Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 8.  Living Machines

excerpts from
Prometheus Bound
by Aeschylus (525-455 BCE)


The full title of Mary Shelley's classic novel is Frankenstein:  The Modern Prometheus (1817).

Why Prometheus?

We find, perhaps, one clue on the title page of the book which includes these lines from John Milton's Paradise Lost:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man?  Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
Is Shelley's "Modern Prometheus" the Maker, or the Man?

The name, Prometheus means "forethought" (from the Greek roots pro meaning "before" and methes meaning "thought").  Prometheus was a Titan.  Long ago, the Titans ruled the universe.  Their king, Cronus had six children--the Olympian gods:  Zeus, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hestia.  Led by Zeus, the gods revolted against their father and his tyranny.  Two of the Titans--Oceanus and Prometheus--deserted Cronus and came to the aid of gods.  Thanks to this assistance, the gods defeated the Titans and Zeus became the new ruler of the universe.

Prometheus created men and aided these helpless beings by giving them knowledge of all useful arts and inventions (medicine, agriculture, metallurgy).  In time, Zeus became angered by men's evil ways and vowed to destroy them all.  Prometheus, determined to protect and preserve his creations, stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to men.  Zeus was furious.  Rather than destroy mankind as he had originally planned, Zeus concocted an even more dreadful punishment for them:  he introduced the first woman, Pandora, into the world of men!  As for Prometheus, Zeus decreed that he should be bound to a rock, where, each day, for all eternity, a vulture would come to pluck out his liver, and each night, his liver would grow back again.  Prometheus suffered in this way for thousands of years, until freed by Hercules.

The great Greek playwright, Aeschylus of Athens, lets Prometheus himself recount his tragic tale in the play Prometheus Bound.


When first upon his high, paternal throne
He [Zeus] took his seat, forthwith to divers Gods
Divers good gifts he gave, and parcelled out
His empire, but of miserable men
Recked [Reckoned] not at all; rather it was his wish
To wipe out man and rear another race:
And these designs none contravened but me.

I risked the bold attempt, and saved mankind
From stark destruction and the road to hell.
Therefore with this sore penance am I bowed,
Grievous to suffer, pitiful to see.

But, for compassion shown to man, such fate
I no wise earned; rather in wrath's despite
Am I to be reformed, and made a show
Of infamy to Zeus....

Yea, to my friends a woeful sight am I.


Hast not more boldly in aught else transgressed?


I took from man expectancy of death.


What medicine found'st thou for this malady?


I planted blind hope in the heart of him.


A mighty boon thou gavest there to man.


Moreover, I conferred the gift of fire.


And have frail mortals now the flame-bright fire?


Yea, and shall master many arts thereby.


And Zeus with such misfeasance [crime] charging thee--


Torments me with extremity of woe.


And is no end in prospect of thy pains?


None; save when he shall choose to make an end.


How shall he choose?  What hope is thine?  Dost thou
Not see that thou hast erred?  But how thou erredst
Small pleasure were to me to tell; to thee
Exceeding sorrow.  Let it go then:  rather
Seek thou for some deliverance from thy woes.


He who stands free with an untrammelled foot
Is quick to counsel and exhort a friend
In trouble.  But all these things I know well.
Of my free will, my own free will, I erred,
And freely do I here acknowledge it.

Freeing mankind myself have durance [imprisonment] found.
Natheless [Nevertheless], I looked not for sentence so dread,
High on this precipice to droop and pine,
Having no neighbor but the desolate crags.

And now lament no more the ills I suffer,
But come to earth and an attentive ear
Lend to the things that shall befall hereafter.

Harken, oh harken, suffer as I suffer!
Who knows, who knows, but on some scatheless head,
Another's yet for the like woes reserved,
The wandering doom will presently alight?...

                           ....listen to the tale
Of human sufferings, and how at first
Senseless as beasts I gave men sense, possessed them
Of mind.  I speak not in contempt of man;
I do but tell of good gifts I conferred.

In the beginning, seeing they saw amiss,
And hearing heard not, but, like phantoms huddled
In dreams, the perplexed story of their days
Confounded; knowing neither timber-work
Nor brick-built dwellings basking in the light,
But dug for themselves holes, wherein like ants
That hardly may contend against a breath,
They dwelt in burrows of their unsunned caves.

Neither of winter's cold had they fixed sign,
Nor of the spring when she comes decked with flowers,
Nor yet of summer's heat with melting fruits
Sure token:  but utterly without knowledge
Moiled, until I the rising of the stars
Showed them, and when they set, though much obscure.

Moreover, number, the most excellent
Of all inventions, I for them devised, 
And gave them writing that retaineth all,
The serviceable mother of the Muse,
I was the first that yoked unmanaged beasts,
To serve as slaves with collar and with pack,
And take upon themselves, to man's relief,
The heaviest labour of his hands:  and I
Tamed to the rein and drove in wheelèd cars
The horse, of sumptuous pride the ornament.

And those sea-wanderers with the wings of cloth,
The shipman's wagons, none but I contrived.

These manifold inventions for mankind
I perfected, who, out upon't, have none--
No, not one shift--to rid me of this shame....

But hear the sequel and the more admire
What arts, what aids I cleverly evolved.

The chiefest that, if any man fell sick,
There was no help for him, comestible,
Lotion or potion; but for lack of drugs
They dwindled quite away; until I taught them
To compound draughts and mixtures sanative,
Wherewith they now are armed against disease.

I staked the winding path of divination
And was the first distinguisher of dreams,
The true from false; and voices ominous
Of meaning dark interpreted; and tokens
Seen when men take the road; and augury
By flight of all the greater crook-clawed birds
With nice discrimination I defined;
These by their nature fair and favourable,
Those, flattered with fair name.  And of each sort
The habits I described; their mutual feuds
And friendships and the assemblages they hold.
And of the plumpness of the inward parts
What colour is acceptable to the Gods,
The well-streaked liver-lobe and gall-bladder.

Also by roasting limbs well wrapped in fat
And the long chine, I led men on the road
Of dark and riddling knowledge; and I purged
The glancing eye of fire, dim before,
And made its meaning plain.  These are my works.

Then, things beneath the earth, aids hid from man,
Brass, iron, silver, gold, who dares to say
He was before me in discovering?
None, I wot well [believe], unless he loves to babble.
And in a single word to sum the whole--
All manner of arts men from Prometheus learned.

Go to:
  • The Golem, Legends of the Ghetto of Prague;
  • Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life (1803) by Erasmus Darwin;
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes