The Prometheus of Æschylus: In Two Parts. Part Ii

THE third episode of the Prometheus begins with the sudden and unannounced entrance of Io. She is an innocent maiden, daughter of Inachos, an Argive river-god. Being wooed by Zeus, she excited the jealousy of Hera, queen of heaven, whose priestess she had been. Hera partially or wholly transformed her into a cow, and she is wandering over the earth, watched at first, in Hera’s interest, by the monster Argus, with his hundred eyes; after his death, goaded on by a gadfly. After world-wide roaming, she is to reach the delta-land of the Nile, where she will find rest, and in after years bear to Zeus a son, Epaphos.

Io seems, therefore, to be a signal example of injured innocence, suffering through the lawless caprice of Zeus. Prometheus so regards her; but the spectator is aware, and is, in fact, informed by Prometheus in this very scene, that her later life will be happy and honored, and that she is to be “ the mother of a mighty race ; ” how mighty and glorious, indeed, Prometheus little knows. Here again, therefore, Prometheus, with his much-vaunted prophetic wisdom, is regarded by the poet as too short-sighted rightly to measure the far-reaching beneficence of Zeus.

This strange character, Io, was originally, according to the interpretation usually accepted, merely the wide-wandering moon. The many watching eyes of Argus are the stars of heaven. Whatever its starting-point, however, the myth has certainly been modified through the knowledge obtained by early Greeks of the horned Egyptian goddess Isis, and of Apis, who appeared in the form of a bull. Indeed, Epaphos, the name of Io’s son, is stated by Herodotus to be merely the Greek form of the Egyptian name Apis.

In Greek works of art Io is often represented as a cow. In our tragedy she has a human face and figure, but is horned. The monster Argus has been slain already by Hermes, Zeus’ son and trusty messenger ; but as this fact would tend to give a better impression regarding Zeus’ treatment of Io, Hermes’ name is here suppressed, for dramatic reasons.

It may be added that the poet’s excuse for drawing into his plot the pathetic figure of Io, which so effectively heightens the momentary impression of Zeus as a cruelly unjust tyrant, is that her descendant in the thirteenth generation, Heracles, is to release Prometheus.


Io (staring wildly about her). What land,
and what race ? Whom, pray, do I see
Yonder, so curbed in a bridle of stone
And beaten by storms ?
Of what misdeeds does he suffer the pains?
Reveal to me where
On the earth I in misery wander. Ah me ! ah me!

In rising excitement, Io bursts into a lyric lament over her wretched fate : —

Still the gadfly stings me, wretched one!
Avaunt! Alas ! with dread
Earth-born Argus’ shape
I behold, the herdsman hundred-eyed,
Who with crafty glance doth go,
Whom not even in death the earth conceals !
In my misery he hounds me,
Crossing from the dead below ;
Drives me fasting over pebbly beaches !

The pipe Io now fancies she hears is perhaps a reminiscence of the music with which Hermes lulled Argus into a deep sleep before slaying him : —

Soft and clear the well-waxed reed resounds
Slumbrous melody !
Whither do my wanderings lead me on,
Wanderings afar ?
How, I pray, O son of Kronos, how
Hast thou found me sinful, who am yoked
Thus to agonies ?
Why with goading terror waste away
So a trembling, frenzied girl ?
Burn me ! Hide me in the earth ! Or give me
To sea-monsters for a prey !
Do not grudge for me
This, O lord, my prayer !
Long enough my wanderings manifold
Weary me, nor can I learn
Where my miseries I may escape.
Dost, thou hear the hornèd maiden’s cry ?

And Prometheus accepts as an appeal to himself what were really the closing words of Io’s prayer to Zeus, and responds : —

Why hear I not the gadfly-driven girl,
Inachos’ child, who warmed the heart of Zeus
With passion, and a journey exceeding long,
Hated of Hera, now perforce completes ?

Io is amazed at this familiarity with her mishaps : —

Who thou art who speak’st my father’s name,
Tell a wretched one.
Prithee, who, O sufferer, in my pain,
Rightly greets me thus ?
Thou hast told my curse, by gods imposed,
Which doth waste and goad mewoe is
mine !
With its maddening sting. Pangs of hunger drove me bounding on,
In my furious haste,
Victim to the plots of foes infuriate. Who, alas, of wretches, who
Suffers like to me ?
But, I pray, reveal
Plainly what awaits me yet to bear :
What the limit or the cure
For my troubles, if thou knowest, say ;
Speak, and tell a. wretched wandering maid.

To this request Prometheus readily accedes, and a dialogue in calmer tone begins : —

Prometheus, Plainly I ’ll tell thee all thou
fain wouldst learn,
Not weaving riddles, but in simple speech,
Even as is right to unseal the lips to friends.
Thou seest Prometheus, giver of fire to men.

The name, though not the figure, of the devoted lover of mortals is evidently well known to the Argive girl. She replies : —

Thou general blessing of mankind, for what,
Wretched Prometheus, art thou suffering so ?
Prom. I ceased but now bewailing my dis-
tress. lo. This boon, then, unto me thou wilt not
grant ?
Prom. Speak what than wilt. All mayst
thou learn from me. Io. Tell who in this ravine has bound thee
fast. Prom. Hephaistos’ hand, but the decree of
Zeus. Io. And for what sins dost thou atonement pay?

