All mythologies have a trickster. Loki pulls one over on the Norse gods. Native American cultures see Coyote fooling around. And for China, Sun Wukong (or the Monkey King) plays many a trick.
In Ancient Greece, Prometheus was the sly one. His trickery often was to the benefit of us poor humans. His name means “forethought” as opposed to his brother Epimetheus, meaning “afterthought”.
Sacrifices to the Gods
To understand the mischief Prometheus pulled off, we need to understand the role of sacrifices to the Greek gods.
The Greeks believed that the gods on Olympus demanded sacrifices as part of their worship. Usually this entailed killing a common farm animal, like a goat, pig or cow. Often the sacrifice was linked to a request of the god. Do this for me and you get this meaty sacrifice.
The more important the request, the larger the sacrifice. Sometimes the gods required a hecatomb (hekaton = 100 and bous = bull), meaning 100 bulls. In actual practice, only twelve were slaughtered for the gods.
Sometimes the gods demand even more. When Agamemnon and the Greeks tried to sail to Troy to rescue Helen, the winds had died down. The only way for Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis was to sacrifice Iphigenia, his own daughter. He lured her to the port town of Aulis by saying that she would marry Achilles. It didn’t go so well for poor Iphigenia.
Later, thanks to Prometheus’s quick thinking, the gods no longer feasted on the meat of sacrifices, but only the smoke that wafted up in the sky. Playwright Aristophanes makes it clear, albeit in a jesting way, that the gods need this sustenance. In his plays the Birds and Plutus, the sacrificial smoke is blocked and the gods end up starving.
Prometheus Tricks Zeus
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, mortals and gods once feasted together. They gathered in Mecone (now the village of Sicyon outside of Corinth) to decide who got what part of a sacrificed ox. You would expect the gods to take the prime bits, but Prometheus knew that humans needed every morsel of food to survive.
He piled the good and nutritious portions under the stomach of the animal. In a separate pile, he stacked the bones and wrapped them in glistening fat. Prometheus invited Zeus to choose. The king of the god was taken in by the more appetizing fatty bones.
This explains the practice of sacrificing only the bones to the gods. Experiments to recreate Greek sacrifices found that the fat would sizzle and light on fire, the flame burning for several minutes.
Some say that Zeus saw through this ruse and simply wanted an excuse to get angry. In any event, the king of the gods deprived humankind of fire, leaving them shivering at night.
Prometheus took pity on mortals and wanted to steal fire. Easier said than done. His plan involved starting up the Trojan war and getting the gods distracted with the battle. He then snuck down to Hephaestus’s workshop and nabbed fire, transporting it in a hollowed out reed.
When Zeus discovered the deception, he was infuriated. He ordered Hephaestus to chain Prometheus to a rock on Mount Caucasus. Everyday, an eagle would peck out his liver, and every night it would heal again. He lived this way for eons until Heracles freed him.
The moral here, don’t piss off Zeus.