Prometheus punished. On the right, Prometheus 
is tied to a column while Zeus' eagle eats his 
liver. On the left, Prometheus' brother Atlas holds 
up the sky. Laconian cup, c. 555 BC. 
Etruscan museum, the Vatican. For a larger 
(152 K) version, click on the image above.

Prometheus, Pandora, and the Five Ages
(divisions between gods and men, sacrifice, decline)
The Five Ages of Man

Hesiod interrupts his account of the rise of Zeus to give us an example of Zeus' inescapable power. First, he tells how Zeus punished the three of the sons of Iapetos, Atlas, Menoitios, and Prometheus. Atlas is condemned to hold up the sky and the end of the earth, while "ultraglorious" Menoitios is "blasted into Erebos" (75) for some unspecified crime. It must have been some affront to Zeus, though, for words and outrageous translate the Greek word hubris, which means "arrogance." Hesiod then tells how Prometheus, whose name means "Forethought," was punished for a) tricking Zeus at the sacrifice at Mekone, and b) stealing fire back after Zeus had taken it away from men. 

Hesiod's narrative here may be a bit puzzling, because he begins at the end of the story and then circles back to the beginning. (Why do you think he does this?) Here's a chart that straightens the story out:
Hesiod's order
Order of Plot-Events
1. Prometheus punished (lines 523-536). 
2. Sacrifice trick 
3. Zeus hides "power of fire" from men. 
4. Prometheus steals fire back. 
5. Zeus has Pandora made, "an evil to balance the good" (l. 587) of fire. 
6. Discussion of women, marriage. 
7. Prometheus punished (l. 617-620). 
1. Sacrifice trick 
2. Zeus hides "power of fire" from men. 
3. Prometheus steals fire back. 
4. Zeus has Pandora made, "an evil to balance the good" (l. 587) of fire. 
5. Prometheus punished. 

Hesiod begins the sacrifice story by noting that Prometheus matched wits with Zeus "when the gods and mortal men were negotiating / At Mekone" (76, lines 537-8). There are quite a few translations for this phrase. One says that gods and men "were coming to a settlement," while another says that they "took up their separate positions." Others say they "parted" or "fell to disputing." It is clear that the sacrifice trick marks a change in the relations between gods and men. Before, gods used to dine with men, but now, men will dine alone and the gods will accept the smoke of their sacrifices. It also seems that in the original story, Zeus was really tricked, for if he wasn't really deceived, then why did he get so angry when he picked up the bones and fat (l. 552-556)? Also, in the Works and Days, Hesiod definitely states that "Prometheus / Tricked [Zeus]" (25, lines 66-7).

Hesiod shows that he favors Zeus in another way when he casts Prometheus as the bad guy. In fact, Prometheus helps mankind by bringing them fire. Hesiod also leaves out the story of how Prometheus created men: a later writer called Apollodorus says that he "molded men out of water and earth" (Apollodorus 1.7.1). Prometheus' role as creator of men might help explain why he wants to trick Zeus and help men.

Notes and Questions: Prometheus and Pandora, First Version (Theogony 75-78)

(75) Menoitios = "awaiting mortal doom"; Prometheus = "Forethought"; Epimetheus = "Afterthought."
(76, lines 540-544). Lombardo's translation is confusing. Other translators say that Prometheus put the good meat under the ox-hide and covered that with the stomach and intestines. Then he made another pile out of bones and covered those with some nice-looking fat. Zeus chose the pile covered in fat, thinking the good meat was underneath.
(76, line 536) mighty Kronion = Zeus.
(77) In a hollow fennel-stalk --The giant (5 feet) fennel has a slow-burning pith and hard rind, making it ideal for carrying fire.
The famous Lame God is Hephaistos, the lame blacksmith god.

1. Should Prometheus be seen as an arrogant deceiver of Zeus (as Hesiod sees him) or as a champion of mankind's rights, privileges, and place in the scheme of things? Why do you think Prometheus (a god) takes man's side in this negotiation? In what ways is Prometheus an archetypal trickster? (See "Tricksters.")

2. What deceptive gift does Prometheus offer? What deceptive gift does Zeus offer?

3. Do you agree with Hesiod that his story explains why men burn "white bones to the immortals" (lines 558-59)? Why or why not?

4. What do men need fire for? Do you think the gods need fire? Who tends the fire in men's homes? What could fire symbolize? (For one answer, see p. 45 line 779.)

5. Why do you suppose Zeus punishes men for Prometheus' deed?

6. Why does Hesiod think of women (Pandora) as a "lovely evil," "sheer deception," and "a great infestation"? (What examples does he give of women's evil?) (For another reference to drones, this time males, see p. 32, lines 345-350.)

