In Greek mythology, Prometheus (//; Greek: Προμηθεύς, pronounced [promɛːtʰeús], meaning "forethought") is a Titan, culture hero, and trickster figure who is credited with the creation of man from clay, and who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity, an act that enabled progress and civilization. Prometheus is known for his intelligence and as a champion of mankind.
The punishment of Prometheus as a consequence of the theft is a major theme of his mythology, and is a popular subject of both ancient and modern art. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, sentenced the Titan to eternal torment for his transgression. The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back to be eaten again the next day. (In ancient Greece, the liver was thought to be the seat of human emotions.) In some stories, Prometheus is freed at last by the hero Heracles (Hercules).
In another of his myths, Prometheus establishes the form of animal sacrifice practiced in ancient Greek religion. Evidence of a cult to Prometheus himself is not widespread. He was a focus of religious activity mainly at Athens, where he was linked to Athena and Hephaestus, other Greek deities of creative skills and technology.
In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy: Mary Shelley, for instance, gave The Modern Prometheus as the subtitle to her novel Frankenstein (1818).
- 1 Myths and legends
- 1.1 The oldest legends of Prometheus among the Ancients
- 1.2 The Athenian Tradition of Prometheus: Aeschylus and Plato
- 1.3 Other authors
- 2 Religious symbolism in late Roman antiquity
- 3 The allegorical tradition of the Middle Ages
- 4 Prometheus in the Renaissance
- 5 The Post-Renaissance tradition
- 5.1 The literary Post-Renaissance tradition
- 5.2 The aesthetic Post-Renaissance tradition
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Myths and legends
The oldest legends of Prometheus among the Ancients
The four most ancient sources for understanding the origin of the Prometheus myths and legends all rely on the images represented in the Titanomachia, or the cosmological climactic struggle between the Greek gods and their parents, the Titans. Prometheus himself was a titan who managed to avoid being in the direct confrontational cosmic battle between Zeus and his followers against Cronus, Uranus and their followers. Prometheus therefore survived the struggle in which the offending titans were eternally banished by Zeus to the chthonic depths of Tartarus, only to survive to confront Zeus on his own terms in subsequent climactic struggles. The greater Titanomachia depicts an overarching metaphor of the struggle between generations, between parents and their children, symbolic of the generation of parents needing to eventually give ground to the growing needs, vitality, and responsibilities of the new generation for the perpetuation of society and survival interests of the human race as a whole. Prometheus and his struggle would be of vast merit to human society as well in this mythology as he was to be credited with the creation of humans and therefore all of humanity as well. The four most ancient historical sources for the Prometheus myth are Hesiod, Homer, Pindar, and Pythagoras.
Hesiod and the Theogony
The Prometheus myth first appeared in the late 8th-century BC Greek epic poet Hesiod's Theogony (lines 507–616). He was a son of the Titan Iapetus by Clymene, one of the Oceanids. He was brother to Menoetius, Atlas, and Epimetheus. In the Theogony, Hesiod introduces Prometheus as a lowly challenger to Zeus's omniscience and omnipotence. In the trick at Mekone, a sacrificial meal marking the "settling of accounts" between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus (545–557). He placed two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of beef hidden inside an ox's stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the bull's bones wrapped completely in "glistening fat" (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices.
Henceforth, humans would keep that meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angered Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution. In this version of the myth, the use of fire was already known to humans, but withdrawn by Zeus. Prometheus, however, stole fire back in a giant fennel-stalk and restored it to humanity. This further enraged Zeus, who sent Pandora, the first woman, to live with humanity. Pandora was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and brought to life by the four winds, with all the goddesses of Olympus assembled to adorn her. "From her is the race of women and female kind," Hesiod writes; "of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth."
Prometheus, in eternal punishment, is chained to a rock in the Caucasus, Kazbek Mountain, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated by night, due to his immortality. The eagle is a symbol of Zeus Himself. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules) slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from his chains.
Hesiod revisits the story of Prometheus in the Works and Days (lines 42–105). Here, the poet expands upon Zeus's reaction to the theft of fire. Not only does Zeus withhold fire from humanity, but "the means of life," as well (42). Had Prometheus not provoked Zeus's wrath (44–47), "you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working; soon would you put away your rudder over the smoke, and the fields worked by ox and sturdy mule would run to waste." Hesiod also expands upon the Theogony's story of the first woman, now explicitly called Pandora ("all gifts"). After Prometheus' theft of fire, Zeus sent Pandora in retaliation. Despite Prometheus' warning, Epimetheus accepted this "gift" from the gods. Pandora carried a jar with her, from which were released (91–92) "evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which give men death". Pandora shut the lid of the jar too late to contain all the evil plights that escaped, but foresight remained in the jar, giving humanity hope.
Angelo Casanova, Professor of Greek Literature at the University of Florence, finds in Prometheus a reflection of an ancient, pre-Hesiodic trickster-figure, who served to account for the mixture of good and bad in human life, and whose fashioning of humanity from clay was an Eastern motif familiar in Enuma Elish; as an opponent of Zeus he was an analogue of the Titans, and like them was punished. As an advocate for humanity he gains semi-divine status at Athens, where the episode in Theogony in which he is liberated is interpreted by Casanova as a post-Hesiodic interpolation.
