by Anthony M. Ludovici



THE story of the Titan Prometheus and his doings are perhaps too familiar to be repeated here. As, however, a detailed discussion of the myth connected with his name is to constitute the burden of this essay, I must at the risk of wearying the reader, repeat it in this chapter, at least in outline. For this purpose I shall give the commonly accepted account of the myth, following more or less closely the oldest version which is to be found in Hesiod, and for the 5th division of the myth, drawing upon Æschylus. I shall classify the myth into five divisions in order to facilitate future reference.

1. Genealogy and General Family Relations.– By the marriage of Uranus, the god of the sky, with Ge, mother earth, there were procreated among others, Cronus, the father of Zeus, the ultimate head of the Greek Pantheon, and Iapetus, the father of Prometheus. Thus Prometheus is the grandson of Uranus and the first cousin of Zeus. (These questions of relationship will prove more important subsequently.) Prometheus is, moreover, the brother of Atlas, Menoetius and Epimetheus. His name signifies "Forethought," and he was traditionally believed to have surpassed mankind in cunning and fraud. He is variously reported to have had as wife either Pandora, Hesione, Axiothea, or Asia. He probably married all four. The fact that his brother Epimetheus had previously married Pandora would have presented no obstacle to his also doing so, particularly in his time.

2. Life and Works.– Once in the reign of Zeus, when gods and men were disputing with one another at Mecone, Prometheus, with the object of deceiving Zeus, cut up a bull and divided it into two parts; he wrapped up the best parts and the intestines in the skin, and at the top he placed the stomach, one of the worst parts; while the second heap consisted of the bones covered with fat. When Zeus pointed out to him how badly he had made the division, Prometheus desired him to choose, but Zeus, in his anger, and seeing through the stratagem of Prometheus, chose the heap of bones covered with the fat. The father of the gods then avenged himself by withholding fire from the mortals.

3. Life and Works continued.– It was then that Prometheus stole fire from the gods in a hollow tube. But it was traditional among the Greeks to regard Prometheus as something more than the god who had stolen fire and given it to man. He was to them the original founder of their civilisation. It was he who had taught them architecture, astronomy, mathematics, the art of writing, the treatment of domestic animals, navigation, medicine, the art of prophesy, working in metals, and all the other arts.

These additional achievements of his, while apparently of no importance to the fire-myth, or sun-myth, or lightning-myth, interpretation of his life, are essential to the interpretation I propose to offer, and that is why I must give them a prominent place here. Völcker actually regards them as the fundamental feature of the whole myth.(1)

Perhaps the best account of this aspect of the myth is placed in the mouth of Prometheus himself in the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus, where the hero is made to speak as follows:–

"... The miseries of men
I will recount to you, how, mere babes before
With reason I endowed them and with mind; ...
Who, firstly seeing, knew not what they saw,
And hearing, did not hear; confusedly passed
Their life-days, lingeringly, like shapes in dreams,
Without an aim; and neither sunward homes,
Brick-woven, nor skill of carpentry, they knew;
But lived, like small ants shaken with a breath,
In sunless eaves a burrowing, buried life: ...
More is behind, more wonderful to hear:
Skill and resource, contrived by me for men.
This first and foremost: did a man fall sick,
Deliverance was there none, or 'twixt the teeth,
Or smeared, or drunken; but for very lack
Of healing drugs they wasted, till that I
Showed them to mix each virtuous remedy,
Wherewith they shield them now from all disease...
And 'neath the earth beside
The hidden treasure for the use of man,
Of brass and iron, silver and precious gold,
What one can boast he found ere I could find?
No one, I wis, who would not idly babble.
Nay, take the whole truth briefly, in a word,
All skill that mortals have, Prometheus gave."(2)

4. The Anger of Zeus, Part I.– In order to punish men (apparently for having been the receivers of Prometheus's theft) Zeus bade Hephæstos to mould a virgin, Pandora, of earth, whom Athena adorned with all the charms calculated to entice mortals. Prometheus had cautioned his brother Epimetheus (whose name, by-the-by means Afterthought) against accepting any gift from Zeus, but Epimetheus, heeding not his advice, accepted Pandora. Pandora then lifted the lid of the vessel in which the foresight of Prometheus had concealed all the evils which might torment mortals in life, and diseases and suffering of every kind now issued forth, deceitful Hope alone remaining behind.

