Heaven and earth had been created. The sea ebbed and flowed between its shores, and fish frolicked in the waters; in the air sang winged birds, and the earth swarmed with animals. But as yet there was no creature in whose body the spirit could house and from there govern the world around it. Then down to earth came Prometheus, “Forethought,” a descendant of the ancient race of gods which Zeus had dethroned, a son of Iapetus, whom Gaia had borne unto Uranus. Now Prometheus was crafty and nimble-witted. He knew that the seed of heaven lay sleeping in the earth, so he scooped up some clay, moistened it with water from a river, kneaded it this way and that, and shaped it to the image of gods, the lords of the world. To give life to his earth-formed figure he took both good and evil from the core of many animals and locked them in man’s breast. He had a friend among the immortals, Athene, the goddess of wisdom, who marveled at what this son of the Titans had created, and she breathed the spirit, the divine breath, into his creature which, as yet, was only half alive.
In this way the first men were made, and soon they filled the far reaches of the earth. But for a long time they did not know what to do with their noble limbs or the divine spirit which had been breathed into them. They saw, yet they did not see; they heard, yet they did not hear. Aimlessly they moved about, like figures in a dream, and were ignorant of how to profit from creation. They did not know the art of quarrying and cutting stone, of burning bricks from clay, or carving out beams from the trees they hewed in the forest, or of building houses with all these materials. Like scurrying ants they thronged in sunless caves beneath the surface of the earth. They did not discern the sure signs of winter, of spring decked with flowers, of summer rich in fruits. There was no plan in anything they did. Then Prometheus came to their aid. He taught them to watch the rising and setting of the stars, discovered to them the art of counting and of communicating by means of written symbols. He showed them how to yoke animals and make them share in man’s labor. He broke horses to the rein and wagon and invented ships and sails for journeying over the sea. And he concerned himself with all the other affairs of human life also. Formerly, a man who fell ill knew nothing of herbs, of what to eat or not to eat, what to drink or not to drink, nor did he have salves to ease his pain. For lack of physic men had perished wretchedly. But now Prometheus showed them how to compound mild remedies that would dispel every kind of disease. Then he taught them to foretell the future and interpreted dreams and signs for them, the flight of birds and the omens of offerings. He guided them to explore underground, so that they might find ore, iron, silver, and gold. In short, he introduced them to all the arts and comforts of living.
Now the gods in Heaven, and among them Zeus, who had but lately deposed his father Cronus and established his own supremacy, began to notice this new creation, man. They were willing enough to protect him, but—in return—demanded that he pay them homage. In Mecone, in Greece, mortals and immortals met on a set day, to determine the rights and duties of man. At this assembly Prometheus appeared as man’s counsel, to see to it that the gods—in their capacity of protectors—did not impose too burdensome levies upon men.
On this occasion his cunning prompted him to trick the gods. In behalf of his creatures, he slaughtered a mighty bull and bade the immortals take whatever parts of it they pleased. Now when he had cut up the animal, he made two heaps of the pieces. On one side he put the flesh, the entrails, and the far, covered these over with the hide, and placed the paunch on top; on the other, he put the bare bones cleverly concealed in the suet of the victim. And this heap was bigger! All-knowing Zeus saw through his trickery and said: “Son of Iapetus, illustrious king, my very good friend, how unequally you have divided the portions!” At this Prometheus was sure that he had deceived him, smiled to himself, and answered: “Illustrious Zeus, you, who are supreme among the immortal gods, take what your heart bids you chose.” And Zeus was vexed and felt his anger swell within him, but he deliberately took the white suet in both his hands. When he had pried it apart and saw the picked bones, he pretended only then to have discovered the trick and said dourly: “I know very well, my friend, O son of Iapetus, that you have not yet forgotten the art of deception!”
To punish Prometheus for his knavery, Zeus denied mortals the last thing they needed to perfect their civilization: fire. But the shrewd son of Iapetus improvised a way to provide even this lack. He broke a stalk of pithy fennel, approached the chariot of the son as it spun through the heavens, and held the stalk to its blaze until it smouldered. With this tinder he descended to earth, and soon the first pile of brushwood was flaming to the sky. Pain pierced the soul of Zeus the Thunderer when he saw fire rising among men and casting its radiance far and wide.
