Prometheus and His Brothers

by Charlotte Dovey

Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Prometheus Bound”

Knowledge and Ignorance, Toil and Rest:  How these are related

Now we all know that the Titan Prometheus forged man from dust and gave him knowledge.  What we tend to overlook is that Prometheus had three brothers:  Epimetheus, aptly named, meaning after-thought; Atlas, who as we all know supported the great pillars that hold up the heavens so they do not collapse on the Earth and that divide night and day; and Menoetius, who was condemned to the underworld because he sided with the Titans against Zeus.  While it may seem that these four brothers, Epimetheus, Prometheus, Atlas, and Menoetius have little in common, they are not brothers by accident, though at first glance their mythic meanings (or metaphors) are not obviously related.

All of these brothers sprang from Iapetus, a god of craftsmanship and mortality, and each of them in his own way is involved in craft and in the struggle between life and death. Iapetus himself was the product of Ocean and Tethys, who also produced the great rivers.  Iapetus was related to water, itself one of the great transformative powers, and this power may be one reason that the great Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales claimed that the world was made of water.  With its continuous ebbing and flowing, it is never the same twice, though its basic characteristics are constant.  It sometimes seems at rest to human eyes, but it never remains that way; its change is a constant.

While Prometheus forged man from dust, Epimetheus was then supposed to endow humans with valuable gifts, along with the animals.  Unfortunately, he embodies afterthought (not forethought, like Prometheus) so he distributed goods to the animals first and had nothing for humans.  Nevertheless, Epimetheus still managed to provide further things to mankind, although inadvertently, because he never planned.  The gods gave him Pandora, who then heedlessly unleashed untold evils onto mankind. 

Pandora also unleashed hope.  While many people (including Edith Hamilton, who wrote a seminal book on Greek myths that many children, myself included, read in grade school) interpret this as a good thing — as she puts it, hope is “mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune” (Hamilton 1942, 89) — hope is also a type of folly.  Hope without reason is foolishness, just as Epimetheus was foolish.  People can cling onto hope that results in suffering innumerable ills; a hope for cure, despite profound suffering; a hope that someone who beats them will change; a hope that rains will come, causing them to refuse to change their plans for a crop.  The film Jean de Florette embodies this idea beautifully, though it also emphasized the great injustice in that Jean de Florette would have had water, as he thought, had his enemies not tricked him.  Yet, he was foolish enough to believe the best in others, so despite the injustice and evil performed, Jean de Florette was wrong in being too innocent, a great flaw.  As such, his lack of knowledge produced the toil that killed him — was his death just, then?  Probably not, though the ancients may have suspected as much.  Nevertheless, knowledge also produces toil, as we shall see…    

Prometheus compensated for his brother’s lack of forethought regarding mankind by stealing fire (light, knowledge, and metalwork that requires both fire with its light and knowledge) from the gods to give to man (along with securing for man the best part of any meat and leaving the scraps for sacrifices to the god).  As we all know, Zeus, whom Prometheus helped put into power by overturning his fellow Titans, punished him for this, for knowledge is power and those in power maintain it by preventing others from getting it.  Prometheus’s punishment was to be bound to a crag to have a great eagle rip his flesh to rags and have his liver pecked out daily, only for it to heal so that the torment can continue endlessly.  Since the ancients thought that the liver was the organ responsible for emotions, he was in both physical and emotional turmoil continuously.  With knowledge also comes toil — when we were given fire, we then had to work to feed that fire, and with knowledge of metallurgy came the work of creating tools, and tools in turn create more knowledge, more toil.  With the knowledge of agriculture came the toil of working the land.

This brings us to Atlas, another of Prometheus’s brothers.  He sided with the Titans against Zeus.  Since Zeus was the victor, he punished the Titans, including Atlas.  Atlas’s fate was to support the great pillars that hold up the heavens so they do not collapse on the Earth.  In the space of these pillars, day and night are separated.  So, in Atlas’s continuous toil he provides man sleep.

Now sleep is the brother of death, which brings us to Menoetius, brother of Atlas.  Zeus punished Menoetius for his part in siding with the Titans by banishing him to the underworld.  While Menoetius is not the ruler of the underworld (Hades is), he, in his own way, brought it about.  He and his brother Atlas gave mankind sleep and death, respite from toil.  All four brothers have also created toil for mankind, through knowledge, vices, and a desire to postpone eternal rest and oblivion.  Epimetheus is ignorance that brings toil, in the form of fighting the evils that vices and lack of knowledge (forethought) bring.  Prometheus is knowledge that brings toil.  Atlas is an embodiment of eternal toil that also creates rest.  Menoetius is embodied eternal rest that men must toil to avoid.  These brothers, similarly to their parents, create eternal change and transformation but are nevertheless constants.  They also show us that knowledge and ignorance (and with both of these, curosity, as is seen with Pandora) balance each other, and we need both fore-knowledge and after-thought (reassessment).   Likewise, we need both toil and rest, in balance. 

What does this tell us modern humans about healing?

When we heal we transform ourselves.  While in a sense we get back to a state of health, back to where we were, in another sense we cannot go back, since we have since experienced the physical or mental pain that lack of health bring.  And every moment we experience transforms us.  Even someone in a persistent coma transforms via the relationships of those who care for him and experience him, and part of our own identity is comprised from the relationships we have with others and the world.  We cannot exist in the world without transforming it and ourselves, yet we maintain our humanity.  This is like water that is in constant flux but whose nature is constant.   While we seek rest and it is necessary for healing and heath, we toil against it as well, for it is closely related to death.  Death is, like healing, in a sense a place back from whence we sprang, but in another sense, we cannot go back because we have lived.

John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I discuss the myth of Prometheus more in my review of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

© Copyright 2019, Metamorphorica

See Also:

Review: Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources

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