The Prometheus of Æschylus: In Two Parts. Part I
WE know distressingly little, we are eager to learn more, of the childhood of the Hellenic race. The Homeric poems offer us, as it were, a glimpse of a landscape seen by a flash of lightning. What came before and immediately after we cannot discern. Even the picture itself is avowedly an idealized one. Unconsciously, indeed, the Homeric poets have no doubt painted for us in the main their own age, the men and manners they knew; yet they profess rather to depict the more heroic earlier time, as they imagine it to have been. Such as it is, the picture remains indelibly outlined, beautiful and precious for all time, but isolated, undated, not to be verified by historical evidence.
The world is at least several centuries older when Herodotus unrolls before us, upon his crowded canvas, the varied scenes of Greek and barbaric life in his own day, and something like a connected history of civilization upon the eastern shores of the Mediterranean begins for us. Themistocles and Aristides, Leonidas the Spartan hero-king and Pausanias the regent, Xerxes and Mardonios, are the first Greeks, or foes of Greeks, whose figures and exploits are truly familiar to us. As soon as the sweettongued Father of History — and fable — begins to recount the tales even of the next earlier generation, we realize that romantic tradition and poetic fancy have been busy in the interval. The softening haze of the semi-mythical foretime dims even the very outlines of the accounts we hear of King Crœsus of Lydia and his conqueror, Cyrus; of Polycrates, the lucky despot of Samos, and Egyptian Amasis, his timorous ally; or even of Solon the lawgiver, and Pisistratus the tyrant, of Athens.
There is, perhaps, no moment in the history of civilization more dramatic, more decisive, than the midnight before the battle of Salamis. Millions of Asiatic invaders have filled the land from Thermopylæ almost to the Isthmus. Attica is overrun and devastated. The towns have been sacked, the temples defiled and set on fire. The Athenian women and children have been hurried away to destitute exile upon the islands. The only hope of the Greeks is in their united fleet, and the Peloponnesian admirals are determined to scatter to their homes when the morning breaks. Then the desperate patriotism, or duplicity, whichever it was, of Themistocles impels him to send the secret message to the Persian, bidding him blockade the straits and cut off the Greek retreat.
On so slender a thread, undoubtedly, hung the salvation of Hellas, and with it, in a sense, our modern civilization. But for the miraculous victory of the next morning, which frightened the cowardly lord of all Asia and half Europe into precipitate homeward flight, instead of the glorious fifth century of Athens and Greece, we should have only such stagnant monotonous oblivion as now covers the annals of the hundred races absorbed into the unwieldy Persian empire, the Russia of antiquity: —
In action chasms, in epochas mistakes ;
O’er whom Time gently shakes his wings of down,
Till with his silent sickle they are mown.”
In such an hour the Athenians awoke to the full consciousness of their own future. Even the second devastation of their city and land, in the following summer, did not check for an instant their assurance of complete and glorious victory. The generation who beat back the long-haired Mede at Salamis, and the next autumn at Platæa, strode on with confidence year after year, from that time, to make the city of Pallas queen of the Ægean, and the stronghold of Hellenic statecraft, philosophy, art, and literature.
Of this heroic generation, the first, as has been said, which stands out clearly and fully seen in the annals of Hellas, — the first, also, of the three which so distinctly divide the fifth century among them, — Æschylus is a most fitting type, even as Sophocles was the brightest ornament of the Periclean age, and as Euripides reflects in his dramas the breaking up of old faiths and morals with which the century closes.
Those awful disasters of 480 and 479, and the truly miraculous escape, after all, from annihilation or slavery, stirred the life of Greece, even as Prussia was born again to a nobler existence amid calamities and triumphs during the closing years of Napoleon’s career, or as England was roused by the defeat of the Invincible Armada. Especially the Athenians of that age felt that only the personal and almost visible presence of the gods on earth, guiding the feeble efforts of men, could account for the signal vengeance inflicted so instantly on the presumptuous and impious tyrant who had desecrated and destroyed their shrines. Herodotus records, with unquestioning belief, instances of evident divine interposition in those days, related to him by Athenians.
In this conviction that the gods control and guide aright the fortunes of men, as in many other respects, Æschylus was influenced by, and exerted an influence in turn upon, his own generation. He has no doubt whatever of a divine justice presiding over all earthly events. That is for him the one clear and evident truth amid all the vicissitudes of man’s life. Indeed, his own boldest pictures of retribution for presumptuous guilt must have seemed to him but faint, far reflections of that tremendous drama for which his own land had been the stage.
The latest method of studying the literatures of the past is borrowed from the natural sciences, and its aim is to trace the evolution of rudimentary into more elaborate forms. The same difficulty, however, baffles us in the case of the Greek drama as with so many other literary developments. The masterpieces in each kind have so entirely supplanted the ruder works of an earlier time that these latter have perished, leaving hardly a trace behind them. Thespis, who “ introduced the first actor,” is almost as empty a name to us as Arion, the inventor of the dithyrambic chorus, or Orpheus himself, the discoverer of the lyre, while even Phrynichos and the other elder rivals of Æschylus survive only in meagre fragments, which give no just idea of their artistic power or success. We are forced to begin with Æschylus, and though we have abundant reason to regard him as by far the most daring and creative spirit among all who aided in the development of tragedy, yet we cannot always know what is to be credited to his genius, and how much was, even in his day, part of the sacred traditions of the Dionysiac festival.
A number of the minor inventions and improvements in costume, stage machinery, etc., are doubtless due to him. By adding a second actor, he really became the creator of classical tragedy, since he thereby first made possible a dialogue wholly upon the stage, thus reducing the chorus from the leading element to the position of sympathetic listeners.
Æschylus must by no means be thought of as a poet of the study, a mere turner of verses. Again and again, during the Persian wars, he and his brothers fought gallantly in the Athenian ranks. His works, though they do not violate artistic propriety by covert allusion to current events, breathe unmistakably a spirit of steadfast, enlightened patriotism and soldierly courage as well as of fervent, pious trust in the heavenly justice. To the mood of his time, and to the lofty earnestness of the soldier-poet himself, may be safely attributed much of the noble elevation of tone, the sincere religious character, which continued to manifest themselves in Attic tragedy even long after Æschylus’ own death. Especially congenial to his nature was that doctrine of Nemesis, which he taught with such terrible power. The chief lesson of tragedy, in his hands, is that full atonement in suffering must be paid by every man, not only for his own sins, but also for all the crimes of his ancestry : —
Holds in itself the seed
Of retribution and undying pain.”
