Aeschylus “The Suppliants”

“Hateful, and fain of love more hateful still,
Foul is the bird that rends another bird,
And foul the men who hale unwilling maids,
From sire unwilling, to the bridal bed.
Never on earth, nor in the lower world,
Shall lewdness such as theirs escape the ban:
There too, if men say right, a God there is
Who upon dead men turns their sin to doom,
To final doom. Take heed, draw hitherward,
That from this hap your safety ye may win.”

-Aeschylus, The Suppliant Maidens, (Herbert Weir Smyth translation)

Aeschylus is sometimes called “the father of tragedy”. Positioned at the beginning of the Athenian cultural boom, his plays are the oldest Greek dramas to survive. I point out this potential answer to a Jeopardy question because Aeschylus helps to illustrate something about “the great books”: their mixture of strangeness and sustained relevance. Perhaps we can say they deal with common human problems and offer culturally and historically specific answers. (A first stab at a definition?)

This brings us to The Suppliants, once considered the oldest drama we have (now, the second), and one I still found startlingly relevant now that we have the people of Haiti in our thoughts, because it asks: “Are societies ever in the right in turning away refugees?” Admittedly, the refugees here are in a more bizarre situation: the fifty daughters of the Egyptian prince Danaus, the Danaides, are fleeing Egypt where their Uncle, Aegyptus, is trying to force them to marry his sons, their cousins. According to the myth, they will eventually be claimed and forty-nine of them will kill their husbands on their wedding nights. But, in the play, they have arrived en masse on the shores of Argos and want to be granted asylum.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the maidens- they’re fleeing being forced into marriages, and hence sexual relationships that they find morally abhorrent. Incest is the oldest human taboo and one every society has shared. All nature rises up against it, as the Danaides claim: “even birds would fain pollute their race”. King Oedipus will gouge out his eyes in horror over incest. The Danaides, all fifty of them, vow they will either take asylum in Argos, or the noose.

In a larger sense, women throughout history would easily relate to the maidens’ predicament when they say, “save me from marriage with a man I hate.” Marriages were still arranged, of course; there’s not much talk of love when it comes to a woman’s marital destiny. Plato even suggests (in the Symposium) that true love is to be found in adultery. The norm was for virgins to be offered up to men they barely knew on their wedding night. Aeschylus’s comparisons between predatory young men and birds of prey still ring true. Even today, there are still young women in many parts of the world who will relate to the Danaides’ lament: “Never, oh never, may I fall subject to the power and authority of these men. To escape this marriage that offends my soul I am determined to flee, piloting my course by the stars.”

Rodin's Danaide

King Pelasgus seemingly has an easy choice to make. Morality compels him to protect these maidens in need, and he has reason to believe that Zeus protects them; no one can defy Zeus and fare well. (In the Odyssey, Homer tells us that Zeus is the protector of suppliants and travelers in need of hospitality.) I think we still see asylum as a simple moral imperative; we cannot turn away victims to be further victimized, if we can protect them. Ah, but there’s the rub- at some point, we cannot protect them. How much security can we provide before we compromise our own safety? Here, Argos is a relatively small city-state and the fleet of fifty hot and bothered Egyptians are coming to claim their wives; there is good reason to believe they will make war over this. (Clearly, the pickings were pretty slim in Egypt at this time!) Should Pelasgus obey the moral imperative if it means getting his people slaughtered?

And what if this other culture simply does things differently? Does the law of Zeus apply to those who worship other gods? In fact, the Danaides are not a different people at all, but are also of the Argive race. Descent matters for the Greeks, having one foot still in the tribal world. Kin and clan, and race, matter. The mythological background: Io, a priestess of Hera was seduced by Zeus. To keep his mistress on the down low, Zeus turned her into a heifer, but his wife Hera got wise and tormented Io with a gadfly. Driven to distraction, Io eventually wandered around the Eastern edge of the world to Egypt. She is the patron saint of restlessness and mania. Danaus is among her descendants, so the Danaides and their father are reconnecting with racial kin in Argos. Even these alien refugees come from the same family.

King Pelasgus chooses to let the people decide, a move that terrifies the maidens. Will the Argive people respond to the moral imperative, or guard their own security? What do populations do when the two are at odds? Making the choice collectively, will they find mutual support in taking the coward’s way out? Will the maidens end up like Kitty Genovese: victimized because the onlooking crowd doesn’t want to get involved? Does democracy result in heightened ethics, or do we sink lower together? Aeschylus is playing off to the growing interest in Athenian democracy, but hesitantly. How will people choose wisely? If the choice is between turning a blind eye to the rape of these outsiders and sending their own children to be slaughtered, what is the right thing to do?

