About
Greek Titan

Prometheus

Prometheus, the son of Iapetus, was a quick-witted Greek Titan who sided with the Olympians in their war against his Titan brethren. For gifting fire to humanity, he was sentenced to eternal torment by Zeus, but was eventually saved by the hero Heracles.

By Avi Kapach14 min read • Last updated on Jul. 11th, 2022
Prometheus Bound
  • According to one myth, Prometheus returned fire to mankind after it was taken away by Zeus as punishment for Prometheus’ trickery.

  • Yes. Though Prometheus was not one of the original twelve Titans, he was a son of one of those Titans and thus a second-generation Titan himself.

  • There was no common Greek myth for the creation of humanity. In the oldest traditions, Prometheus was simply a benefactor of humans rather than their creator, but by the Classical period (ca. 490–323 BCE), he was often said to have created humanity, too.

Prometheus, son of Iapetus, was a crafty Titan who acted as a benefactor of the first humans, giving them fire in defiance of the mighty Zeus. For this crime, he was fastened to a rock, where an eagle ate his liver every day for all eternity. Prometheus was also the father of the mortal Deucalion, a hero who helped to repopulate the world after a great flood nearly destroyed mankind.

For the Greeks and many who followed, Prometheus was revered as a champion of humanity, as well as a fount of wisdom, reason, and knowledge. In Athens, the center of his ritual observance, he was credited as the bringer of not only fire but also metallurgy as well. Alongside Athena and Hephaestus, Prometheus was celebrated by the city in connection with technology, craft, and the civilized arts.

#Etymology

The name “Prometheus” (Προμηθεύς, translit. Promētheús) stemmed from the Greek prefix προ- (pro-), meaning “before,” and the verbal root μηθ-/μαθ- (mēth-/math-), meaning “to think” (itself derived from the Indo-Germanic root *mendh-/*men-, also meaning “to think”).1 Prometheus is thus often translated as “forethinking”—one who knows or thinks about something before others. This name could be indicative of Prometheus’ role in bringing fire and metallurgy to humanity. It also distinguishes Prometheus from his brother Epimetheus, whose name is conversely translated as “afterthinking.”

Another possible etymology, derived from Indo-European linguistics, argues that the name actually originated from the Sanskrit root math-, meaning “to steal.”2 In this case, “Prometheus” thus refers to his theft of fire rather than to his intellectual capacities.

#Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Prometheus

    Προμηθεύς (translit. Promētheús)

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [pruh-MEE-thee-uhs, -thyoos]

    /ˈprəˈmi θi əs, -θyus/

#Epithets

Prometheus was given a handful of epithets in Greek literature, including πυρφόρος (pyrphóros, “fire-bearer”) and αἰπυμήτης (aipymḗtēs, “lofty-minded”).

#Other Names

According to Hesychius of Alexandria, a scholar of the fifth or sixth century CE, Prometheus was also called Ithas or Ithax (though in some traditions Ithas/Ithax was a distinct figure).3

#Attributes

Prometheus was known above all for his shrewd intelligence and cunning. During the Titanomachy, which pitted the Titans against the Olympian deities, Prometheus betrayed his brethren and sided with Zeus. However, this prudent choice of allegiance did not mean that Prometheus’ actions were always well advised. According to Hesiod, Prometheus was guilty of hybris (“insolence” or “hubris”) in trying to outwit Zeus. 

This ended poorly for the Titan, who is most commonly remembered for his gruesome punishment: Prometheus was chained to a cliff and had his liver torn out each day by an eagle. Because Prometheus was immortal, his liver would grow back, only to be torn out anew the next day. 