Out of seventy Æschylean dramas known and considered genuine by the competent Alexandrian critics, seven have drifted to us, several of them in tattered and imperfect form. It is, indeed, highly probable that for several centuries their transmission to us was dependent on the preservation of a single extant manuscript. Æschylus usually, perhaps always, offered for the competition three plays connected in subject. Only one such trilogy has come down to modern times. That one describes the murder of Agamemnon by his unfaithful wife ; the vengeance inflicted by Orestes upon his own mother and her accomplice, Ægisthus ; and lastly the final rescue of Orestes from the pursuing Furies, and his purification from the defilement of matricide. Every lover of Greek literature should read Anna Swanwick’s fine English version of these three plays; but not at a single sitting, nor in hours of mental depression. Upon the Attic stage the effect of these scenes must have been terrific, and tradition so assures us.
It is proposed in the present series of papers to offer to English readers three works of our poet, all earlier than the Oresteian trilogy. Each of them has survived the dramas with which it was originally connected. They are the Seven Against Thebes, the Persians, and the Prometheus. The first-named play was preceded by a lost Laius and Œdipus, and all three dealt, of course, with the crimes and sorrows of the Theban royal line. The Seven Against Thebes was admired greatly by the ancients for its martial spirit. It culminates in the fatal assault on Thebes, and the death, each by the other’s hand, of Œdipus’ two sons, the reigning and the exiled king. A final scene, in which Antigone declares her determination to bury her traitor brother, is, perhaps, a later addition, as it opens, but does not complete, the subject so effectively treated in Sophocles’ famous play.
The Persians is in some respects the most interesting among the Greek tragedies we possess, as it is the only one founded upon an event of the poet’s own time, and, moreover, contains the most graphic and authentic account which we have of the sea-fight by Salamis. This description of the battle, written by an eye-witness, to be recited before thousands of surviving contestants, has the highest possible trustworthiness. It is put into the mouth of a messenger from Xerxes, for the scene of the drama is laid at the Persian court.
The Prometheus has, however, a wider interest than any purely Greek drama can have. It belongs, in part at least, as much to us as to the ancient hearers, for it is an attempt by a great poet to deal in a philosophic spirit with the relations of divinity to primeval man. Its chief ethical purpose seems to have been to free from degrading legends and bring out in clearer relief the figure of a just and wise supreme ruler. The tortured Titan only appears to be the loftiest of the poet’s conceptions, because but a single act of the great drama has been transmitted to us. Yet even so, a careful reader will see that Prometheus himself can claim only our sympathy, not our approval.
In any study of Greek mythology, it must be kept in mind that there was no complete or harmonious system of belief developed at any particular time or place. Various attempts were, indeed, made to reduce the principal legends to something like a consistent body of theology, though with very imperfect success; but in reality Greek myths were more diverse and manifold, even, than Greek dialects. Every valley, every long-settled town, every ancient shrine or oracle, had its own local tales; the favorite tendency being to invent a hero bearing the same name as the locality, and then to associate that personage with the most illustrious figures of the universal Greek myths, making him a son of Heracles, of Poseidon, of Zeus. This multiplicity of local legends is best seen in the classical guide-book, as we may call it, of Pausanias the traveler, who visited nearly every portion of the Greek mainland in the time of the Antonines.1
There are undoubtedly figures in the Greek pantheon which are as old as the days when the ancestors of the Greeks and our own forefathers dwelt side by side in some unknown region of Asia, or of Europe, in the cradle of that great Aryan race, which, by successive tribal migrations in prehistoric times, has spread itself over almost all lands, from Hindustan to the Hebrides.
One of the oldest and most universal figures is Zeus, the omnipotent father, whose missile is the lightning, whose nod shakes heaven and earth. The Latin Jupiter or Diespiter, the Greek Zeuspater, and the Sanscrit Dyāus-pitr, the several names for the supreme divinity, are of precisely the same composition, and in Sanscrit the original significance, “ sky-father,” remains unobscured. Zeus is, therefore, not only the loftiest, but perhaps also actually the oldest, creation of the myth-making imagination ; much older than the shadowy parents and ancestors with which the Greeks eventually provided him.
Yet even with this majestic figure the bold fancy of successive generations, savage or refined, of countless mythmakers, amid the diverse conditions of life in a thousand valleys and islands, played many a strange trick. To begin with the most bewildering of all, in Crete his grave was pointed out!
Of the countless legends which represented him as assuming animal forms, to accomplish some disgraceful or wicked deed, there is no need to speak in detail. Andrew Lang has thrown an interesting light upon this subject by calling attention to the custom, widespread among savages, of totemism; that is, the acceptance of some animal, generally one which can be easily sketched by untrained hands, as the name-giver and badge of each clan. This animal usually comes to be regarded as the actual ancestor of the tribe. Now many a gross legend about Zeus may have arisen when such a tribe had advanced in civilization sufficiently to prefer the belief, not that the bull, the swan, or the serpent was their progenitor, but that the supreme god had miraculously assumed such a form to become by a mortal woman the ancestor of their race.
Whatever their precise origin, such legends were evidently a legacy from ruder forefathers. The historic Greeks never would have invented such tales. Most men were no doubt perplexed and shocked by them. Plato, and other philosophers before and after him, raised a bold voice of condemnation against all stories of evil-doing by the gods.
In one curious belief about Zeus all the Greeks were apparently united. He had not always reigned. Like a human monarch, he had a father and a grandsire, who had ruled the universe before him. His father, Kronos, had been dethroned and imprisoned in deepest Tartaros by his rebellious children: a fate, it may be said incidentally, which the grotesque old cannibal richly deserved. The Prometheus is a drama which takes us back to that period of elemental strife.
Homer makes no allusion to Prometheus, and it is possible that the whole myth, in the form familiar to us, is the invention of an age later and more selfconscious than that which produced the Odyssey. The name Prometheus is a masculine formation on the same stem as the Greek word for forethought, “ promethia,” and the tale is thus avowedly, in its origin, a parable. Prometheus, the champion of humanity, is a personification of that quality which raises man above the level of savage life, and enables him to cope with those mighty forces of nature in which every savage’s untutored mind hears and sees his gods. He is the fire - giver simply because the acquisition of fire is felt to be the most essential step in the progress toward civilization. But we must not try to detect a parable in every detail of this or any Greek myth. When once the character is invented, the pure love of myth-making, the imaginative fancy of the race, supplies him with exploits and adventures, or attaches to him the floating tales which were already told of Somebody or of Nobody.