This assumption, that the citizenry might well make the wrong decision, if it is left in their hands, seems strange to me, but it’s characteristic of Greek drama. The Greeks still have the tragic sense of humanity. By tragic, I don’t mean gloomy or despairing; but the sense that humans are nearly equivalent to gods, to our credit, while often unable to make wise use of the gifts we’ve been given, provoking frustration and worry. E. A. Havelock calls this, “a dynamic mood which generates both ambition and caution, both action and reflection.” In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus will refer to man’s gift of fire, and thus techne, as a tragedy. Here, Aeschylus plays off his audience’s suspicion that man, if given the responsibility to sublimate his will to the greater good that democracy requires, will fall short. His Chorus of Danaides is doubtful about the will of the people. This might strike us as undemocratic, but it’s a measure of human nature.

The other oddity, also common to the Greeks, is the intense fervor of these characters. I’m reminded of something Kierkegaard wrote: “Let others complain that our age is evil; my complaint is that it is paltry. For it is without passion… The thoughts in (our) hearts are too paltry to be sinful.” He is thinking of the Old Testament, but the difference is here too. Unlike us, these characters are not vague, or ironic, or cerebral. The Egyptian men cross the sea to wage war and seize the women they desire. The Danaides are ready to hang themselves if forced to marry the men they hate. Coming in an age of therapy and “dysfunction”, we want them to take their lithium! Yet, like Kierkegaard, I feel we’re lacking. The Greeks are fearful about these passions, but realize that they are in some way inescapable. We’ve learned to manage, and to escape them.

But, for my money, Aeschylus screws up the play when it comes to the public vote, leaving it off-stage. He builds tension about the vote and then has Danaus come on stage to inform us how it went: Good news! The maidens will stay. (Oops! “Spoiler alert”!)

Of course, the play is already almost comically complicated- after all, the “Chorus” is made up of fifty women, who are also protagonists in the story. Drama is not yet perfected. Perhaps the reason The Suppliants isn’t performed more often is that it’s likely hard to stage it without it turning into farce.

Nevertheless, the quick denouement is a real let down. I felt a bit ripped off and yelled “What are you doing, Aeschylus?!” at the text. My wife has, thankfully, come to expect these sorts of outbursts; the cat was a bit frightened. It’s still very disappointing to me how Aeschylus plays this off as a very easy choice, when the whole play argues that it’s not an easy choice. Sticking our neck out to protect the weak and victimized is never as easy as it should be. Not in this life. Sure, the Argive democracy “does the right thing”. But, it seems to me that the point of the play is that these debates will take place in democracies for generations to come because it’s seldom written in thunder what the right thing might be.

Endnotes:

1. I used the translation by Herbert Weir Smith from 1922. I suspect the Penguin Classics edition is better, but this was available in the library and online. Soon, I hope to figure out how to link to online texts, and thus step boldly into the 21st century!

2. Next, I’d like to do The Iliad, which takes a bit more time. Here, I really do like the Penguin Classics edition, in which Peter Jones and D. C. H. Rieu updated the older translation by E. V. Rieu.

3. I started with Aeschylus because the play focuses mainly on men, while the Iliad requires a discussion of gods who are immanent in the world. By contrast, I’d like to discuss Bach’s Cantata 82 before long, in which God can act on men through grace, but there is felt a radical separation between the Divine and Mundane.

4. As always, please make comments, complaints, et cetera. This is my first reading of The Suppliants and my first reading of Aeschylus since my undergrad days, and again, I’m a relative pisher when it comes to the Greeks!

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29 thoughts on “Aeschylus “The Suppliants”

  1. Fascinating and very interesting. If I may inquire, what was the play that dethroned this one as our oldest greek drama to survive?

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  2. Excellent essay.

    I’m ruminating on “Jaybird’s Theory Of Tragedy” as we speak.

    You say Nevertheless, the quick denouement is a real let down and I have to defend Aeschylus here… or, to put a finer point on it, agree with you with a caveat. We are exceptionally sophisticated now. We’ve all read not only The Oedipus Cycle, but Lear, and Faust, and probably even The Flies. Even if we haven’t done that, we’ve at least seen Terms of Endearment and Beaches. We stand on the shoulders of giants. When we look at Aeschylus and see how he solves the biggest problem in the play offstage, yeah. We feel ripped off… but, dude. He was forging new ground here. He didn’t even have Aristotle around.

    We are used to thousands of years of refining and convention and we’ve read the masters of the form.

    Aeschylus? Dude. He was standing on the shoulders of people who weren’t even worth the effort of ensuring fragments be saved.

