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Second Glance: The Secret of Prometheus

By (May 1, 2016) No Comment

GreekPrometheus Bound
Quotations from the translation by David Grene

We are used to thinking of the ancient Greek tragedies primarily as literature or as the remote ancestors of theater and film; but in their own time they were actually the climax of a religious ritual. Each year, late in March, six thousand Athenians would gather in the stadium-shrine of Dionysus. He was the god of wine and madness, and his rites combined suffering and comedy. Each day of the festival his votaries would reel between tears and laughter as they witnessed four plays: three high-minded tragedies and a farce.

On the last day of the festival a committee of audience members would vote for their favorite playwright. Their votes would be tossed in a pot, and the priest of Dionysus would draw the winner. Through this last element of chance, the Athenians made room for Dionysus, who elected a name via the blind groping of his priest. To be crowned with the laurels of a champion was to be touched by the finger of a god. These plays were a sacrament, but also a form of competition and a kind of civic divination.

How can we understand the religious meaning of a tragedy competition? Perhaps the closest familiar analogue is the Christian sermon. Both rites mark, through a performance of words, a regular holy day, but when these performances achieve a certain aesthetic distinction and emotional intensity their intended audiences see them as divinely inspired. The champion tragedian is crowned with laurels, chosen by Dionysus; the eloquent preacher is ascribed unction and rewarded with shouts of “Amen!”

This very analogy, however, highlights the weirdness of Greek tragedy. Unlike the sermon, it was not obviously designed to promote confidence in the gods, to instruct in virtue, or to commemorate reconciliation between the mortal and the immortal. Instead, tragedies were gruesome reminders of the jealousy and cruelty of the gods, of their perfect willingness to scythe down any man whose head stuck up above the crowd. To temper the rebellious implications of this theme most tragedies offered a theodicy, making their tragic heroes culpably proud. Oedipus, Agamemnon, Jason—they got what was coming to them.

But at least one tragedy refuses the pious rationale of hubris. Traditionally, Prometheus Bound is attributed to Aeschylus. He is one of the three Athenian tragedians—the others are Sophocles and Euripides—from whom we still have complete plays. But there are good reasons to doubt that Aeschylus wrote this particular tragedy. It comes down to us because it was bundled with the collection from which we get all of Aeschylus’ other extant plays (including the only complete tragic trilogy, the Oresteia). Yet Prometheus Bound stands apart in form and theme. It is an astonishing document, even by the standards of its genre.

Whoever wrote Prometheus Bound, they were prepared to break a lot of rules. First, nothing happens. Throughout the play the hero remains completely immobile for the very good reason that he is bound in adamantine chains. He entertains various visitors—to no effect—and the only change in his circumstances occurs at the very end of the play, when his discomfort is considerably intensified by the introduction of an eagle devoted to pecking out his liver each day. That he doesn’t die of this disagreeable innovation signals the second oddity of the play: Prometheus, the hero, is not human. He’s a god, a Titan; he is, in fact, the personification of “forethought,” which is what his name literally means. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the ur-Gods were Uranus and Gaia. They were overthrown by their own children, the Titans, led by Cronus. The Titans, in turn, were overthrown by their own children, the Olympians, led by Zeus. Prometheus actually aided the Olympians in the final heavenly revolution against his own kind. And this fact points to the play’s final and fiercest transgression against tragic convention: Prometheus’ miseries are undeserved. He is bound (and eventually eagle-pecked) at the command of Zeus, whose childish abuse of power forms the major theme of the play:

New are the steersmen that rule Olympus,
and new are the customs by which Zeus rules,
customs that have no justice in them…

What does Zeus have against Prometheus? After helping the Olympians secure their thrones, Prometheus obstructed Zeus’s plan to destroy and remake humanity, and instead he sheltered them, gave them fire, and taught them many things. For this, Zeus condemned him. Prometheus suffers for his mercy to men. “Such,” he is told, “is the reward you reap for loving mortals.” He is being punished so that

he may learn to accept the sovereignty
of Zeus and quit his human-loving ways.

