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The Myth of Prometheus

According to Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus ventured to the Greek province of Boitia and made clay figures which the goddess Athena breathed life into. These clay figures then became the first humans. When great Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus--as Cronus in turn had overthrown his father, Uranus--he turned against mankind. He intended to destroy the human race and start again. But he was foiled by quick-witted Prometheus.

The name Prometheus means "forethought," and of all the immortal Titans, Prometheus is the most clever. This was why he had sided with deep-thinking Zeus against brutal Cronus and the other Titans.

Zeus was angered by Prometheus’s action and forbade him from teaching humans the ways of civilization. Athena, however chose to disobey Zeus. She taught Prometheus these ways so that he might teach Man.

Prometheus gave human beings the precious gift of thought and taught people many crafts and skills, such as how to study the stars in their orbits, and how to use them to navigate the seas.

This championship of mankind angered Zeus, and his anger came to head when Prometheus cheated the gods out of their rightful sacrifice, giving it to mankind instead. Prometheus had slaughtered an ox and divided it into two portions, each wrapped in hide. The large portion was just fat and bones; the small one contained the meat. Prometheus had allotted the small portion to the gods, whereupon Zeus complained. Prometheus smiled and said, "Zeus, most glorious of the gods, choose whichever you like." Of course Zeus chose the large portion. When he saw that he had been tricked by Prometheus, he decided to withhold fire from mankind.

"Let them eat their meat raw," he cried.

But Prometheus outwitted him. He entered Olympus, the home of the gods, stole fire from the chariot of the sun, and carried it back to earth in a fennel plant. Then he showed mankind how to use the fire to cook and keep warm.

When Zeus saw the glow of fires on earth, he fell into a deadly fury. Zeus took a terrible revenge on both Prometheus and mankind for stealing the gift of fire. He ordered the lame smith Hephaestus to make a woman out of clay who would possess the beauty of an immortal goddess but would bring misfortune to the human race. All the gods showered her with personal gifts, and they named her Pandora, which means "all gifted."

Zeus sent Pandora as a present, not to clever Prometheus, but to his slow-witted brother, Epimetheus, whose name means "afterthought." Prometheus warned his brother not to accept any gift from Zeus, but Epimetheus was so enchanted by Pandora's beauty he took her for his wife.

Now Epimetheus had helped his brother distribute many gifts to mankind, and in his house he had a sealed jar that contained all the ills of disease, old age, and vice. Prometheus and Epimetheus had kept these from mankind.

Pandora couldn't help wondering what was in this jar, and one day her curiosity was too much for her. She opened the seal. Out flew all the curses of mankind that fill life with suffering and misfortune. When Pandora, in a panic, replaced the lid on the jar, one thing was trapped at the bottom: Hope, who called out to her. Pandora heard the faint, sad cry and released Hope into the world to comfort mankind.

Meanwhile Zeus planned an even crueler revenge on Prometheus. Zeus condemned him to be chained to a rock in the mountains, to endure blazing sun and freezing cold. Furthermore, each day an eagle would come to gnaw at his liver, which would grow back again each night so the torment would never end.

But Prometheus did not give in. Although wracked with agony, he mocked Zeus, saying, "I am the only god who knows the secret that will hurl you into oblivion, just like your father before you. You must release me if you wish to save yourself."

For Prometheus knew that Zeus made love to a sea nymph, Thetis, as he intended, she would bear a son stronger than his father, and Zeus's reign would end. To discover this secret, Zeus eventually allowed his son Hercules to free Prometheus. In return for his freedom, Prometheus warned Zeus about Thetis, and she was married instead to a mortal, King Peleus. Their son Achilles, a hero of the Trojan War.

Throughout history, Prometheus has symbolized unyielding strength that resists oppression.