Prometheus Without Character in Ancient Greek Literature

face of a prisoner

Prometheus did not have a distinctive character in ancient literature. Prometheus’s earliest appearance in surviving ancient Greek literature is in Hesiod’s Theogony. There Prometheus is a conventional mythic type with a twist: a trickster tricked whose failure ultimately brings hardship to himself and the whole world. Other examples of tricksters in myth include Maui in Polynesian myth, Loki in Norse myth, the Lame Boy in Nigerian Ekoi myth, and the coyote and raven in myth of early North American peoples.

Much like Rebekah in Genesis, Prometheus in Hesiod’s Theogony tricks an authority figure to secure a benefit for another. Intervening in a settling of accounts between Zeus and men, Prometheus sets out two portions of a sacrificed ox. Before Zeus, Prometheus sets out plain stomach skin concealing “meat and innards rich with fat.”^ Before men, Prometheus sets out glistening slabs of fat that conceal bare bones. Zeus complains about the unjust division of portions. Prometheus responds by offering Zeus the choice of portions. Zeus chooses the bare bones hidden under the slabs of fat. He is thus tricked. Furious at this trick, Zeus resolves to deprive men of fire. Prometheus again tricks Zeus by stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men. Zeus then punishes men by sending them women and punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle daily to tear out and eat his liver. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus’s successful tricks in the end bring only suffering to himself and to men.

In early popular fables attributed to Aesop, Prometheus is depicted as a blunderer and a figure subject to trickery. In one fable, Prometheus, who makes human beings from clay, returns to his workshop late in the evening, drunk after a banquet. He puts female genitalia on a male figure, and vice versa. Prometheus blunders in another fable by making too many animals relative to humans. Following Zeus’s order, Prometheus reshapes some animals into humans, but does not change their animal soul. In another fable, a trickster in Prometheus’s pottery shop duplicates on the sly Prometheus’s figure of truth. The trickster, however, did not have enough clay to make feet for the duplicate. Prometheus, apparently not recognizing the defect in the duplicate figure, animated it. Because it lacked feet, the duplicate figure remained stuck in place. The fable thus explains that truth can move forward while crafted falsehood remains behind. In yet another fable, a lion finds fault with how Prometheus designed him. The problem, according to the fable, is that the lion is afraid of roosters. Prometheus explains that he couldn’t have designed the lion any better. The lion becomes reconciled to Prometheus’ imperfect design when he notices that elephants are afraid of gnats.^

Some accounts of Prometheus other than that in Hesiod’s Theogony pre-date fifth-century Athens. A story that Prometheus’s son Deukalion and Deukalion’s wife Pyrrha created male and female humans was current before 500 BCE.^ Servius, a fourth-century CE commenter, noted that Sappho (c. 600 BCE) described Prometheus creating man.^

The classical Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound didn’t firmly establish Prometheus as a heroic figure. Less than sixty years after Prometheus Bound was performed, Prometheus descends to help birds in Aristophanes’s comedy Birds. Prometheus appears as a timid, turncoat god who says he hates the gods and is a friend of humans.^ Prometheus explains that the gods are suffering desperate hunger because humans have stopped making sacrifices to the gods since the birds have taken over the world. Prometheus offers foresight and knowledge to the birds to instruct them on how to consolidate their power. In an important addition to this reconfiguration of the Prometheus myth, Prometheus hides from Zeus using props (a parasol, a stool) that resident aliens (metics) carried in the Panathenaea processions.^ Prometheus was thus associated with a status below that of a citizen of Athens.

Prometheus wasn’t a major god in ancient Greek religion. In a satirical dialogue written roughly five hundred years after Prometheus Bound, Prometheus asserts that he benefited little from his efforts on behalf of humanity:

temples of Zeus, and Apollo, and Hera, temples of Hermes, are everywhere to be seen; but who ever saw a temple of Prometheus?^

In democratic Athens, Prometheus was the patron god of potters. He was honored in an annual torch race as part of the Prometheia festival.^ Prometheus, however, never became a major god within ancient Greek cult and myth and had low divine status.^

Prometheus became a heroic character in competition for attention in early-nineteenth-century England. In classical Athens, Prometheus Bound was about communicative action, not Prometheus’s character.

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