At the center of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is the tyrannical power of Zeus, the king of the Olympians. Zeus as a character never actually makes it into the play, but his unrelenting power is a constant presence throughout. As the play opens, Prometheus, a Titan, is chained to the side of a mountain in Scythia, at the very edge of Greek civilization. Prometheus has stolen fire from the gods and given it to humankind, and because of this, he has been sentenced to Zeus’s wrath. Zeus’s power is well known to both gods and mortals. Zeus turns Io, a mortal princess, into a cow; and when Typhon, a deadly serpentine giant, tries to “crush the sovereign tyranny of Zeus,” Zeus hits Typhon “in the very middle of his power, and his strength turns to ash.” Zeus’s power is clearly a force to be reckoned with, but it is nonetheless Prometheus’s reason that proves to be the ultimate threat. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is portrayed as a seer and trickster god. Instead of physical power or force, Prometheus’s true strength is his cunning and intelligence. Aeschylus pits the awesome power of Zeus against the sound reason of Prometheus, and in doing so, he effectively argues that reason will always prevail over brute force, even when it seems most unlikely.
Zeus is all-powerful in Prometheus Bound and has usurped his father, Kronos, and the other Titan gods to become king of Mount Olympus. However, it was Prometheus’s reason that actually defeated the Titans, which implies that it is intelligence, not brute strength, that is the more powerful force. When the Battle of the Titans was heating up between Zeus and Kronos, Prometheus initially offered his services to Kronos, but Kronos and the other Titans could not be persuaded to Prometheus’s plan. They were too “proud” of their strength and power and believed they could win by “force alone.” Prometheus, whose name means “forethinker,” was given the gift of foreknowledge by his mother, Themis, and he knew that “victory would fall to those who showed superior guile, not might.” Knowing that Kronos’s power alone would do him little good, Prometheus offered his reason and intelligence to Zeus. Zeus readily accepted Prometheus’s offer and willingly followed his plan to overcome Kronos. Zeus was indeed victorious thanks to Prometheus, and Kronos and the other Titans were banished. Despite Kronos and the Titans’ power, they were no match for Prometheus’s reason, again suggesting it is intelligence, not force or raw power, that reigns triumphant.
Prometheus knows that there is no match for sound reason, not even the power of nature, so when he gave humankind the gift of fire, he also gave them reason. “I gave shrewdness to their childish minds, and taught them how to reason,” Prometheus says. Before Prometheus’s gift, the humans lived underground, “like ants,” but Prometheus gave them “knowledge of brick houses” that were “built to face the sun.” With Prometheus’s reason and intelligence, humankind could better face the elements. Prior to Prometheus’s gift of reason, the humans’ “every act was without purpose,” but he taught them to recognize “the approach of winter, or of flowery spring, or summer with its fruits.” Because of Prometheus, humankind can now read the weather, anticipate seasons, and grow and harvest food. Of all Prometheus’s gifts of knowledge, “the greatest of them [is] this”: he showed the humans “how to mix soothing elixirs that can steer the course of any sickness.” That is, Prometheus gave humankind the knowledge of medicine, allowing them to live through what had before been fatal. Not even the power of illness and disease has a chance next to Prometheus’s reason and intelligence.
Prometheus taught humankind “every art and skill, with endless benefit.” Even Zeus knows that the progress of humankind made possible by Prometheus’s reason is a threat to his own power, which is why he punishes Prometheus so severely. Zeus also knows that Prometheus’s reason and intelligence will win out in the end, and therefore he sends the god Hermes to find out what Prometheus knows—that a future marriage and son will be Zeus’s downfall. The play states that Zeus’s own punishment, when it comes, “will be far harsher” than Prometheus’s, for Kronos has cursed Zeus and there can be no escape. No amount of power or force can save Zeus from Kronos’s curse; his only hope is Prometheus’s reason and intelligence. “I know the What and the How,” Prometheus says of Zeus’s fate, but Prometheus’s lips are sealed if he remains bound to the mountain. While Zeus may seem to have a powerful upper hand for the time being, the play makes it clear that he will eventually “be brought low” despite his strength, unless he again turns to Prometheus.
Power vs. Reason ThemeTracker
Power vs. Reason 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.
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.
And yet, though I am tortured now
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.
No honeyed words, or threats, will sway me
to tell him what I know,
until he frees me from my chains
and grants me what he owes me for this outrage.
