Kratos and Bia, the servants of Zeus, arrive at the top of the Scythian mountains, the very edge of Greek civilization, with Hephaistos and a captive Prometheus. “Hephaistos,” Kratos says, “you must carry out the Father’s will / and bind the criminal to this steep looming rock / with chains of adamant, unbreakable.” It was the “flower” of Hephaistos, the “bright and dancing fire,” that Prometheus has stolen and given to humankind; thus, it is Hephaistos whom Zeus has ordered to bind Prometheus.
Hephaistos is the Greek god of metalworking and fire, so it is doubly appropriate that he is made to bind Prometheus. Not only did Prometheus steal fire, which technically belongs to Hephaistos, but Hephaistos is the blacksmith of the gods and makes all the weapons and chains. Hephaistos’s chains are surely “unbreakable” and will tightly bind Prometheus to the rock face. This also reflects the power of Zeus. Prometheus himself is a god, yet Zeus has the power to condemn him to misery and pain.
Because Prometheus has stolen fire, he must “pay / the price to all the gods, that he may learn / to love the tyranny of Zeus / and quit his friendship with the human race.” Hephaistos doesn’t want to chain Prometheus to the rock, but “Necessity compels [him] to it.” Hephaistos is forced by the same “power that holds [Prometheus] captive,” and he has little choice in the matter. Prometheus will be chained to the side of the mountain and left exposed to the elements. “Thus at times one torment or another,” Hephaistos says to Prometheus, “will plague you. Your rescuer is not yet born.”
Hephaistos’s reluctance is evidence of his sympathy and compassion. He is friends with Prometheus, and even refers to Prometheus as his “kin,” but he is forced by the threat of Zeus’s power. This underscores Aeschylus’s argument that one can be confined psychologically as well as physically. Hephaistos is technically free, but he isn’t free to act according to his own will when it goes against Zeus. This also foretells Prometheus’s revelation that he will be freed by the future birth of a god, who Aeschylus implies is Heracles, the god (though originally a human) of strength and heroism.
“Why hold back now?” Kratos asks a hesitant Hephaistos. “What’s all this foolish pity?” Kratos can’t understand why Hephaistos doesn’t “hate” Prometheus—“the gods’ worst enemy”—especially since Prometheus gave Hephaistos’s “treasure to those dayflies,” but Hephaistos is torn. “Kinship holds fearsome power. So does good fellowship,” he says. Crying for Prometheus will do no good, Kratos says, and ignoring Zeus’s orders is not advisable. “My skill, my handicraft, I hate you!” Hephaistos cries.
Kratos calls Prometheus “the gods’ worst enemy” because Prometheus has ensured the survival and progress of humankind, which is the greatest threat to the power of Zeus and the gods. Zeus scorns the human race, and this is reflected in Kratos’s reference to them as “dayflies.” Kratos lives and breathes to carry out Zeus’s will, and Kratos’s obvious disdain for humanity is as good as Zeus’s own.
Hephaistos wishes his “skill” belonged to someone else. “There are no carefree gods, except for Zeus,” Kratos says. “He rules us all, so he alone is free.” Hephaistos continues to bind Prometheus to the massive mountain, and Kratos prods Hephaistos along, reminding him of his task. “Now drive that wedge right through his chest,” Kratos says, “and let its bite reach deep into the rock.” Hephaistos is still reluctant. “Oh pitiful Prometheus, forgive me!” he cries. “More pity for the enemy of Zeus?” Kratos asks. “Take care you don’t bewail yourself some day,” he warns.
This too reflects Aeschylus’s argument of the power of mental confinement. As the entire universe fears Zeus and his power, no one is technically free. Many of the characters act on Zeus’s will, even if it directly contradicts their own. The only character who is not beholden to Zeus’s power, psychologically speaking, is Prometheus, but he is physically confined. This also reflects compassion in the face of suffering. Obviously, Hephaistos does not want to bind Prometheus, but he is forced against his will.
“The job is done,” Hephaistos says as he finishes binding Prometheus to the mountain. “It didn’t take long.” Hephaistos is eager to leave, and he says as much to Kratos. “Be soft if that’s your way,” Kratos says to Hephaistos. “But don’t begrudge me / my iron will and furious disposition.” Then, Kratos turns to Prometheus. “Go play the rebel now,” he says, “go plunder the gods’ treasure / and give it to your creatures of a day.” Prometheus’s beloved “mortals” can do nothing to spare him his pain now. “The gods who named you the Forethinker were mistaken,” Kratos says as he leaves with Bia and Hephaistos.
Kratos is the personification of Zeus’s “Might,” or will. When Kratos speaks of his “iron will and furious disposition,” he is describing the uncompromising violence of Zeus. According to legend, Prometheus’s mother, Themis, gave him the gift of “foresight,” or prophecy. Kratos implies here that Prometheus failed to see his future; however, this isn’t true. Prometheus knew he’d be punished and saved humankind away, which reflects Prometheus’s sacrifice on behalf of his artistic creation—humankind.
“Oh Mother Earth! Oh Sun, all-seeing brilliant eye!” Prometheus cries once he is alone. “I call you all to witness—see what I, a god, must suffer at the hands of the gods.” He will be chained to the mountain to suffer “through endless time” and “miseries.” Prometheus knew he would be made to suffer for giving the humans fire, and he knows that his future will be nothing but pain. There is no “hidden hurt” that can “take [him] by surprise.” Prometheus will “bear as lightly as [he] can” the “fate” that has been “decreed” for him. “I know full well / no power can stand against Necessity,” Prometheus says.