To offset the advantages of fire, which could not be taken from men, now that they had it, he instantly devised a new evil for them. He ordered Hephaestus, the fire-god, famed for his skill, to fashion an image in the shape of a beautiful young woman. Athene herself, who had grown envious of Prometheus and withdrawn her favor from him, clothed the image in a robe of shimmering white, placed over her face a flowing veil, which the girl held, parting it with her hands, garlanded her head with fresh flowers, and bound it with a fillet of gold. This was also the work of Hephaestus, who—to please his father—had wrought it with great art and adorned it exquisitely with the many-colored shapes of various animals. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, bestowed language on the lovely mischief, and Aphrodite tricked her out with all possible charms. Thus, under the guise of something most desirable, Zeus had contrived a dazzling misfortune. He named the girl Pandora, which means, “she who has gifts from all,” for each of the immortal gods had given her some baleful gift for man. Then he led the girl down to earth, where gods and mortals were walking about taking their pleasure. And they were all filled with wonder at this incomparable creature, for never yet had men laid eye on a woman. She, in the meantime, went up to Epimetheus, “Afterthought,” the brother of Prometheus, and less wily than he.
In vain had Prometheus warned his brother never to accept a gift from the ruler of Olympus, lest men take harm from it, but to return it without delay. Epimetheus forgot this warning; he received the beautiful young woman with the utmost delight and failed to recognize evil until it was upon him. For up to this time—thanks to Prometheus’ counsel!—men had been free from misfortune and had lived without excessive toil or the long sufferings of disease. But this woman came bearing a gift in her hands, a large box tightly closed. Hardly had she reached Epimetheus when she flung back its lid, and out fluttered a host of calamities that spread over the earth with the speed of lightning. Yet one single good thing hidden at the very bottom of the box: hope! But on the advice of the father of the gods, Pandora shut the lid before it could fly forth, and closed her box forever. And now misery in countless forms filled the earth, the air, and the sea. By day and by night sicknesses prowled among men, secretly and silently, for Zeus had not given them a voice. A flock of fevers beleaguered the earth, and Death, who had been coming to mortals on slow, reluctant feet, now walked with winged steps.
When this had been accomplished, Zeus turned to the matter of taking revenge on Prometheus himself. He handed the culprit over to Hephaestus and his servants Cratos and Bia. Force and Violence. These he bade drag him to the wastes of Scythia and there—above a sinister chasm—forge him to a steep cliff of the Caucasus with stout unyielding chains. Hephaestus carried out his father’s commands unwillingly, for he loved the son of the Titans because he was his kin, his peer, the child of gods, a descendant of Uranus, his great-grandfather. He was compelled to have the cruel order executed, but he spoke of compassion, at which his more brutal henchmen frowned. So Prometheus was forced to hang from the cliff, upright and sleepless, and never could he bend his tired knees. “You will utter many plaints and sighs, and they will all be in vain,” said Hephaestus. “For the purpose of Zeus is unshakable; hard of heart are those who have but lately wrested power from others and taken it to themselves.”
The torments of the captive were intended to endure forever, or for thirty thousand years at the very least. He moaned aloud and called on the winds and the rivers, on the zodiac, from which nothing is hidden, and on Earth, the mother of all, to witness his agony, but his spirit remained steadfast. “Whoever has learned to accept the unshakable power of necessity,” he said, “must suffer what Destiny decrees.” Nor could the threats of Zeus induce him to explain his dark prophecy that new wedlock would bring ruin and destruction to the king of the gods. Zeus was true to his word. Every day he sent an eagle to feed on his captive’s liver, which however much it was devoured, always grew back again. This torture was to last until one came who, of his own free will, would consent to suffer in Prometheus’ stead.
The came about earlier than the son of the Titans might have supposed, considering the sentence Zeus had pronounced upon him. When he had been hanging from his cliff for many a bitter year, along came Heracles, bound on his quest for the golden apples of the Hesperides. He saw the descendant of the gods shackled to the Caucasus and was about to ask him for advice on how to prosper in his search, when he was overwhelmed with pity at his fare, for he observed the eagle perched on the knees of the luckless Prometheus. Heracles laid his club and his lion’s skin on the ground behind him, bent his bow, launched the arrow, and shot the cruel bird from the liver of its anguished host. Then he loosed the chains, delivered Prometheus, and led him away. But to satisfy the conditions stipulated by Zeus, he brought Chiron, the centaur, as a substitute, for even though Chiron had claim to immortality, he offered to die in the Titan’s stead. And to fulfill the judgment of Zeus, son of Cronus, in every point, Prometheus, who had been sentenced to the cliff for a far longer time, had always to wear an iron ring, set with a chip for the story wall of the Caucasus, so that Zeus could boast that his enemy was still forged to the mountain.
Copyright © 2001 by Gustav Schwab. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.