But Prometheus cannot endure this repetition of the sea-nymph’s inquiries, to which he has made full response, and curtly answers :—

So much alone may I reveal to thee. lo’s thoughts turn at once to the prophetic knowledge which the Titan doubtless possesses concerning herself: —

Io. Yet show me, too, what time shall be
the goal
For me of wandering and of suffering.
Prom. Herein is knowledge worse than ignorance !
Io. Pray hide not from me what I must endure.
Prom. This boon, indeed, I do not envy thee.
Io. Why dost thou hesitate to utter all ?
Prom. I grudge not, but am loath to vex thy soul.
Io. Shield me not more than I myself desire.
Prom. Since thou art eager, I must speak : attend!

But here the leader of the chorus interrupts Prometheus, and insists that lo’s previous mishaps be first narrated. In general, the reader will admire the skill with which, the long story of Io is divided and taken up into the dialogue, instead of being permitted to detach itself from the drama proper, like the long speeches of Euripides’ messengers. In such matters Æschylus by no means seems to “ do right without knowing why,” as Sophocles is stated to have remarked. It is rather the elaborate skill of an artist fully conscious of his art.

Chorus. Not yet! Accord me too in that delight
A share. Her troubles first let us inquire,
While she narrates to us her weary fate. Her later toils let her be taught by thee.
Prom. Io, to gratify them is thy task ;
The more as they are sisters of thy sire.

(Again Æschylus follows the Theogony of Hesiod, who says : —

Tethys unto Okeanos bore the eddying rivers. ”

Hence Inachos, the river-god, lo’s father, is brother to the sea-nymphs, who are also children of the same parents.

It may be remarked, however, that lo’s nature, and also her former life in her father’s home, seem to be described quite as if she were a mere mortal maiden.)

For to bewail and mourn our destiny,
When we are likely to obtain a tear
From those who listen, well repays the time.
Io. I know not why I should not trust in you,
And you shall hear all that which you desire,
In simple speech. I grieve even while I tell
How on me, in my wretchedness, there came
This heaven-sent tempest, and my loss of form.
For nightly visions, haunting evermore
My maiden-chamber, with their gentle words
Enticed me : " Wherefore, O most blessèd maid,
Dost tarry long a virgin, when thou mayst
The loftiest nuptials gain ? For Zeus is struck
By passion’s dart, through thee, and fain would join
With thee in love. And spurn not, girl, the couch
Of Zeus, but to the fertile mead go forth
Of Lernè to thy father’s flocks and stalls,
And sate the eye of Zeus of his desire.” And with such visions every night was I,
Poor wretch, encompassed, till I dared to tell
My sire what dreams in darkness came to me. And he to Pytho and Dodona sent
Repeated messengers, to learn what he
Must do or say to please the powers divine.

(Pytho is the original name of Delphi. Dodona is a still more ancient oracle of Zeus, among the oak-groves of Epirus.)

They came reporting dubious oracles,
Ill understood, mysteriously phrased. At last, arrived an utterance distinct,
That speaking plainly enjoined on Inachos
To thrust me from my home and fatherland
To wander far on earth’s remotest bounds. If he would not, the fiery bolt from Zeus
Would come, and utterly destroy his race. Urged on by such replies of Loxias,
He drove me forth and barred me from his home,
Against his will and mine. The curb of Zeus
Forced him by violence to do the deed. Straightway distorted were my form and mind.
Hornèd, as ye behold me, goaded on
By the shrill gadfly, with a frantic bound
I darted toward Kerchneia’s current sweet,
And Lernè’s source. Insatiate in his rage,
The earth-born herdsman, Argus, followed me,
Watching with countless eyes the paths I trod. But unexpectedly a sudden fate
Bereft him of his life; yet, gadfly-driven,
I wander, scourged of gods, from land to land. Thou hearest what has been. If thou canst
What toils remain, speak out! Nor, pitying me,
Console me with untruthful words. A bane
Most shameful do I call deceitful tales.

The sea-nymphs’ sympathies are deeply stirred by Io’s pathetic story, and they cry out in excited tones : —

Ah me ! Ah me ! Refrain ! Alas !
Never had I prayed that alien words
To my ears should come,
Nor that sorrows, griefs, and terrors
Hard to see and hard to bear,
With their goad two-edged should chill my
soul. Destiny, destiny ! Woe is me !
Shuddering on Io’s fate I look !

The uncomplaining sufferer upon the cliff says calmly : —

Beforehand thou dost groan, and full of fright
Art thou ; but hold, until the rest thou hear. Cho. Speak thou, explain. To those in trouble, sweet
It is to know in full the pain to come.