Prometheus claims that he cannot be taken by surprise, but his foresight does appear to be somewhat limited. While he knew he would be punished, he later claims that he did not know it would be so severe, and he also “fears” the sound of unknown footsteps coming in his direction. In this way, Prometheus’s foresight, while certainly advantageous, cannot tell him exactly what the future holds. Each time Prometheus speaks of “Necessity” it is with a capital “N,” and Prometheus later attributes “Necessity” to “the triple Fates,” or Furies, from which there is no escape.
But Prometheus still “can’t accept [his] lot.” He is “yoked in chains” for giving the mortals fire to “teach them every art and skill, / with endless benefit,” and now he must “pay the penalty.” Prometheus hears a sound in the distance. He isn’t yet sure who or what is coming to see the “ill-fated god” bound in chains by Zeus. “Whatever it is,” Prometheus says, “I fear it.”
This too reflects Prometheus’s love and sacrifice for his creation. He has given the human race infinite gifts through fire and knowledge, and he willingly pays the price. Aeschylus repeatedly uses the image of a “yoke,” a wooden beam used to tie animals to a cart, to describe Zeus’s confinement of the other characters.
The chorus, the daughters of Okeanos, arrive in a “winged chariot” and approach Prometheus. “Don’t be afraid,” they say. “We come as friends!” Prometheus is happy to see them. “Aaah!” he cries. “See / the cruel watch / I must keep!” Okeanos’s daughters are sympathetic. “I see you, though my eyes are dimmed / by terror and a haze of tears / at your predicament,” the women say. Prometheus tells the chorus he would rather have been sent to the “House of Hades” or even Tartaros. “But here I hang up high, / a plaything for the winds to buffet, / and for my enemies to gloat on,” he says.
Hades is the god of the underworld and the dead, and his name is synonymous with the ancient Greek equivalent of hell. Zeus often banishes those he punishes to Hades and, in severe cases, to Tartaros, the dungeon beneath Hades made specifically to hold the Titans. Prometheus’s punishment is even worse than Tartaros for several reasons, but to Prometheus, it is particularly awful because it is so public.
“Who would not groan with pity / at your sight—except for Zeus?” the chorus asks. The women claim that Zeus’s “wrath is constant,” and “his resolve / to crush the Progeny of Heaven” will not yield until he is “satisfied” or struck by another whim. “And yet, though I am tortured now,” Prometheus says, “and bound immovably, / the Lord of the Immortals will one day / have need of me / to show him the new plot / that dooms his scepter and his pride.”
This too hints at Prometheus’s reason and foresight. Prometheus claims that Zeus’s downfall is coming in the form of a “fated marriage.” Zeus may have Prometheus now, but one day Prometheus will hold all the power in the form of his foresight and reason. This too harkens to Aeschylus’s argument of the power of reason over force.
Still, Prometheus refuses to tell Zeus what he knows, unless Zeus agrees to free him “from [his] chains.” The chorus is in awe of Prometheus. “You are so daring, / unbending in the face / of such atrocious pain,” the women say, “but you give too much freedom / to your tongue.” Zeus is sure to hear him, they say, and when he does there will be trouble. Prometheus knows “very well” that Zeus is “cruel” and “rules by whim,” but he also knows the day will come when Zeus will need him. Zeus’s “heart will soften” then, Prometheus says, and “his rage will finally relent.”
This reflects Prometheus’s dedication to his art and creation. He is “daring” and “unbending” as he accepts his punishment, and he won’t lessen it by telling Zeus what he knows now. While the chorus implies that Prometheus is too proud (a popular theme in Greek tragedies), Aeschylus seems to celebrate Prometheus’s pride, not condemn it, and it is one of the qualities that makes readers so sympathetic to Prometheus’s plight.
The chorus asks Prometheus why he has been punished so severely by Zeus. “Tell us,” they say, “unless telling adds to your pain.” Prometheus says there is “no escape” from his “misery either way,” so he may as well tell them the story. At the beginning of the Battle of the Titans, Prometheus tells the women, he had “offered to advise the Titans,” but he was unable “to persuade them.” The Titans were “proud of their strength, and arrogant,” and they “despised” Prometheus’s plan, believing that they could instead be victorious “with little effort and by force alone.” But Prometheus’s mother, Themis, gave him “foreknowledge,” and he knew “that victory would fall / to those who show superior guile, not might.”
This shows the compassion of the chorus. The women badly want to hear the story, unless it is too painful for Prometheus to tell. Prometheus’s story also reflects Aeschylus’s central argument of the power of reason over force. The Titans were not able to win over Zeus and the Olympians “by force alone,” and Zeus was only able to win by listening to Prometheus’s cunning. As it does throughout the play, reason is always victorious over force, even if it takes a while to come around.
The Titans refused to listen to Prometheus, so he joined forces with Zeus. Zeus “willingly accepted” Prometheus’s plan, and Kronos and the Titans were defeated and sent to the “depths of Tartaros.” Prometheus had been of “service to the tyrant god,” but he has still punished him. “There is a sickness / among tyrants,” Prometheus tells the chorus. “They cannot trust their friends.”
