[Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), Greek poet and playwright, is the first drama of a trilogy centering on the legendary hero who stole fire from the gods for the sake of mankind; the other two plays, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Firebringer, have been lost, except for brief fragments.
While Aeschylus drew on the myth of Hesiod, he transformed it into a powerful testament of the human spirit. Zeus, though young in experience, was chief of the Olympian gods and had determined to wipe out man as a failure. He would create a brand-new race. Prometheus defied him: himself of the race of Titans born of Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth), he had an instinctive feeling for these earthlings, so he foiled Zeus' plan by stealing an ember from the fire of Olympus, and ignited in the early humans the flame of intelligence. For his presumption Zeus had Prometheus crucified, to suffer unmercifully without reprieve.
Some poets have seen in Prometheus Bound a prototype of the Book of Job: Job's "till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me" could have been uttered by Prometheus.
Even though but a few fragments of the second and third plays of this trilogy remain, their titles indicate that Aeschylus had developed the theme of Prometheus' release and reconciliation with Zeus. Gilbert Murray, formerly Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University, from whose translation of Prometheus Bound we quote below, poses the question: if Zeus is willing to pardon Prometheus "after infinite suffering," why did he not pardon him at the outset? Professor Murray's response is provocative:
What the play does achieve, and a marvellous achievement it is, is to make one feel, not the solution which perhaps does not exist, but the world-agony, the courage, the heroism of love that do exist, and the beauty, in a way better than happiness, that results therefrom. In a sense it is all true; Zeus is true. . . . Prometheus is true. There is a power of the spirit which dares to love and be just in the midst of a world to which such words are meaningless, and thus defies the omnipotent. . . . There is, throughout the human part of creation, and even beyond the human part, an ever-living compassion or sympatheia, a "fellow-suffering" of those not directly affected with those who suffer.
Make of Prometheus what we will, he represents the quickener of intelligence in ourselves when the race was young, and the promise of what we may in time become. — ED.]
Here at the furthest verge of earth we stand,
The Scythian pale, a lone and ghastly land.
Hephaistos! Now bethink thee of the charge
Our Father on thee laid: against the marge
Of this sky-piercing precipice to bind,
In gyves of adamant and bondage blind,
This wrecker of the law. 'Twas he who stole
Fire, thine own glory, fire, that is the soul
Of every art, and flung to man away.
For which sin to all heaven he needs must pay
Atonement, till he learn our Master's plan
To accept, and cease this love for mortal man.
HEPHAISTOS (God of Fire):
O Force and Might, to you the word of Jove
Is all in all; against it naught may move.
But my heart sickens, in this craggy high
And tempest-riven gulf, to crucify
A god, my kinsman. — Yet I needs must find
The heart to do it. Woe to him whose mind
Shrinks from the task, beneath the eternal eyes!
Thou holy Sky, ye swift and winged Winds,
And River Founts, and laughter of the seas
Innumerable: Thou, Mother of all these,
Earth, and thou Sun that seest all things, see
What things, being god, the Gods have wrought on me!
And yet what say I? Clearly I foreknow
Each pang that cometh: no unlooked-for blow
Can touch me ever, and he who knows for sure
His fate doth best to chafe not, but endure,
One thing being certain, that no victory
Is his who wars 'gainst That which Needs must be.
Ah me, I know not how to speak my thought,
Nor leave unspoke: 'tis for that gift I brought
To man that in this torment I am bound.
Hid in a rush's heart I sought, I found,
The fount of fire, to man a shining seed
Of every art and a great help in need.
Behold the sin for which I suffer, high
Enchained, with pierced heart, beneath the sky!
When first the immortals learned the taste of wrath,
And strife rose, and between them wound its path,
Many would cast out Kronos from his throne,
That Zeus forsooth might reign, but many an one
Swore that no Zeus should e'er be lord of heaven.
Wise was 1, but no force to me was given
To move the brood Titanic, born of Earth
And Sky. All crooked plans they turned to mirth
In their great hearts, and thought full easily
By strength to master all. But much to me
And ofttimes had my mystic mother told —
Themis and Gaia, titles manifold
Of one eternal form — what end must fall:
That in this warfare not by strength at all,
Only by thought, the conquerors should prevail.
But for your question, on what charge he so
Hath tortured me, give car and ye shall know.
When first he mounted on his father's throne
Straightway he called the gods, and gave each one
His place and honours. So he wrought his plan
Of empire. But of man, unhappy man,
He had no care: he counselled the whole race
To uproot, and plant a strange brood in its place.
And none took stand against that evil mind
Save me. I rose. I would not see mankind
By him stamped out and cast to nothingness.
For that he hath laid on me this bitter stress,
This pain which maketh weep those that pass by.
Mercy I had for man; and therefore I
Must meet no mercy, but hang crucified
In witness of God's cruelty and pride.
Hear now the sorry tale
Of mortal man. A thing of no avail
He was, until a living mind I wrought
Within him, and new mastery of thought.
I cast no blame on man; I do but crave
To show what love was in the gifts I gave.
I tell you, sight they had but saw in vain;
Hearing, but heard not; as shapes wax and wane
In dreams, aimless for ever and confused,
They moved; no binding of the clay they used,
No craft of wood, to build in the bright sun
Their dwellings; but like feeble ants wind-blown,
Hid them in crannied caves, far from the day;
No seasons did they know, no signs to say
When winter cold should come, nor flowery spring,
Nor summer with his fruit, but everything
They did was without knowledge, till their eyes
Were oped by me to see the stars that rise,
And them that sink to heaven's obscurer parts.
Then Number, Number, queen of all the arts,
I showed them, and the craft which stroke to stroke
Added, till words came and the letters spoke;
The all-remembering wonder, the unworn
And edged tool, whence every Muse is born.
Beasts of the forest and the field I broke
To harness, made them servants to the yoke
And carriers who might lift from man the pain
Of extreme toil; I hanselled to the rein
The gentle steed, and in the chariot tied
For rich men who would glory in their pride.
I made, none else, for mariners the free
And flaxen-winged chariots of the sea.
Alas, all these new wisdoms I could find
For mortals, but no wisdom to unbind
These mine own fetters — nay, nor hope of it.
'Tis strange, and will seem stranger when the whole
Tale of my crafts and findings I unroll,
In man's first days. Did any sickness then
Seize them, no medicine was there among men,
Not herb nor draught nor unguent; helpless they,
For lack of healing drugs, would waste away
Even unto death, till I the blending taught
Of gentle balms, whereby a fence is wrought
'Gainst all disease. Aye, more than that, 'twas I
Sorted the divers paths of prophecy.
I was the first to judge of dreams, what kind
Fulfilment bear; I read the inward mind
Of the unintended word and the stray sign
Met by the road. . . .
Thus man to knowledge came of things to be,
Deep hid before. Yea, I put eyes to see
Into the face of fire, and gave to him
A fount of vision that before was dim.
So runs that story. . . . And beneath the ground
I saw what hidden helpers could be found
For man's life — bronze and silver, iron and gold
Who thought of them before me? Who had told
Their names? I wot, none other. Ye have heard
A tale that can be summed in one brief word:
All that of art man has, Prometheus gave.
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1979; copyright © 1979 Theosophical University Press)