Prometheus Bound painting by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens (1618). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Google Arts and Culture / Public Domain

In ancient art, Prometheus was often depicted chained to his rock or being released from the rock by Heracles. Scenes showing him stealing fire or creating human beings are less common and only began to appear in later historical periods.4

#Family

In the best-known traditions, Prometheus was the son of the Titan Iapetus and the Oceanid Clymene.5 There were, however, other versions in which Prometheus’ mother was Asia (also an Oceanid)6 or Themis.7 His brothers included Epimetheus, Monoetius, and Atlas, but also, according to some traditions, Anchiale,8 Buphagus,9 and Dryas.10

Different sources list different wives for Prometheus. These include Asia,11 Axiothea,12 Celaeno,13 Clymene,14 Hesione,15 Pandora,16 Pryneia,17 and Pyrrha.18

Prometheus had a mortal son, Deucalion, who repopulated the earth after a great flood wiped out most of humanity. According to the Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes, Prometheus went on to father two other sons, Lycus and Chimareus.19 Other scholars listed two daughters, named Aidos20 and Protogeneia,21 though they are rarely mentioned. Finally, in some traditions Prometheus fathered Hellen, the ancestor of the Greek people (though most sources claim that Hellen was the son of Deucalion,22 and thus Prometheus’ grandson), or even Epimetheus (who is usually said to be Prometheus’ brother).23

#Family Tree

  • Parents
    father
    mothers
  • Siblings
    brothers
    sister
    • Anchiale
  • Consorts
    wives
    • Asia
    • Axiothea
    • Celaeno
    • Clymene
    • Hesione
    • Pandora
    • Pryneia
    • Pyrrha
  • Children
    sons
    daughters
    • Deucalion
    • Hellen
    • Aidos
    • Protogeneia

#Mythology

#Origins

As with most Titans, little is known of Prometheus’ origins. The Olympian gods and goddesses were at the center of Greek worship, while the Titans were viewed as a distant and largely irrelevant group. What is known about Prometheus comes from a hodgepodge of Greek sources, including Hesiod, Aeschylus, Plato, and Ovid. The diversity of these sources, spread across a number of eras and regions, has led to some apparent inconsistencies in his mythology.

In the earliest sources, Prometheus was a lesser Titan known for his wit and cunning. In the Theogony, for example, Hesiod describes him as “full of various wiles”24 and “ready-witted.”25 According to Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Prometheus switched sides during the Titanomachy and helped Zeus achieve dominion over the cosmos. In the aftermath of the conflict, he became a member of Zeus’ inner circle.

#Theft of Fire and Punishment

It was not long, however, before Prometheus fell from the gods’ favor. The poet Hesiod—in two different epics—tells of how Prometheus first incurred the wrath of Zeus by playing a trick on him.26 The gods had gathered for a banquet to forge their relationship with humankind when Prometheus presented Zeus with two sacrificial offerings. In one pile were the choice cuts of meat of a slaughtered bull, covered in unsightly skin and topped with the animal’s stomach; in the other (much larger) pile, there was nothing but bones, but these were more enticingly covered in white fat. 

Zeus saw through Prometheus’ trick but chose the second option anyway: the inedible parts of the animal wrapped up in a nice package. As a result, when humans sacrificed to the gods, they would only burn bones wrapped in fat, while saving the best cuts of meat for themselves.

Zeus raged at the Titan for being arrogant enough to try and fool a god: “Son of Iapetus, clever above all! So, sir, you have not yet forgotten your cunning arts!”27 In his anger, Zeus took fire away from humanity. However, Prometheus was as clever as Zeus had observed. When the opportunity presented itself, he snuck into Hephaestus’ workshop and retrieved the fire, then hid it in a hollowed-out fennel stalk and presented it to humanity. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (as well as other sources), Prometheus also used this opportunity to teach humanity craftsmanship and other important skills. 

Prometheus painting by Jan Cossiers, 1636-1638

Prometheus Carrying Fire by Jan Cossiers (1630s). Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

RKD / Public Domain

Once again, Zeus responded by punishing not only Prometheus but all of humanity. With Hephaestus and Athena, Zeus crafted a lovely young maiden named Pandora. Dressed in fine clothes and bedecked with jewels, Pandora was taught to be charming and coy. She was then given a jar filled with all the evils of the world (war, famine, death, disease) and sent to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus, who married her against Prometheus’ advice. 

Though she was told never to open the jar, Pandora’s curiosity soon got the better of her. Her act unleashed a host of evils on the world of men, forever spoiling the peaceful existence they once knew. Only hope remained trapped in the jar:

But the rest, countless plagues, wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full. Of themselves diseases come upon men continually by day and by night, bringing mischief to mortals silently; for wise Zeus took away speech from them. So is there no way to escape the will of Zeus.28

Prometheus himself was then chained to a rock (often said to be located in the Caucasus Mountains). Every day an eagle would eat his liver, which grew back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day. Some traditions claimed that Prometheus was eventually delivered from this torment by the mortal hero Heracles, who slayed the eagle and released the Titan from his bonds.29

#Prometheus and the Creation of Humanity

In Hesiod’s epics and other early sources for Greek mythology, Prometheus is represented as a benefactor of humanity—but not its creator. In fact, these earliest sources do not give any clear account of the creation of mortals.

