In Greek mythology, Prometheus (in ancient Greek Προμηθεύς

Inherited figure of the “transmitter of fire”, Prometheus is best known for having stolen the sacred fire from Olympus to give it to humans. Incensed by this disloyal act, Zeus condemned him to be tied to a rock on Mount Caucasus, his liver devoured by the Caucasian Eagle each day, and repulsed at night. Several elements of his legend such as his punishment seem to have been borrowed by the Greeks from the Caucasian legends.

It appears for the first time in the seventh century BC in a poem by Hesiod, the Theogony, then in the fifth century BC in the play, Prometheus in chains, by Aeschylus.

The meaning of the theonym Promêtheús is debated. Its name Προμηθεύς

Nevertheless, this name remains rather paradoxical for a character who by his imprudent tricks provokes a quarrel between Zeus and men, which earns him an exemplary punishment. Now, this adjective promêthês has no filiation, hence the idea that it could have been formed by reverse derivation on the name of Prometheus. It has thus been linked to the Old Indian proper name Videgha Māthavá, name of a king of the (Kosala-)Videhas, a people of eastern Vedic India. His legend refers to the progression of the Indo-Aryans towards the east. This progression is made possible by the “civilizing” fire that ensures the clearing of uncultivated lands, extending the Brahmanic cult (opening a space for sacrifice) and thus joining the myth of Prometheus. By this analogy, Jean Haudry after other linguists proposes to reinterpret the name of Prometheus from the Greek verb pro-ma(n)th- close to the meaning of the Old Indian promáthi “foresight, providence” which appears quite often in the Vedic hymns to Agni, god of sacrificial fire and hearth. The link pro-men- attested in the sense of “to invent, to produce” in Vedic and Baltic is probably only preserved in Greek in the sense of “to foresee”.

It has also been theorized that his name derives from the Proto-Indo-European root that produced the Vedic name pra math, “to steal,” hence pramathyu-s, “thief,” related to Prometheus, the fire thief. The Vedic myth of the theft of fire by Mātariśvan, one of Agni”s nicknames, is, in effect, analogous to the Greek account. Pramantha is the tool used to create fire, which is the friction of two pieces of wood by gyration. The suggestion that Prometheus was originally “the human inventor of fire sticks, from which fire is kindled,” goes back to Diodorus of Sicily in the first century BC.

Hesychios indicates that Prometheus was called Ithás or Íthax, forms related to aíthein: “to burn”.

Prometheus is a “transmitter of fire”, who may have stolen it, a universal figure prior to the common Indo-European period. His myth also reflects the universal notion of the ambiguity of fire as a “dangerous friend”, which is central to Prometheus, who is both far-sighted and reckless, useful and dangerous, ambiguous and paradoxical, like the Nordic god Loki.

It also conveys Indo-European notions of civilizing fire and fire of worship, which are found in the legend of Māthavá and in the idea that Prometheus is the origin of all arts and techniques. Moreover, the Indo-European divine fire is “friend of men” to whom it can turn away from the gods, for it is by nature a defector. This figure, whose name *māthew- was ancient, came into contact with a Caucasian demigod at a time when the Greeks were in close contact with certain Caucasian populations. These contacts would have resulted in the Georgian legend of Amirani, the Armenian legend of Artawazd, and the Greek legend of the punishment of Prometheus, a punishment that is hardly understandable for a civilizing fire god, but much more so for a fire thief who defies the supreme god. The contacts with the Caucasus are also at the base of the myth of Pandora, based on the idea taken up by Hesiod that the woman is at the origin of the evils of the man. Nevertheless, its creation as that of the first man from clay is of Mesopotamian origin.

Prometheus is a Titan, younger son of Japet or Clymene according to Hesiod and brother of Atlas, Menetios and Epimetheus. He is also the father of Deucalion, conceived with Pronoia (or Clymene).

The flight of fire

After the victory of the new gods led by Zeus over the Titans, Prometheus goes on the Sun”s chariot with a torch, hides a firebrand in a hollow stem of common ferula and gives the “sacred fire” to the human race. The poet Hesiod explains in his Theogony that Prometheus stole fire from the gods with a ferula stem, alluding to its combustible properties. In other variants, he would have stolen it from Hephaestus (Aeschylus, Prometheus in chains, 7) or from the “wheel of the Sun” (Servius, Ad Ecl., 6,42). In this way, he only recovers the fire that was lost through his fault.

