Prometheus, the myth and its interpretations

Pervivencia de la mitología en el cine
El mito de Prometeo
El mito de Pandora
Relación Pandora y Prometeo
El mito de Perseo

L'ètica en la medicina

Prometheus and his influence on culture and scientific advances


The myth and its interpetations

The myth of Prometheus is, undoubtedly, the most attractive, symbolic and inspiring one in Greek mythology. It is so for various reasons, but basically because it represents three very important roles in the story of the creation of man: he is the creator of the first man, the benefactor of the new species to which he has given life and, at the same time, he is the indirect cause of the presence of evil in the world. Prometheus is, above all, the mythical image of what a human being represents: an almost philosophical duality between what makes us similar to animals and what differentiates us from them, that is, our divine nature.


Prometheus is a titan in Greek mythology and belongs to the third generation of gods as he is son of the titans Japeto and Climene, brother of Atlas and Epimeteo, his antipode, and cousin of Zeus, the supreme god, who conquers his throne after long fights with his father Cronos and the other titans. Throughout the time, Prometheus has acquired a number of profiles, sometimes contradictory, which makes his figure even more symbolic. Firstly, and where most people place him, he appears in Hesiodo’s works Teogony and Works and Days. Both of them present the titan a bit negatively: he is very close to humans and confronted with Zeus, the supreme god. Putting aside his divine nature, Prometheus helps men by showing them something very important: fire. Hesiodo shows him as a deceiving figure. He avoided Zeus wiping out mankind (as it is explained later, the titan created man and so he takes care of his work) and to save them he cheated Zeus on two occasions:


Hesiodo narrates in this way the classical vision of Prometheus: nonconformist and rebellious, the only god who dares reject his nature and offend Zeus, who he considers to be a tyrant, to help men liberate themselves from their ties with the gods (sacrifices are still made) and teach them to progress. This vision will be even more humane and dramatic in Esquilo’s Prometheus Enchained, where the suffering titan resigns himself to his situation, considers his action and realises that his philanthropy has only brought misfortunes to both man and himself. But that is also a kinder vision as Prometheus is presented here as a martyr punished by an unfair, tyrannical god who did not care about mortal beings any more after he had ascended to the Olympus (Prometheus becomes then the paradigm of lost causes, causes which are a victory in themselves as they are a symbol of the spirit of struggle and progress typical of humans). It is also in his work where his beneficent profile is emphasised, as he explains he was the one who helped men to abandon their wild, primitive condition by giving them the secret of art and technology (sailing, astronomy). On the other hand, the confrontation between Zeus and Prometheus turns to a more human field due to its political background (politics, the organisation of the city was, for the Greek, a virtue Zeus had given men and and which proved their divine nature): Japeto’s son rebels against an unyielding order with the only aim to progress, which he manages to do in spite of being apparently beaten. Finally, Esquilo deepens into the etymological symbolism of Prometheus (in Greek, the one who foresees) and makes him the pioneer of fortune-telling (he shows men how to interpret a bird’s flight or the flames of sacrifice) and the owner of a prophetic gift, as Hesiodo had already shown when the titan warned his brother Epimeteo about the misfortune the fact a human accepted a present from god would bring. In Esquilo’s case, and as the poet Lucano will write in Dialogues of the Gods later , Prometheus saves himself when telling Zeus he will lose his power if he joins Metris, because his son will be more powerful than the father.


These are his best-known aspects (beneficient, rebellious and provident), but his story is much more complex: all though Antiquity, he was given various attributes, including that of "Creator of mankind", conceived by Plato in his Dialogues and Esopo in his Fables, and which coincides with the popular side of the myth. Undoubtedly, that is the most appealing feature of Japeto’s son and the one that has been more important for other cultures (humans believe in gods who are beneficial and Prometheus is, no doubt, the best example), but that feature was left aside by mythographists until it was interpreted by Goethe, who praised Ovidio’s Metamorphosis, a real bridge between his prehistory in the Middle East and the modern version:


"natus homo est, sive hunc divinesemine fecit ille opifex rerum, mundo melioris origo"


