Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes



H. Fuger, Prometheus Brings Fire
 to Mankind

A recurrent symbol for humanity's most heroic aspirations or riskiest behavior, Prometheus was originally one of the Titans, immortal giants descended from Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) who became the first pantheon or generation of Greek gods.

References to Prometheus appear in numerous legends and accounts of Greek mythology, but the most extended representation of Prometheus in classical literature is the tragic drama attributed to Aeschylus titled Prometheus Bound (5th century BC), where Prometheus is depicted chained by Zeus to a mountainside in the Caucasus of Eastern Europe in punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity.  (Fire = foundation of human technology.)

In religious or myth studies, Prometheus may be considered a "culture hero" or a "Trickster" figure who exemplifies both the heroic and dangerous aspects of humanity as it has developed in Western Civilization.

Resemblances to other religious or mythic figures:

Prometheus may resemble Satan, who rebelled against Jehovah / Yahweh as Prometheus rebelled against Zeus. or Lucifer, whose Hebrew name is variously translated as "the morning star" (the planet Venus) or "light-bringer."

Prometheus may resemble Christ, who was punished for bringing

Prometheus may also resemble the creator-God of the Old Testament, as Greek legend describes Prometheus creating the first humans from clay or earth.

Prometheus's name signifies "forethought" or "foresight." ("Pro" here means what it does in "pro-active." The name of his brother Epimetheus signifies "afterthought" or "hindsight.")

Literary appearances: Versions of the Prometheus legend are recounted or referred to in many ancient sources such as Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days (8th c. BC) as well as writings by Sappho, Aesop, and Ovid. Thus the story was familiar and widespread in Classical Greece, Rome, to subsequent generations and neighboring lands, and to later scholars and writers in Europe and beyond.

More recently, the name and legend of Prometheus appear here and there in science fiction, comics, cartoons, electronic gaming, even science--the 61st element is named Promethium, and Prometheus is the name of a moon of Saturn.

Prometheus, a 2012 science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott, took its name from a space ship exploring traces of an ancient alien race involved in the creation of human life.

Prometheus features prominently in three major works of ancient and modern literature.

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound (5th century BCE)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound (1820), four-act lyrical drama


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Prometheus" (1772-4, 1789)

Prometheus (1934; bronze) by Paul Manship, Rockefeller Center NY






victim of Zeus tyrant; ideal of behavior that's not just martial or militaristic (cf. Hector) patriotic, family man

brave in opposing arbitrary power, moral courage, doing what right even when punishment is dire

change or advance in type of human integrity

Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus

knowledge comes with a price, new knowledge

Promethean moment, test of atomic bomb, great scientific triumph > anxieties, fears "a thing foul and awesome"

instead of upholding status quo, challenged


Olga Raggio (1958) summarizes the Renaissance attitude toward Prometheus stated in Marsilio Ficino's Quaestiones Quinque de Mente (1476-77): "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

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.



Heinrich Fuger, Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind (1817)



PROMETHEUS was the Titan god of forethought and crafty counsel who was entrusted with the task of moulding mankind out of clay. His attempts to better the lives of his creation brought him into direct conflict with Zeus. Firstly he tricked the gods out of the best portion of the sacrificial feast, acquiring the meat for the feasting of man. Then, when Zeus withheld fire, he stole it from heaven and delivered it to mortal kind hidden inside a fennel-stalk. As punishment for these rebellious acts, Zeus ordered the creation of Pandora (the first woman) as a means to deliver misfortune into the house of man, or as a way to cheat mankind of the company of the good spirits. Prometheus meanwhile, was arrested and bound to a stake on Mount Kaukasos where an eagle was set to feed upon his ever-regenerating liver (or, some say, heart). Generations later the great hero Herakles came along and released the old Titan from his torture.

Prometheus was loosely identified in cult and myth with the fire-god Hephaistos and the giant Tityos.


Prometheus bound, Laconian black-figure amphoriskos C6th B.C., Vatican City Museums


