Prometheus (Ancient Greek: Προμηθεύς, Προμηθέως; Latin: Prometheus) is a titan from ancient Greek mythology. Son of Iapetus (who is also a titan) and the oceanid Klimena. Prometheus is the brother of the titans Atlas, Epimetheus and Meneteus. He is the father of Deucalion (Deucalion and Pira are the only people who survived the Flood, a myth here: “Deucalion and Pira“).
The myth tells (first person, Prometheus is the narrator), how in the battle between the Titans and the gods, Prometheus supported Zeus, who did not like either the Titans or him. He is punished for giving people fire and knowledge. He is often portrayed as a philanthropist, hating tyranny, fighting for justice. He opposes Zeus several times.
There is also a legend that Prometheus and the goddess Demeter created the first man from clay – he created him, and she breathed life into him.
Myth of Prometheus
Desert, wilderness at the very edge of the earth, in the land of the Scythians. The sharp peaks of scary rocks rise above the clouds. Around – no vegetation; not a single blade of grass is visible, everything is bare and gloomy. Dark piles of stones rise from the rocks everywhere. The sea roars and bobs, crashing its waves at the foot of the rocks, and salt spray rises high. The coastal rocks are covered with sea foam. Far behind the rocks are the snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains, shrouded in a light mist. Terrible clouds gradually envelop the distance, hiding the mountain peaks. Clouds rise higher and higher in the sky and obscure the sun. Everything gets even darker. Sad, inhospitable place. No human foot has ever set foot here before. It was here, at the end of the earth, that Zeus’ servants brought the chained titan Prometheus to chain him to the top of the rock with unbreakable chains. The invincible servants of the Thunderer – Power and Authority – lead Prometheus. Their huge bodies are as if carved out of granite. Their hearts do not know what mercy is; compassion never shines in their eyes, their faces are as harsh as the rocks that rise around them. Sad, with a low head, the god Hephaestus follows them with his heavy hammer. He has a terrible task ahead of him. He must nail his friend Prometheus with his own hands. Hephaestus is deeply saddened by his friend’s fate, but he does not dare to disobey his father’s order, the thunderer Zeus. He knows how mercilessly Zeus punishes disobedience.
Strength and Power took Prometheus to the top of the cliff and invited Hephaestus to begin work. Their cruel words make Hephaestus suffer even more for his friend. Reluctantly, he grabs his huge hammer, only necessity compelling him to obey. But Strength makes him hurry:
“Hurry, hurry, take the shackles! Nail Prometheus with the hammer to the rock with strong blows. Your grief for him is in vain, because you grieve for an enemy of Zeus.”
Strength threatens Hephaestus with the wrath of Zeus if Hephaestus does not nail Prometheus so that nothing can free him. Hephaestus nailed Prometheus’ arms and legs to the rock with unbreakable chains. How he hates his art now – thanks to this art he has to nail his friend to long tortures. The relentless servants of Zeus are constantly watching his work.
“Hit the hammer harder! Tighten the shackles! Don’t you dare weaken them! Prometheus is cunning, he skillfully knows how to find a way out of insurmountable obstacles ” – says Strength. – “Tie them tighter, let him understand here what it means to deceive Zeus.”
“Oh, how your cruel words suit your whole stern appearance!”, Hephaestus shouted, getting to work.
The rock trembles from the heavy blows of the hammer, and the roar of the powerful blows spreads from one end of the earth to the other. Finally, Prometheus is nailed. But that’s not all; he must also be nailed to the wall, piercing his chest with a steel, unbreakable blade. Hephaestus lingers.
“Oh, Prometheus!”, he shouted. – “How I grieve when I see your suffering!”
“You’re late again!”, Strength tells Hephaestus angrily. “You continue to mourn the enemy of Zeus! Be careful not to grieve for yourself.”
Finally, it’s all over. Everything is done as Zeus commanded. The titanium is nailed and its chest is pierced with a steel blade. Laughing at Prometheus, Strength tells him:
“Well, here you can be as arrogant as you want; be proud as before! If you will, give now to the mortal divine gifts which you have stolen! We will see if your mortals will be able to help you. You will have to think for yourself how to break free from these shackles.”
