This painting, by the Austrian artist Carl Rahl (c. 1812 – 1865), depicts a fortunate meeting of two prominent figures from Greek mythology. On the left, in the forefront of the painting, is Prometheus—a pro-human deity who was a thorn in Zeus’ side. As a result of his pranks, and most of all for giving fire and all of its benefits to mankind, Zeus condemned Prometheus to the grisly fate of being restrained on a mountainside, with an eagle constantly eating at his liver. Prometheus was saved from this torment, however, by the man shown in the background on the right side of the painting. The mysterious rescuer is none other than Heracles, who shot the eagle out of the sky with a well-placed arrow. Hesiod, a poet from the 8th century BCE, wrote of the myth:
“[Zeus] bound crafty Prometheus in inescapable fetters, grievous bonds, driving them through the middle of a pillar. And he set a great winged eagle upon him, and it fed on his immortal liver, which grew the same amount each way at night as the great bird ate in the course of the day. It was killed by trim-ankled Alcmene’s valiant son, Heracles, who saved the son of Iapetos from that affliction and set him free from his distress” (Hesiod, Theogony, between lines 497-529).
In his painting, Carl Rahl captured the moment right after Heracles shot the eagle, a favor for which Prometheus was no doubt thankful. As for the “inescapable fetters,” far less is known about that obstacle, and even mighty Heracles might not have been able to pry apart the godly chains. Yet, in many of the differing accounts of the myth, Heracles did succeed in setting Prometheus free.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.