1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prometheus
PROMETHEUS, son of the Titan Iapetus by the sea nymph Clymene, the chief “ culture hero,” and, in some accounts, the Demiurge of Greek mythical legend. As a culture-hero or inventor and teacher of the arts of life, he belongs to a wide and well-known category of imaginary beings. Thus Qat, Quahteaht, Pundjel, Maui, Ioskeha, Cagn, Wainamoinen and an endless array of others represent the ideal and heroic first teachers of Melanesians, Ahts, Australians, Maoris, Algonkins, Bushmen and Finns. Among the lowest races the culture-hero commonly wears a bestial guise, is a spider (Melanesia), an eagle hawk (in some myths and south-east Australia), a coyote (north-west America), a dog or raven (Thlinkeet), a mantis insect (Bushman), and so forth, yet is endowed with human or even super-human qualities, and often shades off into a permanent and practically deathless god. Prometheus, on the other hand, is purely anthropomorphic. He is the friend and benefactor of mankind. He defends them against Zeus, who, in accordance with a widely diffused mythical theory, desires to destroy the human race and supplant them by a new and better species, or who simply revenges a trick in which men get the better of him. The pedigree and early exploits of Prometheus are given by Hesiod (Theog. 510–616). On a certain occasion gods and men met at Mecone. The business of the assembly was to decide what portions of slain animals the gods should receive in sacrifice. On one side Prometheus arranged the best parts of the ox covered with offal, on the other the bones covered with fat, as the meat was covered in Homeric sacrifices. Zeus was invited to make his choice, chose the fat, and found only bones beneath. A similar fable of an original choice, in which the chooser is beguiled by appearances, recurs in Africa and North America (see the caskets in the Merchant of Venice). The native tribes adapt the myth to explain the different modes of life among themselves and white men. In wrath at this trick, according to Hesiod, or in other versions for the purpose of exterminating the remnants of people who escaped the deluge of Deucalion, Zeus never bestowed, or later withdrew, the gift of fire. In his “ philanthropic fashion,” Prometheus stole fire, concealed in a hollow fennel stalk (Hesiod, Op. et Di.), and a fennel stalk is still used in the Greek islands as a means of carrying a light (cf. Pliny xiii. 22). According to some legends he gained the fire by holding a rod close to the sun. Probably the hollow fennel stalk in which fire was carried got its place in myth from the very fact of its common use.
We thus find Prometheus in the position of the fire-bringer, or fire-stealer, and so connected with a very wide cycle of similar mythical benefactors. Among the Murri of Gippsland, to begin with a backward people, the fire-stealer was a man, but he became a bird. Tow-e-ra, or fire, was in the possession of two women who hated the blacks. A man who loved men cajoled the women, stole fire when their backs were turned, and was metamorphosed into “ a little bird with a red mark on its tail, which is the mark of fire.” The fire-bringer in Brittany is the golden or fire-crested wren. Myths like this kill two birds with one stone, and at once account for the possession of fire by men and for the marking of certain animals regarded as fire-bringers. In another Australian legend fire was stolen by the hawk from the bandicoot, and given to men. In yet another a man held his spear to the sun, and so ot a light. A bird is fire-bringer in an Andaman island tale, and a ghost in another myth of the same island. In New Zealand, Maui stole fire from Mauika, the lord of fire. He used a bird's intervention. Among the Ahts, in North America, fire was stolen by animals from the cuttle-fish. Among the Thlinkeets, Yehl, the raven god, was the fire-stealer. Among the Cahrocs, the coyote steals fire from “ two old women.” Among the Aryans of India, Soma is stolen by birds, as water is among the Thlinkeets, and mead in the Edda. Fire concealed himself, in the Veda, was dragged from his hiding place by Matariçvan, and was given to the riestly clan of Bhrigu. We also hear that Matariçvan “ brought fire from afar " (R. V. iii. 9, 5), and that Bhrigu found fire lurking in the water (R. V. x. 46, 2).5
In considering the whole question, one must beware of the hasty analogical method of reasoning too common among mythologists. For example, when a bird is spoken of as the fire-bringer we need not necessarily conclude that, in each case, the bird means lightning. On the other hand, the myth often exists to explain the cause of the markings of certain actual species of birds. Again, because a hero is said to have stolen or brought fire, we need not regard that hero as the personification of fire, and explain all his myth as a fire-myth. The legend of Prometheus has too often been treated in this fashion, though he is really a culture hero, of whose exploits, such as making men of clay, fire-stealing is no more than a single example. This tendency to evolve the whole myth of Prometheus from a belief that he is personified fire, or the fire-god, has been intensified by Kuhn's ingenious and plausible etymology of the name Προμηθεύς; The Greeks derived it from προμηθής, provident, and connected it with other such words as προμηθοῦμαι προμήθεαι. They had also the proper name Ἐπιμηθεύς for the slow-witted brother of Prometheus who turned all the hero's wisdom to foolishness. Against these very natural etymologies the philologists support a theory that Prometheus is really a. Greek form of pramantha (Skt.), the fire-stick of the Hindus. The process of etymological change, as given by Steinthal, was this. The boring of the Perpendicular in the horizontal firestick, whereby fire was kindled, was called manthana, from math, “ I shake.” The preposition pra was prefixed, and you get pramantha. But Matariçvan was