Zeus doesn’t care about loyalties or friendships, just as he didn’t care about his own father, Kronos, whom he willfully challenged and defeated during the Battle of the Titans. Zeus cares only about power—the mark of a true tyrant—which he wields violently over the entire universe.
Not long after the Battle of the Titans, Prometheus tells the chorus, Zeus “intended to expunge” the human race and “grow another one more to his liking.” Prometheus couldn’t let his creation die, so he saved them. “And that is why you see me racked by suffering,” Prometheus tells the chorus. “I wish my eyes had never settled / on this sight,” the chorus says, “for now my heart is wounded.” They ask if Prometheus might be leaving something out of his story. “I gave men power to stop foreseeing their death,” Prometheus says. “I sowed blind hopes to live as their companions,” and “I gave them fire,” he says.
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus molded humankind from clay. Through the gift of fire, Prometheus has given them endless possibilities for progress. Fire will keep them warm, cook their food, and protect them from predators, but it also symbolizes the spark of human intelligence and creativity. Because of Prometheus, humans can now think, and, with hope, they have anticipation that life can continue to get better.
“Are these in truth the charges on which Zeus—,” the chorus asks. “Torments me and will never let me go,” Prometheus finishes. “Let the pronouncement that would hurt us both / remain unspoken,” the chorus says, “but find a way to end this!” Prometheus has “willfully” offended Zeus, but even he did not think that his punishment would be quite so severe. “But don’t lament over my present woes,” Prometheus says as he invites the chorus to sit near him. “For my sake, please, come down and share my sorrow,” he continues. “Misfortune is a migrant bird that settles, / now here, now there, on each of us in turn.”
Prometheus invites the chorus to sit with him because he is comforted by their compassion. Aeschylus draws attention to the widespread suffering of the human condition and the comfort of compassion to those who suffer, but he also suggests that compassion alone is not enough to keep one going through immense suffering. Only hope can do that, Aeschylus implies, and Prometheus hopes that Zeus will again someday need his foresight, or that his savior will be born and free him, whichever comes first.
Suddenly, “on a winged horse,” Okeanos arrives. “I’ve traveled far to find you, Prometheus,” he says. “But even kinship aside, in my heart / no one dwells higher than you.” He has come to help Prometheus, but Prometheus can’t understand why. “Look at me, then, / and view the display,” Prometheus says. “Witness the friend of Zeus, / who helped create the tyrant’s rule, / twisted in agony by his command.” Okeanos offers Prometheus “a better wisdom.” A “new master” rules now, Okeanos says, and if he hears Prometheus talking like he is, there is sure to be even more trouble. “Humility, just / a small touch of it,” Okeanos says to Prometheus, “would serve you well.”
Prometheus can’t understand why Okeanos wants to help free him because Okeanos is a Titan god who somehow managed to avoid being sent to Tartaros after the Battle of the Titans. Prometheus too was a Titan, and he essentially betrayed Okeanos and the other Titans when he helped Zeus defeat them. Prometheus thinks Okeanos should leave him to suffer since Prometheus was a traitor to him and the rest of their kind. Again, Okeanos implies that Prometheus’s hubris is a negative thing, but his excessive pride is also seen as a strength in the play.
“Now I will go / and see what I can do to set you free,” Okeanos says to Prometheus. “I envy you, that escaped all blame,” Prometheus replies, “though you risked everything to lend me your support.” He begs Okeanos not to attempt to persuade Zeus, as the king is unyielding. “Just see to it that you don’t come to harm,” Prometheus says. But Okeanos claims that his “will is set,” and he is “indeed very sure” that Zeus will hear his plea and free Prometheus from his suffering.
Prometheus again alludes to the fact that Okeanos was not sent to Tartaros with the rest of the Titans. Prometheus may have “escaped” Zeus’s blame for being a Titan, but he cannot escape his punishment for giving fire and reason to humankind. Okeanos too risks Zeus’s wrath for trying to help Prometheus, which Okeanos must be aware of as well; however, he still wants to help Prometheus, which is an obvious sign of Okeanos’s compassion.
Prometheus is thankful for Okeanos’s support, but he cannot let him go to Zeus. “So don’t concern yourself,” Prometheus says to Okeanos, “steer a wide berth / from all action, and rest easy.” He reminds Okeanos of his brother, Atlas, whom Zeus has made to bear “upon his shoulders / the weight of heaven and earth” for all eternity, and Typhon, the “hundred-headed monster,” who challenged Zeus and now is “a sprawling, helpless form” deep “beneath the roots of Aetna.” Prometheus says he will “drain out [his] suffering / until the day when Zeus gives up his wrath.”
Atlas and Typhon are further evidence of Zeus’s power and ability to physically confine others to Hades, Tartaros, or elsewhere, as is the case with Typhon deep beneath the volcano Etna. This also underscores Okeanos’s psychological confinement at the hands of Zeus. Okeanos claims it is his “will” to help Prometheus, but he knows that he is not really free to act on his will, at least not without suffering Zeus’s wrath himself.
“Clearly your words are sending me back home,” Okeanos says to Prometheus. “So that your pity won’t draw hate against you,” Prometheus replies. Okeanos agrees to leave the mountain and not approach Zeus on Prometheus’s behalf. Okeanos climbs on his winged horse and flies away. “I weep for you, Prometheus, and I mourn your terrible fate,” the chorus says. “This is a tyrant’s act, cruel and remorseless.”
