At the beginning of this post I want to remark that Zeus (as well as characters related to him) is the name given by the ancient Greeks to ‘someone’ or to a deity who was followed or worshiped in many places in the ancient World and around the Mediterranean region by different names . Zeus was called Jupiter by the Romans, Amon-Ra by the Egyptians , etc , and Greek mythology and religion had their origins in or were influenced by other places or cultures : West Asia, the so-called Indo-Europeans , and most notably the Mediterranean and the Near East .
But I will generally use the Greek names since nowadays they are the most widely known .
The story of Prometheus and the narration of his punishment have been told and retold in different ways throughout the centuries. From Antiquity to the present , poets , writers, philosophers and various thinkers on the whole made contradictory assumptions, conjectures , explanations , extrapolations , comparisons and conclusions related to the story of Prometheus. But if one looks closer and in depth at how the story has been told , one can find patterns or variations specific to certain periods in the telling of the story across different centuries.
The punishment inflicted by Zeus has been called by some modern authors ‘problematic’. But it would be less problematic if the facts about what happened and if the details of the story were known better. One of the difficulties is that the details of this story became unclear and imprecise with the passing of time , especially after the beginning of the Christian era.
I have read extensively about this topic , and I will try to show by using reasonable and plausible arguments based on my readings of those who wrote about this subject that the reasons for and the cause of the chastening of Prometheus have been misunderstood and misinterpreted , and his importance has been inflated and overestimated , mainly during the last two centuries .
The poet Hesiod (who lived around 750 BCE ) mentioned Prometheus in his Theogony and in The Works and Days.
In the Theogony , Hesiod shows Prometheus as a lowly challenger of the omnipotence of Zeus and as a trickster.
In the Works and Days , Prometheus appears as the source of man’s misery. He is punished for using trickery , for stealing and breaking the law , and he is the one to blame for mankind’s fall.
It is to be noted that if the story of Prometheus has had a real earlier historical origin at its basis , then the oldest sources related to this story are usually the closest to the actual events that took place , and they show what happened in a more accurate way compared to later narratives. Therefore the story as it is told by Hesiod largely presented Prometheus in his true colors more than other more recent accounts that came up later on.
There are other clues that shed light on the way Prometheus was viewed in Antiquity.
When people in Antiquity deified someone and built temples for him (or her , but here we’ll suppose it’s a man we’re talking about) , it was their way of showing and recognizing that the one they deified had done great , outstanding and important things and had a significant historical greatness and importance.
Ancient writers , such as Lucian in the second century CE , stated the fact that for centuries before and during the start of the the Christian era ( a period of probably more than two millennia) there was no temple of Prometheus to be seen .
There was an altar for Prometheus and two other Olympian gods in Athens , but according to the classical philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff , this altar was for another deity called Promethos, who was venerated during the torchlight run ,which celebrated the god of ceramics and not the fire giver. Promethos was the patron of potters in Athens , and was associated with Hephaestus and Athena. He was the one who would have helped Zeus by splitting his skull to give birth to Athena , and would have shaped Pandora before creating human beings (under the supervision of Zeus).He didn’t steal fire and he was not punished.
A second Prometheus did the trickery and the stealing and was punished. He is the Prometheus mentioned by Hesiod and Aeschylus , and his name later on prevailed. All the preceding arguments are proof that people in Antiquity knew Prometheus didn’t have greatness or historical importance , and that he didn’t help or benefit anybody by his theft of fire. It seems these facts and observations were overlooked by the romantic writers and the philosophers or artists who praised Prometheus in the 19th century.
By the way , the person or deity for whom the greatest and biggest temples and monuments were built in
Antiquity , including a statue which was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World , was Zeus/Jupiter.
The ‘fire’ stolen by Prometheus from the gods was most probably ordinary fire , but if it was some important property or material or discovery belonging to Zeus and to the ‘gods’ there is not much difference in the story.