    Which is not to say that I don’t feel ripped off. I do.

    But that’s because I’ve read Aristotle and Lear and Faust and The Flies.

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    • Something else to keep in mind is that Greek dramas were performed as trilogies, of which the Suppliants was only one part. So Aeschylus likely had one or two more plays to wrap things up, but those are lost.

      Certainly the Oresteia (the only trilogy to survive complete) has a strong resolution in the form of the Eumenides.

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      • Those are good points. Aeschylus was also remembered as an innovator- before him, apparently, drama consisted of an actor interacting with the chorus for most of the play. That definitely would have gotten old.

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  3. A few thoughts/questions:

    How does the action of the play reconcile with the eventual unwilling marriage of the maidens?

    How does the play square with the reality that the gods frequently forced themselves on unwilling women? The myths are rife with stories of rape. How is it that the same Zeus who raped Leda is now the protector of unwilling brides?

    And the quote from Kierkegaard reminds me of “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which the titular demon laments the thin, poor quality of the souls of even the sinners of our age.

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    • Hey Dan,
      (Spoilers)
      From what I’ve read the unwilling maidens are ordered by their Father to marry the 50 men and then murder them in their wedding beds. 49 of the maidens do so but the 50th choses not to and is going to be punished for her disobedience to her Father until the gods intervene in a deus ex machina and resolve the issue. The 50th girl and her husband go on to rule Argos.

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    • It’s pretty much what Paul B says above: this play was the first in a trilogy, of which the other two plays have been lost. It is believed that the maidens married their suitors in a later play and, as North mentions, their father instructed them to kill the husbands on their wedding night, which 49 0f 50 went through with. We think this was probably the resolution because of how other writers remember the myth. Nobody can be sure though.

      Of Aeschylus’s body of work, there are seven surviving plays, of an incredible 70-90 that he is believed to have written, usually in trilogies. Not only that, but he was a distinguished soldier who took part in the Battle of Marathon. It’s enough to make one feel really lazy and unaccomplished!

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      • As for Zeus, he’s alluded to by the maidens because he is thought to protect travelers seeking shelter and suppliants: at least, this is asserted by Homer in the Odyssey. He doesn’t appear in the play though. And I think it’s not so much a matter of rape being offensive to Zeus as the idea that, if a helpless traveler comes to you and you victimize them, or turn them over to others to be victimized, you could be punished severely for it. It’s understandable given the times and similar ideas appear elsewhere. The Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah can be read the same way.

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  4. “Aeschylus helps to illustrate something about “the great books”: their mixture of strangeness and sustained relevance.”

    But is the relevance sustained? As you go through history, the attention people pay to the “classics” rises and falls. People ditched Homer for a long time. Same is true with Aristotle, Plato, etc. The infatuation western society had with the classics in, say, the late 1800s and early 1900s in terms of literature and architecture, was something quite new to people at the time.

    And actually, in most eras, most people don’t engage with these texts at all. It’s just a few fuddy-duddies (how’s that for a dated term?) using words that nobody else understands. I am not sure how this interacts with the fact that most of these texts were not texts at all, but performances for an admiring PUBLIC.

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    • Well does it matter that interest in them wanes so long as it eventually waxes? I’d assume that irrelevant books would wane and then vanish into the insatiable maw of time and entrophy.

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    • The play is intended to be staged, to be sure, but the story touches on issues that are indeed transcendent of place and time. I thought Rufus did a very nice job of bringing that out while still keeping the play grounded in its own time and its own ethos.

      Were the play to be staged today, we might breach the fourth wall and send the Danaides out into the audience to pass out ballots. Then the audience votes. The outcome is pre-determined, of course, but I suspect that the audience would actually vote to grant sanctuary much more often than not.

      Or would they? That’s why the theme here is transcendent of place and time.

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  5. I think it does matter, if the question is their “sustainability.” Quite beyond the fact that the interest is not actually sustained, there arises the question of what the classics are “for.” For historical perspective, so as not to repeat history? DO we assume that these people are geniuses, and therefor have moral lessons to teach us? Is the value “literary” in the sense that we read great art to be able to make great art? All of these questions lead to others. If it’s really moral training we are after, and “teaching the kids,” it would seem better to ditch the old stories and update them with more modern language and situations. But if the idea is something else, then different approaches are in order. Can a kid really step out of himself long enoough to get past the fact that it was the gods doing so much of the work in Homer? I remember reading it and thinking, but wait… that guy’s not a hero. He’s a puppet.

    I still have that reaction from time to time.

    So does the original intent matter? Etc. Etc. Etc.

