Enjoying "Prometheus Bound", by Aeschylus

Ed Friedlander MD

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The beautiful fables of the Greeks, being proper creations of the imagination and not of the fancy, are universal verities. What a range of meanings and what perpetual pertinence has the story of Prometheus!
        -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essays"

Prometheus stole fire and gave it to the human race. For this, he was bound to a mountain and punished for centuries.

This basic Greek myth was retold through the classic era and provided the plot for Aeschylus's "Prometheus Bound".

This site will help you as you search the background and meaning of this play, and ideas about the story of Prometheus generally.

The Myths of Prometheus

Prometheus was one of the Titans, the original race of gods sprung from earth and sky. He sided with Zeus and the other major gods of classical Greece when they overthrew the other Titans.

Prometheus made the original human beings. According to some, it was Prometheus who opened the head of Zeus to release the newborn goddess Athena.

Velazeuez Forge of Vulcan
Prometheus bestowed a number of advantages on the human race.

Prometheus offered Zeus a choice as to which parts of an animal sacrifice would be for "the gods", and which parts the humans kept. Prometheus tricked Zeus into choosing the fat and guts, while the humans got to keep the meat for themselves.

Then Prometheus stole fire for the human race. For this, Zeus bound and punished him.

During his time of punishment, Prometheus let it be known that he foresaw disaster for Zeus, because Zeus wanted a woman whose son was predestined to be greater than the father.

It was Herakles who eventually killed the eagle and released Prometheus from his bonds. Prometheus and Zeus were reconciled.

According to some, Prometheus was the father (in the ordinary way) of Deucalion, the Greek Noah, who with his wife Pyrrha survived the flood in an ark / box.

Prometheus figures in a few other stories. He was honored, but not much worshiped or asked for help.

"Prometheus -- the The Theft of Fire", by Christian Griepenkerl, whose paintings of the Prometheus legend seem to have a subtext. Can you spot it? Zeus is with Ganymede, recognizable by the Phrygian cap.

Gustave Moreau painting
John Delville painting
Prometheus and Herakles in classical-style relief
Drypoint etching

Behind the Myth

Myths might be told to explain facts of nature, or to explain human customs.

Prometheus the Titan

Barbecues: Who Gets What?

Stealing Fire

Why would people (in Greece and elsewhere around the world) tell stories of a rebel god as the bringer of fire? You'll need to decide for yourself. Here are my ideas:

Pohonichi Miwok, the theft of fire
Jicarilla Apacha, origin of fire
Prose Edda
Steven Forrest, astrologer and thinker (link is now down) on Norst spirituality: "It was not a philosophy of grim fatalism that our ancestors embraced. The Nordic hero cherished existence and knew how to enjoy life, but he could also face death with a calm mind and a smile."
Creation Myths -- Catholic encyclopedia.


He pronounced his own name ice-KHUUH-lawss.

"Prometheus Bound" was the first of three plays in a trilogy. The second was "Prometheus Unbound". The third was "Prometheus the Fire Bringer" (Pyrphoros).

The play opens with Hephaestus (the blacksmith of the gods) entering with the personifications of Power (Dominion, Κράτος, compare "-cracy") and Force (Βιά, compare "adiabatic"). Power announces that we're in Scythia, i.e., around the Caucasus mountains, which the Greeks considered to be the ends of the earth. Power reminds Hephaestus (for the audience's sake) that Prometheus is condemned by Zeus for stealing fire. Power and Strength are merely escorts. Hephaestus says to Prometheus that he's sorry, but that Prometheus has to be nailed to a rock for having bestowed too much on mortals -- more than even Hephaestus thought was right. Hephaestus adds that Zeus isn't going to change his mind, "because those who are newly in power are inflexible."

Power isn't sympathetic, and thinks that Hephaestus, of all the gods, should be angry since Prometheus gave away fire. Hephaestus agrees that it's rough, being betrayed by a friend and family member, but this punishment is too severe. Power says that only Zeus is free, and the universe's purpose is to do whatever Zeus wants. Hephaestus binds shackles around Prometheus's hands and attaches them to the rocks. Expressing regret, Hephaestus then nails Prometheus's chest to the rock. It's not clear whether this is a chest band, or whether the nail goes directly through flesh. Hephaestus expresses regret, and Power warns Hephaestus that he'd better keep his regrets to himself, or he may be the next victim of Zeus.

