“Zeus Protector, protect us with care,
From the subtle sand of the Nile delta
Our ship set sail …….”
Originally thought to be the earliest extant Greek tragedy, having been produced in 490 B.C., more recent evidence places it with a trilogy produced in 470 B.C., making it one of Aeschylus’ later plays. More primitive in style than The Persians, and using the archaic practice of having the protagonist as the chorus, it’s possible that Aeschylus kept it unseen for 20 years, but his motivation for this concealment would certainly be inexplicable.
The play begins with the chorus of the fifty daughters of Danaus, having recently landed in Argos after fleeing Egypt, pleading with Zeus for his favour. In Homer’s, The Odyssey (Book IX), Zeus is referred to as the protector of suppliants, and in the maidens’ case, their Egyptian cousins have proposed marriage and, rather than submit, they chose to escape to the land of their ancestors.
“I sing suffering, shrieking,
Shrill and sad am weeping,
My life is dirges
And rich in lamentations,
Mine honour weeping …..”
As the maidens hold white olive branches over an altar, their father, Danaus, gives them instructions as to which gods to invoke for help for their protection. He muses that unwilling wives could not possibly be considered pure, and instructs his daughters to allow their behaviour to be guided by modesty.
Pelasgus, King of Argos, arrives with a contingent, and questions the strangers, remarking on their barbaric appearance. Seeing the altar, his puzzlement is apparent as to their knowledge of Argive ways. The maidens reveal that they are of Argive ancestry, descendents of Io who had been seduced by Zeus, transformed into a cow to hide her from his wife Hera who sent a gadfly to torment her, and so she wandered into Egypt. (see Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book I) In spite of the importance of kinship, Pelasgus hesitates, finally deciding to take this crucial question to the people (ah, a democracy!) in spite of the maidens’ pleas for his decision as king.
“You are not suppliants at my own hearth.
If the city stains the commonweal,
In common let the people work a cure.
But I would make no promises until
I share with all the citizens.”
However, the question of the fate of these maidens is not so simple. While they have no legal recourse to claim protection from the Argives, as suppliants they are invoking the protection of Zeus, and Pelasgus sympathizes with their plight. But if he grants them shelter, Egypt is likely to declare war and can he justify the blood of his people shed for strangers? His anxiety flows from his speeches.
“Alas! everywhere I’m gripped in strangle holds,
And like a swollen river evils flood;
Embarked on a sea of doom, uncrossed, abysmal,
Nowhere is anchorage. If I leave
This debt unpaid, you’ve warned of pollution
That shall strike unerringly, but if
I stand before these walls, and bring the battle
To the very end against Egyptus’
Sons, wouldn’t that become a bitter waste —- “
Pelasgus returns to the city with Danaus to discover the people’s will, but soon Danaus returns with happy tidings: the city has voted to protect the maidens with their lives, if necessary. The suppliants offer prayers in favour of their honoured protectors until ships are spotted in the sea, and an herald of Egypt arrives on shore to bring them home. If they resist, they risk their own blood and decapitation. Thus begins an exchange between the herald and maidens that is a sparring of might and justice. The maidens are not only struggling physically with their captors, but intellectually as well.
King Pelasgus finally arrives to offer support to the women in their resistance, accusing the stranger of insolence and irreverence, yet making it very clear that it is the maidens’ choice and if they don’t wish to go with their Egyptus cousins, he will protect them with all his resources. The play ends with the exit of the Herald, and Pelasgus inviting the maidens into the city, but a threat of war still hangs like a shroud over the Argives. However, the women are satisfied:
“Lord Zeus may he deprive us
Of an ill marriage
And a bad husband,
As Io was released from ill,
Protected by a healing hand,
Kind might did cure her. —
And strength may he assign us.
I am content if ill,
Is one-third my lot,
And justly, with my prayers,
Beside the saving arts of god,
To follow justice.”
To the maidens, prayers and justice are paramount when considering their freedom.
|The Danaides (1903)
John William Waterhouse
While this play certainly appears more archaic than The Persians, on the other hand, it is more intricate due to the moral and political questions that are brought to the surface and wrestled with quite effectively by King Pelasgus. It reminded me a little of Sophocles’ play, Antigone (which I haven’t reviewed yet, but will eventually) where there is a question of mortal or divine right over political or societal right. Does Pelasgus risk war in his kingdom and possibly watch his own people die, all for fifty foreigners with a tenuous connection to the land? Or is there a bigger question: is freedom and human dignity more important than life itself? Are preserving the importance of these ideas something that go beyond our human existence? It’s a powerful question and Aeschylus deals with it quite compellingly.
I quite like the presentation of King Pelagus, not as a powerful, dictatorial king, but as a leader who is truly concerned with what is best for his people. His mental struggle is defined by his desire to make a just decision, not simply a lawful one. Yet he doesn’t freely throw law out the window, and his impassioned agony of choice is very compelling as he resolves to defer to the will of the people. Yet when the Egyptians land, he is strong in his stand for what has been legally decreed, and zealously defends the maidens’ personal decision. His behaviour is parallel with King Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus where he is faced with a problem, struggles with it, yet despite possible negative ramifications, is determined to act in a just manner.
This play was somewhat difficult because of the translation, which in this case is not the translator’s fault, as it is simply in a form that does not translate well into English. Whatever its perceived problems, this play held my rapt attention and has become one of my favourites in my growing list of Greek drama.
translated by S.G. Benardete