Later legends made Prometheus the father of the entire human race, or of Deucalion, the Hellenic Noah, sole survivor of the heaven-sent flood. In still other accounts he appears as the actual creator of mankind. The traveler Pausanias was shown, in Phokis, fragments of flesh-colored clay, having a peculiar human odor, remnants of the material out of which Prometheus shaped primeval man. In the earlier Hellenic myths, however, there is a striking absence of any elaborate attempt to explain the origin of man. Most Greeks seemingly contented themselves with the explanation of Topsy, — that they “jes’ growed.” Many passages in ancient authors point clearly to the belief formerly prevalent, that men at first developed in some way from trees, or grew out of the earth. This belief is perhaps hinted at in the usual remark to strangers, in the Odyssey : —
For methinks thou’rt hardly sprung from rock or tree.”
The grave Thucydides, least mythical of historians, tells us that the old-fashioned Athenians of pure descent wore a silver grasshopper to bind up their hair, an emblem that they, like that animal, were aboriginal, bad sprung from the Attic soil. All lovers of the Age of Fable will recall the favorite legend of men rising full-armed from the ground where the dragon’s teeth were sown.
In Æschylus’ Prometheus, and in that earlier poem by which he was evidently most influenced, the human race is apparently coeval with the gods themselves. The poem alluded to is the Theogony of Hesiod, which has descended to us in an incomplete and interpolated condition. This is the first attempt to reduce mythology to a system which has been preserved.
Hesiod was a poor farmer of Ascra, an obscure village in Bœotia. As to his time, Herodotus, peering backward into the dark, says, “ My opinion is that Hesiod and Homer lived four hundred years before my time, and not more.” His guess is as good as any modern one. In his Theogony, consisting of ten hundred and two rather heavy and prosy hexameter lines, Hesiod attempts a complete genealogy of the gods, beginning with Chaos, Night, Heaven, Earth, etc., all these being individuals in the Hesiodic account. Zeus, as was remarked before, gains supreme power by dethroning and imprisoning his father. Zeus and his brethren are involved in a desperate struggle with their uncles, brothers of the deposed Kronos, who are called the Titans. Prometheus, with his brothers, Epimetheus (that is. Afterthought) and Atlas, are cousins to Zeus, being children of the Titan Iapetos. Hesiod says nothing of any share taken by Prometheus in this war between the Titans and the younger gods, but Prometheus does already, in the Theogony, appear as the especial champion of the human race, even then in existence, and apparently treated by the gods as familiar friends. Indeed, a line in the Works and Days (another poem attributed to Hesiod) declares that “ gods and mortal men are sprung from the same source,” — no doubt the common mother, Earth.
But Prometheus, says Hesiod, while making a sacrifice in man’s behalf, attempts, by trickery, to beguile Zeus into accepting as his share the worthless bones and fat, which have been covered with thin slices of the choicest meat. Zeus, in revenge, deprives men of the use of fire, and Prometheus undertakes to steal it again from heaven (as later writers add, from Zeus’ own hearth; or from Hephaistos’ forge ; or, most poetic fancy of all, by lighting a torch at the radiant chariot-wheel of the sun-god). Pandora is, moreover, sent to torture mankind with her deceitful beauty and by opening the casket of woes. Epimetheus accepts her as his bride, and from her, says the poet, sprang the idle, mischief-making race of women. Whether he means that until then only men had existed can only be conjectured. Moreover, Epimetheus, the Titan’s son, is surely not a mortal man; but here also the rude and fragmentary poem eludes our too critical inquiries. Prometheus is chained to a pillar and tortured by a vulture, which devours his liver, until, long afterward, Zeus allows his favorite mortal son, Heracles, that his glory may be yet greater on earth, to shoot the vulture and release the sufferer. Thus far the Theogony of Hesiod, a partial sketch of which is essential to any study of Æschylus’ play.
Another Bœotian poet, but of far loftier flight, was Pindar, the contemporary of Æschylus himself. In Pindar’s Seventh Isthmian ode we find, impressively told, a myth which influenced Æschylus powerfully : —
“ For the hand of Thetis ” (loveliest of the sea-nymphs) “there was strife between Zeus and glorious Poseidon, each desiring that she should be his fair bride. Yet the wisdom of the immortal gods brought not such a marriage to pass when they had heard a certain oracle. For wise-counseling Themis ” (Justice) “ told how it was predestined that the seagoddess should bear an offspring mightier than his father, whose hand should wield a bolt more terrible than the lightning or the dread trident, if ever she wedded Zeus or his brethren.” “ Cease ye herefrom; let her enter a mortal’s couch, and see her son fall in war,” says Themis. So Thetis was given to King Peleus, and in his halls she bore Achilles.
These two legends, the tale of Prometheus and the prophecy concerning Thetis, Æschylus was probably the first to weld together. Prometheus is no fit subject for tragedy until he has some means to resist, at least passively, the power of Zeus. In Hesiod’s account his mother is a Titanid Clymene, but Æschylus has boldly assigned him to Themis as a son, and lets him learn through her of the danger into which Zeus will some day be brought by his infatuation for the lovely sea-nymph Thetis. This secret knowledge enables him to bear the tortures of his crucifixion for centuries, and finally so terrifies Zeus that he sends Heracles to release Prometheus, who, however, must first promise that he will immediately reveal in full the secret to which he has darkly alluded.
The attempt has been made to indicate the probable development of the tragic plot in our poet’s mind. We are ready to begin the study of the drama itself.
The scene is laid in the extreme northeast of Europe. At the back of the stage is represented a desolate cliff, and the stage itself is to be considered as a ravine at the foot of the precipice. The ocean is seen on the right; upon the left, the wilderness.
Might and Force appear, dragging or carrying the gigantic form of Prometheus, while Hephaistos, the smith of the gods, follows, with sledge-hammer, spikes, and fetters. Here we have at once an evident reminiscence of Hesiod, who mentions Might and Force as brothers, and as Zeus’ trustiest helpers against the Titans.
The Scythian tract, the pathless wilderness.