Again, Okeanos is not free to act as he wishes. Zeus’s power as king of the gods is successful in large part because of the tyrannous hold he has over the universe. Prometheus’s imprisonment is successful not just because Hephaistos’s chains are strong but because others are too afraid to help him—until Heracles is born, that is.
“Don’t think that I am silent out of pride / or stubbornness,” Prometheus says. “My backward-turning thoughts / eat at my heart on seeing myself discarded / in this way.” Instead of speaking of his own misfortune, he asks the chorus to listen to what he has to say of “human misery.” He gave “shrewdness” to the humans’ “childish minds, and taught them how to reason.” From the start they could hear and see, but this was “useless to them.” Their lives were “like dreams with shifting shapes” that had been only “meaningless confusion.”
What others in the play see as Prometheus’s excessive pride is actually love for his art, and his willingness—or his responsibility, even—to suffer on its behalf. In order for humankind to survive, Prometheus had to anger Zeus, there was no way around it. While it certainly pains Prometheus to bear Zeus’s punishment, he submits himself to it because it is necessary for the sake of his creation.
Before Prometheus gave the humans reason, they knew nothing of “brick homes / built to face the sun,” and they “burrowed underground and dwelt” like “ants.” They did now know about “the approach of winter, or of flowery spring, / or summer with its fruits.” Without reason, every human act “was without purpose.” Then Prometheus showed them how to read the stars, and he created “numbers” and “the joining of letters, which is / the very memory of things.” He gave them “the subtlest science” and taught them to “bring wild beasts / under the yoke.”
Prometheus is often depicted as the father of all arts, including architecture, which is represented in the “brick homes” Prometheus teaches the humans to build. He is also often interpreted as the genius god, which is mirrored in the wisdom of the changing seasons and the invention of mathematics. Prometheus also gave them language, which will lead to literature—“the very memory of things.”
All these things Prometheus has given to humankind. “But I have no device to free myself / from this disaster,” he says. He also gave them “many arts / and skillful means,” including the knowledge of “how to mix / soothing elixirs that can steer the course / of any sickness.” He taught them to read the “flight” of birds and how to “burn a thighbone” in the “difficult to learn” art “of enticing the gods.” He revealed the “treasures” deep in the earth, of “bronze, iron, silver, [and] gold.” Every last “human art” was “founded by Prometheus,” he tells the chorus.
Prometheus also gave the humans the knowledge of medicine and metallurgy, which ensures their survival and continued progress toward civilization. The burning of a “thighbone” is a reference to the ancient “art” of oracle bones, a type of pyromancy that includes burning specific bones to bring about visions and prophecy. Animal bones are placed in a fire until they begin to crack, and the cracks are then read, or divined.
“You have already helped these mortals beyond measure,” the chorus says to Prometheus. “Now don’t neglect yourself, unfortunate god.” They tell him he will be as powerful as Zeus by the time he is free. “The fate who brings to fulfillment / has made no such decree,” Prometheus says. “Skill is weaker than Necessity.” The chorus asks who “plots the course” for Necessity. “The triple Fates,” Prometheus answers. “The unforgetting Furies.” Even Zeus cannot escape the Furies, Prometheus says. The chorus asks him what Zeus’s fate is, but Prometheus refuses to tell. “For only / by holding it away will I escape / these agonies and this humiliation,” he claims.
Within Greek mythology, the Furies are the three goddesses of vengeance and retribution. The Furies, also known as the Erinyes, are the embodiment of curses and revenge, and they cannot be escaped or destroyed. According to the myth, the Furies were formed when Kronos castrated his father, Uranus, and hurled his genitals into the sea. The three Furies were born from the drops of blood, and they are older, and have more power, than any of the Olympian gods.
“You give too much honor to mortals,” the chorus says to Prometheus, “this is your punishment.” Suddenly, Io appears. “What land is this?” she asks. “What tribe?” She looks to Prometheus but doesn’t know who he is. “Ah! Ah! Eh! Eh!” Io screams. “The gadfly, it stings me.” She claims that the fly “chases” her, “wretched and hungry, / along the sands of the seashore.” Io only wanders now, pursued by the gadfly. “What did I do, son of Kronos, what fault did you find in me,” asks Io, “that you would yoke me to such pain?”
According to Greek myth, Zeus fell in love with Io, the mortal daughter of a king, and, in another display of power, turned her into a cow to hide her from his jealous wife, Hera. Hera, of course, knew who the cow was, and took Io as her pet. Hera then ordered her servant, Argos, to guard Io and keep Zeus away. Argos is often depicted as having one hundred eyes, like a fly, and after Zeus ordered Argos killed by Hermes, Argos’s ghost—that of a gadfly—continues to plague Io, who remains a cow wandering the earth.
“Who are you?” Io asks Prometheus again. “Tell me, tormented one, who you are, speak to my misery. / Oh my unfortunate life! Pain, hunger, and deadly fear / are my only friends.” She begs Prometheus to tell her what the future holds. “Is there a cure for me?” she asks. “Tell me plainly.” Prometheus tells Io who he is, and that he gave fire to mankind. “When will my suffering end?” she asks. “Is there a limit to this misery?”
