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Legendary Greece:





THE sons of the Titan god Iapetus, as described in the Hesiodic theogony, are Atlas, Mencetius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. Of these, Atlas alone is mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey, and even he not as the son of Iapetus: the latter himself is named in the Iliad as existing in Tartarus along with Kronos. The Homeric Atlas “knows the depths of the whole sea, and keeps by himself those tall pillars which hold the heaven apart from the earth”.

As the Homeric theogony generally appears much expanded in Hesiod, so also does the family of Iapetus, with their varied adventures. Atlas is here described, not as the keeper of the intermediate pillars between heaven and earth, but as himself condemned by Zeus to support the heaven on his head and hands; while the fierce Menoetius is pushed down to Erebus as a punishment for his ungovernable insolence. But the remaining two brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus, are among the most interesting creations of Grecian legend, and distinguished in more than one respect from all the remainder.

First, the main battle between Zeus and the Titan gods is a contest of force purely and simply—mountains are hurled and thunder is launched, and the victory remains to the strongest. But the competition between Zeus and Prometheus is one of craft and stratagem: the victor does indeed remain to the former, but the honors of the fight belong to the latter. Secondly, Prometheus and Epimetheus (the fore-thinker and the after-thinker) are characters stamped at the same mint, and by the same effort, the express contrast and antithesis of each other. Thirdly, mankind are here expressly brought forward, not indeed as active partners in the struggle, but as the grand and capital subjects interested,—as gainers or sufferers by the result. Prometheus appears in the exalted character of champion of the human race, even against the formidable superiority of Zeus.

In the primitive or Hesiodic legend, Prometheus is not the creator or molder of man; it is only the later additions which invest him with this character. The race are supposed as existing, and Prometheus, a member of the dispossessed body of Titan gods, comes forward as their representative and defender. The advantageous bargain which he made with Zeus on their behalf, in respect to the partition of the sacrificial animals, has been recounted in a preceding chapter. Zeus felt that he had been outwitted, and was exceeding wroth. In his displeasure he withheld from mankind the inestimable comfort of fire, so that the race would have perished, had not Prometheus stolen fire, in defiance of the Supreme Ruler, and brought it to men in the hollow stem of the plant called giant-fennel.

Zeus was now doubly indignant, and determined to play off a still more ruinous stratagem. Hephaestus, by his direction, molded the form of a beautiful virgin; Athene dressed her, Aphrodite and the Charites bestowed upon her both ornament and fascination, while Hermes infused into her the mind of a dog, a deceitful spirit, and treacherous words. The messengers of the gods conducted this “fascinating mischief” to mankind, at a time when Prometheus was not present. Now Epimetheus had received from his brother peremptory injunctions not to accept from the hands of Zeus any present whatever; but the beauty of Pandora (so the newly-formed female was called) was not to be resisted. She was received and admitted among men, and from that moment their comfort and tranquility was exchanged for suffering of every kind. The evils to which mankind are liable had been before enclosed in a cask in their own keeping; Pandora in her malice removed the lid of the cask, and out flew these thousand evils and calamities, to exercise for ever their destroying force. Hope alone remained imprisoned, and therefore without efficacy, as before—the inviolable lid being replaced before she could escape. Before this incident (says the legend) men had lived without disease or suffering; but now both earth and sea are full of mischiefs. Maladies of every description stalk abroad by day as well as by night, without any hope fox man of relief to come.

The Theogony gives the legend here recounted, with some variations—leaving out the part of Epimetheus altogether, as well as the cask of evils. Pandora is the ruin of man, simply as the mother and representative of the female sex. And the variations are thus useful, as they enable us to distinguish the essential from the accessory circumstances of the story.



