According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was an immortal* being who defended humans against the gods. In a famous story, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, a crime for which he was sentenced to never-ending torture by Zeus, the king of the gods. The poet Hesiod related many of the stories associated with Prometheus in his poems Theogony and Works and Days. The playwright Aeschylus adapted the myths for a trilogy of dramas, including his play Prometheus Bound.

Prometheus was the son of the Titan* Iapetus and Clymene, the daughter of Oceanus. His name means “forethought” in Greek. When Zeus and his fellow gods rebelled against the Titans for control of the universe, Prometheus foresaw the outcome. He advised the Titans to use cleverness to defeat Zeus, but they ignored his advice. Prometheus joined the side of Zeus and the gods, who ultimately defeated the Titans and imprisoned them in Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld*.

* immortal living forever

* Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth before the Olympian gods

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

As a defender of mortals against the gods, the hero Prometheus often angered Zeus with his rebelliousness and trickery. As a punishment for stealing fire from Mt. Olympus, Prometheus was tied to a rock, and every day an eagle ate part of his liver.

Prometheus soon found himself in disagreement with Zeus over human beings. In his poem Theogony, Hesiod relates how Prometheus created human forms out of clay, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, breathed life into the clay figures. Although Prometheus taught humans many arts and crafts, they remained imperfect beings. When Zeus discovered Prometheus’s creation, he decided to destroy humankind and make more perfect creatures instead. Zeus attempted to starve humans by demanding the best food in sacrifices*. Prometheus divided an ox into two portions. One portion contained the edible meat but was covered with the unappetizing stomach. The other portion contained bones that Prometheus covered with a thin layer of appealing fat. Zeus chose the portion with the inedible bones.

In revenge, Zeus withheld fire from humans, knowing that this would certainly lead to their deaths. To protect his creation, Prometheus stole a spark from Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods, which he hid in the stem of a plant. He then gave the spark to humans. When Zeus saw the fires that people had set from the spark, he was enraged and ordered the capture of Prometheus. Prometheus was taken to a remote mountain peak at the edge of the ocean and chained to a rock. Every day an eagle landed on the rock and ate part of Prometheus’s liver. Each night, his liver grew back. According to some versions of the myth, Prometheus taunted Zeus, who angrily threw a thunderbolt at the rock, forcing Prometheus into Tartarus.

Zeus eventually freed Prometheus in exchange for information. Zeus was in love with the nymph* Thetis, but he had heard a rumor that the son of Thetis would be greater than his father. Because Prometheus saw the future, he knew that the son of Zeus and Thetis would overthrow Zeus as king of the gods, just as Zeus had overthrown his own father, Cronos. After Prometheus gave this information to Zeus, he was then freed by the hero* Heracles, who killed the eagle and broke the chains that bound Prometheus to the rock.

According to Hesiod, because Zeus was angry about the theft of fire, he punished humans by giving them Pandora. Created by the god Hephaestus, Pandora was taught household skills by Athena, and given charm by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She also carried with her ajar that contained all the evils in the world. Zeus presented Pandora to Prometheus, who saw through the ploy and refused the gift. Although Prometheus also warned his brother, Epimetheus, against accepting the gift, Epimetheus (whose name means “afterthought”) gladly married Pandora. When Pandora unwittingly opened the jar, she released pain, disease, and all the other evils into the world. Only hope was left inside the jar. (See also Divinities; Myths, Greek.)

* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat

* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

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