Hephaistos, thou the injunctions must regard,
Upon thee by the father laid, this wretch
Upon the lofty cliff to set in bonds
Unbreakable of adamantine chains!
The glory of all-working fire, thy flower,
He stole and brought to men. For such misdeed
He to the gods must pay a penalty,
That he may learn to love the rule of Zeus,
And may desist from his man-loving ways.
For your part, is fulfilled. Naught hinders more.
I lack the heart to bind a kindred god
By force against this rude and wintry crag.
But yet I must, indeed, take heart for this :
The father’s words are hard to disregard.
(To Prometheus.) O thou audacious son of Themis sage,
Against thy will and mine in brazen chains
I ’ll spike thee to this man-forsaken hill,
Where neither voice nor any mortal shape
Thou ’lt see, but, scorched by Helios’ gleaming blaze,
Thy face shall lose its bloom. Thou wilt rejoice
When starry-mantled Night shall hide the day,
Or Helios put to rout the frost of dawn.
Even the agony of present ill
Shall waste thee. Thy releaser lives not yet.
Such is thy gain through thy man-loving ways.
A god, thou didst not shrink from wrath of gods,
But wrongfully bestowed thy gifts on men.
And therefore shalt thou guard this joyless rock,
Upright, unslumbering, bending not thy knee.
Many laments thou’lt utter, and vain groans;
For unrelenting is the heart of Zeus,
And ever harsh is he whose rule is young.
Might. Well! why dost thou bemoan, and tarry in vain ?
Why dost not hate the deadliest foe of gods,
Who has betrayed thy glory unto men ?
Heph. Kinship and friendship are a mighty bond.
Might. I grant it. But how canst thou disregard
The father’s words ? Dost thou not dread that more ?
Throughout the remainder of this dialogue it will be noticed how aptly the very form of Hephaistos’ single-line speeches indicates his aversion to the task imposed on him, while Might, in his double-line retorts, gives utterance to his unfeeling delight in the disgrace and agony of Prometheus : —
Might. For him, at least, there is no escape from grief;
But do not spend thy fruitless toil in vain.
Heph. O utterly detested handicraft!
Might. Why dost thou hate it ? For indeed thine art
Is no way cause of that which now is done.
Heph. Would it had fallen to another’s lot!
Might. All things are onerous save to rule the gods,
For there is no one free save Zeus alone.
Heph. I know it; nor can I that word gainsay.
Might. Wilt thou not hasten, then, to fetter him,
For fear the father see thee lingering ?
Prometheus is now held firmly against the cliff by the two grim servants of Zeus, while Hephaistos reluctantly binds him fast.
Might. Take them, and round his arms with mighty strength
Smite with the hammer. Spike him to the rocks.
Heph. Behold, ’t is done; nor is that task delayed.
Might. Bind fast! Smite harder! Spare not! He is skilled
Even from the impossible to find escape.
Heph. This arm, at least, is fixed beyond release.
Might. This, too, now fetter sure; so he may learn
That he, though wise, is not so keen as Zeus.
Heph. No one, save him, has cause for wrath toward me!
Might. Now pitilessly drive straight through his breast
With strength this adamantine wedge’s tooth.
It is now, at any rate, evident that the part of Prometheus is not here taken by a living actor. It is only a great image which is thus fastened to the rock; and as Force is a mute, this scene, * as well as the rest of the play, could be performed by two actors.
Might. Dost thou again delay, and mourn the foe
Of Zeus ? Perchance thou ’lt pity yet thyself!
Heph. Thou seest a vision hard for eyes to view.
Might. I only see one meeting his deserts.
But cast the girdling hands about his sides.
Heph. Be not too urgent, since this needs must be.
Might. But I will urge thee, and proclaim it, too.
Do thou descend, and bind in rings his legs.
Heph. Behold, the deed without great toil is wrought.
For harsh is he who is censor of our task.
Heph. The utterance of thy tongue is as thy shape !
Might and his companion are evidently made repulsive by hideous masks.
My sternness and the harshness of my wrath.
Heph. Let us depart. His limbs are fettered now.
And gathering up his tools, the softhearted smith beats a hasty retreat, but Might lingers to address a taunting word of farewell to the silent sufferer : —
And fetch them to ephemeral men! How, pray,
May mortals rescue thee from this distress ?
Thou falsely art of gods Prometheus called,
For thou hast need of forethought for thyself,
How thou shalt extricate thee from these bonds.
Hereupon Might and Force also depart. Prometheus, left alone, breaks his disdainful silence, and appeals for sympathy to the powers of nature about him. A modern poet, even a Shelley or a Scott, only tries to fancy that winds and waves, sun and earth, sympathize with man. To Æschylus — and especially in this drama — the world actually is full of life in myriad forms which are more real than humanity itself.
The same actor who played Hephaistos now speaks, from behind the image on the cliff, as Prometheus. The other player will appear successively as Okeanos, Io, and Hermes.
Ye river-sources, and the deep-sea waves’
Innumerable laugh ! great mother Earth !
And on the sun’s all-seeing disc I call!
See ye what I, a god, endure from gods.
Do ye behold in what disgrace
Wasting away through unnumbered years
I shall endure ? For the youthful lord
Of the Blessed Ones has contrived for me
Such unseemly bonds.
Alas! for the evils both now and to come
I lament. What, pray, is destined to be
The limit for these my sorrows ?
And yet, what say I ? All do I foreknow
Exactly that shall be ; nor unforeseen
Shall any trouble come. My destined fate
With resignation I should bear, who know
The strength resistless of Necessity.
But I can neither tell nor leave untold
My lot. For bringing gifts to men in these
Perplexities I wretchedly am bound.
The source of fire within the hollow reed
I sought by stealth, which has become for men
Teacher of every art, and great resource.
But this atonement for my sins I pay,
Being aloft in air bound fast in chains.
What echo, what odor unseen, to me flits,
Divine or mortal, or of both combined ?
Unto the hill on the bounds of the world
Comes he to view my woes, or seeking what ?
Behold me bound, a god in evil plight!
A foe unto Zeus, and with all the gods
Into enmity have I fallen, whoso
Are permitted to enter the courtyard of Zeus,
Because of my too great love for mankind.
— What rustling of birds do I perceive
Yet again at hand ? And the air resounds
With the lightsome whirring of their wings.
I dread whatever approaches !