But Prometheus keeps a proud silence. All the time Hephaestus nailed him to the rock, he did not utter a word, not even a low moan escaped him – he did not betray his suffering.
Zeus’ servants Power and Strength left, and with them went the sad Hephaestus. Prometheus was left alone. Now only the sea and the dark clouds could listen to him. Only now did a heavy moan break away from the pierced chest of the mighty titan, only now did he begin to mourn his evil fate.
Prometheus shouted loudly. His complaints show unspeakable suffering and inexpressible sorrow.
“Oh, divine ether, and you, fast-moving winds, oh, springs of rivers and the unceasing roar of the sea waves, oh, earth, universal great-grandmother, oh, all-seeing sun, circling the whole earth – I call you all to witness! See what I endure! You see what a disgrace I must endure for countless years! Oh, misfortune, misfortune! I will wall of torment both now and for many, many centuries! How can I end my suffering? But what am I talking about? I knew everything that would happen. This torment did not come to me unexpectedly. I knew that the dictates of a terrible fate were inevitable. I have to endure this torment! And for what? Because I gave the great gifts of death, that’s why I have to suffer so unbearably and not be able to escape this torment! Oh, misfortune, misfortune!”
But there was a low noise, as if from the fluttering of wings, as if the flight of light bodies stirred the air. From the distant shores of the white-haired Ocean, from a cool cave, with a light breeze, oceanids fly in a chariot over the rock. They heard the blows of Hephaestus’ hammer, reached them and the groans of Prometheus. Tears veiled the beautiful eyes of the oceanids when they saw the mighty titanium chained to the rock. He was very dear to them. His father Iapetus was their father Ocean’s brother, and Prometheus’ wife Hesiona was their sister. The oceanids surrounded the rock. Their grief for Prometheus was deep. But the words with which he swears to Zeus and all the Olympian gods frighten them. They fear that Zeus will make the suffering of the titan even worse. The oceanids do not know why he was punished. Filled with compassion, they ask Prometheus to tell them what Zeus punished him for, what the titan angered Zeus with.
Prometheus Tells a Story
Prometheus tells them how he helped Zeus in his fight against the Titans, how he persuaded his mother Themis and the great goddess of the earth Gaia to go to the side of Zeus. Zeus defeated the Titans and brought them down on the advice of Prometheus into the bowels of the terrible Tartarus. Zeus seized power over the world and shared it with the new Olympian gods, and the Thunderbolt did not give power to those titans who helped him in the world. Zeus hates the Titans, he is afraid of their terrible power. Zeus did not trust Prometheus either and hated him. The hatred of Zeus flared up even more when Prometheus began to defend the unfortunate mortals who had lived under Cronus and whom Zeus wanted to destroy. But Prometheus took pity on people who did not yet have reason; he did not want them to descend unhappily into the dark realm of Hades. He gave them hope that people did not know, and stole the divine fire for them, even though he knew what punishment would befall him for it. The fear of terrible punishment did not stop the proud, powerful titan in his desire to help people. He was not deterred by the warnings of his wise mother, the great Themis.
The oceanids listened with trepidation to Prometheus’ story. But here, in a fast-winged chariot, the wise old man Ocean flew to the rock alone. He tries to persuade Prometheus to submit to the power of Zeus: because Prometheus must know that there is no point in fighting the victor of the terrible Typhon. Ocean feels sorry for Prometheus, but he himself suffers when he sees the torments that Prometheus suffers. The wise old man is ready to fly to the bright Olympus to ask Zeus to have mercy on the titan, if he would even incur the wrath of the Thunderer with his pleas for him. He believes that the wise words of the defender often alleviate anger. But all of Ocean’s pleas are in vain; Prometheus proudly answers him:
“No, try to save yourself. I’m afraid your compassion will cause you trouble. I will endure to the end all the evil that fate has sent me. And you, Ocean, be careful not to provoke the wrath of Zeus with your intercession for me.”
