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Prometheus and the Legend of Fire

Prometeo Prometheus Louvre La Píldora del Saber

[Image: LPDS/Wombo Art]

Among the Greek myths, that of Prometheus is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful and significant. Poets have frequently resorted to it, each of whom has interpreted it according to its inspiration. Consequently, the versions are numerous and, on some occasions, contradictory.

Son of the titan Iapetus and the sea nymph Clymene (or, according to other versions, of Themis), Prometheus was, originally, the god of fire, of fire that serves to heat, to illuminate, and above all, to work the metals with which weapons and instruments useful to humans can be made. He was, therefore, a beneficent divinity, a friend of humans, and throughout Greece numerous altars had been consecrated to him. Athens, for example, had one built in his honor in the neighborhood of the Academy, and it also had a sacred fire burning perennially. Certain days, dedicated to sacrifices to the god, the young people of the city lit several torches on that altar and carried them running to the temples of other gods to light the sacrificial fires there.

However, little by little, Prometheus lost importance as a divinity (his place was taken by Hephaestus, a god of Asian origin, probably), and of his original characteristics only his extraordinary benevolence towards mankind and a relationship, increasingly vague, with the igneous element.

Around these characteristics, the myth of him, which is narrated here, was constituted and developed.

Rebellion against the despotic law of the strongest

In the town of Mekone, gods and humans once met to decide once and for all which parts of the sacrificed animals should belong to one or the other. As it concerned the gods, and Zeus in particular, to choose first, Prometheus concocted a stratagem in favor of humans: the worst parts, such as bones, cartilage, and viscera, were covered by a layer of succulent fat, while that the best parts, the tastiest, were wrapped in the skin and the less appetizing membranes. Zeus naturally, looking only at appearance, chose the fat-covered pieces.

Great was, however, his anger when he realized that he had been deceived. His uncontrollable rage was unleashed in a horrible revenge: from that moment, humans would be deprived of fire forever.

Without the precious element, the days were very sad for the human race, who tried to protect themselves from the rigors of winter by taking refuge like animals in the dark depths of caves and covering themselves with the skins of the few animals they managed to hunt. But without the heat of the fire, the cold still seeped into their bones and made them groan and chatter their teeth. In addition, they had no light when the sun had set and they could not work metals to make the weapons necessary for hunting or the tools that relieved their fatigue.

Little by little they abandoned the fields, which they left uncultivated, and began to hunt using almost uncut stones. Humanity wandered trembling and hungry in a dark and inhospitable world.

These harsh conditions, sad and without hope, anguished Prometheus, who wanted, once again, to find the solution for the tribulations of mortals. After much thought, he decided to steal fire from the gods and bring it to humans at any cost, even if it meant braving the wrath of the mightiest of gods. Therefore, he took his huge bronze-handled staff and a skin full of wine from Etna, and headed towards the island of Lemnos, where the god Hephaestus had his forge. When he arrived, he entered the cave of the god and said: "Oh, Hephaestus, you who have no one equal to you in the art of forging metals and who know every last resource and the inestimable value of the element of which you are god, fire, have you no mercy on the state to which the human race is reduced? Can you see those poor beings going from one place to another shivering in a world without light and remain insensible at the same time? Give me, then, an ember of your fire, so that I can restore to them what they cannot do without». But Hephaestus replied: "Prometheus, your benevolence towards human beings darkens your mind. I also, it is true, feel sorry for these poor mortals, but not to the point of defying the wrath of Zeus. Do not ask me to help you, because if I did, I would certainly be thrown back from Olympus.

At these words, Prometheus pretended to resign himself and offered Hephaestus the wine from his skin, in which he had previously mixed poppy juice. He also offered it to the cyclopes, the giants who assisted Hephaestus in his work and, when he saw that they were all drunk and sleepy, he took an ember and hid it in the hollow handle of his staff. Like an agile beast, Prometheus ran jumping along the rocky coast of the island of Lemnos and as soon as he found himself among the humans, he ordered them to quickly build a large pyre of very dry trunks and dry branches as well.

High up to the sky rose the flame, when the titan had thrown the seed of fire on the wood.

Exemplary punishment

The humans rejoiced, but Zeus, who saw it, decided to condemn to a horrible punishment whoever had disobeyed his irrevocable decree. Far away in the Caucasus a black rock stood on a cliff above the sea; the vertical wall was impregnable to mortals. Hephaestus, by the will of Zeus, had to move Prometheus there and chain him, because he was guilty of having fire stolen from him. Far from humans, confined in those anguished solitudes, the titan was condemned to endure the burning sun burning his flesh, the ice of the night seizing his limbs, the rain and wind whipping his tortured body. But the revenge of Zeus did not end here: every three days, a huge tawny eagle descended on defenseless Prometheus, dug its claws into his chest and sank its curved beak into the living flesh, until it reached the liver; it plunged her sharp face there and tore it to pieces. For the next two days and three nights, the eagle did not appear and the lacerated liver could heal prodigiously and the wounds close, all so that, on the third day, the horrible ordeal could begin again.

Prometheus Prometheus Louvre The Pill of Knowledge
[LPDS/Wombo Art]

The cries of the chained titan spread throughout the land; humans and gods heard them with horror. Some, taking pity on him, interceded, but Zeus, implacable, did not listen to the pleas and remained indifferent to the exhortations with which they tried to move his will. The horrible martyrdom of Prometheus had to last a thousand years: everyone then knew what punishments awaited those who dared to disobey the most powerful of the gods, to break the order of the universe, established by him. However, after 30 years, a placated Zeus forgave Prometheus. He sent the hero Hercules to free him, and from that day on Prometheus, the benefactor of humans, was glorified on the Olympus of the gods.

This myth still has a very current meaning: the mission of Prometheus represents the conquest of mankind on its long path towards material and moral progress. His misfortune represents the knowledge - that humans have had since the most ancient times - that progress is not an easy thing and that pioneers almost always pay with their lives for their discoveries. Later, however, humanity appreciates and honors them according to their true merits.

Glorified by their executioners

As we said at the beginning, this myth has multiple interpretations and, while transcribing it with these lines, it is come to mind, for example, institutions that have exercised tight control over society, using despicable strategies, among which is precisely that of using the continual threat and fear of terrible punishment if the "laws" they promote are questioned, defied or broken. Those same institutions or organizations, as is the case, for example, with the Catholic Church, have been able to put true benevolent people to the stake, whose "sin" was, through solid verified arguments, to question its dogmas. Curiously, the passage of time and History have ended up recognizing, appreciating and honoring their contributions and merits. Some even, paradoxically, through their glorification, not on Olympus, but through canonization processes. And so as not to be branded as anti-Catholic or anti-clerical with the above example, apply the myth of Prometheus to any other institution, organization or power who have used -and still use- fear and public punishment, via scapegoat, to maintain social control.

Finally, and as an anecdote, years ago during a meeting with friends, talking about secret services... one of those present asked: "Do you know which was the first espionage agency?" While certain acronyms of agencies from various countries swarmed through our heads, he quickly advanced and stated: "The first espionage agency was established by the Catholic Church through the use of the confessions box."


[Source: Va.Aa (1978). The Legend of Fire. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome III, pp. 99-101). Milan, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]