The Myth of Prometeus

Who was the father of Men, Zeus or Prometheus? Eh, hard to say, really. The myths, on this issue, often get confused and confuse our ideas.

Of Zeus, it is undisputed his reign at the head of all the Gods, with residence on top of Mount Olympus. And Prometheus? We found him in the myth of Pandora's box and in that of Medusa. Who is he?

Prometheus is a cousin of Zeus, because their fathers are brothers. The father of Prometheus is Japetus, a titan, his mother is Climene, daughter of Ocean who, however, is the brother of Japetus.

So, Prometheus is a god just like Zeus, yet he has a strong sympathy for mankind, unlike the other gods. One of the many legends tells that it was Prometheus himself, from a piece of mud, who shaped the human race, committing himself to protect and care for it always. And the price he often pays is very high, because Zeus always has a good reason to take it out on men and those who defend them.

Prometheus, however, never gave up and pampered his children whenever possible. First of all, when he formed them from mud, he did not forget to add a spark of divine fire, which forged their souls. He invented the art of taming animals, architecture, metallurgy, and medicine. He invented writing, and of all that he made gifts to men who became more and more evolved. The autonomy of mankind, however, also involved a pinch of arrogance: what was the point of praying to the Gods if men were almost as powerful as them?

On Olympus, they did not agree...

Once, even Zeus himself was mocked as a fool! During a meeting of men and gods, Prometheus took a large ox, ripped it open and created two well separated piles with the remains of the animal. On one side, he put the bones and covered them with succulent fat, on the other side he hid the best meat under the skin. Then he said to Zeus, "Father, since you are the most important of all, it is your turn to choose first! Which pile do you want?"

Zeus, completely seized with pride, chose the most beautiful, fat, rich and showy pile. The King of Olympus, in response to the insult he had suffered, took fire away from the humans, and Prometheus was forgiven, but, to bring fire back to the humans, he went to Hephaestus' forge and stole a spark, which he gave to the humans so that they could continue to warm themselves, cook, and light up the moonless nights…


Heinrich Fueger, Prometheus brings fire to mankind, 1817

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When Zeus learned of this challenge, he ordered that his cousin Prometheus be chained to a rock in the bare, mountainous region of Scythia. Ocean, maternal grandfather of Prometheus, rushed to the defense of his nephew, but Zeus was uncompromising: the punishment had to be carried out and in the most cruel way possible. He sent an eagle, therefore, that every day would devour the liver of the prisoner. So that the pain would be perpetual, the liver would reform soon after, and the eagle would return again, again, and again. It was not until much later that Heracles, who happened to be passing through by chance, managed to free Prometheus from that horrible torment.


Gioacchino Assereto, The Torture of Prometheus, XVII sec. - Pinterest

Since then and forever, therefore, Zeus and Prometheus symbolize respectively the religious authority and the authority of reason, always in perennial disagreement. Reason, which is the prerogative of man, tends to free itself from the divine precisely because, by virtue of the great human capacities, it becomes concrete in scientific innovations and progress.