The curiosity of the ocean-nymphs concerning IO’S previous experiences being fully gratified, Prometheus takes up the tale of her later wanderings. Addressing first the chorus, he begins : —

Lightly your former wish, at least, haye ye
Obtained from me ; for first ye craved to hear
While she related all her own distress. Now hearken to the rest: what sufferings
This girl at Hera’s hand must yet endure. (To Io.) Inachos’ child, take thou to heart
my words,
That thou mayst, wholly learn thy journey’s

The vague geographical ideas embodied in the following account of Io’s adventures were doubtless derived from the Greeks, who had established tradingposts in the Crimea and upon the neighboring shores of the Black Sea. Students of Herodotus will be frequently reminded, during this whole scene, of his later and somewhat more accurate accounts.

From here, first, toward the risings of the sun Turn thou, and tread across the fields unfilled. Thou 'It reach the nomad Scythians, who aloft In wicker-huts on well-wheeled wagons dwell, Equipped with bows, and arrows flying far. Approach them not, but, keeping close thy feet To the sea-beaten coast, passthrough the land.

And on the left hand dwell the Chalybes, Workers of iron, whom thou needs must shun. Untamed are they, unfriendly unto guests. Thou 'It reach the River, rightly named.

(That is, River of Outrage.)

This cross not, — for ’t is difficult to ford, — Until the highest Caucasus itself
Thou nearest, where the river bursts in might
From the rock’s face. The summits, near the stars,
Thou needs must climb, and southward turn thy way.
Then to the host of Amazons thou 'lt come,
Haters of men, who shall hereafter dwell
By the Thermodon at Themyskyra.
There is the cruel Salmydessian strait,
Unkind to sailors, step-mother of ships.
They will he guides for thee right joyfully.

Io, it appears, can safely trust the womanly feeling of the Amazons. Incidentally, Æschylus endeavors to reconcile the accounts which placed this mythical race near the river Thermodon, in Northern Asia Minor, with the less familiar legend which located the nation of warrior women about the Sea of Azof. For this is the evident object of the prophecy of a migration in later times, a matter of no concern to Io or the daughters of Okeanos.

And now at the sea’s narrow gates, thou ’lt come
To the Kimmerian isthmus. Fearlessly
Leave this, and traverse the Mæotian strait.
The story of thy passage shall be famed
Among mankind forever. Bosporus
Shall it be called. But leaving Europe’s plain,
Thou ’lt reach the Asian mainland.

(The Bos-poros, “ cow-ford ” according to the popular but probably erroneous etymology, is the channel just east of the Crimea, and is regarded by the dramatist as the boundary between the continents. All the regions heretofore mentioned are to be assigned to Europe.)

Here the poet avails himself of the opportunity for a natural pause.

Dost thou deem
The king of gods in all his acts alike
Lawless ? He wished, a god, to join to him
This mortal, and such wanderings has imposed !
A bitter suitor for thy wedlock thou
Hast found, O girl! for what thou now hast heard
Consider hardly as the prelude yet!
Io. Oh, woe is me!
Prom. Thou criest again, and deeply groanest ? What
When thou hast learned the evils that remain !
Cho. Wilt thou, pray, tell her more of troubles yet ?
Prom. A harsh and stormy sea of fatal woe !
Io. What profits, then, my life ? Why did
I not
Cast, myself down at. once from this rude crag,
Earthward to plunge, and gain from all my toils
Release ? Far better is it once to die
Than all our days to suffer wretchedly.

There is both pity and disdain in the Titan’s tone, as he contrasts her repining and his own stoicism; his centuries of agonizing torture and her briefer pilgrimage, with peace and glory assured to her beyond it: —

Prom. Truly thou wouldst endure my agony
But weakly, who am destined not to die,
For that were an escape from wretchedness.
And now there is no limit set for me Of miseries, ere Zeus shall fall from power.

This allusion arouses lo’s curiosity, and thus the dialogue turns naturally to a different theme: —

Io. Could Zeus, then, be deprived of sovereignty?
Prom. Thou wouldst rejoice, methinks, to see that chance.
Io. Why not, since I from Zeus am suffering wrong’ ?
Prom. Then mayst thou learn from me that this is true.
Io. Who shall his royal sceptre wrest from him ?
Prom. He, from himself, by empty-minded plans.
Io. How ? Tell us, if no harm thereby is done.
Prom. He makes a marriage which he yet shall rue.
To. Divine or human ? Say, if thou mayst speak.
Prom. Why ask with whom ? This may not be revealed.
Io. Shall he, pray, lose his throne through her he weds ?
Prom. A son she 'll hear, more mighty than his sire.
Io. Is there no rescue from this lot for him ?

This much, then, Zeus also doubtless hears ; but the most important word of all, the name of the fatal bride, Prometheus is too crafty to utter. His next remark so astonishes Io that she interrupts it midway : —

Prom. None, unless I myself, released from bonds —
Io. Who shall release thee against the will of Zeus ?
Prom. This falls to one of thy posterity.
Io. What! shall a son of mine free thee from ills ?
Prom. In the third generation after ten !
Io. (after a pause). The prophecy still is hard to understand.
Prom. And do not seek to learn of all thy griefs.
Io. Proffer me not the boon, and then withhold !
Prom. Of utterances twain I 'll grant thee one.
Io. Tell me of what, and give, to me the choice.
Prom. I grant it. Choose if I shall plainly tell
Who will release me, or thy latter woes.

