I have always been interested in mythology. The Greek myths, which inspired my new book Aphrodite’s Tears, were written thousands of years ago by wise men who helped to shape our modern thinking, and many of those stories have withstood the test of time and are relevant today. I am especially attracted to them because they explain the many facets of human nature in a dramatic way that sparks my imagination.
Of the myths, one of the most memorable for me is that of Prometheus (pictured here as a statue at the Rockefeller Center in New York).
According to Greek mythology recorded by Hesiod, Homer, Pindar and Pythagoras, we mortals have this Titan god (the Titans were the second generation of divine beings that preceded the Olympians) to thank for our very existence, for he moulded man from clay. Prometheus is better remembered, however, for a gift he made to humanity that saw him suffer a terrible punishment.
Prometheus cared about mortals; more so, in fact, than the Olympians, who had banished most of his family to Tartarus (hell). When the king of the gods, Zeus, decreed that for each animal killed, man must offer a portion of the meat as a sacrifice to him, Prometheus intervened. At a meal, he asked Zeus to choose between two sacrificial offerings: beef meat hidden inside an ox’s stomach (displeasing to the eye, but nourishing), and bones wrapped in glistening fat (deceptively appealing to the eye, and yet inedible). Whatever Zeus chose would set a precedent for all future sacrificial offerings. He chose poorly – the bones.
Enraged by the trick, Zeus retaliated by hiding fire from the humans. With no fire, they could not cook meat, and therefore mortals could no more eat the meat than he could.
Prometheus was not about to see mortals suffer in this way; fire, after all, was the foundation for progression – it was the heart of man’s power. So he endeavoured to steal back fire for man. He took a giant fennel stalk, lit it aflame from the sun itself and brought it to mankind.
Now Zeus was really enraged, and in the mood to dole out terrible punishments.
First, he would punish the mortals for accepting Prometheus’s gift of fire. This he did by having Hephaestus create the very first woman, Pandora. Beautiful– but humanity’s downfall: she would be responsible for all manner of trouble for mankind, from sickness to war (see https://hannahfielding.net/staging/1129/the-legacy-of-pandoras-box/).
As for Prometheus, Zeus had devised for him a unique and terrible fate. He had his servants Force and Violence take Prometheus to the Caucasus Mountains and chain him to a rock there with unbreakable chains. There, each day, an eagle would come and tear out and consume Prometheus’s liver; which would reform each night, only to be torn out again, over and over and over. (In Ancient Greece, people believed the liver was the source of emotions.)
Prometheus spent many years living out that torturous existence, until a young hero named Heracles (Hercules) happened across him. As part of his Eleventh Labour, Heracles killed the eagle and Prometheus – creator and champion of mortals, bringer of fire – was freed at last.
The legend of Prometheus has endured through century after century, and it particularly captured imaginations during the Romantic period in England. Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron wrote works based on the myth.
In Byron’s poem ‘Prometheus’, the eponymous hero is angelic, suffering for his goodness:
Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is a detailed work, a drama in four acts which asks: what happens after Prometheus is released? (The answer is not, unsurprisingly, reconciling with Zeus). From Prometheus Unbound:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory
Perhaps the most famous words of this work don’t relate to Prometheus himself, however, but are interwoven in the words of the moon to the earth: ‘soul meets soul on lovers’ lips’. Trust a Romantic to have made beauty out of an ancient myth tinged with retribution, castigation and suffering.
But I do not think Prometheus’s tale has endured for its dark side, but instead for its light. Prometheus was a rarity among the gods – a deity who really cared for humanity. We honour that by remembering him.