Friday, January 28, 2022

The Suppliants by Aeschylus - This is the prelude to suffering and slavery.

That is almost literally what The Suppliants or The Suppliant Women (463 BCE) is, the prelude to what is likely a more tragic, more interesting pair of plays that we have lost.

The fifty daughters of Danaus, rejecting a forced marriage with their fifty male cousins, have fled Egypt for refuge in Greece, in Argos, the home of their distant relative Io, who was turned into a cow and raped by Zeus in the form of a bull.  (I love how everyone in the play just takes all of that for granted).  The Argives have a dilemma – reject the Danaids and break taboos of hospitality and religious sanctuary, or protect them and risk war with the Egyptians.  “I have entered this dispute to my own ruin,” worries the Argive king (67).  The Greeks make the latter choice, pretty clearly the ethically correct one, and the suppliant women are saved.  Hooray!  Curtain.

I don’t know how long the intermission was between plays in the Athenian theater.  Presumably long enough for some fish cakes, some wine, some discussion of the play.

Last week, in Seven Against Thebes, we saw the women of Thebes deliver a long, powerful song about their terrible fate if an army sacks their city.  In The Egyptians, the play that follows The Suppliants, it is likely that the Argives lose their bet, the city is sacked, or almost sacked, and the Danaids are forced to marry their cousins.  The play would end just before, or just after, forty-nine of the fifty brides simultaneously murder their husbands in bed.  This is what I take as the more interesting part of the story.

Anybody’s guess what happens in the third play.  One tradition is that the Danaids spend eternity in Hell futilely carrying water in leaky vases, as depicted in René Jules Lalique’s 1926 glass vase, this particular one now in the Dallas Museum of Art.  But more likely there is a reconciliation of some kind, like we will later see in The Eumenides.

I wonder if – no, I am certain that – there has been a production of the play in Greece where the Danaids are portrayed as Syrian refugees.  It would not take much tinkering.  The Danaids constantly emphasize – or the Philip Vellacott translation emphasizes – that the women are rejecting male violence:

And grant that we, descendants of Io his holy bride,

May escape the embrace of man,

And keep our virginity unconquered.  (58, repeated in a kind of chorus)

They are being pursued not by lust or gain but, they sing, “the male pride of the violent sons of Aegyptus” (55), and when an Egyptian character threatens war he hopes that “the male cause gain the victory and rule” (82).  A director does not have to wander too far from this text.

What else is in here?  This is the third play in a row with an altar in the center of the stage.  We’ll break the streak with the next one. 

The massive irony of the great-great-etc. granddaughters of one of Zeus’s many rapes appealing to Zeus for protection from rape is never addressed in the text that I could see, unless the curious arguments of the women’s maids at the very end are obliquely bringing it up.

How many people are on stage, anyway?  How big is this chorus?  All fifty women, plus their fifty maids?  Or more likely only twelve (plus maids).  Who knows.

One song of the chorus is especially beautiful, although horrible, the one where the suppliants imagine the peace of a sublime death:

Could I but find a seat in the blue air

Where drifting rain-clouds turn to snow,

Some smooth summit where even goats cannot climb,

A place beyond sight, aloof,

A dizzy crag, vulture-haunted,

To witness my plunge into the abyss,

To escape a forced marriage my heart refuses! (78)

The Suppliants is my least favorite Aeschylus play, but there is still plenty in it for a good rummage.  I wonder why it was preserved?  But I wonder that with most of the plays.

Next week we read Prometheus Bound, another first in a trilogy, and another strange one.  The date is unknown, and even the authorship of Aeschylus is an open question.  Talk about interesting.

The title quotation is on p. 77 of the Vellacott Penguin.



  1. In preparation for the Oresteia, I want to make sure everyone has access to Emily Wilson's brilliant LRB review (archived) of three new translations. A sample:

    These dense plays are concerned with a transition from a world of mystery to a world of history, from war to peace, from myth to reality, from aristocratic households to the democratic society of contemporary Athens. They describe the triumph of law over personal vendettas and revenge, and show the direct violence of the axe and the sword giving way to the buried structural violence of law and social institutions. They provide an implicit justification and celebration of recent Athenian history and the current political regime: in real life, the political and legal structures of democracy had replaced the old system of rule by tyrants, and there were still powerful aristocratic men in Athens who favoured oligarchy over democracy. But most fundamentally, the trilogy uses all these interwoven narratives to tell a story that justifies the triumph of men over women. The institution of the all-male democratic law court, presided over by its male-biased judge, is presented as the only possible solution to the endless violence of the earlier world, one in which the experiences and voices of angry, wronged, grieving women were allowed to matter as much as those of men. The first two plays show the terrible cost, to both men and women, of a society in which men favour their bonds with one another over those with their mothers, wives and children. When Agamemnon kills his daughter, his men ‘tie a fetter round her/lovely cheeks and face,/a gag to hold her tongue from words to put her/house beneath a curse’. The final play reframes the problem of female suffering by including no human female characters: the powerful Furies are far more menacing than pitiable, and their semi-violent subordination by Athena, who threatens them with her father’s thunderbolt, is presented as the only possible way for the play’s vulnerable male human, Orestes, to be saved.