In later traditions, however, Prometheus was often said to have created the human race out of clay.30 Ovid describes the momentous event as follows:

But one more perfect and more sanctified,

a being capable of lofty thought,

intelligent to rule, was wanting still

man was created! Did the Unknown God

designing then a better world make man

of seed divine? or did Prometheus

take the new soil of earth (that still contained

some godly element of Heaven's Life)

and use it to create the race of man;

first mingling it with water of new streams;

so that his new creation, upright man,

was made in image of commanding Gods?

On earth the brute creation bends its gaze,

but man was given a lofty countenance

and was commanded to behold the skies;

and with an upright face may view the stars:—

and so it was that shapeless clay put on

the form of man till then unknown to earth.31

Minerva teaches Prometheus print by Carlo Cesio, 1656

Drawn from frescos at Farnese Gallery in Rome, this print shows Athena (Romanized as Minerva) aiding Prometheus (center) as he creates a human out of clay, by Carlo Cesio after Annibale Carracci (1656).

Rijksmuseum / Public Domain

According to a fable told by Plato, Prometheus had been tasked with creating humans, while his brother Epimetheus was responsible for animals. The less intelligent Epimetheus (who lacked Prometheus’ eponymous “forethought”) gave the animals every available attribute—fur, claws, feathers, and the like—leaving nothing for man. Due to this foolishness, humanity alone was doomed to be helpless, “naked, and shoeless.” This was the reason, says Plato, that Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humans.32

#Other Myths

Prometheus was closely associated with Athena, possibly because they were both gods of craft. In some traditions, Prometheus was the one who split open Zeus’ head so he could give birth to Athena (though in most versions, that part is played by Hephaestus).33 

There were also some sources in which Prometheus fell in love with Athena. According to this less familiar version of the myth, Prometheus was chained to the cliff and tortured by Zeus’ eagle not for stealing fire, but as punishment for this forbidden love.34

Prometheus was also involved in the mythos of Thetis and, indirectly, that of Thetis’ son Achilles. As the story goes, the beautiful Thetis was wooed by both Zeus and Poseidon. Prometheus, however, warned the two gods that Thetis was destined to bear a son who would be greater than his father.35 

Neither Zeus nor Poseidon was interested in such an outcome; they feared this son would ultimately take their place, just as they had taken the place of the Titans before them. Thetis was therefore married off to the mortal hero Peleus. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, it is hinted that this valuable piece of information was what eventually secured Prometheus’ release from his terrible punishment.

#Worship

Despite his prominent role in their mythology, Prometheus was seldom worshipped by the ancient Greeks. His cult was largely limited to Athens, where, alongside Hephaestus and Athena, he served as part of an unofficial triumvirate of deities associated with technology and culture.

The Athenians erected an altar to Prometheus in the grove outside the Academy, a key learning center founded by Plato in the fourth century BCE.36 This altar served as the starting point for torch races held in honor of Prometheus during the Panathenaea, an Athenian civic festival held every four years, as well as during the Prometheia, the festival of Prometheus.37 

Red figure bell krater with Prometheus fire lighter, circa 400 bce

Bell krater depicting Prometheus the Fire-Lighter (ca. 400 BCE).

Yale University Art Gallery / Public Domain

Outside of Athens, tombs of Prometheus were worshipped in the cities of Opus and Argos.38 There was also a statue of Prometheus in Panopeus,39 as well as a mystery cult in Thebes that was said to have been founded by Prometheus and his son.40

#Pop Culture

One of the most popular figures from Greek mythology, Prometheus still thrives in modern pop culture. Unlike other ancient figures, he has enjoyed a continuous presence in the public imagination, from the Classical era to the present day.

