The Drama of Science and Invention

Marco Romani Mistretta |

‘Prometheus Bound’ Is Not Your Typical Tragedy

Pieter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound (1610–11). Philadelphia Museum of Art (source)
Pieter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound (1610–11). Philadelphia Museum of Art (source)

In antiquity, the tragedy transmitted under the title Prometheus Bound was generally attributed to Aeschylus. Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus for the benefit of humankind, is chained to a mountain in the Caucasus and the drama consists of his interactions with other mythical characters (such as Hephaestus and Io) and the chorus.

Whether or not Aeschylus is the author (the authenticity question is discussed by Tom Hendrickson in “A Fever of Intellect”), the play has inspired generations of artists and thinkers, from Rubens to Goethe and the Shelleys. Its popularity is largely due to the fact that, in the drama, Prometheus is portrayed not merely as the trickster-Titan who dares to defy the Olympians (as in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days), but also — and more importantly — as an ‘inventor’ and culture-bringer.

Throughout the play, the traditional conflict between Prometheus and Zeus is represented as a challenge posed by cunning, inventive intelligence to brute force and absolute power. In the unfolding of that conflict, the culture-bringer’s psychology is dramatized and emerges in all its complexity. How is this achieved in the Prometheus Bound?

The unique character of Aeschylus’ treatment of Prometheus emerges particularly in comparison with Hesiod’s narrative of the myth in both the Theogony and the Works and Days. Prometheus’ intelligence is often described by Hesiod as a form of cunning and treachery. An emblematic episode is the trick at Mecone, in which the Titan manages to outwit Zeus himself by offering him an ox’s bones disguised in a wrapping of fat:

φῆ ῥα δολοφρονέων· Ζεὺς δ’ ἄφθιτα μήδεα εἰδὼς

γνῶ ῥ’ οὐδ’ ἠγνοίησε δόλον· κακὰ δ’ ὄσσετο θυμῷ

θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποισι, τὰ καὶ τελέεσθαι ἔμελλε.

χερσὶ δ’ ὅ γ’ ἀμφοτέρῃσιν ἀνείλετο λευκὸν ἄλειφαρ,

χώσατο δὲ φρένας ἀμφί, χόλος δέ μιν ἵκετο θυμόν,

ὡς ἴδεν ὀστέα λευκὰ βοὸς δολίῃ ἐπὶ τέχνῃ.

ἐκ τοῦ δ’ ἀθανάτοισιν ἐπὶ χθονὶ φῦλ’ ἀνθρώπων

καίουσ’ ὀστέα λευκὰ θυηέντων ἐπὶ βωμῶν.

τὸν δὲ μέγ’ ὀχθήσας προσέφη νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς·

“Ἰαπετιονίδη, πάντων πέρι μήδεα εἰδώς,

ὦ πέπον, οὐκ ἄρα πω δολίης ἐπελήθεο τέχνης.”

Thus he spoke, meditating wiles. But Zeus, eternal counsel, had well seen

through the fraud — it did not escape his attention — , and pondered mischief

in his heart against mortal humans, which were also bound to be fulfilled.

With both hands he grasped the white fat, and was angry at heart, and wrath

came to his spirit, as he saw the white bones of the ox, arranged with guileful

craft. On account of this, the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the

immortal gods on altars smoking with incense. Sorely vexed at him, Zeus the

cloud-gatherer addressed Prometheus: “O son of Iapetus, skilled in every art, so

you have not forgotten, my dear, your fraudulent craft.” (Theogony 550–560)

The frequent recurrence, in Hesiod, of the root of dólos (‘treachery’ or ‘cunning contrivance’) underscores Prometheus’ trickster-like qualities and skills, as well as the implicit moral judgment attached to them. The human need for expiation through sacrifice here seems to originate from the fact that Prometheus’s treacherous action causes Zeus’s wrath to be extended onto the human species as a whole.

