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The Torture of Prometheus, painting by Salvator Rosa (1646–1648).

Prometheus (GreekΠρομηθεύς; acc. Latin and German Prométheus, Gen. Προμηθέως Promēthéōs "the forward-thinking one", from the Greek prefix πρό- pro- "before, ahead, forward" and μέδομαι medomai "to think, to ponder", but also from μελέτη melete "exercise, practice") is in Greek mythology a son of Iapetus and brother of Epimetheus, as well as friend and cultural founder of mankind. He is often referred to as the creator of humans and animals, for example in Plato and Ovid[1]. He, the bringer of fire and teacher of mankind, has much in common with Hephaestus, but also with Apollo and Athena. His epithets include Pyrphoros ("fire-bringer"), Iapetionides ("son of Iapetos") and Desmotes ("bound one").

In Athens there was an altar dedicated to him, which was decorated with torches during the festivities held in his honour, the Promethea. In addition, there was another sanctuary in Athens where he and the god Hephaistos were worshipped together.

The figure of Prometheus has been received in many ways in cultural history, for example by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The radioactive chemical element promethium with the atomic number 61, discovered in 1945 as a fission product of uranium, was named after him and was intended as a warning to mankind, which at that time began the nuclear arms race.


In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan and the son of Iapetus and Asia, Clymene (according to Hesiod) or Gaia.

In the lineage according to Hesiod he is further the brother of Atlas, Menoitios and Epimetheus ("the after-thinking one", cf. the Theogony, verses 507 to 616). A son of Prometheus with Pronoia ("provision") is Deucalion.

Prometheus is of divine but titanic origin, although according to Aeschylus he helps the Olympians to victory in the Titanomachy and nevertheless regards the oligarchy established by Zeus as arrogant tyranny. Having learned from Themis (whom Aeschylus equates with Gaia) the future and fate of all things, he prophesies their downfall. However, this downfall in the battle of the giants is hindered by Heracles.

The Prometheus Saga

Prometheus wanted to awaken the people on Earth. So he went to the Earth and formed them out of clay. Since they were still lifeless, he gave them one characteristic each from different animals (e.g. cleverness from the dog, diligence from the horse, etc.). Athena, his friend among the gods, gave them intellect and reason. Humans lived then, and Prometheus was their teacher.

The gods became aware of the humans and demanded sacrifices and worship from them. Then Prometheus fell to a trick in their favour: he slaughtered a bull in the name of the people and made two piles from it, a larger one from the bones and a smaller one from the flesh. Then he wrapped them both in bull skin to hide the contents. Finally, he asked Zeus to choose one of the piles. Zeus chose the larger one, although as the father of the gods he naturally saw through the deception, but apparently wanted to bring ruin to the people (Hesiod, Theogony, v. 550-552). Since then, only the bones and inedible parts of animal sacrifices have been burned, but the meat has been diverted for human consumption. When the deception became obvious, Zeus, full of anger, told Prometheus that he would have to pay for it.

As a first punishment, Zeus denied fire to mortals. To regain fire for mankind, Prometheus lifted a long stalk of giant fennel into the sky to ignite it on the passing sparking sun chariot of Helios. With this blazing torch he hurried back to Earth and set fire to a pile of wood.

When Zeus saw the robbery and realised that he could no longer take the fire away from mankind, he sought revenge: he ordered his son, the god of blacksmithing Hephaestus, to form the mirage of a beautiful virgin. Hephaestus formed her out of clay, Athena adorned her with a garment of flowers, Hermes gave her an enchanting language, Aphrodite bestowed on her a blissful charm. She was called Pandora (GreekΠανδώρα, "all-giver", from Old Greek pan for "all, total", and doron for "gift, present"; traditionally, however, translated as the "all-gifted one"). Zeus, however, handed her a box in which each of the divinities had locked up an ominous gift. Zeus descended to Earth with Pandora and presented it as a gift to Prometheus' brother Epimetheus, who, against Prometheus' earlier warning, accepted it. Then Pandora lifted the lid and all the evils floated out, and only hope remained in the box as she quickly closed it again. Since that hour, feverish sickness, suffering and sudden death have raced across the globe by day and night.

Not only the people were to be punished, but also Prometheus himself. Zeus had him captured and dragged to the worst wasteland of the Caucasus and had Hephaestus forge a heavy chain to bind him to a rock (e.g. in the tragedy of Aeschylus).

