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Prometheus Bound By Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.)

“Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus (525 – 456 B.C.)Prometheus Bound
by Aeschylus (525 – 456
Type of Work:
Classical tragic drama
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
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.

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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

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.

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!


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