Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Beginnings — Prometheus and Man, and The Five Ages of Man and the Flood
The clever Titan Prometheus and his stupid brother Epimetheus were spared imprisonment in Tartarus because they had kept their neutrality in the war between the Olympians and the Titans. According to one tradition Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into the clay figure. Once man was created, however, Prometheus allowed his scatterbrained brother, Epimetheus, to dispense various qualities to the animals and man. So Epimetheus began by giving the best traits to the animals — swiftness, courage, cunning, stealth, and the like — and he wound up with nothing to give to man. So Prometheus took the matter in hand and gave man an upright posture like the gods. And this gift enabled him to survive.
Prometheus had little love for the Olympians, who had banished his fellow Titans to the depths of Tartarus. His primary affection was for man. Now man had to make animal sacrifices to the gods, but a certain portion of the animal was to be given to the gods and a certain portion to man. Zeus had to decide. So Prometheus made two piles. He wrapped the bones in juicy fat and he hid the meat under the ugly hide. Zeus chose the bones wrapped in fat, much to his anger.
In retaliation Zeus deprived man of fire. But Prometheus was not to be stopped. He went up to heaven and lighted his torch at the sun and carried it back to earth. Zeus was livid with rage when he saw that man had fire. He ordered that Hephaestus create a mortal of stunning beauty, and when Hephaestus had done so the gods gave this new creature many gifts. But Hermes gave it a deceptive heart and a lying tongue. This was the first woman, Pandora, and a worse calamity never befell man.
Prometheus had warned his brother Epimetheus about accepting gifts from Zeus. Yet when Epimetheus saw this radiant creature Pandora he could not resist her. She had brought with her a jar that she was forbidden to open. But being a woman, her curiosity won out. As she opened the lid a multitude of evils flew out and scattered over the world to afflict man. Still, there remained in the jar one consolation for man — Hope. With all the misery Pandora had unleashed hope was the only thing that could keep mankind going.
For Prometheus, Zeus reserved a special punishment. In addition to anger at the sacrifice trick and the theft of fire, Zeus knew that Prometheus held the secret of the god who would finally dethrone him. In defiance Prometheus would not tell the secret. Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucasus, and every day he sent an eagle to peck out the Titan's liver, which grew back again every night. This agony was drawn out for ages. There were two conditions on which he could be released from the rock: first, that an immortal must suffer death for Prometheus, and, second, that a mortal must slay the eagle and unchain him. And in time the Centaur Chiron did agree to die for him, while Heracles killed the eagle and unbound him.
According to another story the gods created man, and man existed on earth while the Titan Cronus ruled. The first race of men lived in complete happiness. During that Golden Age men were free from pain, toil, and old age. Dying was as easy as falling asleep. They enjoyed the fruits of the earth in plenty. And once this race had died out these mortals remained as spirits to protect men from evil.
Then the gods created the men of the Silver Age, who were far inferior. These men remained children for a hundred years under the dominance of their mothers. And when they finally matured they died off shortly because of their foolishness. In this age men had to work, and the year was divided into seasons so that men knew cold and heat. Crime and impiety also had their beginnings in this period, so Zeus put an end to this race.
Next Zeus created the men of the Bronze Age out of ash spears. These men were mighty, tall, and ferocious, a violent race of warriors who worked in metal and produced a few rudiments of civilization. In the end these men destroyed themselves with their warfare.
The next period was the Heroic Age, a time of notable heroes and deeds. Heracles and Jason, Theseus, and the great men of the Trojan War existed then. As a tribute to them Zeus established the Elysian Fields as a resting place for their spirits after death.
Still not discouraged, Zeus created the men of the Iron Age, the worst race ever to appear on earth and one destined to become totally depraved. Hard work, trouble, pain, and weariness were the lot of this group of men, which still exists. At the last the gods will totally abandon this vicious race, leaving it in utter pain.
At one time Zeus was so thoroughly disgusted with man and his impious, evil ways that he decided to annihilate the species with a deluge. Prometheus, who was still at large then, warned his son Deucalion to prepare a chest. When the rains began to fall Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha climbed into the chest, which was loaded with provisions, and they floated on the ocean that drowned the rest of the world. After ten days the flood subsided, and the chest came to rest on Mount Parnassus. When they emerged, Deucalion and Pyrrha offered a sacrifice to Zeus and asked him to restore the human race. The couple also went to Delphi and prayed to the Titaness of Justice, who told them to cast the bones of their mother behind them. At first this command mystified them, but Deucalion had an inspiration. His mother's bones must be the stones that lay upon the earth, for the earth had given birth to mankind. As Deucalion started casting stones behind him they became men, and as Pyrrha cast stones behind her they became women. In this manner the human race was reborn.
Many parts of these legends derive from Hesiod, who wrote of the beginnings of the world. One feature is common to each legend — the idea of mankind's frailty in the face of destruction. Sometimes man brings calamity upon himself by impiety or murderousness, but other times it may be the result of events over which he has no control. Zeus is a vindictive god here who punishes man not merely for man's own misdeeds but also for those of Prometheus.
Prometheus, of course, is a heroic figure as a friend of mankind. He is the stubborn rebel against Zeus's terrible power, and his personal sacrifice on behalf of humanity is much to his credit. Even his trickery in the matter of the sacrifice is seen as admirable. The ancient Greeks admired cunning and trickery. Many of their gods and heroes possess a gift for deception.
While being a libel on women, the story of Pandora reveals a double feeling about females. On the one hand, they are irresistible, and on the other, they are the cause of men's woes. Such a story could only arise in a culture where men were dominant. The traits that are stressed as inherent in women — a treacherous heart and a lying tongue — are the natural weapons of a subjugated sex.
The tale of the five ages of man shows a deep pessimism about man's development. While each generation of gods is an improvement on the last, each new race of man is inferior to the last one. Man degenerates from eon to eon. No story could be more at odds with our almost universal belief in man's evolution from savagery to civilization. Yet be that as it may, the myth reflects the idea of the paradisiacal condition of early man, an idea which is also behind the biblical legend of Eden.
The story of the Flood, too, has its biblical counterpart in the tale of Noah. This myth is very widespread. Versions of it exist throughout the globe. The notion of a flood wiping out almost all of mankind conflicts with the prevalent idea that geological changes take place gradually. Nevertheless, the myth of the Flood reveals a belief in the cataclysmic powers of nature, powers that can destroy man if the gods so choose.