“Oh, I see,” said Ocean to Prometheus with sadness, “that with these words you are forcing me to return without achieving anything. But believe me, oh, Prometheus, that only my concern for your fate and my love for you have brought me here!”
“No! Go away! Rather get away from here! Let me be!”, cried Prometheus.
With heartache, Ocean leaves Prometheus. He flies away in his winged chariot, and Prometheus continues to tell the Oceanids what he did for humans, how he benefited them by violating the will of Zeus. In Mount Mosha, on Lemnos, from the hearth of his friend Hephaestus, Prometheus stole fire for the people. He taught the people the arts, gave them knowledge, taught them to count, read and write. He introduced them to metals, taught them how to extract them from the bowels of the earth and process them. Prometheus tamed the wild bull for the people and put a yoke on it so that the people could use the power of the oxen, cultivating their fields. Prometheus harnessed the horse to the chariot and made it obedient to man. The wise titan built the first ship, furnished it, and stretched a linen sail on it to carry man faster across the boundless sea. In the past, people did not know the drugs, did not know how to cure diseases, were defenseless against them; but Prometheus revealed to them the power of medicines to tame diseases. He taught them all that relieves life’s sorrows and makes life happier and happier. It was with this that he drew the wrath of Zeus, and it was for this that the Thunderer punished him.
But Prometheus will not suffer forever. He knows that the mighty Thunderbolt will also be met by an evil fate. And he will not escape his fate! Prometheus knows that the kingdom of Zeus is not eternal: he will be overthrown by the high royal Olympus. The titan prophet also knows the great secret of how Zeus can avoid his evil destiny, but he will not reveal this secret to him. No force, no threats, no torment will snatch her from the mouth of the proud Prometheus.
Prometheus finished his story. The Oceanids listened in amazement. They marveled at the great wisdom and invincible power of the spirit of the mighty titan who dared to rise against the thunderer Zeus.
Horror gripped them again when they heard the fate of Prometheus threatening Zeus. They knew that if these threats reached Olympus, the Thunderer would stop at nothing but learn the secret of fate. The Oceanids look at Prometheus with tear-filled eyes, shocked at the thought that the dictates of a cruel fate are inevitable. There is a deep silence on the rock, interrupted only by the incessant noise of the sea.
Suddenly in the distance there is a barely heard, barely perceptible moan of grief and pain. Here he is again brought to the rock. This moan is getting closer and stronger. Chased by a huge hornet sent by Hera, all in blood covered with foam, the unfortunate Io, the daughter of the river god Inach, the first king of Argolida, runs in a furious, insane escape. Tortured, exhausted from wandering, tormented by the hornet’s sting, Io stops in front of the chained Prometheus. Moaning aloud, she recounts what she must have endured and begs the wise titan:
“Oh, Prometheus! Here, after my wanderings so far, please reveal to me when the end of my suffering will come, when I will finally find peace.”
“Oh, believe me, Io!”, Prometheus replied. “You better not know that. You will go around many more countries and you will meet many horrors on your way. Your hard road passes through the land of the Scythians, through the high snowy Caucasus, through the land of the Amazons, to the Bosphorus – so they will call it in your honor when you swim across it. Then you will wander around for a long time Asia. You will pass by countries where deadly gorgonians live; on their heads snakes twist instead of hair. Beware of them! Beware of griffins and one-eyed arimaspi; and you will meet them on your way. Eventually you will reach the Biblical Mountains, from where the Nile descends its graceful waters. It is there, in the country that irrigates the Nile, at its mouth you will finally find peace. There Zeus will return to you the previous beautiful image and a son will be born to you – Epaphus. He will rule over all of Egypt and will be the progenitor of a glorious generation of heroes. From this kind will come the mortal who will free me from the shackles. Here is what my mother, the prophetess Themis, told me about your fate, Io.”
Io shouted out loud:
“Oh, misfortune, misfortune! Oh, how much more misfortune befalls me! My heart trembles with terror in my chest! Madness overwhelms me again, the fiery vein is driven into my tormented body again, I am again deprived of the gift of the word! Oh, misfortune, misfortune!”
