Prometheus (ancient Greek Προμηθεύς Promētheús, German 'der Vordenkende', 'the forethinker'; emphasis Latin and German Prométheus, [pʁoˈmeːtɔɪ̯s] listen?/i) is a figure of Greek mythology. The Prometheus legend is one of the most famous literary materials.
Prometheus belongs to the deity of the Titans. Like all beings, he is subject to the rule of Zeus, the father of the gods. During an animal sacrifice, he resorts to a ruse to deceive Zeus; he leaves him only the worthless parts of the sacrificial animal and keeps the edible flesh for the humans, since they are his charges.
As punishment for this, the enraged Zeus denies the mortals possession of the fire. Thereupon Prometheus steals the fire from the gods and brings it to the humans. Because of this, he is bound by order of the father of the gods and forged in the wasteland of the Caucasus Mountains.
There, an eagle regularly visits him and eats from his liver, which is then always renewed. Only after a long time does the hero Heracles deliver the Titan from this torment by killing the eagle with an arrow. Finally, Prometheus is pardoned by Zeus and regains his freedom.
As a bringer of fire and a teacher, Prometheus is the originator of human civilization. According to one variant of the myth, as a demiurge he fashioned the first humans out of clay and endowed them with properties. However, mistakes were made in the process, the consequences of which are shortcomings from which mankind has suffered ever since.
For these deficiencies in the mythical tradition also a brother of Prometheus involved in the work of creation, the unwise "after-thinker" Epimetheus, is held responsible. Epimetheus causes great harm by getting involved with Pandora, the seductress sent by Zeus, against the advice of his prescient brother.
In the oldest ancient tradition in Hesiod, Prometheus is a cunning and haughty deceiver who is justly punished for his outrage. In contrast, the tragedy The Bound Prometheus, attributed to the poet Aeschylus, paints a very favorable picture of the Titan. The playwright glorifies Prometheus as the benefactor of mankind and the antagonist of the tyrannical Zeus.
Even in antiquity, the fate of Prometheus was an impressive literary subject and a popular motif in the visual arts. Since the Renaissance, numerous poets, writers, painters, sculptors and composers have worked on the material. The myth has also given rise to many philosophical reflections.
From the perspective of religious criticism, Prometheus is the archetype of the courageous rebel who initiates liberation from ignorance and religiously based oppression. In modernity, he stands as a symbolic figure for scientific and technical progress and the increasing domination of man over nature.
Therefore, he is judged differently depending on one's historical-philosophical position: For progress optimists, he represents an allegory of humanity emancipating itself; civilization critics, on the other hand, consider the "Promethean" impulse to be ambivalent or questionable, and problematize man's urge for as unrestrained, god-like power as possible.
Prometheus does not appear in Homer's world of gods. The oldest surviving version of the myth is found in the works of the epic poet Hesiod, written in the late 8th century BC. The free literary arrangement of the material in the Athenian stage poetry of the 5th century B.C. is based on Hesiod's information. These earliest written versions of the myth became groundbreaking for the following period.
The oldest surviving form of the myth in Hesiod
Hesiod treated the myth in detail in his Theogony and in the poem Works and Days. In doing so, however, he did not adhere to the chronological sequence throughout and only hinted at some things. He concentrated on the effective coloring of individual scenes, for the basic features of the mythical plot were already familiar to his audience.
According to Hesiod's account, Prometheus is one of the four sons of the Titan Iapetus and the Okeanide Clymene. His mother is one of the three thousand daughters of the water god Okeanos, whom Hesiod also counts among the Titans, and of Tethys, Okeanos' sister and wife.
The brothers of Prometheus are the defiant Atlas, the violent and rest-seeking Menoitios, and Epimetheus, the "after-thinking" one, whose speaking name indicates his folly: Epimetheus acts before he thinks.
Thus he is the opposite of the prudent "before-thinker" Prometheus, whom Hesiod characterizes as a shrewd, cunning planner. As a master of shrewd deliberation and foresight, Prometheus contrasts with his unreasonable brother.
Zeus, the father of the gods, has ruled the entire world since he, together with his brothers Poseidon and Hades, defeated a group of Titans in a gigantic battle, the "Titanomachy." From humans he demands the regular sacrifice of farm animals. Prometheus, as the protector of humanity, wants to spare it the burden of sacrificial duty.
At an assembly in the city of Mekone (Sikyon), Zeus makes an agreement with mortals about the obligation to sacrifice. From each slaughtered animal a part is to be offered to the gods. Representing mankind, Prometheus performs the first sacrifice in Mekone as an authoritative pattern for the future.
To help his protégés, he resorts to a ruse. He slaughters a cow and divides it into two piles, a larger one made of the bones, which he artfully piles up, and a smaller one made of the meat. He covers the small pile with the skin, and the large one with a layer of fat.
Then he cunningly asks Zeus to choose the pile that he likes better. The father of the gods realizes that he is to be tricked, but pretends to be fooled. According to his will, the deceit should first be executed and then find the due punishment. Therefore he chooses the big pile and removes the covering.
At the sight of the bones he is furious. Now it is agreed for all future times that only the inedible parts of the sacrificial animals are to be offered to the gods and the meat is to serve human consumption.
Out of anger at the deception, the father of the gods denies humans the use of fire. This makes it impossible for them to use firewood and blocks the way to a civilized life, and they cannot enjoy their share of the cattle.
Now Prometheus again intervenes. In order to provide fire for the people nevertheless, he steals some embers in heaven, hides them in the hollow, dry stem of the giant fennel, and brings them to earth. Thereupon a fire lights up there, visible from afar.
Zeus is thus presented with a fait accompli; what has happened can no longer be undone. At the sight of the flames, the father of the gods is seized by fierce anger.
The duped sky ruler decides to take revenge on both mankind and the defiant Titan. Delighted by his own revenge plan, he bursts out laughing. First, he orders the technically and artistically highly gifted smith god Hephaistos to create from earth the form of an exceedingly beautiful virgin and to give her life.
The new creature is then richly adorned, each of the Olympian deities endowing her with a special gift or skill. The virgin receives everything that belongs to perfect beauty and grace, but also deviousness and a deceitful character. She is called Pandora - "the one who has all the gifts".
By order of Zeus, Hermes, the messenger of the gods, leads Pandora to the foolish Epimetheus, who takes her in, although Prometheus has warned him never to accept a gift from Zeus.
The mischief-maker opens the proverbial "Pandora's Box," a sealed vessel that contains all the evils from which men have hitherto been spared, as well as ἐλπίς elpís, German 'the expectation' or 'the foreknowledge.' Pandora's box is a jar or jar that contains the ἐλπίς elpís.
It is a jar or barrel with a lid. As soon as Pandora lifts the lid, the evils float out. Only elpís remains in the vessel, which is closed again. Since then, mankind has been plagued by countless plagues - especially diseases. Among the new evils, men have to suffer much grief from bad wives who, with their selfishness and laziness, are a burden to their husbands.
An even harsher punishment befalls Prometheus. Zeus has him chained to a post or pillar and sends him an eagle that eats his liver every day, which in turn renews itself at night, since the Titan is immortal. Later, however, the hero Heracles, a son of Zeus, puts an end to the torture by killing the eagle.
