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Prometheus and Epimetheus

by Julie Tortora

Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were Greek gods, second generation Titans. They had not engaged in the rebellion against the older Titans and were initially still favoured by Zeus, who gave them the task of creating, from clay, animals and human beings to populate the earth. Thus, they were the mythical fathers of mankind. However, the two brothers were very different in character and their actions brought a mixture of weal and woe to the new human race, which has been its lot ever since.

Epimetheus was a bit of a scatterbrain. We all know the saying “Act in haste, repent at leisure,” and he is a prime example of this truism. His very name means “afterthought” or “hindsight” and he was incapable of insightful planning. Instead he rushed into his allocated task of providing earth’s new creatures with food, warmth and protection. Soon he had used up all the available gifts of fur, claws and fangs on the animals, leaving nothing left for mankind. It was up to his brother Prometheus, whose name means “forethought” or “foresight”, and who had grown to love his new creation humanity – to become their benefactor.

Prometheus became the heroic champion of humanity, wresting power from the autocratic Zeus and conferring it on man. Firstly he ensured food for humanity by taking the animal sacrificial offerings and dividing them into two. He hid the nutritious meat inside the stomach and then coated the bones with a layer of succulent fat. Zeus was seduced by the fat and did not realise the trick until too late. The new pattern was set. Man always received the meat thereafter while the gods got the bones. He also stole the closely guarded element of fire from Zeus, providing man with all its physical benefits and the metaphorical quality of the spark of intelligence, which gave man the power to aspire to divinity. For daring to challenge Zeus in this way, he was willing to suffer the torture of being chained to the rock on Mount Kaukasos where his liver, seat of his love for mortals, was constantly pecked at by an eagle.

Meantime Epimetheus was, in his unthinking way, undermining all that Prometheus had achieved. Ignoring his brother’s warning, he accepted a gift from vengeful Zeus, in the form a beautiful young bride called Pandora. She brought with her a dowry, a seemingly lovely box which, when opened, however, liberated a hoard of plagues and ills to be visited on humans forever more. The only possibly redemptive feature was the inclusion of Elpis or Hope, which can be seen as the one quality which sustains us in adversity. Some, however, interpret it as a further cruel joke on Zeus’ part, seeing hope as a longing for the impossible.

Mercifully, Prometheus was later released from his torment by Herakles, but the gains of his self-sacrifice had been sorely compromised by the actions of foolish Epimetheus.

Which brother do you prefer to emulate?