Above a abyss, without food, drink or sleep, Prometheus had to endure there, and every day the eagle Ethon came and ate from his liver, which to his torment was always renewed, since he was an immortal. In vain Prometheus pleaded for mercy. He made the wind and clouds, the Sun and the rivers witnesses to his torment. But Zeus remained implacable. And so his torment was to last for many centuries until the hero Heracles, filled with compassion, killed the eagle with an arrow shot and, with the help of the centaur Chiron, redeemed Prometheus by the latter sacrificing his immortal life for him. But even then he had to wear a ring with a stone from the Caucasus from then on, so that Zeus could boast that he was still tied to it.

The spiritual background of the legend as interpreted by Rudolf Steiner

„Prometheus and Epimetheus are sons of the Titan Japetos. The Titans are children of the oldest generation of gods, of Uranos (heaven) and Gaia (earth). Kronos, the youngest of the Titans, pushed his father from the throne and usurped world domination. In return, he and the other Titans were overpowered by his son Zeus. And Zeus became the supreme of the gods. Prometheus stood on Zeus' side in the battle of the Titans. On his advice, Zeus banished the Titans to the underworld. But the attitude of the Titans lived on in Prometheus. He was only half a friend of Zeus. When Zeus wanted to destroy the people because of their wantonness, Prometheus took care of them and taught them the art of numbers and writing and other things that lead to culture, especially the use of fire. Zeus was angry with Prometheus for this. Hephaestus, the son of Zeus, had to form an image of a woman of great beauty, whom the gods adorned with all possible gifts. Pandora was the woman's name: the all-gifted one. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, brought her to Epimetheus, Prometheus' brother. She brought him a small box as a gift from the gods. Epimetheus accepted the gift, even though Prometheus had advised him never to accept a gift from the gods. When the box was opened, all kinds of human plagues flew out. Only hope remained inside, and that was because Pandora quickly closed the lid. Hope therefore remained as a dubious gift from the gods. - Prometheus was forged on a rock in the Caucasus at Zeus' command because of his relationship with man. An eagle constantly feeds on his liver, which keeps replacing itself. Prometheus must spend his days in agonising solitude until one of the gods voluntarily sacrifices himself, i.e. consecrates himself to death. The tortured man endures his suffering as a steadfast tolerant. He was told that Zeus would be dethroned by the son of a mortal if he did not marry this mortal. It was important to Zeus to know this secret; he sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to Prometheus to find out about it. Prometheus refused to give any information. - The saga of Heracles is linked to the saga of Prometheus. Heracles also came to the Caucasus on his wanderings. He killed the eagle that devoured Prometheus' liver. The centaur Chiron, who, although suffering from an incurable wound, cannot die, sacrifices himself for Prometheus. The latter is then reconciled with the gods.

The Titans are the power of the will that emerges as nature (Kronos) from the original world spirit (Uranos). In this context, one should not think merely of will forces in abstract form, but of real will beings. Prometheus belongs to these. This characterises his nature. But he is not entirely titanic. In a certain sense, he is like Zeus, the spirit who takes over the world after the unrestrained force of nature (Kronos) has been subdued. Prometheus is therefore the representative of those worlds that have given man the will, the forward thrust that is half natural and half spiritual power. The will points to good on the one hand, to evil on the other. Depending on whether it tends towards the spiritual or the transient, its fate is shaped. This fate is the fate of man himself. Man is forged on the ephemeral. The eagle gnaws at him. He must endure. He can only reach the highest if he seeks his destiny in solitude. He has a secret. It consists in the fact that the divine (Zeus) must marry a mortal, the human consciousness itself, bound to the physical body, in order to give birth to a son, the human wisdom (the Logos) that redeems God.

This makes the consciousness immortal. He must not betray this secret until a myst (Heracles) approaches him and removes the violence that continually threatens him with death. A being, half animal, half man, a centaur, must sacrifice himself to redeem man. The centaur is man himself, the half-animal, half-spiritual man. He must die so that the purely spiritual man may be redeemed. What Prometheus, the human will, spurns, Epimetheus, the intellect, takes away. But the gifts offered to Epimetheus are only sufferings and plagues. For the intellect clings to the void, the transient. And only one thing remains - the hope that one day the eternal will also be born out of the transient.“ (Lit.:GA 8, p. 87ff)

In the Prometheus legend the spiritual task of the whole post-Atlantean time in which we are living at present is characterised:

„In this legend lies the whole history of the fifth root race, and there is real mystery truth enclosed in it. This legend was really told in Greece. But it was also portrayed in the Mysteries, so that the Mystery student really saw the destiny of Prometheus before him. And in this he was to see the past and future of the whole fifth root race. You can only attain the understanding of this if you take one thing into account.“ (Lit.:GA 92, p. 61f)

The forces of the Old Saturnian existence are still most strongly anchored in the liver, but in future they must be overcome by the respiratory forces:

