The chains of Prometheus

In antiquity, it was believed that two titans were condemned to suffer the eternal punishment of Zeus at either end of the world. Atlas in the west, to forever bear the weight of the sky on his shoulders, and his brother Prometheus to be chained to the rocks of the Caucasus, with an eagle feasting on his liver, which grew back every day.

Prometheus earned his eternal torment by defying Zeus. The accounts of his “misdeeds” have been many and varied. It was said, for instance, that the clever and far-sighted Prometheus had helped Zeus to power by giving him advice in the past. But when the new ruler contemplated the destruction of the human race, Prometheus sided with the mortals. He stole for them the fire, which then came to their aid in all their needs. But it was also said that Prometheus had himself created the humans out of clay, and that they had received all their knowledge from him. The Titan thus valued helping the human race more than honouring the gods. He even prophesied that Zeus’ power would not last forever and one of his descendants would surpass him, but refused to tell the king of the gods who that would be. Others, however, recounted that Zeus did release Prometheus: he agreed that his son Heracles should end Prometheus’ suffering – in order to gain even greater glory.

This Apulian crater depicts the moment of his release. Prometheus is seen in the centre, chained to a rock. He looks in anguish at Heracles, who is recognisable by his club and clothing: the hide of the Nemean lion. The hero walks up to Prometheus to untie him, having already shot the eagle with his arrow.

Apulian red-figure calyx krater, ca. 350–340 BC
Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, 1969.9
© Foto: Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Fotograf: Johannes Laurentius

The bird plummets into Hades symbolised by the female figure holding the torch, Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Seated to her right is perhaps Demeter, while to her left a winged demon of death (Erinys) is wielding spears. The scene of Prometheus’ release is accompanied on the right by Gaia (Earth), his mother. Behind her sits Apollo, who is said to have guided Heracles’ arrow. Behind Heracles, on the left, is Pallas Athena, holding a wreath. Perhaps this is Heracles’ reward, but it may also be a reference to the wreath that Prometheus later had to wear in memory of his imprisonment.

Bob Dylan celebrated his 80th birthday this year. His song I shall be released has been performed and reinterpreted many times since 1967. We have now chosen Joe Cocker’s 1969 cover:


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