Who was Prometheus? - Greek Myths
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Who was Prometheus?

seated man with tiny human figures
Prometheus makes people
(now in the Louvre museum)

Prometheus was a Titan, one of the children of Ocean. He and his brother Epimetheus were Zeus' and Hera's cousins. They were not as powerful as Zeus and Hera and their brothers and sisters, but still had some god-like powers. They were very big, giants (that is why the famous ship was called the Titanic, because it was very big).

In the beginning of the world, the Titans lived on the earth. There were no people yet, just the Titans and the animals. Prometheus used to play with clay, sometimes, and one day he made a lot of little people out of clay. He showed them to his cousins, and Zeus liked the little people so much he breathed life into them.

Prometheus steals fire
Prometheus steals fire from Hephaistos' workshop
(He's on the right). Roman sarcophagus (coffin)

At first the people were very grateful to Zeus and they often gave him sacrifices. But then Prometheus, who loved jokes, told them how they could play a trick on Zeus. Prometheus said, "When you do a sacrifice, take the bones and guts, the parts you can't eat, and put them in a bag with a nice steak on the top. And in another bag, put all the rest of the steaks, with some bones and guts on top. And ask Zeus to choose which one he wants."

So the people did this, and Zeus chose the bag with the steak on top (The Greeks used this to explain why they ate the meat from animals they sacrificed to the gods). But when he found he had been tricked, he was very angry. To punish people, he took all the fire away from the earth. The people were very cold, and they could not cook their food. They complained to Prometheus that this was all his fault.

Prometheus and the eagle
Prometheus with the eagle eating his liver
(Blackfigure vase ca. 550 BC, Vatican Museum

Prometheus felt sorry for the cold people. And he felt it was pretty much his fault for suggesting this trick. So he snuck up to the sky and he broke off a piece of the sun and he brought it back to earth for people, and that is how people got fire.

Here's a great video about Prometheus from a high school junior

When Zeus found out what Prometheus had done, he got mad all over again and chained Prometheus to a big rock. (He also punished the people by sending them Pandora). Every day a big eagle would come and eat Prometheus' liver. But because he was immortal and could not die, every night his liver grew back again, and then the next day the bird ate it again.
Prometheus suffered this torture every day for years and years, until finally Herakles released him.

How is this story like the West African story of Anansi getting stories from heaven?

More about Greek sacrifice

Bibliography and further reading about Prometheus:

Heroes in Mythology: Theseus, Prometheus, Odin, by Jim Weiss. Audio tapes to listen to in the car...

D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire.

Greek Religion, by Walter Burkert (reprinted 1987). By a leading expert. He has sections on each of the Greek gods, and discusses their deeper meanings, and their function in Greek society.

Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus (possibly). Translated by Paul Roche. An ancient Greek play about Prometheus, from the 400s BC.

More about Zeus
Ancient Greece
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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