The Origin of Fire

Prometheus Steals Fire from the Gods

Prometheus snatched at the fire but Zeus held it aloft, toying with him.

“Not so fast, cousin. You’ve always had a soft spot for the little creatures,” Zeus said, mocking. “What is it about them? Is it their struggle? Is it their inability to do anything for themselves? Is it their reliance on you?” There was a jealous twinkle in his eye. “After all, they worship you above all others. Even I.”

The other gods and titans laughed, their wine glasses tinkling. “Things do not come easy to them,” said Prometheus. “Must we make life harder for them?”

“We? We, Prometheus?” Zeus’ voice bellowed around the grand hall. The marble columns shook and a gold-plated painting crashed to the floor. “This is not our fault,” Zeus continued, gesturing to the flame kindling in his off hand. “We didn’t give the humans the choice cut of the meat above our own brothers and sisters. We didn’t chose them over the war with the titans. That is what you did, Prometheus, and now you will be the reason the humans go cold.”

“But they may die. It is winter, and they have no other source of warmth.”

For the first time, Zeus smiles. “How clever you are. Yes, that they may. And it will be your fault. But we in Olympus shall not go cold. Here, do the honors and light the hearth of Olympus for winter.” Zeus tossed the fire like a lesser god would toss a pebble.

Prometheus fumbled it in his hands and pulled it close. It scorched his skin, but he kept the pain from his face. The laughter and ridicule of the other gods drilled into his back as he walked to the grand hearth. Bending down, he let the fire spill from his arms and onto the becoming wood, which roared with a satisfaction at odds with the feeling in his chest. He had shaped man from mud, but may have destroyed him just as quickly.

As gods do, they moved on from the drama quickly, preferring their wine and gossip and games. Prometheus stayed in the hall. Around him, statues and treasures and paintings decorated the hall, Zeus’ lightning bolt chief among them. The fire danced in Prometheus’ eyes, and he knew what he must do.

A huge hand engulfed his shoulder. Prometheus almost jumped into the fire. He turned, and the dozens of eyes lined across Argus’ neck blinked at him. “Come on man. Don’t sneak up on people like that,” Prometheus said.

Prometheus wasn’t sure if the deep noise that came from Argus’ chest was a laugh or a grumble. Either way, it made him uneasy.

“Do not come back here, little god. Zeus has set me to guard the fire this winter.”

Prometheus shuffled out of the monster’s grip. He had hoped Zeus would forget about this in a day, but apparently that was not the case. He left the Great Hall of Olympus wondering if he had doomed his creation. He chanced a glance back. Argus sat on a massive, lace pillow right in front of the fire.

“You look like you’re planning something stupid,” a cheerful voice said from behind him.

Prometheus whirled on the spot, but then grinned. “Hermes, how are you?”

A cheerful man with curly golden hair and winged sandals bounded up to him. “Better than you, my friend. Better than you. Tell me, what were you thinking? Giving Zeus the worst part of the ox?” Hermes’ laugh brought light back to Prometheus. “Come, let us not talk in the open.”

They walked down the path in silence. Even the nymphs they passed looked at Prometheus and chuckled. “Was it that bad?” Prometheus asked.

“Yeah, mate. Not your best moment.”

Prometheus sighed as Hermes led him off the path and through a field of wildflowers to a cave overlooking a rough sea far, far below. Dark clouds brewed in the distance. In the cave, an ornate seafoam green rug with a massive trident sewn into it dominated the space. The smell of perfume drifted through the cave.

“Stole it from Poseidon,” Hermes said, noticing Prometheus’ eyes. “Doubt the oaf ever notices.”

“How do you get away with these things?”

“I’m not going to tell the entire court I stole from the god of the sea,” Hermes said seriously. “So, tell me, how are you going to get the fire back? Planning to fight Argus?” He sat cross-legged on the rug, right on the tip of the trident, and gestured for Prometheus to take a seat.

“Well, yes. I have no choice. I can’t let humanity die.”

“And why not?”

Prometheus blinked and narrowed his eyes, suspicious. “What do you mean?”

“You can let them die,” Hermes said with a shrug. “You created them. It’s your right.”

Outside, the wind had picked up. The waves crashed far below and the bud of one of the wildflowers blew into the cave, landing next to Prometheus. He held it up and twirled it, then crushed it in his hand.

“They would die that easily,” Prometheus said. “No fire, with winter upon them. None would survive.”

“And you could just go on living your wonderful life as a god,” Hermes said helpfully. “In a few centuries, even Zeus and all his grudges will forget about this. Trust me.”

Prometheus opened his palm. There, the red pedals of the flower wilted against his skin. He concentrated, willing the pedals back together. They shifted slightly, then rose slowly into the air and slid back together until he pulled the reformed flower from the air. He remembered molding the first humans from clay.

“I created them,” he said to Hermes. “You must understand that. I cannot let my creation die because of a mistake I’ve made.”

“Then you’re going to need a better plan,” a female voice said. From deep in the cave, Aphrodite stepped into the light. She wore a shimmering dress that changed colors to match whatever was behind her. “And I’ve got one.”

Prometheus looked at Hermes. “You planned this?”

“Oh yes. There’s nothing I enjoy more than stealing from Zeus.” His golden curls practically bounced with excitement.

“And what about you?” Prometheus asked Aphrodite. “I would not have thought to ask your help.”

“Zeus is cheating on my mother with about a dozen of your humans,” she said blithely. “And my mother will take him back if he stops. She’s better without him, so I’d like the humans to stick around.”

