Prometheus is the ultimate creator and artist in Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. According to ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus is the creator of the human race, having molded them from clay. He gave humankind life, and when Zeus threatened to exterminate them, Prometheus gave humankind fire and reason to ensure their survival and continued progress towards civilization. Prometheus is also seen within Greek mythology as the father of human arts, sciences, and architecture, and his likeness is immortalized in numerous works of literature, art, and sculpture. As an artist himself, Prometheus knows that the creation and support of humankind will anger Zeus, but he sacrifices himself anyway to save his creation from the tyrannous king. In this vein, Prometheus is often interpreted as the consummate tortured artist, suffering for the sake of his art. The trope of the suffering artist is often of one who is isolated and misunderstood on account of their art, and Prometheus indeed fits this stereotype; however, through the depiction of Prometheus’s relationship to humanity, Aeschylus suggests that suffering is a necessary part of artistic creation.
In addition to creating humankind and giving them fire and reason, “all human arts were founded by Prometheus,” which reflects his role as the supreme artist and creator. Prometheus “invented” for humankind “the joining of letters, which is the very memory of things.” In other words, Prometheus gave humans the gift of language and words, which will lead them in time to the art of writing and literature. Prometheus also introduced humankind to the “muses’ arts,” referring to the inspirational goddesses of art, music, and writing. Within Greek mythology, the muses are the source of poetry and song, and they will likewise stir the same inspiration in humankind. In addition to language, art, and song, Prometheus “made plain” to the humans “all that was hidden,” and revealed “the treasure concealed beneath the earth, bronze, iron, silver, [and] gold.” In addition to weapons and armor, these precious metals will also be molded in beautiful sculpture and architecture, again underscoring Prometheus’s role as master artist and creator.
However, Prometheus is made to suffer for his creation and love of humankind. The play makes it clear that for a creator as skilled and dedicated as Prometheus, suffering is inevitable. As Kratos orders Hephaistos to bind Prometheus to side of the Scythian mountains, Kratos says to Hephaistos: “This is the crime for which [Prometheus] now must pay / the price to all the gods, that he may learn / to love the tyranny of Zeus.” When Prometheus chose to help the humans, he effectively turned his back on Zeus, and he is made to suffer for it. As Hephaistos reluctantly chains Prometheus to the mountain, he says to his friend, “This is the fruit of your philanthropy. / A god, you scorned the anger of the gods / by granting mortals honor above their due.” In other words, it is specifically because of Prometheus’s charity and creativity that Zeus has sentenced him to a life of pain and despair. Despite the severity of Prometheus’s punishment, he remains amazingly calm. “For this offense / I now must pay the penalty: to live nailed to this rock beneath the open sky.” Prometheus has held his love for humankind above all else, and he willingly pays the price. Thus, the play suggests that while the work of creation is tied to agony, it can also bring immense peace and satisfaction to the creator.
Throughout Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus doesn’t flinch. Even when Hermes, Zeus’s son and the messenger of the gods, appears on the mountain and tells him of the horrendous pain that awaits him, Prometheus still will not budge. He won’t apologize for his love of humankind and he won’t attempt to lessen his punishment by giving in and telling Zeus what he most desires to know—Zeus’s fate, which Prometheus’s gift of “forethought” has revealed to him. Instead, Prometheus hardens his resolve and suffers for his love of humankind. “For an enemy to suffer at an enemy’s hand is no disgrace,” Prometheus says, and as the sun rises on the first day of his punishment, he prepares himself for what is to come. “Oh, holy Mother Earth,” Prometheus cries, “oh sky whose light revolves for all, / you see me. You see / the wrongs I suffer.” Prometheus’s creation—that of humankind—could not have survived without his sacrifice, and he willingly suffers on behalf of his art, which, Aeschylus implies, is an essential part of artistic creation.
Creation, Art, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Creation, Art, and Sacrifice Quotes in Prometheus Bound
We have arrived at the far limit of the world.
These are the Scythian mountains, desolate and vast.
Hephaistos, you must carry out the Father’s will
and bind the criminal to this steep looming rock
with chains of adamant, unbreakable.
It was your flower he stole, the bright and dancing fire,
and gave its wonderworking power to mortals.
This is the crime for which he now 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.
Thus at all times one torment or another
will plague you. Your rescuer is not yet born.
This is the fruit of your philanthropy.
A god, you scorned the anger of the gods
by granting mortals honor above their due.
For that, you will keep vigil on this rock,
upright, unsleeping, and never bend a knee.
And many a groan will pass your lips, and sighing,
and bitter lamentation, all in vain.
Zeus’ vengeance is implacable. His power is new,
and everyone with newborn power is harsh.
Go play the rebel now, go plunder the gods’ treasure
and give it to your creatures of a day.
What portion of your pain can mortals spare you?
The gods who named you the Forethinker were mistaken.
You’ll need forethought beyond your reckoning
to wriggle your way out of this device.
I can’t accept my lot—
neither in silence, nor in speech:
that I was yoked in chains
for bringing gifts to mortal men.
I hunted out and stole the secret spring
of fire, and hid it in a fennel stalk,
to teach them every art and skill,
with endless benefit. For this offense
I now must pay the penalty: to live
nailed to this rock beneath the open sky.
Chorus: Did you perhaps go further than you told us?
Prometheus: I gave men power to stop foreseeing their death.
Chorus: What cure did you prescribe for this disease?
Prometheus: I sowed blind hopes to live as their companions.
Chorus: Truly you brought great benefit to mortals.
Prometheus: I gave them fire.
Chorus: Bright fire! Do the ephemerals have it now?
Prometheus: And from it they will learn much craft and skill.
I transgressed willfully, I won’t deny it.
By helping mortals I drew suffering on myself,
and did so of my own will, freely.
Yet never did I think that by such punishment
I would be made to parch suspended in midair,
clamped to this barren solitary rock.
But don’t lament over my present woes.
Descend from your high carriage, stand beneath me,
that you may hear what is to come
and know the whole of it.
For my sake, please, come down and share my sorrow.
Misfortune is a migrant bird that settles,
now here, now there, on each of us in turn.
[…] Their every act
was without purpose, until I showed them
the rising and the setting of the stars,
not easy to discern. And numbers, too,
the subtlest science, I invented for them,
and the joining of letters, which is
the very memory of things,
and fecund mother to the muses’ arts.
You will be more astonished when you hear
the rest from me: how many arts
and skillful means I invented,
the greatest of them this:
If anyone fell ill, there was no remedy,
no healing food or drink, no salve, no potion.
For lack of medicine they wasted,
until I showed them how to mix
soothing elixirs that can steer the course
of any sickness.
But all your vehemence rests on a weak foundation,
mere cleverness, a scheme. What good is obstinate will
untamed by sound thought and good measure?
Consider the storm that will rise up against you
if you refuse to heed my words,
a threefold tidal wave of misery,
impossible to escape. For first,
the Father will destroy this jagged cliff
with thunder and lightning, and bury you,
still gripped by its embrace, inside it.
Then, after an enormous span of time,
you will come back again into the light,
and Zeus’s winged hound, a scarlet eagle,
will carve your body into ragged shreds
of flesh. He will return, day in, day out,
as an unbidden guest, to feast upon
your blackened liver.