Who is Prometheus?

Mary McMahon

Prometheus is a figure from Greek mythology who is probably best remembered for his theft of fire from the gods on Mount Olympus. Like many other characters in Greek mythology, there are a number of stories about Prometheus and his life, and he has appeared in classical Greek literature and plays. His gift of fire to mankind is sometimes thought of as a double edged sword, since with fire comes technological advancement and knowledge, two things which make human life more challenging in addition to more enjoyable.

Atlas was the brother of Prometheus.
Atlas was the brother of Prometheus.

According to most myths, Prometheus was a Titan, one of a race of older gods who ruled Greece until the Olympian gods arose. Some myths have Prometheus himself creating humans from clay, and Zeus withholding fire from the men because he was displeased by them. In other myths, Prometheus tricked Zeus into picking bones over meat, leading Zeus to withhold fire as a punishment. The Titan was also gifted with the ability of foresight, and he allegedly foretold the downfall of Zeus at the hands of one of his children, but he wouldn't divulge a name, infuriating Zeus.

In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Prometheus for giving fire to mankind.
In Greek mythology, Zeus punished Prometheus for giving fire to mankind.

After Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and brought it to humans, Zeus supposedly chained Prometheus to a rock as a punishment. A bird, usually an eagle but a vulture in some stories, was stationed over Prometheus to tear out his liver repeatedly, as his liver grew back every day. Since Prometheus is sometimes portrayed as an associate and friend of Zeus, this punishment is often framed as a serious betrayal. Heracles, a Greek hero, is said to have freed Prometheus after 30 years of imprisonment, which also infuriated Zeus.

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Several other stories are associated with Prometheus; some tales, for example, say that Zeus created Pandora and sent her to Earth as a form of vengeance for the theft of fire. Prometheus is also sometimes credited with bringing literature and the arts to humans in addition to fire, and in some myths he is treated almost like the Christian figure Adam, who played a very important role in human history. In these myths, Pandora brings darkness, evil, and misery into the world, leading some people to associate her with Eve.

Some modern works of art and literature use Prometheus as an allegorical figure, representing a stretching for knowledge and information which could radically change human existence. Others elevate Prometheus as a heroic and intelligent figure who managed to trick the Gods and improve living conditions for humans.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods.

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Discussion Comments


@David09 - I think it’s the same source material. Perhaps the stories don’t travel fast, but they do travel. People could get around on ships, visit the far flung reaches of the world, and oral tradition was pretty strong in those days. So they would pass the tale down from one generation to another.

I think in some cases the common myths may have been coincidence but I believe that most of the time they’re all working from the same text. It’s like the story of Gilgamesh and Noah’s Flood. Some people believe they are both retellings of an actual catastrophic event that happened thousands of years ago.


I think it’s interesting that the Prometheus mythology has parallels in different cultures around the world. For example, in our comparative cultures and mythology course in college we learned that the Chinese have their own retelling of a goddess who created people from clay, and the same myth was told in various ways in African, Egyptian and Babylonian cultures as well, substituting different names for the gods or goddesses.

So this begs the obvious question—why do so many cultures tell the same tale in their own way? Are they all using the same source material or is it coincidence? Remember this is before the days of mass communication where information travels fast.


@Mammmood - I saw the play once too. It’s rather short if I recall. One word of warning is that the language is rather Shakespearean or old English if you will, at least what I saw. So if that kind of grammar and syntax throw you off you’d be better off staying home and watching a movie.


If you want more information about the story of Prometheus, watch the play Prometheus Bound. It was an ancient Greek play and I saw it once in one of the local community house theaters a long time ago.

It’s not exactly loads of excitement, as the play is mostly speeches. This is a matter of the plot more than anything else. It has Prometheus bound to a rock as punishment for stealing fire and so there isn’t much movement. Still, I found it interesting and it retells the Prometheus story quite well.

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