In the Hesiodic story, Prometheus’s gift of fire is introduced as an immediate result of the Mecone trick. Zeus, refusing to forget or forgive the Titan’s offense, prevents mortals from making use of the precious flame by taking it away from them. His actions are perceived by Zeus as threats to the Olympians’ power, and the Titan is therefore punished.

That Hesiod’s primary concern, in his treatment of the Prometheus myth, is a moral one is confirmed by the treatment of the story in the opening section of the Works and Days (42–52). Here, the figure of Prometheus is introduced within the context of the poet’s account of the origin of strife in the human world and of the need for humankind to engage in toil and labor for the purposes of survival.

In sum, Hesiod does not appear to be interested in a theory of civilization’s development or in explaining how the use of fire — and the arts and crafts derived from it — originally came about, but rather in ethical issues concerning cosmic justice and the relationship between mortal and divine beings. Prometheus’ gift to humans unsettles the universal order established by Zeus, whereby human beings are denied the possession of fire. Throughout the narrative, Hesiod seems to emphasize the fact that one cannot trick Zeus without suffering adequate punishment.

By contrast, the author of the Prometheus Bound places great emphasis on the civilizational aspects of Prometheus’ action and explicitly portrays the Titan as an inventor and culture-bringer, i.e. a hero who benefits human beings by making new discoveries or technologies available to them. In the play, Prometheus himself boasts about the multiple gifts that he has bestowed upon the human race.

Fire, the “teacher of all arts” (διδάσκαλος τέχνης / πάσης), is “a great resource” (μέγας πόρος) for mortal beings (PB 110–11). Fire is both the origin and the symbol of several newly acquired arts, or τέχναι, which account for humankind’s exit out of a clueless state of nature towards prosperity and welfare.

Indeed, Prometheus goes on to enumerate at length all the arts and crafts for whose introduction into the human world he claims to be responsible. These include not only handicrafts and manual trades, but nearly every domain of scientific or specialized knowledge in which humans can attain expertise and skilled ability (PB 476–506):

ΠΡ. τὰ λοιπά μου κλύουσα θαυμάσῃ πλέον,

οἵας τέχνας τε καὶ πόρους ἐμησάμην.

τὸ μὲν μέγιστον, εἴ τις ἐς νόσον πέσοι,

οὐκ ἦν ἀλέξημ᾽ οὐδέν, οὔτε βρώσιμον,

οὐ χριστόν, οὐδὲ πιστόν, ἀλλὰ φαρμάκων 480

χρείᾳ κατεσκέλλοντο, πρίν γ᾽ ἐγώ σφισιν

ἔδειξα κράσεις ἠπίων ἀκεσμάτων,

αἷς τὰς ἁπάσας ἐξαμύνονται νόσους.

τρόπους τε πολλοὺς μαντικῆς ἐστοίχισα,

κἄκρινα πρῶτος ἐξ ὀνειράτων ἃ χρὴ 485

ὕπαρ γενέσθαι, κληδόνας τε δυσκρίτους

ἐγνώρισ᾽ αὐτοῖς ἐνοδίους τε συμβόλους.

γαμψωνύχων τε πτῆσιν οἰωνῶν σκεθρῶς

διώρισ᾽, οἵτινές τε δεξιοὶ φύσιν

εὐωνύμους τε, καὶ δίαιταν ἥντινα 490

ἔχουσ᾽ ἕκαστοι, καὶ πρὸς ἀλλήλους τίνες

ἔχθραι τε καὶ στέργηθρα καὶ συνεδρίαι·

σπλάγχνων τε λειότητα, καὶ χροιὰν τίνα

ἔχουσ᾽ ἂν εἴη δαίμοσιν πρὸς ἡδονὴν

χολή, λοβοῦ τε ποικίλην εὐμορφίαν· 495

κνίσῃ τε κῶλα συγκαλυπτὰ καὶ μακρὰν

ὀσφῦν πυρώσας δυστέκμαρτον εἰς τέχνην

ὥδωσα θνητούς, καὶ φλογωπὰ σήματα

ἐξωμμάτωσα, πρόσθεν ὄντ᾽ ἐπάργεμα.