Homer, the Iliad, and the Homeric Hymns
The banishment of the warring titans by the Olympians to the chthonic depths of Tartoros was documented as early as Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey where they are also identified as the hypotartarioi, or, the "subterranean." The passages appear in the Iliad (XIV 279) and also in the Homeric hymn to Apollo (335). The particular forms of violence associated especially with the Titans are those of hybristes and atasthalie as further found in the Iliad (XIII 633-34). They are used by Homer to designate an unlimited, violent insolence among the warring Titans which only Zeus was able to ultimately overcome. This text finds direct parallel in Hesiod's reading in the Theogony (209) and in Homer's own Odyssey (XIX 406). In the words of Kerenyi, "Autolykos, the grandfather, is introduced in order that he may give his grandson the name of Odysseus." In a similar fashion, the origin of the naming of the "titans" as a group has been disputed with some voicing a preference for reading it as a combination of titainein (to exert), and, titis (retribution) usually rendered as "retribution meted out to the exertion of the Titans." It should be noted in studying material concerning Prometheus that Prometheus was not directly among the warring Titans with Zeus though Prometheus's association with them by lineage is a recurrent theme in each of his subsequent confrontations with Zeus and with the Olympian gods.
Pindar and the Nemean Odes
The duality of the gods and of humans standing as polar opposites is also clearly identified in the earliest traditions of Greek mythology and its legends by Pindar. In the sixth Nemean Ode, Pindar states: "There is one/race of men, one race of gods; both have breath/of life from a single mother. But sundered aurora collett us divided, so that one side is nothing, while on the other the brazen sky is established/a sure citadel forever." Although this duality in strikingly apparent in Pindar, it also has paradoxical elements where Pindar actually comes quite close to Hesiod who before him had said in his Works and Days (108) "how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source." The understanding of Prometheus and his role in the creation of humans and the theft of fire for their benefit is therefore distinctly adapted within this distinguishable source for understanding the role of Prometheus within the mythology of the interaction of the Gods with humans.
Pythagoras and the Pythagorean Doctrine
In order to understand the Prometheus myth in its most general context, the Late Roman author Censorinus states in his book titled De die natali that, "Pythagoras of Samos, Okellos of Lukania, Archytas of Tarentum, and in general all Pythagoreans were the authors and proponents of the opinion that the human race was eternal." By this they held that Prometheus's creation of humans was the creation of humanity for eternity. This Pythagorean view is further confirmed in the book On the Cosmos written by the Pythagorean Okellos of Lukania. Okellos, in his cosmology, further delineates the three realms of the cosmos as all contained within an overarching order called the diakosmesis which is also the world order kosmos, and which also must be eternal. The three realms were delineated by Okellos as having "two poles, man on earth, the gods in heaven. Merely for the sake of symmetry, as it were, the daemons --not evil spirits but beings intermediate between God and man -- occupy a middle position in the air, the realm between heaven and earth. They were not a product of Greek mythology, but of the belief in daemons that had sprung up in various parts of the Mediterranean world and the Near East."
The Athenian Tradition of Prometheus: Aeschylus and Plato
The two major authors to have a distinctive influence on the development of the myths and legends surrounding the titan Prometheus during the Socratic era of greater Athens were Aeschylus and Plato. The two men wrote in highly distinctive forms of expression which for Aeschylus centered on his mastery of the literary form of Greek tragedy, while for Plato this centered on the philosophical expression of his thought in the form of the various dialogues he had written and recorded during his lifetime.
Aeschylus and the Ancient Literary Aesthetics of Prometheus
Prometheus Bound, perhaps the most famous treatment of the myth to be found among the Greek tragedies, is traditionally attributed to the 5th-century BC Greek tragedian Aeschylus. At the center of the drama are the results of Prometheus' theft of fire and his current punishment by Zeus; the playwright's dependence on the Hesiodic source material is clear, though Prometheus Bound also includes a number of changes to the received tradition.
Before his theft of fire, Prometheus played a decisive role in the Titanomachy, securing victory for Zeus and the other Olympians. Zeus's torture of Prometheus thus becomes a particularly harsh betrayal. The scope and character of Prometheus' transgressions against Zeus are also widened. In addition to giving humankind fire, Prometheus claims to have taught them the arts of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. The Titan's greatest benefaction for humankind seems to have been saving them from complete destruction. In an apparent twist on the myth of the so-called Five Ages of Man found in Hesiod's Works and Days (wherein Cronus and, later, Zeus created and destroyed five successive races of humanity), Prometheus asserts that Zeus had wanted to obliterate the human race, but that he somehow stopped him.