The sea-nymphs, daughter of Okeanos (Ocean) and Tethys, have heard in their grotto under the sea the sound of Hephaistos’ hammer, and, suspecting that Prometheus may be the victim, they have bravely hastened forth to proffer sympathy.
They enter singing, as they ride in a chariot through the air. Prometheus answers in the lively anapæstic form of recitative. This passage is the Parodos, as the Oceanids constitute the chorus of the tragedy. They have overheard Prometheus’ last words ; indeed, they were probably then already visible to the spectators, though the fettered Prometheus is supposed to be unable to turn his head to see and greet them.
That with fleet contending wings,
Not with ease the father’s mind beguiling,
Toward this rocky hill has come.
Through the hollows of our caverns,
Banishing my shy reserve. Unsandaled,
On my wingèd car I hastened forth.
Prometheus. Ah me! Ah me!
Ye offspring of Tethys, in children rich,
And sprung from him who about the world
Winds with his ever-unresting stream,
The father Okeanos, — look! Behold
In what captivity impaled
On the topmost crags of this ravine
An unenvied watch I am keeping !
Cho. I behold, Prometheus! To my eyes
Rushed a fearful mist
Full of tears, as I descried thy figure
Wasting on the rocks away,
In thy shameful adamantine fetters.
Youthful pilots rule Olympus ;
Zeus with novel laws tyrannic governs ;
What was mighty once is now unseen.
Prom. Oh that under the earth and to Hades’ abode
He had cast me, to boundless Tartaros
That receiveth the dead,
And set me in bonds that could not be loosed,
Where neither a god nor aught else that lives
Had rejoiced thereat!
Now, wretched, the sport of the breezes of heaven,
I endure ’mid the foes’ exultation.
Cho. Who of gods is so unfeeling
That to him this brings enjoyment ?
Who but grieves with thee in trouble,
Zeus alone except ? But he
Wrathful holds a heart unbending,
While he sways the heavenly race.
He will yield not ere his soul be sated,
Or by some device his kingship,
Hard to win, be wrested from his grasp.
Prom. Yet surely of me, although I am
In merciless fetters and suffering wrong,
The chief of the Blessed will feel the need,
To reveal that new decision whereby
He of honors and sceptre bereft shall be.
Nor by Persuasion’s honeyed charms
Will I be beguiled,
Nor yet from dread of his terrible threats
Will I this secret to him make known,
Until he release me from pitiless bonds,
And shall consent
To make for this shame an atonement.
Cho. Rash thou art, and no submission
Makest in thy bitter anguish ;
All too bold the words thou speakest;
Piercing terror stirs my soul.
For thy fate am I affrighted,
Wondering where, from these thy toils,
Thou shall anchor and behold a haven,
Since a nature unrelenting
And a stubborn heart hath Kronas’ son.
Prom. Full well I know that Zeus is harsh,
And holds that with him all justice abides.
Yet milder of mood
Some day he will be, when crushed thereunto.
Then shall he allay his unyielding wrath,
And with me in my eagerness eagerly he
Into friendship and league will enter.
Here the Parodos ends, and a calmer dialogue follows between the great sufferer and the sympathizing sea-nymphs. We may call this the beginning of the first episode, though these technical divisions are not so clearly marked as in later Greek dramas. Especially is this true of a play which, like the present one, admits of little action after the opening scene.
Upon what charge has Zeus laid hold on thee,
And treats thee bitterly and shamefully ?
Instruct us, if thy words shall work no harm.
Prometheus. Even to speak thereof is pain to me,
But silence too is pain, and every way
When first the gods began their wrath,
And strife against each other was aroused,
Some wishing to drive Kronos from his seat,
That Zeus, they said, might reign; hut some, again,
Earnest that Zeus should never rule the gods,—
Then I, who would have won to shrewder plans
The Titans, progeny of Heaven and Earth,
Availed not; but all crafty artifice
Disdaining in their strength and pride, they thought
By violence easily to be supreme.
Prometheus’ real sympathies, then, were, by his own confession, on the side of Kronos and the Titans, against Zeus.
And Earth, — one figure under many names, —
Foretold how destiny should be fulfilled:
That not by force, nor yet through violence,
But by their craft should the victorious rule.
Yet when with arguments I showed them this,
They did not deign to glance at it at all.
In such conditions surely it appeared
Wisest for me, winning my mother’s aid,
Gladly to Succor Zeus, who welcomed me.
Of Tartaros holds ancient Kronos now,
With his allies.
The tyrant of the gods,
Having received such benefits from me,
Requited me with recompense so base;
For this is somehow a disease innate
In tyranny, to put no trust in friends.
And as for what ye ask, upon what charge
He thus maltreats me, that will I make clear.
When he was seated on his father’s throne,
Straightway to various divinities
He allotted various honors, and his realm
Divided ; but for wretched men he showed
Nowise regard, and, blotting out their race,
Desired another new one to create.
And this not one opposed except myself ;
But I did venture, and released mankind,
Who else had perished and to Hades fared.
And therefore with such tortures am I bound,
Grievous to suffer, piteous to behold.
By pitying mortals I have not deserved
This treatment, yet I ruthlessly am brought
To order thus ; for Zeus a shameful sight!
Æschylus has modified the account of Hesiod in important respects. There is no hint of a fall of man from a previous happier state. The dishonest sacrifice, as well as the consequent wrath of Zeus, and also the creation of Pandora, have vanished from the tale. Such legends were without doubt beneath the dignity of the conception formed by Æschylus of the supreme deity, but their disappearance leaves Zeus’ desire to destroy mankind quite unexplained.
Prometheus is no doubt sincere in his criticism, but he has failed to comprehend fully the scope of Zeus’ plans. The destruction of the present mortal race was to he accomplished only in order to prepare the earth for fitter inhabitants. Such an annihilation of humanity for its unworthiness is a familiar feature in Greek as well as in Oriental tradition. Indeed, in the Works and Days, the race then living is supposed to be the last of five wholly distinct successive creations. Hence the mere statement of his intention to destroy the existing race would not necessarily stamp Zeus as a cruel and arbitrary tyrant, nor justify the resistance of Prometheus, though it does, of course, secure for the sufferer the sympathy and gratitude of mankind.
It is curious that in the Works and Days Hesiod (if it is he) repeats in somewhat altered form the tale of Prometheus and Pandora related in the Theogony. The former poem, however, does not appear to have influenced Æschylus in any important detail of his drama ; and it would perhaps be difficult to prove even that he was acquainted with it.
