Prometheus Bound

How does one punish a deity who loves humans so much he risks his life and reputation to save them? How about chaining said deity to a mountain where no human would willingly venture and tormenting them incessantly? Prometheus Bound (date disputed) is often accredited to the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE). The original production date has been disputed, with scholars listing it anywhere from the 480s BCE to the 410s BCE. This ancient drama tells the story of Prometheus's punishment at the hands of a wrathful Zeus. With characters like Zeus's ex-love-interest-turned-cow and Prometheus, the tortured Titan, Prometheus Bound explores themes such as freedom vs. confinement and the consequences of immense power.

Prometheus Bound Prometheus Bound

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Table of contents

    Prometheus Bound Summary

    Prometheus Bound begins as Zeus's henchmen and Hephaestus chain the Titan Prometheus to a barren mountainside in Scythia. Hephaestus is sympathetic to Prometheus's plight, but Kratus and Bia sneer at him. Kratus tells Prometheus he is being punished for defying Zeus by giving humanity fire, and he must learn to respect Zeus's leadership. The three leave, and Prometheus is bound to the mountain alone. He calls on nature to witness his wrongful suffering.

    Soon Prometheus is approached by a chorus of nymphs called Oceanids, who heard him being fettered to the mountain. They are sympathetic towards Prometheus but become skeptical when he says he has a secret that will lead to Zeus's downfall. The Oceanids ask what Prometheus did to deserve this punishment, and he tells them of his role in the war between Zeus and the Titans.

    Prometheus Bound, Prometheus chained to a rock, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1: Prometheus is shackled to a mountain.

    When the older generation (the Titans) and the newer generation (the Olympians) fought one another for control and power, Prometheus ultimately sided with the Olympians and fought against his brothers. Prometheus was instrumental in helping Zeus win and assume control. Zeus turned on Prometheus when Prometheus decided to save the human race from being decimated by Zeus. Prometheus gave humans fire and hope during a time when they had none. Prometheus invites the chorus to listen to a prophecy he has about Zeus, but just as they're coming down, their father, Oceanus, enters.

    The ten-year-long war between the Titans and Olympians is called Titanomachy.

    Oceanus is also sympathetic towards Prometheus and tells Prometheus he will speak to Zeus on his behalf. But Prometheus tells him not to. The two argue for a while, as Oceanus believes he can diffuse the tension, and Prometheus is adamant now is not the right time to get involved. Oceanus departs, leaving Prometheus alone with the Oceanids again.

    They lament his fate, but Prometheus tells them he does not regret his actions. In addition to giving the humans fire, Prometheus taught humanity everything they needed to sustain themselves: the art of agriculture, language, medicine, architecture, animal husbandry, and more. Prometheus again alludes to the prophecy that will free him and defeat Zeus.

    Prometheus Bound, Bonfire, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2: Prometheus is being punished for giving humanity fire against Zeus's wishes.

    All of a sudden, a woman comes rushing on the stage with the horns of a cow. Io is being pursued by gadflies and vainly asks Zeus why he is tormenting her. Prometheus introduces himself and his own plight with Zeus. Io then tells the chorus her own story: After Zeus fell in love with Io, her father drove her off his lands. Hera turned Io into a cow in retaliation for Zeus's infidelity. Zeus had Argus watching over Io, but Argus was murdered by Hermes. Io is now pursued by gadflies and forced to wander the earth, trying to find an escape from her torment.

    The chorus feels pity for Io. Prometheus tells Io she will keep wandering for many years, but her torment will not last forever. He tells her one of her descendants will free him, and Io's suffering will eventually end when Zeus cures her. He will also impregnate her, and her descendants will become kings. Io leaves, still pursued by the gadflies.

    Prometheus Bound, Cow with flies on its face, StudySmarter

    Fig. 3: Io is turned into a cow and endlessly pursued by torturous flies.

    Prometheus's resolve is strengthened by seeing Io's pain. Hermes comes and demands Prometheus tell him the secret of which of Zeus's sons will usurp him. Prometheus refuses, and Hermes threatens to send Prometheus to the Underworld, and later to send an eagle to eat his liver every day. When Prometheus refuses to yield, thunder begins to crack and an abyss opens below him. Standing by Prometheus's side, the chorus and Prometheus descend into Tartarus.