If Prometheus’ objection to the obliteration of humanity was hubris, then the existence of humanity itself is an insult to Zeus. This must have made very uncomfortable viewing for pious Athenians at the festival of Dionysus—here was a play that proclaimed Zeus unjust and anti-human. To understand it as a morality play, to interpret Prometheus according to the standard template of the hubristic tragic hero, would be to condemn one’s own existence. (On the other hand, what better place to face such a raw truth than at the feast of the god of madness and of wine?)

Rubens- Prometheus_BoundPrometheus Bound was just one piece of a trilogy. We have only a few short fragments of its sequel, Prometheus Unbound, and nothing but the title and a few ancient scholars’ hints about the third piece, Prometheus Lightbringer. There’s even some doubt as to whether Prometheus Lightbringer is the third or the first play of the trilogy.

Perhaps, in the context of this larger, now lost trilogy, Prometheus Bound would not appear so subversive, so blasphemous; but in its present state it has proved irresistibly suggestive to atheists, anti-authoritarians, and revolutionaries of all kinds. Voltaire, Goethe, Herder, and Shelley all wrote versions or continuations of the story. The epigraph to Karl Marx’s dissertation came from the play:

Be sure of this: when I measure my misfortune
against your slavery, I would not change.
It is better, I suppose, to be a slave
to this rock, than Zeus’s trusted messenger.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley conceived Frankenstein as a retelling of the Prometheus myth. Music by Liszt, Fauré, Orff, and Nono has been based upon it.

What about Prometheus Bound has so often ignited a desire to complete or appropriate its story? One answer is the figure of Prometheus himself. In the preface to his poem, Prometheus Unbound, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this:

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is [Milton’s] Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest.

In other words, Prometheus is an abstraction of blameless rebellion easily adaptable as propaganda—much as Shelley adapted him to criticize and suggest an alternative to the tyrant-swapping French Revolution.

The best propaganda shares with the best art at least one feature: exquisite technique. Because so little happens in Prometheus Bound, its drama has to arise entirely from the poetic resources of speech. Thus it is unusual among tragedies for the richness of its imagery, the scope of its monologues, and the sheer tension generated by rhetoric rather than choice.

At one point Prometheus provides a long rehearsal of all the things he taught to humans. “In one short sentence understand it all,” he says, “all human arts come from Prometheus,” but before this line we are regaled by a magnificent baroque list: woodworking and pottery, letters and numbers, chariots and ships, medicine and divination. By far the greatest number of words are devoted to the last of these, which strikes us as odd today, since we certainly don’t think of divination as queen of the sciences, but it makes for interesting reading:

The many ways of prophecy I charted;
I was the first to judge what out of dreams
came truly real; and for mankind I gave meaning
to ominous cries, hard of interpretation,
and to the significance of road encounters.
The flight of hook-taloned birds I analyzed,
which of them were in nature propitious
and which unlucky; what habits each species has,
what are their hates and loves and affiliations.
Also I taught of the smoothness of the entrails
and what color bile should have to please the gods,
and the dappled symmetry of the liver lobe.
It was I who burned the thigh bones wrapped in fat
and the long shank bone; I set mortals on the road
to the murky craft of divination…

There seems to be, in Prometheus Bound, a drive to catalog the world. In addition to the list of his gifts to men (which is really just a list of the major arts and sciences of the day), Prometheus later gives a travel narrative circumscribing the known world of the Ancient Greeks. This god chained to a mountain is free in his mind; the future and the past are his playground; the whole wide earth and all the secrets of intellect are available to his soaring memory and imagination.