There seems to be no serious meaning in this choice offered by Prometheus. Indeed, he readily consents to satisfy the curiosity of the chorus in both matters. The identity of Thetis is not, however, indicated by Prometheus at any later point in the play, though that is what is here promised. Io is too excited by her own coming miseries, of which she is presently informed still more in detail, to tarry and listen to other words, and the entrance of Hermes soon after put an end to all confidential talk. This passage indicates that Prometheus’ caution is deserting him.

Cho. Bestow on her the one, the other grace On me, and do not disregard my words.
Relate to her the wandering yet in store,
To me thy rescuer. This is my desire.
Prometheus- Since ye are eager, I will not resist,
But utter all, so much as ye have craved.
Thy mazy wanderings, Io, first, I tell.
On thy heart’s mindful tablets this engrave.
Passing the stream that parts the continents,
To the sun-trodden flaming Orient

The stream meant is of course the Kimmerian Bosporus, where the thread of the narrative was broken before. But just here, lines, perhaps even pages, of the libretto are missing. After the gap we find Io in a purely fabulous region, probably imagined by the poet as in the southeast quarter of the earth.

Crossing the roaring sea, until thou reach
Kisthenè’s plains Gorgonean, where abide
The Phorkides, three venerable maids,
Like unto swans, who have one eye for all,
A single tooth; whom neither with his rays
The sun doth look on, nor the nightly moon.
And near them are the wingèd sisters three,
The Gorgons, serpent - locked, abhorred of men,
Whom never mortal sees and keeps his breath.
Such as I tell thee are the guardians there.
But hearken to another hateful sight.
Against the voiceless, keen-fanged hounds of Zeus,
The griffins, guard thee, and the one-eyed host
Of Arimaspian horsemen, who abide
By the gold-flowing source of Pluto’s stream;
Approach them not.
The farthest land thou ’lt reach,
And a black race, who near to Helios’ springs
Inhabit, where the river Aithiops is.

This river Aithiops (that is Niger, Black) is shown by the context to be merely the upper course of the Nile, which the ancients believed took its rise in the Far East. Even Alexander and his followers fancied the Hydaspes was the upper portion of the Nile! The latter name was especially applied to the stream from the last cataract downward.

Creep by his banks, till to the cataract
Thou comest, where the Nile his current sweet
And holy from the Bybline mountains sends.
He ’ll lead thee to the land triangular,
Neilotis, where the distant colony
Thou, Io, and thy children are to found.
If aught hereof is dark or hard to guess,
Ask yet again, and clearly learn the whole.

The chorus again reminds Prometheus of his promise to reveal whom Zeus will be tempted to wed, but their words serve merely to afford a moment’s rest to the exhausted protagonist.

Cho. If thou hast aught, remaining or passed by,
To tell her of her fateful wanderings,
Speak. But if all is said, then grant us too
The grace we seek and thou rememberest.
Prom. She has heard the goal of all her journey; yet
That she may know she-hearkens not in vain,
What she has suffered ere she hither fared
I ’ll tell, to prove the truth of mine account.
The greater mass of words will I omit,
And reach at once her wanderings’ very close.

Accordingly, Prometheus does not tell how Io passed from her Argive home to Epirus. The Suppliants, the only extant drama of Æschylus which has not been already mentioned in the present essay, deals with the fortunes of Io’s descendants, the Danaides. The tale of their ancestress’ wanderings is taken up in a choral ode of the play, but the account cannot he reconciled with the present one, nor will it serve to fill the gap at this point.

For when thou hadst approached Molossian lands,
And steep Dodona, where is the abode
And oracle also of Thesprotian Zeus,
And, marvel past belief, the talking oaks,
(By which thou plainly, not in riddles, wert
Saluted as the illustrious spouse of Zeus,)
Then, gadfly-driven, thou didst rush along
The seaside road to Rhea’s mighty gulf,
And thence returning now art tempest-tost.

Rhea’s gulf is the Adriatic. By “ returning ” can only be meant turning inland again from the sea, or perhaps facing about eastward toward Prometheus’ place of torture.

In time to come shall that sea-gulf be called,
Know well, Ionian; a memorial
Unto all mortals of thy wanderings.

An ancient writer is rarely fortunate in his ventures into etymology. The Adriatic was called the Ionian gulf, it is true, but not from Io.

This of my wisdom is a proof to thee,
Which more than is apparent doth behold.
The rest to you and her at once I ’ll tell,
Returning to the track of former words.

Accordingly, he now describes in some detail the fortunes of Io after reaching the delta, and of her posterity: —

Canobos, outmost city of the land,
Lies at the mouth and margin of the Nile.
And there will Zeus restore thy mind again,
Touching thee only with a hand unfeared.
And thou shalt bear — from Zeus’ begetting named —
Dark Epaphos, who will harvest all the land
That Nile with widening current overflows.

Æschylus fancies the name Epaphos is derived from a Greek verb (é¶а∅íσкɷ)), meaning to touch caressingly.

