Zeus gives the task of creating humans to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus. Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought,” grants the animal kingdom all the joys of creation—fur, wings, shells, and so on—until there seems to be nothing left for man. He appeals to Prometheus for help.
Prometheus takes over and devises a way to make mankind superior to the animals. First, he gives mankind an upright shape like that of the gods. Then, he travels to the sun, where he lights a torch and brings fire down to the earth. Zeus resents the great advantages that Prometheus has given man, but he cannot undo the gifts. He punishes Prometheus by binding him to a rock and condemning him to a life of “no rest, no sleep, no moment’s respite.”
Zeus once received a prophecy that a son of his would one day overthrow him—and that only Prometheus would know that son’s name. Despite threats, Prometheus does not cave in to Zeus’s pressure, instead choosing to endure an eagle’s feasting on his flesh and liver every day.
As further revenge against Prometheus and the powers he has given man, Zeus creates a woman named Pandora. Zeus gives her a box and forbids her from opening it. He sends her down to earth, where her insatiable curiosity leads her to open the lid. Out fly plagues, sorrow, mischief, and all other misfortunes that can plague mankind. Horrified, Pandora attempts to shut the lid of the box, but it is too late. The only good element to fly out of the box is hope.
Prometheus, tied to his rock, sees a strange visitor: a cow that speaks like a girl. Her voice is laden with pain and sorrow, but it sounds beautiful. This is Io, and she tells Prometheus her story. She used to be a beautiful young woman, and Zeus fell in love with her. When Zeus's jealous wife Hera suspected their relationship, Zeus turned Io into a heifer. The shrewd Hera asked for the heifer as a present, and Zeus reluctantly gave Io away. Hera put Io in the care of Argus, a monster with one thousand eyes, so that Zeus could never get her back.
Zeus missed Io terribly and regretted her unfortunate transformation, so he pleaded with his son Hermes, the messenger god, to find a way of killing Argus. Hermes, known as the smartest god, disguised himself as a country fellow and approached Argus. The thousand-eyed monster invited Hermes to sit next to him, and Hermes started playing on a pipe of reeds as sweetly and monotonously as possible. Eventually Argus fell asleep, Hermes killed him, and Hera put the thousand eyes in the feathers of her favorite bird, the peacock. It seemed that Io would be free, but Hera sent a fly to follow her and drive her insane.
In response to the story, Prometheus reveals a prophecy that Io will wander for a long time in the beastly body, tormented by the fly. But finally she will reach the river Nile, where Zeus will restore her to her human form and give her a son. From this son will be born the greatest of heroes, Hercules, who will give Prometheus himself his freedom.
Prometheus is most notable for his heroic strength. Although Zeus severely punishes the very Titan who helped him come to power, Prometheus never yields to the god’s threats. Hamilton notes that despite slight variations on the Prometheus tale, his reputation remains intact; he is a “rebel against injustice and the authority of power.”
In this way, the myths present an important aspect of the Greek conception of a hero: the ability to suffer immense challenges. As we meet other heroes in later tales, other aspects of a hero's character will come out. With Prometheus, the story emphasizes his quiet resolve and incredible strength. This humanizes the hero, making him humble and decent, as any reader of the myth might want to be.
Mankind enjoys few or none of the external benefits enjoyed by animals, such as fur coats or protective shells. Instead, humans have been given fire, representing human power over energy.…