Moreover, Aeschylus anachronistically and artificially injects Io, another victim of Zeus's violence and ancestor of Heracles, into Prometheus' story. Finally, just as Aeschylus gave Prometheus a key role in bringing Zeus to power, he also attributed to him secret knowledge that could lead to Zeus's downfall: Prometheus had been told by his mother Gaia of a potential marriage that would produce a son who would overthrow Zeus. Fragmentary evidence indicates that Heracles, as in Hesiod, frees the Titan in the trilogy's second play, Prometheus Unbound. It is apparently not until Prometheus reveals this secret of Zeus's potential downfall that the two reconcile in the final play, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer or Prometheus Pyrphoros, a lost tragedy by Aeschylus.
Prometheus Bound also includes two mythic innovations of omission. The first is the absence of Pandora's story in connection with Prometheus' own. Instead, Aeschylus includes this one oblique allusion to Pandora and her jar that contained Hope (252): "[Prometheus] caused blind hopes to live in the hearts of men." Second, Aeschylus makes no mention of the sacrifice-trick played against Zeus in the Theogony. The four tragedies of Prometheus attributed to Aeschylus, most of which are sadly lost to the passages of time into antiquity, are Prometheus Bound (Desmotes), Prometheus Delivered (Lyomens), Prometheus the Fire Bringer (Pyrphoros), and Prometheus the Fire Kindler (Pyrkaeus).
The larger scope of Aeschylus as a dramatist revisiting the myth of Prometheus in the age of Athenian prominence has been discussed by William Lynch. Lynch's general thesis concerns the rise of humanist and secular tendencies in Athenian culture and society which required the growth and expansion of the mythological and religious tradition as acquired from the most ancient sources of the myth stemming from Hesiod. For Lynch, modern scholarship is hampered by not having the full trilogy of Prometheus by Aeschylus, the last two parts of which have been lost to antiquity. Significantly, Lynch further comments that although the Prometheus trilogy is not available, that the Orestia trilogy by Aeschylus remains available and may be assumed to provide significant insight into the overall structural intentions which may be ascribed to the Prometheus trilogy by Aeschylus as an author of significant consistency and exemplary dramatic erudition.
Harold Bloom, in his research guide for Aeschylus, has summarized some of the critical attention that has been applied to Aeschylus concerning his general philosophical import in Athens. As Bloom states, "Much critical attention has been paid to the question of theodicy in Aeschylus. For generations, scholars warred incessantly over 'the justice of Zeus,' unintentionally blurring it with a monotheism imported from Judeo-Christian thought. The playwright undoubtedly had religious concerns; for instance, Jacqueline de Romilly suggests that his treatment of time flows directly out of his belief in divine justice. But it would be an error to think of Aeschylus as sermonizing. His Zeus does not arrive at decisions which he then enacts in the mortal world; rather, human events are themselves an enactment of divine will."
According to Thomas Rosenmeyer regarding the religious import of Aeschylus, "In Aeschylus, as in Homer, the two levels of causation, the supernatural and the human, are co-existent and simultaneous, two way of describing the same event." Rosenmeyer insists that ascribing portrayed characters in Aeschylus should not conclude them to be either victims or agents of theological or religious activity too quickly. As Rosenmeyer states: "[T]he text defines their being. For a critic to construct an Aeschylean theology would be as quixotic as designing a typology of Aeschylean man. The needs of the drama prevail."
In a rare comparison of Prometheus in Aeschylus with Oedipus in Sophocles, Harold Bloom with more than simple irony has quoted Freud as stating that, "Freud called Oedipus an 'immoral play,' since the gods ordained incest and paracide. Oedipus therefore participates in our universal unconscious sense of guilt, but on this reading so do the gods. I (states Bloom) sometimes wish that Freud had turned to Aeschylus instead, and given us the Prometheus complex rather than the Oedipus complex."
Plato and the Philosophical Interpretation of Prometheus
Olga Raggio in her study "The Myth of Prometheus" for the Courtauld Institute attributes Plato in the Protagoras as an important contributor to the early development of the Prometheus myth. Raggio indicates that many of the more challenging and dramatic assertions which Aeschylean tragedy explores are absent from Plato's writings about Prometheus. As summarized by Raggio, "After the gods have moulded men and other living creatures with a mixture of clay and fire, the two brothers Epimetheus and Prometheus are called to complete the task and distribute among the newly born creatures all sorts of natural qualities. Epimetheus sets to work, but, being unwise, distributes all the gifts of nature among the animals, leaving men naked and unprotected, unable to defend themselves and to survive in a hostile world. Prometheus then steals the fire of creative power from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos and gives it to mankind." Raggio then goes on to point out Plato's distinction of creative power (techne) which is presented as superior to merely natural instincts (physis). For Plato, only the virtues of "reverence and justice can provide for the maintenance of a civilized society -- and these virtues are the highest gift finally bestowed on men in equal measure." The ancients by way of Plato believed that the name Prometheus derived from the Greek pro (before) + manthano (intelligence) and the agent suffix -eus, thus meaning "Forethinker". In his dialogue titled Protagoras, Plato contrasts Prometheus with his dull-witted brother Epimetheus, "Afterthinker". In Plato's dialogue Protagoras, Protagoras asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilizing arts.