This too reflects the great misery and suffering that Zeus is capable of inflicting with his power. This is also an example of Zeus’s ability to confine people, both literally and metaphorically. Io is confined and tortured by her physical existence as a cow. She is certainly free to roam, but she is still very much imprisoned by Zeus.
“Better for you to not know than to know,” Prometheus says to Io of her suffering. “Do not be kinder to me than I want,” Io says. “Since you demand, I will tell you,” Prometheus says. “Listen.” The chorus interrupts. They want to know more about Io’s condition. “Then let her hear from you / the future trials that she must suffer,” the chorus says. Prometheus encourages Io to tell her story, especially since the chorus are her “father’s sisters.” “It will be worth your waiting / if you unburden yourself of your bitter tale / while they pay tribute with their tears,” he says.
Io’s father, Inachus, is also a god born of the Titan Okeanos. The chorus is made up entirely of Okeanos’s daughters, a group of three thousand sea nymphs often referred to as the Oceanids. Prometheus claims it is better for Io if she doesn’t know what suffering is in store for her, but the chorus later makes the opposite claim, that suffering is lessened, or at least more bearable, if it is known. Aeschylus implies that both are painful, but compassion, like that found in the chorus, is a comfort to Io.
Io tells Prometheus and the chorus of the “hideous mock of [her] appearance,” which she says makes her “ashamed.” She claims that “visions came by night” into her “maiden chamber,” and “visitors” spoke in “smooth and urging voices.” The voices asked why she was “still a virgin” when she could “be the bride of the supreme.” Zeus was in love with her, “the dart of passion” having “set him on fire,” and he wanted to “share his pleasure” with her. The voices warned her not to “spurn the god’s bed,” and to go to Lerna, where her “father’s flocks graze, / so Zeus’s eye” could “find relief from longing.”
The “hideous mock of [Io’s] appearance” is a reference to her form as a cow. When Prometheus Bound is staged, whoever plays Io usually wears horns or something similar to mark her existence as a heifer. Lerna is an ancient Greek region just south of the city of Argos, where Io’s father, Inachus, was the first king. Like the other characters in Aeschylus’s play, Io was not free to reject Zeus’s advances, even if she had wanted to.
Io told her father about the voice and he sought guidance in the oracles, whose prophecies were “too dark to fathom” and full of “double meaning.” One day, a message came that was “unmistakable.” If Io’s father did not “drive [Io] from [her] home” and turn her out to “wander at [her] will,” Zeus would “blot out” all of Io’s people with a fiery thunderbolt.
Aeschylus’s language here reflects Io’s existence as a cow. The oracle tells her father to “drive” her from home, which connotes the movement of cattle and livestock. Like Io and the others, Io’s father is not free to act on his own will either. He obviously doesn’t want to cast his daughter out, but he must or else suffer the wrath of Zeus.
And so, Io’s father “shut his doors against [her], weeping.” It was, of course, not of his own choosing, but Zeus “pulled the reins and forced him against his will.” As soon as Io’s father closed the door, Io’s “shape and mind / became distorted.” Horns grew from her head, and a gadfly began to chase her relentlessly. Io has been wandering ever since, “driven by the god-sent scourge, / the gadfly, from land to land.” Io looks to Prometheus. She has told them everything, she says, “and if you know / what still awaits me, tell me, / don’t serve me the cold truth warmed up with false words. / There is no sickness worse than that.”
Again, Io implies that her suffering is made worse because she doesn’t know what is coming or when it will end. Io is held captive by Zeus both by her physical condition as a cow and by the immense fear of her future suffering. Io does not have to be physically chained like Prometheus to be a prisoner of Zeus, which reflects Aeschylus’s overarching argument of the power of psychological confinement and metaphorical imprisonment.
“Ea, ea, stop!” the chorus shrieks. They had not anticipated that Io’s story would be so awful. “Horror / freezes my heart with a double-edged point,” they claim. “You moan too soon,” Prometheus says, for he must still tell of what’s to come. “Wait till you hear the rest.” He claims that Io will greatly suffer at the hands of Hera, Zeus’s wife, but if Io heeds Prometheus’s words, she will “recognize the end” when it arrives. He tells Io to turn and head in the direction of the “rising sun” until she comes to the village of the “Scythian nomads.” He warns her to stay away from them and travel on to the river Hubristes.
Hera’s servant, Argos, will continue to sting Io in his ghostly form as the gadfly, and he will chase Io all the way across the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which connects Europe and Asia. This too is evidence of Zeus’s power and Io’s suffering. She is driven a vast distance alone and without rest from the stinging gadfly. According to myth, Zeus doesn’t turn Io back into a woman until she wanders all the way to Egypt.
Prometheus tells Io she must continue to Mount Caucasus, “the highest mountain,” and then walk until she finds the Amazons, “a race of women sworn to enmity of men.” The Amazons will “gladly” show Io the way to the “isthmus of Cimerria,” where she must “cross the channel of Maiotis.” This crossing will forever be remembered by mortals as the “Bosporus,” or “Cow’s Ford.” Upon Io’s crossing, Prometheus says, she will “arrive in Asia.” This is just the beginning, Prometheus tells Io. She is headed for a “storm-swept sea of pain and misery.”