5. The Anger of Zeus, Part II.– Prometheus himself was chained to a rock in Scythia, in the presence of Might and Force (Cratos and Bia), two ministers of Zeus; whereupon, for refusing to reveal a certain secret to Zeus, he was hurled with the rock into Tartarus. After a long lapse of time, Prometheus returned to the upper world to endure a fresh course of suffering; for he was now fastened to Mount Caucasus, and tormented by an eagle every day devouring his liver which was restored in the night. The fact that Prometheus is ultimately released from this excruciating torment by Heracles, who, with the consent of Zeus, kills the eagle, though it will concern us ultimately, is at present only mentioned as forming an end to the story.

Now here we have a most complicated story, purporting to explain one of the greatest, if not the greatest of man's discoveries. Obviously it has a deep historical interest, and if in the main true, ought to shed a considerable amount of light on the remotest past of humanity. It is a story full of curious detail, repeated by Hesiod, particularly in regard to the meeting of gods and men at Mecone, with an obvious effort to be faithful to traditional hearsay, and yet to produce what appears to be a connected and logical narrative. This was no doubt difficult. Tradition handed down numerous apparently unconnected particulars about the figure of the hero; we must suppose that the connecting stories were either forgotten, as being less vital, or were not repeated to Hesiod; but he certainly appears to jump from one portion to another of the fable as if he were more intent on fidelity to tradition than on proving either that he understood the whole myth, or that he heard it as a consecutive and logical account.

The difficulty of explaining this myth purely as a sun-myth consists chiefly in accounting for these apparently unconnected details which Hesiod faithfully records without comment: the meeting at Mecone, the gift of Pandora, the concealing of fire, then the stealing of it. The details of the Mecone assembly, the chaining of Prometheus to a certain spot where an eagle consumed his liver, – the more these features are examined, the more intricate does the problem appear. Besides, there are certain moral attributes, such as cunning and craft, ascribed to the hero, which are so human and so persistently repeated, that they appear to cling to Prometheus, as essential characteristics identifying him, quite apart from the rôle he plays. In fact his whole figure seems to live independently of the myth, and to disengage itself from it, in a manner hard to reconcile with the belief that he was created from a natural phenomenon to explain a certain earthly phenomenon. Other events of his life, which it did not seem necessary to enter into for the purposes of this treatise, show him to be a turncoat and a traitor. In the Theogony, even before his tricks are disclosed, Hesiod refers to him as a matter of course as "clever Prometheus, full of various wiles,"(3) and Zeus would scarcely have been reported to say to him at Mecone, after the performance of what in the narrative is the first act of deception, "So, sir, you have not forgotten your cunning arts,"(4) if a previous history of fraud and artfulness had not been known against him.

It is difficult to understand, moreover, how the sun-myth mode of interpretation can find as satisfactory a place for the Pandora incident and the box of evils, as the Spencerian interpretation can; and, seeing in any case that the discovery of fire by primitive man is obviously an anthropological question of primary importance, and that whenever the event occurred it must have created such a complete revolution in human life as to stamp itself indelibly upon the memory of primitive man, we are almost compelled, apart from the reasons already adduced in the Introduction, at least to attempt an interpretation, or rather a substantiation of the truthful elements of the myth on anthropological lines.(5)

If we regard Prometheus merely as a deified sunbeam or stroke of lightning, we can obviously dispense with more than three-quarters of the hero's life story as a negligible but pretty fairy-tale. If, on the other hand, we regard Prometheus as a remote ancestor of the ancient Greeks, who lived in their memories because of his stupendous deed, then every detail about him is pertinent, even his relationship of first-cousin to Zeus.