In doing so, he acts with the approval of his divine father, for Zeus begrudges his famous son the added glory of this deed, and this is more important to him than his resentment of the recalcitrant Titan. However, Prometheus is not freed from the bonds in Hesiod; the punishment of chaining remains, it is apparently eternal.
According to fragments of a now largely lost catalog of women traditionally attributed to Hesiod, Deucalion, the hero of the Greek Flood saga, is a son of Prometheus.
The background of Hesiod's understanding of the myth is the special position of man in the cosmos. From the poet's point of view, mankind has stepped out of a close bond with the world of the gods and out of a paradisiacal primordial state, and has arrived at a form of existence determined by the toils of labor.
The cunning of Prometheus stands for the distance from the gods. The result is an independence of man, the emergence of a separate human life-world, which admittedly remains integrated into an overarching cosmic lawfulness.
Transformation in the dramas of the 5th century BCE.
Aeschylus, one of the most successful dramatists of the cultural heyday of Athens, brought the saga material to the stage several times. First he wrote a satyr play, a light-hearted play about the theft of fire entitled Prometheus the Firelighter, which is now lost.
It formed the conclusion of a tetralogy, a group of four dramas consisting of three tragedies and the satyr play, with which Aeschylus won the annual poetry competition in 472 BC. Later, he wrote The Liberated Prometheus, a serious play about Heracles' act of liberation.
Only fragments of this stage work by Aeschylus have survived, which at least allow a partial reconstruction of the plot. In addition, the title of the work Prometheus the Fire-bearer has survived; in research it is disputed whether it refers to the satyr play or to another, unknown drama by Aeschylus.
Completely preserved is the tragedy The Bound Prometheus (Promētheús desmṓtēs), in which the punishment of the Titan is depicted. It is traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, but in ancient studies the question of its authenticity has long been controversial and remains unresolved.
According to one hypothesis, Aeschylus' son Euphorion wrote the drama, perhaps based on a draft left by his father, and passed it off as his work.
The liberated Prometheus
In this now lost play by Aeschylus, according to the reconstructed sequence of events, the chained Prometheus is visited by the earth goddess Gaia. She wants to help him to be pardoned. In vain, the tortured man wishes for death; as a god, he is immortal.
Only after he has long suffered the torment of the eagle, Heracles appears and slays the bird of prey, but he does not dare to loosen the bonds of the prisoner without permission of the father of the gods. The release is made possible by another development: Prometheus has learned that Zeus is in danger.
The father of the gods intends to marry the nymph Thetis, as he is taken by her beauty. However, a prophecy that has come to Prometheus' ears says that Thetis will bear a son who will surpass his father.
Such a son could overthrow the world ruler Zeus, just as he once overthrew his father Kronos. Prometheus warns Zeus, whereupon he renounces the planned marriage and pardons the convict out of gratitude. A reconciliation takes place, the Titan is freed from his bonds and restored to his former state.
The bound Prometheus
The action takes place in a barren region of the Scythian land. Prometheus is brought there as a prisoner. Hephaestus is ordered to forge him to a rock. He expresses his sympathy for the convict, but cannot resist Zeus' command.
His assistants are Kratos and Bia, whose speaking names mean "power" and "violence". During the brutal bondage, which is drastically described, the ruthless Kratos drives the reluctant Hephaestus.
Prometheus, left alone, breaks out in bitter lamentations about his fate, which he must suffer because of his love of man. Soon the Okeanids arrive, the winged daughters of Okeanos, who pity the cruelly tormented one and lament the hard-heartedness of Zeus.
To them Prometheus describes the prehistory. It began with the conflict between Zeus and the Titans, who did not want to bow to his claim to power. The Titans trusted in their mighty fighting power and disregarded the advice of Prometheus, who foresaw their defeat and recommended a cunning approach.
In order not to be defeated with them, Prometheus changed sides. He joined Zeus, advised him wisely, and contributed significantly to securing his rule. But as soon as the victor was in sole possession of power unchallenged, he proved ungrateful and turned against the protégés of his helper: he planned the destruction of mankind.
Prometheus, however, was able to prevent the realization of this plan and, moreover, brought fire to the mortals. For this he must now suffer the cruel revenge of the ruler. But Prometheus knows about a future threatening attack, which will bring about the downfall of the tyrant, if he is not warned in time.
He wants to reveal his secret only in return for his release, and moreover he demands compensation for the injustice he has suffered. Now the helpful Okeanos appears, who is a friend of Prometheus. He advises Prometheus to give in and offers himself as a mediator, but Prometheus rejects his offer. Thereupon he sets out on his way home.
Once again the lamentation of the Okeanids begins. The bound Titan describes to them the extent of his benefits for mankind, which had received the foundations of civilization only thanks to his teachings.
He had taught people all knowledge and skills, including arithmetic and writing, the taming of farm animals, seafaring, mining and the art of healing. Now he trusts in "necessity," in the power of the goddesses of fate, the Moirs, to whom even Zeus is subject. She will, according to him, bring about a change when the time comes.
In the next scene, Io appears, a king's daughter who was desired by Zeus and therefore suffers severely from the jealousy of his wife Hera. She is on the run. She describes her sad fate in detail. She has in common with Prometheus that she is also an innocent victim of divine arbitrariness and cruelty.
Prometheus foretells her what wanderings and hardships lie ahead of her, but also gives her hope for a future change of fortune. He speaks of his secret, the impending overthrow that no one but he can prevent. This knowledge gives him, the outwardly helpless one, a hidden superiority over the ruler of the world.
The final scene begins with the appearance of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Zeus has learned that his prisoner is guarding an important secret and wants to force him to reveal it.
In vain, the messenger tries to persuade the defiant Titan to give in. Prometheus insists that he must be released first, and assures him that no blow or torture can bend him. Hermes then threatens him with an increase in torment: Prometheus, if he continues silent, shall first be buried alive under a rock for a long time; then he shall be brought forth and tormented by the eagle, which will greedily tear a rag from his body every day.
But even this threat cannot change the prisoner's mind, and the chorus of Okeanids declares solidarity with him. Then the earth sways, thunder and lightning announce the beginning of the new divine punishment. Before Prometheus sinks, he calls upon Aither, the heavens, to witness that he suffers unjustly. With this exclamation, the tragedy ends.
The two dramas differ greatly in conception and in intended effect. In Liberated Prometheus, Aeschylus expressed his belief in a merciful world leader and his ideal of concord. He wanted the audience to see the reconciling attitude of the convict who warns the author of his sufferings and to glorify the reward of this devotion through the magnanimity of the pardoning God.
A completely different perspective determines the plot of The Bound Prometheus. This tragedy, in contrast to Aeschylus' conciliatory drama of liberation, is characterized by merciless harshness.
Here Zeus appears as a cruel, vengeful and foolish despot, and Prometheus is his indomitable adversary. This Prometheus is a noble ideal figure: with foresight he gives wise advice, in the struggle for justice he remains steadfast even under the heaviest burden; unselfishly he sacrifices himself for mankind, which owes everything to him.
