I recently read Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound for the first time. It was good, like, very good in a way I wasn’t expecting. I wasn’t expecting bad, but it was moving in a way that reading, for example, Hesiod isn’t. But I also don’t know if Hesiod was setting out to wow an audience with The Theogeny in the same way Aeschylus was with his play. 🤷
Whatever the case, I came here to quote from the introduction of Prometheus Bound. Regarding the play as something that was for the Greek mind representing history, Philip Vellacott, the translator, wrote:
The transition from the primitive to the civilized world, from the life of nomadic tribes and village settlements to that of walled cities and organized states, was doubtless a gradual and barely perceptible process spread over several centuries and large expanses of land. Individuals who noted such change, however, must generally have associated it with sudden and memorable event—an invasion, a siege, a massacre, a migration. So this stage in the development of Greek social order had its mythical counterpart in the story of a violent dynastic change among the gods.
Prometheus stealing fire and delivering of it to humans results in nothing less than civilization itself. This, though, is a direct challenge to and undermining of Zeus’s authority. And so in “a wilderness without a footprint” he’s nailed to a rock in the “unyielding grip of adamantine chains.” And he won’t be released from the “blacksmith’s masterpiece” until he will “accept the sovereignty of Zeus / And cease acting as champion of the human race.”
But, to return to the translator’s quote. this was a different way to understand myth making as an explanation for a technical advance that might seem unexplainable. It’s not an overstatement to say that understanding the control of fire by early humans is an entire field unto itself. Fire matters. A lot. So it’s easy to imagine someone without that historical knowledge wondering: how’d we end up mastering something so crucial that it’s arguably one of the things that may have enabled human evolution itself?
The Greeks didn’t know that “intact sediments at the site of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa, provide unambiguous evidence—in the form of burned bone and ashed plant remains—that burning took place in the cave during the early Acheulean occupation.” So in the absence of that information, they figured: it had to be someone really, really awesome. And that for them meant someone who prolly wasn’t human.
And Prometheus is super awesome. He lists all he’s done for humankind—from gifting us with reason, numbers, writing, animal domestication, medicine, etc—and claims: “All human skill and science was Prometheus’ gift.” On top of that, he can see the future. His name means, as another character sarcastically quips as he’s being chained to the rock, “Wise-before-the-event.” Other translations include “Forethinker” and “forethought.” The taunting implication is, “Looks like Mr. Forethought didn’t see this coming.” He knew the theft would anger Zeus, but he confesses he didn’t think it’d be this bad: “I did not expect such punishment as this.” He knew he had to take one for the team, but not that he’d end up “the miserable sport of every wind” with his torments a joy, as he says, to his enemies.
Having forethought means that ultimately he’s prepared to suffer, tells us. The chorus, tho, doesn’t agree. They encourage him to dwell on the present and instead “think of some deliverance.” They believe in the power of positive thinking. Prometheus, though, doesn’t appreciate the injunction:
Oh, it is easy for the one who stands outside The prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one Who suffers. All you have said to me I always knew.
This resonated with me. In the midst of a tough time, when someone trots out advice like, keep your head up, etc., it can ring hollow. Yes, thinking positive thoughts is part of the solution, but in some cases circumstances are such that just thinking your way out isn’t sufficient. As Portia says in The Merchant of Venice:
If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.
Advice, Prometheus and Portia agree, is easier to dole out than it is to follow.