Aeschylus, in his trilogy Prometheus, added various new features to it, for, according to him, Prometheus himself is an immortal god, the friend of the human race, the giver of fire, the inventor of the useful arts, an omniscient seer, an heroic sufferer, who is overcome by the superior power of Zeus, but will not bend his inflexible mind. Although he himself belonged to the Titans, he is nevertheless represented as having assisted Zeus against the Titans (Prom. 218), and he is further said to have opened the head of Zeus when the latter gave birth to Athena (Apollod. i. 3. § 6). But when Zeus succeeded to the kingdom of heaven, and wanted to extirpate the whole race of man, the place of which he proposed to give to quite a new race of beings, Prometheus prevented the execution of the scheme, and saved the human race from destruction (Prom. 228, 233). He deprived them of their knowledge of the future, and gave them hope instead (248, &c.). He further taught them the use of fire, made them acquainted with architecture, astronomy, mathematics, the art of writing, the treatment of domestic animals, navigation, medicine, the art of prophecy, working in metal, and all the other arts (252, 445, &c., 480, &c.). But, as in all these things he had acted contrary to the will of Zeus, the latter ordered Hephaestus to chain him to a rock in Scythia, which was done in the presence of Cratos and Bia, two ministers of Zeus. In Scythia he was visited by the Oceanides; Io also came to him, and he foretold her the wanderings and sufferings which were yet in store for her, as well as her final relief (703, &c.). Hermes then likewise appears, and desires him to make known a prophecy which was of great importance to Zeus, for Prometheus knew that by a certain woman Zeus would beget a son, who was to dethrone his father, and Zeus wanted to have a more accurate knowledge of this decree of fate. But Prometheus steadfastly refused to reveal the decree of fate, whereupon Zeus, by a thunderbolt, sent Prometheus, together with the rock to which he was chained, into Tartarus (Horat. Carm. ii. 18, 35). After the lapse of a long time, Prometheus returned to the upper world, to endure a fresh course of suffering, for he was now fastened to mount Caucasus, and tormented by an eagle, which every day, or every third day, devoured his liver, which was restored again in the night (Apollon. Rhod. ii. 1247, &c. iii. 853; Strab. xv. p. 688 ; Philostr. Vit. Apoll. ii. 3; Hygin. Poet. Astr. ii. 15; Aeschyl. Prom. 1015, &c.). This state of suffering was to last until some other god, of his own accord, should take his place, and descend into Tartarus for him (Prom. 1025). This came to pass when Cheiron, who had been incurably wounded by an arrow of Heracles, desired to go into Hades; and Zeus allowed him to supply the place of Prometheus (Apollod. ii. 5. § 4; comp. Cheiron). According to others, however, Zeus himself delivered Prometheus, when at length the Titan was prevailed upon to reveal to Zeus the decree of fate, that, if he should become by Thetis the either of a son, that son should deprive him of the sovereignty. (Serv. ad Virg. Eclog. vi. 42 ; Apollod. iii. 13. § 5; Hygin. Fab. 54; comp. Aeschyl. Prom. 167, &c. 376.)

There was also an account, stating that Prometheus had created men out of earth and water, at the very beginning of the human race, or after the flood of Deucalion, when Zeus is said to have ordered him and Athena to make men out of the mud, and the winds to breathe life into them (Apollod. i. 7. § 1; Ov. Met. i. 81; Etym. Mag. s. v. Promętheus). Prometheus is said to have given to men something of all the qualities possessed by the other animals (Horat Carm. i. 16. 13). The kind of earth out of which Prometheus formed men was shown in later times near Panopeus in Phocis (Paus. x. 4. § 3), and it was at his suggestion that Deucalion, when the flood approached, built a ship, and carried into it provisions, that he and Pyrrha might be able to support themselves during the calamity (Apollod. i. 7. § 2). Prometheus, in the legend, often appears in connection with Athena, e. g., he is said to have been punished on mount Caucasus for the criminal love he entertained for her (Schol. ad Apollon. Rhod. ii. 1249) and he is further said, with her assistance, to have ascended into heaven, and there secretly to have lighted his torch at the chariot of Helios, in order to bring down the fire to man (Serv. ad Virg. Eclog. vi. 42). At Athens Prometheus had a sanctuary in the Academy, from whence a torch-race took place in honour of him (Paus. i. 30. § 2; Schol. ad Soph. Oed. Col. 55; Harpocrat. s. v. lampas).

Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.

Hesiod, Works and Days 42 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) :
"For the gods keep hidden from men the means of life [crops]. Else 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. But Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it, because Prometheus the crafty deceived him; therefore he planned sorrow and mischief against men. He hid fire; but that the noble son of Iapetos stole again for men from Zeus the counsellor in a hollow fennel-stalk, so that Zeus who delights in thunder did not see it. But afterwards Zeus who gathers the clouds said to him in anger: ‘Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire--a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.’
So said the father of men and gods, and laughed aloud. And he bade famous Hephaistos make haste and mix earth with water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet, lovely maiden-shape, like to the immortal goddesses in face [Pandora] . . . But when he had finished the sheer, hopeless snare [Pandora the first woman created by the gods], the Father sent [Hermes] . . . to take it to Epimetheus as a gift. And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men. But he took the gift, and afterwards, when the evil thing was already his, he understood."


Prometheus (1934; bronze) by Paul Manship, Rockefeller Center NY









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