Technically, I wanted to write about something a bit later, but in working out the reasons behind it, the sequence dictated I really had to start the story here. So here we are. But fair warning; the early stage of this is sort of, uh, made up. We don’t have much information, so I’ve sort of assembled an ad hoc explanation of the later facts (some cobbled together from different versions) that basically fits the personalities involved. (Just don’t go telling anyone that this is how the ancient Greeks believed mankind was first created, ’cause it isn’t. But I don’t know what is, ’cause they didn’t like to write that stuff down. Even Hesiod was vague on the subject and he’s our best source.)
After the calamities of the early reign of the Olympians had settled down, the world became peaceful. Peaceful and dull. Everyone quickly became bored with it.
Now, some of them had no trouble relieving their boredom. Zeus had plenty of nymphs to chase, not to mention several sisters, and a half dozen voluptuous and willing Titanesses. Poseidon found Oceanids to be quite accommodating, and as Zeus fathered younger gods, they, too, found plenty of diversion among the nymphs and dryads.
The Titans–what few weren’t in Tartaros–were less fortunate. Hyperion, after handing over the reigns of his chariot to his son Helios, went into permanent and boring retirement. Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus had been reduced to living in a small shack by their father’s disgrace in the battle against the Olympian gods, even though Prometheus had made sure that he and his brother had stayed well and truly out of the fighting. (This brother, at least. They had another brother who had been laid low by Zeus’ thunderbolt, because he hadn’t been willing to listen to Prometheus’ warning not to get involved in the war against the new gods.)
To combat his boredom, Prometheus decided that he would create men, a race of lesser beings to wander the face of the world and do things.
Any old things at all.
It had to be better than just watching from a distance as Zeus seduced nymphs.
There weren’t a lot of materials handy, but Prometheus decided that bronze would be well hardy enough. Taking several armloads of the stuff, he went to the forge of Hera’s young son Hephaistos–still exiled from Olympos and taking refuge with Thetis the Nereid–where he began to fashion the bronze into the shape he wanted, which was not entirely dissimilar to his own.
“What are you making?” Hephaistos asked, watching curiously.
“Men,” Prometheus told him.
“What are those?”
“Mortals,” Prometheus explained. “The opposite of you or I.”
“The opposite of…you mean…” Pausing, the young god looked around for his hostess. Not seeing her, he continued in a hushed whisper. “Like Thetis?”
Prometheus laughed. “No, no, not goddesses! Not females, mortals! Mortals are frail beings that live and die.”
Hephaistos scratched his head, his massive face contorted with confusion. “I don’t understand,” he announced.
“If you were mortal,” Prometheus explained, “you would have died when Zeus threw you out of Mt. Olympos. Because you’re immortal, you survived. Do you see?”
Prometheus sighed. “You’re young yet. You’ll understand in time. Ask your uncle Hades to explain it sometime. If he has the patience for it.” Hades was not known as the most patient of gods, after all.
Hephaistos continued to pepper Prometheus with questions as he worked, and eventually came to understand some of what Prometheus meant, as far as Prometheus could tell. By the time Prometheus was finished with his race of several thousand bronze men, Hephaistos was busy at the forge, creating little golden girls, to help him walk despite his malformed legs. That was certainly a better use of his time than annoying Prometheus with useless questions, so Prometheus left him to it, and herded his mortals out of the forge and up onto the surface, though he had to be very quick about it, lest they drown on the way out of Thetis’ underwater home!
Once he had the bronze men safely on the surface, Prometheus thought they would get right to their lives, but it turned out that he really had his work cut out for him first. He had to teach them to talk, it turned out. It was like raising several thousand babies all at once.
And then, of course, they all wanted someplace to live, and he had to teach them how to build homes and make a living.
Once he had done all that, Prometheus thought he was finally done, and his men would take care of themselves, and he could just sit back and watch them, gaining a little entertainment, for a change.
And for a while, that’s just what happened.
But then one of them came to see him.
“Lord Prometheus,” the representative said, begging and sniffling as only a bronze man can, his voice ringing like an eerie bell, “we’re freezing and our parts are falling off from the cold!”
“Well, winter’s coming on,” Prometheus agreed. “But it doesn’t get that cold around here. You should be all right. Huddle close around the fire, and–”
“I haven’t seen any fires on the surface world since your bronze men arrived here,” Epimetheus piped up. “I think Zeus sent that new son of his to take them all away.”
“Which new son is that?” Prometheus asked. He couldn’t keep track of all of Zeus’ affairs, and wouldn’t want to even if he could.
“I don’t know his name. The speedster.”