  2. It will be nice to get to the Oresteia and see a whole trilogy, the entire argument laid out. Suppliants gets close to feeling like a long fragment.

    The myths are full of origin stories, and I take a number of plays - maybe the core of the dramatic project - as the Athenians, innovators in so many ways, turning the stories into origin stories about themselves.

  3. I'll be coming at The Oresteia from the point of view that everything in Emily Wilson's review quoted above is wrong (except the structural contempt for women, but this is not really part of Aeschylus' purpose).

    Here's 2 things to consider:

    1. The "transition from mystery to history" etc. The first 2 plays take place entirely in the world of humans; no gods appear in them. The 3rd play takes place entirely in the world of gods. This is one of 2 Aeschylus plays which takes place in the world of the gods (the other being Prometheus Bound). I think dramatically the audience probably noticed this distinction a lot more than we did. The 3rd play is far more concerned with religion, mystery, catharsis, than the other two.

    2. The idea that democracy appear in the plays at all seems to be something invented. Athenian legal procedure does appear in the play (briefly, as it does in other plays), but it is completely indecisive, and indeed refers the decision back to the gods. Perhaps it's nothing more than an artistic device to present both sides of the case.

    The question at the heart of the Eumenides is whether it was right for Orestes, in order to avenge his father, to kill his mother. (It's less to do with ending a cycle of revenge, as deciding whether the revenge was justifiable - not merely legally, but morally - cf. Euripides' Hecuba). This is essentially presented by Aeschylus as a question which is beyond answer (Athenian law can't answer it), so they come to some sort of expedient compromise.

    I will get to the Suppliants - from what i remember, i generally quite like it.

    The plays which survive for both Aeschylus and Sophocles are the canonical schorlarly editions - by which I've always understand, they were recognised as the best plays in the ancient world. Euripides has 10 canonical plays, and then some others (wikipedia has a useful breakdown), so we can conveniently compare "good" and "bad" plays.

    1. I'll be coming at The Oresteia from the point of view that everything in Emily Wilson's review quoted above is wrong

      That seems awfully dismissive of an expert in the field, not only a Professor of Classical Studies but a distinguished translator. She has a lot to say in the review; did you read the whole thing?

    2. No, I didn't read it all. I thought I was only obliged to read the quote. I've read it now. The section on comparative translations seemed interesting. I wasn't sure whether she thought Aeschylus intended his work as an indictment of society which oppressed women, or if this was just the way his work turned out because that was the society he lived in. (To be honest, I'm not sure myself if either of these is true). The remainder of the article seemed more of a comment on contemporary society.

  4. I'm quite sympathetic to #1. The switch in tone and matter in the last play is wild. For #2, my guess is that Wilson's use of the word "democracy" is more of a stand-in for "the Athenian system" or something like that. Maybe not, though.

    My understanding of the reasons for the survival of most of the plays - the "most" was to exclude the Alphabetical Euripides plays - is completely different from "recognised as the best play."

    I am referring to A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Blackwell, 2005), ed. Justina Gregory largely because it is available freely at See in particular the terrifying p. 387 of the “Text and Transmission” chapter by David Kovacs, the page titled, like a horror story, “The Corpus Is Narrowed Down.” No one has any idea what happened. Guesses have included pedagogy, popularity, "availability of commentaries," or some random artifact of changes in codex technology. Even "best" barely touches the "why these?" question, since it would be the best as determined by who knows who circa 250 CE.

  5. About the Suppliants. I again read the Benardete translation, about which, grr, but I could have read another one & the Johnston one did look better. But a couple of things from his interesting introduction:

    Until some papyrus fragment was found in the desert this was considered the earliest play--afterwards the date you give Tom was accepted. But Benardete wondered if the play wasn't sitting in Aeschylus' desk drawer for twenty years until he wrote next two. No evidence, of course, but not a crazy hypothesis.

    Also he inclines to the Eumenides read of the third play. Here's a speech fragment (Aphrodite speaking) that he translates:

    As the sacred heaven longs to pierce the earth,
    So love takes hold of earth to join in marriage,
    And showers, fallen from heaven brought to bed,
    Make the earth pregnant; and she in turn gives birth
    To flocks of sheep and Ceres' nourishment--
    A marriage that drenches the springtime of the woods--
    For all this I am in part responsible.

    Benardete takes this as Aphrodite's defense of Hypermnestra at a Eumenides-like final trial of her oath-breaking (and refusal to murder her husband).

    Thanks, Languagehat, for the Emily Wilson link. Looks pretty fascinating.

  6. So much of what I think I know about these plays is based on no evidence! Or close to it. I am having an epistemological crisis.

    Wilson really lays into that poor Bernstein guy - "an innocent amateur," geez. Admittedly the two Bernstein lines Wilson quotes are beyond awful.