“That’s rather despicable,” Prometheus said.

“Love, passion, lust, longing, regret. Who are we to put an end to the cycle?” Aphrodite said.

“Let’s plan a heist,” Hermes said. “What are our problems?” He held up a slender hand and, expectant, looked at Prometheus and Aphrodite.

“Argus,” Aphrodite said. “If Zeus put him to it, that creep won’t leave the hearth until the end of time. Not to mention there’s always dozens of people in Olympus.”

“And Zeus himself,” Prometheus added quietly. “I can feel it. Somehow, he’ll be there.”

Aphrodite was nodding “He expects you to do something foolish,” she warned. “It’s in your nature. And even if someone else takes the blame, if one of Hermes or I get caught, it’ll be you who suffers the worst punishment. My father will not be kind.”

Her words sat in the room, and Prometheus understood the truth in them. Defying the strongest of the gods was not wise.

“Okay, this is good,” Hermes said, pacing and counting the obstacles on his fingers. “One, the big oaf, Argus. Two, the other gods in the room. And, three, Zeus himself. I’ve seen worse odds. Here’s what we’re going to do.” 

Then the god of thieves laid out his plan to steal the fire back from Olympus. At the end, all Prometheus could do was nod.

That night, the three gods returned to Olympus. Hermes, in a rare moment of seriousness, looked at Prometheus with pity. “If this is the last time, my friend, I’m glad you leave us a thief.”

Aphrodite humphed and sashayed across the hall, in the direction of the hearth. The head of every man in the room turned as if pulled by a magnetic force. A few of the women slapped their partners. But, to Prometheus’ chagrin, the many eyes of Argus didn’t follow Aphrodite. “She’ll figure it out,” Hermes said. “Lot of brains in that one. Now, go mingle and let me do my job.”

Prometheus watched Hermes disappear into a side door and found himself alone. His palms started to sweat and he wiped them against his linen pants. The domed ceiling arched high above him, an image of Zeus carrying his lightning bolt painted in swirling colors. He swore the painting’s eyes followed him. Prometheus shivered and joined a group of lesser gods. At his approach, they looked at each other and shuffled away, straight into Hermes’ path.

Hermes carried a tray of wine glasses. “Straight from the humans!” he exclaimed. “They sent gifts asking for their fire back. I guess we should really thank this one for the wine.” He raised his own glass. “To Prometheus!”

The lesser gods laughed and cheered with Hermes. Prometheus burned inside, but they would see. He would get the fire back. Within five minutes, every god in the room had a full glass of wine. And within ten, the glasses were empty. Prometheus sat alone, on a cush armchair laced with gold, watching his fellows drink more and more of the wine he and Hermes had crafted together.

Slowly, the gods sat on cushions and chairs and couches and, when those were full, straight on the marble floor. One by one, they passed out and, as the last one did, Prometheus stood to his feet. He pulled a hollow stalk of fennel from behind his chair. That had been Aphrodite’s idea.

“You can’t overpower my father,” she had said as she hollowed out the stalk. “But you can trick him.”

Now, she sat on a stool by the hearth, surveying their work. Next to her, Argus slumped against the brick, an empty glass of wine broken on the floor in front of him. Prometheus made eye contact, and she gave him a small nod. Hermes had already left, and Aphrodite slipped through the open door too, leaving Prometheus the only awake one in the room.

He approached the hearth. Closed, Argus’ dozens of eyes were even more upsetting. But Prometheus knelt by the fire, as he’d done when he placed it there, and scooped a few embers into the hollow of the fennel stalk with his shaking hands. The embers burned slowly, but Prometheus made sure he kept the fire alive within.

Fennel and fire at his side, Prometheus walked quickly across the grand hall, careful not to step on any sleeping bodies. He sighed in relief as he stepped into the crisp mountain air.

“What are you doing, Prometheus?” Zeus walked up the path toward Olympus. His lightning bolt was slung over his shoulder.

Prometheus almost dropped the fennel. Zeus shouldn’t be back for another hour at least. But Prometheus had known, he’d felt, that Zeus would be here.

“Keep your story as close to the truth as possible,” Aphrodite had warned him. “That’s your best chance to fool him.”

Prometheus tried to steady his nerves, but his voice still came out shaky. “I… Well, nobody wanted to talk with me. Not after what happened earlier,” he said, looking at his feet. Thankfully, the embers were hidden deep within the fennel. “So I decided to leave. No fun, you know, nobody wanting to talk with you.”

Zeus’ laugh echoed around the mountains. “I would never know what that feels like,” he said, then strode past Prometheus and into Olympus.

Prometheus had never run faster in his life. He raced down the mountain, leaping boulders and entire rivers, and tore toward the small human village that was struggling in the shadow of the gods. Behind him, he heard Zeus unleash a roar that must have shook even Olympus. Lightning flashed around the mountain.

Prometheus kicked a pine tree. It cracked and crashed to the ground. He reached into the fennel and pulled out the embers, tossing them onto the downed tree. He piled more and more pine needles to them until one caught, then another, and then a small bonfire blazed in the night.

Small faces appeared in the firelight. Nervously, they approached the warmth of the fire. They looked upon him with a mix of fear and wonder. One approached him, a shivering baby in her arms. “We will never be able to thank you enough, Prometheus,” the woman said with great appreciation in her eyes.

Without a word, Prometheus nodded to the woman and turned toward Olympus. He began walking back up the mountain. High above, an eagle circled.