Fifth in descent from him, a female brood
Of fifty children shall unwilling come
To Argos, fleeing marriage with their kin,
Their cousins. But the suitors, mad at heart,
As hawks that follow close upon the doves,
Shall come to hunt the marriage which shall not
Be won. A god shall grudge them even life.
Pelasgia shall receive the maids; the youths
In deadly strife with women shall be quelled,
Wakeful and bold. His bride of life shall rob
Each man, and dip in blood the two-edged sword.

— So to my foes may Aphrodite come !

The last line is a fierce curse uttered by the tortured Titan, as he thinks of the similar danger to be brought upon his own arch enemy through wedlock. The incidents here alluded to occurred to the daughters of Danaus, and, as has been already mentioned, are treated in part by Æschylus in his early drama, the Suppliants.

But yet, one bride shall love beguile to spare
Her spouse, and dull the edge of her intent;
And this alternative will she prefer,
A coward to be called, not murderess.
In Argos she shall bear a kingly race.
To tell this clearly would much speech require ;
But from her seed shall spring a valiant one,
Famed with the bow; and he from this distress
Shall free me. Such a prophecy to me
My Titan mother, ancient Themis, gave :
But how, or where, long time ’t would need to tell,
And it will nothing profit thee to learn.

It is an interesting question — and one of the utmost importance in the tragic plot — just how much Prometheus is supposed to know in regard to his own future destiny. It is tolerably clear from the present passage that he has no unlimited prophetic insight of his own, but has simply been informed by Themis of the events to which he here alludes. He probably does not even know whether Zeus will actually escape the danger menacing him through Thetis or not. He apparently supposes that his own release through the agency of Heracles is to be a confession of error and injustice on Zeus’ part, and perhaps expects still to be free to save the king of gods from ruin, or to keep silence, at his own pleasure. Such questions are involved in some doubt, because we have lost the other plays of this trilogy.

Io now relapses into the frantic condition in which she arrived at the beginning of the scene, and with these wild words she rushes away upon her long journey : —

Woe is me ! Woe is me !
The spasm again and the madness wild
Are burning me, and the unforged dart Of the gadfly stings!
My heart in terror is smiting my breast;
Mine eyes are rolling as whirls a wheel.
Now forth from my course on the furious breath
Of frenzy I rush, not ruling my tongue;
And at random are striking the gloomy words
On the hateful billows of Atè !


This closes the third and last episode. The third Stasimon is a fervent prayer of the sea-nymphs to be spared such a lot as Io’s : —


Chorus. Wise, ah, truly wise was he
Whoso first in thought did ponder well
And in language told the tale,
That an equal match is better far. Not with them that in their wealth delight,
Nor with those exalted, by their birth,
Should the humbler one desire to wed.
Never, nevermore, I pray,
May ye, Moirai, see me drawing near,
As his bride, the couch of Zeus. May I no Uranian suitor wed !
Io’s unbeloved virginity,
Shuddering, utterly devoured I see
By Jar-wandering toils, from Hera sent!
Not of wedlock in an equal station,
Free from terrors, is my dread ;
Butt lest Passion from the gods supernal
Gaze on me with eye that none may shun !
This a war is, not to be contested,
Working what may not, be wrought ! I know
What my fate may prove ! Nor can I see
Whither I the craft of Zeus might fly !

In the first portion of the Exodos the sea-nymphs and Prometheus are alone. The latter is so excited by the scene with Io that he now breaks forth into words even more rash and presumptuous than heretofore.


Prom. Zeus surely, though so arrogant of soul,
Shall yet be humbled ; such a marriage he
Devises, which will cast him forth from power
And throne into oblivion. Kronos’ curse
Shall even then completely be fulfilled,
Uttered as from his ancient throne he fell.
A refuge from these woes, except myself,
None of the gods could clearly show to him.
I know the means and way. So let him sit
Secure, and trust his thunder high aloft,
Brandishing in his hands the fiery bolt.
For these may naught avail, but he shall fall, —
A shameful fall, and unendurable.
So great a foe he now himself prepares
Against himself, most dread, invincible.

The following lines refer to the son whom Thetis would bear, if wedded to a divinity: —

He shall a stranger flame than lightning find,
A roar which thunder mightily excels :
And this shall rout the pest, that shakes the earth,
The trident of the sea, Poseidon’s spear.

The allusion to the trident is out of place here, as Poseidon has not been referred to until now. These lines are, in fact, a clear reminiscence of the passage cited from Pindar’s ode early in the present essay, in which Themis warns Zeus and Poseidon not to wed Thetis. Though ÆEschylus transfers the custody of this secret to Prometheus, and leaves Poseidon quite out of the tale, he cannot refrain from borrowing this striking poetic passage.

Unto this evil fallen, Zeus shall learn
How wide are power and slavery apart.
Chorus. ’T is but thy wish for Zeus thou utterest!
Prometheus. Both what shall be, and my desire, I tell.
Cho. Ought we to look for one to master Zeus ?
Prom. And harder tasks than mine shall he endure!
Perhaps the sea-nymph gives a timid glance skyward, as she replies : —
How dost thou fear not, uttering such words?
Prom. What should I dread, who am not doomed to die ?
Cho. Yet he might give thee bitterer tasks than these.
Prom. So let him do. All is by me foreseen.
Cho. They who to Adrasteia how are wise!
Prom. Revere! Adore! Fawn on the ruler still!
But less than naught is my regard for Zeus.
Let him for this brief season act and reign
As he desires. He rules not long the gods.

