Fire Myths: Prometheus

The famous figure of Greek myth stole fire from the gods and gave it to man 

Who is he?

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan god of fire and supreme trickster. He is credited with the creation of humanity from clay, and of defying the gods by stealing fire and giving it to mankind. For this transgression, Zeus sentenced him to eternal torment. Prometheus was bound to a rock, and an eagle devoured his liver in an ongoing cycle finally ended when he was freed by Heracles.  

Symbolism

Prometheus (likely signifying ‘forethought’) is generally seen as the author of the human arts and sciences, while his gift of fire to humanity was the spark that ignited civilisation. (His story is sometimes set by two volcanic promontories in the Caucasus Mountains, beyond which the Greeks thought barbarians lay.) Prometheus represents human striving – particularly the quest for knowledge – and the risk of overreaching or setting in motion events with unexpected consequences. To the Romantics, he embodied the lone genius whose struggle to help humanity resulted in tragedy.

Origins 

Prometheus first appears in the epic Theogony, by eight century BC poet Hesiod, where he tricks Zeus into accepting the bones and fat of a sacrifice instead of the meat. Zeus hides fire from mortals in retaliation and Prometheus steals it back, only to be nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus. Zeus also creates the first woman, Pandora, who takes the lid off her jar and unleashes havoc. In Works and Days, Hesiod expands the story, having Zeus deny man not only fire, but the means of life itself. Another likely source of the myth is the Titanomachy, a lost epic from the same century about the struggle between the Greek gods and their parents, the Titans. Prometheus Bound, by fifth century BC tragedian Aeschylus, was also hugely influential, making Prometheus man’s preserver, and having him bestow upon them the arts and sciences. Many Greek and Roman authors – Sappho, Ovid – embellished the myth subsequently, allotting Prometheus a key role in the creation of the human race. 

Variations

Stories about the theft of fire for humanity’s benefit recur in many mythologies: the San peoples of South Africa recount how IKaggen steals it from an ostrich, while the Wurundjeri of Australia allot the saviour role to a crow. Other aspects of the Prometheus story resemble the Sumerian myth of Enki, who is supposed to have created man from clay. Variants of the motif are widespread in the Caucasus, while Zahhak, an evil character in Iranian myth, is also eternally chained to a mountainside. A once popular but now discarded theory had Prometheus descending from Vedic fire bringer Mātariśvan.

Famous renditions

Prometheus’ rebellious qualities were a huge draw for writers of the Romantic era, for whom he embodied, variously, everything from the spirit of the French Revolution to Christ, and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This period gave rise to many famous interpretations including Goethe’s poem ‘Prometheus’ (1772–4), where the figure defiantly addresses God; and Prometheus Unbound (1820), a four-act drama by Percy Bysshe Shelley which rewrites Aeschylus and lets Prometheus triumph over Zeus. Poet Lord Byron’s ‘Prometheus’ (1816) also portrays the hero as unrepentant. Most famously, Mary Shelley subtitled her 1818 novel Frankenstein ‘The Modern Prometheus’, drawing on the myth’s themes of the over-reaching of humanity into dangerous realms of knowledge. 

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