    Prometheus Bound Setting

    Prometheus Bound is set on a barren mountainside in Scythia. Prometheus is chained to this rock, unable to escape or even move around. The setting of Scythia is important because it is relatively desolate. People don't live there because it is infertile, and they wouldn't be able to survive. This isolation would be devastating to Prometheus, whose primary focus is helping humans. Not only is he unable to educate them and help humanity progress, but if there is another threat to their safety, he is literally tied up and unable to save them. Prometheus is forced to stay in one place, completely devoid of the human connection that gives him a purpose.

    The people that do inhabit Scythia were also considered savages and barbarians by the ancient Greeks. They didn't have schools or hospitals or even established communities. Instead, they were nomads who traveled from place to place and lived off the land. Just by occupying the same place as them, Prometheus would become associated with so-called savages. Prometheus's new geographical location would be insulting for someone who once lived a respected, glorious life in Olympus.

    Prometheus Bound, Barren mountains, StudySmarter

    Fig. 4: Prometheus is banished to a barren landscape.

    Prometheus Bound Characters

    Below are the main characters of Prometheus Bound.

    Prometheus

    The self-sacrificing protagonist, Prometheus has been chained to a mountain for helping humanity. While the other gods see humans as inferior and disposable, Prometheus has a soft spot for humanity and wants to see it thrive. He bestows the humans with fire stolen from the gods and teaches them how to sustain themselves. Prometheus also has the gift of prophecy and knows one of Zeus's sons will soon overpower him. He is steadfast and committed, refusing to reveal his secrets even if it would reduce his torment.

    Io

    The unwilling recipient of Zeus's attention, Io has been turned into a cow, chased by gadflies, and forced to wander the world. Prometheus tells Io one of her descendants will eventually free him and become more powerful than Zeus.

    Although it is never stated in the text, the descendant that frees Prometheus is Heracles (Hercules).

    Oceanids (Chorus)

    Oceanus's daughters, the Oceanids are sympathetic toward Prometheus's plight. They encourage Prometheus to bow down to Zeus to save himself. Although they don't understand why he wants to help humanity, the Oceanids are loyal to Prometheus and descend into the Underworld with him.

    Oceanus

    A Titan and the father of the Oceanids, Oceanus wants to help Prometheus. Oceanus offers to speak to Zeus and advocate for Prometheus, but Prometheus refuses.

    Oceanus did not fight in the war against Zeus, so he escaped punishment, unlike the other Titans.

    Zeus

    Absent for the entirety of the drama, Zeus is the source of the conflict in the play. After winning Titanomachy with Prometheus's help, Zeus decided he wanted to destroy humanity. Prometheus defied Zeus's wishes and helped them sustain themselves. As punishment, Zeus has Prometheus chained to the mountain and tortured. Zeus is paranoid about losing his position of power and demands to know which of his sons will be able to overpower him. He sends other gods like Hermes and Hephaestus to do his bidding.

    Hermes

    The messenger of the gods and Zeus's son, Hermes acts as Zeus's voice in the play. Hermes speaks for Zeus, warning Prometheus of the consequences if Prometheus does not yield. He also killed Argus at Hera's bidding.

    Hephaestus

    Zeus's son and the god of the forge, Hephaestus is forced to chain Prometheus to the mountain. Hephaestus is sympathetic toward Prometheus but is scared to anger Zeus and be punished.

    Kratus and Bia

    Zeus's henchmen, Kratus and Bia are the personifications of power and violence. Kratus is the only speaker of the two; he is harsh, brutal, and merciless. He carries out Zeus's orders and enjoys overpowering other gods.

    Argus

    A many-eyed giant, Argus was put in charge of watching Io in her cow form. He was killed by Hermes.

    Prometheus Bound Analysis

    Throughout the play, Prometheus repeatedly references the power of fate and how everyone, even a god as powerful as Zeus, is subject to it. Prometheus and Io find solace in fate, knowing their punishments will not last forever, and are not subjected to Zeus's will alone. Meanwhile, Zeus feels threatened by fate and wants to take matters into his own hands. Zeus has Hermes threaten Prometheus and further torture him when Prometheus refuses to reveal the person who will one day overpower Zeus. To this, Prometheus responds:

    PROMETHEUS. There is no ill-treatment, no contrivance, by which Zeus will induce me to reveal this secret, until these degrading bonds have been unloosed. So let him hurl his blazing fire, let him throw everything into turmoil and confusion with his white feathers of snow and his thunders rumbling beneath the earth: none of that will bend me to make me say at whose hands he is destined to fall from his supreme power. (986-996)

    Those who have power in Prometheus Bound are terrified of fate, while those who have none find solace in it. The Oceanids are stuck somewhere in the middle, fearfully declaring their loyalty to Zeus now but also sympathizing with Prometheus and standing beside him on his descent to the Underworld. They represent a detached middle ground, willing to follow wherever power flows. Fate and power have an inverse correlation in the drama: the more power a character has, the less they are willing to trust fate, and the less power a character has, the more they are willing to give in to fate.

