Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus.
|Prometheus by Gustave Moreau (1868).|
I've been looking forward to reading Prometheus Bound (Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης) since reading about Prometheus in Hesiod's Theogony (8th Century). The play is ascribed to Aeschylus however there's doubt as to who the true author is. Furthermore none are certain of the date, and estimates range between the 480s B.C. to the 410s B.C.
In Hesiod's Theogony Prometheus is presented as the son of Iapetos (a Titan) and Klymene (an Oceanid), and his siblings are Atlas, Menoitios, and Epimetheus. Atlas and Prometheus were punished by Zeus at the beginning of Zeus' reign of the Olympians for challenging his authority - Atlas was forced to hold up the sky, Prometheus was bound in chains. There was a sense in Hesiod's work that Prometheus rather deserved the punishment however Aeschylus (I'll stick with convention and name him as the author) gives a rather different picture.
In Prometheus Bound Aeschylus describes how Prometheus is chained to a rock in the Caucasus mountains by Zeus' servants Strength (Kratos), Violence (Bia), and Hephaestus (the god of metal and fire, among other things). Strength speaks first,
Now have we journeyed to a spot of earth
Remote-the Scythian wild, a waste untrod.
And now, Hephaestus, thou must execute
The task our father laid on thee, and fetter
This malefactor to the jagged rocks
In adamantine bonds infrangible;
For thine own blossom of all forging fire
He stole and gave to mortals; trespass grave
For which the Gods have called him to account,
That he may learn to bear Zeus' tyranny
And cease to play the lover of mankind.
Hephaestus however feels pity for Prometheus, however he knows he must be the one to chain Prometheus to the rock, and Strength encourages him to do so. And so Prometheus is chained and left, and he calls on Mother Earth to observe his humiliation:
O divine air Breezes on swift bird-wings,
Ye river fountains, and of ocean-waves
The multitudinous laughter Mother Earth!
And thou all-seeing circle of the sun,
Behold what I, a God, from Gods endure!
Look down upon my shame,
The cruel wrong that racks my frame,
The grinding anguish that shall waste my strength,
Till time's ten thousand years have measured out their length!
He hath devised these chains,
The new throned potentate who reigns,
Chief of the chieftains of the Blest. Ah me! ...
He is overheard by the Oceanids who all express their sorrow at Prometheus' fate, talking of the new order (referring to the defeat of the Titans by the Olympians), and Prometheus describes how he stood in the way of Zeus and his plans to destroy humanity by giving them both hope and fire. Oceanus, the father of the Oceanids and one of the twelve Titans, joins them and he tells Prometheus he will talk to Zeus, however Prometheus refuses his help. He goes on to talk to the Chorus, telling them of what he gave humanity -
Senseless as beasts I gave men sense, possessed them
Of mind. I speak not in contempt of man;
I do but tell of good gifts I conferred.
In the beginning, seeing they saw amiss,
And hearing heard not, but, like phantoms huddled
In dreams, the perplexed story of their days
Confounded; knowing neither timber-work
Nor brick-built dwellings basking in the light,
But dug for themselves holes, wherein like ants,
That hardly may contend against a breath,
They dwelt in burrows of their unsunned caves.
Neither of winter's cold had they fixed sign,
Nor of the spring when she comes decked with flowers,
Nor yet of summer's heat with melting fruits
Sure token: but utterly without knowledge
Moiled, until I the rising of the stars
Showed them, and when they set, though much obscure.
Moreover, number, the most excellent
Of all inventions, I for them devised,
And gave them writing that retaineth all,
The serviceable mother of the Muse.
I was the first that yoked unmanaged beasts,
To serve as slaves with collar and with pack,
And take upon themselves, to man's relief,
The heaviest labour of his hands: and
Tamed to the rein and drove in wheeled cars
The horse, of sumptuous pride the ornament.
And those sea-wanderers with the wings of cloth,
The shipman's waggons, none but I contrived.
