Sunday, August 8, 2021

Prometheus Bound

One of the great tragedies of the ancient Greek theatre is Prometheus Bound, which has generally been attributed to the playwright Aeschylus.

At the beginning of the play, the figures of Might and Power carry out the mission given to them by Zeus to bind the immortal Prometheus to a rock. To do this, they need the help of the smith god Hephaestus, who is a bit reluctant to chain up a fellow immortal. 

Since Prometheus does not speak during this first scene, it might originally have been staged with the binding of a massive effigy of Prometheus (since he was a titan, after all). Then, a masked actor might have emerged as the double for the giant effigy, though this is purely guesswork.

When Prometheus does speak, it is to attack Zeus for unjustly punishing him for helping humanity. "Behold what ignominy of causeless wrongs / I suffer from the gods, myself a god," he complains. "See what piercing pains shall goad me / Through long ages myriad-numbered!" Prometheus emphasizes the injustice of his punishment, since his only crime was bringing fire to mankind.

Next comes the parados, the part of the play where the chorus enters, singing and dancing. The chorus in Prometheus Bound is made up of the Oceanides, the daughters of the titan Oceanus. They attempt to bring comfort to Prometheus, singing:

               Fear nothing: for a friendly hand approaches;
               Fleet rivalry of wings
               Oar'd us to this far height, with hard consent
               Wrung from our careful sire.
               The winds swift-sweeping bore me: for I heard
               The harsh hammer's note deep deep in ocean caves,
               And throwing virgin shame aside, unshod
               The winged car I mounted.

Prometheus then relates his story to the Oceanides. He used to give counsel to the titans, but after they stopped listening to him, he accepted the friendship of Zeus. It was with Prometheus's advice that Zeus overthrew his father Kronos and imprisoned most of the titans. The final straw came when Zeus decided to destroy mankind and build a whole new race of mortals, hence Prometheus's decision to steal fire and save mankind.

Oceanus then enters and expresses sympathy for Prometheus, but also warns his fellow titan not to anger Zeus, the new boss in town. For his part, Prometheus tells Oceanus that he should watch himself, too, since if Zeus turned on him, the Ocean god could be next. Hearing this, Oceanus takes off, and the chorus sings another hymn.

The next visitor is Io, the Argive princess who had an affair with Zeus and got changed into a cow by Hera as punishment. What's more, Hera sent a gadfly to torment Io so she could never find rest and had to wander almost endlessly. To Prometheus, the fate of Io is just more proof that Zeus is an unjust tyrant who betrays even his most faithful friends.

Hermes is the last visitor Prometheus gets in the play, and the messenger of the gods warns him once more to repent. Prometheus, however, remains defiant, and challenges Zeus, saying:

               Let the harsh-winged hurricane sweep me
               In its whirls, and fling me down
               To black Tartarus: there to lie
               Bound in the iron folds of Fate.
               I will bear: but cannot die.

Though Hermes urges the Oceanides to abandon Prometheus, they pledge to stay with him, and the final lines of the play are given by the bound titan, captive, but still defiant.

However, that's not how the story ends. Prometheus Bound was originally a part of a trilogy that also contained Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus Fire-Bringer. The Prometheus Unbound by Aeschylus should not be confused with the choral drama of the same name by Percy Bysshe Shelley. In Aeschylus's version of the story, it is Herakles who frees Prometheus from his captivity. (Shelley takes the myth in a different direction)

Though the play is now lost, the Roman writer Cicero translated a lengthy passage of Prometheus Unbound into Latin. The passage appears to have Prometheus addressing the chorus, saying:

               Offspring of Titans, allied in blood,
               See me bound to rugged rocks
               And chained to stones,
               Like a ship on the sea, amidst a dreadful din.
               Saturn's son Jupiter nailed me here;
               Jove's power of Mulciber bound me;
               A cruel one, he made his will be done...

Saturn is the Roman name for Kronos, Jupiter is Zeus, and Mulciber is an alternate name for Hephaestus (generally known as Vulcan to the Romans). The passage is interesting, but unfortunately it does not give us much insight into how the rest of the play went.

Even less is known about Prometheus Fire-Bringer, which is generally assumed to be the third play in the trilogy, in spite of the fact that the gift of fire was made before Prometheus Bound even begins. We've only got one line of the play: "Quiet, where need is; and talking to the point." That's not much to go on, especially considering we're not even sure who says it.

So without the rest of the trilogy, all we're left with is one really good play. Instead of agonizing over what is lost, we probably should just value what we still have.