The Bosporus, also known as the Straight of Istanbul, is a narrow waterway between Asia and Europe, located in present day Turkey. According to Greek myth, the Amazons were a tribe of warrior women who lived on the riverbanks of northern Turkey. They rejected all men and patriarchal society, which they frequently warred against. The Amazons were even said to have each cut off one breast so that they could better shoot their bows.
Io is distraught. “What is the good of life to me now?” she asks Prometheus. “It would be better to die once, and quickly, / than to drag myself through years and years of pain,” she says. “Ah, you would find it hard to bear what I must bear,” Prometheus says. “I cannot die.” He must suffer “until the tyranny of Zeus is overthrown.” Io is shocked. “Zeus overthrown—is that conceivable?” she asks. Prometheus says it is. “It will come to pass,” he affirms. Io wants to know how. “A marriage he will regret,” Prometheus says. The bride will bear a son “who’s stronger than his father.”
That fact that Prometheus is immortal and can’t die is further evidence of his confinement as ordered by Zeus—Prometheus can’t even escape by dying. Prometheus’s claim that Zeus will fall must have been considered near blasphemy in Aeschylus’s day, and no other known myth or ancient play depicts the downfall of Zeus in such a way.
According to Prometheus, Zeus can “avert this doom” only if he frees Prometheus from his chains. “But who will free you against Zeus’s will?” Io asks. “My savior will descend from your own womb,” he answers. In “ten generations, then another three,” Prometheus’s “savior” will be born. Prometheus offers Io one more prophecy; to tell of her “further suffering” or the story of his savior. The choice is hers. The chorus again interrupts. “Grant her one of the two, and me the other. / Do not begrudge me your words.”
Prometheus’s chains are symbolic of Zeus’s power and Prometheus’s confinement, which, incidentally, is not entirely Zeus’s own. The strength of Hephaistos’s chains is part of Zeus’s power over Prometheus, while Prometheus himself holds power over Zeus in the form of his foresight and knowledge of Zeus’s supposed fate at the hands of his son: Io’s descendant and Prometheus’s savior, Heracles. This ultimately reflects the vulnerability of brute force—it cannot be sustained long term.
“Since you’re so eager,” Prometheus says to Io and the chorus, “I won’t disappoint you.” He begins with Io. Once she crosses the water between the two continents, she will move in the direction of the “sunrise.” There, she will arrive at the “Gorgonean plains of Kisthenes,” where there are “three ancient maidens / in the shape of swans, with but one eye among them / and a single tooth.” Close by, Io will find “their winged sisters, snake-haired, / human-hating Gorgons.” Beware of them, Prometheus says, for the Gorgons will kill “any mortal who beholds them.”
Here, Aeschylus refers to the Graeae, the three daughters of sea deities in Greek mythology. The Graeae are typically represented as witches or old and grey women, but Aeschylus describes them here as taking “the shape of swans.” According to myth, the Graeae have one eye and tooth that they share between them, and they are the sisters of the Gorgons, of which Medusa is a popular example. The Graeae and Gorgons are further evidence of Io’s suffering.
“Beware as well / of Zeus’s sharp-toothed barkless dogs, the gryphons,” Prometheus says to Io, “and the one-eyed horsemen called the Arimaspians.” Stay clear of all them, Prometheus warns. Io will then arrive at “a very far-off land, / inhabited by black men living near the sources / of the sun.” She is to follow a river called the Ethiops until she reaches the Bybline mountains. There, Io and her “descendants” will begin a “distant colony.”
In ancient myth, gryphons are the kings of the beasts—with the body and legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle—and they guarded the gold deposits in the foothills of the Asian mountains, where the Arimaspians, the one-eyed people of northern Scythia, lived. Again, the gryphons and Arimaspians are further evidence of Io’s suffering and misery, as she frequently comes up against danger.
The chorus is eager to hear the story of Prometheus’s savior, and he begins to tell it willingly. “I have more time than I would like,” he says. According to Prometheus, after Io arrives at “Thesprotian Zeus’s shrine of prophecy,” she will meet Dodona “on her lofty ridge.” “Thou shalt be Zeus’s fabled bride one day,” Dodona will say, and Io will “smile” and be “flattered.” Still plagued by the gadfly, Io will move along the coast to “the great gulf of Rhea,” where a storm will force her to change direction. This part of the sea will forever bear the name, “Ionian,” Prometheus says.
Thesprotia is a region in Greece and home to the oldest Greek oracle, where Io receives a prophecy that she will marry Zeus. Interestingly, Io smiles at the idea, which also reflects the level of power and control Zeus has over her. Io knows that Zeus is in large part to blame for her confinement and misery, but she still relishes the idea of being chosen by Zeus to be his wife.
In the town of Canopus, Prometheus tells Io and the chorus, Zeus will “cause [Io] to conceive, simply by touching [her].” Io will “bring forth / a black son, Epaphos, “the one conceived by touch.” Five generations later, “fifty daughters” will be forced to return to Argos to marry their cousins, but they will flee, only to be pursued by the men “like hawks in chase of doves.” The men will be killed by a “female Ares’ murdering hand,” and the women will “find refuge on Pelagian soil.” One of the daughters will be “charmed / by love to spare her bed companion,” and she will go on to give birth to a “race of kings” in Argos.