Zeus’ failure to carry out his project indicates that his power is not unlimited. That is indeed a notion almost inherent in any polytheistic creed. The Zeus of Æschylus is a most noble and lofty figure ; but the poet deals cautiously, in fact reverently, with the traditions of his ancestors, even when they weaken somewhat the simple majesty of his own conception. Many of the myths he deliberately avoids; in some he tries to bring out a worthier significance; but he cannot openly combat even the most repulsive. A very similar spirit pervades Pindar’s poems, and is clearly avowed in his treatment of the Pelops myth, in which the Blessed Gods had been represented as cannibals.
We must never forget that this whole speech of Prometheus is an ex parte statement of a rebel; heroic, indeed, self-sacrificing, and sincere, yet a rebel, who eventually sees and confesses his short-sightedness and error, binds his brows with the willow of repentance, and puts upon his finger the iron ring of submission.
Who with thy troubles sympathizes not,
Prometheus. I desired not to behold
The sight, and seeing it am pained at heart.
Prometheus. A wretched sight indeed for friends am I.
Cho. No further, even, didst thou go than that ?
Prom. I rescued mortals from foreseeing fate.
Whatever the poet’s intention may be in this mysterious allusion, we shall probably agree that it is a blessing not to foresee the destiny which we are helpless to avert. It is strange that Prometheus should be the power mentioned as depriving men of any prophetic insight. The allusion is perhaps to that overwhelming dread of imminent death which paralyzes human activity.
Cho. What remedy hast thou found for that disease ?
Prom. Blind hopes have I implanted in their souls.
Cho. Thou gavest mighty aid thereby to men.
Prom. And fire besides I did convey to them.
Cho. Ephemeral men have now the blazing fire ?
Prom. Ay, and through that shall learn full many arts.
Cho. Upon Such accusations, then, does Zeus Maltreat thee, and relaxes not thy woes. But to thy struggle is no limit set ?
Prom. No other hut whenever pleases him.
Dost thou not see thine error ? That thou erredst
For me to say is pain, and grief to thee.
— But leave we that. Seek some escape from toils.
Advise and chide that one who fareth ill.
And all that thou hast said full well I know.
Of my free will I erred, I do confess.
Through aiding mortals I have come to grief ;
Yet did not think with such a penalty
To wither on these rocks aloft in air,
Chancing on this deserted friendless hill.
Yet do not ye my present woes bewail,
But earthward come, and what shall yet befall
Hear, that ye all unto the end may learn.
Obey, and share the toil of him who now
Is troubled. Wandering calamity
Comes likewise at some time to many a one.
O Prometheus, this.
And deserting’ now my rushing car,
And the sacred ether, the bird’s highway,
To the rugged earth do I approach;
And I fain in full
Would hear the account of thy sorrows.
But as the nymphs are alighting, their father, Okeanos, comes riding in upon a griffin or hippocamp. Æschylus is fond of such daring devices and grotesque appearances as this, and makes much greater demands upon the stage machinery than does Euripides. Okeanos is a type of timid, time-serving good-will. He will aid Prometheus, especially with prudent advice, so long as his sympathy does not endanger his own comfort. Prometheus receives him with marked impatience, and eagerly dismisses him with scantiest courtesy.
Which I, O Prometheus, to thee have made,
This fleet-winged bird without a bit
Guiding by force of my will alone.
And know that I sorrow with thee in distress.
For indeed methinks our kindred blood
Compels mo to this;
And besides that tie, there is no one whom
I in greater regard would hold than thee.
And thou shalt perceive how sincere are my words,
Nor known to my tongue are courtesies vain.
Come, how I can aid thee I pray thee make known,
For thou never shalt say that any friend
Thou hast than Okeanos stancher.
Prometheus. Well, what is this ? Art thou too come to view
My tortures ? How, pray, hast thou dared to leave
The stream that bears thy name, and thy rock-roofed
Natural grottoes, to approach the earth,
Mother of iron ? Art thou come, indeed,
To see my fate, and sympathize in woes ?
Gaze, then, upon the sight. The friend of Zeus,
Who aided in establishing his rule,
See with what tortures I through him am bowed.
Okean. I see, Prometheus, and would offer thee
The best advice, ingenious though thou art.
— Know thine own self, and take on thee new ways,
For new, too, is the tyrant of the gods.
But if thou hurlest forth such biting words
And harsh, it may be Zeus, though high aloft
He sits, will hear ; and so this present wrath
Shall seem but mockery of suffering.
(Zeus does indeed hear. Every whisper beneath the dome of the cold, cheerless sky is reëchoed to his throne; and the remembrance of this will add greatly to the impressiveness of the whole drama.)
And seek for a relief from this distress.
Foolish my words, perchance, appear to thee ;
But yet such are indeed the penalties,
Prometheus, of a too presumptuous tongue.
Not yet thou ’rt humble, nor by troubles bowed,
But wishest to bring others yet on thee.
If thou wilt take me for thy counselor,
Thou wilt not kick against the goad, because
A monarch harsh and uncontrolled hath power.
But I am going now, and I will try
If I may from this torture set thee free.
Do thou be quiet, and not hold of speech.
Or dost thou not well know, though overwise,
That punishment befalls a froward tongue ?
Prom. I envy thee, that free from blame thou art,
Who yet hast dared and shared in all with me.
But now refrain, and trouble not thyself.
Thou ’lt not persuade him ; he’s not tractable ;
Be cautious, lest thy errand harm thyself.
Okean. Fitter by far art thou to instruct thy friends
Than thine own self: by facts, not words, I judge.
But do not check me in my eagerness ;
For I declare that Zeus will grant to me
This boon, and so release thee from thy toils.
Prom. I thank thee, but will nowise ever yield.
Thou lackest not for zeal, yet trouble not
Thyself ; for all in vain, not aiding me,
Thou ’lt take the trouble, — if indeed thou wilt.
There is evidently some irritation aroused on both sides; and Prometheus does not seem quite sure even of Okeanos’ sincerity in offering to intercede.
For though my fate be hard, I not for that
Would wish that sorrows might on many fall.
Ah, no ! my brother’s lot distresses me, —
Atlas, who in the Hesperian region stands,
Holding the pillar of the sky and earth
Upon his shoulders ; not an easy weight.
