Gods of the Week: Atlas, Prometheus and Epimetheus

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Prometheus Bound (c 1611-18), oil on canvas, 242.8 x 209.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

There are many other primordial deities, Titans and their children who have rarely been featured in visual art. In this article, I feature three who have had their moments of fame, and are children of the Titans Iapetos and Clymene: Atlas, Prometheus, and Epimetheus. A fourth son, Menoitios, has remained in obscurity, as he was soon struck by one of Zeus’s thunderbolts and despatched to Erebus.


Atlas has in modern times become the victim of misunderstanding: he doesn’t stand in the barren mountains named after him bearing the globe. According to classical myth, his burden is the heavens. If you think about that modern misconception, even with your disbelief well and truly suspended, he could hardly stand on the earth holding the earth on his shoulders.

Although Atlas appears in a few classical myths, he has seldom been painted, and then in association with the story of Perseus as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and as the sucker in the eleventh labour of Heracles (Hercules).

Once Perseus has beheaded Medusa and tucked her severed head into his rucsac (kibisis), he flies away in his magic sandals. As he flies over the desert sands of Libya, the blood still drips from Medusa’s head and falls onto that sand, where it transforms into snakes. With dusk approaching, he decides to set down in the lands of Atlas. Perseus introduces himself to Atlas, mentioning his divine paternity, and asks for rest and lodging for the night.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Perseus Series: Atlas Turned to Stone (1878), bodycolour, 152.5 × 190 cm, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The seventh painting in Edward Burne-Jones’ Perseus Series, his Atlas Turned to Stone (1878), shows the aftermath of Atlas’ failure to offer hospitality: he has been turned to stone by the residual power of Medusa’s face, and now stands bearing the cosmos on his shoulders as Perseus flies off to Ethiopia for his rescue of Andromeda.

In the eleventh labour of Heracles (Hercules), the hero tricks Atlas into stealing some apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. While Atlas is busy doing that, Heracles takes on the giant’s role by holding up the heavens.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Atlas and the Hesperides (c 1922-25), oil on canvas, diameter 304.8 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

John Singer Sargent’s Atlas and the Hesperides, painted at the end of his life in about 1922-25, shows the giant still carrying the heavens on his shoulders, as seven naked Hesperides sleep on the ground around him.


Of the three brothers, it is Prometheus who has been most favoured by artists (and writers, composers, etc.), and is the centre of an elaborate creation myth as well as the victim of horrific punishment.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522), The Myth of Prometheus (1515), oil on panel, 66 x 118.7 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Maxvorstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero di Cosimo’s The Myth of Prometheus from 1515 tells much of the classical myth using multiplex narrative, in which Prometheus appears severally in different scenes which the artist has brought together into a composite.

After the overthrow of the Titans, when Zeus and the Olympian gods are firmly in command, Prometheus presents a huge cow to be shared between the gods and humans, apparently with the intention of deceiving Zeus. He tricks Zeus into taking what appears to be a larger share of the meat, which in truth contains the animal’s bones instead.

For this, Zeus witholds fire from mankind, driving Prometheus to steal it in a burning fennel stalk, and give it to the mortals. This angers Zeus further, so he asks the Titan to mould earth together to form a maiden, whom Athena dresses with clothes and floral wreaths. This is Pandora, declared by Zeus to become an evil to all mortal men.

As punishment for his sins against Zeus, the latter has Prometheus chained to a column, and each day an eagle arrives and feeds on the Titan’s liver, which regenerates overnight. This unceasing torment is finally relieved when Heracles, with the consent of Zeus, kills the eagle. According to some later accounts, Prometheus is then released from his chains and goes on to father (by an unknown partner) Deucalion, the only male human to survive the subsequent flood.

Louis de Silvestre (1675–1760), The Formation of Man by Prometheus with the Aid of Minerva (1702), oil on canvas, 144.5 x 182.5 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Louis de Silvestre’s The Formation of Man by Prometheus with the Aid of Minerva from 1702 shows Prometheus, holding a torch, and Athena/Minerva, wearing her distinctive helmet, with the human formed from the earth which Prometheus had moulded. They are surrounded by allusions to other deities, including Hera’s peacocks.

Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1745-1811) and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse (1784-1844), Prometheus Creating Man in the Presence of Athena (1802, 1826), ceiling mural, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris/ Image by Jastrow, via Wikimedia Commons.