Io, rolling her eyes madly, ran furiously away from the rock. As if carried away by a whirlwind, she flew on. With a loud hum, the hornet flew after her, and its sting burned like fire for the unfortunate Io.
Clouds of dust hid her from the eyes of Prometheus and the Oceanids. Silent and quieter, Io’s cries reached the rock and finally died away in the distance like a quiet mournful moan.
Prometheus and the Oceanids were silent, mourning the unfortunate Io; but suddenly Prometheus shouted angrily:
“Torture me as much as you want, Thunderer Zeus, but the day will come when you will be reduced to nothing. You will be deprived of your kingdom and thrown into darkness. Then the curses of your father Cronus will be fulfilled! None of the gods knows how this evil rice can deviate from you! Only I know that! Here you are now sitting mighty on the bright Olympus and throwing lightning and thunder, but they will not help you, they are powerless before the inevitable fate. Oh, when you become nothing, you will know the difference between power and slavery!”
Fear clouded the eyes of the oceanids, and terror drove the redness from their beautiful cheeks. Finally, reaching out to Prometheus with hands as white as sea foam, they shouted:
“Madman! How are you not afraid to threaten the king of gods and men like that, Zeus? Oh, Prometheus, he will send you even more torment! Think about your destiny, have mercy on yourself!”
“I’m ready for anything!”
“But the wise man worships inexorable destiny!”
“Oh, you pray, beg the terrible ruler for mercy! Crawl on your knees in front of him! But for me – what is the Thunderer Zeus for me? Why should I be afraid of him? I am not destined to die! Let Zeus do whatever he wants. He does not have long to rule over the gods!”
As soon as Prometheus uttered these words, the messenger of the gods, Hermes, flew in the air like a shooting star and stood before Prometheus. Zeus sent him to ask the titan to reveal the secret: who would overthrow Zeus and how he could escape the dictates of fate. Hermes threatens Prometheus with terrible punishment if he does not listen. But the mighty titan is adamant and mockingly replies to Hermes:
“You have to be a kid and have a child’s mind to hope you can know at least something. Know that I will not replace my torment with the slavish service of Zeus. I’d rather stay here chained to a rock than become a faithful servant of the tyrant Zeus. There is no such punishment, no such torture, with which Zeus could frighten me and snatch even a word from my mouth. No, he will not learn how he can be saved from fate; the tyrant Zeus will never know who will take away his power!”
“But listen, Prometheus, what will happen to you if you refuse to do the will of Zeus,” Hermes replies to the titan. “With one flash of his lightning, he will fall this rock with you into the dark abyss. There, in a stone dungeon, many, many centuries deprived of sunlight, you will suffer in deep darkness. Centuries will pass and Zeus will take you out of the abyss again, but he will take you out of joy. Every day an eagle will fly in, which Zeus will send and which with its sharp claws and beak will tear your liver; your liver will grow again and your suffering will be more and more terrible. Thus you will hang on the rock until another voluntarily agrees to descend instead of you into the dark realm of Hades. Think, Prometheus, isn’t it better to obey Zeus! You know that Zeus never threatens in vain!”
The proud titan remained steadfast. Could something scare his heart? Suddenly the earth shook, everything around shook; deafening thunder and lightning flashed with unbearable force. A fierce black whirlwind raged. Foamy waves rose like mountains in the sea. The rock swayed. Amid the roar of the storm, amid the thunder and roar of an earthquake, the terrible cry of Prometheus was heard:
“Oh, what a blow Zeus aimed at me to cause terror in my heart! Oh, venerable Mother Themis, oh, ether that streams light for all! Look at how unfairly Zeus punishes me!”
The rock with Prometheus nailed to it collapsed with a terrible roar in the immeasurable abyss, in the eternal darkness.
