Tragic Emotion in the 5th-Century Athenian Prometheus Bound

face of a prisoner

Created in competition for acclaim, the fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound doesn’t merely represent terrible suffering. Prometheus Bound profoundly examines the timeframe and plotting of emotions. Prometheus Bound includes stories of suffering. It also includes representations of suffering day after day. The ancient Greeks believed that grief could arise only from unexpected occurrences. A public sentence of punishment, like the plot of a known story, provides foresight of pain. Prometheus Bound insists on suffering and grief from foreseen pain. It insists on personal accountability for known plots of punishment.

Within Prometheus Bound, Io tells the story of her father’s terrible action against her. Io tells that dreams tormented her with “soft, seductive voices.” They urged her to go out into a grassy meadow and there satisfy Zeus’s sexual passion for her. Unable to free herself from these dreams, Io revealed them to her father. Her father consulted the gods through the renowned oracles at Delphi and Dodona. After some “riddling, muddled oracles,” a clear message came from Delphi: banish your daughter “from your house, / from your country, / let her wander the wide Earth to its / very ends.”^ Io’s father, with tears in his eyes, banished Io from home and country. She immediately was transformed into a cow, maddened, stung by a gadfly, chased into the meadow, and then across the world, all the while suffering terribly. Io’s story briefly describes this horrible family drama. Io’s story is like those that tragic performances enact at length.

Io’s story draws strong, immediate emotional reaction from the chorus. The chorus responds in pain and fear, with non-verbal ejaculations, and then with aversive words:

I can’t listen!
Can’t listen!
Terrible words
I never thought to hear!
Horrible story, horrible!
I can’t watch,
can’t see it!^

Throughout Prometheus Bound, Io represents a human transformed into a terribly suffering animal. The unusual meter of this sudden, frenzied choral response sympathetically matches that of Io’s entrance into the play.^ That meter represents emotion that changes persons’ attention and physical position.

In addition to being associated with Io’s disfigured character, the chorus’s emotional response is marked as disordered temporally. Prometheus responds to the chorus:

You cry out too soon.
Hold off your moans and fears
till you hear what’s to come.^

The chorus immediately affirms Prometheus’s response and implores Prometheus to speak about the future:

Speak, instruct; for the sick take comfort, in fact,
In knowing fully and clearly what suffering remains.^

The Greek text uses the word didaske. That word has the same root as didaskalos. Didaskalos was the term for the tragic poet. It was associated with instruction. The persons who are sick, who are suffering, and who need to be instructed, are not just the chorus. They are also Io, Prometheus, and the city gathered at the Dionysian festival for the performance of Prometheus Bound. The chorus’s response acknowledges that current circumstances alone do not determine the appropriateness of emotions. For the ancient Greeks, emotions must be judged with respect to events over time.

Some fifth-century Athenians believed that expecting undesirable events makes them easier to endure if they occur. In a fifth-century Athenian tragedy by Euripides, the Athenian hero Theseus praised rehearsal of future ills to lessen their impact:

I learned this from a wise man: over time
I pondered in my heart the miseries
to come: a death untimely, or the sad
escape of exile, or some other weight
of ill, rehearsing, so that if by chance
some one of them should happen, I’d not be
unready, not torn suddenly with pain.^

Theseus, the legendary founder-king of Athens, notably displays within Athenian tragedy the compassionate grief characteristic of it.^ A school of thought in fourth-century Athens explicitly taught that grief results only from unexpected occurrences.^ Expecting undesirable events was an inoculation against grief. That cure doesn’t require foresight. It requires only the ability to imagine horrors.

Prometheus Bound mocks imagination of horrors. Io, just after ending her tragic story and just before the chorus’s emotional eruption, implores Prometheus:

What’s left to suffer, indicate it. Don’t out of pity
Try to soothe me with lying words: the most shameful
Sickness is, I say, to fabricate stories.^

Io seeks a cure for her suffering. In response, Prometheus narrates exotic, horrible spectacles loosely related to Io’s future wanderings. To the east:

Skythian nomads who live in the air in
wicker huts on ox-carts with
sturdy wheels. Beware,
these people are archers who kill from
great distances.