The Metamorphosis stated a fact that, eventually, would be considered as a result of evolution: Prometheus was given a function beyond "bearer of fire" or "farsighter" (the fire had a clearly mystic function and was used for purification and also by the priests to find out the destiny of men). That function was that of creator, transmitted to Greece by the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, which worshiped a divine creator: Enki in Sumerian culture and Atrahasis in the Babilonian. Neither of them was related to fire, an element which was added later. Atrahasis, especially, was shown in the Babilonian Poem of Creation as a previous version of the titan. Even the translation of his name is quite close to the name Prometheus, as it meant "shaking stick", referring to the similarity between a stick and the male sexual organ for it has to be rubbed or shaken to produce fire. Both of them produce life, but in various cultures Prometheus was the god creator and acquired different qualities, among them that of fire. Even the name Prometheus is said to come from the Babilonian "pramantha" which means, again "shaking stick". Another aspect of the parallelism with Ea/Atrahasis is that both are descendants of the first divinities and both help a greater god: the god of the storm for Ea/Atrahasis and Zeus for the titan (we must remember that Prometheus is the only titan that fights side by side with Zeus and his brother because he does not accept Cronos’s tyranny). Hesiodo had to look for a Greek equivalent for Atrahasis, but Ovidio had to give Prometheus another quality: that of fortune –telling as he warned his son Deucalion about the flood that Jupiter was planning to send to the earth. But, surprisingly enough, Atrahasis is considered to have saved mankind from the flood. Ethimologically, his name also meant "the most intelligent one" (the analogy with the ethimology of the name Prometheus comes from here). Atrahasis was given advice by Ea to avoid the flood, in the same way the titan did with his son. Ovid took the most ancient eastern influences and made Prometheus the creator of man, and both he and Hasid are based on the Sumerian tradition of the division of the history of mankind.


Ovidio took classical influences like those of Nicandro of Colofon, Pindaro, and other Greek models that have been lost. Both in Ovidio and Hesiodo, the structure of the ages is very similar to that of the Poem of Atrahasis, and it is useful to articulate two very close myths: that of the creation and the flood, both with an oriental basis. As Hesiodo explained, there was also chaos in the Sumerian poem of creation, and a pattern of divine generations followed one another. Each civilization put their own gods (Marduk for the Babilonians, Zeus for the Greek) on top of the hierarchy. In addition, the parallelism continues with the universal flood, already present in Babilonia and Greece, but best known thanks to Noah. The titan warns his son Deucalion and his wife Pirra (Epimeteo and Pandora’s daughter) about the coming catastrophe (again the prophetic and beneficient gift) while Ea warns Atrahasis (parallelism with Deucalion) and allows him to build an ark so that he can save his family and some animals. Back to Greek mythology, Deaucalion and Pirra are the new modellers of the human race as they are the only survivors and they are closely related to Prometheus. We could even say that the stones Pausanias described may be the ones Deucalion and Pirra used to create men and women.


Esopo described in his fable Prometheus and Men how Zeus’s cousin modelled all living creatures out of clay, without any help from the other gods. For Protagoras and Plato, Prometheus and his brother Epimeteo are the creators of mankind. Both incarnate two very human aspects: cleverness and stupidity. But for the philosophers, they both give out the qualities to animals (Prometheus provides man with intelligence) and it is the community of gods that create man, whereas Ovidio claims Prometheus himself creates man out of water, earth and fire.


In conclusion, the myth of Prometheus is the axis of other myths with similar themes. Prometheus takes part in the creation of mankind and it is his son, with his help, the one who restores the human race after the flood. But Prometheus is more than that: he symbolises the essence of the human being and of life, the struggle to progress, the sacrifice to gain knowledge. Prometheus symbolises human duality: the divine nature which involves the power to create and evolve and, at the same time, the weakness of human nature. For these reasons he is often related to Christ, another redemptor who suffers to teach knowledge (faith) to men. Prometheus is the prototype of progress, the spirit of freedom against oppression and human emancipation. It also symbolises the presence of pain in human beings, a permanent feature in all ages, of culture and freedom, both capable of challenging and defeating tyranny. But if we are to interpret him in a different way, Prometheus is telling us that we should defend life in front of reason, that technology and intelligence have to walk hand in hand but that both have to sacrifice to make progress; and that knowledge cannot be an end in itself, but that we have to find happiness in it and develop a feeling of integration of our own personality.