τοιαῦτα μὲν δὴ ταῦτ᾽· ἔνερθε δὲ χθονὸς 500

κεκρυμμέν᾽ ἀνθρώποισιν ὠφελήματα,

χαλκόν, σίδηρον, ἄργυρον χρυσόν τε, τίς

φήσειεν ἂν πάροιθεν ἐξευρεῖν ἐμοῦ;

οὐδείς, σάφ᾽ οἶδα, μὴ μάτην φλῦσαι θέλων.

βραχεῖ δὲ μύθῳ πάντα συλλήβδην μάθε, 505

πᾶσαι τέχναι βροτοῖσιν ἐκ Προμηθέως.

Prometheus. If you now listen to the rest of the story, you will marvel even more at the crafts and resources that I contrived. First of all, and most importantly — if anyone got sick, there was no help: no food, no ointment, nor any potion, but they wasted away due to their lack of medicaments, before I showed them how to mix healing remedies, which they now use to protect themselves against all manner of diseases. Then I arranged many ways in which they could divine the future, and I was the first to distinguish which dreams are bound to come true. I also explained to them voices hard to interpret, and omens seen on the way. I clearly discerned the flight of crook-taloned birds: which ones are auspicious by nature and which ones are sinister; and what kind of life each of them leads, and which feuds and loves and associations they have with one another; and how smooth their entrails must be and what color their bile must have to please the gods, as well as the colorful and symmetrical beauty of their liver-lobe. Burning the thigh-bones wrapped up in fat, and the large loins, I paved the way for mortals towards an art hard to fathom. I also opened their eyes to make sense of signs from flames, which had previously been obscure. Enough of all that. As for the benefits to humanity that lay hidden underneath the earth — bronze, iron, silver, and gold: who would declare to have discovered them before me? Nobody, I know it well, unless someone wants to prattle idly. In sum, hear the whole story in one brief word: all arts come to humans from Prometheus.

Quite paradoxically, while Prometheus himself is chained to a rock and has no stratagem by which he can free himself from his fetters, his contrivances have liberated humankind from its previous state of ignorance and helplessness, allowing mortals to experience progress.

Unlike Hesiod’s Titan, the Aeschylean Prometheus voices his pride for the tangible effects of the arts he provided to humankind. The list of crafts in Prometheus’ monologue stands out for its wide variety, virtually encompassing the totality of humankind’s cultural and technological acquisitions.

Not all of Prometheus’ τέχναι entail the production of tools or material objects: they also include medicine, oneiromancy, bird divination, extispicy, and metallurgy (the pairing of medicine and divination is particularly intriguing, and I have discussed its significance elsewhere). The invention of writing, so crucial to the transmission of knowledge, is also attributed to Prometheus, who calls it the “memory of all things, mother of the Muses” (PB 461: μνήμην ἁπάντων, μουσομήτορ’ ἐργάνην).

Gustave Moreau, Prometheus (1868). Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris (source)
Gustave Moreau, Prometheus (1868). Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris (source)

The fundamental point here is that Prometheus is more than a ‘mediator’ between divine forms of art or craftsmanship and the human world, since he does not just transmit preexisting knowledge from one sphere to the other. His findings are not merely chance encounters, but real discoveries which radically change the state of humankind, thereby marking a clear-cut temporal boundary between a ‘before’, characterized by helpless darkness, and an ‘after’, featuring light and advancement (note PB 481 πρίν, PB 503 πάροιθεν). Thus, thanks to Prometheus, the human species enters the ‘technical phase’ of its history, and the very figure of Prometheus shifts from the cunning trickster of Hesiodic memory to a true culture-bringer.

