Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
In knowingly choosing rebellion, Prometheus set the stage, defining a choice of opposing tyranny and unjust laws, starting the march down the long path towards equality under the law. Aeschylus wrote the tragic play Prometheus Bound as part of a trilogy over 2600 years ago. Unfortunately, only the first volume survives. Yet, its remarkable story tells of the refusal to accept tyranny and arbitrary rule. In an early argument against authoritarian rule, we see a message that remains important even today.
In knowingly choosing rebellion, Prometheus set the stage, defining a choice of opposing tyranny and unjust laws that start the march down the long path towards equality under the law. In the narrative, Zeus and Prometheus were once allies (Aeschylus, 50–51). Yet, Zeus disregards Prometheus’s actions and punishes him cruelly. Zeus, an authoritarian God, usurped Chronos with the assistance of Prometheus and others but then forgot one and all who had helped and set his arbitrary rulings. Prometheus stands against tyranny (Aeschylus, 42, 43, 50-1).
Like other plays of this type at the time, it is a morally centred investigation into the question of whether we should follow the rules or potentially when we should break them, even knowing the consequences. However, while Prometheus allows himself to be bound, it is important to remember that he did so knowingly. Like Socrates, Prometheus approached his fate, knowing the consequence of his actions (Cools et al.; Tarnas).
Divinity and divine power represented something especially different in the Greco-Roman world than in modern Christian theology (Ferrero and Tridimas). Aeschylus dramatised the tensions and divine competition in the myth of Prometheus (Aeschylus), capturing the dichotomy of pain and suffering in eternal torment. Whilst recognised as the benefactor of humanity who Zeus cruelly punishes for introducing fire and culture to humanity, later writers such as Ovid extended Prometheus into the progenitor of humankind (Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 78ff).
Prometheus introduces unsettling theological dilemmas. Zeus, the absolute power throughout the universe, acted through absolute might. The question to be answered is presented by Aeschylus as if questioning whether it is right to stand against power in the form of political dissent. The biblical perception of God is omnipotent justice (Roshwald, 149). Yet, the conflict between Prometheus saving humanity in a deed of compassion and Zeus reacting but being unable to annul the deed represents an alternative theological foundation (Roshwald).
The question posed by Aeschylus is analogous to the question, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:23, 25). In such question, the answer sought by the Greeks was a question of whether humanity could judge the universe through our own ethical standards relying on our cultural powers. Moreover, in this political dialogue (Michaelis), the myth explores the issue of whether free will allows humanity to reconcile with divine rule and the fates. Ultimately, in an age-old question (Lewis) answered differently by Hobbes (1), Milton (Werblowsky) and Locke (Allen), Aeschylus explored whether it was better to follow power in obedience or take arms (Sarachek) against the seas of troubles and revolt (Nussbaum 21).
Prometheus is a myth (Grant) and a tale that has invigorated the imagination of countless individuals for thousands of years and continues to evolve even today (Mayor, 115–18, 123–26, 176). From an early questioning of tyranny and absolute political power, the myth of Prometheus has come to represent and symbolise struggles as diverse as ecology and the “energy trap” (Mauch, 6–7). Moreover, the relationship between culture and the Promethean delivery of fire and in later versions of the myth of making a man of clay (Ball) has brought about technology stories and its impact on human culture (Martin).
The Theatre of the Church
Søren Kierkegaard espoused that modern theatre is becoming a replacement for religion (Perkins xxiii). For Aeschylus and others in Athens, the theatre was not merely for entertainment but incorporated a form of worship to Dionysus. While such worship differs significantly from modern religious practice, cultural and ethical values were transmitted in the annual theatre competitions (Mullin). Kierkegaard presented an ironic commentary on the dogmatism and growing puritanical nature of 19th-century theatre. Conversely, Athenian theatre originated and developed from the Dionysian religious festival (Berberovic).
Each of the Athenian citizens attending the production of Prometheus Bound would have thoroughly understood the mythical backdrop and the story of tyranny and vicious rebellion. The story of Prometheus as the brother of Atlas and Epimetheus aiding Zeus in overthrowing Cronus and the subsequent banishment of most of the other Titans to Tartarus would have formed a common cultural experience. Through this, playwrights such as Aeschylus would not retell the story but rather could find interesting methods to add or redirect the tale to incorporate additional messages that they wish to impart.
To the Athenians, tyranny was considered one of the worst conditions (Arruzza, 31,62). So, the rebellion of Zeus against his father and then the reversion of Zeus into a tyrant himself would have had special meaning when coupled with the punishment of Prometheus for bringing culture to humanity. Additionally, the insult of calling someone a father beater was one of the worst that could be made. So, for Zeus to rise against his father had special meaning (‘CHAPTER 3 Pericles, Alcibiades, and the Generation Gap’). The effect of these messages imbued culture and religion and taught a common purpose to the citizens of Athens.
