Gateway to the Classics: A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by James Baldwin
A Story of the Golden Age of Greek Heroes by  James Baldwin

The Children of Prometheus

T HERE was sore distress in Lacedæmon. Famine and a deadly pestilence grieved the land, and in every household the notes of wailing and despair were heard. For Apollo, vexed because the men of Laconia were so slow to understand his wishes, was shooting his fateful arrows broadcast among them. Like a night-cloud he brooded over the land, and strong men and fair women and helpless babes all fell alike beneath the sharp blows of his deadly shafts. And the heart of Menelaus the king was burdened with grief because of the people's sore affliction. Then, when he found that sacrifice of lambs and goats availed him nothing, he sent in haste to ask the oracles the cause of Apollo's wrath, and to learn what could be done to stay the plague. The answer came as quickly:—

"When the bones of the children of Prometheus are brought from Ilios, and entombed in Lacedæmon, then the wrath of silver-bowed Apollo shall be turned aside, and the smiles of his favor shall bless the land."

Then Menelaus made ready to depart at once to Troy to do that which Apollo demanded. A short journey by land brought him to the strong-built town of Helos on the shore of the eastern sea. There a swift-sailing ship lay at its moorings, while a score of long-haired seamen paced the beach, anxious to embark upon any errand across Poseidon's watery kingdom. The captain hailed the king with joy, and the ship was soon made ready for the long voyage to Ilios. A plenteous stock of food was stored away in the broad hold; arms, for defence against sea robbers and savage men, were put in order, and hung in their places; and rich presents for Priam, king of Troy, were taken on board.

The next day a favoring wind sprang up; the sails were set; the seamen took their places; and the ship with King Menelaus on board sped on its way to distant Ilios. Poseidon, looking out from his golden palace beneath the sea, saw the vessel as it hastened on its errand; and he bade the waves be still and in no wise hinder its speed, for Apollo's business must not be delayed; and he called upon the breezes to blow steadily towards Ilios, that so the embassy of Menelaus might be happily performed.

"Surely the gods are all in league with us," said the captain of the ship one day, pleased with the delightful voyage. "To-morrow we shall doubtless sight the Lesbian coast, and from thence it is but a short sail to Ilios and Troy. And now, as we sit together in the prow of our good vessel, I pray you to tell us the story, once more, of great Prometheus, the bones of whose children seem so precious to Apollo."

And Menelaus willingly consented, and told the story as he himself had oft-times heard it from the bards:—

"When Zeus waged pitiless war upon the Titans, and hurled them headlong from the heights of Mount Olympus, he spared from the general ruin those who fought not with their own kindred, but espoused his cause. Among these and foremost of all was great Prometheus, whose name is Forethought, and whose chiefest glory lies in this, that he was the friend and lover of man-kind. It was the hope of bettering man's condition that led him to fight against his kindred, and to aid in placing Zeus upon the throne of ancient Cronos. Yet Zeus cared naught for the feeble children of earth, but sought rather to make their burdens heavier and their lives more sad, that so the race might perish utterly. And the great mind of Prometheus set to work to learn how to make their lot less sad and their lives less miserable.

He saw that as yet they dwelt without forethought upon the earth, their life's whole length being aimless, and their minds as void of reason as is the beast's. They lived in sunless caverns, or in holes scooped in the ground; and no provision did they make for heat or cold or times of scarcity, or the varying needs of youth and age. And Prometheus wasted no vain words in pity, but took at once upon him the Titanic task of lifting the race up to a level with the gods. First, he taught them the use of fire, which, some say, he stole from Helios' car, and brought to the earth, hidden in a fennel-stalk. Then he showed them how the stars rise and set, and how the seasons change in never-varying order. He showed them how to yoke and make submissive to their will the wild steeds of the desert plain; how to turn the sod beneath the soil by means of the furrowing plough; and how to build fair houses, and cities with strong walls and frowning towers. He taught them how to make ships, the storm-winged chariots of the sea, and how to navigate the briny deep. He showed them the treasures which lie hidden underneath the ground,—gold, silver, iron,—and taught them how to turn them into forms of beauty, strength, and use. In short, all arts now known to men came to them from the hands and mind of pitying Prometheus.

"Now, when Zeus looked down from high Olympus, and saw the puny tribes of men no longer grovelling in the earth like senseless beasts, but standing upright, and claiming kinship with the gods, he shook with pent-up anger. And he called two of his mightiest servants, Strength and Force, whom none can resist, and bade them seize the friend of man, and bind him upon a peak of the snow-crowned Caucasus, there to linger through the ages in loneliness and pain.