The wearisome task of Atlas brings, perhaps naturally, to Prometheus’ mind the somewhat similar fate of the giant Typhon, or Typhœus, who is buried under Ætna ; but the length of the digression is certainly surprising. The explanation usually given for it is that Æschylus, during a visit to Sicily, had seen a great eruption of Ætna. This had made such an impression upon his mind that he seized upon the opportunity to allude to it in his tragedy.
I pitied when I saw, a prodigy
Most wretched, hundred-headed, held by force :
Fierce Typhon, who resisted all the gods,
Hissing out death from his terrific jaws ;
And from his eyes he sent grim lightnings forth.
The power of Zeus he strove by force to crush.
But unto him Zeus’ sleepless missile sped,
The downward-plunging bolt that breathes out flame,
And all his haughty boasting overwhelmed;
For he was smitten to the very soul,
His strength by thunder and by fire destroyed.
And now, a helpless, sprawling shape, he lies
Near to the narrow channel of the sea,
Beneath the roots of Ætna weighted down.
But on the topmost peaks Hephaistos sits,
Forging the iron; whence shall some day break forth
Rivers of fire, with fierce jaws to devour
The wide-extending meads of Sicily.
So Typhon will pour forth his boiling wrath,
With the hot missiles of fire-breathing rain
Insatiable, though by Zeus’ lightning charred.
This digression, which by the way closely resembles a passage in Pindar’s first Pythian ode, does not strengthen the drama. Prometheus seems to forget himself in glorifying the might of Zeus. Again addressing Okeanos directly, he continues: —
Of me as teacher ; save me as thou canst;
And I my present fortune will endure,
Until the spirit of Zeus shall cease from wrath.
Okean. Art thou, then, O Prometheus, not aware
Words are physicians of a mind diseased ?
That is, conciliatory words will calm the wrath of Zeus.
Not cheek its rage at height with violence.
Okean. But in my zeal for thee and venturousness
What harm dost thou perceive ? Explain to me.
Prom. Superfluous trouble and vain foolishness !
Okean. Leave me to suffer with this ailment, since
He who is sage had best not pass for wise.
This is no doubt a taunt: “ It is perhaps better to be simple, since thy far-famed wisdom brings thee to this sorry pass.”
Okean. Thy words dispatch me plainly home again.
Prom. Lest grief for me should draw his hate on thee.
Okean. His, who but lately holds the almighty seat ?
Prom. Beware of him, lest he be vexed at heart.
Okean. Calamity, Prometheus, teaches thee.
Prom. Set forth. Depart. Hold fast thy present mind.
Okean. Thy words, already on my way, I hear,
For my four-footed bird skims with his wings
The ether’s far expanse, and joyfully
In his home stables he would bend the knee.
And borne on his eager griffin, the sea-god straightway vanishes.
The chorus now sing the first lyrical interlude, commiserating Prometheus:
From my tender eyes
Pouring forth a stream of trickling tears,
I my cheek have stained with moistening rills.
Melancholy is thy lot!
Zeus, commanding with his new decrees,
Unto gods that were of old
His imperious sceptre now displays.
Even now, and mourns
For the honors, ancient, glorious,
By thy kinsmen held of old, and thine.
All who dwell within
Holy Asia’s neighboring domain,
Mortal men, in sympathy
Sorrow for thy much-lamented woes.
Maidens fearless in the fray,
With the Scythian throng, who hold
Far-off regions by the lake Mœotis;
They who on the lofty crag
Near to Caucasus abide,
Furious host that rage with keen-edged lances.
The fearless maidens are the Amazons. We hardly understand an allusion to Arabia in the far North, and German scholars calmly propose to change the text to “ Chalybia’s,” “ Chalkis’s,” “Aria’s,” or “The Sarmatians’,”—a proceeding which a disciple of Professor Goodwin is not likely to approve. Of the city on the lofty crag we know nothing whatever ; perhaps it is Ekbatana.
Have I seen subdued,
Bound in shameful adamantine chains, —
Atlas the divine ;
Who forever, on his mighty back,
Groaning, holds the sky.
Waves that crash together mourn for him,
Ocean-deeps lament ;
Hades’ darksome subterranean cave resounds,
And the holy river-sources mourn his wretched pain.
The central thought of this ode seems to be : All mankind mourns for Prometheus ; only the forces of nature express sympathy for his brother Atlas.
The calm dialogue which must be considered as the second episode of the drama opens with a long and important speech addressed by Prometheus to the chorus.
I hold my peace. I gnaw my heart with thought,
Seeing myself maltreated as I am.
And yet, who else to these new gods, save me,
Rendered their honors altogether Sure ?
But this I leave untold; for I should speak
To you who know.
But hear the former woes
Of mortal men, whom, senseless until then,
I rendered thoughtful, masters of their wits.
I’ll speak, not in resentment toward mankind,
But showing my good-will in what I gave.
At first they, gazing, gazed but fruitlessly;
Hearkening, they did not hear, but, like the shapes
Of visions through an age that lasted long,
All things confused. Nor knew they sunny homes
Shaped out of bricks, nor handiwork of wood.
Beneath the earth they dwelt, like helpless ants,
In the unsunned recesses of the caves.
This sketch of primeval man is said to agree wonderfully with the results of research in our own day.
Or flowery spring, or summer rich in fruits;
All things in utter ignorance they did,
Until the risings of the stars I showed
To them, and settings hard to be discerned.
Number, most shrewd device, I found for them,
And letters well combined ; and memory,
Worker of all things, mother of the muse.
I was the first who yoked the beasts to bear
The collar and the rider, and relieve
The race of mortals from their heaviest toils.
I harnessed to the car the steeds that love
The rein, the pride of wealthiest luxury.
And no one else before me did invent
The sea-tost, sail-winged craft of mariners.
So many things have I contrived — ah me ! —
For mortals; but myself have no device
Whereby to free me from my present woe!
The pause is gracefully contrived in order to relieve the exhausted actor. It may be remarked here that our poet has clearly no belief in a previous happier state of man. Human life is steadily improving, and the higher powers are all beneficent and helpful to us : Prometheus, with excessive haste and presumption, which make him seem very human, and bring him at last to bitter humiliation ; Zeus, through farther - reaching and more mysterious ways.
Thou errest; like a wretched leech fall’n ill,
Thou art disheartened, and canst not discover
The drugs by which thou mayst thyself be healed.