Canopus is an ancient Egyptian city, near present-day Alexandria. According to myth, Io wanders all the way to Egypt, where Zeus finally turns her back into her mortal form. Zeus and Io’s son, Epaphos, becomes a king of Egypt, and Io’s grandson, Danaus, later returns to Greece, as Prometheus says, with his fifty daughters, the Danaids, who were betrothed to the fifty sons of Danaus’s twin brother. All but one of the Danaids kill their husbands, a story which Aeschylus tells in his play The Suppliants.
From this “seed,” says Prometheus to Io and the chorus, “shall spring a hero, famous for his bow, / who will release me from this suffering.” This prophecy has been revealed to Prometheus by his mother, Themis. “Eleleleleleleu!” screams Io. The gadfly is again biting at her and standing with Prometheus is nearly unbearable. Io turns and continues her wandering. The chorus notes “that a marriage of equals / surpasses all others. The women hope to “find a husband who is equal,” and not fight a “war without a battle,” of which there is “no way out.”
Here Aeschylus refers to Heracles, the son of Zeus and Alcmene and the great-grandson of Perseus, who was also the son of Zeus and Danae, a direct descendant of Danaus and the Danaids. Heracles is the epitome of Greek strength and masculinity and he is frequently represented by a bow and arrows. According to myth, Heracles shoots Zeus’s liver-eating eagle and frees Prometheus from his chains.
“I tell you,” Prometheus says to the chorus, “Zeus with all his arrogance / will be brought low.” Zeus is already planning his marriage to Io, which “will throw him / from his omnipotence into oblivion.” When Zeus drove Kronos to Tartaros, Kronos cursed Zeus, and Prometheus knows “the What and the How.” Zeus’s “downfall” cannot be avoided, Prometheus says. “Struck by that fist,” Prometheus tells the chorus, “[Zeus will] understand the difference / between a ruler and a slave.”
This too reflects Aeschylus’s argument of the limited power of brute force. Foreknowledge of his downfall—which can’t be overcome by strength alone—can only help Zeus in the future, and the fact that Prometheus knows “the What and the How” but not Zeus, gives Prometheus power over Zeus. Zeus’s marriage to Io will begin a series of events that ends in the birth of Heracles and the freeing of Prometheus, so why would Prometheus warn Zeus unless he frees him?
“You threaten Zeus with what you hope will happen,” the chorus says to Prometheus. “I speak the future and what I desire,” Prometheus says. “[Zeus’s] yoke will be far harsher than my own.” The chorus asks Prometheus if he is scared to speak of Zeus in such a way. “What should I fear?” Prometheus answers. “It’s not my fate to die.” Zeus can only bring Prometheus pain, but “he cannot surprise” Prometheus. “Let him rule a little while,” Prometheus says. “Let him play King. He will not be / the highest god for very much longer.”
Aeschylus again uses the image of a yoke to represent power and confinement, but here it is used against Zeus. However, Zeus is never “brought low” as Prometheus predicts, and it has already been established that Prometheus can technically be “surprised” (he didn’t know he would be punished so harshly and he is frightened by the sound of unknown footsteps), so it appears as if Prometheus’s power of reason is limited just as Zeus’s physical power is.
Suddenly, Hermes appears. “But look,” Prometheus says, “here comes [Zeus’s] lackey, / the carrier pigeon of our new commander in chief.” Hermes approaches Prometheus. “Supreme conniver,” Hermes says, “master of complaints, / fire-thief who mocks the gods and / idolizes dayflies: The Father wants to know / what is this marriage which you boast / will cause his downfall.” Prometheus refuses to give Hermes the answer he seeks. He claims that Zeus is “young in power,” and Prometheus has already seen “two tyrants fall.”
By claiming Zeus is “young in power,” this implies that all inexperienced rulers are violent and tyrannous, but they eventually learn their lesson. This further suggests that there is not much thought and intellect behind brute force, which is in keeping with Aeschylus’s theory of the value of reason over force. Hermes is also another example of a god who is psychologically confined and beholden to Zeus. Prometheus calls him a “carrier pigeon” and a “lackey,” suggesting that he is little more than Zeus’s flunky.
Hermes claims it is only “arrogance” that has brought Prometheus to the mountain face. “Let me assure you,” Prometheus says to Hermes, “I would not exchange / my own misfortune for your slavery.” Hermes thinks his own “slavery” is better than Prometheus’s fate chained to a rock. “A tyrant’s trust dishonors those who earn it,” Prometheus says.
This too reflects Hermes’s metaphorical imprisonment. Prometheus calls Hermes a “slave,” which basically implies he is anything but free. Like Hephaistos and Okeanos, Hermes is physically free, but he can’t act on his own will if it goes against Zeus.
Hermes asks Prometheus “what honor is there in [his] insolence,” and Prometheus claims that his “insolence” “spits contempt at insolence itself.” Hermes says that it appears as if Prometheus “relishes” his current predicament. “Relish?” Prometheus asks. “I wish my enemies could relish / this. And I count you among them.” Hermes cannot believe that Prometheus is blaming him for his own plight. “I’ll say it plainly,” Prometheus remarks. “I hate all the gods / for repaying right with wrong and good with evil.”
Prometheus disrespects Zeus because Zeus disrespected humanity when he vowed to “expunge” them and create a new race. Prometheus’s fate on the mountain is pure torture, but it is a necessary evil to save humanity, Prometheus’s art and creation. In this way, Aeschylus implies that the artist always suffers—is obligated to suffer even—on behalf of their art.