What is more, Prometheus’ role as inventor and his qualities of teacher of humankind are mutually interrelated. Throughout the play, he often stresses his function as teacher over his talents of inventor, without denying that future men, once they are in possession of fire and of the skills he has taught them, will go on to discover many crafts on their own (PB 253–258.).

This is due to the fact that, for Aeschylus’ Prometheus, the process of bestowing arts and crafts upon human beings entails not just one-time contrivances, but — crucially — the transmission of skills necessary to the use and application of both past and future discoveries. In other words, such achievements, exemplified by medicine, divination, and metallurgy, are not the result of a process of ‘seeking and finding’, but rather an instance of ‘investigating and discovering’: Prometheus’ crafts are, in effect, ‘inventions’ rather than mere ‘findings’ or ‘encounters’.

For instance, Prometheus does not just describe himself as the inventor of medicaments suited to the treatment of certain diseases, but as the first teacher of medicine and pharmacology. Similarly, the burning of animals’ limbs wrapped in fat is here not simply a re-enactment of the Hesiodic burnt sacrifice, but serves to show humans how to correctly perform extispicy, or entrail divination.

Heinrich Füger, Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind (1817). Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna (source)
Heinrich Füger, Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind (1817). Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna (source)

To be sure, extispicy itself — like metal-working — would not be possible without fire, the ‘teacher of all arts’ that humans received from Prometheus. It is possible, however, for humans to continue to practice the art on their own once Prometheus’ teaching has been assimilated.

In other words, Prometheus’ inventions are not solely ‘gifts’ to the human species (in the sense in which, for instance, Apollo’s bow or Dionysus’ wine are divine gifts bestowed upon mortals), since they actively contribute to the independent progress of humankind.

In this regard, the ethical and political dimension of the tragedy acquires a new connotation. One of the main themes of the play is, as mentioned, precisely the deep contrast between brute power and crafty intelligence. Unlike Hesiod, the author of Prometheus Bound seems to regard Prometheus’ inventiveness as a symbol of the power of creative and productive intelligence to resist brute force: in opposition to Prometheus, Zeus symbolizes the absolute and tyrannical power of force and violence, which is situated beyond justice as well as intelligent reasoning.

At the same time, Zeus’ absolute power is limited by the fact that Prometheus is aware of the secret of the god’s vulnerability: such a limit is yet another gift that Prometheus bestows upon humankind. Prometheus is necessary and indispensable to Zeus himself, since he is the only one who knows how to save him.

In the Aeschylean play, the Titan clearly expresses his faith in material progress, and his conviction that in all major respects human life is better today than at any point in the past. The play’s insistence on the importance of τέχναι seems to suggest that humankind’s technical and civil progress is inextricably linked to the fostering and development of democratic forms of government, in stark contrast with Zeus’ tyrannical power. Even though Prometheus has to suffer the crudest punishment, his gift of fire and technology cannot be taken away from humankind anymore.

In sum, the invention, discovery, transmission, and application of crafts appear to be fundamentally interdependent notions in Aeschylus’ Prometheus. As a result, technology and its effects on human society are crucially thematized in dramatic form.

And this is certainly a large portion of what granted the play a long-lasting reception, particularly in the early modern and modern age. The piece grapples with the question of how knowledge and skills are originated and transmitted: a question which, throughout the play, is constantly intertwined with an inquiry into the very origins of human civilization.

In other words, cultural anthropology goes hand in hand with philosophical issues such as the nature of humanity’s quest for scientific and technical knowledge. In this light, the close relationship between Prometheus and humankind — largely left unexplored by Hesiod — is elucidated in the Prometheus Bound. Here, the Titan shares with mortals an eminently human trait: the ambition to deploy discovery and inventiveness to modify the condition of the human species, and the world as a whole.

Marco Romani, a native of Rome, is Director of European Operations at the Paideia Institute.


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Marco Romani Mistretta

A native of Rome, Marco Romani Mistretta studied Classics at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and received a PhD in Classical Philology from Harvard University before joining the Paideia Institute. He currently directs the Institute's European branch.


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