Centuries passed and again Zeus raised Prometheus in the dark. But his suffering did not end; they became even heavier. He lies again, stretched out on the high rock, nailed to it, chained. The scorching rays of the sun burn his body, storms whirl over him, rains and hail whip his emaciated body, and in winter snow in rags falls on Prometheus and freezing cold hardens his limbs. But even this torment is not enough! Every day a huge eagle flies, fluttering its mighty wings, on the rock. He lands on Prometheus’ chest and tears them with steel-sharp claws. The eagle rubs Titan’s liver with its beak. The blood flows in streams and the rock turns red from it; the black clots freeze the blood at the foot of the rock; in the sun it decomposes and an unbearable stench fills the surrounding air. Every morning the eagle fills up and catches up with its bloody feast. At night, the wounds heal and the liver grows again to give new food to the eagle during the day. These torments continue for years, centuries. The mighty titan Prometheus was exhausted, but suffering did not break his proud spirit.
Hercules Saves Prometheus
The Titans long ago reconciled with Zeus and obeyed him. They acknowledged his authority and Zeus freed them from the gloomy Tartarus. Now they, huge, powerful, came to the end of the earth, to the rock where Prometheus lay nailed. They went around the rock and persuaded Prometheus to obey Zeus. Prometheus’ mother Themis also came and begged her son to humble his proud spirit and not to oppose Zeus. She begs her son to feel sorry for her because she suffers so unbearably as she watches his suffering. Zeus himself forgot his previous anger. Now his power is strong, nothing can shake it, he is no longer afraid of anything. Moreover, he no longer rules as a tyrant, but protects the states, respects the laws. He protects people and justice among them. There is only one thing that worries the Thunderer – this is the secret that only Prometheus knows. Zeus is ready to pardon the mighty titan if Prometheus reveals his fateful secret. The time is near when the sufferings of Prometheus will end. The great hero has already been born and matured, whom fate has destined to free the titan from the shackles. The relentless Prometheus, as before, keeps the secret, ruined by torment; but the forces begin to leave him as well.
Finally, the great hero, who is destined to free Prometheus, during his travels comes here, at the end of the earth. This hero is Heracles, the strongest of men, powerful as a god. He watches the torments of Prometheus in horror and compassion overwhelms him. The titan tells Heracles about his evil destiny and prophesies to him what other great feats he will perform. Hercules listens to the titan with full attention. But he has not yet seen the full horror of Prometheus’ suffering. In the distance you can hear the sound of strong wings – the eagle flies for its bloody feast. He howls high in the sky above Prometheus, ready to descend to him on his chest. Heracles did not allow him to tear Prometheus apart. He grabbed his bow, drew a deadly arrow from the archer, called on the archer Apollo to direct the arrow’s flight correctly, and released it. The bowstring hummed loudly, the arrow twisted high, and the pierced eagle fell into the stormy sea, at the very foot of the rock. The moment of liberation has come. From the high Olympus flew the fast Hermes. He spoke kindly to the mighty Prometheus and promised him immediate deliverance if he revealed the secret of how Zeus could escape his evil fate. The mighty Prometheus finally agreed to reveal the secret to Zeus and said:
“Let the Thunderer not marry the sea-goddess Thetis, for the goddesses of fate, the prophetic moirs, have drawn such a lot for Thetis: whoever her husband is, she will give birth to a son who will be more powerful than a father. Let the gods give Thetis as the wife of the hero Peleus and the son of Thetis and Peleus will be the greatest of the mortal heroes of Greece.”
Prometheus revealed the great secret. Heracles smashed his shackles with his heavy mace and snatched the strong steel blade from his chest, with which the titanium was nailed to the rock. Titan stood up, now he was free. His torments are over. Thus was fulfilled his prophecy that a mortal would set him free. With loud, joyful shouts, the Titans welcomed the release of Prometheus.
Since then, Prometheus has worn an iron ring in his hand, in which a stone from the rock has been mounted, where he has endured so many centuries of unspeakable torment.
Instead of Prometheus, the wise centaur Chiron agreed to descend into the underworld of the souls of the dead. In this way he got rid of the suffering caused by the incurable wound inflicted on him by Heracles.
Exposed mainly according to Aeschylus’ tragedy “The Nailed Prometheus”