The Athenian tradition of religious dedication and observance
It is understandable that since Prometheus was considered a Titan and not one of the Olympian gods that there would be an absence of evidence, with the exception of Athens, for the direct religious devotion to his worship. Despite his importance to the myths and imaginative literature of ancient Greece, the religious cult of Prometheus during the Archaic and Classical periods seems to have been limited. Writing in the 2nd century AD, the satirist Lucian points out that while temples to the major Olympians were everywhere, none to Prometheus is to be seen.
Athens was the exception. The altar of Prometheus in the grove of the Academy was the point of origin for several significant processions and other events regularly observed on the Athenian calendar. For the Panathenaic festival, arguably the most important civic festival at Athens, a torch race began at the altar, which was located outside the sacred boundary of the city, and passed through the Kerameikos, the district inhabited by potters and other artisans who regarded Prometheus and Hephaestus as patrons. The race then traveled to the heart of the city, where it kindled the sacrificial fire on the altar of Athena on the Acropolis to conclude the festival. These footraces took the form of relays in which teams of runners passed off a flaming torch. According to Pausanias (2nd century AD), the torch relay, called lampadedromia or lampadephoria, was first instituted at Athens in honor of Prometheus. By the Classical period, the races were run by ephebes also in honor of Hephaestus and Athena. Prometheus' association with fire is the key to his religious significance and to the alignment with Athena and Hephaestus that was specific to Athens and its "unique degree of cultic emphasis" on honoring technology. The festival of Prometheus was the Prometheia. The wreaths worn symbolized the chains of Prometheus.
Pausanias recorded a few other religious sites in Greece devoted to Prometheus. Both Argos and Opous claimed to be Prometheus' final resting place, each erecting a tomb in his honor. The Greek city of Panopeus had a cult statue that was supposed to honor Prometheus for having created the human race there.
The Aesthetic tradition of Prometheus in Athenian art
Prometheus' torment by the eagle and his rescue by Heracles were popular subjects in vase paintings of the 6th to 4th centuries BC. He also sometimes appears in depictions of Athena's birth from Zeus' forehead. There was a relief sculpture of Prometheus with Pandora on the base of Athena's cult statue in the Athenian Parthenon of the 5th century BC. A similar rendering is also found at the great altar of Zeus at Pergamon from the second century BC.
The event of the release of Prometheus from captivity was frequently revisited on Attic and Etruscan vases between the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In the depiction on display at the Museum of Karlsruhe and in Berlin, the depiction is that of Prometheus confronted by a menacing large bird (assumed to be the eagle) with Hercules approaching from behind shooting his arrows at it. In the fourth century this imagery was modified to depicting Prometheus bound in a cruciform manner, possibly reflecting an Aeschylus inspired manner of influence, again with an eagle and with Hercules approaching from the side.
Some two dozen other Greek and Roman authors retold and further embellished the Prometheus myth from as early as the 5th century BC (Diodorus, Herodorus) into the 4th century AD. The most significant detail added to the myth found in, e.g., Sappho, Aesop and Ovid — was the central role of Prometheus in the creation of the human race. According to these sources, Prometheus fashioned humans out of clay.
Although perhaps made explicit in the Prometheia, later authors such as Hyginus, the Bibliotheca, and Quintus of Smyrna would confirm that Prometheus warned Zeus not to marry the sea nymph Thetis. She is consequently married off to the mortal Peleus, and bears him a son greater than the father — Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Pseudo-Apollodorus moreover clarifies a cryptic statement (1026–29) made by Hermes in Prometheus Bound, identifying the centaur Chiron as the one who would take on Prometheus' suffering and die in his place. Reflecting a myth attested in Greek vase paintings from the Classical period, Pseudo-Apollodorus places the Titan (armed with an axe) at the birth of Athena, thus explaining how the goddess sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus.
Other minor details attached to the myth include: the duration of Prometheus' torment; the origin of the eagle that ate the Titan's liver (found in Pseudo-Apollodorus and Hyginus); Pandora's marriage to Epimetheus (found in Pseudo-Apollodorus); myths surrounding the life of Prometheus' son, Deucalion (found in Ovid and Apollonius of Rhodes); and Prometheus' marginal role in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (found in Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus).
Modern scientific linguistics suggests that the name derived from the Proto-Indo-European root that also produces the Vedic pra math, "to steal," hence pramathyu-s, "thief", cognate with "Prometheus", the thief of fire. The Vedic myth of fire's theft by Mātariśvan is an analog to the Greek account. Pramantha was the tool used to create fire.
Religious symbolism in late Roman antiquity
The three most prominent aspects of the Prometheus myth have parallels within the beliefs of many cultures throughout the world; see creation of man from clay, theft of fire, and references for eternal punishment. It is the first of these three which has drawn attention to parallels with the biblical creation account related in the religious symbolism expressed in the book of Genesis.
As stated by Olga Raggio, "The Prometheus myth of creation as a visual symbol of the Neoplatonic concept of human nature, illustrated in (many) sarcophagi, was evidently a contradiction of the Christian teaching of the unique and simultaneous act of creation by the Trinity." This Neoplatonism of late Roman antiquity was especially stressed by Tertullian who recognized both difference and similarity of the biblical deity with the mythological figure of Prometheus.