Prometheus, “providence of men

He teaches humans metallurgy and other arts, themselves taught to Prometheus by Athena who was an accomplice since she helped him secretly enter Olympus.

The friendship of the divine fire for men is a traditional fact. But it is a dangerous friend because fire is unpredictable. Prometheus is said to be “good” and “benevolent”. The benevolence that he reserves for men is the reverse of his secret malevolence towards Zeus. Jean-Pierre Vernant specifies: “fire is a dólos, a deceptive ruse, a trap, initially directed against Zeus, who is taken in by it, but which turns against men if necessary”.

Discovering his cunning, Zeus punished him, not for having given knowledge to men, but for having stolen from the gods: indeed, the task entrusted to Prometheus was to give a breath of life to each creature, that of his brother to arm them (claws, tusks, fangs…) so that they could defend themselves. Epimetheus having failed, the gift of fire corrected the human weakness, and was justified.

Prometheus, creator of humanity

According to the pseudo-Apollodorus, Prometheus created men from water and earth. Pausanias places the scene in Panopaea, in Phocis: Athena, born by sprouting from the head of Zeus, introduces the breath of life into these clay bodies. According to the versions: Epimetheus, the fool, not knowing what to do for men, calls for help from his brother who devises a plan to help humanity. Prometheus makes man stand on his two legs, he gives him a larger body, distinguished and close to that of the gods. But man was still too weak to defend himself properly against other earthly creatures.

This episode of the creation of Man from clay is borrowed, it has been argued, from Near Eastern legends. Nevertheless, the meaning of this act differs: in Sumer, man is created at the request of the gods to serve them; in the Greek myth, it is as a competitor and almost as a rival that man opposes the gods.

Prometheus, sacrificial fire

In Hesiod”s version, to end this dispute about fire between gods and men, Prometheus organizes the sacrifice of an ox to Meconé, divided into two unequal parts. In one, under an appetizing aspect, he puts the fat and the bones, and in the other, less well arranged in appearance, the best pieces. Having engineered this fraudulent division, he invites Zeus to choose the part that pleases him the most. Zeus chooses the first part, which increases his anger and resentment. This episode is commonly called “the division of Meconé”. It is from this time that men leave the fat and bones to the gods during the sacrifices. This sharing led to the fixing of the diet that differentiates men and gods. By reserving the flesh of the ox for men, Prometheus condemned the human species to the vital need to eat meat and thus be forced to live a short life, while the immortal gods are satisfied with odors, perfumes, nectar and ambrosia. After this sacrificial sharing, Zeus wants to punish Prometheus for having deceived him: he forbids men the use of fire to cook meat and to eat, and Prometheus will steal it again in order to give it back to them, which led to a new revenge of Zeus, who sent to men a “beautiful calamity”, Pandora.

Unlike the gods of Brahmanical India, the Greek gods do not sacrifice, but Prometheus as the ancient sacrificial fire institutes the first sacrifice. In doing so, he deceives Zeus just as Loki deceives the other gods in Norse mythology. The episode takes up the traditional motif of the deceiving divine Fire.

The punishment

Provoked too many times by the insolent Prometheus, Zeus decides to take revenge on his protégés, the men. He asks his son Hephaestus to model the first woman, Prometheus having created only men. Each god and goddess offers a quality to the creature: Athena offers beautiful clothes, Aphrodite grace and beauty, the Moires necklaces … and Hermes curiosity, on the orders of Zeus. Then, the king of the gods names the woman Pandora, which means “gift of all” (implied: of all the gods), and asks Hermes to offer her to Epimetheus. Epimetheus hesitates, because his brother has ordered him not to accept any gift from the gods. But Epimetheus is captivated by Pandora”s beauty, and accepts.

