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Injured Immortals: The Painful Paradoxes of Chiron and Prometheus

Katherine Hsu

Brooklyn College (CUNY)

This paper examines the ambivalent relationship between immortality and the body as expressed through the Greek myths of Prometheus and Chiron, with a special focus on the meaning of the wounded body. In the poetry of Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Pindar, Prometheus and Chiron are presented as divine yet liminal figures, civilizers who pass knowledge and the means for living to mortals. Yet their association with humans leads them to endure an agonizing, incurable wound; the gruesome violation of the body brings them closer to the mortal state, but paradoxically, their inborn immortality denies them relief from pain through death. And unlike the Olympian gods, who can be healed from their wounds (as in Iliad 5; see e.g., Allen-Hornblower 2014), Chiron and Prometheus must endure unending pain. I suggest that these aspects of their myths are not unrelated, that the incurable wounds that leave them stranded between the mortal and immortal realms reflect their willingness to transgress the boundaries between mortals and immortals.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, Prometheus is a trickster figure who suffers terrible pain for defying Zeus. I explore the resonances of translating the second half of v. 522 as “after driving a column through [Prometheus’] middle” (μέσον διὰ κίον’ ἐλάσσας, see summary of debate in West 1966, ad loc.), as depicted on several archaic black figure vases (e.g., Athens, National Museum 16384; Berlin, Antikensammlung F1722; Florence, Museo Archeologico Etrusco 76359). This punishment may correspond to Prometheus’ crimes: Prometheus erred by traveling between worlds, but now permanently fixed in the world of men, he is prevented from crossing the divide again; the visiting eagle makes public his inner organs, a reversal of the Promethean concealment of tricks, including hiding fire in the hollow stalk. The eagle that feasts on Prometheus’ liver renders him a living corpse, a paradox that illustrates what Vernant calls “the perils of mediation” (1989: 51). I highlight two dimensions of the myth as presented in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: here Prometheus possesses prophetic knowledge of a future son destined to overthrow his father Zeus, and his refusal to reveal the identity of that son’s mother prompts Zeus to send his eagle against him. This linking of secret knowledge to the eagle’s wounding reframes the significance of the bodily violation: the demands of Hermes, a representative of Zeus’ uncertain rule, for Prometheus’ confession under the threat of further pain become an interrogation; and the eagle’s feasting, the result of Prometheus’ refusal to confess, becomes torture, as explored by Scarry 1985 and Allen 2000.

In Pindar’s epinician odes, Chiron is a teacher of practical and technical arts, as well as moral wisdom and prophetic knowledge. Apparently universally beloved, he bridges the divide between humans and beasts. But when he is accidentally struck by Heracles with an arrow dipped in the Hydra’s poison, he retreats from the human world into a cave, returning to the natural world. His agony is so extreme that he, an immortal being, wishes to die. Heracles provides the resolution to Chiron’s paradox, as Zeus allows Chiron to give his immortality to Heracles and die (I follow Robertson 1951’s reading of the disputed passage in Ps.-Apollodorus 2.5.4); it is the same Heracles who frees Prometheus by killing Zeus’ eagle and releasing him from his bonds. Heracles is thus the pivot on which Prometheus’ return to the immortals and Chiron’s descent to mortality turns. The middle ground between immortal and mortal thus proves impossible to occupy; these myths function in part to demonstrate the difficulties of liminality, to reassert the separation between two worlds. But even Heracles’ task of separating worlds is ambivalent: for Heracles himself is deified and his translation to Olympus is granted as an enviable reward, a demonstration of the privileges of immortality. But for Prometheus and Chiron, all of their knowledge and wisdom cannot shield them from the pain of incurable wounds, proving that sometimes, immortality is a predicament impossible to bear.

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Didactic Poetry

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