The imagery of Prometheus and the creation of man used for the purposes of the representation of the creation of Adam in biblical symbolism is also a recurrent theme in the artistic expression of late Roman antiquity. Of the relatively rare expressions found of the creation of Adam in those centuries of late Roman antiquity, one can single out the so-called "Dogma sarcophagus" of the Lateran Museum where three figures are seen (in representation of the theological trinity) in making a benediction to the new man. Another example is found where the prototype of Prometheus is also recognizable in the early Christian era of late Roman antiquity. This can be found upon a sarcophagus of the Church at Mas d'Aire as well, and in an even more direct comparison to what Raggio refers to as "a coursely carved relief from Campli (Teramo) (where) the Lord sits on a throne and models the body of Adam, exactly like Prometheus." Still another such similarity is found in the example found on a Hellenistic relief presently in the Louvre in which the Lord gives life to Eve through the imposition of his two fingers on her eyes recalling the same gesture found in earlier representations of Prometheus.
In Georgian mythology, Amirani is a culture hero who challenged the chief god, and like Prometheus was chained on the Caucasian mountains where birds would eat his organs. This aspect of the myth had a significant influence on the Greek imagination. It is recognizable from a Greek gem roughly dated to the time of the Hesiod poems, which show Prometheus with hands bound behind his body and crouching before a bird with long wings. This same image would also be used later in the Rome of the Augustan age as documented by Furtwangler.
In the often cited and highly publicized interview between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on Public Television, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces presented his view on the comparison of Prometheus and Jesus. Moyers asked Campbell the question in the following words, "In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we're not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves." To which Campbell's well-known response was that, "But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there's no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules [...] No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself." For Campbell, Jesus mortally suffered on the Cross while Prometheus eternally suffered while chained to a rock, and each of them received punishment for the gift which they bestowed to humankind, for Jesus this was the gift of propitiation from Heaven, and, for Prometheus this was the gift of fire from Olympus.
Significantly, Campbell is also clear to indicate the limits of applying the metaphors of his methodology in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces too closely in assessing the comparison of Prometheus and Jesus. Of the four symbols of suffering associated with Jesus after his trial in Jerusalem (i) the crown of thorns, (ii) the scourge of whips, (iii) the nailing to the Cross, and (iv) the spearing of his side, it is only this last one which bears some resemblance to the eternal suffering of Prometheus' daily torment of an eagle devouring a replenishing organ, his liver, from his side. For Campbell, the striking contrast between the New Testament narratives and the Greek mythological narratives remains at the limiting level of the cataclysmic eternal struggle of the eschatological New Testament narratives occurring only at the very end of the biblical narratives in the Apocalypse of John (12:7) where, "Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven." This eschatological and apocalyptic setting of a Last Judgement is in precise contrast to the Titanomachia of Hesiod which serves its distinct service to Greek mythology as its Prolegomenon, bracketing all subsequent mythology, including the creation of humanity, as coming after the cosmological struggle between the Titans and the Olympian gods.
It remains a continuing debate among scholars of comparative religion and the literary reception of mythological and religious subject matter as to whether the typology of suffering and torment represented in the Prometheus myth finds its more representative comparisons with the narratives of the Hebrew scriptures or with the New Testament narratives. In the Book of Job, significant comparisons can be drawn between the sustained suffering of Job in comparison to that of eternal suffering and torment represented in the Prometheus myth. With Job, the suffering is at the acquiescence of heaven and at the will of the demonic, while in Prometheus the suffering is directly linked to Zeus as the ruler of Olympus. The comparison of the suffering of Jesus after his sentencing in Jerusalem is limited to the three days, from Thursday to Saturday, and leading to the culminating narratives corresponding to Easter Sunday. The symbolic import for comparative religion would maintain that suffering related to justified conduct is redeemed in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament narratives, while in Prometheus there remains the image of a non-forgiving deity, Zeus, who nonetheless requires reverence.
Writing in late antiquity of the fourth and fifth century, the Latin commentator Marcus Servius Honoratus explained that Prometheus was so named because he was a man of great foresight (vir prudentissimus), possessing the abstract quality of providentia, the Latin equivalent of Greek promētheia (ἀπὸ τής πρόμηθείας). Anecdotally, the Roman fabulist Phaedrus (c.15BC - c.50AD) attributes to Aesop a simple etiology for homosexuality, in Prometheus' getting drunk while creating the first humans and misapplying the genitalia.