These poetically rich displays of erudition are central to the conflict raging behind the apparent stillness of the tragedy’s surface. True, nothing happens. But in that talk-filled nothingness hides a deep and violent struggle between power and knowledge, between intelligence and tyranny.

aeschylus pbOn the face of it, this story is about a god who stole fire from other gods to give it to humanity and is now being punished for that crime. But in Prometheus’ catalog of arts, this minor infraction is expanded and deepened until we see that stealing fire is a metaphor for the way that intelligence overcomes weakness in general, through technology, planning, and understanding. Zeus is all-powerful, but Prometheus is all-knowing. What Zeus truly cannot abide in Prometheus is that he stands for the socialization of knowledge, the equalizing force of intelligence; and what Zeus’s tyranny consists in is the demand that only himself be strong. He brooks no rivals:

This is a sickness rooted and inherent
in the nature of tyranny:
that the one who holds it doesn’t trust his friends.

The brutality of such imperious power is conveyed through silence and distance. Zeus never shows up directly but communicates to Prometheus through emissaries. When the stage is first set, Prometheus is escorted by Hephaestus, the smith-god who will forge his chains, and two Olympian policemen, Might and Violence. Might and Hephaestus quibble about whether Prometheus’ punishment is deserved as Hephaestus nails him down, but Violence remains totally silent, an illustration of the wordlessness of power. Moreover, Zeus’s laws are described as “private laws,” rules inexplicable apart from the solipsistic will of the tyrant. The opposition of power and knowledge is also an opposition of violence and speech.

Meanwhile, the sociability of knowledge is conveyed through the loquacity of erudition, through Prometheus’ lists and narratives; but the one small element of choice, the tiny action at stake in the play which gives it it’s slim excuse for a plot, turns upon an oddly uncharacteristic reticence: Prometheus has a secret.

His secret comes from his prophetic powers. He knows the only way that Zeus can ever be overthrown. Like each of the two previous top-gods—Uranus and Cronus—Zeus can be replaced by the rebellion of his own child. But this child will only be born if Zeus impregnates the sea-nymph Thetis. Only Prometheus knows this, but he makes sure others know he know by dropping a few hints.

So Zeus sends him a messenger. Hermes arrives with a of settlement offer—well, more of a threat. Zeus would like to know, Hermes tells Prometheus, what this fatal marriage is that he’s been alluding to. If he doesn’t tell, things will get even worse for him. What ensues is an interlude completely unexpected in a tragedy: an exchange of comic insults, a sudden bit of witty repartee:

Hermes: Your words declare you mad, mad indeed.
Prometheus: Yes, if it’s madness to detest my enemies.
Hermes: No one could bear you if you were successful.
Prometheus: Alas!
Hermes: Alas? Zeus does not know that phrase.
Prometheus: But time in its aging course teaches all things.
Hermes: Yet you have not yet learned a wise discretion.
Prometheus: True: or I wouldn’t be speaking to a servant.

But after this unexpectedly delightful exchange has run its course, Prometheus ultimately refuses to divulge his secret. This refusal leads to that single change of circumstance which breaks the even surface of the plot: an earthquake heralds the arrival of the liver-pecking eagle.

Prometheus’ staunch refusal to give up his leverage over Zeus leads directly to what is—to my mind—the great mystery of the lost trilogy. We know, from fragments and ancient commentators, that in the sequel, Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus is, in fact, unbound. And we know, as every audience member at the tragedy’s first performance would also have known, that Zeus did not have a child with Thetis. So what prompted Prometheus to give up his secret?

The only answer I can imagine explains why, but not how. I think Prometheus has to give up his secret. Insofar as he represents intelligence, language, and the sociability of knowledge, his refusal to share his prophecy with Zeus is an uncharacteristic adoption of tyrannical methods. Wordless, it is an act of violence. It is, therefore, the opposite of the Promethean credo, which Shelley aptly summed up in the closing lines of his tributary poem:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.

But what, specifically, prompted Prometheus to correct the aberration of his character and give up his secret? And what made Zeus unbind him? This is Prometheus’ second secret, one we will never penetrate.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.