Hephaestus then binds Prometheus's sides and thighs, and says the net is finished; it sounds as if the flesh is surrounded but not actually pierced. When Hephaestus is finished, Power tells Prometheus that Prometheus isn't much of a prophet, not to have foreseen what would happen to him for giving fire to creatures whose lives are transitory. They exit.

Prometheus speaks to the four elements in order of heaviness. Aethyr was fire, the winds are air, the rivers are water, and the earth is the universal mother. Prometheus says he knows the future, but still needs to express his torment in words. He's being punished for stealing fire inside a hollow reed and giving to to humans. Notice that he's chained, but does not describe being pierced, and there is no eagle. Prometheus then hears the fluttering of wings. Don't ask what ocean nymphs are doing in a flying chariot, or why Prometheus (who foreknows everything) doesn't know who they are.

The chorus of ocean nymphs comes in. They flew in because they heard the hammering. The nymphs are the children of Oceanus, the sea god, and his wife Tethys. The nymphs start to cry at the sight, but Prometheus says Zeus will soon need him to prevent his own overthrow. (He's talking about the woman whose child must be greater than his father.) The Chorus says Zeus isn't the kind of person to change his mind. Prometheus says Zeus won't have a choice.

The chorus asks Prometheus what he did wrong. Prometheus explains that during the war with the Titans, Prometheus enabled Zeus to win by strategy. (Prometheus was following the advice of Themis and Gaia; the latter was Mother Earth).

When the war with the Titans was won, Zeus distributed abilities and authority to the other gods, but planned to wipe out the original race of human beings and replace them with something else. (Prometheus isn't described as creator of humankind here.) Prometheus saved the lives of the original people.

"How did you do it?" asks the chorus. As the cryptic words are often translated, Prometheus says he "took away from human beings the foreknowledge of their dooms". Then he gave them "blind hopes". Then he gave them fire, which will be the basis for "many arts", i.e., technology.

There's more talk about how unfortunate and unfair all of this is. Then Oceanus comes in, riding on a "feathered, four-legged big bird" (probably a pegasus, because later we learn it wants to get back to its stall -- we hear about this creature in lines 395-8). He's one of the original Titans; don't ask what he's doing free and still living in the ocean. In fact, it sounds as if Oceanus is actually sent by Zeus. Without delay, Oceanus tells Prometheus to stop saying he's being treated unfairly, or Zeus will do something worse to him. And yes, Zeus is stern and maybe in the wrong. But if Prometheus will simply say he's sorry, "Oceanus will go have a talk with Zeus", and maybe Zeus will let him go.

Prometheus tells Oceanus, "You be careful yourself." Oceanus says he thinks Zeus will do what he asks. (Yup, it sounds like Oceanus was sent by Zeus.) Prometheus says, "Thanks anyway. And if you're going to associate with Zeus, remember what happened to Atlas, who's stuck holding up the world, and Typhon, who got thunderbolted." This is not bad advice to those who are the lackeys of tyrants. Oceanus remarks, "A kind word often quiets down an angry person." "Sure, if he's reasonable", says Prometheus. "But Zeus isn't. Be careful yourself." Oceanus says that his flying steed is tired and wants to go home. He leaves.

The chorus and Prometheus continue visiting. Prometheus tells about how people once lived in sort of a dream, not understanding much of anything. They dind't even know how to make any homes except for holes in the ground. Prometheus taught them astronomy, numbers ("the foremost invention"), taming animals, animal-drawn vehicles, ships, medicine, divination, and metallurgy.

Then Prometheus talks about predestination. "The Fates and the Furies" have power even over Zeus, and the business about the woman who is predestined to have a son greater than his father gets hinted at again. The nymphs mention that Prometheus is married to their sister, one Hesione. This makes Oceanus his father-in-law.

