In Greek legend, Prometheus was the Titan who, against the will of Zeus, stole fire from the gods for the benefit of man. His terrible punishment by Zeus, and his continuing defiance of Zeus in the face of that punishment, remain universal symbols of man's vulnerability in any struggle with the gods. In the epic drama Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC), first of the three great Greek tragic poets, re-creates this legendary conflict between rebellious subject and vengeful god. Chained for eternity to a barren rock, his flesh repeatedly torn by a ravaging eagle, Prometheus defends his championship of mankind, rejoicing in the many gifts of language and learning he has given man despite Zeus's cruel opposition. Inspired by Prometheus's spirit, Aeschylus reaches beyond the myth to create one of literature's most gripping portrayals of man's inhumanity to man. How Prometheus clings to his convictions and braves his harsh fate give Prometheus Bound its extraordinary vitality and appeal. For over 2,000 years, this masterpiece of drama has held audiences enthralled. It is reprinted here in its entirety from the translation by George Thomson.
The Great Books KC group selected this book for discussion because we had previously discussed Frankenstein, a Modern Prometheus. Our discussion spent considerable time discussing what Mary Shelly may have been thinking when she placed the name Prometheus into her book's subtitle. The logical conclusion is that Dr. Frankenstein was Prometheus and the Monster was the equivalent of saving humans, giving them fire and teaching them the secrets of divination. Assuming that Shelly intended the monster to be an example of a big mistake leading to unintended consequences, did Shelly think that humans were big mistake? One interpretation of the Prometheus is that he did a bad thing by defying Zeus's wishes and saving humans from being destroyed and giving them fire. Shelly must have been a romantic who thought that nature would be so much better off if humans were not on the scene.
I prefer to believe that Shelly was thinking more about the fire given to humans than about humans themselves. Fire can do many good things, but too much of it can be undesirably destructive. It would follow that humans aren't good or bad, but rather how they use the fire given to them that's good or bad.
The Promethean myth was a well known story to those living in the first century Greco-Roman world. That may explain why the new Christian religion spread as quickly as it did among the Greek culture of the middle east, and why they went on to developed the atonement theory. The image of Prometheus being spiked to a boulder has obvious similarities to the Christian crucifixion story. Both stories involve a god saving humans. Thus when a new religion came along that involved Christ dying for sinners, it made sense to the people at the time. It's interesting to note that Eastern Religions that were not influenced by Greek myths did not develop a religion that involved a god suffering for the benefit of humans.
Perhaps God gave the Promethean myth to the ancient Greeks in order to prepare the mind set of the first Century Greco-Roman world to be open the Christian message.
Read in December, 2008
As a classics major, I encounter a lot of ancient literature. And much of that literature exists in bland public-domain translations from the late 1800s. Even worse, some translators render beautiful ancient poetry into prose. I avoid as much of that stuff as possible.
This translation is just the opposite. The product of a collaboration between Scully (a poet) and Herington (a classicist), this rendering is a very beautiful even if a bit loose. See this speech by the chorus:
"May Zeus never turn
power against my mind
may I never
to approach the gods
with holy feasts
of blood drenched bulls
where Father Ocean, our father, streams and streams
may I never
say a sinful word
may this be ever
engraved in my mind
as words on wax
Nothing is sweeter
as long as this may be
always to hope
and feast, keep
the heart while it throbs
alive, lit up
O but my blood runs cold, I'm cold, seeing you
raked over with
ten thousand tortures
you won't cower for Zeus,
you've a mind of your own
too much! Prometheus!"
Definitely not your standard translation!
I really like how Aeschylus brings out some of the nuances in this story. We're not sure whether or not Prometheus is telling the truth about his motives - he claims he wanted to help humans. We are also not sure whether or not Zeus acted justly or unjustly in punishing Prometheus. Was he being petty and vindictive, or just setting an example for those rebelling against his authority?
I like this edition, because it also has forewards from the translators and an appendix with fragments from the other two plays in the trilogy. (Greek plays entered in the Dionysian theater-competitions were always in a trilogy, which need not be one storyline. "Prometheus Bound" is the first of this trilogy, and the only one we still have. The second and third plays, "Prometheus Unbound" and "Prometheus Firebearer," exist only in scattered quotations and paraphrases from other authors.)
I'll leave with this statement from the translator:
"This is one play that seems to have been written with the head, hands, and heart: bunched, impacted, in the solar plexus. Ideally it would not be read or seen, but undergone." (25)
This dramatic play focuses on Prometheus's lament, his stubborn hope, and his proud strength, in the midst of being so tortured.