For defying Zeus and his order, Prometheus is chained to a rock or a mountain (depending on the version) with chains forged by Hephaestus. To punish him for his affection for humans with a limited life span, his liver is devoured every day by an eagle. The organ growing back every night, the titan Prometheus, immortal by nature, undergoes the same ordeal every day.

Heracles delivers Prometheus during his twelve labors, but in order not to break Zeus” oath that the Titan would remain forever chained to the Caucasus, Prometheus had to wear throughout his life an iron ring from his chains, attached to a piece of stone from the Caucasus. On the other hand, when Zeus declares that he wants to annihilate the human race in a flood, he finally spares Deucalion, son of Prometheus, and his wife Pyrrha. Prometheus becomes immortal thanks to the centaur Chiron: this one, accidentally wounded by the poisoned arrows of Heracles, not being able to bear the suffering any more but not being able to heal or die, asks the gods for death. Zeus grants him death after Chiron has bequeathed his immortality to Prometheus, because Zeus is then grateful to Prometheus for having predicted that, if he had married the Nereid Thetis, the son they would have had together would have been more powerful than him and would have dethroned him.

The punishment of Prometheus is unlikely to be an inherited motif. As early as antiquity, this episode of the legend has been linked to the Caucasus. Georges Charachidzé has highlighted the close links between the Greek and Georgian narratives, showing how the two legends interpenetrated and perhaps developed jointly. These concordances extend to the detail of certain expressions such as the eagle designated by Aeschylus as a “flying dog” which is the counterpart of the winged dog of the Georgian hero Amirani.

The Promethia is a torch race that pits the teams of several Athenian tribes against each other. The race started from the altar of Prometheus at the Academy and passed through the Ceramics, the district of the potters, which he patronizes. The researchers agree to see in this cult a rite of annual renewal of the fire, initially that of the furnace of the potters.

The legend of Prometheus is known to us from two main literary sources: Hesiod”s Theogony and Aeschylus” Prometheus in Chains. If the two authors agree on the essential elements of the legend, they differ as to its interpretation. In the succession of the divine generations or the doctrine of the ages of the world that Hesiod presents, Prometheus by his imprudent actions is worth to the men the evils which afflict them today, to begin with the woman, in which the poet makes the echo of a foreign design.

Aeschylus on the other hand, in a much more positive and progressive perspective, sees in Prometheus a civilizing hero who makes men pass from savagery to civilization. Prometheus becomes a typical character of the transformations of the ancient Indo-European world with the age of metals and the appearance of heroes “contemptuous of the gods”. The Prometheus of Aeschylus speaks like these heroes: “Frankly, I hate the gods” (Aeschylus, v. 975). An alliance is thus established between the civilizing hero and men against the gods. Nevertheless, it is probable that, in Prometheus Delivered, the Titan was reconciled with Zeus, thus restoring the order of things. In his tragedy, Aeschylus also makes the Titan the guardian of the secret according to which Thetis would be destined to give birth to a son more powerful than his father. But Zeus covets Thetis. This allows Prometheus to defy Zeus, who sends Hermes to extract the secret from him. Prometheus refuses and Hermes announces his punishment: Zeus” lightning will bury him under the collapsed rocks and his eagle will come and gnaw his liver to make him give in.

The myth of Prometheus is accepted as a metaphor for the bringing of knowledge to mankind. It is one of the recurrent myths in the Indo-European world (but it is also found among other peoples: the domestication of fire brought the corresponding myths). It relates how this divine messenger dares to rebel, to steal (against the advice of the gods) the sacred Fire of Olympus (divine invention symbol of knowledge) in order to offer it to humans and allow them to learn. It is also evocative of the hybris, the mad temptation of the Man to measure himself with the gods and thus to rise above his condition.

Ancient philosophy

According to some Greek or Latin versions, Prometheus is punished for his audacity and chained to a rock (or crucified according to others). We find traces of this myth in many authors who make various extrapolations.