    And when we see people like ourselves, or eras like ours, interested or disinterested in these texts… what conclusions can we draw? I think it’s important that not all eras and not all people are equally interested.

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    • Here’s my theory, for what it is worth.

      I reckon that if there is something akin to Platonic Truth, and if we (humans) are capable of detecting it and learning about it, then it is something that we (humans) would be able to detect and learn about independently of whether we’re humans in 2010, 1910, 1710, or 390 BC.

      The stuff that they saw, we can see.

      But, I hear you argue, how do you know that we’re not in an informational cascade where they (understandably, mind) reached a bad conclusion because of bad premises and we’re sharing the exact same bad premises?

      I don’t.

      Whaddayagonnado?

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      • It’s definitely true that not all eras and people are equally interested. It seems, at least to me, that revivals of interest tend to correspond to breakdowns in the established social order, and renewed searches for meaning. If you read his letters, Erasmus really does hope to gain something like Platonic Truth to apply to his own existence by reading the best of the ancients. It’s also true that a good number of his associates and those around him are dying of the plague.

        What I find worthwhile in the greatest works from the past is a mix of details or ideas that I find totally foreign and bound to their time and place, blended with ideas, concerns, or beliefs that I find immediately recognizable. There are plenty of works from those eras that mean very little to anyone who’s not a historian; but by “sustainability”, I suppose I mean those works that continue to carry the shock of relevance- of connection with the most intimate thoughts of someone in a different time and place. Good writing and art, I find, makes me think, “I never looked at it that way, but my god, that’s exactly how it is!” The best writers help me along greatly in my own thinking. I wish we still talked frequently about “mind-expanding” art and writing. Too often, I find contemporary culture to be mind-contracting!

        In my own dissertation work, I read a lot of French novels from the 18th century and the majority are totally irrelevant now, if you’re not a historian. Every now and again, you come across a writer like Rousseau who can bridge the gap by being so recognizably human, and take you to a new place inside your own head. They become a part of your mental furniture.

        I do think young people gain by learning to step outside of themselves in this way, but I’m not sure if most of them are able to, or if their teachers try to help them to. Entirely too much of “education” is busy work and trying to make the kids more diligent instead of thoughtful.
        One thing that worries me is that the sort of… for lack of a better term, transcendent experiences I’ve sought in art and literature only come to me (and very rarely then) after long, sustained, and focused attention. Longinus’s conception of the sublime was recently mentioned, but it’s not an experience that comes when attention is divided, distracted, and partial- in which case it’s impossible to step out of one’s self. It’s something akin to gnosticism. How can a generation of low-attention digital addicts actually experience anything that takes them out of themselves in that way? You ask that question and people accuse you of being an old fuddy duddy who hates rock’n’roll, but I’m not that old.

        Maybe there will never be another revival of interest in these works. But, I still find myself dissatisfied with the culture we’ve gotten handed in exchange for the great works. A David Bowie line keeps returning to my mind: “I’m so wiped out with things as they are”. At the risk of being melodramatic, I often feel myself immersed in a culture that feels to be both too much and nothing.

        It could be that only I feel that way. But, even so, we need to tend our own gardens and keep the great works around until they’re needed, while picking out the rare contemporary gems and keeping them too.

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        • In reading this I couldn’t help thinking of Kazantzakis’s Zorba. I’m probably way off here but the hero of the novel is not necessarily Zorba so much as the Narrator “tending his own garden.” Zorba’s classic phrase, “What’s the use of all your damn books if they can’t tell you that?” is a question that if asked, can’t be answered because the questioner probably wouldn’t understand. I think the Universal has to sensed in some way before there can be an understanding of why these writings are important.

