Zeus gives the task of creating humans to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus. Epimetheus, whose name means “afterthought,” grants the animal kingdom all the joys of creation—fur, wings, shells, and so on—until there seems to be nothing left for man. He appeals to Prometheus for help.
Prometheus takes over and devises a way to make mankind superior to the animals. First, he gives mankind an upright shape like that of the gods. Then, he travels to the sun, where he lights a torch and brings fire down to the earth. Zeus resents the great advantages that Prometheus has given man, but he cannot undo the gifts. He punishes Prometheus by binding him to a rock and condemning him to a life of “no rest, no sleep, no moment’s respite.”
Zeus once received a prophecy that a son of his would one day overthrow him—and that only Prometheus would know that son’s name. Despite threats, Prometheus does not cave in to Zeus’s pressure, instead choosing to endure an eagle’s feasting on his flesh and liver every day.
As further revenge against Prometheus and the powers he has given man, Zeus creates a woman named Pandora. Zeus gives her a box and forbids her from opening it. He sends her down to earth, where her insatiable curiosity leads her to open the lid. Out fly plagues, sorrow, mischief, and all other misfortunes that can plague mankind. Horrified, Pandora attempts to shut the lid of the box, but it is too late. The only good element to fly out of the box is hope.
Prometheus, tied to his rock, sees a strange visitor: a cow that speaks like a girl. Her voice is laden with pain and sorrow, but it sounds beautiful. This is Io, and she tells Prometheus her story. She used to be a beautiful young woman, and Zeus fell in love with her. When Zeus's jealous wife Hera suspected their relationship, Zeus turned Io into a heifer. The shrewd Hera asked for the heifer as a present, and Zeus reluctantly gave Io away. Hera put Io in the care of Argus, a monster with one thousand eyes, so that Zeus could never get her back.
Zeus missed Io terribly and regretted her unfortunate transformation, so he pleaded with his son Hermes, the messenger god, to find a way of killing Argus. Hermes, known as the smartest god, disguised himself as a country fellow and approached Argus. The thousand-eyed monster invited Hermes to sit next to him, and Hermes started playing on a pipe of reeds as sweetly and monotonously as possible. Eventually Argus fell asleep, Hermes killed him, and Hera put the thousand eyes in the feathers of her favorite bird, the peacock. It seemed that Io would be free, but Hera sent a fly to follow her and drive her insane.
In response to the story, Prometheus reveals a prophecy that Io will wander for a long time in the beastly body, tormented by the fly. But finally she will reach the river Nile, where Zeus will restore her to her human form and give her a son. From this son will be born the greatest of heroes, Hercules, who will give Prometheus himself his freedom.
Prometheus is most notable for his heroic strength. Although Zeus severely punishes the very Titan who helped him come to power, Prometheus never yields to the god’s threats. Hamilton notes that despite slight variations on the Prometheus tale, his reputation remains intact; he is a “rebel against injustice and the authority of power.”
In this way, the myths present an important aspect of the Greek conception of a hero: the ability to suffer immense challenges. As we meet other heroes in later tales, other aspects of a hero's character will come out. With Prometheus, the story emphasizes his quiet resolve and incredible strength. This humanizes the hero, making him humble and decent, as any reader of the myth might want to be.
Mankind enjoys few or none of the external benefits enjoyed by animals, such as fur coats or protective shells. Instead, humans have been given fire, representing human power over energy. Human ingenuity is necessary to convert fire and energy to human purposes. Fire is a heavenly gift, having come from the sun and from a god.
In the famous story of Pandora’s box, the reader learns how earthly hardship was born. It is interesting to note that the female (and her curiosity) is blamed for all human suffering, like Eve in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Scholars have pointed to this fact in association with the Adam and Eve story, in which Eve is said to have ruined the utopia where mankind once lived. Retribution, a recurring theme in mythology, is quite notable in the story of Pandora. The Greek gods tend to lash out harshly when they perceive wrong done to them, and the case of Pandora is no exception. She was sent to earth so that her curiosity would drive her to open the box.
The Pandora story also underscores Zeus’s crafty nature. From Pandora’s box, mortals and gods alike understand the power of the god and fear his authority—at the same time, by leaving the fault in Pandora’s lap, he avoids direct responsibility for the evils in the world.
Interestingly, hope came out of the box, too. Does that mean that hope could be a misfortune as well? Perhaps, if hope represents a clinging to that which is untrue and does not exist. Or perhaps, if hope is not a misfortune, hope represents the kindness in Zeus's heart, in that he grants mankind the ability to aspire and improve despite the evils released from the box.
The myth of Prometheus and Io shows how the enduring spirit of Prometheus is refigured in the suffering Io. As the two suffering beings meet on the craggy rock, they share a common injustice and pain. By telling the prophecy to Io, Prometheus gives her hope that will help her stay strong in the hard times ahead.
As the two characters connect, the story portrays a poignant scene of empathy between characters who do not resemble on another: one character in a human form and the other in the form of a cow. Although characters take different forms throughout Greek mythology, rarely do we see such strong connections between characters of different physical shapes. In this subtle way, the myth suggests that character and spirit are separate from the physical body. Does one's nature change if one's appearance changes?
The story that Io tells Prometheus also reveals much about the relationship between Zeus and Hera. They trick each other, they play games with each other, and they use humans as pawns in those games. In his retelling of these events, the writer Ovid remarks that lies told by lovers are not wrong, but neither are they very useful: Hera knew exactly what Zeus was up to all along. In this sense, she is a counter-example versus many of the weak, naive, or innocent female characters throughout mythology. Shrewd and proactive, Hera outwits her husband as much as she can.
It is interesting to note that the story of Prometheus and Io also introduces the greatest of all heroes, Hercules. We learn about him in later myths, some of the most famous of the Greek canon.