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Playing the Volcano: Prometheus Bound and Fifth Century Volcanic Theory

Patrick Glauthier

In a recent paper, Irby-Massie (2008) has shown how extensively Prometheus Bound engages with fifth century natural philosophy, especially the thought of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras.  Earlier studies have also suggested the play’s awareness of Anaxagoras’ theoretical explanation of seismic activity (Rose 1957 on 1046-7, Rösler 1970: 71-2).  The present paper adds to the list of intellectual theories detectable in the play.  Through an analysis of two passages, I argue that the author of Prometheus Bound was familiar with contemporary theories of volcanism.

Ancient theorists traced the origins of volcanic phenomena and seismic activity to the behavior of subterranean wind (see, e.g., Sigurdsson 1999 and Hine 2002).  According to this theory, wind circulates violently in hollow passageways below the earth, breaking through all obstacles and producing loud rumblings or shockwaves (i.e., earthquakes).  Occasionally, due to this kind of friction, the wind ignites a fire, and both wind and fire burst forth in a spectacular explosion at the earth’s surface (i.e., an eruption).  Although Aristotle provides the earliest extant version of this theory (Meteor. 2.8), it seems to have already been current in the fifth century.  Anaxagoras regarded subterranean wind as the cause of earthquakes (Hippol. Ref. 1.8.12 = DK 59 A 42), a testimonium already connected with Prometheus Bound.  Anaxagoras, however, also closely associated subterranean wind, earthquakes, and fire (Sen. NQ 6.9.1 = DK 59 A 89), and it seems “very plausible” (Guthrie 1965: 311) that this association constitutes a forerunner of the classical model of volcanic activity.  This nexus of ideas plays a key role in Prometheus Bound, whether or not it is attributed specifically to Anaxagoras.

During his conversation with Okeanos, Prometheus reminisces about Typhos, an earthborn monster who revolted against Zeus but now lies imprisoned beneath Mt Aetna.  Prometheus then predicts that one day rivers of fire will burst forth from the mountain, laying waste to Sicily: “Such will be the wrath that Typhos sends boiling up and out with the hot shafts of a fire-breathing, unapproachable storm” (370-1).  Although it is well known that Prometheus’ account of Aetna is modeled on Pindar Pyth. 1.13ff. (see Griffith 1983 ad loc.), the differences between the two texts are numerous (see, e.g., Berranger-Auserve 2004).  One previously unnoted difference is Prometheus’ emphasis on the combined activity of fire and wind through such terms as ἐξαναζέω (“boil up and out”), πύρπνοος (“fire-breathing”), and ζάλη (“storm, squall”).  Given Typhos’ nature and history—his name means “whirlwind”—this may seem unremarkable.  Prometheus’ terminology, however, can be read as reflecting contemporary natural philosophical theories of volcanism.  He understands how the natural world works and, one suspects, might like to harness its powers in his ongoing struggle with Zeus.  In short, he would like to "play the volcano."  

This reading finds confirmation in play’s final lines, where Prometheus describes the cataclysm about to engulf him.  First, the earth begins to shake (1081).  Given the allusions earlier to subterranean wind and earthquakes (1046-7), the current disturbance activates the audience’s scientific imagination.  Next, “the underground sound of thunder bellows back, fiery tendrils of lightening shine forth, whirlwinds spin dust, the blasts of all the winds leap against one another” (βρυχία δ’ ἠχὼ παραμυκᾶται | βροντῆς, ἕλικες δ’ ἐκλάμπουσι | στεροπῆς ζάπυροι, στρόμβοι δὲ κόνιν | εἱλίσσουσι, σκιρτᾷ δ’ ἀνέμων | πνεύματα πάντων εἰς ἄλληλα, 1082-6).  These lines do more than “evoke the destructive and apocalyptic force of a volcanic eruption” (Irby-Massie 2008: 144).  Rather, they use the theoretical framework of contemporary natural philosophy to describe an actual eruption.  The underground wind and thunder, as well as the fiery lightening that seems literally to be shining “out” from the mountain, all point towards a theory similar to Anaxagoras’.  The natural world, which Prometheus helped mankind subdue, now explodes with scientific precision, and he his helpless to tame it.  Unlike Typhos, who powers his own volcano, Prometheus has no volcanic agency and ultimately finds himself a victim of natural forces.

Session/Panel Title

Discourses of Greek Tragedy: Music, Natural Science, Statecraft, Ethics

Session/Paper Number

45.3

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