Prometheus Bound


Lines 285–560

Summary Lines 285–560

In both lists Prometheus emphasizes one particular contribution to humanity by devoting more words to it than to the others. In the second list, he lingers over divination and prophecy, which fits with his character since he has the power to foretell the future. From the first list, however, Prometheus emphasizes the harnessing of animals to do human work, which seems at first an odd contribution to emphasize, especially considering how briefly writing and mathematics were invoked. This emphasis is important in reminding us of the importance of the sin for which Prometheus is punished. His crime is not simply stealing fire or giving it to mortals, but the fact that he took a power that belonged to the gods and gave it to mortals, thus disturbing the balance of power between human and divine. The harnessing of animals and the introduction of the yoke for human use underscore the seriousness of Prometheus's crime. Earlier, Hephaestus had spoken of the harness in which he binds Prometheus, and Prometheus's chains are referred to several times as "yoke" or "harness." The same symbols of yoke and harness recur in the next section, as Io laments her fate at Zeus's hands. Prometheus has given this power to imprison, previously held by Zeus alone, to mortals. He has thereby brought the divine closer to the mortal, disturbing the natural order of things.

The Oceanids display an odd coldness when they chide Prometheus for helping human beings. This coldness, however, makes sense in Greek terms. The original word meant something more like "favor" than "kindness." The Greek notion of favor in everyday use simply involved the idea of reciprocity. It was simply assumed natural that one did favors for those who could somehow reciprocate. It is the violation of this common conception of kindness that sets Prometheus apart. We have already seen that friendship among the gods is often a matter of political alliance. Zeus befriended Prometheus when he needed him to maintain power, and Prometheus joined Zeus because the Titans would not listen to him. Prometheus, as much as Zeus, is a maker and breaker of political alliances according to circumstances. The fact that Prometheus helps human beings despite their inability to reciprocate, however, sets him apart from the usual divine way of doing business.

The Chorus singers contrast their chants at Prometheus's wedding with their laments now. Zeus's ascent to power marks a boundary between happy and sad times. What separates these times is, in some sense, an ambiguous generational conflict. Zeus is a young god, unlike Prometheus, Oceanus, and the Oceanids. As a tyrant, however, he is the traditional stern father figure, as emphasized by references to him as the Father. Prometheus, despite belonging to the older generation, symbolizes progress in opposition to a static order imposed by Zeus. The suggestion appears to be that happiness requires a certain harmony between old and new. A casting aside of tradition is unfruitful and brings sadness.

Finally, the Chorus intentionally sets the stage for the next section of the play. Their comment about Prometheus's wedding to their sister, and the accompanying remark that she was of his "own race," seems oddly out of place. In a moment, however, Io will enter onto the stage to show the misery brought on by an unsuitable match. Though the Oceanids cannot know that her entrance is pending, Aeschylus uses their speech as a clever literary device to contrast Prometheus's marriage with the union we are about to hear about.