"Then the ruthless slaves of Zeus went forth to do his bidding. They seized the mighty Titan, and dragged him to the bleak and barren regions of the Caucasus, beyond the utmost limit of the habitable earth. And with them went the mighty smith Hephaestus, all unwillingly, to bind the great victim with bonds of brass, which none could loose, to the lonely mountain-crags.

" 'This thing I do loathing,' said Hephaestus. 'Here I must perforce leave thee, chained and bolted to the immovable rocks. Thou shalt never behold the face of man, nor hear the accents of his voice; but the blaze of the unpitying sun shall scorch thy fair skin, and thou shalt long for the night with its shimmering stars to cast a veil of coolness over thee. Year after year, thou shalt keep thy lonely watch in this joyless place, unblest with sleep, and uttering many a cry and unavailing moan. For Zeus is pitiless. This is what thou gainest for befriending man.'

"There, then, they left him fettered; but not until rude Strength had taunted him: 'Lo, thou lover of mankind! Call now the puny race of mortals round thee, and crown them with honors! Could all of them together lessen thy punishment in the least? Surely the gods did jest when they gave thee the name of "Forethought," for thou hast need of forethought to free thee from these bonds.'

"Then, when the solitary sufferer knew that there was no one to hear him, save only the sun, and the earth and the winds, and the winding river and the distant sea, he broke forth in grievous cries and lamentations:—

" 'O pitying sky, and swift-winged winds, and river-springs, and the many-twinkling smile of ocean, I cry to you! O mother Earth, and thou all-seeing Sun! behold what I endure because I gave honor to mortals! Behold what torture is in store for me, while for ten thousand years I writhe in these unseemly chains! Yet the things that come are all foreknown to me, and nothing happens unexpected; and I must bear as best I may the ills that will perforce be mine, knowing that the end of all these things shall come to me at last.'

"Then the Ocean-nymphs, with the fragrance of flowers and a rustling sound like the whirr of birds, came floating through the air, and hovered about the crag where Prometheus was bound. They had heard the clank of the iron and the heavy blow of the sledge resounding to the very cavern-depths of Ocean; and they had hastened to come, and offer him their sympathy.

"Following them, came old Oceanus himself, riding in his winged chariot; for no firmer friend had Prometheus than this hoary-headed ancient of the encircling sea. He came to condole with the suffering Titan, and to counsel patience and submission. But he staid not long.

" 'I will drink the cup of bitterness to its very dregs,' said Prometheus, 'and will bide the time when Zeus shall have quenched his wrath.'

"And Oceanus, feeling that he had come in vain, turned about, and gladly hastened homeward to his halls beneath the ocean billows.

"After this many others came, weeping tears of sorrow for the sufferer,—tears of anger at the tyranny of Zeus. And wails of mourning were borne thither on the wings of the wind from all the tribes that dwelt in Asia,—from the warrior maidens on the Colchian coasts, from the savage horsemen of the Scythian plains, and from the dwellers on the farther shores of Araby. But the Titan, chained to the desolate crags, suffered on. Above him the vultures hovered, and the wild eagles shrieked; and sun and storm beat mercilessly upon his head, as the weary days and the lengthening years passed by. And yet no deliverance came.

"One day, as he writhed helplessly in his chains, Prometheus saw in the valley below him what at so great distance seemed to be a beautiful heifer, having a fair face like that of a woman. 'Surely,' said he aloud, 'it is the child of Inachus, she who warmed the heart of Zeus, and is now through Here's hate changed into an unseemly shape, and driven to weary wanderings."

"Then the maiden gazed at him in wonder, and asked, 'Who are you whom the gods have doomed to suffer in this solitary place? And how came you to know my father's name, and the sorrows that have come upon me? And tell me, I pray, if such knowledge be yours, whether there shall ever be any help for me, and when my sufferings shall have an end.'

"The Titan answered, 'I who speak to thee am Prometheus, who brought down fire to men, and gave them knowledge, and taught them how to do godlike things. And I know that thou art Io, once the lovely daughter of Inachus, king of Argos; but what thou art now, let thy own lips speak and answer.'

