Once, long ago, the gods and the humans convened at the city of Mecone to decide on the gifts and sacrifices that humans would be obliged to provide for the gods in response to their many blessings. Prometheus, the creator of humans according to some myths, and whose name literally means forethought, came forth to represent humanity. He tried to deceive and outwit Zeus by slaughtering a sacrificial animal, a large ox, and by cutting it into pieces. He put the pieces in two piles, so that in one of the piles he placed the meat, i.e. the edible parts and covered them with the skin of the sacrificed ox and placed the stomach, which was the worst part of the animal, on top of it to make it look undesirable, while the other pile consisted of bones alone, but were covered with layers of shiny fat to make it look more desirable. Prometheus then invited Zeus to choose between the two piles, hoping that he would choose the more attractive one, he said:

Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take whichever of these portions your heart within you bids.
Hesiod in the Theogony

But Zeus being the wise god that he was instantly saw through this deception, and in a controlled anger he decided to pick the lesser pile in order to have a good reason to punish the humans. As punishment for the deception by Prometheus, he deprived humans from fire, which left them cold and shivering in the night. But Prometheus knew that life would be tough and challenging for humans without fire, so he decided to steal fire from the gods and return it back to the humans. This angered Zeus even further which made him punish Prometheus instead this time around, so he had Prometheus chained to a rock somewhere on the Caucasus Mountains. Upon this rock a eagle would arrive daily to peck at his body in order to consume his liver, which was then renewed each passing day.

Salvator Rosa Painting of Prometheus being tortured by an eagle

Prometheus being tortured by an eagle by Salvator Rosa

Prometheus suffered for the longest time until he was finally saved by the hero Heracles, who arrived and slew the eagle with his bow and arrow.

After a while Zeus and Prometheus reconciled and Prometheus was deployed by Zeus to serve as the protector of humanity and their cultures.

Quotes on Prometheus

‘Zeus, most glorious and greatest of the eternal gods, take which ever of these portions your heart within you bids.’ So he said, thinking trickery. But Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, saw and failed not to perceive the trick, and in his heart he thought mischief against mortal men which also was to be fulfilled. With both hands he took up the white fat and was angry at heart, and wrath came to his spirit when he saw the white ox-bones craftily tricked out: and because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars. But Zeus who drives the clouds was greatly vexed and said to him:

`Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!’
Hesiod in the Theogony

So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian race of mortal men who live on the earth. But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire.
Hesiod in the Theogony

I must bear
What is ordained with patience, being aware
Necessity doth front the universe
With an invincible gesture.
Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound

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.
Franz Kafka (Prometheus)

Morals in the Myth

  1. Prometheus is known to be a trickster god, but sometimes the tricks you play are seen through and you thus suffer the consequences. It is likely that in some versions of this story, Zeus was indeed tricked by Prometheus, but Hesiod in his respect for the supreme god Zeus decided to share the version where Zeus is wise enough to see through the deception.
  2. Why did Prometheus decide to trick Zeus to begin with? What did he know that we don’t? Maybe he knew that we humans were going to get the short end of the stick, that we were going to sacrifice too much to the gods and keep too little to ourselves. In that case was he justified in doing what he did, deceiving the king of the gods?
  3. Prometheus is a champion of humanity in a way, and in some myths he is even the creator of the human species, in his pity for us he risks it all to bring us the gift of fire. An act which results in him suffering deeply for years. Moreover Prometheus is perhaps the worthiest of the gods to be worshipped, if not worshipped at least respected and honoured.
  4. If you’ve read your history books, you may be aware that fire is one of the most crucial discoveries of early humans. To cook, create (metalworking, hardening bricks, building houses) and for shelter, the use of fire/heat was and is the most useful tool and technology at our disposal. In other words, Prometheus brought us the fire of divine wisdom and the precondition to the development of all of the arts of civilization which we enjoy today.
  5. In a way this story can be interpreted as providing a mythological explanation to the ancient Greek practice of sacrificing only the bones and fat to the gods while keeping the meat for themselves. It is one of the few etiological stories of ancient Greece.

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