The allegorical tradition of the Middle Ages
Perhaps the most influential book of the Middle Ages upon the reception of the Prometheus myth was the mythological handbook of Fulgentius Placiades. As stated by Raggio, "The text of Fulgentius, as well as that of (Marcus) Servius [...] are the main sources of the mythological handbooks written in the ninth century by the anonymous Mythographus Primus and Mythographus Secundus. Both were used for the more lengthy and elaborate compendium by the English scholar Alexander Neckman (1157-1217), the Scintillarium Poetarum, or Poetarius." The purpose of his books was to distinguish allegorical interpretation from the historical interpretation of the Prometheus myth. Continuing in this same tradition of the allegorical interpretation of the Prometheus myth, along with the historical interpretation of the Middle Ages, is the Genealogiae of Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio follows these two levels of interpretation and distinguishes between two separate versions of the Prometheus myth. For Boccaccio, Prometheus is placed "In the heavens where all is clarity and truth, [Prometheus] steals, so to speak, a ray of the divine wisdom from God himself, source of all Science, supreme Light of every man." With this, Boccaccio shows himself moving from the mediaeval sources with a shift of accent towards the attitude of the Renaissance humanists.
Using a similar interpretation to that of Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino in the fifteenth century updated the philosophical and more somber reception of the Prometheus myth not seen since the time of Plotinus. In his book written in 1476-77 titled Quaestiones Quinque de Mente, Ficino indicates his preference for reading the Prometheus myth as an image of the human soul seeking to obtain supreme truth. As Olga Raggio summarizes Ficino's text, "The torture of Prometheus is the torment brought by reason itself to man, who is made by it many times more unhappy than the brutes. It is after having stolen one beam of the celestial light [...] that the soul feels as if fastened by chains and [...] only death can release her bonds and carry her to the source of all knowledge." This somberness of attitude in Ficino's text would be further developed later by Charles de Bouelles' Liber de Sapiente of 1509 which presented a mix of both scholastic and Neoplatonic ideas.
Prometheus in the Renaissance
After the writings of both Boccaccio and Ficino in the late Middle Ages about Prometheus, interest in the titan shifted considerably in the direction of becoming subject matter for painters and sculptors alike. Among the most famous examples is that of Piero di Cosimo from about 1510 presently on display at the museums of Munich and Strasburg (see Inset). Raggio summarizes the Munich version as follows; "The Munich panel represents the dispute between Epimetheus and Prometheus, the handsome triumphant statue of the new man, modeled by Prometheus, his ascension to the sky under the guidance of Minerva; the Strasburg panel shows in the distance Prometheus lighting his torch at the wheels of the Sun, and in the foreground on one side, Prometheus applying his torch to the heart of the statue and , on the other, Mercury fastening him to a tree." All the details are evidently borrowed from Boccaccio's Genealogiae.
The same reference to the Genealogiae can be cited as the source for the drawing by Parmigianino presently located in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. In this drawing, a very noble rendering of Prometheus is presented which evokes the memory of Michelangelo's works portraying Jehovah. This drawing in the Morgan Library is perhaps one of the most intense examples of the visualization of the myth of Prometheus from the Renaissance period.
Writing in the late British Renaissance, William Shakespeare uses the Promethean allusion in the famous death scene of Desdemona in his tragedy of Othello. Othello in contemplating the death of Desdemona asserts plainly that he cannot restore the "Promethean heat" to her body once it has been extinguished. For Shakespeare, the allusion is clearly to the interpretation of the fire from the heat as the bestowing of life to the creation of man from clay by Prometheus after it was stolen from Olympus. The analogy bears direct resemblance to the biblical narrative of the creation of life in Adam through the bestowed breathing of the creator in Genesis. Shakespeare's symbolic reference to the "heat" associated with Prometheus's fire is to the association of the gift of fire to the mythological gift or theological gift of life to humans.
The Post-Renaissance tradition
The literary Post-Renaissance tradition
For the Romantic era, Prometheus was the rebel who resisted all forms of institutional tyranny epitomized by Zeus — church, monarch, and patriarch. The Romantics drew comparisons between Prometheus and the spirit of the French Revolution, Christ, the Satan of John Milton's Paradise Lost, and the divinely inspired poet or artist. Prometheus is the lyrical "I" who speaks in Goethe's Sturm und Drang poem "Prometheus" (written c. 1772–74, published 1789), addressing God (as Zeus) in misotheist accusation and defiance. In Prometheus Unbound (1820), a four-act lyrical drama, Percy Bysshe Shelley rewrites the lost play of Aeschylus so that Prometheus does not submit to Zeus (under the Latin name Jupiter), but instead supplants him in a triumph of the human heart and intellect over tyrannical religion. Lord Byron's poem "Prometheus" also portrays the Titan as unrepentant. As documented by Olga Raggio, other leading figures among the great Romantics included Byron, Longfellow and Nietzsche as well. Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus", in reference to the novel's themes of the over-reaching of modern humanity into dangerous areas of knowledge.
Goethe and the Prometheus-Ganymede poems
"Prometheus" is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which a character based on the mythic Prometheus addresses God (as Zeus) in a romantic and misotheist tone of accusation and defiance. The poem was written between 1772 and 1774. It was first published fifteen years later in 1789. It is an important work as it represents one of the first encounters of the Prometheus myth with the literary Romantic movement identified with Goethe and with the Sturm und Drang movement.