Then to the southwest:

Here you will find the daughters of Phorkeus,
three ancient virgins who
share one eye and one tooth, and whose
hair is as white as a swan.
Neither sun nor moon has ever
seen them.
Near them their three sisters abide,
man-hating winged women with
snakes for hair, whom no one
looks on and survives.

Prometheus also describes “Chalybes, / iron workers … savages, and / death to strangers,” “Amazons, women warriors / who hate men,” “unbarking hounds with sharp beaks, / the Griffins,” and “the one-eyed Arimaspians, / horse warriors who live beside Pluto’s stream / that flows with gold.”^ A variety of late-fifth century sources indicate Athenians’ interest in sight-seeing.^ Since no later than Homer’s Odyssey, wandering was also associated with lying.^ Prometheus’s descriptions of Io’s future wanderings fabricate horrible sights to entertain the theatrical audience.^ In fifth-century Athens, a tragic performance typically invoked horror in a much different way.

Prometheus’s tale of Io’s wandering rapidly turns to events with prototypically positive affect. By Zeus’s gentle touch, Io will give birth to a son. Io’s son will gather a great harvest. A descendant of Io will fall passionately in love and rescue her lover from death. She will marry him and beget a line of Argive kings. From that line will come a famous archer-hero, Heracles, who will release Prometheus from his suffering. Release from suffering, marriage, new birth, and harvest are universal literary themes associated generally with romance.^ Prometheus’s story of Io’s wandering doesn’t support horror at length. It switches from horror to happiness in seconds.

Prometheus Bound questions the curative value of tales and foresight for emotional ills. In fifth-century Athens, tragedy generated horror and compassionate grief in its audience. By doing so, it served as instruction and medicine.^ Nonetheless, tragic plots typically were based on myths well-known to the audience. Within Prometheus Bound, Prometheus’s power of foresight doesn’t mitigate his suffering. Moreover, after Prometheus reveals in story Io’s future, Io exits in frenzied screaming, much like she entered.

Prometheus himself seems to lose interest in the tale he tells about Io. Prometheus initially presents his story of Io’s wanderings as having great importance. He instructs Io, “take my words to heart,” “Write them, / inscribe them in your mind, and / remember.” Prometheus wants Io to understand fully all the details:

If anything I’ve said has not been clear,
ask and I’ll explain.
I have the time,
and more than I would like.

Prometheus, however, ends his story with repeated concern about its length and lack of practical use:

To tell it all to you would be
a long tale,

How it will happen and when is too
long a tale to tell you,
and would be of no use to you.^

Fantastic tales tend to be episodic, of essentially unbounded length, and not of practical use. Ancient Greek tragedies, in contrast, usually had a unified plot, a diegetic span of usually no more than a day, and were regarded as being of great civic importance. Prometheus’s loss of interest in the tale he tells contrasts it with the more important activity of tragic performance.

Prometheus declares that speech acts should respect the natural state and time-course of emotions. Okeanos, long-winded and full of epigrams, says to Prometheus:

You know this, don’t you, Prometheus, that
Words are physicians for a sick disposition?

In response, Prometheus subordinates words to bodily state:

Yes, if you poultice the heart at the right moment
And not put pressure on a swollen spirit by force.^

Prometheus’s response distinguishes the task of the tragic poet from merely telling tales of horrors. Tragedy originally was intended to instruct and treat emotions. That is the central idea of catharsis.^ To serve as medicine for emotions, tragedy must work within bodily constraints. The tragic plot cannot, by the force of imitation alone, treat emotions. Unlike a tale, a tragic plot must develop in accordance with the body’s rhythm.

Prometheus’s subordination of words to the body’s emotional functioning was an idea that continued through Greco-Roman consolation literature. A fourth-century member of Plato’s Academy may have quoted Prometheus on choosing the right time to console a grief-stricken heart.^ ^ A third-century leader of the Stoic school echoed Prometheus’s belief that one should not attempt to treat freshly inflamed emotions.^ The first-century Roman statesman Cicero quoted both Okeanos’s and Prometheus’s couplets.^ Cicero himself struggled with intense grief following his beloved daughter’s death. The images in Prometheus’s statement about timing emotional treatment play confusingly in Cicero’s self-perception:

Now this grievous blow has again inflamed the wounds I thought healed.^

… my Consolation, which I composed in the midst of sorrow and pain, not being a wise person myself. I did what Chrysippus says one should not do: applied a remedy to the mind’s swelling while it was still fresh. I brought the force of nature to bear upon it, so that my great pain would give way to the greatness of the medicine. … different methods work for different people. In my Consolation, for instance, I combined virtually all these methods into a single speech of consolation. For my mind was swollen, and I was trying out every remedy I could. But with sickness of mind, no less than with those of the body, it is important to choose the right moment for treatment.^

The venerated Greco-Roman declares that never being born is best, and that the next best is to die as soon as possible.^ That declaration points to escape from human time. Io proposes this idealistic view to Prometheus. Prometheus rejects it as not being relevant to his actual circumstances as an immortal god.^ Concern about choosing the right time to treat emotions directs attention to bodily processes in time in order to improve the common practice of verbal consolation.

Prometheus’s sufferings are explicitly embedded within time. In Prometheus Bound, none of the characters who speak to Prometheus succeed in consoling him. The final visitor, Zeus’s messenger Hermes, warns Prometheus of Zeus’s eagle-hound:

the ravening eagle
will invite himself to your banquet,
tearing your flesh to ragged bits,
and all day long feast on your liver till it’s
black with his gnawing.^

Hermes tells Prometheus that this anguish will be continual. Because Prometheus is immortal, he cannot have the relief from pain that death brings. But Prometheus’s sufferings are not set in an immortal realm. As a fragment from Prometheus Unbound makes clear, Prometheus is denied healing in mortal time:

And always on the third day, for me, the light of day
is black,
when Zeus’s horrible pet glides in at me –
that digs in with crookt claws
gouging out
her feast, until her crop’s
bloated, rich with liver.
wheeling skyward … her tail feathers
drag through blood,
my blood.
And once again, my rag of a liver
swells up like new, and again
the bloodthirsty banqueter comes back for more.^ ^ ^

Prometheus’s wounds are continually inflamed and continually made fresh in the human timeframe of days.

A Greek epic poem from the third-century BCE registers the ancient emotional force of the eagle’s assaults on Prometheus. The poem decorously describes visually only the eagle:

This creature they glimpsed at evening, flying over the ship’s topmast,
cloud-high, with sharp-whirring pinions; yet despite its distance
it shook all the sails with its wing-beats, speeding past.
For it did not share the nature of birds of the heavens,
but the long quill-feathers it flapped were like polished oars.
And not long after they heard the agonized outcry
of Prometheus, as his liver was lacerated: the clear air
rang with his screams, till they saw the eagle speeding
back the same way from the mountain and its feast of raw flesh.^

The eagle, huge and lethal, makes the ship’s sails shake, as would the reader. In the Prometheus Unbound fragment, the eagle, pushing skyward, drags its tail feathers through Prometheus’s blood. That image transforms from water to blood the Homeric description of “long slim oars, / wings that make ships fly.”^ The tormented Prometheus, demeaned to being food for an animal, is rowed over. The epic poem can bear only to allude to this horror: “the long quill-feathers it flapped were like polished oars.”

Surviving Greco-Roman visual art showing Prometheus is heavily weighted toward his suffering. Salient events in myths concerning Prometheus are his theft of fire from the Gods, his transmission of fire to humans, his gifts of other technologies and arts to humans, his chaining, his liberation, and his creation of humans from clay. About 50% of surviving visual artifacts of Prometheus depict him enchained or just liberated.^ Moreover, some of the artifacts showing Prometheus suffering date from the seventh century BCE. The earliest surviving visual representations of Prometheus’s creation of humans, theft of fire, or gifts to humans date from about 300 BCE.^ Most of the images of Prometheus enchained or just liberated communicate suffering, deprivation, and humiliation. A Roman orator declaimed:

Paint Prometheus – but paint him creating man, paint him distributing fire; paint him, but amid his gifts rather than amid his agonies.^

His rhetoric had a historical point. A fragment of fifth-century Greek poetry, possible from Prometheus Pyrkaeus (Prometheus the Firekindler) describes joyous remembrance of Prometheus’s acts:

The nymphs, I know full well, shall join their dances in honour of Prometheus’ gift!

