Origins of Fire According to the Greeks

Video highlights from Origins: The Journey of Humankind

Prometheus to Pandora, Greek Mythology explains our connection with fire.

How did we get Fire?

According to Ancient Greek mythology, fire was stolen from the gods and given to mankind by a sneaky son-of-a- Titan named Prometheus.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus’s father was a titan called Iapetus, and he had three brothers Epimetheus, Menoetius and Atlas.

Atlas sound familiar?

Atlas who was doomed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders forever, as punishment for trying to claim the heavens from the Olympian gods.

Prometheus also had a son, Deucalion a figure similar to Noah who survived a giant flood with his wife.

There are multiple versions of the same myth (none involve an alien or a space ship).

In some stories, Prometheus made the first man out of clay, in others the gods were responsible for the creation of humans.  But in all stories, Prometheus felt sorry for the humans and raided Athena and Hephaestus's’ workshop looking for tools. He stole fire from Mt Olympus and gave it to humankind. Using the equipment he stole from Athena and Hephaistos he taught mankind how to make tools from metal and fire. And so, Prometheus became associated with science and culture.

Creation of man Prometheus Berthelemy LouvreImage: Wikimedia Commons, creation of man Prometheus Berthelemy Louvre

Zeus was not happy (when is he ever happy?) that Prometheus nicked fire from the gods and so punished the Titan in an excruciating and torturous way.

If you think Atlas’ punishment was rough wait till you hear what he did to Prometheus…

Outraged by the theft, Zeus banished Prometheus to the East. He chained him to a rock (or in some stories a pillar) and sent an eagle to dig out and eat his liver.

Pretty grim right? It gets worse.

Zeus made sure that Prometheus’ liver would grow back every night and in the morning he would send the same eagle to eat his liver. Eternal torture.

Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637) - Prometheus - KMSK BrusselImage: Wikimedia Commons, Theodoor Rombouts (1597-1637) - Prometheus - KMSK Brussel

Not to worry, it is said that Hercules passed Prometheus and shot down the eagle with one of his arrows, freeing Prometheus from Zeus’ cruel punishment.

Prometheus wasn’t the only victim of Zeus ‘wrath. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus punished man for accepting the gift of fire. He asked Hephaistos (god of blacksmiths and fire) to create the first woman Pandora as a punishment.

"Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire--a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.’ (Hesiod, Works & Days 54 ff , Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.)

Pandora married Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus who was pretty happy about the arrangement. Prometheus still very much chained to a rock, warned his brother not to accept anything from Zeus. But Epimetheus didn’t listen:

“You said to watch out for gifts from gods. You said that Zeus would punish me in revenge for your crimes. Well if this is punishment, punish me more often, for Pandora is the most beautiful thing I ever saw."

Pandora came with a dowry- a box with instructions specifically stating to never open the box. Too curious not to, Pandora opened it.

John William Waterhouse: Pandora, 1896Image: Simple Wikipedia, John William Waterhouse: Pandora, 1896

Out of the box came hard work, disease and old age, things that would plague mankind forever. Only hope remained in the box, a so –called blessing to ease man’s suffering.

The origins of fire as told in Greek Mythology. Not too sinister in the end... A little uncomfortable for Prometheus maybe but Mankind was gifted womankind and fire. That’s still a pretty good outcome.

Tune into Origins tonight at 8.30pm to learn how humans discovered fire.

Header: Wikipedia, Laconic bowl depicting Prometheus and Atlas enduring their respective punishments, circa 550 B.C.

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