Prometheus Bound

by Aeschylus

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Prometheus (proh-MEE-thee-uhs), a Titan, the son of Themis (Earth). In the revolt of Zeus against Kronos, he had sided with Zeus and had provided the counsel by which the older gods had been overthrown. Later, he persuaded Zeus to spare humankind, whom Zeus had planned to destroy. He has broken the command of the king of the gods by bringing to humans the gift of fire and instructing them in all the arts and crafts. For this flouting of the will of Zeus, he is carried, a prisoner, by Kratos (Might) and Bia (Force) to a rocky cliff in remote Scythia, there to be fastened by Hephaestus to the crag and to remain bound for eternity. His only comfort in his anguish is his secret foreknowledge of the eventual downfall of Zeus. His knowledge of the future remains with him. He prophesies to Io the torments that await her; tells her that her descendant, Herakles, will finally release him; and declares that Zeus himself will one day be deposed by his own son, whose future identity only Prometheus knows. This secret he refuses to divulge to Hermes, who brings the command of Zeus that Prometheus must reveal this all-important name on pain of even worse torments. Defiant to the last, Prometheus is blasted by the thunderbolt of Zeus and sinks into the underworld as the play ends. Prometheus is depicted in this drama as the embodiment of stubborn resistance against the tyranny of Zeus, willing to bear any punishment rather than submit. To the modern mind, and especially to the writers of the Romantic period, he is the personification of the revolt against tyranny of any sort, the symbol of humanity’s war against the forces of reaction and of the eternal quest for knowledge.


Io (I-oh), the daughter of the river god Inachus. She was beloved by Zeus, who changed her into a heifer to save her from the jealous wrath of Hera. Penetrating her rival’s disguise, Hera sent a gadfly to torment Io throughout the world. Half-crazed with pain, Io has wandered to Scythia, where she finds in Prometheus a fellow sufferer. He prophesies her future adventures and traces her descendants down to Herakles, who will deliver him from his chains.


Hermes (HUR-meez), the messenger of Zeus, sent to wring from Prometheus the secret of the identity of that son of Zeus who will overthrow his father. In his attitude, Hermes has been called the personification of prudent self-interest. He fails in his errand, for the dauntless Prometheus reviles him as a mere lackey and refuses to divulge the secret.


Hephaestus (hee-FEHS-tuhs), the god of fire and of metalworking. He has been ordered by Zeus to forge the chains that fasten Prometheus to the rock and to drive an adamantine wedge through his breast. He performs this horrible task reluctantly, bowing only to the superior power of Zeus.


Oceanus (oh-SEE-eh-nuhs), god of the sea. He comes to sympathize with Prometheus and to preach to him the virtue of humility. He even offers to intercede on his behalf with Zeus. Prometheus warns him that, in comforting a rebel, he himself may be charged with rebellion and urges him to depart.


Kratos (Might) and


Bia (Force), brute beings who symbolize the tyranny of Zeus, for they carry out his will. They drag the captive Prometheus to the cliff in Scythia and supervise Hephaestus as he chains the Titan to the rock. Kratos taunts the fallen Titan, reminding him that the name Prometheus—the Contriver—has a...

(This entire section contains 602 words.)

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terrible irony, for no contrivance can release him.


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Greek cosmology describes three generations of gods, (1) Heaven (Earth and Sky) and the Titans, (2) Kronos, and (3) Zeus and his Olympian hierarchy. Prometheus was the son of Iapetus, a Titan, and Clymene, an ocean nymph.

Prometheus helped Zeus defeat the Titans and helped eliminate conflicts among the gods by assigning each specific jurisdictions.

During this time, humanity, created, according to some versions of the myth, by Prometheus, lived a primitive existence without hope. Zeus decided to let humanity perish, so he could create a new race himself, but Prometheus pitied people and gave them fire stolen from heaven. Fire, as Prometheus explains in his monologue, brought with it technology and astronomy, mathematics and language, agriculture and medicine, but most of all, hope. Zeus, angered by Prometheus's interference in his plans, punishes the Titan by impaling him on a mountain peak, where he is partially devoured by an eagle each day. Prometheus knows but refuses to tell how Zeus will fall. In time, Zeus gains sympathy and Prometheus humility. They reconcile. Zeus forgives the Titans and Prometheus. Acknowledging Zeus's power, the rebel exchanges a chain of flowers for the metal chain he wore.

Other Characters

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Chorus of Oceanids
Earth and Sky are the parents of Oceanus and Tethys, who are the parents of the Oceanids. Aeschylus's mythology, which names Prometheus's mother as Earth, makes the Titan uncle to the Oceanids. Like their father Oceanus, they sympathize with Prometheus, but more bravely. Partially out of fear of Zeus, however, they disapprove of Prometheus's behavior, urging him to attempt a reconciliation. Fear of Zeus strikes the Oceanids when they learn of Io's suffering, but still they remain with Prometheus at the end of the play, when he is cast into Tartarus.

Force and Violence
As the play opens, Force and Violence accompany Hephestus as he impales Prometheus to a peak in the Caucasus mountains. Force remains blindly obedient to Zeus, showing no pity for the Titan and respecting only Zeus's pure power. Force's attitude is realistic. When Hephestus laments that it was his skill at metallurgy that led Zeus to select him for the Hermes
Child of Zeus and Maia, Hermes is the messenger of the gods. He enters at the play's end, trying to convince Prometheus to reveal the secret that will lead to Zeus's downfall, but the Titan refuses. Hermes taunts Prometheus and threatens him with further punishment, but the Titan ridicules him. Young and inexperienced, Hermes proves a poor mediator between Zeus and Prometheus, ultimately appearing juvenile and intemperate

Niece of the Chorus, Io is the half-human daughter of a river god. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself desired by Zeus and therefore persecuted by his jealous wife Hera. She has been pursued and watched, first by Argos, whose thousand eyes never close, and then by a gadfly which seems Argos's spirit. Like Prometheus, she too suffers the injustice of Zeus's tyranny, though she is completely innocent of any transgression. Prometheus predicts that one of Io's decedents, Hercules, will revenge her by overcoming Zeus and killing the eagle that daily feeds on Prometheus's liver. This prediction becomes partially true: Hercules does kill the eagle, but Prometheus and Zeus reconcile, leaving Zeus ruler. Thematically, Io's movement contrasts with Prometheus's stasis. Physically, Io appears to be half woman-half cow.

A titan who rules the watery elements, he is brother to Earth, Prometheus's mother, and so the rebel's uncle and father to the Oceanid chorus. Pretentious and foppish, Ocean offers to intervene with Zeus on Prometheus's behalf, showing off an influence with Zeus which he does not have. He advises reconciliation, but he cowers before Zeus's authority. Some critics see him as comic relief. In his role as the foolish advisor, he is reminiscent of Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet.




Critical Essays