Prometheus, Epimetheus and Atlas

Prometheus was a Titan. He had three brothers; Epimetheus, Atlas and Menoetius. Atlas ruled over the land that we know as Atlantis. It was said to lay beyond the Pillars of Herakles (the Straits of Gibraltar), and a chain of fruit-bearing islands separated it from a farther continent, unconnected with ours. Protagonists of 'ancient wisdom' and all that sort of thing may say that if Atlantis was actually in the Atlantic, then the 'fruit-bearing islands' could well be the West Indies, and the 'farther continent' would therefore be . . . .. but of course the old Greeks knew nothing of the existence of the Americas, did they?

One version of the story of Atlantis says that it was comprised of a huge central plain completely surrounded by hills, except for one gap to connect it to the sea. The Atlanteans were master builders, and had palaces, baths, great harbour-works and temples when most other people were still living in mud huts. They were, however, warlike, and not only carried war into the westward continent, but also to the east as far as Italy and Egypt. Their greed and cruelty eventually led to their abandonment by the gods, and with Zeus's permission, the Athenians defeated them and destroyed their power. At the same time the gods sent a deluge which, in one day and night, overwhelmed Atlantis so that the whole land was buried under a sea of mud.

Atlas and Menoetius joined Cronus and the Titans in their war against the Olympian gods - which they lost. Zeus killed Menoetius with a thunderbolt and sent him down to Tartarus. He spared Atlas' life but condemned him to support Heaven on his shoulders for all eternity. Mount Atlas in North Africa is what is left of Atlas after Perseus petrified him with the head of Medusa.Prometheus was a lot wiser than his brother, and he fought on the side of the Olympians, persuading Epimetheus to do the same. He was the wisest of the Titans, and Athene (goddess of wisdom) taught him architecture, astronomy, metallurgy, mathematics, navigation, medicine and other useful arts, which he passed on to the human race (Prometheus had created mankind, moulding the first men and women out of clay). This angered Zeus, who had decided to eradicate the whole of humankind, and had only spared them as a favour to Prometheus. He didn't like the idea of humans becoming more powerful and knowledgeable.

One day there was a dispute as to which portions of a sacrificial bull should be offered to the gods and which should be reserved for men. Prometheus was asked to arbitrate, and he made up two equal bags out of the skin of the bull. In one he put all the meat, but covered it with the stomach, which is the least attractive part of an animal. The other bag he filled with the bones, but covered them with a rich layer of fat (highly prized in a Bronze Age economy). When he asked Zeus to take his pick, Zeus - easily fooled - picked the bag of bones. When he discovered that Prometheus had tricked him he punished him by withholding fire from humankind - he decreed that men could indeed have the flesh, but they must eat it raw!

Prometheus went to Athene and pleaded with her to let him into Olympus by the back way, which she did. When he got to Olympus he lit a torch from the fiery chariot of the Sun, then from that torch he broke off a piece of glowing charcoal, which he hid in a piece of hollow fennel stalk. Then he extinguished the torch and made his way back down to earth (no doubt whistling nonchalantly!) where he gave fire to mankind.

Now Zeus really got angry. He ordered Hephaestus to make a beautiful woman out of clay and got the four Winds to breathe life into her and the goddesses to dress her. This woman, Pandora, was the most beautiful woman there has ever been, and Zeus sent her to Epimetheus.

Prometheus, however, knew that trouble was coming, and had warned Epimetheus to accept nothing from Zeus, so Epimetheus respectfully declined Zeus's gift.

That was the last straw for Zeus - he had Prometheus taken to the Caucasian mountains where he was chained naked to a pillar. A voracious griffon-vulture was sent to tear at his liver all day, year in, year out, and the pain never ended because every night Prometheus was exposed to the aching cold and frost while his liver grew back again.

Zeus excused his cruelty by saying that Prometheus had tried to seduce Athene, but everyone knew this was a lie.

Epimetheus was alarmed at Zeus's vindictive behaviour towards his brother, so hastened to marry Pandora.  One day Pandora found a box that had been given to Epimetheus by Prometheus. Prometheus had warned his brother never to open the box, and when Pandora asked Epimetheus what the box contained, he also warned her not to touch it. But she had been fashioned by Zeus to be foolish, lazy and mischievous, and as soon as Epimetheus turned his back she opened the box.

Horror! What was in the box was all the evils that nowadays plague mankind; Old Age, Labour, Sickness, Insanity, Vice and Passion flew out in a great cloud and stung Pandora and Epimetheus in every part of their bodies, then went out into the world to cause misery for mortals for all time. Only Hope dissuaded mankind from collective suicide by persuading people that life was still worth living (the ancient Greeks thought of Hope as yet another evil, rather than something good. Most modern versions of the story have Hope as a saving grace which is left after the evil has spread, but I think the Ancient Greeks were referring to false hope that is without foundation).


 Atlas and Prometheus



Atlas holding up the heavens 


 Prometheus chained

 Statue of Prometheus attacked by the griffon-vulture by Nicolas-S├ębastien Adams

Pandora by John William Waterhouse

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