December 2004

Andrea Kapsaski

Aeshylus-The Spirit of Revolution

There has always been a familiar type of young man. Usually well educated, not always the son of a rich or mighty family  (either working class or aristocracy), but hardly ever from the middle-class, the bourgeoisie. He has read a lot, heard a lot, his brain works in an analytic way and he is on the side of the suppressed and exploited, in any case, he is against the system. Young and angry as he is, he still has dreams and the vision of a better tomorrow, new ideas, some new ideology or the interpretation of existing laws and regulations. A revolution, a bad seed, a hope for those in need - and a very annoying subject in the eyes of power and authority. Or should I say Power and Force?

He receives (sometimes) a first warning, a second one maybe…and then, his time is over. The hour of judgement arrives. The hero gets his punishment, and if he still lives, he has the rest of his life to think about power, fate, destiny and the impossible task to go against it. We meet him all the time, down through history. And he becomes the symbol of freedom, sometimes without even intending to, he even becomes the initiator of a new religion and the reason for  terrible and unforeseen killing and disaster.

In any case, one of the oldest stories.

The pessimistic play of Aeschylus is the archetypal Prometheus Bound (our archetypal hero) in which the Titan god is chained to the rocks on a desolate mountain by order of Zeus, the new king of the gods, for having given fire to humanity.

He is more than just one of the first revolutionaries, he is THE revolutionary!

The subject of the play is the transgression of Prometheus, bringing fire to mankind, whereby they become no better, and confers on them other benefits (as he himself relates to the chorus when bound to the rocks). For love of mortals, he roused their reason; he taught them to make dwellings, showed them the stars, the use of numbers and writing. He tamed horses and built ships, taught the virtues of healing potions, the various modes of divination, and how to turn to account things dug out of the earth. It was he who taught mortals all they know. (" I made them stop focusing on their own mortal limitations. I made a home, within [them], for hopes about things that they could not see…")

As Power and Force (just look at these names) look on, the technical god Hephaestus, noting that new rulers are harsh, reluctantly fastens the chains against the will of Prometheus, a dreadful reward for having helped humans and angered the gods. Power, believing that only Zeus is free, accuses Prometheus of insolence, and wonders why his forethought, which is what the name of Prometheus means, did not avoid this fate. Prometheus admits that he did know before what would happen, but he also believes one cannot fight against destiny. He felt The Prometheus Bound is the representation of steadfast endurance under suffering, and, indeed, the immortal suffering of a god, banished to a desolate rock over the earth-encircling ocean. This play nevertheless takes place in the world, the Olympus of the gods, and earth's the abode of man, all scarcely yet reposing in a state of security over the precipitous abyss of the dark primeval powers of Titanism. The notion of a deity delivering himself up as a sacrifice has been mysteriously inculcated in many religions, as a confused foreboding of the true one, but here it stands in most fearful contrast with consolatory revelation. For Prometheus suffers not only in understanding of the Power that rules the world, but in atonement for his rebellion against that power, and this rebellion consists in nothing else than his design of making man perfect. Thus, he becomes a type of humanity itself, as, gifted with an unblessed foresight, riveted to its own narrow existence and destitute of all allies, it has nothing to oppose to the inexorable powers of nature arrayed against it, but an unshaken will and the consciousness of its own sublime pretensions.

Of exterior action there is little in this piece: from the commencement Prometheus suffers and resolves, he resolves and suffers the same throughout. But the poet has contrived in a most masterly manner to introduce vicissitude and progress into that which is irrevocably fixed, and to afford a measure of the unattainable grandeur of his sublime; Titan in the circumstances which surround him. First, the silence of Prometheus during the horrible process of his fettering under the rude superintendence of Strength and Force, against whose menaces Vulcan, their instrument, can only offer an unprofitable compassion; then his lonely complaining; the arrival of the femininely tender Oceanides, amidst whose timid lamentations he gives more free vent to his character, recounts the causes of his fall, and prophesies the future, which, however, with wise reserve, he but half reveals; then the visit of old Oceanus, a kindred god of Titanian extraction, who, under the show of wishing to be a zealous intercessor for him, counsels submission to Jupiter, and is therefore dismissed with proud disdain.

And just as Kronos overthrew his father Uranus and was defeated by his son Zeus, Prometheus foresees that Zeus may be challenged too unless he is allowed to join him in friendship. Prometheus left his Titan family to support Zeus, but tyrants do not trust their friends. Because Zeus was going to destroy humanity, Prometheus had to help them. First he gave them blind hope, then fire and crafts that made them masters of their minds and led to numbering for calculating and language for remembering, use of animals for work, medicine for healing, prophecy, and the use of metals, wisdom.


And wisdom, as all dictators know , soon brings unpleasant changes and these things must be stopped in the beginning.

Observe how the frenzy-driven wanderer comes before him, a victim to the same tyranny under which Prometheus lies subdued; how he prophesies to her, of her yet impending wanderings, and of her final destiny, which hangs connected to his own, inasmuch as from her blood, after many generations, a savoir shall arise to him; further how Hermes, as the messenger of the universal tyrant, with domineering menaces demands of him his secret, in what way Zeus is to be secured upon his throne against all the malice of Fate; how, at last, before the refusal is well-uttered, amidst thunder, lightning, storm and earthquake, Prometheus, together with the rock to which he is fettered, is swallowed down into the infernal world.

This play powerfully challenges the status quo religion, criticizing its tyranny and lamenting how foresight and human advances often bring suffering to their innovators.

Something still more than true in our day. And more dangerous than ever before. 

©2004 Andrea Kapsaski

Andrea Kapsaski is a Ph.D scholar, translator,
theatre and film producer.

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