The immortal Titan Prometheus (Ancient Greek, ‘forethought’), the champion of mankind, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortal man. Zeus punished him by having him bound to a rock in the Caucasus; every day an eagle ate out his liver, only for it to grow back overnight and to be re-eaten the next day. Years later, the hero Heracles (Hercules) slayed the eagle and delivered Prometheus from this Sisyphean ordeal.

According to Hesiod, Prometheus was the son of Iapetus by Clymene, and brother of Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoetius. In the Theogony, Hesiod says that Zeus punished Prometheus and mankind by sending Pandora, the first woman, who was fashioned out of clay and brought to life by the four winds. ‘…of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.’

In the Works and Days, Hesiod adds that Epimetheus accepted Pandora (‘all gifts’) despite a warning from Prometheus. Pandora carried with her a jar, from which she lifted the lid and released ‘evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which gave men death’. By the time she had returned the lid, only blind hope remained at the bottom of the jar.

Prometheus is also given significant treatment by Plato, Aeschylus, Sappho, Aesop, Ovid, and several others. In the Protagoras, Plato tells us that, once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals in the earth by blending together earth and fire. They then asked Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them each with their proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any of the animals, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts and hides. By the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them.

Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole for them from Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, for which reason they lived in scattered isolation and at the mercy of wild animals. They tried to come together for safety, but treated each other so badly that they once again dispersed. As they shared in the divine, they gave worship to the gods, and Zeus took pity on them and asked Hermes to send them reverence and justice.

Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow