Ancient Greece offers a lens for observing the transition from a society in which speech was transmitted by almost exclusively oral means, to a culture transformed by the technology of an alphabet. I will outline here the concurrent transformation of mythical conceptions of poetic production and cosmic politics. Beginning with Theogony’s myth of divine inspiration, reflecting a world without an alphabet, I will compare the mythic celebration and implementation of the new technology of alphabetic writing in Prometheus Bound. Drawing on the work of de Kerckhove and Wise, who argue that in a new literate and democratic context Greek tragedy naturally displaces epic for the transmission of myths, I will consider the play, particularly the scene with Io (561-886), as an example of this generic shift from epic to tragedy in an alphabetic world.
Theogony makes no internal reference to writing, though, paradoxically, it is a literary artifact that reflects an oral world. Here the human poet is a lowly creature, but privileged as a divinely chosen instrument of song inspired by the Muses, fathered by Zeus on Mnemosyne (Memory). Poetry is thus imbued with Zeus’ paternal authority. Hesiod is also the major early source of the story that Prometheus stole fire from the gods, giving it to humans, and for him this theft marked the beginning of the degeneration of human life. Punishing humans for their possession of divine stolen goods, Zeus ordered the manufacture of Pandora, a seductive evil for men. The inescapable moral is that “it is not possible to deceive or surpass the mind of Zeus” (614).
By contrast, in the version of this story in Prometheus Bound, there is no Pandora and Prometheus does indeed surpass the mind of Zeus. He catalogues the technologies arising from his gift of fire, now in human control, and transforming human experience from a bestial existence into a life of comfort and culture. They include “the composition of letters, memory of everything, creative Muse-mother.” (γραμμÎ¬των τε συνθÎσεις, μνÎ®μην á¼πÎ¬ντων, μουσομá¿†τορá¾½ á¼ργÎ¬νην… 460-61). This designation of alphabetic writing as the progenitor of the Muses is revolutionary, directly challenging and displacing the Hesiodic Mnemosyne (and Zeus) as origin of the Muses.
In both versions of the myth, Prometheus’ modus operandi is concealment. He hid: the good and bad parts of the sacrifice (Theog. 538-41), fire in a fennel stalk (Theog. 565-67), the secret of Zeus’ vulnerability (PV 522-24), and the knowledge of their day of death from mortals (PV 248). Repeatedly introducing the problem of hidden meaning, of the potentially catastrophic difference between exterior appearance and interior significance, he invites the exercise of intelligence for interpreting signs. In Prometheus Bound the tables of cosmic power are turned because Prometheus conceals knowledge that Zeus needs and that will eventually buy Prometheus’ freedom. The alphabet is emblematic of all of these things, being a system of visual signs requiring interpretation and giving humans the capacity to create, to legislate, and so to act independently from the divine father.
Prometheus’ liberating knowledge is exemplified in his scene with Io (PV 561-886). Subject to Zeus’ lust, trapped inside a cow’s body, she represents an anomaly to the play’s process of evolution from vulnerable beast to cultured human, a throwback to the Hesiodic order. Prometheus, able to recognize what is beneath her deceptive surface, identifies her and then foretells what she must yet suffer, with the exhortation, á¼γγρÎ¬φου σá½º μνÎ®μοσιν δÎλτοις φρενá¿¶ν (788-89). Like a playwright, he teaches the girl in a cow’s costume a scripted part to enact. He urges her, as if she is an actor, τá¿¶ν δá¾½ εá¼´ τÎ¯ σοι ψελλÏŒν τε καá½¶ δυσεÏρετον, á¼πανδÎ¯πλαζε καá½¶ σαφá¿¶ς á¼κμÎ¬νθανε (817-18). Io’s hope for liberation and a return to human form lies in memory as alphabetic writing. Prometheus has made this available, and at the same time he has become a didaskalos for mythic characters on stage.
- De Kerckhove, Derrick. 1981. ”A Theory of Greek Tragedy.” Sub-stance 29:23-35.
- Pfeiffer, Rudolf. 1968. History of Classical Scholarship: from the beginnings to the end of the Hellenistic Age. Oxford.
- Wise, Jennifer. 1998. Dionysus Writes: the Invention of Theatre In Ancient Greece. Ithaca, New York.