fat. He artfully covers it with the grotesque belly of the ox. The second pile has the bones that he had covered with shiny, left-over fat.
Now, the Gods have to choose and with a little nudge from Prometheus, Zeus ends up picking the bones, leaving the nurturing meat to humans.
Some versions of the story claim that the All-Father saw right through the Machiavellian trick but he purposely chose the wrong pile so he had an excuse to unleash his anger against mortals.
The God of Thunder took away their fire, so they couldn’t cook or warm their meat.
Stealing the Fire from the Gods
The struggle between authority and the common man can be traced alongside the mythos of Prometheus.
His misotheist defiance takes legendary proportions when he dares to steal the divine spark, fire, from the Gods.
In paintings, he’s often portrayed raising a torch, as far as his hands can reach. Because that’s exactly what he did!
He lit a torch from the sun and brought it back to mankind, enraging Zeus, and condemning himself to eternal suffering.
How was Prometheus Punished?
One of the characteristics that make the Titan so distinctive from the other Gods is his empathy.
When he was molding men from clay and water, he grew fond of them. He preferred to live and deal with mortals.
One could argue that this is what truly angered Zeus who saw us as mere pawns in his grand schemes. In the face of Prometheus, he saw a child disobeying and his dominion shattered by his actions. More importantly, mortals were raised to the level of Gods since they are now able to create!
For that reason, he decided to punish both Man and Prometheus.
Zeus commanded Kratos and Bia to chain him on the mountains of Caucasus. It’s worth noting that Greeks considered these places unholy, only for “barbarians” and dissidents.
Every day, an eagle would come and eat Prometheus’s liver. And every night, it’d grow back, extending his punishment indefinitely. It seems that Greeks already knew of the regenerative ability of the liver. They also believed that it stored all of the human emotions!
Eventually, he was freed with the help of Zeus’ son, Hercules.
To punish humans, the Olympians created the most beautiful woman, Pandora and presented her as a wife to Epimetheus. His brother warned him to not marry her, knowing it was a trap from the Gods. But he couldn’t resist.
Zeus gave Pandora a box to keep. It contained every disease, illness, negative emotion, and suffering. Pandora, being curious and defiant (both Promethean qualities), opened the box and unleashed every evil in the world. She managed to shut it down, trapping one thing at the bottom; hope.
These are the most well-known myths regarding the firebearer, coming from Hesiod’s work and “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus.
There are indications that there are many theatrical plays and mythological stories regarding him but they are now lost.
But in any case, the Promethean figure appears in many different cultures and has survived to this day. Comparative mythology suggests that “stealing the fire”, “creating humans from clay”, and “eternal damnation” are three fundamentally archetypal events we encounter in many cultures.
The Christian narrative borrows from the legend of Prometheus, with Joseph Campell drawing parallelisms between the suffering of the Titan for humanity and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Gnostics on the other hand believed that Prometheus descending from the sky holding fire is akin to Lucifer, the Lightbringer, falling from heaven. German classicist Karl-Martin Dietz claims that Prometheus represents the “descent of mankind from the communion with the gods into the present troublesome life”.
After all, he was a demiurge, in the broader sense of the world, gifting humanity with gnosis, knowledge.
John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is an interesting read that, from a Jungian perspective, appropriates many of the Promethean qualities to its anti-hero.
Lastly, the subtitle to the famous book “Frankenstein” is “The Modern Prometheus”, with Shelley adopting the Pythagorean perspective that the Titan was some sort of “evil” God seducing humanity to hunt and cook meat with his fire. But still, her inspiration for Dr Frankenstein breathing life into a creature that looks like a human comes from the Titan creating life in the image of the Gods.
(The term “Modern Prometheus” was first used by Kant to describe Benjamin Franklin’s work with electricity)
Ignoramus et Ignorabimus
It means “we do not know and will not know”.
The philosophical battle between the a priori and experienced belief underlines the mythology of Prometheus. The symbolism behind the suffering of the Titan represents the price we have to pay for scientific knowledge.
In many cases, it can be abstract, intangible. Greeks called it “hubris”, disrespecting the divine order. But isn’t that what makes us humans after all?
The Age of Enlightenment saw a marked shift from dogmatism and religious thinking to the critique of reasoning. With Kantian philosophy focusing on the conditions that enable us to perceive reality the way we do, we realize that the ultimate truth lies in knowledge and endless curiosity.
At the same time, we had to sacrifice the comfort of unquestionable faith; the framework that allows us to escape the shelter of our primitive logos is anathema to religion.
Prometheus represents human striving, the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and our insatiable desire to lift the veil of the unknown and take a peek. He’s the Fire that allows us to see. But at the same time, he’s also our dark side.
The part of us that created the weapons, the atomic bomb, and the power to subdue nations. The unintended consequences we seldom take into account when we embark on a new journey.
The question is, how are we going to reconcile these two sides? How are we gonna bear the divine fire without burning ourselves?
“I gave them hope, and so turned away their eyes from death”
P.S – Do you think that the mythos of Prometheus is relevant in 2022? Leave a comment down below!
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.