Picture by Heinrich Fueger
I know I’ve written about Prometheus (and his dim-witted brother Epimetheus) before, most notably here, but I can’t help but feel their role in Greek mythology deserves some more attention. The earlier post focused on Prometheus’ role as a trickster, and how that led to his punishment in the form of a vulture repeatedly eating his liver. To say that Zeus is rather extreme in his punishments is putting it mildly. While this seems to have been the earliest conception of Prometheus, later writers would add the role of creator to his achievements. I remember hearing an account of Plato having given gifts to the animals, like shells for turtles and claws for cats. It appears that Plato was the first known writer to express this idea, although he does so in the character of the earlier philosopher Protagoras. Prometheus was also regarded by some as having originally made mankind out of clay, and the different myths are tied together with the idea that, since humans didn’t have any natural defenses, he instead gave them intelligence. The reason there weren’t any gifts left for humans in the first place was Epimetheus’ failure to plan ahead. Aesop also used Prometheus as a character in a few of his fables, usually in the form of ascribing a human trait to an act of the Titan’s. One such story that I found on this page claims that homosexuals exist because Prometheus got drunk while in the middle of giving genitalia to people, so he distributed some of them incorrectly. Hey, at least Aesop realized homosexuality wasn’t a choice.
Prometheus also features in the Greek version of the flood myth, with the equivalent of Noah and Utnapishtim being his son Deucalion. This guy was married to a woman named Pyrrha, who was the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora, and hence Prometheus’ niece. When Zeus decided to end the Bronze Age by wiping mankind out with a flood, Prometheus told Deucalion to build a chest that he and Pyrrha could use as a makeshift boat. I believe I’ve heard some versions of the story that say Zeus himself had a soft spot for Deucalion, but it seems that Prometheus is featured more often as the savior of mankind, which fits with his general character. As we know, the flood story appears in many different cultures, and it’s not clear whether they all came up with it independently or were influenced by each other. If the latter, that could also apply to the idea that humans were made of clay. As Prometheus was traditionally the advocate of mankind, he probably seemed a natural choice to add to these myths when they were adapted (if indeed they were).
Picture by Jacob Jordaens