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  6. Bravo Rufus, excellent analysis!
    A couple of comments:
    At the time of The Supplicants Greek (Athenian) society was acting on a theoretical interpretation suggested by Plato that “God is the Measure,” which is a “new truth” that acted to overrule the Protagorean “Man is the measure.” Where Plato took up the work of Heraclitus (and others) in penetrating the problem of being in the tension of existence and where the enlightened wrestler in engendering the problem of compactness and differentiation discerned the psyche as that place in man where the openness of the soul is experienced through the opening of the soul itself (North are you with me?). This is one really big reason why Plato was a beautiful mystic who always sought the truth and reality of God ‘s order.
    So Plato had developed the “true order of the soul” after Aeschylus had written The Supplicants, but in your critique you intimate Plato’s qualification of the anthropological principle (man is the measure), that world-immanent man is now a being existing/moving in a tension defined by the poles of not only immanence but more importantly transcendence in the work and I agree. Man and God are beings existing in creation and because of this insight Plato came up with the words that would symbolize this new truth with the first word being “theology,” which has a certain irony.
    The Supplicants then is a tragedy that seeks to examine and explicate a “new” type of social order where the truth of the soul is experienced “through the tragedy of the public cult.” It is critical, I think, to be aware that Aeschylus was a warrior at Marathon and the effects of that battle on the Athenian, both as a being and as a member of a cult.
    And, finally, the “constitutional” king Pelasgus consulted the demos where the people listen carefully and follow their king’s “descent into the depth of the soul.” The king’s righteous wisdom persuades the Demos and allows the Dike of Zeus to overcome their passion so that their democratically deduced decision is then, the truth of God. And, of course, we can reflect here on our own society’s failure to seek that truth and the horrible consequences we’ve paid…and, will continue to pay for we are man.
    Aeschylus was a truly brilliant fellow. The Supplicants speak to us of a demos under a leader who seeks the truth of God in a penetrating search/seeking/quest of the depths of the soul, a king(aristocrat) whose rhetoric is so beautiful and true and representative of the Dike that he’s able to persuade the demos. There action may result in suffering and misery experienced as tragedy in the state cult but they are acting on the will of God.

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    • Hmmm well if these dissertations from Rufus are going to lure such interesting contributions from you Bob then the League will doubly benefit. I’m going to have to read that a couple more times before I think I’m going to be able to make head or tails of it. Perhaps my neglect of the philosophies and classics was an error.

      As to souls I’m all about wrestlers, though I’ve never practiced myself, but I’m agnostic, alas, as to whether my soul is open or shut for I’ve not located the thing yet to inquire. I’ll endeavor to maintain an open mind in lieu but I’ll cop to some areas of willful orneriness. I can be stubborn.

      You’re in trouble now though Bob. I’ll be expecting a comment from you of at least comparable quality and interestingness on each of Rufus’ further contributions.

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    • Thanks, Bob! Like North, I’ll have to reread this a few times to fully appreciate it.

      I still feel like the magnitude of what Socrates/Plato did is only starting to sink into my lesser brain. It really is a shift in the order of existence, isn’t it? I love Homer, but his gods are more like local spirits: this goddess lives in that river, that god lives in this cave- hence, there’s no trouble reconciling them.
      The development of a single transcendent God seems, at least to me (and I hope this doesn’t offend believers) to necessitate “religious intolerance” in some way. If the next town over worships Dagon and you worship Hera, who cares? But, if they worship a localized, immanent divinity, and you worship the transcendent God who radically re-orders the direction of being, it becomes a real problem- it’s not so much another deity; theirs is now a false existence. I wonder if this is why the Athenians put Socrates on trial; following the theological idea through would have destroyed the public order by rendering it false. It certainly seems to be the reason that the Philistines couldn’t live with the Israelites and vice-versa.

      It seems to me that what’s tragic now isn’t so much the failure to seek the truth as much as a failure to imagine that we’re likely to fail in that search, given our innate limitations. We vaguely remember the search, but have lost the sense of boundedness.

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      • Rufus, there is much to discuss. I look forward to your offerings and from them the dialectic, and from that the truth. North and Jaybird, my friends, we will enjoy brother Rufus, critique him, and demand more. Rufus, the work of differentiation from the compact mytho-speculation to Yahweh to the Logos has long been completed. We live in the “end times” but we have ever since Calvary.

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        • “The work of differentiation from the compact mytho-speculation to Yahweh to the Logos has long been completed.”

          Bob– Suggested reading, if one were to follow up on that? Not afraid to get my hands dirty. Thanks.

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  7. Brady, allow me to suggest two ‘collections’ from the collected works of Dr. Voegelin:
    1.Vol. 5, Modernity Without Restraint, which is three volumes in one. First, The Political Religions, Second, The New Science of Politics, and Third, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.

    2.Also Voegelin’s five volume work titled: Order and History:
    which includes: 1. Israel and Revelation
    2. The World and the Polis
    3. Plato and Aristotle
    4. The Ecumenic Age
    5. In Search of Order
    If you have difficulty in locating these volumes try the University of Missouri Press, where they are published. I’ll be looking forward to your comments.

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  8. Anyone wishing to delve into the old Greek historians, dramatists, philosophers, poets should begin with an overview by modern scholars. Two delightful works are: Stringfellow Barr, THE WILL OF ZEUS: a History of Greece from the Origins of Hellenic Culture to the Death of Alexander; and Robin Lane Fox, THE CLASSICAL AGE, from Homer to Hadrian. Puts things in context. Enjoy.

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