According to Protagoras of Ceos, in Plato”s Protagoras, Prometheus intends to compensate for the mistake of his brother Epimetheus who had given to animals, to the detriment of the human race, the most important gifts : strength, speed, courage and cunning ; hair, wings or shell, and so on . For the first argument, the sophist has recourse to Greek mythology, by telling the legend of Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus. Charged by the gods, at the creation of the world, to distribute qualities and physical gifts among living beings, Epimetheus forgot to provide man, who was left naked and defenseless, adequately. Prometheus, to repair his brother”s mistake, went to steal the secrets of fire and arts from Hephaestus and Athena. To avoid that the men, holders of these new powers, come to kill each other, Zeus also granted them all the feelings of modesty and justice, founders of the political conscience and the life in community. This is the reason why every man has in him the notion of politics and can easily express an opinion about it.

According to Dion of Pruse in the VIth Discourse, who reports the words of Diogenes of Sinope, Prometheus is punished for having stolen fire, because it was a principle of softness and sensuality, and will be a source of pleasure rather than serving courage and justice. According to Diogenes, Prometheus is a sophist, the eagle that devours his liver is the popular opinion, and it is as a conceited man that he falls victim to it. In the VIIIth Discourse, Heracles delivers him from the Underworld because he takes pity on him, and he delivers him at the same time from his vanity and his disordered ambition.

Theophrastus made Prometheus the first philosopher, which is simply an application of Peripatetic literalism to a remark of Plato. Theophrastus says that Prometheus, having become wise, first communicated philosophy to men, from which came the fable that he had given them fire.

For the alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (c. 300 CE), who claims to reflect the intention of Hesiod, Prometheus is bound in the man represented by his brother Epimetheus, as the spirit or intellect is bound in the body. This interpretation is found in later alchemists, e.g. Michael Maier (c. 1600), who addresses his readers as follows: “You who carry in your heart the spark of Prometheus” light”; or Thomas Vaughan (c. 1650), according to whom “the intellectual man bound by the same bond” “is signified in this poetic fable of Prometheus”.

Classical and modern philosophy

For Hobbes, the sufferings of Prometheus, condemned to have his liver devoured every day, symbolize the fears and other pains that the worries of the future inspire in humanity.

Gaston Bachelard uses a reference to Prometheus to invent the concept of “Prometheus complex”, which he defines as “all the tendencies that push us to know as much as our fathers, more than our fathers, as much as our masters, more than our masters”. In his words, “the complex of Prometheus is the Oedipus complex of the intellectual life”. Günther Anders, philosopher of the technique, forges the concept of “Promethean shame” expressing thus the shame which the man feels with regard to his finiteness in comparison with the perfection of the machines. The philosopher Hans Jonas refers to the myth of Prometheus in the Principle of Responsibility (1979), to allude to the reckless risks linked to the consequences of certain human behaviors and certain technical choices, in relation to the ecological, social, and economic balance of the planet. This idea is taken up by Sylvie Mullie-Chatard, who assimilates the myth of technical progress to the myth of Prometheus, which is a very modern reduction.


The figure of Prometheus has had an abundant posterity in literature. Lucian of Samosate evokes his myth in Prometheus or the Caucasus.

In Germany, Goethe published the fragmentary dramatic poem Prometheus in 1774, in which he portrayed Prometheus as an incarnation of a rebellious creative spirit who turns against God.

In the United Kingdom, several writers reinterpreted the figure of Prometheus. In 1818, the British writer Mary Shelley subtitled her fantasy novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. The novel relates the attempt of a scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, to artificially create a human being, and it gives the character of Dr. Frankenstein a Promethean dimension: Frankenstein acts as a demiurge and is then overcome with remorse at the catastrophic consequences of his act. In 1820, Percy Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley, composed a poem Prometheus Unbound. In 1899, the French writer André Gide published a novel Le Prométhée mal enchaîné (Prometheus in Chains) which features Prometheus in the 19th century.

For Albert Camus, in 1946, in a Europe in ruins after the violence and convulsions of history, Prometheus embodies the contemporary man, persecuted and son of justice, who suffers the misfortune of all knowingly: “O justice, O my mother, cries Prometheus, you see what I am made to suffer. And Hermes mocks the hero: “I am surprised that, being a seer, you did not foresee the torture you are suffering. – I knew it, answers the revolted one “.