Obviously, all the poet's sympathy goes to him. The rule of Zeus is several times explicitly described as tyrannis, even the henchman Kratos blatantly calls it so. The father of the gods is portrayed as a sinister usurper; he is a despot who has only recently come to power by force and who has neither legitimacy nor virtue as a ruler. As a typical tyrant, he is brutal, distrustful, and unjust, and knows no true friendship.
The treatment of the mythical material in both works is free and determined by the requirements of dramatic effect; the mythical lore is expanded by additional actors and motifs. The newly introduced motif of danger threatening Zeus, against which Prometheus can warn him, plays an important role in both plays, but in very different ways.
The plot of the liberation drama needs this addition because here a version of the myth is offered that differs greatly from Hesiod's version: Prometheus is not only delivered from torture, but fully pardoned.
To make this change of mind of Zeus plausible, the poet added the saving warning: The Titan points out the danger to the father of the gods without demanding anything in return, thus making him grateful and gracious.
The protagonist behaves completely differently in The Bound Prometheus: there Prometheus keeps his knowledge secret and sees in it a means of pressure against Zeus, while the latter in turn tries to intimidate him with terrible threats.
The secret knowledge turns the outwardly defenseless prisoner into an equal opponent of the world ruler; each of the two has the fate of the other in his hands. In the different handling of this motif, the contrast between the two tragedies becomes apparent.
In addition to linguistic, stylistic and technical arguments, it is above all the massive, fundamental criticism of God in The Bound Prometheus that supports the hypothesis that this work was not written by Aeschylus, but by an unknown author of the late 5th century BC, who took up the concept of the famous tragedian and transformed it in his own sense.
In the play, everything is designed to instill in the audience indignation at the arbitrariness and cruelty of the ruler of heaven and to justify resistance to him. This contradicts the basic attitude of the pious Aeschylus, who considered the rule of the gods legitimate and just.
In favor of the authenticity of the tragedy, however, is the fact that the traditional attribution has been handed down unanimously and was never doubted in antiquity.
By Zeus' plan to destroy mankind, thwarted by Prometheus, is apparently meant the "Deucalionic Flood," a deluge. According to this, the author of The Bound Prometheus knew a version of the Deucalion saga, according to which Prometheus enabled his son Deucalion to survive the flood through wise counsel.
Prometheus' popularity among the people of Athens is evidenced by his appearance as a character in Attic comedy. His cleverness probably earned him sympathy among broader classes. In Aristophanes' comedy The Birds, performed in 414 B.C., he presents himself as a philanthropist who is known to hate all the gods.
He advises humans on how to negotiate with Zeus, who is currently being harassed by other gods and is in trouble. Here the traditional role of the Titan as defiant hero is reversed: fearful and nervous, Prometheus hides under a parasol from the gaze of Zeus, who may be looking down from heaven.
Plato's utilization of the material
In his dialogue Protagoras, the philosopher Plato had the sophist Protagoras tell a myth about the origin of mankind. According to this story, Prometheus and Epimetheus were significantly involved in the creation of earthly creatures on behalf of the gods.
They were to equip the various creatures with everything needed to sustain life. Epimetheus took over the task of assigning to the individual species the means and characteristics necessary in each case for protection and for the procurement of food.
To some species he gave speed, to others strength and defensibility, to some the ability to escape by flying or to hide well; to the prey he gave great fertility so that they would not be exterminated. With dense hair he provided for unfavorable weather.
Thus he used up the available means completely. When finally Prometheus checked the work of his brother, he had to find out that Epimetheus had forgotten the human being.
He had remained naked and defenseless. So Prometheus was forced to steal fire and technical knowledge from the gods to enable man to survive. Inaccessible to him, however, was the knowledge of social coexistence and the organization of a state community, which was kept in the castle of Zeus and thus remained denied to mankind for the time being.
In Plato, Prometheus is not a rebel, but an agent of the gods. He commits the theft out of necessity; the culprit is actually not himself, but his brother, who has failed. Thus, the conflict between Zeus and the Titan is largely hidden.
This representation corresponds to Plato's understanding of piety; the gods must not be accused of unethical behavior. Plato presumably utilized material from the historical Protagoras for the exposition of his dialogue character, but it is unclear to what extent he reproduced authentic thought of the sophist in the mythical narrative.
Later Greek literature
In the 3rd century BC, the poet Apollonios of Rhodes wrote the epic Argonautika, in which he recounted his version of the Argonaut saga. According to this myth, the Argonauts, a band of heroes, sailed on the ship Argo from Thessaly to Colchis on the east coast of the Black Sea to capture the Golden Fleece.
As they approached their destination, they caught sight - according to Apollonios - of the Caucasus Mountains, where Prometheus was chained to the rock. There they saw the eagle flying over their ship, and soon after they heard the cries of pain of the Titan, whose liver was torn out.
In Colchis they obtained the help of the king's daughter Medea, who knew magic. She provided them with the magic remedy "Prometheion", a herb that temporarily gives tremendous strength and makes you invulnerable if you rub yourself with it. It grew where the eagle dripped the blood of Prometheus in the gorges of the Caucasus.
The historian Diodorus, active in the 1st century BC, interpreted the legend euhemeristically as a mythification of historical events. According to his interpretation, Prometheus was not a god, but a man who administered a district in Egypt as governor.
When the Nile, which the Egyptians called "eagle" because of its raging force, flooded the governor's territory after a dam broke, the governor wanted to take his own life out of grief, but the capable Heracles repaired the damaged dam and thus dissuaded Prometheus from committing suicide.
From this process poets later made the myth of the devouring eagle and of the liberation of the Titan. In such a way Diodorus also explained the mythical fire theft: the historical Prometheus had been the discoverer of the "firewoods", the form of the lighter at that time.
According to a variant version of the flood narrative, Prometheus was a king of the Scythians who failed to prevent the flooding of a river, whereupon he was imprisoned by his subjects; Heracles solved the problem by diverting the river and freed the king. The story of Prometheus was also used in the Roman Empire.
In the early Roman imperial period, an unknown author wrote the manual of Greek mythology known as the Library of Apollodorus. In it is found a number of details concerning Prometheus.
As his mother the Okeanide Asia is mentioned here. Prometheus appears in this tradition as father of the hero Deukalion, whom he advises at the time of the "Deukalionic flood". On his father's advice, Deucalion builds the ship with which he survives the Flood.
The satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote the dialogue Prometheus in the 2nd century, in which he humorously reshaped the mythical material. Hermes and Hephaestus are commissioned to bind the Titan in the Caucasus.
After finding a suitable snow-free rock and completing their work, they still have to wait for the eagle to arrive. The three gods spend the waiting time in a witty conversation in which the bound Prometheus takes the leading role. They feign a rhetorical argument in court.
Hermes, who is himself a cunning thief and god of thieves, accuses the convict of sacrificial fraud and fire theft and accuses him of having created humans on his own authority. The creation of man appears here as an entirely independent achievement of the Titan.
Prometheus delivers a long defense speech in which he refutes the charges so brilliantly that Hermes knows nothing to counter them. In particular, he justifies his creation of mankind. The existence of mortals is quite advantageous for the gods.
