Study Guide

Prometheus in Prometheus Bound

By Aeschylus


All this time, and we're still not sure we want Prometheus on our side. The good? He seems to actually care about mortals. The bad? He seems to care more about himself. And here's the big question: did Prometheus bring mortals fire (and evidently ever other useful thing in the world) because he just felt so bad for us, or are we just a convenient excuse for him to stand up to Zeus?

Let's take a closer look.

Tell Me I'm Pretty

Look, we're grateful to Prometheus and all, but you have to admit the dude—er, god—is vain. As he lists all the awesome gifts he gave mortals—not just fire, but medicine, technology, and mining—he sums it up as "all the skills that mortals have come from Prometheus" (500-06).

And he doesn't just help out the mortals. He also advises the Titans, giving them the "best advice," and explains that "the victors should be those who excelled not in might nor in power than in guile" (204-221). Brains over brawn.

But do they listen? Nope. And you get the idea that Prometheus thinks that he could have prevented the entire celestial war if anyone had just listened to him.

Hey, maybe he's right. He does seem to know what's going on (that whole foreknowledge thing). But we have to admit that the way he talks about himself kind of rubs us the wrong way.

And that's probably because we're not ancient Greeks. Ancient Mediterranean cultures tended to see acquiring honor as the most important life task. Not being happy, not getting a bunch of money, and not inventing the next Facebook: acquiring honor. And that sometimes meant a little appropriate boasting. You wouldn't want to downplay anyone else's achievements, and you certainly wouldn't want to lie, but it was totally acceptable to talk yourself up—like an oral resume.

So maybe what Prometheus is doing isn't bragging but just making sure he gets his due as someone who's kind, brave, clever, and—above all—willing to stand up for what's right.

Don't Cry For Me, Oceanus('s Daughters)

Aside from the whole chained-to-a-rock thing, Prometheus does come across as someone you wouldn't mind bringing home to mom. (Well, the chained-to-a-rock thing and the whole "prophesying" thing, which is a little freaky.) Not only does he help out the mortals when Zeus is ready to "obliterate the race all together" (228-241), but he looks out for the ladies.

When the Chorus offers to intervene with Zeus on his behalf, he actually thanks them sweetly: "I thank you for that, and I shall never cease to be grateful… Keep quiet, and keep yourself out of harm's way. Even if my fortunes are poor, I wouldn't for that reason want suffering to strike as many others as possible!" (340-346). Since he doesn't use this moment to tell them how kind he is, he actually comes across as sincere: he genuinely doesn't want other beings to suffer.

And Now Tell Me I'm Smart

Prometheus has an ace in the hole: he can tell the future, and everyone wants to know the future: Zeus, the Chorus, Hermes—his knowledge is hot property, and it's the only thing keeping him alive.

This goes to show that Prometheus isn't just knowledgeable, he's clever: he knows what he knows, but more importantly he knows how to use it. When the Chorus needles him to reveal what he knows about Zeus's destiny, Prometheus says, "It is certainly not time to reveal this one—it must be kept as closely hidden as possible, because by keeping it safe I can escape this degrading bondage and pain" (519-525).

So what we get here is a contrast between Zeus and Prometheus. Zeus's power is all thunder and lightning and earthquakes: sure, it may look like wizardry, but he's all brute-force and tank-ish.

Prometheus, by contrast, is a wily mage (or something similarly think-y). He fights with his brain—and, in the long run, brains are going to win.

Is he right? Well, look around: no one worships Zeus any more, and, while we may not technically worship Prometheus—we bet you're reading this on a computer (or smartphone or tablet or something gadget-y).

Rebel With A Cause

Okay, but we still don't know why Prometheus is doing this. What's in it for him? What does he have against Zeus?

Zeus is a tyrant.

There, we said it. (And no lighting bolts. So far.) To Prometheus, Zeus is an upstart, tyrannous, slaver, and his ultimate fate is to learn "how far apart are rulership and slavery" (927). In other words, Prometheus is a rebel—a classic, old-fashioned, speaking-truth-to-power rebel.

Like the American colonists throwing off the British, or the French commoners executing Louis XVI, or the Libyan people deposing Muammar Gadaffi, Prometheus is standing up to what he sees as tyranny. And he's just biding his time until Zeus "fall[s] from his supreme power" (996).

But the problem is, we still can't really tell what Prometheus wants. He's already saved the mortals from "the fate of being shattered and going to Hades" (228-241), so now he's apparently just waiting for Zeus to, basically, apologize to him, to "pay compensation/ for this degrading treatment" (178-77).

Yeah. That doesn't sound too noble. In fact, it sounds a lot like what Prometheus really wants is for someone to worship him. He wants his power back. Remember, before the Olympians took over, Prometheus and his fellow Titans were large and in charge. Can you blame him for wanting to return to glory?


Well, we can't. We also can't blame him for being a little bummed out, or, as he says, having a "heart… eaten up with brooding" (436-442). He helped out the new gods, and all they did was turn on him. And remember, Prometheus created humans. They were his special little project, and Zeus was going to destroy them. No wonder he's sad.


If you're thinking that, after reading all this, you still don't feel like you know Prometheus too well—you're not alone. This play isn't designed to introduce Prometheus as a well-rounded, fully realized character. That's just not the style.

What's cool about Prometheus, though, is that he's become an almost universal symbol of (1) rebellion against autocratic authority, and (2) those who bring knowledge—usually scary, double-edged knowledge. Here are two famous examples:

  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was subtitled The Modern Prometheus. The scientist Dr. Frankenstein learned how to animate the dead: pretty cool, but also pretty freaky and, in the end, not such a good idea.
  • In this century, Ridley Scott's Prometheus told the story of an alien race that created humans—but left open the question of who, exactly, Prometheus was: the human scientists trying to discover their past? Or the alien race, who may have erred by creating humans?

Both these retellings are pretty ambiguous on whether or not Prometheus is a good guy doing humanity a solid—or actually just majorly messing things us. So what do you think? Is Prometheus out to save the world, or is he just out to save himself?