In his book Les Mémoires de Zeus (The Memoirs of Zeus) , Maurice Druon gives an explanation of what might have happened. Prometheus tried to trick Zeus before stealing the fire , and Zeus decided to punish the mortal humans by taking away fire from them , but he intended to give back fire to the humans after a few months .
In any case Prometheus didn’t want to wait for Zeus to give back fire to humans , he was jealous of the power and abilities of Zeus and tried to trick him in order to hurt him or dethrone him and make him look bad , and there is no proof or mention, especially in the writings of the original ancient authors such as Hesiod , that after he stole fire he used it in a creative , beneficial or useful way for him or for the humans around him; the only ‘quality’ of the titan Prometheus mentioned by Hesiod through the theft of fire was trickery .
Even the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus was misinterpreted , since the author (if it really was Aeschylus ,who showed great praise , respect and admiration for Zeus in his other plays) was using irony, and as he made Prometheus talk in the play he intended to show him as conceited and delusional .
Prometheus could have very well played with the fire he stole (along with a number of other humans who were around him) with no useful or creative result , and after some time he let that fire die away.
What added to the confusion and misunderstanding is that the detailed facts and the sequence of events related to the theft of fire , to what happened afterwards , and to the so-called Titanomachy or war with the Titans were lost with time and are not well known .
The play Prometheus Bound was most probably written by Aeschylus ca. 415 BC (probably even earlier) . It is interesting to note that at that period of time , poets and philosophers were writing works praising and honoring Zeus.
Cleanthes ( c. 330 BC – c. 230 BC) , Stoic philosopher and the successor to Zeno as the second head (scholarch) of the Stoic school in Athens ,wrote a hymn to Zeus .The largest surviving fragment of Cleanthes is the portion of the Hymn to Zeus, in which he declares praise and honour of Zeus to be the highest privilege of all rational beings.
Callimachus (310/305–240 BC) was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes . He also wrote a hymn to Zeus.
So it is improbable that at that time Aeschylus , who in all his other plays praised and extolled Zeus , could have written one play to damage and disparage the king of the gods. His play about Prometheus was filled with irony and enveloped in irony.
For many centuries after the beginning of Christianity, and until the end of the eighteenth century, writers did not have a high opinion of Prometheus. The interest in Prometheus in the seventeenth century was from philosophers.
Thomas Hobbes saw the Titan as the reprovable example of political rebellion and democracy ( Hobbes thought the only pure and true source of power was monarchy).
A number of writers in the nineteenth century as well as in the twentieth thought that the Fathers of the Church made a parallel between Jesus Christ and Prometheus. In fact the Church Fathers (among them Tertullian) warned against establishing any kind of parallel between Prometheus and Jesus Christ, and described Prometheus as some sort of impostor when compared to God.
Some writers or authors tried to find or make comparisons and similarities between Hephaestus and Jesus Christ , or between Hercules and Jesus , etc. These comparisons (especially the one involving Prometheus) are far from accurate.
Sometimes Prometheus has been compared to the character Loki in Norse mythology.Perhaps in Antiquity there was a common origin to Norse , Greek and similar mythologies which made them have some common characteristics, but it seems that Loki has been generally considered to be a bad trickster and a bad character , whereas Prometheus has been considered as a good trickster figure , this being the result of arbitrary unverified conjectures and interpretations , especially in the last two centuries.
The word Lucifer has been interpreted in different ways by different people , religions and cultures. When it was given the meaning of ‘shining one’ , ‘morning star’ , or ‘light bringing’ , Prometheus , having stolen fire and apparently brought light, has been sometimes compared to Lucifer , adding to the unclear and contradictory comparisons made about him. Anyway if Prometheus is Lucifer , who is usually considered to be Satan or the Devil , then in this case Prometheus would have rebelled against Zeus ,who would be no other than God. So this whole unconvincing comparison is not profitable to Prometheus and does not show him in a good light.
The theory or conjecture stating that Zeus punished Prometheus hastily while he was still a new inexperienced ruler , and then with time became wiser and more just , doesn’t hold water.