Only through the smallness of mankind the greatness of the gods is put into perspective, and the occupation with mortals drives away the boredom of the immortals. This work of Lucian has the character of a rhetorical exercise imbued with witty irony.
Another part of the Promethean legend, the Pardon, is the subject of the first dialogue of Lucian's Conversations with the Gods, a collection of entertainments in which the satirist poked fun at the myths. In this short text, Prometheus successfully negotiates his release with Zeus.
In the 4th century, the Roman emperor Julian adopted the Platonic version of the myth, according to which Prometheus was the agent of the gods for the salvation of mankind. Julian interpreted the procurement of fire allegorically as endowing man with reason.
The reception of the myth in Latin literature began with the tragedy Prometheus by the Roman poet Lucius Accius, who lived in the 2nd and early 1st centuries BC. Nothing of this work has survived except for two tiny fragments.
The scholar Marcus Terentius Varro wrote a Menippean satire in dialogue form entitled Prometheus liber (The Free Prometheus) in the seventies or sixties of the 1st century BC, of which fourteen short fragments have survived.
It can be inferred from them that above all the role of the titan as creator of man was thematized from a philosophical and cultural-critical point of view. Varro apparently had Prometheus explain the work of creation and described the cultural decline that, in his view, had later occurred. In light of this decline, the work of Prometheus seemed questionable to the Roman writer.
In 45 BC, Cicero discussed in his Tusculanae disputationes the philosophical question of whether pain was an evil, which was denied by the Stoics. Among other things, he cited the torment of Prometheus as an example and quoted a poetic lament of the tortured man. It is a Latin rendering of a passage from Aeschylus' Liberated Prometheus. It is likely that Cicero himself composed the verses.
During the time of the Emperor Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14) lived the scholar Gaius Iulius Hyginus, whose works probably include the mythographic manual Genealogiae and the astronomical-mythographic manual De astronomia.
The Genealogiae were formerly attributed to a presumed later author of the same name, called "Hyginus Mythographus," and are also known under the title Fabulae. In both writings basic features of the saga are summarized, in the Genealogiae very briefly, in De astronomia in more detail.
In Hyginus, an embellishment of the liberation narrative is handed down, according to which Prometheus, after his pardon, had to wear a finger ring made of stone and iron as a symbolic bondage in remembrance of his punishment by order of the father of the gods.
In the Genealogiae, as the only source, the name of the eagle Aethon (Greek Aíthōn) is mentioned. Another summary of the material comes from the late antique grammarian Servius, who referred to the saga in his commentary on Virgil's Eclogues.
He portrayed Prometheus as an extraordinarily astute connoisseur of the heavenly bodies who had studied the heavens on the Caucasus and then taught the Assyrians his knowledge of the subject. Like Hyginus, Servius also told of the finger ring.
The poet Ovid did not elaborate on the myth in his Metamorphoses, which he completed in the first decade of the 1st century. However, in his treatment of the creation of the world, he mentioned a version according to which Prometheus mixed earth, which "preserved heavenly seeds," with rainwater and formed humans from it in the image of the gods.
In the second half of the 1st century, the poet Gaius Valerius Flaccus also addressed the mythical events surrounding Prometheus in his epic Argonautica, which depicts the Argonauts' voyage.
In his work, the Argonauts indirectly witness from afar the act of liberation of Heracles (Hercules in Latin), whose spectacular effects in the surrounding nature they perceive without knowing who is acting and what is going on.
For Christians, the mythical tradition posed a challenge because it attributed an essential role in the creation of man to a subordinate and, moreover, recalcitrant deity. This notion was opposed in 197 by the church writer Tertullian, who referred to God as the true Prometheus.
In contrast, among the late antique church fathers, Prometheus was considered human. In the early 4th century, Lactance, in his Epitome divinarum institutionum, described him as the originator of the abominable cult of idolatry; he had made the first idol.
His plastic image of man had been so lifelike that already his contemporaries and later the poets had falsely called him the creator of "living" men. Another explanation of the creation legend was given in the early 5th century by the church father Augustine: Prometheus had been considered such a superior teacher of wisdom that he was believed to have the ability to create humans from clay.
Augustine referred to a tradition according to which Prometheus was a contemporary of the prophet Moses. A Christian reinterpretation of the legend was also made by the late antique mythographer Fulgentius in his writing Mitologiae.
He interpreted the speaking name of the "forethinker" Prometheus as a designation for God's providence and interpreted the divine fire brought down from heaven as the human soul breathed into by the deity.
The speaking names "Prometheus" and "Epimetheus" seem to indicate that the "Forethinker" was not an ancient god, but a personification of the abstract concept of foresight with the brother as a contrasting figure.
Since the future was before his eyes, he was at the same time an embodiment of shrewdness and cleverness. It is also possible, however, that "Prometheus" was originally an epithet of an ancient deity that later became accepted, while the actual name was forgotten.
To the oldest stock of the saga belongs the meaning of the fire robbery as the beginning of civilization. The aspect of civilization was elaborated in the course of development and increased in weight within the mythical tradition; the mere thief became a knower and enlightener.
The creation of man was added as a more recent special motif. Through the extensions of the myth, the role of the protagonist increased considerably in importance.
In the myth and its historical development, two contrary tendencies are discernible: on the one hand, Prometheus appears as a deceitful and defiant adversary of the supreme deity, who is justly punished for his rebellion;
on the other hand, he appears as an unselfish benefactor and teacher of mankind and as a tragic hero who becomes the victim of divine vindictiveness and arbitrariness. Accordingly, the ancient evaluations of his deeds and his fate are different and sometimes sharply opposed. They express various basic world-view attitudes and are at the same time symptoms of cultural-historical change.
The oldest surviving account of the myth is dominated by the pious conviction that it is sacrilege to go against the divine ruler of the world. The consequences of such a fatal mistake were regarded with horror by Hesiod's contemporaries; the view of the ruling Olympian gods was the authoritative one.
This assessment of the mythical event was still held in much later times; in the Augustan epoch it was articulated by the poet Horace. From the 5th century B.C., however, the opposite attitude, sympathy and solidarity with the persecuted benefactor of mankind, Prometheus, also emphatically asserted itself.
This development reflected the strengthening of a current critical of religion and the emergence of an independent reflection on the validity of ethical norms. The Prometheus myth provided an opportunity to question or even openly dispute the justice of the divine guidance of the world.
In the "classical era" of Greek cultural history, the traditional behavior of the Olympian gods was no longer considered above human criticism in some circles of the educated upper class.
The author of The Bound Prometheus was not afraid to call Zeus a tyrant. In his democratically governed hometown of Athens, the accusation of tyranny was the harshest form in which one could criticize the exercise of power.
A major factor in the distancing from conventional religious views in the second half of the 5th century B.C. was the influence of sophism, which appeared as an educational movement and is also noticeable in The Bound Prometheus.
In addition, during the heyday of Athens, there was pride in cultural achievements and accomplishments, the beginnings of which were associated with the name of Prometheus.