This scene has become further elaborated at the hands of Jean-Simon Berthélemy in Prometheus Creating Man in the Presence of Athena from 1802, a ceiling in the Louvre which was repainted by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse in 1826. Father Time is at the lower right, with the Muses above him, and the Fates at the far left.

Otto Greiner (1869–1916), Prometheus (1909), oil on canvas, 120.5 x 80.5 cm, National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa, Canada. Wikimedia Commons.

In Otto Greiner’s Prometheus from 1909, the Titan appears to have become the creator of mortal man, as he sits in the midst of a primaeval landscape.

Giuseppe Collignon (1778-1863), Prometheus Steals Fire from Apollo’s Sun Chariot (1814), ceiling mural, dimensions not known, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Giuseppe Collignon painted Prometheus Steals Fire from Apollo’s Sun Chariot in 1814, as a ceiling mural in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy. Prometheus and Athena are at the left, the former holding a torch aloft, and the goddess with her helmet and spear.

By far the most popular scene involving Prometheus is his bondage and gruesome torment by the eagle eating his liver, a set-piece usually titled Prometheus Bound.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Prometheus Bound (c 1611-18), oil on canvas, 242.8 x 209.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Early in his career, in about 1611-18, Peter Paul Rubens tackled this brilliantly. The offending brand still burns at the lower left corner as a cue to the Titan’s offence against Zeus.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Prometheus Bound (c 1640), oil on canvas, 245 x 178 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne, Germany. Image © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Jordaens seems to have reworked Rubens’ composition in about 1640, including the brand, and has added visual references to the stories of Zeus choosing the bones of the cow, Prometheus fashioning the body of a maiden, and the figure of Hermes for good measure.

Thomas Cole (1801–1848) Prometheus Bound (1847), oil on canvas, 162.6 x 243.8 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Cole’s romantic landscape from 1847 was perhaps inspired by later versions of the story, in which Promethus was chained to a rock pillar in the Caucasus Mountains. The eagle is seen in mid-air in the valley, starting its ascent to feed.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Prometheus (1868-9), oil on canvas, 205 × 122 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau’s Prometheus from 1868-9 was one of two paintings which he exhibited at the Salon in 1869, and is an unusual interpretation which substitutes vultures for Hesiod’s eagle.

In Romantic literature, the story of Prometheus had been used as an analogy for that of the persecuted artist, who takes their great gift to man, only to end up being tortured horribly for doing so. Read superficially as narrative, Prometheus’s impassive face reflects his stoicism in the face of the vulture feeding from his liver. Above his head is the flame that he gave to mankind. A second, dead vulture indicates the perpetuity for which Prometheus will suffer, at least until Heracles intervenes.

Moreau’s daring depiction calls on symbols of Christ’s suffering: the appearance of Prometheus is messianic, he adopts a posture which is reminiscent of the flagellation of Christ, and above all, the flame could represent the Holy Spirit.


The sequel of Pandora and her ‘box’ is told most fully in Hesiod’s Works and Days, where she is the original woman. After she was formed from earth by either Hephaestus/Vulcan or Prometheus, other gods gave her properties to determine her nature. Athena dressed her in a silvery gown, and taught her needlecraft and weaving. Aphrodite shed grace on her head, together with cruel longing and cares. Hermes gave her a shameful mind and deceitful nature, together with the power of speech, including the ability to tell lies. Other gifts were provided by Persuasion, the Charities, and the Horae.

Pandora also carried with her a large earthenware jar (pithos, in Greek) containing toil and sickness that bring death to men, diseases, and a myriad of other pains. Zeus gave her as a gift to Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus. She then opened her jar, and released its evils into the earth and sea. The only thing remaining in the jar was Hope, who stayed under its lip.

This marked the beginning of the second age of mankind, its Silver Age, in which people knew birth and death, as humans had become subject to death, and Pandora brought birth too. In other accounts, Epimetheus married Pandora, and the couple had a daughter Pyrrha, who married Deucalion with whom she survived the flood.

Henry Howard (1769-1847), The Opening of Pandora’s Vase (1834), oil on panel, 76.6 x 166.5 cm, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. The Athenaeum.

The now-forgotten Henry Howard painted The Opening of Pandora’s Vase in 1834. Pandora, faithfully dressed, crouches to duck the torrent of woe, evil and pain which streams from the jar, as Epimetheus tries in vain to reseal its lid.