    This correlation is also apparent in contemporary literature. Fate is often depicted as a cruel, indifferent force that ruins the plans people make. Today's protagonists, like Zeus, tend to rebel against fate and do everything in their power to avoid it. As technology has evolved, giving people more control over their lives, society has become increasingly despondent of fate. But for people in Aeschylus's time, who believed even their crop yields and sunrises were determined by gods, fate is not something to be controlled.

    Prometheus Bound Themes

    The main themes of Prometheus Bound are the consequences of power and freedom vs. confinement.

    The Consequences of Power

    Zeus is depicted as a tyrant and bully throughout Prometheus Bound, and, despite not being physically present, his character reveals the devastating consequences of power. When Zeus becomes the most powerful Greek deity after overthrowing the Titans, he begins to abuse his position. Zeus overpowers each of the other gods, forcing them to do his bidding and punishing them harshly if they do not. Although Prometheus was a crucial figure in Zeus's victory, Zeus does not value Prometheus's opinions and is quick to silence him and physically lock him up. Although other gods sympathize with Prometheus, they do not dare cross the power-drunk Zeus. Instead of being a level-headed, fair ruler, Zeus becomes a dictator, wielding his power over every other god.

    Prometheus Bound, Artwork of Zeus and other gods, StudySmarter

    Fig. 5: When Zeus is given power, he is corrupted by it and uses his position to control other deities.

    Zeus's power extends beyond the gods as well. He alone decides to destroy and replace humanity and would have done so if Prometheus didn't stop him. Zeus also uses his position as a god to do what he wants to both mortal and mythical women. Even the Oceanids are terrified of Zeus's attention because he has the power to ruin them as he did Io. Zeus feels as though he can control fate itself, wanting to annihilate anything that threatens him. Power, in short, corrupted Zeus and the way he interacts with the world and people around him.

    Freedom vs. Confinement

    Prometheus and Io both suffer from a lack of freedom, although in very different ways. While Prometheus is chained to a mountain, completely unable to move, Io is forced to wander the earth, never able to settle down. Both are confined by the punishment Zeus has inflicted on them, and neither can live their life freely. Both Prometheus and Io are physically confined to their circumstances.

    The other gods, though, including Hephaestus, Oceanus, and the Oceanids, are confined socially. They sympathize with Io and Prometheus's plights but refuse to help in any way for fear they themselves will be persecuted. What these characters refuse to accept is they too suffer from a lack of freedom, being so scared of upsetting Zeus they allow themselves to be confined to his decrees.

    Prometheus Bound - Key Takeaways

    • Prometheus Bound is often accredited to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, although authorship is contested.
    • It centers around the punishment of Prometheus at the hands of Zeus, who has Prometheus chained up for helping humanity.
    • Prometheus finds solace in the knowledge Zeus can't escape fate and he will be overthrown.
    • Prometheus's resolve is strengthened when he meets another of Zeus's victims, the mortal princess Io, who has been turned into a cow.
    • Prometheus Bound explores themes such as the consequences of power and freedom vs. confinement.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Prometheus Bound

    When was Prometheus Bound written?

    Prometheus Bound was written in the 5th century BCE. 

    Who wrote Prometheus Bound?

    Prometheus Bound is traditionally credited to Aeschylus, although there is debate over the authorship. 

    What is meant by Prometheus Bound?

    Prometheus is literally bound to a rock in punishment and metaphorically bound from helping humanity. 

    What does fire represent in Prometheus Bound?

    Fire represents hope for humanity and Prometheus's defiance of Zeus.

    What is Prometheus bound to as his punishment?

    Prometheus is bound to a mountain. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Why is the setting important?  

    Who makes up the chorus of the play? 

    True or false: Prometheus fought with Zeus during the war against the Titans.

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