E. E. Sykes and Wynne Willson, in their introduction to the Prometheus of Æschylus, express the view that the myth of the Fire Stealer, like the myth concerning Uranus and Cronus, and many other puerile or repulsive stories, belongs to the very oldest stratum of Greek mythology."(6) They must be forgiven the epithets "puerile" and "repulsive," because apart from the fact that we have grown used to this sort of fatuous deprecation of important anthropological data by accredited classical scholars, the information they give is useful. It is, however, only what might have been expected. As will be seen later on, the discovery of the means for producing fire must have taken place thousands of years before Hesiod wrote his Works and Days; it is not at all surprising, therefore, to find that the Prometheus myth belongs to the "very oldest stratum of Greek mythology." Dr. Völcker adds to this information by asserting that all understanding of the true meaning of the myth was forgotten from the time of Homer and Hesiod onwards.(7) Thus we are to assume that this extraordinary story was accepted on trust, without understanding, by the whole of the Greek people, from about the eighth century B.C. This fact, if it be a fact, throws an interesting light upon the religious humility of the ancient Hellenes.

Before attempting on Spencerian and anthropological lines a reconstruction of what probably happened to give rise to the Prometheus tradition, it will be necessary to dwell on certain aspects of it, which, with the exception of Professor J. S. Blackie, seem to have escaped the modern mythologian.

Next the actual discovery, or rather theft, of fire, the most striking feature of the myth, is that Prometheus, after behaving seemingly like a self-sacrificing hero and conferring an apparently inestimable and lasting benefit upon mankind, suffers for this act of incalculable friendliness to the human race countless centuries of the most excruciating torture that the imagination can conceive. Why is this? Has anyone offered a satisfactory explanation? – Nobody; not even Professor Blackie himself.

Professor Blackie exclaims: "Chained to a rock in wintry Scythia for a crime that appears no crime!"(8) – Just so!

He then proceeds to tell us that so deeply have some people been impressed by the heroism of Prometheus that they have compared him to Christ.(9) I can well understand it. If people will persist in taking just those portions of an ancient myth that strike them as most pleasant and romantic, and ignore the rest, it is not surprising that such misconceptions should arise. The wonder would be for any truth to be discovered by such methods. But I maintain that if the whole myth is approached reverently and modestly – I mean by "modestly," free from the habitual stupid arrogance of the modem mind – not only will the serious truth underlying it most certainly come to light, but also the absurdity of these extravagant and odious comparisons. For, strange as it may seem, the scholars are no worse in this respect than the poets, who though usually successful in arriving at the truth by a sudden flash of divine insight, in regard to the figure of Prometheus have shown themselves exceptionally obtuse. Let us refer to the best of them.

Byron, we are told, was a worshipper of Prometheus as a boy! He writes in one of his letters: "The Prometheus, if not exactly in my plan, has always been so much in my head, that I can easily conceive its influence overall or anything that I have written."(10) In his poem Prometheus, he makes his hero exclaim:–

"My Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness."(11)

He conceives Prometheus to have been a martyr wantonly tortured by a godhead that cannot kill him, but

"Which for its pleasure doth create(12)
The things it may annihilate."

It is Byron in his worst vein, Byron showing no penetration, but only full-throated, almost lachrymose sentimentality. It shows not even the beginnings of an understanding of the myth. Shelley takes the same schoolboy view of the Greek Titan. In fact, if we can think of Byron and Shelley as referring to Prometheus in the same language, we can imagine their both calling him "a good sportsman" in the accepted schoolboy sense. Goethe is indeed a little more profound; but while he emphasises what he believes to be the atheistic trait in Prometheus, he also entirely leaves out of account the Greek view both of Prometheus and Zeus. Thus Goethe makes Prometheus address his distinguished cousin as follows:–

"I know nothing more pitiable
Under the sun than ye gods!
Ye feed your majesty
Most miserably
By means of sacrifices
And votive prayers;
Ye would e'en starve,
If children and beggars
Were not trusting fools ...
I honour thee, and why? ...
Here sit I, shaping men
After my image;
A race resembling me.
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
As I!"(13)

