Marco Montagnin

We have just reached the land of Scythia, / at the most distant limits of the world, / remote and inaccessible. Hephaestus, / now it is your duty to carry out / those orders you received from Father Zeus  / to nail this troublemaker firmly down / / against these high, steep cliffs, shackling him / in adamantine chains that will not break. / For he in secret stole your pride and joy / and handed it to men the sacred fire / which fosters all the arts. For such a crime, / he must pay retribution to the gods, / so he will learn to bear the rule of Zeus / and end that love he has for humankind. [1]

This is how Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound opens. It is a work that immortalises the myth of the titan. Prometheus created man, gave him intellect, fire, the ability to evolve from his state of nature; mankind was then expelled from Olympus, they experienced illness, old age and death because of him. Prometheus, the titan who conspired with the Gods against his brothers, was condemned to suffer for eternity.

The myth was interpreted, the versions are many, even today the figure of Prometheus has its own meaning:


(adj.)   literary

UK  /prəˈmiː.θi.ən/ US  /prəˈmiː.θi.ən/

willing to take risks in order to create new things or do things in new ways, like Prometheus, the ancient Greek demigod (= part human and part god) who stole fire from Mount Olympus.[2]

Prometheus is no longer man’s grand creator; he is no longer man’s saviour

Percy Bysshe Shelley considered Prometheus to be the embodiment of romantic ideals and dedicated a piece to the titan: Prometheus Unbound.

The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgement, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement […] But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.[3]

Seventy-nine years after Shelley’s work, André Gide wrote Le Prométhée mal enchainé. Gide was a French surrealist writer and Nobel Prize winner in 1947. He was also Oscar Wilde’s friend, and in this work, he was influenced by Oscar and philosophical accounts of the eighteenth-century.

With wit, the writer transposes the myth into a Parisian reality at the end of the XIX century. Prometheus is no longer man’s grand creator; he is no longer man’s saviour and the eagle is no longer an imposed punishment, rather a conscience; the torment is no longer due to the theft of fire but is linked to the nature of conscience itself: myth is deconstructed.

Consciousness is metaphorized in the nourished and torturing eagle. If in Dorian Gray’s (1980) self-portrait-declaration, Wilde proposed an outwardly fixed conscience, Gide, – perhaps driven by his Huguenot component – placed in the eagle’s owner’s flesh – a gnawing conscience, which does not in any case conceal its inner, intimate, moral origin.[4]

The story revolves around Prometheus who, while at the Opera, stops in a café.

Quand, du haut du Caucase, Prométhée eut bien éprouvé queles chaînes, tenons, camisoles, parapets et autres scrupules, somme toute, l’ankylosaient, pour changer de pose il se souleva du côté gauche, étira son bras droit et, entre quatre et cinq heures d’automne, descendit le boulevard qui mène de la Madeleine à l’Opéra.[5]

Here the protagonist is introduced to Damocles and Cocles. The two tell their stories, realising that although they are strangers they are bound together: Damocles had received an envelope containing a five hundred franc note and, not knowing who the sender was and why it had been sent, thought it was a misunderstanding. He found himself so consumed by his conscience that he was unable to spend the money.

Whereas, Cocles had been stopped on the street, a gentleman had brought him the handkerchief that he had dropped, and then handed him an envelope telling him to write down a random name and address. Cocles  gets slapped after writing down the address. The story shifts to Prometheus, who, is accused of having illegally manufactured matches, and was then imprisoned. It is in prison that Prometheus comes into contact with his conscience: if initially the magly eagle was featherless, while talking and nourishing it with his liver, the animal grew stronger while Prometheus grew weaker.

Ça! un agile! Allons donc! – regardez-le ce pauvre oiseau râpé! Ça… un aigle! Allons donc! tout au plus une conscience.[6]

Prometheus, once carried out of prison by the eagle, had decided to give a speech affirming that:

«Premier point: il fault avoir un aigle.

«Deuxième point: D’ailleurs, nouns en avons tous un.[7]

Consciousness is the book’s key point and it is precisely what Prometheus’ speech revolves around. During the narration we discover that it was he who created mankind, who gave it intellect and fire. Over the centuries man’s foolish happiness and thus the eagle’s bith. Prometheus realises that he loves the eagle but no longer mankind.

Le bonheur de l’homme décrut, décrut, et ce me fut égal: l’aigle était né. Je n’aimais plus les hommes, c’était ce qui vivait d’eux que j’aimais. C’en était fait pour moi d’une humanité sans histoire… L’histoire de l’homme,c’est l’histoire des aigles, Messieurs.[8]

The story ends by showing how one can face one’s conscience: Prometheus returns well-fed, he has in fact killed and eaten his eagle; Damocles dies instead, consumed by his conscience, of rétrécissement de la colonne an allusion to Cocles’ appearance.

The story is imbued with symbolism, the classical names as well as the evoking myth become its parodies (of the myth or meaning attributed to them). The settings anticipate the Surrealist current by juxtaposing dream and reality: prison is both a physical and mental setting.

Gide was tormented by his conscience throughout his life, he did not kill it like Prometheus, he was neither overwhelmed by it like Damocles but defied it like Cocles.

«Il n’aura donc servi à rien?» demanda-t-on. «Ne dites donc pas cela, Coclès! Sa chair nous a nourris. Quand je l’interrogeais, il ne répondait rien… Mais je le mange sans rancune: s’il m’eût fait moins souffrir il eûté témoins gras; moins gras il eûté témoins délectable.» «De sa beauté d’hier, que reste-t-il?» «J’en ai gardé toutes les plumes.»[9]

[1] Aeschylus, Prometheus bound, Vancouver Island Univerity, Canada 2012, p.2

[2] According to the Cambridge dictionary at

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, Opere, Mondadori, Cles 2018, p.444

[4] This part of the text was translated by La Livella Magazine’s translator from its Italian version.

[5] When, on the heights of the Caucasus, Prometheus found that chains, clamps, strait- waistcoats, parapets, and other scruples, had on the whole a numbing effect on him, for a change he turned to the left, stretched his right arm and, between the fourth and fifth hours of an autumn afternoon, walked down the boulevard which leads from the Madeleine to the Opéra.

André Gide, Prometheus Illbound, Chatto and Windus, London 1919, p.11

[6] — That ! an eagle ! I don’t think ! ! Look at that poor gaunt bird ! That … an eagle! — Not much!! at the most, a conscience.

Ivi, p.40

[7] First head : One must have an eagle.

Second head : In any case, we all have one.

Ivi, p.59

[8] Man’s happiness grew less and less — but that was nothing to me : the eagle was born, gentlemen ! I loved men no more, I loved what fed on them. I had had enough of a humanity without history. . . . The history of man is the history of their eagles, gentlemen.

Ivi, p.67

[9] — Has he then been useless ? asked one.

— Do not say that, Codes ! — his flesh has nourished us. — When I questioned him he answered nothing, but I eat him without bearing him a grudge : if he had made me suffer less, he would have been less fat ; less fat, he would have been less delectable.

— Of his past beauty, what is there left.

— I have kept all his feathers.

Ivi, p.109