Those who wanted to hold on to the concept of a good world order and a wise, benevolent divine providence in the subsequent period - like Plato in the 4th century BC - had to tone down or downplay the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus. In the context of cultural change, the mythic material was reshaped and reinterpreted.
In some cases, the evaluation of the civilizational aspect reflects the evaluator's view of history. Those who, like Hesiod, were culturally pessimistic, believed in the ideal world of an initial golden age, and perceived the course of history primarily as a process of decay, tended toward an ambivalent or negative assessment of the beginning of civilization.
The judgment of the anti-civilization Cynics was also quite negative. They saw in the fire robbery the beginning of an erroneous development, which had led to effeminacy and hedonism.
On the other hand, those who, like the author of The Bound Prometheus, cultivated an optimism of progress and considered the primitive state of mankind to be pathetic and animal-like, saw in Prometheus the great benefactor to whom all significant achievements were due."
Unknown is the origin of the role of Prometheus as a craftsman and creator, who first created the animals and then also the first humans from clay. In any case, very old legend material is processed here, whereby the function of an ancient creator deity was transferred to Prometheus.
Partly it was said that he had only formed the human body and that the goddess Athena had taken care of the animation, partly he was regarded as the sole creator of the whole human being.
Probably the earliest testimonies of this branch of the myth are found in "Aesopian" fables - attributed to the narrator Aesop - which, however, are only available in later tradition and therefore cannot be grasped in their original form.
If Aesop was indeed the author or narrator of at least one of the fables, this material was already widespread in the 6th century B.C.; however, it is documented only from the 4th century B.C. In an Aesopic fable, the motif also used by Plato occurs that first the animals were formed and then there was not enough material left for the humans.
Inadequacies of human nature and the occurrence of homosexuality are attributed in the fable literature to carelessness that Prometheus had committed during creation.
Prometheus seems to have enjoyed cultic veneration on a larger scale only in Athens. According to a disputed hypothesis, he was the patron god of some craftsmen, especially potters. In the grove called Akadḗmeia in the northwest of Athens outside the city wall, there was an altar to Prometheus in the 5th century BC.
From there, a torchlight race emanated into the city, which had a competitive character and took place annually on the god's feast day. The festivities served to visualize and probably also to ritually renew the act by which Prometheus had brought the fire.
Greek, Etruscan and Roman artists and craftsmen - especially vase painters, sculptors and gem cutters - created numerous images of scenes from the Prometheus legend. Usually the Titan appears as a man of mature age, usually bearded. As a bound man, he is usually naked. The fluctuating popularity of individual motifs over time reveals changes in public taste.
The oldest pictorial representations date from the middle of the 7th century B.C. They all show punishment; the eagle flies or consumes the liver of the bound man. In the 6th century BC, the subject of the eagle's slaying was highly valued, then it faded into the background for a long time. Among the Roman art public, punishment and liberation met with considerable interest.
The act of stealing fire received very little attention in the visual arts. More often, Prometheus was depicted as the bearer of fire, usually in a scene probably taken from Aeschylus's satyr play, now lost: he delivers the precious commodity not to men, but to satyrs.
A popular motif from the era of Hellenism was the creative activity of the Titan. His mighty figure was usually depicted together with one or more small-figured humans.
The first depictions are found on gems of the second half of the 4th century B.C. In the Roman imperial period, the composition was expanded: the goddess Athena was added as a contributor. She inserts the soul in the form of a butterfly into the human body modeled by Prometheus.
In imperial Roman sarcophagus sculpture, myth was a valued theme, with the creation of man being the primary focus. A Prometheus sarcophagus created around 220 depicts the individual scenes of the course of the legendary action.
On a 3rd-century sarcophagus fragment, Prometheus brings a human figure to life by touching it with an outstretched middle and index finger; this type of ensoulment was adopted in a relief depiction of the biblical act of human creation on a Christian sarcophagus of early Late Antiquity.
Iconographic similarities between the Promethean sarcophagi and a group of 4th-century Christian sarcophagi are evident in other ways as well.
Middle Ages and Early Renaissance
In the Middle Ages, the educated people of Western and Central Europe knew relatively little about the myth, because the main sources (Hesiod, tragedy, Plato, Lucian) were not accessible to them; at least some scholars knew considerable parts of the material handed down in ancient manuals. Prometheus was understood as a historical person.
He was considered a great explorer, and the first plastic images of the human body were attributed to him. His role as a philanthropic adversary of the deity, which fit poorly into the Christian worldview, was largely ignored. In mythography, the legend was interpreted symbolically.
There Prometheus appears as an exceedingly clever naturalist, and the devouring eagle symbolizes the travail of excessive effort in studying the movements of the heavenly bodies. The tale of the theft of fire in the heavens was believed to have originated because Prometheus found out the cause of lightning; thanks to his understanding of this celestial fire, he introduced the use of fire.
A special case is the scholar Alexander Neckam, who around 1200 wrote a grammatical and lexical manual entitled Corrogationes Promethei (Collections of Prometheus). There he described himself as a new Prometheus; he saw himself as a bringer of culture, who gave diverse instruction to the uneducated with his work.
With this self-description, a man claimed for himself the role of the Titan for the first time. Here we can see the beginning of a development that led to Prometheus becoming a figure of identification, a pattern for human history and the current life of mankind.
In the early Renaissance, the Italian humanists showed interest in the material from about the middle of the 14th century. Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) knew a version of the myth in which Prometheus is tormented not by an eagle but by a vulture; it is a variant that is already attested in Roman imperial times and was often received in modern times.
Petrarch thought that the legend had a historical core, which consisted in the fact that Prometheus had sought the solitude of the Caucasus in order to solve the riddles of the world in tireless research. The feeding bird symbolizes the effort of the researcher, which weakens him.
Petrarch's friend Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was also of this opinion, who presented a detailed description and novel interpretation of the myth in his writing Genealogia deorum gentilium.
Boccaccio assumed a "double" Prometheus, since in the mythical tradition two different persons were mixed up. The first Prometheus was God as the creator of the "natural" man. He had breathed life and the mind into his creature, but had not imparted education to him.
Therefore the natural man was ignorant and lived like an animal. The originator of civilization was the second Prometheus, a wise man who decided to end the barbarism of mankind. By the fire was to be understood the clarity of the knowledge, which this culture bringer had drawn from God and had brought to the people. With the foundation of the civilization he had created the human being as it were anew.
The second Prometheus had not been chained in reality after the procurement of the "fire" to the punishment in the Caucasus, but had stayed there voluntarily before his great deed in order to do lonely studies.
Boccaccio's consistently positive image of the humanized cultural hero Prometheus proves him to be a forerunner of later Renaissance humanists such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who glorified the spirit of the wise, creative, and in this respect, as it were, divine man.
The writer Filippo Villani, a younger contemporary of Boccaccio, thought similarly. He saw in Prometheus the symbol of the great artist. Visual art imitated nature and was thus a re-creation based on the model of God's work. This thought was the basis of the ancient legend of the creating Prometheus.
The philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who followed the tradition of ancient Platonism, interpreted the torment of Prometheus, tormented by the vulture, as a symbol of the general situation of man. As an earthly being, he is bound to matter, strives in vain to solve the mysteries of the world, and suffers from his spiritual inadequacy.
