“Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.) Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.) Type of Work: Classical tragic drama Setting A desolate Scythian cliff; remote antiquity Principal Characters Prometheus, the fire-bearing Titan demigod Hephaestus, an Olympian fire god Might (kratos) and Force (Bia), beings representing Power and Violence Oceanos, god of the sea, and brother to Prometheus Io, a river princess Hermes, Zeus the chief Olympian god’s winged messenger A Chorus composed of the daughters of Oceanos, who converse, comment, and sing throughout the play Play Overveiw Prologue: Like other works of the Classical Age, Prometheus Bound doesn’t begin in the beginning but leaps in medias res (“into the middle of things”), just as Prometheus, a defiant demigod, is brought in chains to be fettered to a desolate mountain crag. For the modern reader – as opposed to an Aeschylian audience, who would have already been conversant with the plot – a bit of background is in order. Prometheus was a god from the old order, the Titans, who had now all been overthrown by a group of young upstarts, the Olympians – all, that is, except for Prometheus. Rather than go down in honor, this half-god Prometheus, in order to avoid further violence, had chosen to desert over to the Olympian forces. In fact, he was instrumental in Zeus’ ursurpation of the throne from the old Titan king Chronus. In the new order, Zeus stood as chief god.
Now one of Zeus’ first objectives was to destroy the rice of men, who, until then, had been a primitive, unenlightened and miserable lot. Zeus’ intent was to replace mankind with a new, more noble race, servile to the gods’ every whim. When the destructive proclamation went out, however, Prornetheus alone objected to Zeus’ heartless proposal. He saw in man a spark of divine promise that even the gods might envy, and in order to save the human race, he willingly and courageously committed a crime: he brought fire down from heaven and taught the mortals how to use it. Furthermore, he tutored them in practical arts, applied sciences and philosophy, that he might edify, ennoble and empower them. But these saving acts were deemed highly treasonous; such knowledge in the hands of humans threatened to put them on an equal footing with the gods themselves. Furious, Zeus commanded the Olympian blacksmith god of fire, Hephaestus, and the gods of Might and Force, Kratos and Bia, to seize Prometheus and shackle him to a barren mountain-side. But Hephaestus approached his task halfheartedly.
He had been taught to respect deity and he sympathized with Prometheus – after all, it didn’t seem right that a divine being should suffer such scornful abuse. Pangs of sorrow overwhelmed him; to think that this god was doomed to remain in chains as the solitary guardian of a lonely Scythian cliff for all time to come! The exchange between Hephaestus and Might (Kratos) showed clearly their separate sentiments. <>Even as the smithy was reasoning and pleading: Compassion will not move the mind of Zeus: All monarchs new to power show brutality … How bitterly I hate any craftsman’s cunning now! .. Prometheus! I lament your pain ..
Might stood by complaining of Hephaestus’ delay, and demanding full punishment: Now do your work – enough of useless pitying. How can you fail to loathe this god whom all gods hate, Who has betrayed to man the prize that was your right? .. The hammer! Strike, and rivet hurt against the rock! .. Teach this clever one he is less wise than Zeus. Now take your wedge of steel and with its cruel point Transfix him! Drive it through his breast with all your strength! The smithy had no choice but to comply with his orders; and tied with bonds “as strong as adamant,” Prometheus was left alone on the jagged face of the cliff.
Before departing, the mighty Kratos hurled one last taunt at the Titan god, asking how his human friends could help him now, and chuckling at the foolish Titans who had named him Prometheus, “the Forethinker.” It seemed now, Kratos pointed out, that Prometheus required a higher intelligence to do his thinking for him. The captive god called upon the wind, the waters, mother earth, and the sun to look on him and see how gods tortured a god. He bemoaned his invincible fate, puzzled that he should be punished simply for loving mankind. Presently, a chorus of the daughters of Oceanos, Prometheus’ brother, came on the scene. Seeing the tragic yet defiant figure on the crag, they felt both pity and admiration, and listened as their uncle described the events that had brought him to his exile. The chorus stayed to provide comforting music and cheer.
Next, Prometheus received separate visits from three characters – Oceanos himself, lo, and Hermes. Occanos came with a plan. He would go before Zeus and convey his brother’s sorrow and plead for forgiveness. He reasoned that if an apology were offered, and if the captive Titan subjected himself to Zeus’ sovereignty, Prometheus might be granted a pardon. But Prometheus was outraged at this proposal; he was a god, and would not stoop to such an apology. Had not Zeus been the true traitor? Had he not betrayed and bound a fellow god? Oceanos begged his brother to allow him at least a word with Zeus on his behalf, but Prometheus dismissed his offer, calling it a “useless effort” and claiming that if Oceanos tried to intervene, he too would be in danger of punishment for siding with a rebel. Before his reluctant withdrawal, Oceanos chastised his brother for his arrogance and warned that he would someday be sorry for it.
