Enemy of the Gods: Prometheus Bound as Religious Critique

Rebecca Raphael

Texas State University

This paper argues that Greek tragedy could provide a ritual framing of religious critique. Specifically, I shall examine the representation of Zeus in Hesiod and in Prometheus Bound. While Promethean material appears in both Theogony and Works and Days, the latter poem strongly positions Zeus as the guarantor of justice (dike) in human society because he can bring power to bear on kings. That power, however, is force, not persuasion: Zeus punishes unjust rulers by harming their people and resources (WD 240-270). The economy of persuasion in which good kings work (Th. 75 ff; WD 225-240), and in which divine entities petition Zeus about injustice (WD 253 ff), bottoms out in Zeus’ power to inflict punishment by force. The narrator of Hesiodic epic seems, at best, dimly aware of this tension. I provide some Near Eastern concept for Hesiod’s representation of the deity-ruler-city relationships as the matrix for justice or injustice.

In Prometheus Bound, attributed to Aeschylus, the contradictions of this concept of divine justice are laid as bare as Prometheus’ body. Here, Zeus employs functionaries to torture and threaten Prometheus, not in the service of any justice, but simply in order to perpetuate his power. Repeatedly, other divine figures urge Prometheus to comply with the bully’s demands, but he refuses. Prometheus is closer to a Hesiodic good king in his care-taking and pedagogy of humans, but for this he is punished. His threat to Zeus is simply his knowledge that Zeus’ power is temporally finite, a limit that Zeus is unwilling to accept. So the play stages the operations of power turned only to the end of perpetuating itself: the means is torture, not persuasion, and the end is something other than justice. These problems are large and disturbing gaps in the Hesiodic account of divine justice.

While this problem could be explored philosophically or narratively, I argue that tragic drama provided a distinctive framing for a trenchant critique of the paradox underlying Hesiod’s JustZeus: it performs the lacuna implicit in force as guarantor of justice. The rituals of tragedy frame this critique as a religious performance, and the dialogic nature of drama enables exploration of the problem without the intrusion of a narrative voice that takes a position – or imposes closure. Using sociological frame analysis and the anthropology of carnivals, I argue that Prometheus Bound as a whole enacts a kind of mask within which the problem of force as guarantor of justice can be exposed, deplored, and explored. Thus, too, can religious critique be performed as a religious practice.

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Drama and the Religious in Ancient Greece

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