I loved the strong, bold poetry in this play.
As the title would suggest the titan Prometheus takes center stage in this play, the work opening after he has already disobeyed Zeus and given fire (and with it the arts and sciences) to humanity. Prometheus did this knowing full well that he would be punished for it, tortured in fact, but he accepts this fate in order to save mankind. When he is being chained and nailed to the mountainside it's impossible not to note the parallels between the figure of Prometheus and that of Jesus Christ, but while the suffering to redeem others is the same, no third day ascendance is at hand for Prometheus. Likewise, though Prometheus has taken action knowing what fate would result, he does not accept such punishment as did Christ. Prometheus is not going quietly into the night, nor is he a humble figure, but instead he continues to struggle against the injustice that has been done to him and refuses to bow down to the perpetrator of that injustice, despite acknowledging the superior power of Zeus. While Christ acted in accordance with God's wishes and suffered at the hands of those he sought to redeem, Prometheus went against Zeus for the sake of mankind, and suffers at the hands of Zeus because of it. Prometheus is, in short, a fascinating character, the very embodiment of the idea that tyranny should never be bowed to, but always struggled against. He is prideful, to be sure, but is being humble the correct response to injustice?
The other focus of the play is the newly enthroned Zeus, a character who never appears within the text of the play but who nevertheless influences every part of it. Through Prometheus, the chorus, Io, and Hermes the messenger, Aeschylus paints a dictatorial Zeus that has already begun to abuse his power. Zeus lords over both gods and man, taking what he wants and threatening to crush any opposition. He is a powerful God, but far from just, the only character who seems to conflate the two being Hermes his messenger. Of Zeus' newfound power Prometheus states that there "is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship-inability to trust one's friends." A lesson still worth knowing now, over 2,400 years after the play was written. Like Prometheus is a fascinating character for resisting tyranny, Zeus is a fascinating character to look to for the descent into tyranny and the corrupting influence of power. He is not just powerful, but the ultimate power in the universe, and while there is the well known adage that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," Zeus' position at the head of the pantheon means that he will have to be dealt with before Prometheus is to be freed, and force is not an option.
In a scant forty pages Aeschylus establishes two fascinating characters (one of which doesn't even appear in person) and sets up a fascinating dynamic between the two. Unfortunately, that is all he does with this piece. The next two plays, if they existed, might have brought to fruition all of the potential this play contains, and if that had occurred then the Prometheus Cycle would have eclipsed the Oresteia and become a centerpiece of classical study. As it stands, however, all we have left is this introductory piece, with all the threads left dangling. We have lost whatever other parts of the cycle existed, and are left to wonder what might have been.
The story in Prometheus Bound is a little more complicated. One of the old school Titans, when their descendants (the Olympian Gods) under Zeus rebel, Prometheus tries to help the Titans; they spurn his help and he then changes sides. But Zeus turns out to be no more beneficent a ruler than Kronos was, so Prometheus once again switches, siding decisively with the common folk - humans - and giving them, along with fire, math, husbandry, and medicine. Now comes the punishment: the play opens as Hephaistos chains him down, and he whines like a bitch for like 30 pages before turning to self-aggrandizement and finally prophesying his own victory and the downfall of Zeus.
No wonder Karl Marx liked this play.
It's not terribly good. Certainly not as good as the Oresteia, and while it's unfair to say that because we're missing the second two parts of the Prometheus trilogy (stay tuned for my review of Percy Bysshe Shelley's recreation of Prometheus Unbound next week,) Prometheus Bound has nowhere near the depth of Agememnon, the first of the Oresteia trilogy and Aeschylus's best work. Apparently modern scholars (only in the past 20 years or so) are leaning towards believing that Prometheus Bound isn't by Aeschylus at all, and I see no reason to disagree.
Prometheus is one of our best metaphors. At his simplest: a genius chooses to share it with the proles against the will of the bosses and is punished. At what this play actually says: a genius goes with the revolution, hoping that life will be better under it; realizes that absolute power corrupts absolutely; and is punished. Either way, useful, although I prefer the second scheme for its depth and for its truth.
As a story it's terrific; whoever wrote this play didn't do a great job of expressing it.
The translation by Scully and Herington falls in the Fagles mode: a few too many modernizations ("Zeus is not / about to mellow," that seriously happened) but some lovely lines as well...uh, no, not really. Fagles can boast that, but Scully/ Herington have at best functional lines. I didn't care for this translation. I can't recommend it.