Goethe”s poem has been set to music by Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Schubert (“Prometheus”, 1819), Hugo Wolf (1889) and others. The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin wrote a work entitled Prometheus or the Poem of Fire in 1910.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Prometheus is regularly evoked in songs of various genres. The French singer Claude Nougaro composed and wrote a song Prométhée published in his album Au New Morning in 1981. The rapper Akhenaton, from the group IAM, wrote a song Prométhée in the album Métèque et mat in 1995.

The Norwegian black metal band Emperor”s album Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise also refers to the titan Prometheus.

Comic book

In the Japanese manga One Piece by Eichiro Oda, Prometheus is a small sun that accompanies Big Mom and is the companion of the cloud Zeus until the latter is replaced.

The comic book series The Wisdom of Myths directed by Luc Ferry features in 2016 Prometheus in the book Prometheus and Pandora”s Box scripted by Clotilde Bruneau and drawn by Giuseppe Baiguera.

Video games

The action video game God of War 2 (2007) and God of War 3 (2010) feature the torment of Prometheus. The player must put an end to it by throwing Prometheus to the stake in order to obtain a new power.

The video game Immortals Fenyx Rising also features Prometheus, seeing Zeus again, the latter telling him the story of the game, after the victory of Fenyx over Typhon.

On the screen

Prometheus… Banker by Marcel L”Herbier (1921) is a transposition of the myth to contemporary times.

The 2012 science fiction film Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott and set in the Alien universe, discusses the unwitting creation of humans by an ancient, technologically advanced race, the Architects, having previously been the source of a dangerous creature called a xenomorph. The title and subject of the film form a parallel with the creative talents and recklessness of Prometheus.

In the Stargate SG-1 series, the first human spaceship inspired by extraterrestrial technologies is named Prometheus, at the suggestion of Captain Samantha Carter.

In the series Supernatural (Season 8, episode 16), the Winchester brothers meet a man who dies every day before resurrecting, it is Prometheus, who became amnesiac.

On the modern and contemporary posterity of Prometheus

External links


  1. Prométhée
  2. Prometheus
  3. ^ a b Smith, “Prometheus” Archived 2021-02-25 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ “Prometheus | Description & Myth”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2020-09-10. Retrieved 2020-09-08.
  5. ^ William Hansen, Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 32, 48–50, 69–73, 93, 96, 102–104, 140; as trickster figure, p. 310.
  6. a et b Brisson 2008, p. 2182.
  7. Jean-Louis Perpillou, Les substantifs grecs en -eúç, Paris, Klincksieck, 1973, p.208 et suiv.
  8. Haudry 2016, p. 327-328.
  9. a et b (de) Goto Toshifumi, Hintergrund der indoarischen Einwanderung in Indien und die Menschengeschichte, Journal of International Philosophy, No. 3, janvier 2014.
  10. Haudry 2016, p. 347-343.
  11. No grego antigo Prometheus vem de pro (“antes”) e manthano (“aprender”); “antevisão” assim seria uma etimologia popular, que contrastaria com o nome de seu irmão, Epimeteu; foi descrito de maneira sucinta no comentário de Sérvio sobre Virgílio, Écloga 5.42: “Prometheus vir prudentissimus fuit, unde etiam Prometheus dictus est ἀπὸ τής πρόμηθείας, id est a providentia.” Linguistas modernos, no entanto, apontaram que o nome poderia vir de uma raiz proto-indo-europeia que também produziu o pramath védico, “roubar”, de onde viria pramathyu-s, “ladrão”, com Prometeu como o ladrão do fogo. O mito védico do roubo do fogo por Mātariśvan é análogo ao relato presente na mitologia grega. A estes cognatos etimológicos pode-se acrescentar pramantha, ferramenta usada para se fazer fogo;[1][2][3]
  12. «Prometheus | Description & Myth». Encyclopedia Britannica. Αρχειοθετήθηκε από το πρωτότυπο στις 10 Σεπτεμβρίου 2020. Ανακτήθηκε στις 8 Σεπτεμβρίου 2020.
  13. William Hansen, Classical Mythology: A Guide to the Mythical World of the Greeks and Romans (Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 32, 48–50, 69–73, 93, 96, 102–104, 140; as trickster figure, p. 310.
  14. Hesiod, Theogony 526-8
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