“Hmm, yes, him. He’s got promise, actually, if he’d only be a little less obedient to his father,” Prometheus sighed. There was nothing worse than an obedient trickster. “Very well. Go on back to the village,” he told the bronze man. “I’ll bring you some fire.”
The bronze man thanked Prometheus profusely, then hurried back to the village to tell the other bronze men.
“How are you going to get them fire?”
“I’ll think of something,” Prometheus assured his less than quick-witted brother. “It’s not fair to refuse them fire, after all. They haven’t any body heat to keep themselves warm in the winter.”
“Do they actually need heat?” Epimetheus asked.
“Probably not, but it’s the principle of the thing,” Prometheus announced, heading for the door. “Zeus took the fire away just because he could, and that’s exactly the kind of tyranny I’m not going to allow. If he gets away with that, he’ll turn out to be no better than his father.” He chuckled. “Admittedly, his reign isn’t going to be that much longer, but the principle remains the same.”
Epimetheus looked at his brother with worry. “Someone’s going to topple Zeus, too?” He didn’t want to get caught up in another war like the one that had landed their father in Tartaros.
“He’ll be undone by his son, just as he undid his father,” Prometheus chuckled, shaking his head. “I even know who the mother will be. Seems he hasn’t met her yet, but as soon as he does…oh, she’s just his type. I’m sure he won’t let her alone for a second until he’s fathered his own doom upon her.”
“You don’t have to sound so pleased about it. We might get caught up in it this time,” Epimetheus pointed out.
“Oh, I’ll keep us out of it, don’t you worry.” Prometheus went to the door and opened it. “All right, I’m going. Whatever you do, don’t open this door, and don’t speak a word to anyone until I get back. Do you understand?”
“I’m not a child, brother,” Epimetheus replied, with a peevish, sour look on his face.
“Do you understand?” Prometheus repeated, his voice a cold, heavy weight.
Epimetheus sighed. “Yes, I understand.”
“Good.” Prometheus left the shack, and headed towards Mt. Olympos, planning how to get some of the fire down to his bronze men below.
He knew he’d be allowed in–he was the gods’ cousin, after all–but he couldn’t simply say “oh, I just popped ’round to borrow some fire!” and then stroll away with some in an earthen pot, after all. This would require more subtlety than that. And, unfortunately, since he was a Titan, they were going to look at his arrival with a certain amount of distrust, despite that he hadn’t taken part in the war. All the more so considering how terribly they had hated his father and one of his brothers.
On his arrival, Prometheus was immediately greeted by the unfamiliar face of Zeus’ latest offspring, the rakishly grinning Hermes. “Not many Titans have the balls to just wander into the palace on Mt. Olympos,” he commented, waving a staff in Prometheus’ direction. “You must think you’re pretty special.”
“I have never offered anyone, god or Titan, with any violence, and I have no intention of starting now,” Prometheus assured him. I came here to offer your father some advice.” It was the last thing Prometheus wanted to do, but it was the best way to get to the throne room where the hearth was, and therefore the best way to get close to the fire he was here for.
Hermes lifted a suspicious eyebrow. “Between Themis and Athene and his own wisdom, I doubt there’s much you could know that he doesn’t, but whatever. Follow me.” With that, the arrogant young pup led Prometheus through the halls of Olympos to a great hall, where Zeus and Hera sat on twin thrones behind a roaring fire pit. Their sister Hestia sat near the fire, tending it, and their daughter Hebe was cowering by the wall, pretending she couldn’t see her parents glaring hatred at each other. It was the least cozy domestic scene Prometheus had ever imagined. “This allegedly non-violent Titan claims he’s got advice for you,” Hermes told his father, before taking off again.
Zeus looked at Prometheus, then scowled. “I suppose you’ve got a message for me from that hideous cripple,” he growled, “begging and pleading to come back home, incapable of living away from his mother’s milk.”
“You insensitive ass!” Hera shouted furiously, raising her hand to strike her husband/brother.
“He ought to be happier where he is, surrounded by countless beautiful Nereids,” Zeus continued, “even if he is ugly as sin, broken and useless. Surely one or two of them will take pity on him for his condition. I hear the eldest is as beautiful as she is powerfu–”
Prometheus grimaced, but before he could say anything, Hera had already begun railing not only at Zeus for his lechery, but also at Thetis for encouraging it, even though it was clear from Zeus’ words that he hadn’t actually met Thetis yet. “Is that all you think of her?” Prometheus interrupted her, with calm, soothing words. “Thetis is your friend, but you would suspect her so easily? Your husband has never even met her, and he made that very clear. Do your own bonds mean so little to you?”
