HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 5 Cherry Fan
The Gift of Human Culture: Prometheus
With the issues of the Greek pantheon settled and Zeus more or less securely placed on his throne, we
come now to the origins of humanity, which are portrayed particularly in the stories of Prometheus and
Pandora, and also in the story of the Ages of Man. Since the story of Prometheus in particular occurs in
several texts for our course, we have the opportunity to see how a single myth is cast in several contexts.
In the Theogony, Hesiod introduces the story of Prometheus as an elaboration on the lineage of the
Titan Iapetus. He has just told the story of Zeus’ birth (478), of his being raised on Crete (479-500), and
of his having released the Cyclopes (501-506). The Titanomachy and Zeus’ eventual victory have thus
been foreshadowed. In the story of Prometheus, Hesiod jumps ahead not only to Zeus’ reign and the
place of mortals within it, but even to the pre-eminence of the hero Heracles. After detailing the fates of
Prometheus’ brothers (509-20), Hesiod describes Prometheus’ being bound and his liver being devoured
by an eagle.
"That bird Heracles, the valiant son of shapely-ankled Alcmene, slew. He delivered the son of Iapetus
from the cruel plague and released him from his affliction – not without the will of Olympian Zeus who
reigns on high, that the glory of Heracles the Theban-born might be yet greater than before over the
plenteous earth. This, then, he regarded, and honored his famous son."
The exploits of Heracles lie far in the future, but Hesiod doesn’t mind anticipating the end of the story,
perhaps because it emphasizes a character, Prometheus, whose name means “he who has cunning
intelligence beforehand”. In the Theogony, which largely serves to glorify Zeus, Hesiod shows that Zeus’
foreknowledge likewise extends far into the future. Heracles will come as a son of Zeus and a mortal
woman to reconcile the damage done by the champion of humanity who sought to transgress the
honour of Zeus.
The Prometheus Bound stems from a different era, the fifth-century BC, 250 years later than Hesiod’s
Theogony, Aeschylus was an Athenian and wrote for an audience of democratic citizens, In 480-79 BC
Athens had led the Greek world in repulsing the Persians, an empire ruled by an autocratic king. Tyrants
(tyrannoi) still ruled several cities (poleis) in the Greek world. Many of the tyrants were quite benevolent,
but Athens had deliberately expelled its harsh tyrant in 511. Tyranny was no longer an attractive option
for Athenians. The play makes clear its interest in this theme. Near the beginning, the character Might
claims that Prometheus must be punished, “so that he may learn to bear with the tyranny of Zeus” (10).
In his Works and Days, Hesiod is also less interested in glorifying Zeus than he is in the Theogony. He
instead wants to impress on his brother Perses how hard life is, and how hard Perses should be working
Page 1 of 5 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 5 Cherry Fan
to support himself. In this version Zeus appears the stern taskmaster anxious to punish Prometheus by
making human life more burdensome.
Aeschylus recasts the background to the Titanomachy, giving credit to Prometheus for Zeus' victory over
"With all that before me, it seemed best that, joining with my mother, I should place myself, a welcome
volunteer, on the side of Zeus; and it is by reason of my counsel that the cavernous gloom of Tartarus
now hides ancient Cronus and his allies within it."
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 219-22
With the victory won, Zeus thinks of destroying humanity.
"As soon as he had seated himself upon his father's throne, he immediately assigned to the deities their
several privileges and apportioned to them their proper powers. But of wretched mortals he took no
notice, desiring to bring the whole race to an end and create a new one in its place."
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 230-5
In response, Prometheus not only sought to defend men by appealing to Zeus, but he equipped them
"Hear the sum of the whole matter in the compass of one brief word - every art possessed by man
comes from Prometheus."
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 505-6
By the time Aeschylus was writing, human technology had advanced far beyond its state in 700 BC.
Aeschylus has Prometheus take credit for all of it. The Prometheus Bound dwells on the punishment of
Prometheus and its eventual end. But for the story of humanity, the earlier story, of Prometheus'
advocacy for humanity and "deception" of Zeus, Hesiod is more important.
Hesiod's treatment of Prometheus in the Theogony and Work and Days are essentially the same, but he
emphasizes different elements in the two accounts and the order of the narrative is different. In the
Theogony, Prometheus' initial trick is described most fully (cf. WD 48):
"For when the gods and mortal men were coming to a settlement at Mecone, even then Prometheus put
forward a great ox and set portions before them, trying to deceive the mind of Zeus. Before him he set
flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox stomach; but for them he put
the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat."
The scene is one in which there is to be a "settlement" (of honours) between gods and mortals. Unlike
the sacrifice performed by Hermes in Homeric Hymn 4, in which the god takes care to divide the sacrifice
evenly, Prometheus takes pains to make an uneven, deceptive distribution. There is a contest of wits
Page 2 of 5 HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 5 Cherry Fan
between Zeus and Prometheus. But both know how the story is to turn out. They are going through the
motions. Zeus acquiesces in accepting the roasting of the bones and fat as the gods' portion, and this
distribution becomes the pattern for sacrifices to follow (556-7). It becomes a charter for sacrifices.
But that doesn't mean that Zeus isn't angry. He is, and so he deprives humanity of fire (cf. WD 42-7, PB
109-11). What is the significance of this? Imagine where humanity would be without fire. Probably in a
similar position to our cousins, the apes. We would still live, but we could scarcely have any culture, let
alone civilization. Zeus "would not give the power of untiring fire to ash trees for the race of mortal men
who live on the earth" (563-4). The significance of ash trees is unclear, but elsewhere (Th 187, WD 145)
Hesiod seems to connect ash trees with an early period of human development. (The primitive process
of rubbing wood together to create fire may be connected with ash trees in particular.)
Prometheus' second crime is the stealing back of fire, the means for humans to provide for their own
livelihood, without the further aid of the gods. Zeus' response, the creation of woman, is described at
much greater length in the Work and Days.
"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."
Work and Days 57-8
The "evil thing" turns out to be women, represented as a "modest virgin" (572) in the Theogony and
named "Pandora" in the Works and Days (81). Hephaestus, the "lame one," creates her from the earth
(Th 571, WD 61), connecting the female aspect once again with the earth, and giving humanity also an
autochthonous heritage (from earth "-chthon" and itself "auto-").
In the Theogony, Hephaestus presents her "where the other gods and men wer