" 'I cannot choose but tell you all,' the maiden answered, 'though my speech shall with sobs be broken when I recall the memory of happy days forever gone. There was a time when in my father's halls I dwelt in maidenly freedom, a spoiled and petted child. But as I grew to womanhood, dreams came to me which told me that I was beloved by Zeus. Such trouble did these visions bring to me, that I was fain to tell my father of them. He knew not what to do. But he sent swift messengers to Delphi and Dodona to ask the oracles what the dreams portended, and how he could best give pleasure to the gods. The answer came, that he should drive me from his doors into the wide and cruel world, or otherwise the fiery bolts of Zeus would burn up all his household and destroy him utterly. Reluctantly and weeping bitter tears, he shut me out; and lo! straightway my body was changed into the loathed form which stands before you, and a gad-fly stung me with its fangs, and I rushed away in madness, vainly hoping to find relief at Lerne's fountain water. But there the herdsman Argus, with his hundred eyes, did track me out; and with his scourge and the goading fly, I was driven along unending ways. Then Hermes, seeing my distress, took pity on me, and sought to free me from my cruel keeper. But Argus never slept; and with his hundred eyes he saw every danger, and shunned it while it was yet afar. At last Hermes bethought him of the power of music. Playing a soft melody on his lute, he stole gently towards the herdsman; the sweet sounds charmed the savage ear, and sleep overpowered the hundred eyes. Then Hermes drew his sword quickly, and smote off the head of Argus, thus gaining for himself the name of the Argus-queller. But the shade of the terrible herdsman still follows me, and I find no rest; and aimlessly I have come, thus goaded onward, to this wild mountain region.'



"Then Prometheus in pitying accents said, 'Listen now to me, and I will tell thee, Io, what other sorrows thou must bear from Here; for it is she who brought this woe upon thee and who hounds thee thus from land to land. Thou shalt journey onward from these mountain regions through the Scythian land, and the region of the uncouth Chalybes who work in iron. Thence thou shalt cross the mountains to the dwelling-place of the Amazons, who shall lead thee to the place where the ocean-gates are narrowest. There thou shalt plunge into the waves, and swim with fearlessness of heart to Asia's shore. And that strait shall by its name, Bosphorus, tell to latest ages the story of thy wandering. But what I have told thee is only the beginning of thy doom.'

"Then Io wept.

" 'Were it not better to die,' she asked, 'than to endure this hopeless misery?'

" 'Not so, O maiden,' answered the Titan; 'for if thou livest then a son of thine shall loose me from my fetters, and perchance shall shake the throne of Zeus himself. When thou hast crossed the sea-ways which part the continent, thou shalt wander on until thou hast reached the outmost islands where the Gorgons dwell; then returning thou shalt pass through the country of the griffins and the region of Ethiopia, and shalt come at last to the three-cornered ground where flows the Nile. There thou shalt rest, and thy maiden form with all its comeliness shall be thine again. In Canobus, a fair city by the sea, shall a home be made for thee; and there shall Epaphos thy son be born, from whom in after-times shall spring great Heracles, who shall break my bonds and set me free from these hated fetters.'

"Then Io, with a sigh of mingled hope and despair, went on her weary way, and left Prometheus alone again in the everlasting solitudes. And the wild eagles swooped down from their high-built nests, and circled with threatening screams about him; a grim vulture flapped its wings in his face, and buried its talons in his bosom; a mighty storm came hurtling down through the mountain passes; the earth shook to and fro, and the peaks of Caucasus seemed as if toppling to their base; a hurricane of snow and hail and rattling ice smote the Titan about the head, and wrapped his body in eddying gusts; the lightnings leaped with lurid glare athwart the sky, and the thunders crashed with deafening roar among the crags; and earth and air and sea seemed blent together in a mighty turmoil, and whirling into utter chaos. Yet, in the midst of all, the old Titan quailed not; but with voice serene and strong he sang of the day when right shall triumph over might, when truth shall trample error in the dust, and the reign of Zeus give place to that of a nobler monarch just and perfect in all his ways.

"Thus years upon years passed, and ages circled by, until thirteen generations of men had lived and died upon the earth. Then came Heracles, the descendant of Io, to purge the world of vile monsters, and to give freedom to those who were in bonds. And as he wandered from land to land, to do the bidding of his master Eurystheus, he passed through Ethiopia, and came to the region of the Caucasus, close by the eastern Ocean's stream. There, as he gazed upward at the everlasting peaks, he saw the great Titan fettered to the naked rock, while the eagles circled about him, and the grim vulture digged its talons into his flesh; and Heracles knew that this was Prometheus the ancient, the friend of the human race and the foe of tyrants. He drew his bow, and with his unerring arrows slew the eagles and the vulture; and then, with mighty blows of his club, he broke the chains which Hephaestus of old had wrought, and with his strong hands he loosed the long-suffering prisoner from his fetters. And the earth rejoiced; and men everywhere sang pæans of triumph, because freedom had been given to him who raised them from the dust, and endowed them with the light of reason and the fire of god-like intelligence."