“You’ve clearly lost your mind,” Hermes says to Prometheus. “This is a sickness.” Hermes again asks Prometheus to answer Zeus’s question about his fate. “Am I indebted to him for his kindness?” Prometheus asks. Hermes accuses Prometheus of “mocking” him, like a “child.” Still, Prometheus refuses to talk. “No torture, promise, or device / will ever move me to tell Zeus / the things I know until he sets me free,” he says. Prometheus knows that Zeus’s fury will be severe, but it makes little difference. “I won’t bend,” Prometheus says.
Again, Prometheus’s foresight is the only power he has over Zeus—save for waiting for Heracles to be born—and giving Zeus his knowledge for simply a lightened sentence is no good. This is also evidence of Prometheus’s dedication to his art and his sacrifice on its behalf. Prometheus knew (at least in part) what was in store for him, and he knows (roughly) what will happen, but he will not give up—he remains determined to sacrifice himself for the sake of his creation.
“Think better of it, fool!” Hermes says to Prometheus. “Take stock / of who you are and where your fate has brought you!” Prometheus is unyielding. Hermes may as well “try to persuade / a wave out of its course” before he convinces Prometheus to tell Zeus what he knows. Prometheus tells Hermes that he will not beg Zeus to free him. “I do not have it in me,” Prometheus says. Hermes can see that Prometheus will not budge. “What good is obstinate will / untamed by sound thought and good measure?” Hermes asks.
Ironically, Prometheus is the personification of “sound thought” and “good measure,” but Hermes can’t see past Zeus’s power and force. According to Prometheus, Zeus will need him one day, and when he does, Zeus will have to set him free first. However, Prometheus’s inability to beg Zeus is evidence of his psychological freedom—even though Zeus may have him chained to a mountain, he doesn’t control Prometheus’s mind and spirit.
Hermes warns Prometheus that if he doesn’t tell Zeus what he knows, “a threefold tidal way wave of misery” will come his way. First, Zeus will “destroy” the mountain with “thunder and lightning.” The mountain will crumble, burying Prometheus. After an “enormous span of time,” the light will return, and bring with it Zeus’s “winged hound, a scarlet eagle,” to tear the flesh from Prometheus’s body. The eagle will feast on Prometheus’s liver each day—and “he will return, day in, day out.” This will continue without end until Zeus sees fit to stop.
Here, Aeschylus’s language reflects the power of a “wave,” just as it does when Prometheus says Hermes may as well “try to persuade / a wave out of its course.” In this way, both Zeus and Prometheus are equally powerful and can’t be stopped or persuaded. Zeus’s eagle eats Prometheus’s liver because as an organ, the liver can regenerate, but also because the liver is symbolic of passion and anger in Greek mythology. By eating Prometheus’s liver, Zeus takes on Prometheus’s own anger, or wrath.
“Heed his words!” the chorus cries. “It’s shameful for the wise to dwell in error!” Prometheus had known that Hermes was coming, however, and he also knew that he would refuse him. “But for an enemy to suffer / at an enemy’s hand / is no natural disgrace,” Prometheus says. He is prepared for the “doubly twisted / blade of fire” that will likely strike his head, and that the world with shake with Zeus’s fury. Zeus can even banish Prometheus to Tartaros if he wishes. “He cannot kill me,” Prometheus says.
While Prometheus earlier counts his immortality as a negative thing, here it gives him strength. He knows that no matter what Zeus does to him, he can’t be killed, and that gives him a strange comfort moving forward. Furthermore, Prometheus is not “dwelling in error,” he is paying the necessary punishment for saving humanity and ensuring their successful survival.
Hermes again says that Prometheus is “mad.” He turns to the chorus. “But you, who weep / on this behalf, hurry / and leave this place, / go far away, and quickly” before they become the next target of Zeus’s wrath. “Speak to me in a different voice, / or give me counsel I can follow!” the chorus says. They wish to “suffer” as Prometheus does and will stay by his side. They have “learned to despise traitors,” they claim. “There is no plague more worthy of / being spat on,” they claim. “Do not blame fortune when / disaster hunts you down,” Hermes says to them and departs.
This too is evidence of the chorus’s compassion and sympathy; however, the comment that they “despise traitors” is ambiguous and a bit ironic. Hermes is the son of Zeus and not technically a traitor, but Prometheus has betrayed the Titans by fighting with the Olympians, and he deceived Zeus and all the gods when he stole fire and gave it to humankind. Readers typically sympathize with Prometheus because he is a champion of humanity, but he is decidedly a traitor to both the Titans and the Olympians.
“The earth is shaking now / in truth, no longer in words,” Prometheus says. He can hear a “hollow roar / of thunder” in the distance and see “great winding coils / of light shoot forth / with heat and hissing.” He can see it coming “in plain view, / the onslaught / sent by Zeus / for [his] own terror.” Prometheus is ready. “Oh holy Mother Earth, / oh sky whose light revolves for all, / you see me. You see / the wrongs I suffer.”
Even staring into the face of certain and prolonged suffering is not enough to lessen Prometheus’s resolve. He is committed to suffering for the sake of his creation, and he is prepared as the thunder and lightning of Zeus’s power sound in the distance.