Io comes in. She's one of Zeus's girlfriends. Jealous Hera, Zeus's wife, has turned her into a cow and tormented her with a magic stinging insect whose injuries have given her gangrene. She's delirious with pain, and thinks her guardian Argus, who is dead, is still watching. (He had 100 eyes and is the subject of another myth.) She wants to know her future. Prometheus says it'd better if she didn't know. Io says, "Tell the truth; the worst thing a person can do is give fake comfort." A travelogue follows, with myths, monsters, and strange countries.

Io leaves, delirious again from her pain. Prometheus talks about the danger to Zeus from the predestined woman. The chorus warns him that this kind of talk will get him in trouble. "Those reverencing Adrastia are wise." Adrastia means "inescapable"; this means "You have to bow to the inevitable". ("Adrastia" is sometimes described as a nymph who supposedly cared for Baby Zeus, but is now just an allegorical figure.)

Hermes comes in. Prometheus calls Hermes names for cooperating with a tyrant. Hermes calls Prometheus stupid for not cooperating, and a traitor for stealing fire, and promises more severe punishment if Prometheus continues to resist. Prometheus tells him to get lost. Then there's an earthquake, thunder, and lightning, and the play ends.

We can suppose that as the trilogy unfolds, the eagle arrives soon. Herakles, who will free Prometheus, will be descended from Io.

Aeschylus's favorite topic is the things that made Athens great. In the Agamemnon trilogy, he focuses on the institution of law, which replaced awful blood feuds. In "The Persians", he celebrates free Athens's victory over Persian despotism.

"Prometheus Bound" is not really much about human beings or the dignity that Prometheus's gifts bring us. (Sophocles celebrates humankind's intellectual and cultural achievements, especially in "Antigone" -- as if we did it by ourselves without being taught by "the gods"). Instead, "Prometheus Bound" is about resisting tyranny (both Zeus's and Hera's). It seems reasonable to think that the trilogy ended, as did the Oresteia, with a triumph of civilization over tyranny, and a celebration of the rule of justice and real law.

Notice how the various characters deal with tyranny, the wrongful use of force.

The two most interesting lines in the play are perhaps

To understand all the business about "tragic flaws", see my section on Oedipus

Prometheus Bound -- English translation
Prometheus Bound -- Harvard classics
Prometheus Bound -- diacenter
Prometheus Bound -- translated by Henry David Thoreau (wouldn't you know?)
Prometheus Bound -- modern colloquial translation by Prof. Rollins
Prometheus Bound -- commentary
Prometheus -- classical quotations

The Two Sequels

"Fragments" are bits of lost works preserved as quotations in the writings of others. These do not appear to be collected online yet anyplace else. You can find a complete list (like I did) in the Oxford edition of "Prometheus Bound", e`ited by Scully and Harington.

Some old sources list "Earth" and "Herakles" among the characters in "Prometheus Bound." These must have been characters in the sequel, which would have been included in the cycle of plays.

An old commentary on "Prometheus Bound" 743-45 says, "That is: It is not yet my destiny to be released. For in the following play he is released, as Aeschylus indicates here." The same commentary on line 759: "He reserves his words for the following play."

The chorus must have been composed of Titans. Arrian wrote a book on "The Navigation of the Black Sea" (ch. 19), and quotes: "Aeschylus in the 'Prometheus Unbound' makes the River Phasis the borderline between Europe and Asia: in him the Titans say to Prometheus:

We come to see these your sorrows, Prometheus, and this agony of your chains...

Then they tell how much country they have traversed:

... where the Phasis, the great twofold boundary of Europe and Asia..."

Procopius mentions that Aeschylus placed such a passage at the beginning of the play (History of the Gothic Wars 4.6.15).

Strabo (Geography 1.2.27) quotes the following passage from "Prometheus Unbound":

And the Red Sea's holy flood with crimson bed and the Aithiopians' Lake tendering food to all -- a coppery glitter there, by Ocean's side -- where Sun, that sees all, under the stroking of the warm river revives his tired horses, and his own deathless body.

It sounds as if Aeschylus had heard of the source of the Nile river.

Greek golden eagle Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations 2.23-25, quotes Aeschylus in his Latin translation.

