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Gendering Knowledge and Experience in Prometheus Bound

Mary Hamil Gilbert

Birmingham Southern College

Io’s prominence in Prometheus Bound and the attention she brings to Zeus’ sexual predation have long been read as underscoring Zeus’ political tyranny (Gagarin, Gantz, Griffith, and Swanson; for a contrary view, see White). Building on this important insight, I argue that in characterizing Io and the Oceanids as insistent askers of questions and by highlighting their desire to understand troubling events even when reality is uncomfortable (632-3), the Prometheus poet establishes female experience as an important source of democratic, even revolutionary knowledge. This talk, then, explores the dynamics of knowledge production and narrative authority within the play through the lens of contemporary feminist and philosophical work on the pathologizing of women’s experience and epistemic injustice (Code, Harding, Jaggar, Fricker, and Pohlhaus).

Detained at the world’s end, Prometheus is surrounded by inquisitive women. The chorus of Oceanids is so eager to meet the clever god they leave behind their shoes (ἀπέδιλος, 135) and “grave-faced modesty” (θεμερῶπιν αἰδῶ, 134). They come on stage asking questions (τίς... τίς, 160-3), demanding answers even in the face of resistance: “uncover (ἐκκάλυψον) everything and tell us the story!,” 193. Io also enters with a barrage of questions (τίς...τί... τίνα, 561), her desire to know cutting through bouts of hallucinatory madness and psychological trauma (593-608, Anhalt).

Both Io, banished by her father because of Zeus’ desire (645-72), and the Oceanids, who barely managed to get their father’s permission to come (πατρῴας / μόγις παρειποῦσα φρένας, 130-1), want to know about the present power struggle despite patriarchal forces that would keep them ignorant. Their inquiries stand in stark contrast to Kratos’ sarcasm, Hephaistos’ patronizing reluctance, and Ocean’s “good cop” routine; moreover, they undermine Prometheus’ grand boast that he helped humans by concealing from them knowledge of their destiny (or death, μόρον, 248). When he tells Io (the only human in the play) that it would be better if she did not know her fate, she roundly dismisses the idea (“Don’t take care of me (μή μου προκήδου) more than I want!,” 629). At this point, Prometheus changes course; he drops his condescending tone, listens to her story, and answers her questions. By demonstrating a willingness to listen to and learn from a mere human (and a woman at that), Prometheus enacts his renowned intellectual freedom. The Zeus of Prometheus Bound would not endure such an education (61-2).

The first section of this talk examines the role the chorus of Oceanids plays in carving out a space for Io’s version of events (“Let her tell us herself (αὐτῆς λεγούσης) about her terrible fortune,” 633). The next section considers Io’s story of expulsion (fuelled by dreams and the Delphic oracle) and her resulting incurable madness as a veiled critique of Prometheus’ gifts to humans (e.g. visions, prophecy, and medicine); the final section argues that Io’s story both obliges Prometheus to reconsider his earlier claims about human knowledge and reshapes the chorus’ (sheltered) worldview, compelling the virgin daughters of Ocean to come to terms with their own gendered vulnerability (687-95).

Session/Panel Title

Believing Ancient Women: A Feminist Epistemology for Greece and Rome

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