These manifold inventions for mankind
I perfected, who, out upon't, have none-
No, not one shift-to rid me of this shame.
What arts, what aids I cleverly evolved.
The chiefest that, if any man fell sick,
There was no help for him, comestible,
Lotion or potion; but for lack of drugs
They dwindled quite away; until I taught them
To compound draughts and mixtures sanative,
Wherewith they now are armed against disease.
I staked the winding path of divination
And was the first distinguisher of dreams,
The true from false; and voices ominous
Of meaning dark interpreted; and tokens
Seen when men take the road; and augury
By flight of all the greater crook-clawed birds
With nice discrimination I defined;
These by their nature fair and favourable,
Those, flattered with fair name. And of each sort
The habits I described; their mutual feuds
And friendships and the assemblages they hold.
And of the plumpness of the inward parts
What colour is acceptable to the Gods,
The well-streaked liver-lobe and gall-bladder.
Also by roasting limbs well wrapped in fat
And the long chine, I led men on the road
Of dark and riddling knowledge; and I purged
The glancing eye of fire, dim before,
And made its meaning plain. These are my works.
Then, things beneath the earth, aids hid from man,
Brass, iron, silver, gold, who dares to say
He was before me in discovering?
None, I wot well, unless he loves to babble.
And in a single word to sum the whole-
All manner of arts men from Prometheus learned.
And then poor Io arrives tormented by a gadfly: Ovid described in Book I of Metamorphoses how Io was turned into a "snow-white heifer" by Juno (Hera) after Io was raped by Zeus and Juno suspected an affair (she was transformed back again). In Prometheus Bound Io tells of how she was turned into a cow and how her father was murdered. Prometheus prophesises that Io is doomed to wander the earth however one of her descendent will one day be King of Argos.
This prophecy is the second of Prometheus' - the first was that one day Zeus would be usurped by his son. Throughout the play he keeps this secret however, angered by the suffering of Io he tells the chorus. Zeus, however, has a great many offspring, so Hermes arrives and demands to know the mother of the son that will defeat Zeus. He refuses and he and Hermes argue before Hermes leaves, threatening him:
This rocky chasm shall the Father split
With earthquake thunder and his burning bolt,
And he shall hide thy form, and thou shalt hang
Bolt upright, dandled in the rock's rude arms.
Nor till thou hast completed thy long term
Shalt thou come back into the light; and then
The hound of Zeus, the tawny eagle,
Shall violently fall upon thy flesh
And rend it as 'twere rags; and every day
And all day long shall thine unbidden guest
Sit at thy table, feasting on thy liver
Till he hath gnawn it black. Look for no term
To such an agony till there stand forth
Among the Gods one who shall take upon him
Thy sufferings and consent to enter hell
Far from the light of Sun, yea, the deep pit
And mirk of Tartarus, for thee. Be advised;
This is not stuffed speech framed to frighten the
But woeful truth. For Zeus knows not to lie.
Prometheus is unyielding, Hermes departs, and once again Prometheus is left mourning his fate to Mother Earth -
Earth, awful Mother! Air,
That shedd'st from the revolving sky
On all the light they see thee by,
What bitter wrongs I bear!
There the play ends. It is perhaps my favourite Aeschylus play so far - very poignant, and a great critique of the tyranny not just of Zeus and the Olympians but of other cruel hierarchies. It was in fact a triology, followed by Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, however these plays did not survive in their entirety. It is thought that in the second play Heracles would have saved Prometheus, and in the third Prometheus would have revealed the mother of the son who would usurp Zeus was Thetis (an Oceanid). She, after the revelation, married Peleus and their son was Achilles. Zeus was grateful to Prometheus and the two reconcile. Percy Bysshe Shelley also wrote on Prometheus in his 1820 play Prometheus Unbound which I am hoping to read very soon.
For now, to finish, three paintings by Christian Griepenkerl (1839-1916) on the Prometheus myth:
|Theft of fire.|
|Prometheus freed by Heracles.|