“Thus (says the poet, at the conclusion of his narrative) it is not possible to escape from the purposes of Zeus”. His myth, connecting the calamitous condition of man with the malevolence of the supreme god, shows, first, by what cause such an unfriendly feeling was raised; next, by what instrumentality its deadly results were brought about. The human race are not indeed the creation, but the protected flock of Prometheus, one of the elder or dispossessed Titan gods. When Zeus acquires supremacy, mankind along with the rest become subject to him, and are to make the best bargain they can, respecting worship and service to be yielded. By the stratagem of their advocate Prometheus, Zeus is cheated into such a partition of the victims as is eminently unprofitable to him; whereby his wrath is so provoked, that he tries to subtract from man the use of feeling of fire. Here, however, his scheme is frustrated by the theft of Prometheus: but his second attempt is more successful, and he in his turn cheats the unthinking Epimetheus into the acceptance of a present (in spite of the peremptory interdict of Prometheus) by which the whole of man’s happiness is wrecked. This legend grows out of two feelings; partly as to the relations of the gods with man, partly as to the relation of the female sex with the male. The present gods are unkind towards man, but the old gods, with whom man's lot was originally cast, were much kinder—and the ablest among them stands forward as the indefatigable protector of the race. Nevertheless, the mere excess of his craft proves the ultimate ruin of the cause which he espouses. He cheats Zeus out of a fair share of the sacrificial victim, so as both to provoke and justify a retaliation which he cannot be always at hand to ward off; the retaliation is, in his absence, consummated by a snare laid for Epimetheus and voluntarily accepted. And thus, though Hesiod ascribes the calamitous condition of man to the malevolence of Zeus, his piety suggests two exculpatory pleas for the latter; mankind have been the first to defraud Zeus of his legitimate share of the sacrifice—and they have moreover been consenting parties to their own ruin. Such are the feelings, as to the relation between the gods and man, which have been one of the generating elements of this legend. The other element, a conviction of the vast mischief arising to man from women, whom yet they cannot dispense with, is frequently and strongly set forth in several of the Greek poets—by Simonides of Amorgos and Phokylidis, not less than by Euripides.

Punishment of Prometheus

But the miseries arising from woman, however great they might be, did not reach Prometheus himself. For him, the rash champion who had ventured “to compete in sagacity” with Zeus, a different punishment was in store. Bound by heavy chains to a pillar, he remained fast imprisoned for several generations: every day did an eagle prey upon his liver, and every night did the liver grow afresh for the next day’s suffering. At length Zeus, eager to enhance the glory of his favorite son, Heracles, permitted the latter to kill the eagle and rescue the captive.

Such is the Promethean myth as it stands in the Hesiodic poems; its earliest form, as far as we can trace. Upon it was founded the sublime tragedy of Aeschylus, “The Enchained Prometheus”, together with at least one more tragedy, now lost, by the same author. Aeschylus has made several important alterations; describing the human race, not as having once enjoyed and subsequently lost a state of tranquility and enjoyment, but as originally feeble and wretched. He suppresses both the first trick played off by Prometheus upon Zeus respecting the partition of the victim—and the final formation and sending of Pandora—which are the two most marked portions of the Hesiodic story; while on the other hand he brings out prominently and enlarges upon the theft of fire, which in Hesiod is but slightly touched. If he has thus relinquished the antique simplicity of the story, he has rendered more than ample compensation by imparting to it a grandeur of ideal, a large reach of thought combined with appeals to our earnest and admiring sympathy, and a pregnancy of suggestion in regard to the relations between the gods and man, which soar far above the Hesiodic level, and which render his tragedy the most impressive, though not the most artistically composed, of all Grecian dramatic productions. Prometheus there appears not only as the heroic champion and sufferer in the cause and for the protection of the human race, but also as the gifted teacher of all the arts, helps, and ornaments of life, amongst which fire is only one: all this against the will and in defiance of the purpose of Zeus, who, on acquiring his empire, wished to destroy the human race and to beget some new breed. Moreover, new relations between Prometheus and Zeus are superadded by Aeschylus. At the commencement of the struggle between Zeus and the Titan gods, Prometheus had vainly attempted to prevail upon the latter to conduct it with prudence; but when he found that they obstinately declined all wise counsel, and that their ruin was inevitable, he abandoned their cause and joined Zeus. To him and to his advice Zeus owed the victory; yet the monstrous ingratitude and tyranny of the latter is now manifested by nailing him to a rock, for no other crime than because he frustrated the purpose of extinguishing the human race, and furnished to them the means of living with tolerable comfort. The new ruler Zeus, insolent with his victory over the old gods, tramples down all right, and sets at naught sympathy and obligation, as well towards gods as towards man. Yet the prophetic Prometheus, in the midst of intense suffering, is consoled by the foreknowledge that the time will come when Zeus must again send for him, release him, and invoke his aid, as the sole means of averting from himself dangers otherwise insurmountable. The security and means of continuance for mankind have now been placed beyond the reach of Zeus—whom Prometheus proudly defies, glorying in his generous and successful championship, despite the terrible price which he is doomed to pay for it.

As the Aeschylean Prometheus, though retaining the old lineaments, has acquired a new coloring, soul, and character, so he has also become identified with a special locality. In Hesiod there is no indication of the place in which he is imprisoned; but Aeschylus places it in Scythia, and the general belief of the Greeks supposed it to be on Mount Caucasus. So long and so firmly did this belief continue, that the Roman general Pompey, when in command of an army in Colchis, made with his companion, the literary Greek Theophanes, a special march to view the spot in Caucasus where Prometheus had been transfixed.