Certainly at this point in the tragedy no ancient auditor could escape the conviction that Prometheus is fatally in the wrong. This last prophecy is not only impious, nut untrue, thus at once falsifying his vain boast, —

All is by me foreseen.

Even the sympathy which was excited by his awful suffering is largely alienated just now by this rude outburst against his gentle and devoted friends. The dramatist makes us see the truth concerning his hero just before the final catastrophe. Prometheus’ next words announce the beginning of the end: —

But yonder I descry Zeus’ courier,
Who is the youthful tyrant’s messenger.
Surely to bring new tidings he is come.

Hermes now enters, doubtless descending from above. He haughtily addresses Prometheus: —

Thou wondrous wise, exceeding bitter one,
Who wrong’st the gods, bestowing gifts upon
Ephemeral men, —the theft of fire I mean, —
The father bids thee make that marriage known,
Vaunted of thee, through which he falls from power.
And this not enigmatically speak,
But all the truth. On me do not impose
A double journey; and thou seest that Zeus Is nowise lenient unto deeds like these.

The heroic rebel hurls hack defiance at his tormentors, in words that yet stir the pulses of men who admire courage and proud endurance : —

Pompously mouthed, indeed, and full of pride
Thy tale, as fits the servants of the gods!
Young are ye, young your power, and ye expect
To hold your towers untroubled. Have I not
Beheld two monarchs driven from them forth ?
The third, too, who now governs, I shall see:
Most shamefully and swiftly! Do I seem
To dread and cower before the youthful gods ?
Nay, far indeed from that am I!
And thou,
Speed back again the road which thou hast come.
Naught shalt thou learn whereof thou questionest me.
Hermes, Even before, by wisdom like to this,
Amid these tortures thou hast anchored thee!
Prom. Thy servile duty with my wretchedness,
Be thou full well aware, I would not change.
Better, methinks, to serve this rock, than be The trusty messenger of father Zeus!
So to insult the insolent is fit.
Herm. Thou revelest in thy present lot, it seems.
Prom. I revel ? So may I behold my foes
Reveling: and of them I count thee one !
Herm. Dost thou accuse me, too, for thy mishaps ?
Prom. I — in plain words — hate all the gods whoso
Return me wrongful harm for benefits.
Herm. I hear thee rave in frenzy nowise mild.
Prom. Ay, if ’tis frenzy to abhor our foes.
Herm. If fortunate, thou wouldst be unbearable !

This allusion draws a sigh from the Titan, for which he is taunted by the messenger god: —

Prom. Alas!
Herm. That is a word Zeus does not know!
Prom. Time teaches all things, as he older grows.
Herm. But thou not yet hast learned to be discreet.
Prom. Else thee, a servant, I had not addressed.

Decidedly worsted in this verbal fencing, Hermes returns to his proper mission, with the words, —

What Zeus commands thou art not like to say.
Prom. I should, indeed, return the thanks I owe!

Something in the bitter mockery of this line makes it cut more deeply than the ruder words before, for Hermes exclaims, —

Thou dost revile me, as I were a child!
Prom. Art thou not childish, and more foolish yet,
If thou expectest aught from me to learn ?
There is no outrage, no device, whereby
Zeus shall impel me to that utterance,
Ere my dishonorable bonds are loosed.
And so, then, let the lurid flame be hurled ;
With white-winged snow and rumblings of the earth
Let him confound and frighten everything.
For none of these shall bend my will to tell
By whom he is doomed to be cast out from power.

The dread sounds and sights alluded to by Prometheus have no doubt already begun.

Herm. See now if this shall seem to avail for thee!
Prom. This was foreseen and thought of long ago.

In Hermes’ next words we hear something like a tone of pity for the courageous foe : —

Venture, O rash one, venture thou, for once,
In these thy sorrows to be truly wise.
Prom. Thou wear’st me, like a wave, with pleadings vain.
Never suppose that, dreading the decree
Of Zeus, I would grow womanish at heart,
And would beseech that most detested one,
With feminine upliftings of the hands,
To free me from these bonds! Far, far from that!
Herm. Much, yet in vain, it seems, I speak.
By prayers
Thou ’rt nowise melted, nor made soft of heart.
Champing the bit, even as a colt new yoked,
Thou fightest violently against the reins.
In thy weak wisdom thou ’rt presumptuous;
For arrogance, in one not truly wise,
Even less than nothing of itself avails.
Bethink thee, if thou yield not to my words,
How great a storm and treble wave of ills
Inevitable comes on thee. For first
This jagged cleft with thunder and the flame
Of lightning shall the father smite, and hide Thy form. An arm of rock shall hold thee fast.
A mighty length of time shalt thou complete, And come again to light.

