Classics Prometheus
Ian Ruffell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0304


Prometheus is a foundational figure in Greek myth and thought. He is a trickster, who has been compared with similarly devious characters in other cultures and mythologies. Traditionally the son of the Titan Iapetus, he is most well-known for his theft of fire from Zeus. He is particularly closely aligned with the fortunes of the human race, for good or for ill. As such he provided a pivot around which social ideas could turn, and he underwent a number of significant literary reimaginings and reinterpretations. By contrast, his role in cult is highly circumscribed. In Hesiod, his attempt to trick Zeus out of the decent portion of meat provides an aetiology of sacrifice. The subsequent theft of fire (which Zeus removes from the world as punishment) is an attempt to ameliorate the lot of humanity in the harsh world of Zeus’s regime. Fire is important here both in its own right and by standing for crafts and technology more generally. Prometheus is punished by being chained to a pillar for an eagle to peck at his liver on a daily basis. The human race is punished through the figure of Pandora, sent to Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, and the jar of miseries that she allows to escape into the world. The narratives in which Prometheus is embedded in this period, and further narratives with which they are associated, are primarily stories of decline in both economic and moral terms. By the 5th century, these ideas are challenged, not least through more materialist thinking and through increased reflection on society and economics, and out of this a more progressive version of the Prometheus myth is articulated, where the fire stands less for the act of survival than for technological and social advancement. This version requires a revaluation of the roles of both Prometheus and Zeus. This tradition is best represented by the tragedy Prometheus Bound, which survives under the name of Aeschylus, but similar versions are found elsewhere, including Plato’s Protagoras (which may reflect the Sophist’s own teaching in some way) and Diodorus Siculus (again drawing on an earlier source). A third tradition features Prometheus not as the helper (or provider of bad advice) but as the creator of mankind out of clay. This is particularly associated with the fable tradition, and is found in Ovid and Lucan, but there may be traces of it already in Plato’s Protagoras. Reception of Prometheus in later centuries can draw on any of these three strands, or combinations thereof, although the most conspicuous and fertile sources for later interpretations have been the roles of Prometheus as creator or as supporter, teacher, and martyr for humanity.

General Overviews

General treatments of the Prometheus myth take different focuses. Kraus and Eckhardt 1957 discusses the different incarnations of the myth in ancient literature and art respectively, with Kraus also discussing the role of Prometheus in cult. Dougherty 2005 is written with a particular focus on classical sources, and from there considers also the question of reception of the myth. Raggio 1958 goes back to the classical origins, but is particularly useful for treatment of the myth in later periods, and not least in art. Duchemin 1974 both considers the origins of the myth and has extensive commentary on reception, mainly of a literary variety. The latter is the focus of Trousson 1964, who also deals with the origins of the myth. Panofsky and Panofsky 1956 treats the Pandora myth, one conclusion to the Prometheus cycle, and particularly its reception. Others take a more comparative view. Kerényi 1963 and Kreitzer 1993 view Prometheus more as a mythical archetype, the former more from an anthropological perspective, the latter in terms of comparative mythology.

  • Dougherty, Carol. 2005. Prometheus. London: Routledge.

    Surveys the development of the myth throughout antiquity from Hesiod onward, and includes a chapter on reception, with notable exploration of modern visual culture. An essential starting point for any modern student of Prometheus.

  • Duchemin, Jacqueline. 1974. Prométhée: histoire du mythe, de ses origines orientales à ses incarnations moderns. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    A selective history of the myth. As well as chapters on the classical and post-classical Prometheus, there are two chapters on Vedic and Near Eastern comparanda, and six studies of modern versions, by Goethe, P. Shelley, Péladan, Roger Dumas, André Gide, and Élémir Bourges.

  • Kerényi, Karl. 1963. Prometheus: Archetypal image of human existence. London: Thames and Hudson.

    This is a Jungian interpretation that focuses on Hesiod, Aeschylus, and some German reception, especially Goethe. More of a meditation on the significance of the myth than a straightforward historical treatment. Certainly needs to be used with caution in terms of tracking the development of the myth. English translation of Prometheus: das Griechische Mythologem von der menschlichen Existenz. First published in 1946.

  • Kraus, Walther, and Lothar Eckhardt. 1957. Prometheus. Paulys Real-Encylopādie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft 23:653–702.

    Comprehensive guide, in German, to Prometheus’s appearances in cult (using literary and epigraphic sources) and literature, with discussion of the major elements of the myth (Kraus), and in art, both attested and surviving, again broken down according to different elements of the myth (Eckhardt). The treatments also include pointers to earlier bibliography.

  • Kreitzer, L. Joseph. 1993. Prometheus and Adam: Enduring symbols of the human situation. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    This book explores the similarities between Prometheus and Adam, who are both implicated in narratives of the fall of mankind, and the significance of these myths across time.

  • Panofsky, Dora, and Erwin Panofsky. 1956. Pandora’s Box: The changing aspects of a mythical symbol. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Includes material on Pandora in the Greek and Roman traditions, but mainly focused on the later development of the myth, from medieval times through humanism and beyond. Particularly strong on visual material, although texts are not ignored.

  • Raggio, Olga. 1958. The myth of Prometheus: Its survival and metamorphoses up to the XVIIIth century. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 21:44–62.

    DOI: 10.2307/750486

    This essay covers the literary sources, but is particularly useful for its treatment of visual and material culture, both in classical antiquity and on into the Middle Ages and early modern period.

  • Trousson, Raymond. 1964. Le Thème de Prométhée dans la littérature européenne. Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz.

    The most comprehensive chronological account of the myth. The first part (or volume) begins with prehistorical origins and the literary development in ancient Greece, and then tracks its development through medieval and early modern periods up until Goethe. The second, lengthier part looks at the Romantic tradition and its aftermath.

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