This is all very well, and it sounds magnificent and virile enough; as I have already pointed out above, it is a little more profound than Byron's or Shelley's view; but Goethe, like his fellow-bards, fails utterly to grasp the Greek attitude towards the Promethean character. So to imagine for one moment that either Goethe, Byron or Shelley,(14) show in their conception of Prometheus even the remotest resemblance to the ancient Hellenic view of the myth would be utterly and hopelessly wrong. It may be argued that Æschylus himself is answerable for these misconceptions, and that in his Prometheus Bound he rather gives the impression of a blameless hero, indignant in his innocence at his chastisement by the arch-oppressor Zeus. But, as Professor Blackie pertinently observes: "If, according [to this view], Prometheus appears as the most oppressed of martyrs, and Zeus as the most unjust of tyrants, the question arises how an Athenian audience, proverbially remarkable for deisidaimonia at a solemn religious festival on the public stage, could tolerate such a representation?"(15)

This question is remarkably to the point. But somehow it never seems to have occurred either to the majority of the scholars or the best of the poets. It is so much to the point, indeed, that it starts out as the one bright ray of light from all the mass of dull and learned dissertations on this subject.

Of course, if Zeus had meant no more to the Greeks than he means to our modern scholars and poets, we can well conceive of the ancient Hellenes enjoying, as much as our present day Hellenists seem to enjoy, a drama in which Prometheus appears as an ill-used hero and martyr, defying, despite his agony, the cruel, despotic, but almighty villain Zeus. But unfortunately for our modern Hellenists, the truth is exactly the reverse of this. The Greeks loved and revered Zeus very much more than they loved and revered Prometheus, – very much more indeed, as a community, than modern society loves and admires the putative father of Christ. Does not Hesiod speak of Zeus as "the most excellent among the gods,"(16) as the "wise Zeus,"(17) as the "father" who "distributed fairly to the immortals their portions and declared their privileges,"(18) etc., etc.? Max Müller has been careful to collect a good deal of evidence showing the attitude of profound reverence and love with which the ancient Greek confronted his supreme deity, Zeus,(19) and Sikes and Wynne Willson assure us that "although Prometheus had due honour in myth, he won little recognition in cult."(20) If then Æchylus's Prometheus Bound had meant to the ancient Athenians all that it means to some cultivated modern Europeans, we cannot conceive of the former having tolerated it for one instant.

We must therefore conclude that the punishment of Prometheus, cruel as it was, appeared just and well-deserved to the ancient Greek mind. – And why?

In the first place, because of the infinite trust the ancient Greek had in the wisdom and justice of Zeus.

Secondly, because from Hesiod he had learnt of the career of crime imputed to Prometheus, in which Zeus figures not only as an outraged god, but also as a benevolent power who ultimately pardons the deceiver (which is more than the Christian god ever does for the mutinous angel he cast into eternal fire).(21)

And thirdly, because while in the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus we have only one section of a trilogy – one section which admittedly gives only one point of view and that very forcibly – the Greeks not only knew but must frequently have witnessed the whole. How do we know what the other parts of the trilogy contained, what balance they struck between the two principal figures of the myth – Zeus and Prometheus – and how much they modified the impression made by the Prometheus Bound? Is it not possible that if we possessed the whole, on the showing of Æschylus alone, quite apart from Hesiod's story, we should regard the relationship of Zeus to Prometheus very differently?

Thus Professor Blackie, with exceptional and laudable insight, concludes: "The general impression of the tyrannical character of Jove is the mere offspring of modern partial conceptions, formed in the total disregard both of Hesiod and of the Trilogy."(22)

This settles the question so satisfactorily that it appears as if there were little to add. How about Völcker's observation, however, that the true meaning of the myth had been forgotten? In this true meaning, if we can find it, it is possible that we may discover yet another justification for the meek acquiescence of the ancient Greek in the conduct of Zeus. For, although we are told that the Greeks, from Homer and Hesiod onwards, did not know the true meaning of the myth, the indignation of Zeus may have appeared so amply justified in the light of the true meaning, at the time when it was known, that this very justification, full and complete as it was, may have come clown as an essential part of the myth itself with the force of a blind and yet powerful higher sanction for the anger of Zeus, and placed the rectitude of this anger by tradition beyond question.

