Prometheus Bound is a 5th century BC Greek tragedy attributed to the playwright Aeschylus. It recounts the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who defies the gods and gives fire to mankind. Prometheus is famously subjected to perpetual punishment for this kindness, becoming a precursor to rebel heroes of literature and popular culture, who stand against tyranny and suffer for the freedom of others.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Προμηθεύς, meaning “forethought”) is is credited with the creation of man from water and earth and for enabling the progress of civilization. Prometheus not only gives the gift of fire to mankind but he also teaches humanity all the civilizing arts, such as writing, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, architecture, and agriculture.
The Titans, of which Prometheus is one, were members of the second generation of divine beings in Greek mythology succeeding the primordial deities born from the void of Chaos. The Greek story of creation, much of which entails the violent warring between the primordial deities such as Gaia (earth), Uranus (sky) and Chronos (time) is said to have been adapted by Hesiod from eastern creation myths such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish.
The Titan Chronos (time) wins the primordial battle and establishes the Golden Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, (Theogony, 511–616) the Golden Age was an era when:
[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.
The peace of the Golden Age was upturned when Chronos was overthrown by his son Zeus, to establish the reign of the Olympians gods or the Silver Age of Greek mythology. According to Hesiod, the Titan Prometheus supported Zeus in his war against Chronos, however later undermined Zeus’s authority by thwarting his plan to obliterate the human race, and further helping humanity by stealing fire for them (Hesiod, Theogony, 565-566) .
Zeus sentences the Titan to eternal torment for his rebellion by ordering him to be bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the symbol of Zeus, was sent to eat his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day and forever. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, descendant of Zeus, slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from his torment (520–528).
In Hesiod’s account, Prometheus is no hero. He contributes to human suffering by gifting humanity fire and granting them independence from the gods, and loss of innocence. On the other hand, in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus is portrayed as the rebel with a conscience, whose crime – his love of the humans he created – brings not only the rage of the gods, but eternal suffering and the sympathy of the human audience.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Romantic artists admired the Promethean figure, using him a a foundation for the Romantic hero who, resisting the oppressive forms of society foresees a future in which all such repression will be overthrown. In light of the Napoleonic wars, the American war of Independence, the French Revolution and other struggles of the era, the emancipation of humanity from tyrannous rule was indeed topical and required a strong, emancipating hero.
Writers such as Byron’s saw Prometheus’ victory over the gods, in a metaphysical sense, as a refusal to submit to
‘the inexorable Heaven, / And the deaf tyranny of Fate’ (ll. 18–19),
and to go to one’s grave
‘Triumphant’ by ‘making Death a Victory’ (ll. 58–9).
As such the figure of Prometheus [bringer of fire] was compared with Milton’s defiant character Lucifer [bearer of light]for embodying the spirit of rebellion.
On the other hand, other Romantic writers saw the Promethean hero to prefigure Christ, as a divine being who suffers horrible tortures for the sake of mankind in face of the will of the gods. How then could one literary figure represent both Christ and Satan, holding qualities of both rebel and sacrificial hero?
Percy Shelley, writing Prometheus Unbound, posited that hatred narrows perception. He writes:
Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement
Shelley’s version of the Promethean hero focuses upon transformation, made possible by the act of forgiveness. While Byron’s retelling of the Promethean myth puts the emphasis exclusively upon defiance, Shelley’s hero forgives his oppressor, and suffers for his creation, setting in motion a process which leads to a new world, freed from oppression.
Writing to the political climate of his day, Shelley rejected the cycle within history of replacing one tyrant with another.
… until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.
As such Shelley’s Promethean hero, champions free will, goodness, hope and idealism in the face of oppression.
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.