First of all ,there’s a big difference if we consider that the death of Zeus’s father and the theft of fire took place at the end of the Titanomachy or at the beginning of this war (which was won by Zeus). If the theft of fire took place after the death of Cronus and at the start of the conflict with the Titans , then this theft was an integral part of the conflict , and the punishment of Prometheus came as one of the results of winning this struggle. Zeus/Jupiter must have taken his time to try to reason with Prometheus and his father and brothers (to no avail), and he tried to observe (for a number of years during the conflict with the Titans) what Prometheus was doing with the thing he had stolen.
He must have noticed that Prometheus was playing carelessly with what he had stolen ; if it was fire which was stolen , Prometheus probably kept it somewhere hidden in his house , making usage of it in rudimentary uninventive ways with no creative or useful results , and when some people he knew came to his house he showed them that fire and played , danced or frolicked with them around it.
Prometheus wasn’t at all interested in benefiting humans or in innovative technology ; it’s also possible that he could have obtained that fire by other means if he wanted , and humans possibly had basic or elementary ways to make fire. These humans could have represented all existing humans , or they probably were a local group of humans living in the vicinity of Prometheus , Zeus , and their relatives.
In any case, Prometheus was envious of Zeus because he was the one who could make a really resourceful and innovative usage of fire , and by stealing fire he was trying to hurt Zeus.
If Zeus had seen that there was a good reason for or a beneficial purpose resulting from what Prometheus had done, or that there were attenuating circumstances in favor of the theft done by Prometheus , he (Zeus) would have been the first one to acknowledge it. But he must have found none.
There are two versions of what happened to the father of Zeus after he was defeated. One version says that after defeating his father , Zeus sent him to Tatarus or killed him.
Another version states that Cronus had bad and good traits, but his good qualities outnumbered his bad traits ,
and after Zeus helped his siblings, stood against his father and defeated him (it is best to assume this took place at the beginning of the war with the Titans) , he was reconciled with him and sent him to rule the Isles of the Blessed . Zeus surpassed his father and went beyond the abilities of his father . At the same time he must have taken or inherited the good qualities that his father had (and also inherited good qualities from his mother), which helped him become a good and just ruler afterwards. This version of the facts is more plausible than the first one.
On the other hand , Iapetus (the father of Prometheus) had more bad traits than good ones (arrogance, limited capabilities, haughtiness) ; he was defeated by Zeus and ‘ sent to Tartarus’ at the end of the war with the Titans. Prometheus could not go beyond the potentialities of Iapetus , he stayed in the shadow of his father , and followed the old traditional narrow-minded ways of the Titans ; he had his father’s bad traits and was punished with his brothers and father by Zeus .
Not all Titans were bad or were ‘sent to Tartarus’ by Zeus. Some Titans were good , but Prometheus was not one of the good Titans .
An example of a good (or not so bad) Titan (or Titaness) is the mother of Zeus , Rhea , and also Leto/Latona , who gave Zeus two important children: Apollo and Artemis/Diana.
When the circumstances changed and the time was right , Herakles/Hercules freed and rescued Prometheus . Hercules did not do it in spite of his father Zeus , but according to his will and to his instructions . As Hesiod stated in the Theogony , Zeus wanted to give his son more glory by letting him free Prometheus .
It can be rightly said that when Zeus punished Prometheus it was justice , and when he released him it was (also) justice.
In addition to books (concerning ancient mythology and religion) I have read and mentioned in my page about religion related books , here are some more reference works related to this post:
— Divine Commerce: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Mythology , by John Kaessner.
— A Zeus wronged by Prometheus and an Aeschylus wronged by the critics. The Compassion of Orthodoxy: The Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus , by Robert L. Houbeck, Jr.
This article contains one of the best analyses I have read about the story and punishment of Prometheus.
— From Myth to Symbol. The Nineteenth-Century Interpretations of Prometheus , by Caroline Corbeau .
This topic is to be continued in another post.