Prometheus and his cult in Athens

Prometheus is another of those forgotten deities (titan, to be exact). It’s true that his worship doesn’t seem to have been widely spread across the Ancient world, but Athens stands as an exception. A small disclaimer: this post is going to be mainly a selected summary of the second part of Prometheus by Carol Dougherty.

Prometheus, Athena and Hephaestus

In Athens, the cult of Prometheus is linked to both Athena and Hephaestus. With Athena, it comes down to their common connection with the concept of metis, a cunning type of intelligence. In Prometheus’ case, the link to metis is in the root of his name (which translates to “forethought”), while for Athena, it is linked to her divine birth out of Zeus’ head.

When it comes to Prometheus and Hephasteus, their domains overlap greatly with the link to fire and technology. To the point where Euripides  goes as far as to replace Hephasteus with Prometheus to assist with Athena’s birth. Another variant of the myth of the birth of Erichthonius also replaces Hephaestus with Prometheus as the one who lusts for Athena. The two gods are often attributed with the same credits: manipulation of fire, metalwork, crafts and the creation of humankind. However, later sources seem to have made a better distinction between the two, where Prometheus is said to be more worshipped as a potter, linking back with the myth of the creation of humanity out of clay.

On a more concrete level, the proximity of the three deities translates as an altar shared by Prometheus and Hephaestus in the precint of Athena in the Academy (gymnasium, also where Plato taught his philosophies). There, Prometheus is portrayed as an old man with a sceptre in his right hand while Hephaestus is shown as a youth. The altar captures the important  relationship between these two fire gods, Prometheus being portrayed as the first and more senior of the two.

The god of torches

Prometheus is especially linked to fire, as the titan who brought fire to humanity and was heavily punished for it. In cult, this translates into festivals where fire played an essential part. Again, this is something all three deities share, and celebrating them is a recognition of the significance of fire for human culture.

From the fifth century onwards, Prometheus becomes associated with the torch, as a reminder of the myth where he steals fire on a fennel stalk. In cult, the Prometheia festival revolved around a torch race. The most important description of the torch race is from Pausanias:

In the Academy there is an altar of Prometheus, and they run from it towards the city holding burning torches. The contest is both running and keeping the torch burning at the same time. If the torch of the first runner goes out, he no longer has the victory, but it belongs to the second runner in his place; but if he too allows his torch to go out, the third runner is the winner, and if everyone’s torch is extinguished, no one gains the victory. 

Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.30.2

Relay torch races are also attested by Herodotus for Hephaestus, so it is also possible that torch races to Prometheus could be relay ones as well:

“The first rider delivers his charge to the second, the second to the third, and thence it passes on from hand to hand, even as in the Greek torch-bearers’ race in honor of Hephaestus.”

Herodotus, Histories, 8.98

Starting at the altar, the race traced a route into the heart of the city, where the pyre for the sacrifice was waiting to be lit. This procession of fire in the form of a race can be interpretated as both a way to reenact the original myth of Prometheus bringing fire to humanity (or, here, the city of Athens), but can also be seen as a symbolic way to remind of the importance of fire in Athenian religious and civic life.

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