Classics 430: Greek and Roman Mythology

Reading on: The Myth of Prometheus

As told by Protagoras to Socrates in Plato's dialogue Protagoras:

Protagoras 320d-323a

Once upon a time there were gods only, and no mortal creatures. But
when the time came that these also should be created, the gods
fashioned them out of earth and fire and various mixtures of both
elements in the interior of the earth; and when they were about to
bring them into the light of day, they ordered Prometheus and
Epimetheus to equip them, and to distribute to them severally their
proper qualities.

Epimetheus said to Prometheus: "Let me distribute, and do you
inspect." This was agreed, and Epimetheus made the distribution.
There were some to whom he gave strength without swiftness,
while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and
others he left unarmed; and devised for the latter some other means
of preservation, making some large, and having their size as a protection,
and others small, whose nature was to fly in the air or burrow
in the ground; this was to be their way of escape. Thus did he
compensate them with the view of preventing any race from
becoming extinct.

And when he had provided against their destruction by one another,
he contrived also a means of protecting them against the seasons of
heaven; clothing them with close hair and thick skins sufficient to defend
them against the winter cold and able to resist the summer heat, so that
they might have a natural bed of their own when they wanted to
rest; also he furnished them with hoofs and hair and hard and
callous skins under their feet. Then he gave them varieties of
food-herb of the soil to some, to others fruits of trees, and to
others roots, and to some again he gave other animals as food. And
some he made to have few young ones, while those who were their
prey were very prolific; and in this manner the race was preserved.

Thus did Epimetheus, who, not being very wise, forgot that he had
distributed among the brute animals all the qualities which he had
to give-and when he came to man, who was still unprovided, he was
terribly perplexed. Now while he was in this perplexity,
Prometheus came to inspect the distribution, and he found that the
other animals were suitably furnished, but that man alone was
naked and shoeless, and had neither bed nor arms of defence.

The appointed hour was approaching when man in his turn was to go
forth into the light of day; and Prometheus, not knowing how he
could devise his salvation, stole the mechanical arts of Hephaestus
and Athene, and fire with them (they could neither have been
acquired nor used without fire), and gave them to man.

Thus man had the wisdom necessary to the support of life, but political
wisdom he had not; for that was in the keeping of Zeus, and the
power of Prometheus did not extend to entering into the citadel of
heaven, where Zeus dwelt, who moreover had terrible sentinels; but
he did enter by stealth into the common workshop of Athene and
Hephaestus, in which they used to practise their favourite arts, and
carried off Hephaestus' art of working by fire, and also the art of
Athene, and gave them to man. And in this way man was supplied
with the means of life. But Prometheus is said to have been
afterwards prosecuted for theft, owing to the blunder of Epimetheus.

Now man, having a share of the divine attributes, was at first the
only one of the animals who had any gods, because he alone was of
their kindred; and he would raise altars and images of them. He was
not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also
constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew
sustenance from the earth. Thus provided, mankind at first lived
dispersed, and there were no cities.

But the consequence was that they were destroyed by the wild beasts,
for they were utterly weak in comparison of them, and their art was
only sufficient to provide them with the means of life, and did not
enable them to carry on war against the animals: food they had, but
not as yet the art of government, of which the art of war is a part.

After a while the desire of self-preservation gathered them into cities;
but when they were gathered together, having no art of government,
they evilly treated one another, and were again in process of dispersion
and destruction. Zeus feared that the entire race would be
exterminated, and so he sent Hermes to them, bearing reverence and
justice to be the ordering principles of cities and the bonds of
friendship and conciliation.

Hermes asked Zeus how he should impart justice and reverence
among men:-Should he distribute them as the arts are distributed;
that is to say, to a favoured few only, one skilled individual having
enough of medicine or of any other art for many unskilled ones?

"Shall this be the manner in which I am to distribute justice and
reverence among men, or shall I give them to all?"

"To all," said Zeus; "I should like them all to have a share; for
cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the
arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part
in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of
the state."

And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in
general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other
mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and
when any one else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be
not of the favoured few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when
they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only
by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man
who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that
every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states
could not exist if this were otherwise. I have explained to you,
Socrates, the reason of this phenomenon.