"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

29 October 2013

The Suppliants, by Aeschylus

AeschylusThe Suppliants is part of the story of Io, an Argive woman with whom Zeus fell in love. Hera turned her into a cow, and Zeus still loved her, so Hera sent a stinging fly to chase Io across the world until she got to Egypt where Zeus rescued her from the fly and touched her with his hand thus impregnating her. Io had some kids, who had some kids who had two sets of fifty cousins, one set male (the Aegyptians) and one set female (the Danaids). By the time Aeschylus’ play opens, the Aegyptians have tried to marry the Daniads against their will and the will of Zeus, so the women have fled back to their ancestral homeland of Argos to seek protection from the Argive city-state and gods.

The play is set in a holy grove near Argos, with a set of statues for various gods—Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Hermes at least. The Suppliants (the Daniads) have come to throw themselves on the mercy of the gods to prevent a forcible marriage to their pursuers. There is much discussion and disputation about the will of the gods, though the general consensus is that Zeus—god of suppliants—will defend the Daniads in their cause because 1) they have come as suppliants to seek his protection, and 2) out of his love for their ancestor Io. While the Daniads are in the holy grove Pelasgus, king of Argos, arrives to ask their business and find out who they are. The Daniads relate the story of Io, with which Pelasgus is already familiar because it is an Arguve legend, and thus demonstrate an ancestral claim on Argive protection. Pelasgus debates whether he should offer the Daniads protection or not, whether it is the will of the gods to side with the women or the Aegyptian men, and whether it is really Argos’ problem. Eventually through their rhetoric and devotion to the gods, the Daniads convince Pelasgus to support their cause and he returns to the Argive agora to try and convince the ekklesia to support them, which the ekklesia does unanimously. After a little while a herald from the Aegyptians arrives and tries to claim the Daniads by force, but they are defeated by Pelasgus and a band of Argive warriors. The play closes with the Daniads going into Argos to be housed, and the Argives and Aegyptians preparing for a war.

Like PrometheusBound, The Suppliants is a play highly concerned with the law and with what’s right. Much of the conflict in the play centers around the Daniads trying to show Pelasgus and the gods that their cause is just and should be supported rather than the cause of the Aegyptians, who are depicted as wild, sacrilegious barbarians with no respect for the laws of the gods, Argos, or of hospitality. In a way, the play dramatizes the conflict between the law of strength (i.e., the Aegyptians) and the law of order and duty (i.e., the Daniads).
Of course to a modern audience/reader, The Suppliants seems like a proto-feminist play because it presents the women’s cause as just and admirable while the men’s cause is evil and barbaric. The play also seems to have an anti-rape theme because the Aegyptians desire to force the Daniads into marriage is figured (not inaccurately) as a kind of rape. While the feminist reading is sound for a contemporary audience, I think a more historically accurate reading of the play would see it in more nationalistic terms. The Daniads claim the rights of a Hellenic people, they emphasize their Argive heritage and therefore their Greek-ness. The Aegyptians, on the other hand, are decidedly Egyptian—coming in Egyptian ships, with an Egyptian herald, described as dark skinned, identified with the Nile, etc. In other words, the Aegyptians are foreigners coming to conquer and steal Hellenic women and force them into marriage. This nationalistic theme makes sense considering that Aeschylus was a soldier who fought to defend Athens and their Hellenic allies, and that a number of Aeschylus’ extant plays deal with foreign invaders.