This time upon Mount Caucasus. It is not clear what poetical end is attained by this violent burial of the immortal culprit, and his resurrection, long afterward, in another land. It appears like a desperate device to reconcile the rival claims of two localities, since either form of the myth was too widespread to be ignored. Later antiquity connected Prometheus’ torture rather with the Caucasus, and in the poem of Apollonius Rhodius the Argonauts hear his groans as they sail the Euxine.

The wingèd hound
Of Zeus, the dusky eagle, ravenously
Shall rend the mighty fragments from thy frame,
Stealingunsummoned to his all-day feast.
Upon thy blackened liver he shall feed.
Expect no limit to such agony
Until a god appears to bear thy pains,
Willing to rayless Hades to depart,
Amid the gloomy depths of Tartaros.

This seemingly impossible condition was to be fulfilled through the centaur Chiron, who, incurably wounded, through accident, by Heracles’ poisoned arrow, gladly surrendered his immortality to escape his pain.

Thereon deliberate; because this vaunt
Is not invented, but most truly said.
The mouth of Zeus knows not to speak deceit,
But every word shall be fulfilled. Do thou
Consider well and ponder; nor suppose
Willfulness ever better is than prudence.
Cho. To us it seems that Hermes fittingly
Has spoken; for he bids thee to put off
Thy willfulness, and for wise prudence seek.
Obey, since for the sage to err is shame.

The voice of the chorus, here as elsewhere, must be accepted as the general voice of the community, so to speak, and approximately as the voice of the poet himself. The sea-nymphs love and admire Prometheus: they are ready to share all perils with him; but his stubbornness is unwise, and his arrogance is sinful: —

Prom. These tidings he unto me proclaims,
Who knew them well; and to suffer wrong,
A foe from foemen, is no disgrace.
Therefore upon me lot there be cast
The curling flash of the forkèd flame ;
Let the ether with thunder be roused, and the shock
Of savage winds. May the blast upstir
From her foundations the rooted earth.
May the wave of the sea, with its eager surge,
Cover the paths of the heavenly stars;
And, uplifting me aloft, may Zeus
Into darksome Tartaros cast my form,
Into Necessity’s merciless whirl.
At least he will not destroy me!
Herm. Such are the counsels and words, indeed,
To be heard from those who are smitten in soul!
For how far short does his destiny fall
Of frenzy ? How is it than madness less ?
(To the sea-nymphs.) But ye, at least, who sympathize
In his calamities, get ye forth
Somewhither, straightway, out of the land,
For fear that ye may be struck to the heart By the merciless roar of the thunder.
Cho. Speak and suggest aught else unto me,
And persuade me thereto; for surely the word Thou utterest is not endurable.
Why dost thou bid me the coward to play ?
With him I would suffer whatever must be!
For the treacherous I have learned to abhor;
Nor is there a vice
That I more than this have detested !
Herm. Why, then, remember what I foretell ;
And do not, when hunted by Atè down,
Be wroth at fate, nor ever declare
That into calamities unforeseen
Ye of Zeus were plunged.
Not so ; but ye by yourselves alone.
For with fullest knowledge, not hastily,
Nor secretly,
In Atè’s web, whence none escape,
By folly shall ye be entangled !
Prom. But now, not merely in words, but in deed,
Has the earth been tost.
The thunder’s sea-born echo roars.
The flashes of lightning, full of flame,
Are shining forth.
The whirlwinds are driving the dust around,
And the breaths of all the winds that blow On each other leap,
Revealing the strife of opposing blasts.
The ether is with the sea confused.
Such is the storm that, sent from the lord,
Inspiring dread, falls clearly on me.
O reverend Mother, O Ether that rolls
The light that is common to everything,
Behold how unjustly I suffer!

In the storm which he himself so vividly describes, Prometheus sinks from sight, cliff and all, and thus the play abruptly ends. Hermes has, doubtless, already withdrawn, rising aloft after his last words. The chorus share Prometheus’ fate, and vanish into the earth with him.

This play, when originally performed, was followed immediately by the Prometheus Loosed. Of that drama many fragments are preserved by later writers ; the longest one through a metrical Latin translation by the orator Cicero. From these fragments, and from allusions in the play we have just read, the outline of the Prometheus Loosed can be discerned. The scene is laid on Mount Caucasus, thirteen mortal generations later than the events described in the Prometheus Bound. The chorus was composed of Titans released from Tartaros ; their appearance in freedom on earth being in itself a token of reconciliation, and of Zeus’ gentleness, now that his throne is more secure. Heracles comes, with Zeus’ permission, to shoot the eagle and release Prometheus, but the latter must first promise that he will immediately afterward reveal his fatal secret, and release Zeus from this vague dread. A complete restoration of harmony between Prometheus and Zeus must have followed.