Prometheus responded that he wool d rather suffer forever than beg forgiveness of Zeus. After he departed, Oceanos’ daughters began to recite a lyrical passage, mourning Prometheus’ predicament. As they sang, the Titan answered their lamentations, revealing a secret, an ancient prophecy, made known only to him, which stated that one day he would be freed from bondage and Zeus would be put under siege and defeated. Though he had no knowledge of how or when it would happen, this foreknowledge of Zeus’ eventual downfall and Prometheus’ satisfaction for having brought to man the arts of letters and numbers, and all manner of crafts, was what permitted him to endure his present punishment. Io, the daughter of Inachus, a river god, was the next to pass.
Zeus had once tried to seduce the lovely Io, but Hera, his jealous wife, had discovered her husband’s intentions and turned poor Io into a cow, left to wander about the earth, constantly pursued and tormented by a pestilent gadfly. Io bewailed her unhappy fate. Prometheus only responded with fresh lamentations on his own misery. Finally, though, he offered Io some consolation: he revealed, again through prophetic knowledge, the time and day when she would be restored to her true form. Io pled for Prometheus to tell her more, but he would divulge only this: Zeus would one day give her back her beauty, and she would bear Zeus a son. After three generations had passed, one of this offspring’ s descendants (Hercules) would rise up and overpower Zeus, and finally free Prometheus from his mountain isolation.
No sooner did the Titan finish imparting this information, than the gadfly renewed his torment or poor Io, driving her off in a frenzy. Now Prometheus had openly denounced Zeus and had predicted his downfall. This blasphemous invective did not go unheard by the chief god, who dispatched the messenger Hermes both to rebuke Prometheus and to inquire after the meaning of his prophecies. This third visitor questioned Prometheus concerning the report that one of Zeus’ own descendants would someday usurp him. Exactly who would bear the child? What would be the child’s name? Prometheus, more bitter than ever, scornfully refused to answer any of these questions. Rather, in a brilliant and biting exchange, he belittled Hermes as nothing more than a puppet-slave to Zeus: “I’d rather suffer here in freedom than be a slave to Zeus as you are.” Hermes: Your words declare you mad.
Prometheus: Yes, if it’s madness to detest my foes. Hermes: No one could bear you in success. Prometheus: Alas! Hermes: Alas! Zeus does not know that word. Prometheus: Time in its aging course teaches all things. Hermes: But you have not yet learned a wise discretion. Prometheus: True, or I would not speak so to a servant.
With this, Hermes made off in a huff, quicky retreating from the revenge he knew would arrive forthwith on the proud captive; and indeed Prometheus’ fate was soon sealed. The enraged Zeus sent a thunderbolt hurtling down to shatter the cliff, and with blasts of wind, opened an abyss-dungeon deep within the trembling earth. Thus damned, the Titan fire-bearer was thrust down to this hellish punishment – until the time should come for his deliverance. Commentary This simple yet compelling drama is almost devoid of action, but full of reflection and ideas. For this reason, it has enjoyed more success as a dramatic poem than as a play – a work to be read rather than staged. It is quite natural for the reader to sympathize with Prometheus here, and to see Zeus as a pitiless, imperious young tyrant, more concerned with suppressing insubordination than with the general welfare of his subjects.
We ought to remember, however, that Prometheus Bound is only the first in a trilogy. The Zeus depicted in the second play, Prometheus Unbound, is far less stern; he reconciles with Prometheus and frees him. (Incidentally, the third play, Prometheus the Fire-bearer, has been lost.) The plots of these plays have frequently been used as figurative evidence by those who denounce Governments and other institutions as oppressors of the individual. For instance, a scientist who uncovers a principle which appears to contradict established religious or scientific tenets can identify with Prometheus when his findings are ridiculed or suppressed. Prometheus, a god made subject to suffering by the pettiness of gods, is symbolic of man’s petty inhumanity to man.
Even as the figure of Prometheus, with the daughters of Oceanos around him, sinks out of sight, the great Titan-god cries out: Ocean and sky are one great chaos! So mighty a gale comes only from Zeus: He sends it to rouse wild fear in my heart … O glorious mother, O sky that sends The racing sun to give all thing s light, You see what injustice I suffer!.