The poem has appeared in Volume II of Goethe's poems (in his Collected Works) in a section of Vermischte Gedichte (assorted poems), shortly following the Harzreise im Winter. It is immediately followed by "Ganymed", and the two poems are written as informing each other according to Goethe's plan in their actual writing. Prometheus (1774) was originally planned as a drama but never completed by Goethe, though the poem is inspired by it. Prometheus is the creative and rebellious spirit rejected by God, and who angrily defies him and asserts himself; Ganymede, by direct contrast, is the boyish self who is both adored and seduced by God. As a high Romantic poet and a humanist poet, Goethe presents both identities as contrasting aspects of the Romantic human condition.
The poem offers direct biblical connotations for the Prometheus myth which was unseen in any of the ancient Greek poets dealing with the Prometheus myth in either drama, tragedy, or philosophy. The intentional use of the German phrase "Da ich ein Kind war..." ("When I was a child"): the use of Da is distinctive, and with it Goethe directly applies the Lutheran translation of Saint Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, 13:11: "Da ich ein Kind war, da redete ich wie ein Kind..." ("When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things"). Goethe's Prometheus is significant for the contrast it evokes with the biblical text of the Corinthians rather than for its similarities.
In his book titled Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence, C. Kerenyi states the key contrast between Goethe's version of Prometheus with the ancient Greek version. As Kerenyi states, "Goethe's Prometheus had Zeus for father and a goddess for mother. With this change from the traditional lineage the poet distinguished his hero from the race of the Titans." For Goethe, the metaphorical comparison of Prometheus to the image of the Son from the New Testament narratives was of central importance, with the figure of Zeus in Goethe's reading being metaphorically matched directly to the image of the Father from the New Testament narratives.
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Prometheus Unbound
Percy Shelley published his four-act lyrical drama titled Prometheus Unbound in 1820. His version was written in response to the version of myth as presented by Aeschylus (described in the Section above) and is oriented to the high British Idealism and high British Romanticism prevailing in Shelley's own time. Shelley, as the author himself discusses, admits the debt of his version of the myth to Aeschylus and the Greek poetic tradition which he assumes is familiar to readers of his own lyrical drama. For example, it is necessary to understand and have knowledge of the reason for Prometheus's punishment if the reader is to form an understanding of whether the exoneration portrayed by Shelley in his version of the Prometheus myth is justified or unjustified. The quote of Shelley's own words describing the extent of his indebtedness to Aeschylus has been published in numerous sources publicly available.
The literary critic Harold Bloom in his book Shelley's Mythmaking expresses his high expectation of Shelley in the tradition of mythopoeic poetry. For Bloom, Percy Shelley's relationship to the tradition of mythology in poetry "culminates in 'Prometheus'; the poem provides a complete statement of Shelley's vision." Bloom devotes two full chapters in this book to Shelley's lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound which was among the first books Bloom had ever written, originally published in 1959. Following his 1959 book, Bloom edited an anthology of critical opinions on Shelley for Chelsea House Publishers where he concisely stated his opinion as, "Shelley is the unacknowledged ancestor of Wallace Stevens' conception of poetry as the Supreme Fiction, and Prometheus Unbound is the most capable imagining, outside of Blake and Wordsworth, that the Romantic quest for a Supreme Fiction has achieved."
Within the pages of his Introduction to the Chelsea House edition on Percy Shelley, Harold Bloom also identifies the six major schools of criticism opposing Shelley's idealized mythologizing version of the Prometheus myth. In sequence, the opposing schools to Shelley are given as: (i) The school of "common sense", (ii) The Christian orthodox, (iii) The school of "wit", (iv) Moralists, of most varieties, (v) The school of "classic" form, and (vi) The Precisionists, or concretists. Although Bloom is least interested in the first two schools, the second one on the Christian orthodox has special bearing on the reception of the Prometheus myth during late Roman antiquity and the synthesis of the New Testament canon. The Greek origins of the Prometheus myth have already discussed the Titanomachia as placing the cosmic struggle of Olympus at some point in time preceding the creation of humanity, while in the New Testament synthesis there was a strong assimilation of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew prophets and their strongly eschatological orientation. This contrast placed a strong emphasis within the ancient Greek consciousness as to the moral and ontological acceptance of the mythology of the Titanomachia as an accomplished mythological history, whereas for the synthesis of the New Testament narratives this placed religious consciousness within the community at the level of an anticipated eschaton not yet accomplished. Neither of these would guide Percy Shelley in his poetic retelling and reintegration of the Prometheus myth.
To the Socratic Greeks, one important aspect of the discussion of religion would correspond to the philosophical discussion of 'becoming' with respect to the New Testament syncretism rather than the ontological discussion of 'being' which was more prominent in the ancient Greek experience of mythologically oriented cult and religion. For Percy Shelley, both of these reading were to be substantially discounted in preference to his own concerns for promoting his own version of an idealized consciousness of a society guided by the precepts of High British Romanticism and High British Idealism.