Titans, blood-brothers, children of Sky, look at me! moored, chained fast to the choppy rock -- the way, towards nightfall, sailors in the howling narrow panicked secure their ship. In this way, Zeus, son of Kronos, had me moored in iron. Through Hephaestus's hands, his will became fact. With cruel, painstaking craft, he slogged wedge on wedge into me: splitting, sticking. Thanks to that, I stand watch mourning, at this castle of the Furies. And always on the third day, for me, the light of day is black, when Zeus's horrible pet glides in at me -- the eagle that digs in with cooked claws gouging out her feast, until her crop's bloated, rich with liver. Then screaming wheeling skywards, her tail feathers drag through blood, my blood. And once again, my rag of a liver swells up like new, and again the bloodthirsty banqueter comes back for more. In his way I feast my prison warden: who in turn, by deathless outrage, tortures my live body -- look! Zeus's chains clench me, I can't protect my chest from that filthy thing. Only, myself gutted, take what agony comes, grope for an end to pain and burn, like sex, for death. But by the will of Zeus I'm exiled far away from death. Century has swarmed on shuddering century around this old anguish, this wedge through my body whose drops of blood melted in the flaming sun over Kaukasos, rain endlessly on rock.

Plutarch quotes Aeschylus as saying "Prometheus -- that is, Reason -- is responsible [for humankind's dominance], for he...

gave horse and donkey and the breed of bulls to be as slaves to us and bear our burdens.
This sounds like a parallel to 668-75 of "Prometheus Bound".

"Prometheus Unbound" contained travelogues like "Prometheus Bound" does. These evidently told where Herakles would wander. Several authors quote its geographical passages. Galen cites:

Follow straight along this pathway. You'll come, first, to the high winds of Boreas. Take care: for fear the hurricane with its wintry blasts will howl down whirling you into the sky.

Staphanos of Byzantium quotes,

You'll arrive, then, at a just community, more just than any other and friendlier. These are the Gabioi. Here, no plow, nor any hoe hacks at the land but the plains plant themselves, the harvest is endless.

Strabo (Geography 7.3.7) "Aeschylus concurs with Homer in saying about the Scythians,

But Scythians, well-governed, who feast on maresmilk cheese..."

Strabo (Geography 4,1,7) describes a plain in southern France between the Rhone and Marseilles.

You'll come upon the Ligyes, a horde that doesn't know what fear is. Fierce a fighter as you are, you won't fault their fighting. As fate has it: you'll run out of weapons, you can't grab even one stone off the ground because the plain is soft, it's dust. But Zeus will see you bewildered there ane pity you, and cast a storm-cloud to shadow the earth in a flurry of rounded rocks. You'll heave them, and with each batter the Ligyan horde back.

Hyginus, in his "Astronomy in the Poets" (2.6), talks about the myth of the constellation we call Hercules.

But Aeschylus in the play entitled Prometheus Unbound says that Herakles is not fighting with the Dragon, but with the Ligyes. His story is that at the time when Herakles led away Geryon's cattle he journeyed through the Ligyan territory. In trying to remove the cattle from him they came to blows, and he pierced a number of them with his arrows. But then his missiles gave out, and after receiving many wounds he sank to his knees, overpowered by the barbarian numbers and by the failure of his ammunition. Zeus, however, took pity on his son, and caused a great quantity of rocks to appear around him. With these Herakles defended himself and routed the enemy. Hence Zeus set the likeness of him, fighting, among the stars.

Plutarch (Amatorius 757E) talks about how various gods are invoked for various purposes. "But Herakles invokes a different god when he is going to raise his bow against the bird, as Aeschylus says,

Let Hunter-Apollo level straight this shaft!

Plutarch (Life of Pompey the Great) quotes Aeschylus as having Prometheus say to Herakles (who was one of Zeus's sons):

This dearest child of the father I hate!

Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae 15) says that "Aeschylus in the Prometheus Unbound expressly says that it is in honor of Prometheus that we put the garland about our heads, as a recompense for his chains."

One old writer quotes Aeschylus as saying that Prometheus in the "Pyrphoros" says he was bound for 30,000 years.

Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae 13:19-4) quotes the "Prometheus Pyrphoros"

Quiet, where need is; and talking to the point.

That's good advice for anyone writing on how people used to think.