In the most ancient manuscript of Æschylus’ seven plays, at Florence, is preserved an alphabetical catalogue of seventy-three tragedies which were apparently known to an ancient transcriber. This tantalizing list includes Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Fire-Bearer, Prometheus Loosed. The order of mention, of course, proves nothing; and, indeed, we have positive ancient statements that our play immediately preceded the Prometheus Loosed. It is very generally accepted that the three plays formed an organic whole. The prevailing belief has been that the Prometheus FireBearer came first, and described the theft of fire. But two, at least, of the latest and best commentators, Westphal and Wecklein, have upheld, very persuasively, a different arrangement. They contend that our Prometheus does not require, and hardly permits, a preliminary drama, being quite self-explanatory ; and they assert that the FireBearer closed the trilogy. Fire-Bearer is the regular title of Prometheus in the state religion of Attica, and such a closing play might well have ended with the joyful reception of the Titan god by the Athenians into their state cult, where he had an honorable place in close association with the firegod, Hephaistos.

Curiously enough, only a single line of the Fire-Bearer has been preserved, and that one does not settle the discussion. It is simply,—

“Mute where 't is fit, and uttering timely words,”

and is cited by Aulus Gellius.

But a trivial remark of the ancient Greek annotator upon our play is very important to this question. Upon line 94 of the Prometheus Bound,

“Wasting away through unnumbered years,”

this scholiast adds : “ For in the Prometheus Fire-Bearer he declares himself to have been bound (δϵδϵσδаι) thrice a myriad years.” The use of the perfect infinitive is a distinct proof that the FireBearer followed the other plays, and can be avoided only by supposing that the Commentator’s pen slipped, and that he meant to say, “ In the Prometheus Loosed.”

A careful reading of the last play of Æschylus’ great Oresteian trilogy, the Eumenides, in which the baffled and enraged Furies are conciliated, and finally take up their permanent abode in a sacred cave at the foot of the Areopagus, will give the reader a very good idea of the manner in which Æschylus might, and probably did, treat the Prometheus myth in a similar final drama.1

But of one point we may in any case be quite certain. Not merely the superior power, but the higher wisdom and justice, of Zeus from the beginning became evident to every spectator, as the poet believed that they were made clear to the great sufferer himself. Our sympathies are drawn inevitably to Prometheus. Indeed, later antiquity doubtless had the same feeling, else why is this act of the great drama, in which Prometheus has the last word and seems so nearly innocent, alone preserved for us, although the picture of the Titan on Caucasus, tortured by the vulture and released by Heracles, was far more familiar in ancient literature and art ? Doubtless because Prometheus still defiant and confident in the justice of his cause pleased the later Greeks better than the scene of penitence and humility.

There is no especial need to defend the popular Hellenic conception of Zeus. “ Great Pan is dead ! ” and all the Greek world of mythic gods has crumbled into nothingness with him. But Æschylus is still a living voice among men, and it should not be forgotten that he had as earnest and unquestioning a faith in the eternal goodness and wisdom as Whittier himself. If lie could know that many of his noblest and wisest modern hearers bid us approve and emulate his defiant, unrepentant rebel, he would receive it as Milton would have received the remark of a gallant English nobleman who had just read the opening hooks of Paradise Lost, and who, on being asked his opinion of the Miltonic Satan, exclaimed, " A mighty fine fellow, and I hope he ’ll win ! ”

The closing portion of the fine soliloquy of Prometheus on the Rock, written forty-five years ago by the poet Lowell, illustrates the prevailing sympathy and admiration for the heroic Titan ; and it also exemplifies the inevitable tendency of modern man to turn such a conception as Prometheus back again into an allegory : only, the influence of Christian thought, directing the eyes of the soul inward upon itself, and making the individual the supreme object of interest, is at work here as everywhere.

. . . Therefore, great beart, bear up! Thou art, but type
Of what all lofty spirits endure, that fain Would win men back to strength and peace through love:
Each hath his lonely peak, and on each heart
Envy, or scorn, or hatred, tears lifelong
With vulture beak ; yet the high soul is left;
And faith, which is but hope grown wise ; and love
And patience, which at last shall overcome.

It is not to be questioned that such treatment of Greek myths in the hands of modern men of genius and wisdom has a precious value of its own. Often a deeper and nobler significance than the classic poet ever dreamed may thus be gained for us.

An elaborate discussion of such modern poems on the theme of the Promethean myth lies, however, wholly beyond our present scope. It is the single aim of this paper to make the drama of Æschylus intelligible to a thoughtful modern reader essentially as it was received by the poet’s contemporaries, so far as our fragmentary knowledge makes this still possible. To this end, the one constant and unmistakable element in Æschylus’ creed, as stated and illustrated in every drama, must be kept always in mind: —

The world is governed by infinite wisdom and unfailing justice. Men err fatally who impute to the gods the petty jealousies or weaknesses of humanity. What seems to our eyes injustice is but a partial and distorted view of the cycle through which the divine purpose sweeps.

William Cranston Lawton.

  1. For the sake of completeness it may be mentioned that Æschylus wrote still a fourth, play on this subject. It was a satyr drama, or serio-comic afterpiece, and was appended to a group of tragedies upon a totally different subject, namely, the trilogy of which the extant Persians formed a part. This is undoubtedly the play alluded to by an ancient author under the title Prometheus Fire-Kindler. Like most of the satyr dramas, it had already disappeared when the list of plays mentioned above was drawn up.