The punishment of Prometheus

Another in a series of stories I’m writing for liberal religious kids. As always, your comments and criticisms are welcome.

Once upon a time, the immortal god Prometheus stole fire from the other immortal gods and goddesses, and gave it to mortal human beings.

Zeus, who had just become the new ruler over all the other gods and goddesses, was very angry. To punish Prometheus, Zeus commanded him to be nailed to a cliff in Scythia, a distant place at the end of the world. Zeus told two of his henchmen, a demon named Might and another demon named Violence, to take Prometheus to Scythia. Prometheus had taken the fire from Hephaestus, who was the god who made things out of metal for the other gods and goddesses at his forge, so Hephaestus had to go along to make shackles of bronze to hold Prometheus tightly against the rocks.

After traveling many miles, at last they came at last to a high and lonely cliff. Hephaestus began working while Might and Violence watched to make sure Prometheus didn’t get away.

“I don’t have the heart to bind another god in this desolate place,” said Hephaestus to Prometheus, as he hammered bronze nails into the cliff face. “Yet I have to do it because it’s dangerous to ignore the commands of Zeus. Prometheus, I don’t want to do this to you. The sun will scorch you during the day, and the cold will freeze you at night. This is what has happened because you opposed the will of Zeus. This is what you get for giving fire to the human beings.” Hephaestus paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “Zeus is a new ruler, and new rulers are harsh.”

“Why are you delaying?” said the demon named Might. “Why do you pity this god who has betrayed all other gods and goddesses by giving such power to mortal beings?”

“I pity him because we are friends and relations,” Hephaestus started to say. But Might scared him — and Violence, who never said anything at all, scared him more. Hephaestus began working faster. He quickly bound Prometheus’s wrists and ankles with bronze shackles, and bound his body with a strong bronze chain that he nailed to the cliff. Soon Prometheus could not move at all.

“Let me see you hammer with your full force,” said Might. “The power of Zeus is great, and the anger of of Zeus is severe, so you better do a good job.”

“I’m doing what I have to do,” said Hephaestus. “There’s no need to tell me what to do.”

“Oh, I’ll tell you what to do,” said Might, mockingly. “Now get his legs secure.”

“Your words are as ugly as your looks,” muttered Hephaestus under his breath.

“You can soft-hearted if you want,” said Might, sounding dangerous, “but don’t cross me.”

Hephaestus gave one last blow with his hammer. “There, it’s done,” he said. “Now let’s go.” He left, and Violence followed him.

Might stayed behind for a moment. “That’s what you get for insulting the gods and goddesses by giving fire to beings who live for such a short time,” he said to Prometheus. “And are the mortals able to help you now? Your name means ‘Far-seeing,’ but it doesn’t look to me like you could see very far at all.” With that, he turned and left Prometheus alone, bound to the face of the desolate cliff.

When they all had gone, Prometheus groaned in misery. He did have the power of foresight, the ability to see ahead into the future. He had known that he would be chained on that cliff for what he had done, chained for many long years, wracked by pain, burned by the sun, frozen with the cold. He had stolen the fire anyway. Now here he was, groaning in pain, punished by Zeus for helping the human beings.

At last he stopped. “Why am I groaning?” he said to himself. “I foresaw this, and I must bear this punishment as well as I can. Yes, I gave the gift of fire to mortals. Yes, I took a small coal from the forge of Hephaestus, and hid it in a stalk of fennel so I could smuggle it down to the human beings. Giving that fire to mortals was the right thing to do. Fire has helped them learn new arts and sciences; fire has helped them become far more powerful. Zeus is afraid of human beings, afraid they will rival the gods and goddesses with their new knowledge. That is why I am bound here, riveted in bronze fetters beneath the wide sky. I did the right thing, and I’m not afraid to be punished for it.”

The immortal daughters of the god Oceanus flew to Scythia to talk with Prometheus and comfort him. Prometheus poured out his troubles to them, complaining about his fate, while they listened sympathetically. Then Oceanus himself, god of the ocean stream, came too, flying there on his winged horse.

Oceanus asked if there was anything he could do for Prometheus.

“What can you do except look at my suffering?” said Prometheus bitterly. “I was one of the friends of Zeus, and look at me now. I was one of the ones who helped him overthrow Cronus, helped him become the new ruler of the gods and goddesses. Yet here I am, punished cruelly by the one I helped to win power.”

“I see, Prometheus, and I’m sympathetic to you,” said Oceanus. “I want to give you some advice, because even though you are more clever than I, I am an older god than you. When there’s a new ruler of the gods and goddesses, you have to adapt to their rule. You’re going to have to adapt to the new rule of Zeus. Remember that if Zeus hears your bitter angry words, he can make things even worse for you. So take my advice and speak calmly. Our new ruler is a harsh god, and he doesn’t have to listen to anyone’s advice. Now if you will speak calmly, I will go and see if I can get Zeus to free you.”

“No, don’t go to Zeus,” said Prometheus. “Thank you for your loyalty, but you shouldn’t do that. You’ll just get in trouble, too. Go back home. Don’t let him become angry with you.”

Oceanus tried to argue with him, but Prometheus insisted that Oceanus should not go to Zeus. At last, Oceanus leapt back on his winged horse and flew away to his home.

The daughters of Oceanus burst into tears. Prometheus had dared to help human beings by stealing fire for them. Because of that — because he had dared to rebel against the will of Zeus — he was sentenced to be chained to this desolate rocky cliff forever. No one could help him.

But was there no one who could help him? Would he have to stay there forever? Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of our story … same bat time, same bat channel….


How to pronounce the Greek names:

Prometheus [pro mee’ the us]
Zeus [zoos]
Hephaestus [heh fay’ stuss]
Oceanus [oh keh ah’ nuss]
Cronus [kro’ nus]

Source: This version of the story of Prometheus comes from the play Prometheus Bound by the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus. I used two translations of Aeschylus’s play, by David Grene (University of Chicago Press, 1942); and by Herbert Weir Smyth (Loeb Classical Library, Harvard Universrity Press, 1926). I also referred to the exegesis offered by William R. Jones in his essay “Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows” (The Christian Century magazine, May 21, 1975).

5 thoughts on “The punishment of Prometheus

  1. Jean

    Ah ha! So Robin appears with a light saber to slice through the bonds Hephaestus made, and Prometheus goes free, and all three of them escape via nuclear helicopter to Hollywood (where those Oceanus girls are waiting with MaiTais) then, after some guest appearances on Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Oprah and Ellen, they sign a TV deal for a pilot for a reality show: Gods Unbound! and it goes for at LEAST six seasons and wins a passel of Emmys.*


    *(Prometheus told me this would happen, I swear he did)

  2. Erp

    Will we get Shelley also or Byron?

    Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
    To render with thy precepts less
    The sum of human wretchedness,
    And strengthen Man with his own mind;
    But baffled as thou wert from high,
    Still in thy patient energy,
    In the endurance, and repulse
    Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
    Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
    A mighty lesson we inherit:

    (Hope this comes out properly formatted)

  3. Dan

    Erp @ 2 — Instead of Byron or Shelley, how about Jean’s interpretation at comment 1?

    No? No Mai Tais? Oh well….

    Seriously, though, I was thinking of sharing with the children an excerpt from Henry Thoreau’s translation of Prometheus Bound, which is a little awkward but not bad.

  4. Erp

    I’m a bit of a teetotaler (not completely but no on the Mai Tais).

    What about Wonder Woman instead of Robin (or Heracles).

    More seriously art work for the kids to look at. Eagle eating liver might appeal to some.

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