feigned to have brought Agni, fire, and “ the fetching of the god was designated by the same verb mathnāmi as the proper earthly boring ” of the fire-stick. “Now this verb, especially when compounded with the preposition pro, gained the signification to tear off, snatch to oneself, rob.” Steinthal goes on: “ Thus the fetching of Agni became a robbery of the fire, and the pramātha (fire-stick) a robber. The gods had intended, for some reason or other, to withhold fire from men; a benefactor of mankind stole it from the gods. This robbery was called pramātha; pramāthyu-s is 'he who loves boring or robbery, a borer or robber.' From the latter words, according. to the peculiarities of Greek phonology, is formed Προμηθεύ-ς, Prometheus. He is therefore a fire-god, ” &c. Few things more ingenious than this have ever been done by philologists. It will be observed that “ forgetfulness of the meaning of words ” is made to account for the Greek belief that fire was stolen from the gods. To recapitulate the doctrine more succinctly, men originally said, in Sanskrit (or some Aryan speech more ancient still), “ fire is got by rubbing or boring,” nothing could have been more scientific and straightforward. They also said, “ fire is brought by Matariçvan;” nothing could have been more in accordance with the mythopoeic mode of thought. Then the word which means “ fetched ” is confused with the word which means “ bored,” and gains the sense of “ robbed.” Lastly, fire is said (owing to this confusion) to have been stolen, and the term which meant the common savage fire-stick is by a process of delusion conceived to represent, not a stick, but a person, Prometheus, who stole fire. Thus then, according to the philologists, arose the myth that fire was stolen, a myth which, we presume, would not otherwise have occurred to Greeks. Now we have not to decide whether the Greeks were right in thinking that Prometheus only meant “ the fore-sighted wise man,” or whether the Germans know better, and are correct when they say the name merely meant “ fire-stick.” But we may, at least, point out that the myth of the stealing of fire and of the fire-stealer is current among races who are not Aryan, and never heard the word pramantha. We have shown that Thlinkeets, Ahts, Andaman Islanders, Australians, Maoris, South Sea Islanders, Cahrocs and others all believe fire was originally stolen. Is it credible that, in all their languages, the name of the fire-stick should have caused a confusion of thought which ultimately led to the belief that fire was obtained originally by larceny? If such a coincidence appears incredible, we may doubt whether the belief that is common to Greeks and Cahrocs and Ahts was produced, in Greek minds by an etymological confusion, in Australia, America and so forth by some other cause. What, then, is the origin of the widely-diffused myth that fire was stolen? We offer a purely conjectural suggestion. No race is found without fire, but even some civilized races have found the artificial reproduction of fire very tedious. Thus we read (Od. v. 488-493), “ As when a man hath hidden away a brand in the black embers at an upland farm, one that hath no neighbour nigh, and so saveth the seed of fire that he may not have to seek a light other where, even so did Odysseus cover him with the leaves.” If, in the Homeric age, men found it so hard to get the seed of fire, what must the difficulty have been in the earliest dawn of the art of fire-making? Suppose, then, that the human groups of early savages are hostile. One group lets its fire go out, the next thing to do would be to borrow a light from the neighbour, perhaps several miles off. But if the neighbours are hostile the unlucky group is cut off from fire, igni interdicitur. The only way to get fire in such a case is to steal it. Men accustomed to such a precarious condition might readily believe that the first possessors of fire, wherever they were, set a high value on it, and refused to communicate it to others. Hence the belief that fire was originally stolen. This hypothesis at least explains all myths of fire-stealing by the natural needs, passions, and characters of men, “ a jealous race,” whereas the philological theory explains the Greek myth by an exceptional accident of changing language, and leaves the other widely diffused myths of fire-stealing in the dark. It would occupy too much space to discuss, in the ethnological method, the rest of the legend of Prometheus. Like the Australian Pundjel, and the Maori Tiki, he made men of clay. He it was who, when Zeus had changed his wife into a fly, and swallowed her, broke open the god's head and let out his daughter Athena. He aided Zeus in the struggle with the Titans. He was punished by him on some desolate hill (usually styled Caucasus) for fire-stealing, and was finally released by Heracles.
His career may be studied in Hesiod; in the splendid Prometheus vinctus of Aeschylus, with the scholia; in Heyne's Apollodorus; in the excursus (I) of Schüzius to the Aeschylean drama, and in the frequently quoted work of Kuhn. The essay of Steinthal may also be examined (Goldziher, Myth. Hebr., Eng. trans., p. 363–392), where the amused student will discover' that “Moses is a Pramanthas," with much else that is as learned and convincing. See also Tylor's Early History of Man; Nesfield in Calcutta Review (January, April, 1884); and the article Fire. (A. L.)
- For these see Brough Smith with Howitt, Native Tribes of Southeast Australia, Aborigines of Victoria; Kuhn, on bird fire-bringer in Isle of Man, Die Herabkunft des Feuers, p. 109; Van Gennep, Mythes et légendes d'Australie.
- Journ. Anthrop. Inst. (Nov. 1884).
- Sproat, Savage Life
- Bancroft, iii. 100; Aitareya brahmana, ii. 93, 203; Kuhn, op. cit., 144
- Cf. Bergaigne, La Religion védique, i. 52–56, and Kuhn's Herabkunft; and see the essays by Steinthal in appendix to English version of Goldziher's Mythology among the Hebrews.
- Cf. Kuhn, op. cit. pp. 16, 17.