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Prometheus Bound ()

    Of my free will, my own free will, I erred,  And freely do I here acknowledge it.

Aeschylus is considered to be the father of Greek Tragedy as we know it, if for no other reason than his introduction of a second actor onto the scene.  Up until his time, plays had consisted of just one actor, changing masks if necessary.  But in addition to being an innovator, Aeschylus wrote one of the really pivotal works in the history of literature and of the human quest to understand our purpose in the universe: Prometheus Bound.

The parallels to the Biblical account of man's fall are obvious.  Prometheus is a Titan, more than human but less than God, like the angels.  He gives fire to mankind in violation of Zeus' orders, making man a threat to the gods.  Zeus punishes him by chaining him to a boulder where vultures peck out his innards every day, only to have them grow back at night, a little harsher than making the serpent crawl and banishing man from Eden, eh?  And so on...

The play opens as Prometheus is being bound by the reluctant Hephaestus, god of fire, who is the first of several characters to beg him to repent and apologize to Zeus.  Not only does Prometheus refuse, he is outwardly defiant of the king of the gods:

                         These things are sorrowful for me to speak,
                         Yet silence too is sorrow: all ways woe!
                         When first the Blessed Ones were filled with wrath
                         And there arose division in their midst,
                         These instant to hurl Cronos from his throne
                         That Zeus might be their king, and these, adverse,
                         Contending that he ne'er should rule the Gods,
                         Then I, wise counsel urging to persuade
                         The Titans, sons of Ouranos and Chthon,
                         Prevailed not: but, all indirect essays
                         Despising, they by the strong hand, effortless,
                         Yet by main force-supposed that they might seize
                         Supremacy. But me my mother Themis
                         And Gaia, one form called by many names,
                         Not once alone with voice oracular
                         Had prophesied how power should be disposed-
                         That not by strength neither by violence
                         The mighty should be mastered, but by guile.
                         Which things by me set forth at large, they scorned,
                         Nor graced my motion with the least regard.
                         Then, of all ways that offered, I judged best,
                         Taking my mother with me, to support,
                         No backward friend, the not less cordial Zeus.
                         And by my politic counsel Tartarus,
                         The bottomless and black, old Cronos hides
                         With his confederates. So helped by me,
                         The tyrant of the Gods, such service rendered
                         With ignominious chastisement requites.
                         But 'tis a common malady of power
                         Tyrannical never to trust a friend.
                         And now, what ye inquired, for what arraigned
                         He shamefully entreats me, ye shall know.
                         When first upon his high, paternal throne
                         He took his seat, forthwith to divers Gods
                         Divers good gifts he gave, and parcelled out
                         His empire, but of miserable men
                         Recked not at all; rather it was his wish
                         To wipe out man and rear another race:
                         And these designs none contravened but me.
                         I risked the bord attempt, and saved mankind
                         From stark destruction and the road to hell.
                         Therefore with this sore penance am I bowed,
                         Grievous to suffer, pitiful to see.
                         But, for compassion shown to man, such fate
                         I no wise earned; rather in wrath's despite
                         Am I to be reformed, and made a show
                         Of infamy to Zeus.

Later he explains just what the possession of knowledge will mean to mankind:

                         Think not that I for pride and stubbornness
                         Am silent: rather is my heart the prey
                         Of gnawing thoughts, both for the past, and now
                         Seeing myself by vengeance buffeted.
                         For to these younger Gods their precedence
                         Who severally determined if not I?
                         No more of that: I should but weary you
                         With things ye know; but listen to the tale
                         Of human sufferings, and how at first
                         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.

                         Thy sufferings have been shameful, and thy mind
                         Strays at a loss: like to a bad physician
                         Fallen sick, thou'rt out of heart: nor cans't prescribe
                         For thine own case the draught to make thee sound.

                         But hear the sequel and the more admire
                         What arts, what aids I cleverly evolved.
                         The chiefest that, if any man fell s?ick,
                         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.

When Io, a mortal woman who has also been mistreated by Zeus, makes her appearance, Prometheus intimates that her descendants will eventually free him and unseat the king of the gods.  It is this key perception--that man has gained the capacity to achieve godhood himself--and the heroic defiance of Prometheus in giving us the wherewithal to mount this challenge that make the play so thrilling and earn it a central position in the Western Canon.

But there is, of course, one vital step still to be taken in man's self-realization and it occurs, not in Greek drama, but in Genesis.  For in the Promethean myth man is totally passive; it is up to the demigod Prometheus to force the action.  Whereas, while even Adam and Eve require some prodding from the serpent, the essence of their story is that they are liberated from the domesticated beastlike existence of Eden by an act of their own free will.  But we'll not let the best be the enemy of the good. Prometheus Bound represents an important expansion of man's understanding of the purpose of life, which is to use the gift of Prometheus (i.e. the capacity for knowledge) to make ourselves gods, and it is a must read.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Aeschylus Page (Temple U)
    -Aeschylus (c. 523-456 B.C.)
    -ETEXTS: GREAT BOOKS INDEX Aeschylus (524--455 BC):  An Index to Online Great Books in English Translation
    -The Internet Classics Archive | Works by Aeschylus
    -Concordance to Aeschylus - 7 Plays - translated by Robert Potter
    -t h e  c l a s s i c s  p a g e s
    -REVIEW: Bernard M.W. Knox: Aeschylus Pinioned and Grabbed, NY Review of Books
                         Aeschylus: Suppliants translated by Janet Lembke
                         Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes translated by Helen Bacon and Anthony Hecht
                         Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound translated by James Scully and C. John Herington
    -REVIEW: Prometheus at Yale (Francis Fergusson, NY Review of Books)
          Prometheus Bound derived from Aeschylus by Robert Lowell and directed by Jonathan Miller
    -Study Guide: Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
    -Study guide for Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound (Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Temple University)
    -ESSAY: Klytaimestra: A Study of Aeschylus' Agamemnon 1372-1576
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: Agamemnon (Spark Notes)
    -ESSAY: THE HEART OF THE MATTER: Gods, Grief, and Freedom in Aeschylus' Oresteia (Michael R. Deschenes, Classics Technology Center)
    -ESSAY:  The politics of Aeschylus' Eumenides (Keith Sidwell, St Patrick's College Maynooth,  CLASSICS IRELAND1996 Volume 3 University College Dublin, Ireland)
    -ESSAY: Ethics of Greek Theater (Sanderson Beck)
    -ESSAY:  Greek Tragedy  Lecture GREEK TRAGEDY: AESCHYLUS, WEAVING AND BIRTH by  Prof. Ricardo Nirenberg
     -REVIEW: The Oresteia By Aeschylus. A New Translation by Ted Hughes (Garry Wills, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck (Andrew Delbanco, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: (Jasper Griffin: The Myth of Myths, NY Review of Books)
            Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India by Wendy Doniger
           The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth by Wendy Doniger
      -REVIEW: of  The Oresteia of Aeschylus translated by Robert Lowell (D.S. Carne-Ross, NY Review of Books)
      -REVIEW: of The Ancient Concept of Progress by E.R. Dodds (W.H. Auden, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : The Second Fall of Rome :  Have the past two centuries of Western culture been one long saga of lionizing Greece while disparaging the cultural prestige and classical values of ancient Rome? (Michael Lind, Wilson Quarterly)


Aeschylus did not write Prometheus Bound. Since Mark Griffith's "The Authenticity of 'Prometheus Bound'" in 1977 scholars have been agreed that someone else wrote it, possibly a century later.

- Kratos

- Dec-13-2002, 18:41