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Prometheus Bound | Study Guide


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Prometheus Bound | Episode 3 | Summary



Io, "the girl with horns," enters and asks Prometheus who he is and why he is being punished. She is being followed and stung by a gadfly sent by the goddess Hera to madden and plague Io. Originally, Hera had become jealous when Zeus had lusted after the mortal Io, so he transformed her into a cow and gave her to Hera, who set the many-eyed herdsman Argus to watch her. Argus dies, mythological tradition citing Hermes as his killer. But even now, Io feels the eyes of the dead Argus watching her. Io asks Zeus why he is tormenting her in this manner and says she'd rather die some other way: "Burn me with fire, let the earth swallow me, / Throw me as food for sea-serpents."

To her surprise Prometheus recognizes her, and she asks him who he is. She also asks Prometheus to tell her, if he knows, how or when her suffering will end. Prometheus identifies himself and explains who has punished him, and then Io tells the Chorus—her father's sisters—how her current sufferings have come about. It all began with visions that came to her at night, telling her Zeus was longing for her. The voices would tell Io to go out to her father's fields so Zeus could look at her. When she reported the visions to her father Inachus, he sent a messenger to an oracle to inquire what they should do. The oracle responded, saying Inachus must turn Io out of their home and away from their lands, to wander the earth or else Zeus would destroy him and his family. After Inachus—unwillingly—drove Io out, she took the form of a cow. Then Argus was set to watch over her and a gadfly began to pursue her.

Prometheus then tells Io what will happen to her in the future. She is to go east through the lands of uncivilized peoples, come to Caucasus, and then arrive at the land of the Amazons. She will then cross the channel connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara (near modern day Istanbul), which will be thereafter named the Bosporus (meaning "cattle-passage") after her, and she will then reach Asia. In answer to a question Io asks, Prometheus says Zeus will cause his own fall by making a foolish marriage that will produce a son who will overthrow him, a fate that cannot be avoided unless he, Prometheus, is freed from bondage. He also tells Io, "A child of yours is named as my deliverer." Continuing to reveal her future, Prometheus tells Io she will proceed in Asia further east to the land of the Gorgons, past the land of a dark-skinned race near the Ethiopian River until she arrives at the Nile delta where she and her descendants will found a new settlement.

Prometheus then sets out to prove the truthfulness of his predictions by describing what has happened to Io before coming here. She had come to the prophetic oak trees of Dodona, where she was declared the future wife of Zeus, and then, driven by the gadfly, she fled to the sea, which will—in the future—be called Ionian, after her. He says, "I tell you this as proof that my prophetic mind / Sees more than meets the eye."

He then continues to describe her future. Once she reaches the mouth of the Nile, Zeus will restore her to her wits and will touch her, impregnating her with a son who will be called Epaphos. Five generations later a family of 50 sisters will return to Argos, fleeing incestuous marriages with their cousins. The young men will pursue and claim their brides, but at night the women will kill their husbands—all except one girl who will spare her husband's life, and she shall live in Argos and give birth to kings. From her children's children, a hero will come and free Prometheus from his bonds. At this point Io, stung again by the gadfly, screams out, tormented by pain and madness.


Io's arrival introduces another victim of Zeus into the play, whose suffering in some ways parallels that of Prometheus's. In this case, in order to satisfy his lust, he has threatened the destruction of her entire race. Like Prometheus, she endures an endless, public torture that is so bad she contemplates killing herself immediately rather than living one more day, similar to Prometheus's previously stated desire in the prologos he be imprisoned in Tartarus where none could witness his suffering (since he is immortal, he doesn't have the option of killing himself). Also like Prometheus, Io's suffering will bring her to the wild, uncivilized parts of the earth.

One key difference between the two is Prometheus, with his capacity for foresight, knows what the end of his suffering will be while Io does not know about her own. So here Prometheus uses his gift to tell Io her future, one in which their fates cross, as her descendant—which the audience would know to be Heracles, son of Alcmene—will be the one to free Prometheus. By telling Io her future, Prometheus reassures her suffering will not be all in vain. He also gives her—and the audience—reason to believe his prophecies, by correctly describing what has already happened to Io.

The suffering Io endures at the hands of Zeus and Hera brings to mind the insignificance of human life to the Olympian gods, who regard humans as pawns or playthings. In contrast Prometheus stands out as a figure capable of sympathy and compassion for human suffering: for humankind as a whole, and also particularly for Io.

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