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.
To know my brother Atlas stands,
at the gates of evening, bearing upon his shoulders
the weight of heaven and earth, too vast
for his encircling arms, gives me no comfort.
With grief as well I saw the earthborn dweller
in Cilicia’s cave, the hundred-headed monster
Typhon, conquered, his fury violently subdued,
who once braved all the gods with gruesome jaws,
hissing out terror, eyes ablaze, aiming to crush
the sovereign tyranny of Zeus. But flying
down against him came Zeus’ weapon, the sleepless,
fire-breathing thunderbolt, which cast him
out of his triumphant boast, for he was struck
in the very middle of his power, and all his strength
turned into ash. And now, a sprawling, helpless form,
he lies pressed down, close by the narrows of the sea,
beneath the roots of Aetna.
Listen instead to what I have to tell
of human misery. How I gave shrewdness
to their childish minds, and taught them how to reason.
It’s no reproach to humans when I say this,
but to make clear the benefit I brought them.
From the beginning they could see, but seeing
was useless to them, and hearing, they heard nothing.
Like dreams with shifting shapes, their long lives
ran their course in meaningless confusion.
[…] 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.
How can I not comply?
In clear words you will learn
all that you want to know.
Though just to speak of it—
the god-sent storm, and then
this hideous mock of my appearance—
makes me ashamed.
Into my maiden chamber, visions came
by night, and came again, secret
visitors that spoke to me
with smooth and urging voices:
“Oh maiden greatly blessed,
why are you still a virgin,
when you could be the bride of the supreme?
Zeus is in love with you, the dart of passion
has set him on fire, he wants to share his pleasure with you.
Don’t spurn the god’s bed, child, but go to Lerna,
to the deep meadow where your father’s flocks graze,
so Zeus’s eye may find relief from longing.”
[…] Immediately my shape and mind
became distorted, my head grew horns, and I,
chased by the gadfly, fled with frantic leaps
to that sweet stream, Cerchnea, good to drink from,
and Lerna’s spring. But my appointed cowherd
was earthborn Argos, terrible in his wrath.
He followed me, he watched my steps,
peering with his countless eyes.
Then an unhoped-for sudden death destroyed him.
But I continued, driven by the god-sent scourge,
the gadfly, from land to land.
First, from this spot, turn toward the rising sun,
and cross the untilled plains until you reach
the Scythian nomads, whose wicker houses
are built on top of wagons with well-wrought wheels,
a warlike tribe armed with far-reaching bows.
Do not go near them, rather keep to the surf line
of the groaning sea, and travel on.
Off to your left there live the ironworking
Chalybes, of whom you must be wary,
for they are savage and do not
bid strangers welcome.
The Amazons will guide you on your way,
and they will do so gladly. Then,
just by the narrow portals of the lake,
you’ll reach the isthmus of Cimerria.
You must move on from there and with a bold heart
cross the channel of Maiotis. Forever after
mortals will remember this your crossing,
and call it Bosporus, the Cow’s Ford.
With Europe at your back, you will arrive in Asia.
However, one of the maidens will be charmed
by love to spare her bed companion.
Faced with the choice, and with her purpose blunted,
she will prefer to be called coward than murderess,
and it is she who will give birth in Argos
to a race of kings. It would take many words
to tell it clearly. But from this seed
shall spring a hero, famous for his bow,
who will release me from this suffering.
Such was the prophecy my ancient mother,
the Titan Themis, revealed to me.
Pompously spoken, as befits
a mouthpiece of the gods.
You’re young, the lot of you, and young in power,
and think your fortress is secure from sorrow.
But I’ve already seen two tyrants fall
and see the third, our present ruler,
falling soon, more suddenly
and much more shamefully than they.
Or do you think I’ll cringe
before these upstart gods, and tremble?
I’m farther from that than you can imagine.
So scurry back again the way you came.
You will receive no answer to your question.
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.
And to this pain
do not expect a limit or an end,
until some god appears as a successor
to take your tortures as his own and willingly
go down into the gloom of Hades
and the black depths of Tartaros.
Make your decision in the light of that!
These are no boastful threats but true words
all too clearly spoken. For Zeus’s mouth
does not know how to lie. Each word of his
comes true. But you, weigh carefully
what you must do, and don’t hold stubbornness
above considered judgment.