The myth of Prometheus belongs to the oldest layers of Greek mythology. In short, gods did not like the idea of humans having a gift of fire. Prometheus disobeyed their wishes and stole it. As a punishment, Zeus tied him to a rock on Mount Caucasus. There, a giant eagle would eat his liver every day, as it magically regenerated overnight. Many years have passed, until one day, Hercules slew this eagle and saved Prometheus.
There are two plausible etymologies of the name Prometheus. One relates it to Sanskrit words “pramathyu-s” – thief, or “pramantha” – the fire-drill. The other sees it as a Greek compound meaning “forethought”. This would be a direct translation of the Slavic name Přemysl. In both cases, it seems that this myth had reached ancient Greece from the direction of the Caucasus.
Indeed, most of the elements of the Prometheus myth exist in the Georgian epic of the hero Amirani.
The astronomy behind the Prometheus myth
Most of the Indo-European myths are astronomical allegories, and the Prometheus myth is not an exception. The celestial representation of the fire is clearly the Sun. And a specific group of constellations perfectly reflects this story. Namely, around the constellation Ophiuchus, we see both Aquila – the eagle and Hercules. From there, it takes just a little bit of imagination to see the snake around Ophichius as a chain that holds Prometheus tied to a rock.
In the following image, we see an “extended” version. Atlas is holding the skies on his shoulders, represented by Bootes constellation. This idea dates to the period when the polar star, around which the universe “rotates”, was in the Ursa Major constellation. Hercules also saved Atlas from his suffering, at least for a while. The Greek vase also shows a large snake (Draco constellation) and a Crater – a giant cup.
Dating the Prometheus myth
There is little doubt that Ophiuchus represented Prometheus at some point in history. But which point exactly? I believe that astronomy can help us answer that question.
Roughly around 4,500-2,000 BC, the autumn equinox was around the constellation Scorpius. However, those nations that did not have scorpions in their habitat used different imagery. One of the most common symbols was Aquila – the eagle, often double-headed to symbolize the equal day and night.
At the same time, the spring equinox was in Taurus – the bull. And indeed, Zeus kidnapped Europa disguised in a white bull, while the eagle was his favorite animal.
Interestingly, this symbolism was not foreign to the genius of Michelangelo. He portrayed King Minos exactly like Ophiuchus – the snake bearer. Of course, the story of King Minos also features the Minotaurus – another representation of the spring Taurus constellation.
Apparently, Michelangelo found inspiration in the fifth book of Dante’s “Inferno”. And Dante put him there following the Greek myth. According to the legend, King Minos was the judge of the dead in the underworld.
This idea is also astronomical. First of all, the autumn equinox was the moment when the days become shorter and nature starts dying out. Therefore, it was an entrance to the “underworld”. The snakes would also disappear underground. And the idea that King Minos was a “judge”, comes from the constellation Libra – the scales, that lies under one arm of Ophiuchus. The same imagery exists in Ancient Egypt for example, as well as in the Christian “Judgment day”. Moreover, the name of King Minos could come from the Sanskrit word meaning “judge”.
The evolution of the Prometheus myth
As we saw, the roots of this myth are Neolithic at least, and they relate to astronomical imagery. But around the second millennia BC the equinoxes moved to different constellations. The spring was now in Aries and the double-headed Aquila of autumn gave way to Libra. The balanced scales of Libra became the new symbol of the equinox, and the myths were adjusted accordingly.
In Greek myth, Hercules finally “freed” Prometheus, as it is Hercules constellation that is closer to Libra.
However, the idea of Ophiuchus being a man tied to a rock remained. (Or a young maiden, as in the case of Andromeda). But one of the most common themes was that of Odysseus, listening to the song of sirens. In the following image, we see how the most popular symbols from Greek art relate to the constellations.
Once again, this is not an exclusive Greek image. The image of a man tied to a pole exists even in the Yakutian Olonkho epos. The main hero Nyurgen Bootur also ends up being tied to a pole by the gods. And even the Norse Odin tied himself to a tree.
From Prometheus to Christianity
At the beginning of the New era, the equinoxes shifted once again. And just like today, the spring was in Pisces and the Autumn in Virgo. Christianity marked the beginning of this new era. And remarkably, the ancient imagery survived once again. One of the reasons was probably that a representation of a crucified man was clear to most of the ancient nations. Even the pre-Christian Celtic god Hesus/Esus was a woodcutter, and there are speculations that he too, was crucified.
But one of the oldest representations of the crucifixion is surely that of Prometheus.
From Bootes to Longinus
The spear that the Roman soldier stuck between the ribs of Christ, is nothing else than the eagle of Zeus eating the liver of Prometheus. The soldier is known as Longinus, from Latin “lancea” – spear. Indeed, the Bootes constellation looks like a man holding a spear, and Aquila the eagle was the most famous Roman standard. The shift from Aquila to Bootes simply follows the path of the equinox.
Typically, in Christian images of Christ’s passion we also see Virgin Marry – or the Virgo constellation in astronomical terms. The spear of Longinus, or “the spear of destiny” is one of the mystical elements in the story of the Holy Grail. Of course, this Holy Grail is the constellation Crater.
Another direct link to the Prometheus myth is the way Longinus suffered for what he did. An early Christian tradition claims that he was trapped in a cave, where a lion (Leo constellation) mauled him every night. During the day his body would regenerate. He later became a saint, and the church celebrates him in March and October. These are the times of the year when Sun is near Bootes, and the opposite, when Bootes is the most visible.
Clearly, Prometheus, a reflection of the Neolithic Sun cult, was one of the main prototypes for Christ. In other words, we still follow a tradition that is at least 6,000 years old.
The Prometheus myth shows not only the astronomical knowledge of the pre-Classical ancients but their medical/anatomical knowledge as well. The only organ in the human body that re-grows is the liver (please fact-check), so Prometheus’s liver re-grew every night and was ready to be eaten by the eagle the following day.
Our distant cultural ancestors were not as ignorant as we sometimes imagine.