Prometheus, whose name means ‘Forethought’ and who earned the appellation of ‘Lightbringer’, is an early champion of the cause of humankind. Throughout his mythos the most common themes are his efforts to aid humans and to trick Zeus. The methods by which he tricks Zeus are very similar in all the sources, although the way he goes about aiding humans varies.
Fire is one of the most crucial discoveries of early humans. As such, the myth involving its discovery is essential to the fabric of Greek religion. Prometheus, the Lightbringer, is the one to whom the Greeks attribute the discovery or bestowal of fire for humans. This is the central tale in the Works and Days, in the section called ‘Why Life is Hard’. Life is hard because Zeus sent Pandora into the world and she released evil and hope. Zeus did this, according to Hesiod, because Prometheus stole fire. Hesiod's Theogony, Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, and Apollodorus's Library also tell of the theft of fire. Diodorus, on the other hand, states that Prometheus discovered how to make fire and draw it forth from certain plants, of which the fennel stalk is prominently mentioned in all sources. This is his most important deed, as the creation of fire is credited with leading to all other human arts and skills.
Prometheus Bound gives Prometheus much more credit for aiding humanity. He not only gives us fire but in his ‘own’ words, “In one short sentence understand it all: every art of mankind comes from Prometheus.” (Ln. 504-505) The reason for fire being credited with the origin of all the arts is that without fire to cook with and to heat our homes, we are still animals. Fire is seen as the civilizing factor in our development. Furthermore, it is with fire that we harden bricks for building and work metal. These things, cooking, shelter, and metal objects are what allowed our civilization to start. Even today the need for housing and fuel for cooking are considered basic human rights. Also metalworking eventually led to the development of plastics and ceramics. Look around, what art or science could exist without these things? That is the gift of Prometheus.
The Theogony, by Hesiod, focuses on the act of sacrifice. Prometheus once again was trying to aid humankind against Zeus, and once again he was employing his great wits in trickery. He tricks Zeus into leaving the best eating parts for humans. This allows humans to eat the largest amount of good meat and prevents eating unhealthy fatty tissue, which is sacrificed to Zeus. This is important to the Greek lifestyle as it allows the people to increase the meat content of their diet without inciting the gods’ wrath. Other civilizations use religious taboos in similar ways. Semitic cultures, for instance, use a religious taboo on pork to save themselves from the risk of the diseases that the climate causes to grow easily in that meat. The taboo in these cases is actually a life saving measure. In the Promethean case, I don't know of a disease that it prevents, but it does provide a ritual for slaughtering animals that helps with the healthy preparation of the meat.
Apollodorus and Aeschylus tell of other deeds, but most of these deal with relationships between various gods. The only noteworthy exceptions are the Heraklean rescue in Apollodorus and Aeschylus’s focus on his foresight. The connection with Herakles is his rescuing of Prometheus in his quest for the golden apples. It is a classic quest for knowledge and connects well with the Promethean foresight that Aeschylus considers important. This gift of Prometheus is the human ability to use our knowledge and reason to aid us in avoiding unwanted perils. Finally, Apollodorus mentions that he was mortal originally, making him into a human trickster instead of a benevolent Titan. This would make him one of the most ancient human heroes.
Refer to the Ancient Texts page for the links to online text.
Background credit -- Prometheus and Zeus' Attacking Eagle (1989) Artist: Gabor Peterdi (Jane Haslem Gallery -- see directly below)