It is true that man has come into the possession of the heavenly fire of reason, but it is precisely this that makes him unhappy, since the ultimate truth nevertheless remains hidden from him.
Ficino's patron, the Florentine statesman and poet Lorenzo il Magnifico (1449-1492), expressed a similar opinion. He glorified the mythical Golden Age, which Prometheus had put an end to because he had wanted to know too much. With his intemperate urge to explore, he had troubled mankind and deprived it of its former happy mode of existence.
Early Modern Era
In the early modern period, the reception of the mythical tradition was characterized by a greatly expanded source base and by the examination of the symbolism of the creator of culture and founder of civilization.
In the process, the conventional tradition of interpretation split into various branches through transformations and reinterpretations. In a wealth of literary and artistic adaptations, the continuing fertility of the material became apparent.
The judgments about Prometheus fluctuated between glorification of his abilities and achievements and sharp rebuke of his exuberance and the consequences of the cultural-historical course that was attributed to him.
Criticism ignited, on the one hand, of his role as the initiator of a process of civilization perceived as problematic, and, on the other, of his self-confident appearance vis-à-vis the ruling deity.
In emblematics, the harsh punishment was portrayed as a consequence of his audacity and used as a cautionary example; the lesson was that man should not try to penetrate God's secrets out of presumptuous curiosity.
In the late 18th century, the Sturm und Drang movement led to a new appreciation of the figure of the Titan, who now corresponded to the taste of the times as a rebellious genius and was glorified accordingly.
The rediscovery of The Bound Prometheus, unknown outside the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages, gave a significant but late impetus to the modern reception of the work. As early as 1423, the most important manuscript had reached Florence from Constantinople, and in 1518 the first printing of the original Greek text appeared. Latin translations followed from 1555.
Nevertheless, the humanists of the 16th century paid little attention to this drama, it did not suit their taste. They often drew their knowledge from mythographic manuals. In the 17th century, interest in the saga decreased significantly. It was not until the second half of the 18th century that The Bound Prometheus was translated into Italian, English, French, and German.
In 1510/1511, the humanist philosopher Charles de Bouelles, in his writing De sapiente, presented Prometheus as the archetype of the sage, of man in the true sense, who, thanks to his intellect, rises above his original state of nature, explores the entire world, and attains in heaven - the spiritual world - the most precious thing of all, the fire of wisdom, which he then brings to earth.
Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) also identified the mythical figure with the philosopher and naturalist who devoted himself exclusively to science and, in the struggle to solve the mysteries of the world, suffered torments like the ancient hero, both from his intellectual toil and from the contempt and persecutions to which he was subjected in an uncomprehending environment.
Giordano Bruno wrote in a satirical dialogue published in 1585 that Prometheus had stolen fire in order to kindle light in reason. This myth, he said, was a metaphor for the same theme as the biblical tale of Adam who reached out to pluck the forbidden fruit from the tree of science.
Bruno believed that knowledge was obtained by "hunting" or "stealing" it. For this it was necessary that man transgressed the divine prohibition and disputed the deity's claim to exclusive knowledge. It was not the ass-like patience and obedience of Christians, but the hunter virtues of attention and quick access that led to success.
Francis Bacon devoted the chapter Prometheus, or The State of Man, to the Titan in his writing on ancient wisdom, published in 1609. He described in detail, from his point of view, the meaning of individual episodes of the myth, whose main aim was to show man as the center and purpose of the whole universe.
Bacon started from a version of the Prometheus legend that had been handed down in ancient sources, but had only become known to a wider public through the mythographic handbook of the scholar Natale Conti, printed in 1551.
According to Bacon's rendering of this extension of the legend, after Prometheus showed them how to use fire, men proved ungrateful: they went to Jupiter (Zeus) and accused their benefactor to him. When the father of the gods and the other gods learned of the theft, however, they were not angry at all, but were even delighted about what had happened.
They not only left the fire to the people, but gave them another gift: eternal youth. In excessive joy, the people loaded this gift onto the back of a donkey, which set off on its way home with it. On the way, the donkey suffered from great thirst.
He reached a spring, but it was guarded by a snake, which allowed him to drink only on condition that he gave it what he carried on his back in return. The poor donkey agreed, and so the people lost eternal youth. - Bacon saw in the Prometheus myth a symbolic representation of the human condition.
He interpreted the accusation raised by Jupiter against the fire-bringer as a justified complaint of man about the insufficiency of the scientific knowledge so far, which needed improvement.
This shows the human dissatisfaction with what has already been achieved, the rejection of stagnation and the continuing striving for new inventions. This will to progress had pleased Jupiter and moved to the further gift, because such an attitude was worth rewarding.
The donkey as a sluggish animal symbolizes for Bacon the slowness of a progress of science based on mere empirical knowledge without theoretical insight. Men would have made the mistake of loading the gift of the gods onto a ponderous, dull beast of burden.
Thomas Hobbes drew on myth for his constitutional argument in the 1647 second edition of his De cive. He saw in the father of the gods the representative of the original and superior form of government, the monarchy. With the fire theft and the creator activity of the titan the introduction of the younger forms of state aristocracy and democracy was meant.
These had come about by the fact that the inventive human mind (Prometheus) had borrowed the legislation and the judiciary of the monarchy (Jupiter) by imitation (the fire theft) and had produced with this "fire" an aristocratic or democratic collective (the creature of Prometheus).
The originators and promoters of this subversion would be punished like the Titan: instead of living safely and comfortably under the natural rule of the king, they would have to suffer constantly from the sorrows and conflicts resulting from their orders of state.
The French Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century thought little of mythology and therefore dealt relatively rarely and only casually with the figure of Prometheus. None of them - with the exception of Voltaire - saw in the Titan the representative of a revolutionary spirit.
In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau passed a scathing judgment on the deed of Prometheus in his treatise on the sciences and the arts, which was critical of civilization. He found that the progress of science and the arts had corrupted morals and made people weak and unhappy through luxury and effeminacy.
The fruitless thirst for knowledge had produced nothing but evils. Instead of virtues, talents would be rewarded. Prometheus, the inventor of science, was a god hostile to the leisure of man, which the Greeks had adopted from the Egyptians. They would have judged him unfavorably, as the legend of his punishment reveals.
Poetic reception in the 16th and 17th century
In Renaissance poetry, the saga was usually addressed in a conventional sense and only in passing, often without reference to a symbolic background. The torment of the punished Titan served as a commonplace in the depiction of suffering of all kinds.
In love poetry in particular, it was drawn upon to depict the misery of unrequited love by means of a drastic comparison, with the eagle or vulture playing the role of the tormenting passion. The desired woman was compared to Pandora, the bringer of bad luck, or to stolen fire.
Among the poets who exploited the material in this context were Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay, and Maurice Scève. In another interpretation, Ronsard allegorically equated Prometheus with the biblical Adam, that is, with human nature that had been redeemed by Christ like the ancient sufferer of Heracles.