This was the tale which Menelaus told to a company of eager listeners seated about him, in the prow of the swift-sailing vessel.

"Now you should know," he added, "that every lover of freedom in Hellas is in truth a child of Prometheus. And so when Apollo, through his oracle, bade me fetch from Ilios the bones of the old Titan's children, I understood that I was to gather the dust of all the Hellenes who have died in the Trojan land, and carry it to Lacedæmon for honored burial. And such is the errand upon which we are sailing to-day."

"But why is it said that every Hellene is a child of Prometheus?" asked the captain. "Is it simply because he is a lover of freedom and a hater of tyrants, as the old Titan was? Or is there a real line of kinship reaching from us up to him?"

"I will tell you," answered the king. "While Prometheus hung fettered to the bleak crag of Caucasus, and in grim patience bided the day of deliverance, his son Deucalion tilled the plains of Phthia, and gathered the ripe fruits on its sunny hills. And he dwelt in peace with all men, cherishing in his heart the words which his father had spoken to him in former times. But the world was full of wickedness, and there was violence and bloodshed everywhere; and men no longer had respect for the gods, or love for one another. 'We are a law unto ourselves,' they cried. 'Why then should any one obey the behests of a master whom he has not seen?' And they went on eating and drinking and making merry, and gave no thanks to the giver of every good.

"At length, when their wickedness waxed so great that it was past all bearing, Zeus spoke the word, and a mighty flood burst upon the land. The west wind came sweeping in from the great sea, bringing in its arms dark clouds laden with rain. And when Deucalion saw the veil of darkness covering the sky, and heard the roar of the hurricane in the valley below him, he called to Pyrrha, his golden-haired wife, and said, 'Surely, now, the day has come of which my father told me often,—the day when floods of water shall come upon the earth to punish the wickedness of men. Hasten into the ark which I have built, that, if so be, we may save ourselves from the merciless waves.'

"And they made the ark ready, and put a great store of food in its broad hold, and waited for the rising of the waters. Nor was it long; for the torrents gushed down from the hillsides and filled the valleys, and the plains were covered over, and the forests sank from sight beneath the waves. But Deucalion and Pyrrha sat in the ark, and floated safely on the bosom of the heaving waters. Day after day they drifted hither and thither, until at last the ark rested on the lofty peak of Parnassus. Then Deucalion and Pyrrha stepped out upon the dry ground; the rain ceased to fall, the clouds were scattered and the waters fled down the valleys and hastened to the sea; but all the people of Hellas, save only Deucalion and Pyrrha, had perished in the flood. And feeling their loneliness in the midst of the ruin and death which had come upon the land, these two built an altar to the gods, and offered thanks for their deliverance. Then Zeus sent Hermes, the bright messenger, to speak words of comfort to them.

" 'Among all the folk of this land,' he said, 'you alone have lived blameless lives, and with your clean hands and pure hearts have pleased the immortals. Ask now what you most desire, and it shall be given to you.'

"Then Deucalion wept as he bowed before the messenger. 'Grant that we may see the earth teeming again with busy men,' he said.

" 'It shall be as you wish,' answered Hermes. 'As you go down the mountain into the plain, cover your faces with your mantles, and throw the bones of your mother behind you.'

"Then the messenger left them, and they wondered between themselves what was the meaning of his words.

" 'Who is our mother?' asked Pyrrha.

" 'Is not the earth the mother of us all?' then answered Deucalion. 'His meaning is plain enough now.'

"So, as they went down Parnassus, they took up stones, and threw them behind them. And the stones which Deucalion threw sprang up and were mighty armed men; and those which Pyrrha threw became fair women. Thus the hills and the valleys were peopled anew; and the earth smiled, and was glad that a new and happier day had dawned.

"But Deucalion went with Pyrrha into Locris; and there he built the city of Opus, where he reigned king for many years; and there sons and daughters, noble and beautiful, were born; but the noblest was Hellen, from whom the Hellenes are descended, and our country of Hellas takes its name.

"Do you understand now how everyone of us can claim to be a son of great Prometheus?"

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