Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
Condemned by Zeus for giving fire to mortals, the Titan Prometheus is brought to a barren cliff in Scythia by Hephaestus, the god of fire, and two guards named Kratos and Bia. There he is to be bound to the jagged cliffs. Kratos and Bia are willing to obey Zeus’s commands, but Hephaestus experiences pangs of sorrow and is reluctant to bind his kinsman to the storm-beaten cliff in that desolate region, where Prometheus will never again hear the voice or see the form of a human being. Hephaestus grieves that the Titan is doomed forever to be guardian of the desolate cliff, but he is powerless against the commands of Zeus. At last, he chains Prometheus to the cliff. He rivets Prometheus’s arms beyond release, thrusts a wedge of adamant straight through his heart, and puts iron girths on both his sides with shackles around his legs. After Hephaestus and Bia depart, Kratos remains to hurl one last taunt at Prometheus, asking him what aid he expects humankind to offer their benefactor. The gods who gave Prometheus his name, which means Forethinker, were foolish, Kratos points out, for Prometheus requires a higher intelligence to do his thinking for him.
Alone and chained, Prometheus calls upon the winds, the waters, mother earth, and the sun to look on him and see how the gods torture a god. He admits that he will have to bear his lot as best he can because the power of fate is invincible, but he remains defiant. He has committed no crime, he insists; he has merely loved humankind. He remembers how the gods first conceived the plan to revolt against the rule of Kronos and seat Zeus on the throne. At first Prometheus did his best to bring about a reasonable peace between the ancient Titans and the gods. When he failed, to avoid further violence, he had placed himself on the side of Zeus, who through the counsel of Prometheus overthrew Kronos. Once on the throne, Zeus parceled out to the lesser gods their share of power, but he ignored mortals. His ultimate plan was to destroy them completely and create another race that would cringe and be servile to Zeus’s every word. Among all the gods, only Prometheus objected to this heartless proposal, and it was Prometheus’s courage, his act alone, that had saved human beings from burial in the deepest black of Hades. It was he who had taught blind hope to spring within the hearts of mortals, and he had given them the gift of fire. He had understood the significance of these deeds—he had sinned willingly.
Oceanus, Prometheus’s brother, comes to offer aid out of love and kinship, but he first offers Prometheus advice and preaches humility in the face of Zeus’s wrath. Prometheus remains proud and defiant, and he refuses his brother’s offer of help on the grounds that Oceanus himself would be punished were it discovered that he sympathizes with a rebel. Convinced by Prometheus’s argument, Oceanus takes sorrowful leave of his brother.
Once more Prometheus recalls that human beings were creatures without language who had been ignorant of everything before Prometheus came and told them of the rising and setting of stars, of numbers, of letters, of the function of beasts of burden, of the utility of ships, of curing diseases, of happiness and lurking evil, and of methods to bring wealth in iron, silver, copper, and gold out of the earth. In spite of his torment, he rejoices that he had taught the arts to humankind.
Io, daughter of the river god Inachus, comes to the place where Prometheus is chained. Because Io is beloved by Zeus, Zeus’s wife, Hera, had out of jealousy turned Io into a cow and set Argus, the hundred-eyed monster, to watch her. When Zeus had Argus put to death, Hera sent a gadfly to sting Io and drive her all over the earth. Prometheus prophesies her future wanderings to the end of the earth and says that the day will come when Zeus will restore her to human form and together they will conceive a son named Epaphus. Before Io leaves, Prometheus also names his own rescuer, Hercules, who with his bow and arrow will kill the eagle devouring Prometheus’s vital parts.
Hermes, Zeus’s messenger, comes to see Prometheus and threatens him with more awful terrors at the hands of angry Zeus. Prometheus, still defiant, belittles Hermes’ position among the gods and calls him a mere menial. Suddenly there is a turbulent rumbling of the earth, accompanied by lightning, thunder, and blasts of wind. Zeus shatters the rock with a thunderbolt and hurls Prometheus into an abysmal dungeon within the earth. Such is the terrible fate of the fire-bearer who defied the gods.