    1. We're all just amateur readers.

      I shall definitely now be reading the Robert Browning translation of Agamemnon.

  7. This did seem like a setup to something more interesting. The Chorus as protagonist is an intriguing concept, but it's hard to envision how it would work in practice. More than the other plays we've read so far, this seems alien to my ideas of drama.

    I found the question-and-answer session about Io, in which the Chorus proves their Argive ancestry to Pelasgus, rather silly. But it does pay off in the similar Q&A down the line where the women demonstrate to Pelasgus the articles of clothing they will use to hang themselves. "These statues here
    will be adorned with strange new votive plaques" is an appropriately creepy line (Johnston's translation).

  8. The Emily Wilson article was good food for thought. And I'm grateful for her link to A.E. Housman's "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy", which is well worth a read. A line that follows particularly well from my prior comment: "Why should I mention Io? Why indeed? I have no notion why."

  9. That suicide threat, one of the plays great moments. Shocking.

    The strangeness of the earlier Aeschylus plays has been clearer to me. none of them are "typical." Ajax may be closer to "typical."

  10. This is one of the plays that seemed awfully alien to me. In fact the more I think about it, the more distant and foreign all of the tragedies seem. Greek theater is so heavily stylized, even in Euripides, that it's hard to know what to think, how to engage with what's onstage. Did the original audiences experience these the way we experience theater? I doubt it. I have no idea what they thought, how much the on-stage action reflected Athenian norms, how much it challenged/parodied/ignored those norms. We attended a production of "Medea" a couple of years ago, and while we were familiar with the play (whose plot is pretty straightforward), it was still baffling on many levels. I am not sure that we can really see the ancient Athenians from here, if you know what I mean. No, none of this is specifically about "the Suppliants," except that whenever I read it, I just sort of scratch my head and ask why. Some great poetry, some excellent and surprising figurative language, but I can't get past the opacity of the culture or the personality that created it.

  11. Yes, same for me, this one and Seven Against Thebes. Even the super-strange Prometheus Bound seems less alien, perhaps because it is easier to turn it into a fairy tale. Which does not get me closer to that original audience! I doubt it does.

    On the other hand, "hard to know what to think," yes, only because of the abundance of things to think. So many things to think, extraordinary things.

  12. Yeah, Prometheus a retelling of a familiar myth, what a relief. Well within my comfort zone, I know what I'm doing there. Some snappy dialogue between a couple of gods, it's all good, right? I may be misreading it, but I'm comfortable misreading it that way.

  13. Exactly.

    It is too bad there are no really early Aeschylus plays. Everything must have been changing so fast - the music, the masks, the number of people on stage, everything. Many of those innovations may well be credited to Aeschylus. But it is all murk.

  14. Primed by some interestingly cherry-picking scholarly article, I was reading this considering what exactly was Danaos and the Danaids' game. What is it they're seeking refuge from? Are the Danaids opposed to this marriage, or to all marriages (there are passages which would suggest either)? If Danaos is their father, why doesn't he simply decide who they marry? It's not like there's any disagreement between them. To me, it only makes sense overall, if we assume this marriage is being forced on Danaos as well (this is certainly the implication from other versions of the story). But then, why does no one say this? The Danaids aren't against all marriage: they just don't want a marriage based on lust/love; what they want is a proper marriage where their father determines who they should marry and they just obey him.

    Vellacott seems to think Danaos is a very Machiavellian character, but my feeling was he came out of the play as a very weak character – begging support, and letting her daughters act and plead, when he should have been himself. For V, this leads to Danaos taking the active role in the rest of the play, but I don't know; it seems a remarkable change of character, particularly when we know he's going to give in on the marriage question, and then have the Egyptians murdered by his daughters (which again sounds like he's acting from a weak and vicarious position). Of course, in theory Danaos needs to become the legendary king of Argos (somehow). Pelasgos certainly seems curiously uncertain about the extent of his kingship in the first part. It may be that there's some debate in the next part between Pelasgos and Danaos about who should be king (based on how they should deal with the Egyptians – Danaos proposing they murder them – but also based on their respective hereditary claims), and the Argives choose Danaos. This debate is mentioned in Pausanias' c2ndAD travel guide to the area. Then the last part is probably to do with the aftermath of the murder, and the trial of Hypermnestra (again, Pausanias goes on about this trial). Pausanias also mentions how much the Argives are into Aeschylus, though this is actually in reference to characters from Seven Against Thebes. (According to Pausanias, you could also visit in Argos an underground room made entirely of bronze, where a man kept his daughter locked up – presumably for that creepy, serial-killer vibe).

  15. What a tourist site.

    This is pretty much what I though, except where I was merely confused about Danaos you have thought it through. The next two plays must define or rescue his character, but how?

  16. Himadri on The Suppliants: "If these questions aren’t resolved at the end of this play, that need not be seen as a dramatic flaw: whatever we may conjecture about the remaining plays of the trilogy, we can be sure those plays do no resolve these questions either; these questions have no answer."