Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How Prometheus brought fire, and his terrible punishment

Here's another in my series of stories for children.  This story has several parallels with Adam and Eve : through a small transgression, mankind acquires knowledge, involving loss of innocence. The new knowledge brings burdens as well as benefits, and moreover incurs the jealousy of a god, who metes out a disproportionate punishment.
The way I've told the story of Prometheus, the effect on mankind, loss of innocence etc, is dealt with only obliquely.  Sometime I'll check out a few versions of the story and consider expanding this aspect a bit. 
How Prometheus brought fire, and his terrible punishment
How are people different from the beasts?  This sounds like a simple question, but actually the simplest questions are sometimes the hardest. Some scientists say that the answer is that we have fire.  Fire enables us to cook, and cooking enables us to spend less time chewing our food, and more time growing our brains, which make us clever. 
But how did we get fire in the first place?  The ancient Greeks used to tell the story of Prometheus. Prometheus was a junior god, and he desperately wanted to get back at the chief god whose name was Zeus. I forget exactly why he wanted to get back at Zeus; but he certainly succeeded beyond his wildest dream. 
He did this by bringing the humans fire.
Up till that time, only the gods had fire.  Prometheus stole some of the gods’ fire and brought it down to Earth.  At first none of the gods noticed that the fire had been stolen. That’s the funny thing about stealing fire. You can take fire from a fire, and the fire is still there.  But one day the god Mercury, who was always flying around bringing messages, flew down to Earth and back up to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, and said: Did any of you know that the humans have fire?
No, none of the gods knew this.
Yes, said Mercury, they’re cooking, and they’re smelting metals, and making ploughs and knives and things.
Does Zeus know about this, they all wondered?  Who would tell him?  None of them dared, they knew how angry he would be. Prometheus was present while this conversation took place but said nothing. He just stared into the distance and whistled softy to himself hoping that he looked nonchalant. All right, all right, said Mercury who was getting tired of the other gods’ subservient attitude, I'm not scared of Zeus, I'll tell him.
And he did. The humans have fire, he told Zeus. They’re cooking, and they’re smelting metal, and making ploughs and knives and other things.
And Zeus was cross. Very cross.  He threw thunderbolts all over the place.  The people down on Earth got an awful fright. Never had such thunderstorms been seen or heard as long as anyone could remember. 
Mercury was a messenger, and the first skill a messenger must learn is tact. Mercury was too tactful to tell Zeus all the things the humans were doing with fire. He could have mentioned the humans were making swords, which they were stabbing each other with.  He might also have mentioned firebrands which the humans were using to burn each other’s houses.  If Zeus had heard all this, who knows what he would have done.
Somehow Zeus discovered that it was Prometheus who had stolen the fire and given it to humans.  I don’t know how he found out.  Perhaps Prometheus confessed, or perhaps someone had seen him stealing the fire. There again, maybe Zeus was all-knowing.
Prometheus’s punishment was severe and gruesome.  Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver.  All night the eagle gnawed at Prometheus’s liver and in the morning flew away. But the worst of it was, that the next day Prometheus’s liver grew back again. And the next night the eagle came back and gnawed it again. And so it went on, night after night. Prometheus’s punishment was never ending.  
Why, we may ask, was Zeus so annoyed at what Prometheus had done? Why the need to inflict this terrible punishment?  So humans had fire – was this really such a big deal? 
It’s this humans and gods thing. Is there a difference; and if so what is it?  Zeus feared that once humans had fire, nothing would prevent them becoming like gods themselves.  He became jealous, and perhaps he was right to be jealous. The longer you think about it, the more things we can do with fire. Good things, and bad things.  Fire makes us human. And maybe like gods.  We have Prometheus to thank; and Prometheus is in everlasting torment for it.


  1. I liked that up until the point where he had his internal organs eaten by an eagle while he was alive and chained up. Can we not change that a little so that the eagle came down and gave him a Chinese burn or some other milder form of punishment that is less likely to keep children awake?

  2. Nope! Kids need to be scared (within a safe environment of course). So says Charlie Higson anyway who has written a children's horror book, The Enemy. You can hear him reading from it and defending the idea of scaring children on the Guardian books website:-