Friday, September 16, 2022

The Cyclops by Euripides - the only satyr play - the greatest god of all, / this belly of mine!

It’s The Cyclops by Euripides, the only surviving satyr play and the greatest mistake in my chronology of the Greek plays.  No one really knows the date on this one, so I arbitrarily placed it late, and reading it again I am convinced it likely is a late Euripides play, but still I should have scheduled it much earlier just so we could all read a satyr play.

Every set of three tragedies was followed by a short comedy starring a chorus of hybrid man-horses with prominent phalluses.  The most Dionysian part of the Festival of Dionysius, some plot of the action would be about wine and drunkenness.

CYCLOPS: Whoosh! I can scarcely swim out of this flood.

Pure pleasure! Ohhh. Earth and sky whirling around,

all jumbled up together!  Look: I can see

the throne of Zeus and the holy glory

of the gods.   (The satyrs dance around him suggestively.) (p. 34, tr. Arrowsmith)

Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote such things.  The Oresteia and Oedipus the King were followed by such creatures.  Three playwrights per festival, so three satyr plays per year for how long?  No one knows, but there have to have been hundreds of satyr plays.

Or, given that Euripides’s tragicomedy Alcestis was performed in the position of the satyr play, perhaps not.  Maybe only half the plays that capped the tragedies were satyr plays, and half were something else.  Who knows.  There would still be at least a couple hundred satyr plays.  It sounds like such a narrow genre. 

Yet The Cyclops is clearly a Euripides play, hitting some of his usual themes from a different direction.  Adapting the Cyclops episode form The Odyssey, and arbitrarily adding Silenus and the satyrs and a bottomless wine flask, Euripides pits the barbaric savagery of the Cyclops against the civilized savagery of Odysseus, as much of a Machiavellian here as in his villainous roles in other Euripides plays (we have one more ahead of us in Iphigenia in Aulis).

Odysseus tries to save himself and his men with a terrific, disingenuous, speech extolling the virtues of Greece and their defense of peace – the recent war was of course entirely the fault of the Trojans  – virtue and the gods; Cyclops is all appetite and does not care:

And as for sacrifices, I make mine,

not to the gods, but the greatest god of all,

this belly of mine! (25)

But both turn to violence in the end.  The Cyclops has a lot of murder and gore for a comedy.  It is a different kind of comedy, anyway, than that of Aristophanes.

The British Museum has a beautiful bowl depicting the moment before the blinding of the Cyclops.  Please note the two Euripidean horse-satyrs on the right.  The bowl is a likely a close contemporary of the play.

Next week: Odysseus returns in Philoctetes by Sophocles (409 BCE), a calming relief from the hysterics and turbulence of Aristophanes and Euripides.  Philoctetes, too, was likely followed by a play about dancing, singing, drunken, horny horse-men.


  1. The language in this play is elegant and fine, of the same high standard as Euripides' other plays of this time period (if it's really a late play, which it does look like). I was surprised by how well it was written. But it's hardly a comic romp, is it? It's more or less the Polyphemus episode out of Homer, with some satyrs thrown in and a couple of jokes stolen from Aristophanes. There is no comic solution to Odysseus' problem. It's not very imaginative at all, frankly. Which is why I think that something else is going on. If it comes on the tail of the Sicilian Expedition, that might explain Euripides' choice, but I can't claim I understand any of his symbolism if he's talking about current events. I'm probably trying too hard to make is deeper than it is.

    It's better written than Alcestis, but maybe less funny. Drunken Hercules was pretty good. It's too bad we don't have more of the fourth plays, whatever they were, especially from other poets.

  2. I don't know why that posted anonymously. This is Scott Bailey writing. Supposedly I'm logged in as I type this, but who knows what Blogger will do.

  3. Did you read Shelley's translation as well? It's inevitably bowdlerized, given his time and place, but it's a fun little piece in its own right.

    I read all the Greek plays a couple of years ago, so I haven't been reading along, but I'm enjoying your posts. I wonder about a couple of things. Since so many plays are lost, we don't know if Euripides was a typical or atypical playwright. And I wish we had the music. The only surviving music is a bit from "Orestes," which is credited to Euripides himself, although it's probably best to be dubious. And again, there's no way to know if it's typical.

    (The anonymous Doug Skinner,)

  4. I found this reasonably fun. In the idea of it following up three tragedies, I could imagine it feeling like the throwaway songs that sometimes end long albums, often as hidden tracks - like "Her Majesty", or the runout track of "A Day in the Life" - just a little palate cleanser to send you home with. Nobody's favorite play probably, but I could see it working in context.

    And this isn't without its points of interest, like the general themes it gestures toward. I do just like imagining the rest of the Odyssey as having a band of satyrs present. Maybe they're the ones who opened that bag of winds, looking for more wine? Or they got all the suitors drunk at the end so Odysseus could kill them?

  5. So many questions about the satyr plays, complete mysteries, really. Were they generally this well written and conceived, or were they more often throwaway genre pieces? It is hard to imagine Sophocles throwing anything away. But it is also hard to imagine that he wrote perhaps sixty of these things. And we have only a rumor about what they were like.

    The music, the dancing, another great mystery, a great loss.

    Euripides was definitely not typical. As we see in The Frogs, the idea of the three greatest playwrights was in place by the end of the lives of Sophocles and Euripides, and has never changed since. The one big change is that as the texts and performances of the plays spread around the Mediterranean, Euripides became the most popular Greek playwright. This was at a point when far more texts were available. Who knows what that means, though.

    Odysseus's sailors often act like satyrs, as does the boss, so the satyr theory explains a lot.

    I assumed Aristotle argued that the satyr plays were some kind of counter to or cleansing of tragic catharsis. Or maybe he never mentioned them.

    Which reminds me: Plato's Symposium is coming up in a couple of weeks.

  6. By typical I didn't mean average... I think of Euripides as the unpredictable innovator of the three tragedians, but with so many lost plays I have to wonder how many other playwrights shared that esthetic. We only have two other tragedians to compare him to.

    Fortunately, we don't just have a rumor about the satyr plays of Sophocles: there's a large fragment of "Ichneutae." And there's a substantial bit of an Aeschylus satyr play too, "Dictyulci." Both intriguing!

    (Doug Skinner)

  7. No, we have no idea. Were there Euripides imitators, or disciples, or enemies among the playwrights?

    Thanks for the pointer to "Ichneutae." I read it today, and it has only added to the mystery. At least in the 1917 translation it could hardly be more different than "The Cyclops."

    I see it is one of those early 20th century Egyptian papyrus discoveries, like Menander. Maybe there will be more of those someday.

  8. That guessing game about the lyre surprised me. I suppose the audience had fun because they knew the answer and the chorus didn't.

    Here's what's left of the Aeschylus satyr play, if you're curious (fragments 274 and 275). More mystery!:

    (Doug Skinner)

  9. Yes, the riddle was interesting, at gets at the difference with Euripides in tone. Both plays are broadly speaking comic, but the Sophocles is a much milder thing.

    For those who have not seen it, baby Hermes invents the lyre, and there is a quite long guessing game about it - what has the baby made?

  10. One translation is here.

    The more I read about the satyr plays, the more interesting they become. The satyrs are recurring characters, getting into all sorts of adventures and mischief, meeting mythic characters and getting in trouble, sort of like the Keystone Kops.

  11. Ah - continuity! Yes.

    I'll also mention that the Sophocles play is not at all smutty, although the translation has lots of Latin footnotes, so as with Gibbon I assume the good stuff is hidden there.