Sweet, I think, will be the song they sing in honour of the giver, telling how Prometheus is the bringer of sustenance and the eager giver of gifts to men^

Despite the possibility of depicting a variety of joyous scenes, visual representations of Prometheus predominately showed Prometheus suffering.

Representations of Philoctetes and Heracles indicate the distinctiveness of Prometheus’s suffering. Philoctetes received Heracles’s bow and quiver at Heracles’s immolation on Mt. Oita. Philoctetes was bitten on the foot by a snake and abandoned on an island. He eventually participated in the sack of Troy. Sophocles’s tragedy Philoctetes powerfully evokes Philoctetes’s pathetic suffering. Aeschylus and Euripides also wrote tragedies named Philoctetes. About two-thirds of surviving Greco-Roman visual representation of Philoctetes shown him wounded or being wounded. However, many of these images also represent Philoctetes’s strength and virility as a warrior. Overall, visual representation indicating pathetic suffering or calling for compassionate grief are less prevalent and less compelling for Philoctetes than for Prometheus.^ Heracles, the most commonly represented figure in surviving Greco-Roman visual art, suffered excruciatingly. Heracles’s suffering and death was the subject of Sophocles’s tragedy, Trachiniae. Among about 3,500 surviving Greco-Roman representations of Heracles, none shows Heracles suffering terribly.^

Visual representations of Prometheus specifically indicate his suffering. Sixth-century Greek painted images of Prometheus suggest that he is impaled on a stake going from his buttocks on ground level to the back of his head. He’s typically naked with legs folded. Thus he’s depicted in a low position of bodily compression and exposure.^ The eagle attacking Prometheus is human-sized in several images and usually digs into Prometheus at the middle of his torso. Some images show blood dripping from Prometheus.^ Sculptors, apparently keen to include the tormenting eagle, carved a standing Prometheus with one thigh raised. The sculpted eagle was attached to Prometheus’s raised thigh. From there the eagle digs into Prometheus’s chest.^ ^

Tragic performances in fifth-century Athens, especially Prometheus Bound, had lasting emotional effects. Plato and Aristotle analogized the effects of performed poetry to the effects of drugs.^ ^ ^ Drugs typically work on time scales of hours and days. Tragic performances at the fifth-century Athenian City Dionysia generated emotions of horror and grief over hours and days. Prometheus Bound represented in tragic performance enduring suffering like suffering through a sentence of punishment.

Prometheus Bound contrasts the emotional experience of punishment with much more rapid movement through a story’s sentences. Io’s recounting of her history offers tragedy as a short story. Prometheus’s foretelling of Io’s future rapidly moves through a wide range of emotions. In the middle of the first century BCE, a Roman jurist advised his grief-stricken friend Cicero:

Do not be like a bad physician, who professes medical knowledge to his patients but does not know how to treat himself. … There is no grief that is not lessened or softened by the passage of time. For you to wait for this time to pass, instead of anticipating the results by your own good sense, does you discredit.^

In other words, Cicero should rationally anticipate and simulate the effects of the passage of time. The creator of a symbolic work can anticipate the passage of time and move the work’s sense rapidly across a wide range of emotions. The stories told within Prometheus Bound exemplify this technique. Prometheus Bound as a whole also disparages that technique. Fifth-century Athenian tragedies were meant to stimulate emotions of fear and pity for hours and days.

Prometheus Bound is not unusual among fifth-century Athenian tragedies in its emotional dynamics. Recent scholarship on tragic pathos has claimed the distinctiveness of Prometheus Bound:

Prometheus Bound is an unusual play in many respects; perhaps most remarkably, it presents the continuous suffering of the Titan on stage and various internal models of viewing this suffering. … pity in the play appears to require direct participation in a sufferer’s misfortune rather than involvement mediated by imagination, which Aristotle prefers.^

The bodily dynamics of emotions that festival participants experienced from Prometheus Bound weren’t unusual. Those emotional dynamics were an important and historically distinctive feature of all fifth-century Athenian tragedies.

Prometheus Bound is unusual in the directness of its political relevance to ordinary Athenians. Like a known plot, a public sentence of punishment provides foresight of pain. Prometheus Bound presents at length suffering and grief from foreseen pain. It insists on personal response to the suffering and grief of persons being punished.

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