„It has been made clear to you in the evolution of man in the evolution of Saturn that through the forces of Saturn the senses came into being in their first disposition. Thus Saturn still influences man today, and among the human organs, the bodily-internal organs, it is the liver on which Saturn's forces have a strong and intensive influence. Therefore man, because he is on the way to develop more and more beyond everything Saturnian, must grow beyond the forces which are anchored in his liver. In the liver are indeed anchored those forces of man over which man must grow more and more, but which were necessary for man to arrive at his present form and shape. And the liver is that organ which contains the forces which man must overcome the most. You can verify this in a certain way by an outer revelation, by an outer expression. You can convince yourself, for example, that in the time in which man first of all builds up his body, that is, in the time before his birth and immediately after his birth, the liver has the greatest expansion in relation to the rest of the body. Then it becomes smaller and smaller in relation to the rest of the body. If you wanted to give the ratio of the size of the liver to the rest of the human body immediately at birth, you could say that it is like one to eighteen, while later the liver decreases so far that it relates to the rest of the body like one to thirty-six. In proportion, it declines to half, and man, through his purely natural development, already overcomes the forces which are anchored in the liver.

By acquiring the entitlement on Earth to develop to ever higher spirituality, man has thereby acquired the ability to overcome the forces of the liver as an outer physical expression. In a certain sense, the opposite organ to the liver is the lung, that organ which does not stuff everything egoistic into the human being - for that is what the liver does - but which opens the human being freely to the outside world, where he is in continual communication with the outside world through the air which he takes in and gives out again. Combustion takes place in the lungs. The reddish-blue, carbon-rich blood enters the lungs and is transformed into red, viable blood by combining with the oxygen. Just as substances combine with oxygen in a burning flame, a combustion process also takes place in the lungs. Breathing is in a certain way a process of combustion, and with this breathing and burning process man is given the qualification for ever higher and higher development. Man has been built up by those forces which reach their final conclusion in the liver. Those forces which he receives from the air like a fire will snatch him away from these forces which bind him to the earth. The fire which man receives from the air, which expresses itself in his breathing, is that which leads him up to ever higher and higher spheres.

It is always the myth, the legend, which is deeper, wiser than our apparently so advanced science. The trait from human life that has just been mentioned is expressed in a magnificent way in the myth of Prometheus. When it is said that Prometheus brought fire from heaven to man, it is expressed that Prometheus is involved in that process which expresses itself in breathing and which leads man ever higher. But at the same time it is stated in a wonderful way: Because Prometheus rises above the forces which bind men to the earthly, and thereby sets himself in opposition to earthly power, and because he is the one who first gave men the possibility of having this power of fire, therefore he must suffer for it. Suffering is wonderfully portrayed as the fact underlying this myth: a vulture eats at the liver of the bound Prometheus! How could it be more beautifully and wisely portrayed that the forces which flow into us with the breathing process gnaw at the liver, and that he who performs what will be performed by humanity in a distant future stands there like one crucified, like that which descends, which comes out of the air, eats at the liver!“ (Lit.:GA 102, p. 27ff)

Prometheus and Lucifer

„If man had come to incarnation earlier - this is what the myth of the Greeks says - then what Zeus wanted would have happened when men were still in "paradise": He wanted to make them happy, but as unconscious beings. The clear consciousness would then have lain solely with the gods and man would have remained without the feeling of freedom. The rebellion of the Lucifer spirit, the deva spirit in humanity, which wanted to descend in order to develop itself out of freedom, is symbolised in the legend of Prometheus. But he must pay for his endeavour by the fact that an eagle - as a symbol of desire - is constantly gnawing at his liver and thereby causing him the most terrible pain. Man has therefore descended lower and must now achieve what he would have achieved through magical arts and powers with that which flows to him automatically from the clear consciousness of freedom. But because he has descended lower, he must also endure pain and torment. The Bible also indicates this with the words: In pain you shall bring forth children, in the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread - and so on. This means nothing other than: man must bring himself up again with the help of culture.

Greek mythology symbolised in Prometheus the representative of mankind striving in freedom through struggles towards culture. In him it represented the suffering human being and at the same time the liberator. The one who brings about Prometheus' liberation is Heracles, of whom we are told that he allowed himself to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. He who descended into the underworld was an initiate, for descent into the underworld is the technical expression for initiation. This journey to the underworld is told us by Heracles, Odysseus and by all those in whom we have to do with initiates who now want to lead men within the present development to the source of original wisdom, to spiritual life.“ (Lit.:GA 93, p. 27f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
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Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1, 78ff.