The limited material that has come down to us is likely a fragment of a trilogy of plays (Ro and Edelman). “In Homer, Zeus alone can demand strict obedience, and even his power of command cannot alter the destinies of men as they are woven by the fates” (Sarachek, 44–45). To a modern mind, the audacity to denounce tyranny in any form may seem like a humanist rebellion upholding free will. Yet, to the Athenian Greeks, fate dictated destiny (Matthew, 201, 205). Consequently, what comes across as tragic entertainment in the modern Western world formed a basis of cultural and spiritual education for the Athenians.
As Grene discusses, “[t]he word Forethought is stretched to cover a multitude of aspects of what is mental” in a manner that incorporates aforethought of all possible realities (Grene, 8). In an interesting twist, Zeus created Pandora to punish mankind. Having Pandora retain only hope as the other evils escape into the world provides a dichotomy of the mortal desire to overcome limitations of future knowledge (Dougherty, 3). The Promethean epic has transformed in meaning through generations but retains the ability to question the meaning of humanity and of being human. In this, the God who stole fire retains a fascination that permeates modern society.
Voela explores a modern reinterpretation of Prometheus in Ridley Scott’s movie, referencing this to humanity’s search for immortality and humanity’s origin (Voela). In choosing to deliver fire and culture to humanity, Prometheus knew of the ensuing torture. Likewise, the choice to rebel against Zeus and further to hold information from Hermes as to the future downfall of Zeus was premised on a knowledge of what would occur as a consequence of these actions.
As Rogers notes, the “(post)modern Prometheus” of Ridley Scott integrates techno-science and biological reproduction in a manner that reverses many of the Athenian origin myths (Rogers, 206, 220). For example, instead of having Zeus deliver Pandora as the proto-female into a world of reproducing males, Scott introduces a new origin with the female able to reproduce without the male. Equally, the myth incorporates foreknowledge with humanity, again retaining hope but being misinformed. Further, as Desser demonstrates, Prometheus represents the opposition of immense power as it faces unconquerable will (Desser, 57).
In each of the re-envisioning versions of this myth, from Shelley’s Frankenstein to Blade Runner and Scot’s Prometheus, the underlying wrath associated with the abandonment of creation and the hubris of mad pride and not fulfilling a duty. While Prometheus helped humanity trick Zeus into accepting the worthless components of a sacrifice and, in consequence, caused humanity to fail to meet the required commitments to God, Shelley created Victor Frankenstein in mad pride and again had the creator failed to fulfil his duty (Desser, 57–58). While aspects of the story and the myth remain, the post-modern authors often place the creator into an arguable position of God in creating life. Yet, in their failure, these protagonists represent the pinnacle of hubris that Aeschylus sought to warn against (Garvie; Broadhead).
The Athenian concept of hubris differs from the modern idea of access pride (Konstan). Instead, the Athenian concept incorporated the punishment from the gods as a human dared to become more than merely human and approach divinity (Wong, 1). This position represents humanity forgetting that we are merely human. It is not merely an arrogance of pride but the challenge to authority that is analogous to that position taken by Prometheus in refusing to bow before ultimate power, which leads to a position that Button argued leads to tyranny (Button).
Unfortunately, with the loss of any reference to the other plays in the trilogy by Aeschylus, it must remain unknown whether the playwright reconciled the various opposing forces concerning the myth (C. J. Herington). Equally, the interaction between the Dionysian festival and the culmination of the trilogy remains unanswerable (J. Herington; West). The image of Zeus presented by Aeschylus is one-sided and only represents the allegations of Prometheus. Conversely, in a separate trilogy, Agamemnon, the Chloephoroe and Eumenides present a sublime and divine representation of Zeus.
Stasis In Change
Prometheus creates a contradictory position for the protagonist of the story. In the play, Prometheus is bound and stationary. Yet, this is a story of dramatic action revealed through a combination of solos and duets outside of the ability of the protagonist to interact directly. Kratos and Bia, representing power and force, hold Prometheus as Hephaestus shackles him to a rock on Mt. Caucasus. As Hephaestus laments this duty, Kratos and Bia demonstrate exaltation in the diminishing of Prometheus for his crime of favouring humanity over the gods.
Only once these characters have bound him and left that Prometheus abstains from his former silence and laments in anguish, expressing a grim determination to bear what he has already foreseen (Aeschylus, 40–41). While the daughters of Oceanus express compassion for the protagonist’s plight and resent the tyranny of Zeus, it is revealed that Prometheus has knowledge that is vital to the well-being of Zeus and the long-term. Moreover, Prometheus bemoans the brutish imprisonment he must endure to prevent the destruction of humanity while also discussing how his help gained power for Zeus over Chronos.
Oceanus enters and decries the abuse of the brother Titan. He counsels prudence in offering to intercede with Zeus, but Prometheus refuses and maintains steadfast defiance (Aeschylus, 43). Io, the king’s daughter, who Zeus polymorphed into a heifer and who was driven to despair by the constant torment of the gadfly sent by Hera, provides a stark contrast to the unyielding Prometheus (Aeschylus, 45–49). Io has her future calamities and torments foretold by Prometheus after recounting a dramatic tale of her life. Finally, it is recounted that Heracles will become a descendant of Io and that this future God and hero will release Prometheus from his captivity.
