There once lived a race of huge giants called Titans. These giants were fierce, turbulent, and lawless—always fighting among themselves and against Jupiter, the king of the gods.
One of the Titans, whose name was Prometheus, was wiser than the rest. He often thought about what would be likely to happen in the future.
One day, Prometheus said to his brother Titans: "What is the use of wasting so much strength? In the end, wisdom and forethought will win. If we are going to fight against the gods, let us choose a leader and stop quarrelling among ourselves."
The Titans answered him by a shower of great rocks and uprooted trees.
Prometheus, after escaping unhurt, said to his younger brother: "Come, Epimetheus, we can do nothing among these Titans. If they keep on, they will tear the earth to pieces. Let us go and help Jupiter to overcome them."
Epimetheus agreed to this, and the two brothers went over to Jupiter, who called the gods together and began a terrible battle. The Titans tore up enormous boulders and cast them at the gods, while Jupiter hurled his thunderbolts and his lightnings in all directions. Soon the sky was a sheet of flame, the sea boiled, the earth trembled, and the forests took fire and began to burn.
At last the gods—partly by the help of the wise counsel of Prometheus—conquered the Titans, took them to the ends of the earth, and imprisoned them in a deep underground cavern. Neptune, the sea-god, made strong bronze gates with heavy bolts and bars, to keep the giants down, while Jupiter sent Briareus and his brothers, three giants with fifty heads and a hundred hands each, to stand guard over them.
All but one of the Titans who had fought against the gods were imprisoned in this cavern. This one who was not shut in with the others was Atlas, whose enormous strength was greater than that of his brothers, while his disposition was less quarrelsome. He was made to stand and hold up the sky on his head and hands.
As the Titans could now make no more trouble, there was comparative peace and quiet on the earth. Nevertheless, Jupiter said that, although the men who remained on the earth were not so strong as the Titans, they were a foolish and wicked race. He declared that he would destroy them—sweep them away, and have done with them, forever.
When their king said this, none of the gods dared to say a word in defence of mankind. But Prometheus, the Titan, who was earth-born himself, and loved these men of the earth, begged Jupiter so earnestly to spare them, that Jupiter consented to do so.
At this time, men lived in dark, gloomy caves. Their friend, Prometheus, taught them to build simple houses, which were much more comfortable than the caves had been. This was a great step forward, but men needed more help yet from the Titan. The beasts in the forests, and the great birds that built their nests on the rocks, were strong; but men were weak. The lion had sharp claws and teeth; the eagle had wings; the turtle had a hard shell; but man, although he stood upright with his face toward the stars, had no weapon with which he could defend himself.
Prometheus said that man should have Jupiter's wonderful flower of fire, which shone so brightly in the sky. So he took a hollow reed, went up to Olympus, stole the red flower of fire, and brought it down to earth in his reed.
After this, all the other creatures were afraid of man, for this red flower had made him stronger than they. Man dug iron out of the earth, and by the help of his new fire made weapons that were sharper than the lion's teeth; he tamed the wild cattle by the fear of it, yoked them together, and taught them how to draw the plough; he sharpened strong stakes, hardening them in its heat, and set them around his house as a defence from his enemies; he did many other things besides with the red flower that Prometheus had made to blossom at the end of the reed.
Jupiter, sitting on his throne, saw with alarm how strong man was becoming. One day he discovered the theft of his shining red flower, and knew that Prometheus was the thief. He was greatly displeased at this act.
"Prometheus loves man too well," said he. "He shall be punished." Then he called his two slaves, Strength and Force, and told them to take Prometheus and bind him fast to a great rock in the lonely Caucasian Mountains. At the same time he ordered Vulcan, the lame smith-god, to rivet the Titan's chains—in a cunning way that only Vulcan knew.
There Prometheus hung on the rock for hundreds of years. The sun shone on him pitilessly, by day—only the kindly night gave him shade. He heard the rushing wings of the sea-gulls, as they came to feed their young who cried from the rocks below. The sea-nymphs floated up to his rock to give him their pity. A vulture, cruel as the king of the gods, came daily and tore him with its claws and beak.
But this frightful punishment did not last forever. Prometheus himself knew that some day he should be set free, and this knowledge made him strong to endure.
At last the time came when Jupiter's throne was in danger, and Prometheus, pitying his enemy, told him a secret which helped him to make everything safe again. After this, Jupiter sent Hercules to shoot the vulture and to break the Titan's chains. So Prometheus was set free.