Prometheus. Hearing the rest from me, thou ’lt marvel more,
Learning what arts and means I have devised.
Chiefest of all, if any one fell ill,
There was no remedy, — nor edible,
Nor drink, nor ointment, — but for lack of drugs
They pined away, until I showed to them
The ways of mingling gentle curatives,
Wherewith from each disease they guard themselves.
The following lines touch upon all the various forms of divination employed by the Greeks : partly from accidental meetings, words overheard by chance, etc.; partly from inspection of the vitals of animals which had been sacrificed: —
Arranged, and first from dreams what must occur
In waking hours discerned; made clear to them
Mysterious sounds, chance meetings on the way.
The flight of crooked-taloned birds I explained
Exactly: which are ominous of good,
Which baleful, and the mode of life of each;
And what dislikes they have for one another,
Or what affections and companionships.
(A line is apparently lost, containing the verb “ I first interpreted.”)
They needs must have to please the higher powers,
The varied shapeliness of bile and liver.
Burning the limbs enveloped in the fat,
And the long chine, I led men to the art
Hard to discern. And omens from the flame
I showed to them, which were before obscure.
The “ art hard to discern ” is the method of deciding, from the appearance of the flame during the sacrifice, whether the gods favor an undertaking. This bold allusion is a distinct reminder by our poet that he knows nothing of, and wishes us to ignore, the unworthy tale of the deceitful sacrifice. Men do, indeed, says Æschylus, burn the bones, fat, and chine in the gods’ honor, and Prometheus did teach us so to do; but the poet was mistaken who connected the names of Prometheus and Zeus with a tale of petty deception and ignoble resentment wreaked upon the guilty and the innocent.
That were for mortals in the earth concealed,
Copper, iron, gold, and silver, — who would say
That he before me had discovered these ?
None, I know well, who would not vainly prate.
And in brief words learn thou at once the truth:
All arts to mortals through Prometheus came.
Toward the end of this long speech the allegory seems more transparent than usual. We are inclined to say that a mere personification of human foresight, and not a living divinity, fills the poet’s mind. But we must not, for this reason, hastily conclude that the classical dramatist or auditor doubted the reality of Prometheus. For us, personification is a device of rhetoric. To a savage, to a child, and to the ancient Greek, it is an irresistible instinct.
And even to us, familiarized from childhood with the terminology of abstract thought, with centuries of Puritanism behind us, forbidden for ages by our religious teachers to imagine a multitude of divine beings, or even to depict the Deity under any form as an individual, how real, in spite of all, is fickle Fortune, as she turns her wheel above the staring crowd, or the little blind lovegod, with fluttering wings and quiver full of arrows!
It was hard for a Greek to describe or to comprehend the development of an abstract quality. It was easy for him to imagine and to accept a kindly divinity, whose especial task it was to inspire foresight in the human heart.
Æschylus’ own tendency is toward monotheism, simply because he sees in the universe evidence of all-wise and omnipotent rule. But it is only a tendency, operating within a reverent and conservative nature. He selects and interprets myths; he does not, like Euripides, quarrel with them. The minor characters of the Pantheon are quite as real to him as Zeus. They are noble and generous, also. Their inferiority is quite as much in wisdom as in power. They learn eventually to fall in with Zeus’ plans, and to realize that in combating and thwarting him they only work evil, despite their good intent. The conception of Zeus, in Æschylus’ soul at any rate, is not so very different from the Jehovah of the Hebrews. Like him, Zeus is resisted for a time by superhuman rebels and sinners as well as earthly ones. But the digression leads us too far from the dialogue.
Neglectful of thyself in wretchedness.
For I am hopeful that thou slialt he freed
Yet from thy bonds, nor be less strong than Zeus.
Prometheus. Not so is’t fated that these things shall be
By destiny fulfilled. Erst overwhelmed
With countless woes shall I escape my bonds;
Craft is far weaker than necessity.
Cho. Who, then, is pilot of necessity ?
Prom. The three-formed Fates, and Furies unforgetting.
Cho. And Zeus is not so mighty, then, as they ?
But even the arch-rebel hesitates to answer directly so critical a question as this. His response is intentionally equivocal.
Cho. What is allotted Zeus, save still to rule ?
Prom. Be not importunate. This thou mayst not learn.
Cho. ’T is something fearful, surely, thou dost hide!
Prom. Think ye of other words. To utter this
The time is nowise fit. It must be hid
As far as may be ; for, concealing it,
From fetters and from pain I shall escape.
It will be remembered that Prometheus, through Themis, his mother, knows that in some far future time Zeus, among his numberless celestial and earthly loves, will be attracted to the beautiful Nereid, Thetis, who is destined to bear a son far mightier than his father. It must be constantly kept in mind that this and other similar allusions are overheard by Zeus upon his invisible throne on high.
Here the second episode closes, if such it may be called when no one has entered or left the stage. The following choric song expresses the desire for moderate prosperity which is so characteristic of Greek feeling, followed by a vivid allusion to the wretched mortal race, for which Prometheus is suffering such torture: —
Set his opposing decree !
May I not fail, by the father Okeanos’ water unresting,
Offering unto the gods
Banquets sacred of oxen slain. Nor in word be my error!
May this by me be attained; let it not vanish away.
This stanza suggests a charming picture of the graceful sea-nymphs issuing from the waves of their father’s realm, and making due sacrifice on the beach to the dreaded higher gods, with all the reverent humility of mortal maidens. Throughout the play these daughters of Tethys are so delightfully girlish in their gentle and almost timid modesty that we are hardly prepared for their unflinching courage in the final crisis.
Longer our life to extend;
Yet do I shudder with dread, as I gaze upon thee, in thy sorrows
Numberless wasting away.
Thou, O Prometheus, fearest not Zeus, but in willful endeavor
Honorest more than is fit men who are destined to die.
How may it avail ?
From ephemeral men what aid may come ?
Hast thou not beheld
How in helpless, dream-like feebleness
Fettered is the sightless human race ?
Plans of mortals nevermore
May the harmony of Zeus evade.
O Prometheus, saw;
While another song recurred to me:
How the nuptial hymn
Round about the bath and bed I sang,
For thy marriage, when our father’s child,
Won with gifts, Hesione,
Thou didst lead to be thy wedded spouse.
William Cranston Lawton.
- A translation of this most curious and valuable book has been recently added to Bohn’s Classical Library.↩