Shakespeare's Berowne says, "Women's eyes are the ground, the books, the academes, From which doth spring the true Promethean fire." Shakespeare's Othello asks where is "that Promethean heat" that can re-ignite the fire of Desdemona's life.

Percy Bysshe Shelley saw Prometheus as a type of (left-wing) Christ. He wrote an allegory of the triumph of the liberal social and intellectual agenda entitled Prometheus Unbound. Lord Byron saw Prometheus as a prototype human -- able to foresee the future and triumph over evil.

Mary Shelley, his wife, subtitled her novel Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.

Geothe wrote a poem about Prometheus in which he ridicules traditional religion. I cannot find it online.

Various composers of the Romantic era, including Beethoven, composed music on the theme. Click here to hear the "Creatures of Prometheus" overture. Compare Hayden's "Creation", based on the Old Testament, and Beethoven's "Creatures of Prometheus". The older work focuses on traditional Judeo-Christian theology. The new work has the human race and its special gifts as the center of attention. Especially, it celebrates the changed world, liberated (as Beethoven and many of contemporaries saw it) from traditional religion. Beethoven composed Prometheus music, Liszt wrote a symphonic poem on Prometheus, and Scriabin wrote "Prometheus - The Poem of Fire".

Prometheus provided the name for a major manufactorer of tobacco lighters. My best link is now down.

Prometheus Music -- science-fiction theme CD producers
Prometheus Books -- skeptical writers
Prometheus! -- pessimistic comic strip

Rockefeller Center, in New York City, honors technology with the triumphant Prometheus bearing fire in his hand.

Political Cartoon -- Andrew Johnson as Prometheus
Promethium is one of the rare-earth metals and is one of the few elements that apparently does not occur naturally on earth. Prometheus is one of the moons of Saturn, and the name of a large volcano on Jupiter's moon Io. And Jupiter has moons named for Metis and Io.

My cyberfriend Marty Sulek wrote to tell me that the authorship and sequence of the trilogy are questioned by classical scholars. If you can get J. Hellenic Studies 99 (1979) pgs. 130-148, or The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound by Mark Griffith, you can decide for yourself.


Prometheus is the Jesus of the old mythology. He is the friend of man; stands between the unjust "justice" of the Eternal Father and the race of mortals, and readily suffers all things on their account. But where it departs from the Calvinistic Christianity, and exhibits him as the defier of Jove, it represents a state of mind which readily appears wherever the doctrine of Theism is taught in a crude, objective form, and which seems the self-defence of man against this untruth, namely, a discontent with the believed fact that a God exists, and a feeling that the obligation of reverence is onerous. It would steal, if it could, the fire of the Creator, and live apart from him, and independent of him.
          -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Essays"

You're free to decide for yourself whether Aeschylus and the other good people who told and retold the story of Prometheus, the divine benefactor of humankind who was crucified and yet triumphed, were granted some dim mystical foreknowledge of another event.

As a mainstream Christian, I've often wondered about this.

In any case, I'm glad that many of my neighbors who are no longer able to believe in the supernatural look to the timeless figure of Prometheus -- kindness, self-sacrifice, clear thinking, useful technology, and the power to hope for good things that we do not yet see.

Ket distance learning

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "Prometheus Bound" by Aeschylus Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/promethe.htm

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Antony & Cleopatra -- just getting started
King Lear
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Lady of Shalott
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Moby Dick
Oedipus the King
Romeo and Juliet -- just a short note
The Book of Thel
The Knight's Tale
The Seven Against Thebes
The Tyger
Twelfth Night


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I'm Ed. You can visit me at my own page and follow the links from there to my autopsy page, my notes on disease (the largest one-man online medical show, helping individuals around the world), my Adventure Gaming sites, or any of the other sites.

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Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.

Teens: Stay away from drugs, work yourself extremely hard in class or at your trade, play sports if and only if you like it, tell the grownups who support you that you love them (no matter what the circumstances), and get out of abusive relationships by any means. The best thing anybody can say about you is, "That kid likes to work too hard and isn't taking it easy like other young people."

Greek tragedies include some characters who commit suicide. If you are physically healthy, it is a bad idea. Among young people who made serious attempts and failed, 99% said a year later that they are glad they failed.

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