The poet identified the eagle here with the inexorable Old Testament law, which had been overcome by the grace of Christ. Rémy Belleau devoted a long poem to the lament of the bound Prometheus over the injustice of his punishment.
Only sporadically does Prometheus appear in Renaissance poetry as a model of poetic creativity or as the founder of poetry. According to the account of the Latin poet humanist Marco Girolamo Vida in his Poetics, published in 1527, mankind owes not only fire but also poetry to its mythical benefactor.
George Chapman took up this motif in 1594. He portrayed Prometheus as a creator who had created man according to his own concept without outside help. Of such a kind, he said, were the ingenious, superhuman poets who conjured up a world out of their imagination; they were "Promethean Poets."
Luís de Camões, on the other hand, drew a gloomy picture in his Portuguese epic The Lusiads (1572). He accused Prometheus of being the creator who implanted evil passions in man, the consequences of which included wars. Camões lamented that Promethean presumption could not be eradicated among men.
Edmund Spenser, in the second book of his epic The Faerie Queene, printed in 1590, introduced Prometheus as the creator of man, who had assembled a body from parts of many different kinds of animals. Then he had stolen fire in heaven to animate his creature, which he called Faerie, with it.
The Spanish poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca adapted the material in his comedy La estatua de Prometeo (The Statue of Prometheus), which appeared in 1677. It centers on the opposition between the brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus. Epimetheus is a hunter, an illiterate strongman who worships the warlike goddess Pallas.
Prometheus, on the other hand, strives for philosophical knowledge and devotes himself to the cult of the wisdom goddess Minerva, Pallas' sister. After the failure of his plan to have a teaching and civilizing effect on the raw population of the Caucasus, Prometheus retreats to a cave and turns to art. He creates a statue of Minerva.
His brother is amazed by the beauty of the sculpture and wants to consecrate a temple to this goddess. In doing so, however, Epimetheus arouses the jealousy of Pallas. She orders him to destroy the statue.
Epimetheus, however, decides not to destroy the admired work of art, but to steal it, hide it and keep it for himself. In the cave he meets Prometheus. In the meantime, thanks to Minerva's favor, Prometheus has been allowed to visit heaven and has stolen a ray of sunlight from there.
With the stolen heavenly light he now brings the image of the goddess to life. Then Pallas resorts to a ruse: the animated statue, which bears the name Pandora, receives the vessel of mischief. The evils escape, and immediately discord sets in.
Two hostile parties form among the Caucasians, and war threatens. Epimetheus is in love with Pandora, but she rejects him; her inclination is for Prometheus. Finally, the god Apollo appears and brings about a reconciliation.
Prometheus marries Pandora. - With this light-hearted play, Calderón wanted to show the audience the entanglements that arise from the pursuit of higher values and its tension with passion.
Interpretations and literary controversies of the Enlightenment period
In 1710, the influential early Enlightenment writer Shaftesbury described his ideal of an author who truly deserved the designation "poet." Such a poet was "indeed a second creator, a true Prometheus under Jupiter."
Like the deity as supreme master of works or the general formative nature, he creates a coherent, well-balanced whole. The thesis of the poet as Prometheus and second creator under Jupiter became common in the 18th century.
Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical poem entitled Prometheus in 1724. In Swift's satire, attached to Jupiter's heavenly throne is a drooping gold chain that reaches down to earth, with all human concerns hanging from its lower end. Prometheus steals this chain, replaces it with a brass chain, and mints coins from the gold.
From that time on, humans no longer offer sacrifices to Zeus. Thereupon, at Jupiter's command, the culprit is bound with his own chain and his liver is given to the vultures to eat.
The actual reference was revealed by Swift himself: By Jupiter he meant King George I, and by Prometheus he meant the corrupt mintmaster William Wood, whom he wished to see punished like Prometheus, with crows taking the role of vultures.
Voltaire adapted the material in his "philosophical" opera libretto Pandore, published in 1748, in which Prometheus challenges the tyrant Jupiter. The celestial ruler refuses out of resentment to animate the statue of Pandora made by Prometheus.
Thereupon the Titan procures the heavenly fire and carries out with it the animation himself. Pandora immediately falls in love with her creator. The jealous Jupiter has her abducted to his kingdom, but he does not succeed in winning her favor. Prometheus rebels and tries to storm the heavens with the Titans to free the abductee.
The attempt fails, but Pandora is allowed to return to her lover. She has received the fateful box from Jupiter. Against the will of Prometheus, she opens it in his absence, whereupon the evils escape. The disaster spreads, but the couple is left with love and hope.
The lovers will live on the edge of abysses, but love will cover the abysses with flowers. Earth and heaven will remain separated forever. - With this stage work critical of religion, Voltaire wanted to express his cautiously optimistic assessment of the future of a self-determined humanity.
In contrast to Voltaire, who advocated emancipation from religious paternalism, the contemporary playwrights Pierre Brumoy and Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Pompignan treated the material from a Christian perspective. They wanted to use their versions of the mythical event to show the evil consequences of wilful disregard for the divine world order.
Christoph Martin Wieland used literary means to combat Rousseau's theory of culture. In his Beyträge zur Geheimen Geschichte des menschlichen Verstandes und Herzens, published in 1770, he inserted a fictional narrative:
In a dream, the author encounters the bound Prometheus, who asks him what has become of his creatures, the human beings. Among other things, Wieland tells him about Rousseau's thesis that the state of mankind will only improve when it abandons civilization and returns to the "state of nature.
They both make fun of this. Prometheus reveals the reason for which he created man: He had come up with the idea of populating the earth because he had nothing better to do just then. It was a mere game.
In 1779, Wieland dealt with the same theme in his satirical Singspiel Pandora, in which he assigned to Prometheus the role of the creator who, "out of sheer boredom," created mankind for his own entertainment and is later enraged by the mischief in which his creatures have become entangled.
With this work, Wieland also protested against the idealization of a supposedly optimal primordial state of humanity initiated by Rousseau. His Prometheus wanted to provide people with consummate bliss, but with this intention he turned them into such good-natured, simple-minded and homogeneous beings that their lives were dull and monotonous.
They knew no challenge and no development. Therefore, he could no longer stand it with them because of boredom and left them.
Sturm und Drang
For the Sturm und Drang movement in German literature, Prometheus became the outstanding representative of its attitude to life from the 1760s onward. As a rebellious genius of tremendous creative power, he embodied the ideal of the aesthetics of genius envisioned by this movement, which was characterized by a youthful spirit of optimism.
He was seen as a role model for a humanity emancipated from traditional authorities and their claims to power and striving socially, politically and spiritually for unrestricted self-determination.
At the same time, he was regarded as the archetype of the autonomous artist or author personality who self-confidently freed himself from the shackles of conventional aesthetic norms, dared to do great things, remained true to his individual nature and destiny, and brought forth his works creatively like a god.
According to the conviction of the "Stürmer und Dränger," such a genius author or artist creates his own world of art like Prometheus creates the world of man. The poet-genius was thought of first and foremost.
The impetus for the statuization of Prometheus as the symbolic figure of the new current was given by Johann Gottfried Herder in 1766/67 in his Versuch einer Geschichte der lyrischen Dichtkunst (Attempt at a History of Lyric Poetry), where he declared that every nation had its Prometheus, who had stolen the spark of genius from heaven; poetry was of divine origin and it was natural to all nations.