Mary Shelley and Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus
The author of Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, wrote the famous version of her short novel in the 19th century. It has endured as one of the most frequently revisited literary themes in twentieth century film and popular reception with few rivals for its sheer popularity among even established literary works of art. The primary theme is a parallel to the aspect of the Prometheus myth which concentrates on the creation of man by the titans, transferred and made contemporary by Shelley for British audiences of her time. The subject is that of the creation of life by a scientist, thus bestowing life through the application and technology of medical science rather than by the natural acts of reproduction. The short novel has been adapted into many films and productions ranging from the early versions with Boris Karloff to much later versions featuring Kenneth Branagh among others.
Prometheus in the Twentieth Century
Franz Kafka (d. 1924) wrote a short piece on Prometheus, outlining what he saw as his perspective on four aspects of his myth:
According to the first, he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed on his liver, which was perpetually renewed.
According to the second, Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.
According to the third, his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself.
According to the fourth, everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.
There remains the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.
This short piece by Kafka concerning his interest in Prometheus was supplemented by two other mythological pieces written by him. As stated by Reiner Stach, "Kafka's world was mythical in nature, with Old Testament and Jewish legends providing the templates, and it was only logical (even if Kafka did not state it openly) that he would try his hand at the canon of antiquity, reinterpreting it and incorporating it into his own imagination in the form of allusions, as in 'The Silence of the Sirens,' 'Prometheus,' and 'Poseidon.'" Among contemporary poets, the British poet Ted Hughes wrote the a 1973 collection of poems titled Prometheus On His Crag. The Nepali poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota (d. 1949) also wrote an epic titled Prometheus (प्रमीथस).
In his 1952 book, Lucifer and Prometheus, Zvi Werblowsky presented the speculatively derived Jungian construction of the character of Satan in Milton's celebrated poem Paradise Lost. Werblowsky applied his own Jungian style of interpretation to appropriate parts of the Prometheus myth for the purpose of interpreting Milton. A reprint of his book in the 1990s by Routledge Press included an introduction to the book by Carl Jung. Some Gnostics have been associated with identifying the theft of fire from heaven as embodied by the fall of Lucifer "the Light Bearer".
The artificial element Promethium was named with the myth in mind.
The aesthetic Post-Renaissance tradition
Classical music, opera, and ballet
Works of classical music, opera, and ballet directly or indirectly inspired by the myth of Prometheus have included renderings by some of the major composers of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this tradition, the orchestral representation of the myth has received the most sustained attention of composers. These have included the symphonic poem by Franz Liszt titled Prometheus from 1850, among his other Symphonic Poems (No. 5, S.99). Alexander Scriabin composed Prometheus: Poem of Fire, Opus 60 (1910), also for orchestra. In the same year Gabriel Fauré composed his three-act opera Prométhée (1910). Charles-Valentin Alkan composed his Grande sonate 'Les quatre âges' (1847), with the 4th movement entitled "Prométhée enchaîné" (Prometheus Bound). Beethoven composed the score to a ballet version of the myth titled The Creatures of Prometheus (1801).
An adaptation of Goethe's poetic version of the myth was composed by Hugo Wolf, Prometheus (Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus, 1889), as part of his Goethe-lieder for voice and piano, later transcribed for orchestra and voice. An opera of the myth was composed by Carl Orff titled Prometheus (1968), using Aeschylus' Greek language Prometheia.
The recent 2012 science fiction fantasy film titled Prometheus by Ridley Scott has a resemblance to the myth largely through a coincidence of name. Of the three principal mythological themes associated with the myth of the titan Prometheus, that is, the eternal punishment, the theft of fire, and the creation of man, it is with this latter theme that the film seems to be at least partially concerned. In the science fiction film, one of the wealthy lead characters in the future spends vast sums of money in order to locate the extraterrestrials who he believes were responsible for the creation of man. His hope is that if he finds his 'creators,' they will be able somehow to extend his life. In this belief he is straightforwardly disappointed.
Benji Taylor writing in an extensive three-part essay on the science fiction film titled Prometheus, published between 22 June 2012 and 17 July 2012, identified the eight key themes in understanding the film as including: "Aliens Seeded Life On Earth," "Insignificance and Futility," "Interwoven Notions of Creation and Destruction," "Parental Issues," "The Nature of the Soul," "Existential Loss," and "Science and Religion." Of these themes covered in the film, Taylor identifies that only the theme of "Parental Issues" appears to have a general reference point to the myth of Prometheus stating that in the "mythology between the titan Prometheus and the chief Olympian Zeus but on a more global level it's an echo of the tribulation embodied in the Titanomachy -- the archetypal war between parent and child which was the great 'War of the Titans and Olympians' that shook the Greek mythological world to its core."
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- Some of these changes are rather minor. For instance, rather than being the son of Iapetus and Clymene Prometheus becomes the son of Themis. In addition, the chorus makes a passing reference (561) to Prometheus' wife Hesione, whereas a fragment from Hesiod's Catalogue of Women fr. 4 calls her by the name of Pryneie, a possible corruption for Pronoia.
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- Pausanias 1.30.2.
- Possibly also Pan; Wilson, The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia, p. 35.
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- Xenophanes. Fragments. In: Diels (q.v.).
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