If this were so, and I believe there are very cogent reasons indeed for believing it, there would be yet a fourth explanation of the ancient Greek's cheerful and reverential acceptance of the part Zeus played in the myth; though this fourth explanation might well be included under the first reason, which I give as being the infinite trust of the ancient Greek in the wisdom and justice of Zeus, which in any case was also a matter of pure tradition.

Summing up, then, we have seen that there is no warrant whatsoever for assuming either that Prometheus suffered an injustice, or that Zeus acted in any way calculated to forfeit either the love or the reverence with which the ancient Greeks regarded him. To suppose this, as hundreds of scholars and many poets have done, is to be guilty not only of a misunderstanding of the deep religious character of the Greeks, but also of a deliberate neglect of certain documents, some of which appear in the case, others of which existed in the past, but as to the nature of whose contents we can now only make a shrewd guess. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the character of the Greeks, this guess points in a direction very different from that in which Goethe, Byron, Shelley, and the majority of scholars about them, have persisted in looking. Finally, seeing that according to no less an authority than Völcker, the true meaning of the myth appears to have been forgotten by the Greeks from Homer and Hesiod onwards, I suggest that in its true meaning perhaps lies the greatest justification of Zeus, and that this greatest justification came down without details (merely as a traditional higher sanction for his conduct) with the myth itself, and constituted part of the essential atmosphere surrounding it, or an essential part of the spirit animating it. It is this "forgotten" reason with which I am chiefly concerned in this essay. But in this matter I shall tread what I believe to be absolutely virgin soil; I shall wander utterly alone, I shall leave even that enlightened scholar Professor Blackie far behind me. Only Völcker and C. O. Müller will accompany me part of my way, and then, wishing them also good-bye, I shall, with my new discovery, run the gauntlet of the critics, and of those men who no wiser than your Drs. Petiscus and your Shelleys could not even see so far as correctly to master the actual documents in the case. Before I take my journey alone I must, however, first clear the ground still further, by replying to what I have described in my Preface as "the most learned, the most ingenious, and certainly the most daring of all the explanations" hitherto offered about the Prometheus myth – the work of Dr. Kuhn. I say that, at all costs, this explanation must be rejected, because it deliberately discards parts of the story. If there is anything in all I have maintained in my Introduction, surely this would be as good a reason as any. But I believe there are speedier methods than mere analysis, point by point, of all Dr. Kuhn's arguments, of ridding ourselves of his erudite sophistry. And for this speedier method of slaughter I am indebted to Mr. Andrew Lang, whose weapons I shall now proceed to borrow if only for the sake of brevity.

Briefly Dr. Kuhn's thesis is more or less as follows:–

The Greeks were wrong in deriving Prometheus from prometes, provident, and connecting it with such other words as prometoumai, prometeia. Prometheus is really a Greek form of pramantha (Skt.), the fire-stick of the Hindus, with which they kindle fire by means of friction. Pramantha, however, is also suggestive of robbing. The robbery of fire was called pramatha, pramathyu-s is he who loves boring or robbery, a borer or robber. From the latter word, according to the peculiarities of Greek phonology, is formed Prometeu-s, Prometheus.(23) Thus Prometheus is simply a fire-god. It is impossible to reproduce the elaborate arguments, etymological and mythological, advanced in support of this theory. Suffice it to say that it alleges that the Greeks, having forgotten the meaning of words, allowed the compound pramathnami to acquire the meaning of robbing, hence the idea that Matariçvan robbed fire from the gods, and the Greeks are supposed to have derived their fire-stealer myth from this Indian source.