Picking up on Shaftesbury's thoughts, Herder stated in 1769 that a true poet creates his works "as a second Prometheus" and as such is a "creator of immortal gods and mortal men."
In 1771, in his speech Zum Schäkespears Tag (On Schäkespear's Day), the young Goethe paid tribute to Shakespeare with the words: "He vied with Prometheus, imitating his people train by train, only in colossal size. "
In the period between 1773 and early 1775, Goethe wrote two works in which he gave literary form to his understanding of the myth: the drama fragment Prometheus and a poem of the same name, usually called a "hymn" or "ode."
In the drama fragment, Prometheus, in defiance of his father Jupiter, has removed himself from the heaven of the gods in order to create the statues from which the human race is to arise.
In vain, Mercury and Epimetheus, one after the other, try to persuade him to obey and return. He abruptly rejects a tempting offer from the Olympian gods because he does not want to be anyone's servant.
The wisdom goddess Minerva appears and at first wants to mediate, but eventually she is so deeply impressed by the rebel's ideal of freedom that she becomes his helper:
She leads him to the "fountain of life" where the statues are animated. Mercury indignantly reports to Jupiter about Minerva's "high treason" and about the creation of living humans, but the father of the gods does nothing against it, because he is sure that this "worm race" will be subject to him, the ruler of the world, in the future.
Prometheus, however, proudly and unbendingly counters Jupiter that he has formed mankind in his own image - "to suffer, to weep, to enjoy and to rejoice / and not to respect your / like me!" The main motif of the drama is Prometheus' experience of himself as an autonomous subject.
His conflict with Jupiter is staged as a confrontation between an unjust, authoritarian father and his freedom-loving son - a theme popular in the Sturm und Drang. The unmasking and dismantling of the tyrannical father-god is combined with the self-deification of the ingenious, creative son. Goethe's Hymn to Prometheus expresses the same thought.
His shaping of the mythical material was also a rejection of obedience-demanding authorities of his time, of the Christian image of God, and of the princes' claim to power. However, Goethe's cryptic irony is also recognizable in the drama fragment.
From the author's point of view, Prometheus rightly strives for an individual, free life, but - like Jupiter - he is caught in the one-sidedness of his sense of self. With his self-importance and his contempt for others, he isolates himself from the wholeness of the cosmos.
He distances himself from a whole into which he must sooner or later inevitably reintegrate himself. Goethe ironizes the creative self-importance that sets itself absolute.
Early Classicism and Early Romanticism
After the end of the Sturm und Drang era, Herder returned to the myth several more times. In 1795, he wrote the dialogue Voraussicht und Zurücksicht, in which Prometheus and Epimetheus retrospectively discuss their different attitudes and approaches. Seven years later, Herder created the dramatic poem Der entfesselte Prometheus, in which he portrayed the Titan's ordeal as a triumph of perseverance. Here the work of the rebel finally finds the approval of the gods; "pure humanity" as the greatest gift of the gods is realized.
An echo of Herder's optimism is found in August Wilhelm Schlegel's early Romantic poem Prometheus, written in 1797. It begins with wistful remembrance of the peace and happiness of the past Golden Age, with whose end a terrible decline has set in.
Since the old humanity can no longer be saved, Prometheus creates a new one. According to him, the "golden childhood" of mankind, which "passed away in the soft lap of pleasure," must not return. What is needed now is creative effort; in the deprivation-laden struggle against seemingly overpowering obstacles, man, who trusts in his inner strength, has to prove himself.
To animate his creature, Prometheus procures fire. Then his culturally pessimistic mother Themis confronts him, warns him of the disastrous consequences of his deed and prophesies his future punishment by Zeus.
He counters her gloomy predictions with his hope in the human ability to develop. He sees in man the free being who, on his way through error, strides toward perfection and "is only created to create himself."
In the visual arts of the early modern period Prometheus was a very popular subject. Usually one of the well-known scenes from the mythical events was picked out. As the creator of mankind, the Titan appears - partly with the fire with which he animates his creatures - among others in frescoes by Domenico Beccafumi (1524/25) and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called "il Guercino" (c. 1616), a drawing by Parmigianino (c. 1524/1527), a ceiling painting by Francisco Pacheco (1603) and oil paintings by Pompeo Batoni (1740/43) and Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1788).
He is depicted as a fire-bearer in a painting by Jan Cossiers (c. 1636/38). By far the most numerous are depictions of punishment; here Prometheus is sometimes seen with Vulcanus (Hephaestus), most often with the devouring eagle.
Motifs of this type show, among others. an emblem in the emblem book by Andrea Alciato (1531, with eagle), a fresco by Benvenuto Tisi "il Garofalo" (1540, with eagle), oil painting by Gregorio Martínez y Espinosa (between 1590 and 1596, with eagle), Peter Paul Rubens (completed 1618; the eagle painted by Frans Snyders),
Dirck van Baburen (1623, Prometheus and Vulcanus), Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1630/31, with eagle), Theodoor Rombouts (before 1637, with eagle), Paulus Moreelse (c. 1634/38, with eagle), Jacob Jordaens (1642, with eagle), Gioacchino Assereto (before 1649, with eagle), Jacques de l'Ange (about 1640/1650), Salvator Rosa (about 1648/1650, with eagle), Frans Wouters (before 1659, with eagle),
Luca Giordano (about 1660, with eagle) and Francesco Foschi (before 1780, with eagle), drawings by George Romney (c. 1778/1779), John Flaxman (1794) and Richard Cosway (c. 1785/1800, with eagle),
bronze sculptures by Philippe Bertrand (1703, with eagle) and François Dumont (1710, with eagle), a bronze statuette by Giovanni Battista Foggini (before 1716, Prometheus and Mercury with eagle) and a marble sculpture by Nicolas Sébastien Adam (1762, with eagle).
More rarely, liberation was chosen as a theme; it is the subject of paintings by Nicolas Bertin (1703) and Johann Heinrich Füssli (1781/1785)as well as a bronze statuette by François Lespingola (c. 1675/1700).
Several motifs from the Promethean legend are combined in two chest paintings (cassoni) by the painter Piero di Cosimo, painted between 1510 and 1515. In a ceiling fresco by Francesco Morandini "il Poppi" (1570), Natura, the personification of nature, presents Prometheus with a gift, presumably appointing him lord of the arts and conferring upon him the role of creator.
16th-century tapestries present Prometheus in contemporary costume rather than antiquing.
There was little reception of the myth in early modern music. Thomas Campion's Masque The Lords Masque, published in 1613, takes as its theme the Promethean creation of man. In 1669, Antonio Draghi's opera El Prometeo was performed at the imperial palace in Vienna.
Giovanni Battista Bassani created the opera Prometeo liberato, which premiered in 1683. Georg Christoph Wagenseil composed the serenade Il Prometeo assoluto (Prometheus liberated, first performed in 1762) and John Abraham Fisher composed the overture for the pantomime Prometheus (first performed in 1775).