Monday, January 01, 2007

P.'s Prescience

Forethought is an essential part of the Prometheus stories. In fact, the Greeks understood the name Προμηθεύς (Doric Προμᾱθευς, also in Attica Πρόμηθος) to come from προμηθής, προ + μητ/μανθ-, plan, know, and he had a brother Ἐπιμηθεύς, or Afterthought. In modern times some people have preferred other origins for his name: such as Sanskrit pramantha, firestick; or Pramatih, an epithet of Agni, perhaps meaning forethinker; or even Πραμανθεύς, an epithet of Zeus. Mark Griffith thinks that the original explanation of the Greeks is probably correct, and refers the reader to an article by V. Schmidt, Z.P.E. 19 (1975) 183-90, which I haven't yet seen.

In the drama, P. is given the role that Γῆ had in Hesiod's version, as the character who provided Zeus the advice which allowed him to lead the Olympians in overthrowing the Titans. One of the main threads in Prometheus Bound is the hinting and gradual revelation that P. has knowledge about the future of the reign of Zeus, and his refusal to share the information with the new ruler unless he is released from his bonds.

In lines 755 and 756, while speaking with Io, P. surprises her with these words:
νῦν δ᾽ οὐδέν ἐστι τέρμα μοι προκείμενον
μόχθων, πρὶν ἂν Ζεὺς ἐκπέσῃ τυραννίδος

[But now there is no determined end to my troubles, until Zeus is thrown from power.]

This might also have surprised the audience, and the word ἐκπίπτω becomes important in the rest of the play: see lines 757, 912, 948, 957, 996. Griffith writes: "With its implied passive sense (be thrown out, stronger than simply fall) it can be followed by ὑπό or πρός + genitive (as at 948), and thus reintroduces the idea of an external threat to Zeus' rule." We only have to wait until line 761 for Io to ask who will oust him. But her immediate response, at line 757, is this:
ἦ γάρ ποτ᾽ ἔστιν ἐκπεσεῖν ἀρχῆς Δία;

[What, can it be that Zeus is one day to be thrown from power?]

Since Zeus is the cause of Io's present woes, this is obviously a glimmer of hope for her, and P. assures her that it is in fact true (760):
ὡς τοίνυν ὄντων τῶνδε γαθεῖν σοι πάρα

[Well then, these things being true, it is possible for you to rejoice.]

Later, at lines 907-910, we learn more details about what lies in store for Zeus, when P. says (note the use of future indicatives now):
ἦ μὴν ἔτι Ζεύς, καίπερ αὐθάδης φρενῶν,
ἔσται ταπεινός, οἷον ἐξαρτύεται
γάμον γαμεῖν, ὃς αὐτὸν ἐκ τυραννίδος
θρόνων τ᾽ ἄϊστον ἐκβαλεῖ

[Indeed, hereafter Zeus, although stubborn of heart, will become humble, such a marriage he is preparing which will throw him from his throne and power into oblivion.]

And he predicts further (926-927):
πταίσας δὲ τῷδε πρὸς κακῷ μαθήσεται
ὅσον τό τ᾽ ἄρχειν καὶ τὸ δουλεύειν δίχα

[And having fallen upon this misfortune, he will learn how different it is to rule and to be a slave.]

The Chrous doubts these bold predictions (928):
σύ θην ἃ χρῄζεις, ταῦτ᾽ ἐπιγλωσσᾷ Διός

[Surely this is only what you desire, these curses you hurl at Zeus.]

But P. makes it clear that it is not merely wishful thinking:
ἅπερ τελεῖται, πρὸς δ᾽ ἃ βούλομαι λέγω

[I say even what will come to pass, as well as what I wish.]

But P.'s confident predictions are hard to reconcile with his fears and anguish, and readers have long been unsure about how certain P. can be about the future of Zeus. These events are taking place shortly after Zeus comes to power, but Io and the Chorus are surprised to hear about his eventual downfall. We don't have access to the following play, and so we cannot be sure how the dramatist ended matters between Zeus and P., whether Heracles merely kills the eagle (which we know from a fragment) or actually releases P. from his bonds, or whether Zeus releases P. in exchange for the information about the threat to his sovereignty.

But something that is not discussed in detail in any of the literature that I've read so far is the question of how the fifth-century audience would react to these predictions. Since these events took place in the very distant past, and Zeus was still the most powerful of the Greek gods in classical times, surely they would have known immediately that P. prophecies were not fulfilled. In his introduction to the play, Griffith writes: "The audience are thus kept uncertain as to how the plot will unfold, though they naturally tend to assume that predictions made in a tragedy will turn out to be true, especially if they are made by the son of Themis." And in his commentary to lines 907-940, he says: "Nobody can be quite sure (Chorus, Zeus, audience, perhaps not even P. himself) how much of what he predicts is certain and inevitable (Zeus will fall), how much contingent upon future decisions (Zeus will fall unless...)." The audience must have known that Zeus does not in fact fall from power, and that leaves us wondering if P. was mistaken or maybe even deliberately lying. Perhaps in his desperation he decides to pretend that Zeus will be overthrown unless he is released, and we know that Zeus must overhear P.'s words, since he sends a messenger to P. to investigate further. This would suit P.'s reputation for cleverness. Of course, it might simply be that P. is right about what will happen to Zeus, but that Zeus releases him from his bonds in exchange for the information, and so avoids being overthrown.


Blogger Wm Annis said...

Yet an another etymology for Prometheus (via Fortson's introduction):

Same formation as Vedic pra math-, "to steal," which is used in the Vedic myth of the theft of fire.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

Neat Will, thanks! All of this is very interesting. I'm going to have a look at the Vedic myth for comparison as soon as I can. Griffith cites Rig-Veda 3.9.5, for anyone else who might be interested.

12:38 PM  

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