Hera blushed slightly, and looked away from his gaze. “You’re right,” she admitted. “I should have had more faith in Thetis after all she’s done for me. It’s just that I’ve been cross ever since this brute threw my son into the sea just because he was born with a bad leg!”
“You could leave him,” Prometheus pointed out.
“Where would I go? He’s my husband.”
“Well, yes, but…” Prometheus sighed. There was no point in trying to sort out their marriage. Let it be horrible. If they wanted it to be anything else, they’d fix it themselves, or they’d never have married each other in the first place. “Never mind. This isn’t why I came here.” He turned to look at Zeus. “Do you want to meet the same end as your father?” he asked.
“Of course not,” Zeus replied, looking disgusted. “But I would never eat my children, and if Father hadn’t been eating all his children, then Mother would never have put me up to defeating him, so it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Maybe not, in the short view. But there is a goddess whose son by you will destroy you as you destroyed your father.”
“What goddess?” Zeus asked, casting a suspicious glance at his sister/wife.
Prometheus laughed. “I can assure you, she’s no one you’ve yet touched.” Casually, he strolled over towards the fireside, as if it was just part of his point. Stacked near the hearth were some herbs left to dry, including some fennel stalks. Those might do nicely…
“That’s nonsense,” Zeus said. “There aren’t any goddesses I’ve never touched at all.”
Prometheus sighed deeply. “Perhaps ‘goddess’ was not the term I should have used. Immortal lady of great power. She is not one of your sisters or daughters, so no, ‘goddess’ is not, strictly, the accurate term. I was not attempting to be linguistically perfect. You needn’t be so pedantic. And I do hope you haven’t stooped to seducing your own daughters,” he added, reaching down and picking up a handful of the stalks.
“Of course not!” Zeus exclaimed angrily. “But what man has never stroked his daughter’s hair, or helped her up when she tripped, or patted her on the head when she was a good girl?”
“What daughter of yours has ever tripped?” Hera asked incredulously. “Have you ever stumbled, my dear?” she asked, looking at Hebe. The girl shook her head.
“I was speaking rhetorically,” Zeus replied coldly.
“I really wouldn’t know what fathers do, having no children myself,” Prometheus pointed out, even as he dropped all but one of the fennel stalks. “I haven’t a wife at present.” And given the disastrous marriage he was currently observing, he wasn’t really in a hurry to take one, either. Though he knew that no matter who–or what–he married, he could never have a marriage as bad as Zeus’.
“You should get one,” Zeus laughed. “She’d keep you busy, and out of my hair. Now go away. I’ll keep your, ah, ‘warning’ in mind.”
Prometheus scowled. Clearly, Zeus thought his warning was a joke, and had no intention of listening to it. And that was fine by Prometheus, as he had decidedly not wanted to prevent Zeus’ downfall in the first place. “If you won’t listen to me, I can’t help you,” Prometheus said, doing his best to sound annoyed as he swiped the fennel stalk across the flames in an angry gesture. “But I’ll respect your wishes and depart.”
He did his best to leave at a normal pace. Not so quickly as to be suspicious, but not slowly enough that they’d notice he was still carrying the fennel stalk, and holding it at both ends to protect the fire within it. There wasn’t much fire in it–just a tiny spark, really–but it would be enough to get fires going for the bronze men in the village. And that would be enough to save all those mortals from freezing to death.
If bronze men even could die from cold. Prometheus wasn’t entirely sure that they could.
But it was, as he had told his brother, the principle of the thing.
The bronze men were overjoyed when Prometheus brought them the fennel stalk with the fire in it, and he took it from house to house, lighting fires in pits and pots to keep them warm. They were so happy that they insisted on throwing a big party, and begged Prometheus to stay and make merry with them. He liked being with his mortals, so he stayed to watch their happy faces enjoy the firelight.
Long before the party was over, the smoke from the fires had alerted Zeus on Mt. Olympos to the real reason for Prometheus’ visit, and he vowed to take vengeance on the Titan for defying his will.
So, next week, we’ll get the next part of the contest of wills between Prometheus and Zeus. (Here’s a hint: no matter how hard Zeus tries, he kind of always loses. I like that about this story. Sort of a nice twist on the usual.)
Anyway, the bronze men thing…it’s sort of actually part of a different section of the story. I’ll explain when I get there. In any case, Prometheus is often credited–especially by modern people–with creating mankind, but we don’t really have any ancient sources saying when or how. Because, like I said above, the ancient Greeks didn’t like to write that stuff down. Partially because it was religious, so they didn’t write it down, and partially because they didn’t seem to want to write anything down that was “in competition with” Homer or Hesiod, and writing anything about the creation of the world would have been “in competition with” Hesiod.