7. Why do you think women should be exchanged for fire?

8. At the end of the story, what do men have and what do gods have? Who do you think gets the better deal? In what ways can you relate Hesiod's views of marriage (p. 45, p. 78) to the outcome(s) of the Prometheus-Pandora story?

9. Name some differences between men and gods that are illustrated by this story. (For help with your answer, read "Gods and Men in Greek Religion" in the packet.)

Two Strifes, Prometheus and Pandora, Second Version (Works and Days 23-29)

Hesiod's other version of the Prometheus Pandora story is not told as an example of Zeus' power, but as an example of why people need to work for a living. It's one of those how-we-got-into-this-mess stories. The idea of work brings to the forefront a theme just touched on in the first version of the story: food. (See pp. 77-78, lines 595-603.) The word "living" in the phrase "the gods never have let on / How to make a living" (24, l. 59) translates the Greek word bios, or "life" (root for the first syllable in the English word "biology"). Another translation of this phrase reads: "For the gods keep men's food concealed." We seem to have a new consequence of Zeus' and Prometheus' tit-for-tat hiding and theft of fire: getting enough food to eat has become a difficult job for humans.

The myth of Pandora, too, may have been altered by Hesiod. Later vase-paintings show her in typical Earth-goddess pose, rising from the earth, while Hermes, Zeus, and Epimetheus look on. (See illustration.) On another vase, she is called Anesidora, "'the sender up of gifts.' true epithet of the Earth-Mother" (Harrison 51). In addition, the jar that Pandora opens is the pithos, or storage jar usually used by Minoans and Greeks to hold the food (bios) from the earth (wine, olives, grain) and not evils and diseases. What motives do you think Hesiod might have had for altering the Pandora story and turning her into a false temptress?

Notes and Questions on Works and Days (23-29)

(24, line 55) Bribe-eating lords = petty rulers of small county-sized areas.
(25, lines 68, 72) son of Iapetos, Iapetos' boy = Prometheus.
(25, lines 89, 97) old Gimpy = Hephaistos; quicksilver messenger = Hermes.
(26, line 101) Pandora = "all gift[s]." See the note on p. 52.

1. According to Hesiod, why is strife sometimes a good thing?

2. How are the "bribe-eating lords" similar to women? (See Theogony pp. 77-78.)

3. Why should Perses work for a living, according to Hesiod?

4. Why do you suppose Zeus would want to conceal food or livelihood from men?

5. What else does Zeus conceal or hide? What does he give while still concealing something? (Compare to Prometheus.)

6. Name the characters in this story who are or could be described as thieves.

7. Why do you suppose that labor, disease, and death should be the result of women?

8. Pandora's name could also mean "all gifts." How could she be seen as bringing gifts to mankind? Compare women to the givers and takers described on p. 34, lines 395-415. (See Harrison handout.)

9. Why does Hope remain in the jar? Is that good or bad? (Remember that the Greeks stored their bios [food--grains, olives, wine, etc.] in large jars just like the one Pandora opened.)

10. How is Pandora like the deceptive sacrifice to Zeus? How is she like the fire? (See lines 777-780.) In what ways can you relate her to the bios?

11. What similarities and differences do you see between the Prometheus-Pandora story and the Adam and Eve story? (List them in parallel columns.)

The Five Ages of Man (Works and Days 26-29)

1. In what ways are the men of the gold and silver ages like or unlike Hesiod's ""bribe-eating lords"?

2. Why do you think the golden race had to go under?

3. Both the Bronze race and the age of heroes are warlike. Why do do you think Hesiod prefers the heroic age? (Note their different afterlives.)

4. Most modern historians would see the movement from bronze tools to iron ones as a technological advance. Similarly, the domestication of fire is considered an advance. Why do you suppose Hesiod doesn't see these changes as advances?

5. If you were Perses, would the story of the five ages help you "listen to Justice" and "don't cultivate Violence [hubris]" (30)? Why or why not?

6. Taken together, what do you think the sequence of myths in Hesiod--Prometheus, sacrifice, theft of fire, creation of woman, Prometheus' punishment, and the five ages of man--say about the relations between men and gods? What do you think is Hesiod's moral?

7. One scholar of myth, G. S. Kirk, maintains that "the entire sequence of myths in Hesiod--Prometheus, the sacrifice, the theft of fire, the creation of women, the punishment of Prometheus, the five races of men--might be said to leave one with the feeling that things are not quite so unfair as they were, that evil is more equable than it seemed, that old age and disease are in some ways our own fault, even that things might improve if only we learned to behave better" (143). How do you think Kirk arrived at this conclusion? Do you agree or disagree with his views? Why or why not?

Works Cited

Back to ENG 204 World Mythology Course Index