Prometheus was a central figure in the Romantic movement in art and literature, which celebrated the unrestrained and mysterious powers of nature and man. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1789 poem “Prometheus,” for example, the Titan rages against Zeus for crafting a fallen world. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the author channels themes implicit in Prometheus’ theft of fire—namely, the dangers of pursuing knowledge beyond our reach (the novel’s alternative title is, appropriately, “The Modern Prometheus”). 

Prometheus also appears in literary works by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Franz Kafka, and Ayn Rand, among others. Joseph Campbell used Prometheus in his analysis of hero archetypes, comparing Prometheus’ torment to that of Jesus, as both figures suffered for humanity.

Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus explores many of the same themes as Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this Alien prequel, the search for humanity’s origins leads scientists to a distant planet, where they discover the vestiges of an alien race called the Engineers who not only created life on earth, but also tried to destroy it by unleashing deadly Xenomorphs. 

Prometheus statue at Rockefeller Center, NYC

Prometheus by Paul Manship (1934). The inscription, taken from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, reads: "Prometheus, Teacher in Every Art, Brought the Fire That Hath Proved to Mortals a Means to Mighty Ends." Rockefeller Center, New York City.

Will Powell / CC BY-SA 2.0

Prometheus has appeared in other media as well, such as the television show Hercules: The Animated Series and the video game God of War II. In the latter, player avatar Kratos frees Prometheus from his confinement and thereby earns “the Power of the Titans.”

Finally, Prometheus has a scientific legacy: the rare element promethium (atomic number 61) was named after him.

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

Greek

  • Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE): The myths of Prometheus and his notorious punishment are related in the epics the Theogony and Works and Days.

  • Aesop (sixth century BCE): Several of Aesop’s Fables are centered around the myth of Prometheus.

  • Aeschylus (ca. 525/524–456/455 BCE): Prometheus’ punishment for his theft of fire is the subject of the tragedy Prometheus Bound (dubiously attributed to Aeschylus); this may have been one of a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus about the myth of Prometheus.

  • Aristophanes (ca. 446–386 BCE): Prometheus appears briefly as a character in the comedy Birds, in which two mortal men build a city of birds to challenge the Olympian gods.

  • Plato (ca. 428/427 BCE–348/347 BCE): The myth of Prometheus is told (as a kind of moral fable) in a few of the philosophical dialogues of the philosopher Plato, including the Protagoras and Gorgias.

  • Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE): In Book 2 of the epic Argonautica, the Argonauts pass the cliff where Prometheus is held prisoner on their way to steal the Golden Fleece.

  • Diodorus of Sicily (ca. 90–30 BCE): The Library of History, a work of universal history covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time, contains references to the myth of Prometheus.

  • Apollodorus (first century BCE/first few centuries CE): The Library, a mythological handbook, includes references to Prometheus.

  • Lucian (ca. 125–after 180 CE): Prometheus appears in the satirical Dialogues of the Gods.

Roman

  • Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE): Prometheus shows up in some of Ovid’s mythological poetry, especially the Metamorphoses.

  • Valerius Flaccus (first century CE): In Book 5 of Valerius Flaccus’ epic Argonautica, as in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, the Argonauts pass Prometheus on their voyage and hear his screams of anguish.

  • Hyginus (first/second century CE): The myth of Prometheus is told in the Astronomica and the Fabulae, works incorrectly attributed to Hyginus.

#Secondary Sources

Detienne, Marcel, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Hassocks: Harvester, 1978.

DNP-Gruppe Kiel. “Prometheus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1010150.

Dougherty, Carol. Prometheus. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Dowden, Kenneth. “Prometheus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1217. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Gantz, Timothy. “Prometheus and the First Men.” In Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 152–66. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Gisler, Jean-Robert. “Prometheus.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 7, 531–53. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

Kerényi, Károly. Prometheus: Archetypal Image of Human Existence. London: Thames and Hudson, 1963.

Kreitzer, L. Joseph. Prometheus and Adam: Enduring Symbols of the Human Situation. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993.

Raggio, Olga. “The Myth of Prometheus: Its Survival and Metamorphoses up to the XVIIIth Century.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 21 (1958): 44–62.

Smith, William. “Prometheus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D47%3Aentry%3Dprometheus-bio-1.

Theoi Project. “Prometheus.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Titan/TitanPrometheus.html.

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