The harsh fate of Io moves even the chorus. The message depicted by the chorus is that marriage must only be between equals, and the story represents not only the problems of meetings between gods and humans but of individuals across class. While still bemoaning in defiance of Zeus, the envoy Hermes seeks to coerce Prometheus into divulging the intelligence concerning Zeus’s coming marriage and demise. To this, Prometheus merely berates Hermes as a sycophantic flunky of an upstart usurper. Hermes retorts that Prometheus is merely a renegade thief and threatens further punishment. Yet, in forethought, Prometheus already knows that this meeting would happen and his future release (Aeschylus, 49–51).
Prometheus is at times seen as stubborn (Podlecki). But, as Podlecki argues, many of the themes within this play represent and are “embodied in recurring terms and images which, when examined closely, seem to be applicable not only to Zeus and his side, but also to Prometheus” (Podlecki, 290). This work represents God as the enemy of man, stubborn and defiant. Alfred Whitehead recounted that God appears in three phases, God the void, God the enemy and God the friend (Kellogg). While Prometheus recounts that “suffering is the due, a foe must pay his foes”, we see Zeus not only as powerful but unjust and without mercy (Aeschylus, 51). It is this lack of recourse and pity that demonstrates tyranny.
The Nature of Power
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). The Book of Job was the nature of suffering in those seemingly not deserving. This work details the punishment of the virtuous compared to the prosperity of the wicked in a world ruled by a righteous God. Fundamentalists will argue that it is wrong to question divine authority. But, equally, tyranny can be attributed to religious power on earth. The question that needs to be addressed is whether rebellious rejection of rules will lead to nihilism. Does the rejection of authority lead to the death of God, as Nietzsche would say (Gemes)?
While the orthodox position in religious authority relates the accomplishment of fulfilment to the unerring upholding of divine commands, it becomes necessary to inquire whether an unerring, unceasing and unquestioning attitude removes all that is human from us. In analysing the reaction of Prometheus and rejecting Zeus, we have to address the question of what God is and analyse what is and is not right to rebel against.
The Promethean position could be argued in the Lutheran idea of rebellion, “these things are not from God, and we shall resist them. What you call God is a devil or an idol of your own imagination” (Gretzschel; Bayne, 47). In this response, rebellion is only warranted when authority is not validly installed or no longer aligned with its mandate. Hobbes would argue that the natural state of humanity is anarchy, a life that is brutal, violent and short (Hobbes). While this is an opposed position to Locke and Grotius, it is one of the principle debates that have been debated by humanity (Scott). Critically, it is a debate answered differently by different cultures (Jackson; Juergensmeyer). Where religious nationalism confronts the secular state, we see a conflict of authority and individual rights (Juergensmeyer).
Is the role of government inviolate, or do the people have a right and even responsibility to rebel against tyranny? A further comparison is between Prometheus and the Tower of Babel (Genesis, 11). Whether the result in Genesis can be witnessed as celestial resentment towards human innovation and ingenuity or if this is righteous retribution brought against sacrilegious hubris ought to be asked. Aeschylus addresses these questions through Prometheus.
Nothing care I for Zeus; yea, less than nought!
Let him do what he will, and sway the world
His little hour; he has not long to laud it…
Of tyrants? And the third, who his brief “now”
of lordship aggregates, I shall see yet
By lapse most swift, most ignominious,
Sink to perdition.
The role even of Zeus is seen by Prometheus, not as ultimate power but as transitory and fleeting. Prometheus protests against his punishment, but it must be remembered he knows the outcome.
I hate all the gods,
Because, having received good at my hands,
They have rewarded me with evil.
Despite cooperation and the alliance that brought Zeus to power, Prometheus was brought low and into suffering and shame. While Prometheus disobeyed and acted in deceit, the steel fire and culture gave it to humanity, a position made clear at the beginning of the play…
He stalled and gave to mortals; trespass grave
For which the gods have called him to account,
That he may learn to bear Zeus’ tyranny
And ceased to play the lover of mankind.
Despite this, and despite his knowledge, Prometheus refuses to accept his crime or that he merits reprimand.
Of my free will, my own free will, I erred,
And freely do I here acknowledge it.
Freeing mankind myself have distance found.
Natherless, I looked not for sentence are dread.
The question we must ask and answer in reviewing Prometheus is whether he is merely stubborn or if his choice is righteous. In this choice of rebellion, each of us has a role to play. In a democracy, the people are sovereign (Baiocchi). So it could be argued that if we don’t participate in a political process, we are meekly allowing tyranny. However, equally, it must be remembered that the majority can be a tyranny (Nyirkos). In this, the side of the minority may stand for rights in a Promethean struggle. But, with differing opinions, it is impossible to determine the best outcome and what is right in advance of the future. As a result, sometimes, the few must stand stubbornly in Promethean fashion against what they perceive to be wrong.
If we fail to oppose tyranny, as against the reign of Zeus, we, like Prometheus, will be bound, “for none is free” in tyranny but the tyrant (Aeschylus, 40).
Cf. Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 78ff.
Gen. 11, 18:23, 25.
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[Image source: Prométhée enchaîné (Prometheus bound). Marble, reception piece for the French Royal Academy, 1762., Louvre Museum, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]