Alexander and Prometheus

Alexander and Prometheus: an episode from the reign of Alexander the Great, who saw what he believed to be the cave of Prometheus in the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Heracles liberates Prometheus (group from Pergamon)

The Greek author Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c.275-192 BCE) was one of the greatest scientists of his age, and became librarian in the Museum, the scientific institute of Alexandria. In one of his lost works, he discussed the stories about Alexander the Great, saying that his courtiers greatly exaggerated his achievements. As an example, he mentioned how Alexander's men identified a cave near Alexandria in the Caucasus with the cave in which the demi-god Prometheus had been kept imprisoned after he had given fire to humankind. Every day, the Greeks told, an eagle had come to devour Prometheus' liver. Eratosthenes did not believe that the Macedonians had seen this, and was angry that the historians of Alexander believed that the Macedonian king had really reached the mythological Mount Caucasus.

This remark is quoted by Arrian of Nicomedia. Section 5.3.1-2 of the Anabasis is offered here in the translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt. After this, you will find the same fragment of Eratosthenes, this time quoted by another author, Strabo of Amasia.


Eratosthenes of Cyrene tells us that everything attributed by the Macedonians to the divine influence was grossly exaggerated in order to please Alexander. For instance, there is a cave in in the territory of the Parapamisidae; according to Eratosthenes, the Macedonians saw this cave and on the strength of some local legend (which they well may have invented) put it about that it was the cave where Prometheus was hung in chains when the eagle used to come to feed on his guts, and that Heracles came thither to kill the eagle and set Prometheus free; so that by means of this tale the Macedonians transferred Mount Caucasus from Pontus to the far east, fixing it in India in the country of the Parapamisidae, and gave the name Caucasus to what flatter Alexander by the inference that he had crossed Caucasus.


Stories circulated for the purpose of exalting the fame (of eminent persons) are not received with equal favor by all; the object of the inventors was flattery rather than truth; they transferred, for example, the Caucasus to the mountains of India, and to the eastern sea, which approaches close to them, from the mountains situated above Colchis, and the Euxine Sea. These are the mountains to which the Greeks give the name of Caucasus, and are distant more than 30,000 stadia from India. Here they lay the scene of Prometheus and his chains, for these were the farthest places towards the east with which the people of those times were acquainted. The expeditions of Bacchus and of Hercules against the Indians indicate a mythological story of later date, for Hercules is said to have released Prometheus a thousand years after he ws first chained to the rock. It was more glorious too for Alexander to subjugate Asia as far as the mountains of India than to the recess only of the Euxine Sea and the Caucasus. The celebrity, and the name of the mountain, together with the persuasion that Jason and his companions had accomplished the most distant of all expeditions when they had arrived in the neighborhood of the Caucasus, and the tradition that Prometheus had been chained on Caucasus at the extremity of the earth, induced writers to suppose that they should gratify the king by transferring the name of the mountain to India.


Arrian already believed that Eratosthenes had been a bit too skeptical, and modern scholarship has established that there was indeed a local myth that could well have inspired the Macedonians. In the first place, the name Mount Parapamisus is a rendering of Upari Sena, which is mentioned in the sacred book of the Persians, the Avesta, and interpreted as "peak over which the Sena cannot fly" - the Sena is the same as the eagle Simurgh from Persian legend, and mentioned as the protector of the hero Rustam and his father Zal in Firdowsi's famous poem Shahname.

This was already known for some time, but it is interesting that the existence of the cave of the legendary eagle is also mentioned by a Chinese traveler named Xuan Zang (603-664). He was a Buddhist pilgrim, and in his account of his travels through Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, he tells that near Kapisa (his name for Alexander's city in the Parapamisus), he visited the cave where the bird, now named Suna, had conversed with a mountain that had attempted to be the largest in the world.

Alexander's visit to the rock of Prometheus became famous. Almost three centuries later, the Roman general Pompey the Great went sightseeing in the Caucasus and saw another rock.note


This page was created in 2004; last modified on 16 December 2019.