Now it seems to me there is one fatal objection to this interpretation, and Mr. Andrew Lang raises it. He points out that the Thlinkuts, Ahts, Andaman Islanders, Australians, Maoris, South Sea Islanders, Cahroes and others all believe that fire was originally stolen, and then he proceeds: "Is it credible that, in all their languages, the name of the fire-stick should have caused a confusion of thought which ultimately led to the belief that fire was obtained originally by larceny? If such a coincidence appears incredible, we may doubt whether the belief that is common to Greeks and Cahroes and Ahts was produced in Greek minds by an etymological confusion, in Australia, America and so forth by some other cause."(24)

I really think that, quite apart from the origin of the notion of fire-stealing as further explained by Mr. Andrew Lang, this objection, as it stands, is fatal to Dr. Kuhn's theory, particularly as, according to Mr. Andrew Lang's showing elsewhere, "contradictions [as between high authorities] are, unfortunately, rather the rule than the exception in the etymological interpretation of myths."(25)

When one bears in mind that scholars no less eminent than Kuhn, Max Müller, Preller, Brown, etc., entirely disagree in regard to the etymology of the name Cronus, and consequently in regard to the meaning of the myth, one feels inclined, with Herbert Spencer, to refrain from relying too confidently upon this method of interpretation.(26)


(1) Die Mythologie des Japetischen Geschlechts oder der Sündenfall der Menschen nach Griechischen Mythen (Giessen, 1824), p.32: "Diese Eigenshaft des Prometheus, dass er Künstler und Entwilderer ist, macht den Grundzug und die Grundlage des mythus, und in allen Wendungen der Sage tritt dieser Zug wieder hervor."

(2) Translation by Robert Whitelaw, Oxford, 1907, 456-519.

(3) 510-511.

(4) 559-560.

(5) For the emphatic view of distinguished anthropologists on the extreme importance of the discovery of fire to primitive man, see W. J. Sollas, Ancient Hunters, pp.97-98; O. Peschel, Vö1kerkunde, V. Aufl., 1875, p.144; while Robert Munro in Prehistoric Problems (London, 1897), p.102, writes: "The art of fire-making had a greater influence on human civilisation than the modern discovery of electricity."

(6) The Prometheus Vinctus of Æschylus (London, 1898), p.xv.

(7) Op. cit., p.41.

(8) Classical Museum, vol. v., No. I, p.2.

(9) Ibid., p.9.

(10) Letters, 1900, iv., p.174, October 12th, 1817.

(11) Third stanza.

(12) Second stanza.

(13) The translation is from E. A. Bowring's English rendering of Goethe's poems (London, 1880), pp.181-182; but I have taken a slight liberty with the Bowring version, as in the lines marked thus, I do not think Bowring's words give a good impression of the original.

(14) Shelley so far misunderstood the Greek conception of the myth as to speak of Zeus as the "successful and perfidious" adversary of Prometheus! Such "interpretation," if it may be so called, reflects little credit upon the insight of the man who is responsible for it. See his Preface to Prometheus Unbound.

(15) Classical Museum, vol. v. (i.), p.15.

(16) See Theogony, 48-49.

(17) Ibid., 56.

(18) Ibid., 73-74. See also Homer, Od. xiv. 83, and Il. ix. 49. See also the reverent manner in which Euthyphron is made to refer to Zeus when addressing Socrates. And this was probably typical of the cultivated Greek of the period. "For all men believe," says Euthyphron, "that Zeus is the best and most just of the gods," Plato, Euthyphron.

(19) Op. cit., chap. x.

(20) Op. cit., p.xix.

(21) See Classical Museum, vol. v. (i.), p.34.

(22) Op. cit., p.40. The italics in the quotation are my own, A. M. L. F. G. Welcker also faces the problem of Zeus and Prometheus, and admits that it presents a great difficulty. His discussion on the subject, however, is not nearly as useful as Professor Blackie's. See Die Aeschylische Trilogie "Prometheus," pp.90-111.

(23) See Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., article "Prometheus."

(24) Encyclopaedia Britannica, article "Prometheus."

(25) Custom and Myth, p.57.

(26) Roscher also refutes Kuhn's theory of the fire-stick origin of the Promethean myth. But he proceeds somewhat differently. See Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Ramischen Mythologie, pp.3033-3034.