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.”
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.
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!