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Prometheus: Fire Bringer and Philanthropist

Greek mythology on the great titan Prometheus

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Prometheus by Gustave Moreau, (1868).

Prometheus by Gustave Moreau, (1868).

Public Domain; Courtesy of Wikipedia

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The term philanthropist is a perfect term for the great titan of Greek mythology, Prometheus. He loved us. He helped us. He defied the other gods and suffered for us. (No wonder he looks Christ-like in the painting.) Read what the stories from Greek mythology tell us about this benefactor of mankind.

Prometheus is famous for a couple of seemingly unrelated stories: (1) the gift of fire to mankind [see When was Fire First Controlled? from Archaeology at About.com] and (2) being chained to a rock where every day an eagle came to eat his liver. There is a connection, however, and one that shows why Prometheus, the father of the Greek Noah, was called the benefactor of mankind.

Prometheus - Gift of Fire to Mankind

Zeus sent most of the Titans to Tartarus [see Hades' Realm] to punish them for fighting against him in the Titanomachy, but since second-generation Titan Prometheus had not sided with his aunts, uncles, and brother Atlas, Zeus spared him. Zeus then assigned Prometheus the task of forming man from water and earth, which Prometheus did, but in the process, became fonder of men than Zeus had anticipated. Zeus didn't share Prometheus' feelings and wanted to prevent men from having power, especially over fire. Prometheus cared more for man than for the wrath of the increasingly powerful and autocratic king of the gods, so he stole fire from Zeus' lightning, concealed it in a hollow stalk of fennel, and brought it to man. Prometheus also stole skills from Hephaestus and Athena to give to man.

As an aside, Prometheus and Hermes, considered trickster gods, both have a claim to the gift of fire. Hermes is credited with discovering how to produce it.

Prometheus and the Form of Ritual Sacrifice

The next stage in Prometheus' career as benefactor of mankind came when Zeus and he were developing the ceremonial forms for animal sacrifice. The astute Prometheus devised a sure-fire way to help man. He divided the slaughtered animal parts into two packets. In one was the ox-meat and innards wrapped up in the stomach lining. In the other packet were the ox-bones wrapped up in its own rich fat. One would go to the gods and the other to the humans making the sacrifice. Prometheus presented Zeus with a choice between the two, and Zeus took the deceptively richer appearing: the fat-encased, but inedible bones.

Next time someone says "don't judge a book by its cover," you may find your mind wandering to this cautionary tale.

As a result of Prometheus' trick, for ever after, whenever man sacrificed to the gods, he would be able to feast on the meat, so long as he burned the bones as an offering for the gods.

Zeus Gets Back at Prometheus

Zeus responded by hurting the ones Prometheus loved most, his brother and the humans.

Read the story of Pandora.

Prometheus Continues to Defy Zeus

Prometheus was still not awed by the might of Zeus and continued to defy him, refusing to warn him of the dangers of the nymph Thetis (future mother of Achilles). Zeus had tried punishing Prometheus through his loved ones, but this time he decided to punish him more directly. He bade Hephaestus (or Hermes) chain Prometheus to Mount Caucasus where an eagle/vulture ate his ever-regenerating liver each day. This is the topic of Aeschylus' tragedy Prometheus Bound and many paintings.

Eventually Hercules rescued Prometheus, and Zeus and the Titan were reconciled.

The Human Race and the Great Flood

Meanwhile, Prometheus had sired the human man named Deucalion, one of the noble couple whom Zeus had spared when he caused the creatures of the earth to be destroyed by a flood. Deucalion was married to his cousin, the human woman Pyrrha, daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. During the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha stayed safely on a boat like Noah's ark. When all the other evil humans had been destroyed, Zeus caused the waters to recede so that Deucalion and Pyrrha could land on Mount Parnassus. While they had each other for company, and they could produce new children, they were lonely and sought help from the oracle of Themis. Following the oracle's advice, they threw stones over their shoulders. From those thrown by Deucalion sprang men and from those thrown by Pyrrha came women. Then they had their own child, a boy whom they called Hellen and after whom the Greeks were named Hellenes.


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