Aeschylus (Copleston)/Chapter 4

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This play takes its name, as many do, from the persons who form its chorus. In this case these are the principal characters in the drama; they are the "Suppliants" whose supplication is the subject of the piece.

We have seen in the "Prometheus" the unhappy Io wandering through the world, and we have heard there the prophecy of the end which was to be set to her troubles; how she should come at last to Egypt, and there bear a son, Epaphus—"the Touch-born"—begotten by the touch of Zeus, whose descendants should form a colony at Canopus. In the fourth generation arose Belus, king of this race of exiles, and to him were born two sons, Danaus and Ægyptus. Danaus had fifty daughters, and his brother had fifty sons; and these desired to take their cousins for their wives. The maidens, horrified at the proposal, but unable, even with their aged father's help, to resist the determination of fifty men, took flight, with Danaus himself to lead them, to Argos, the cradle of their race, the home of Io. Argos was the chief city of the Pelasgians who then dwelt in Greece, and from their king Pelasgus the maidens sought protection. Their prayer and its success constitute the simple plot of the drama.

The legend may possibly strike us as absurd, and in particular the obvious improbability of the numbers of the cousins may seem to indicate a childish credulity in those who could receive it. It is something like the story of St Ursula and her eleven thousand companions, whose bones are still shown at Cologne; one of the most improbable of medieval legends, and the offspring of a time when there was neither power nor inclination to distinguish between what was proved and what was incapable of proof. But the Danaids are not to be classed with the martyrs of Cologne, nor the keen, travelled Athenian with the credulous medieval. Rather the obvious improbability in the Greek story is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Attic tragedy, which did not, as modern dramas do, aim at imitating the actual life of men, at being probable or like the truth, but set forth an ideal picture of a life apart from and above the real, whose impressiveness was due in great measure to its being far removed from reality.[1] In a colossal statue, to repeat the old comparison, it is right to represent hair and dress only conventionally, to make the locks of hair and the folds of dress all large and regular—regularity giving grandeur, and literal truth not being here desirable; so, in the tragedy before us, the large and equal numbers of the cousins contribute to the solemnity and greatness of the whole, while the improbability increases that separation from the actual world, by which an event, in itself not heroic, is raised to the level of the ideal.[2] This consideration is necessary to a due appreciation of the poetical value of the plot, and is not at all invalidated by the fact that Æschylus only used the story as he found it. Had it been other than it was, he would probably have modified it; but if it had been other, it would not have been Greek. The story of Io was well fitted to interest an Athenian audience for two reasons: because it gave opportunity for the romance of geography in general, and because it was connected with Egypt. The naval enterprise of the Athenians had of late been greatly developed, and they were becoming by this time acquainted with many distant countries; and an interest in geography was spread even among those who had stayed at home; while yet knowledge had not advanced far enough to remove the halo which the dimness of distance throws around strange lands, or to destroy the notion that far-off countries contained wonders and monsters innumerable. Something similar was the case in England in the great times of discovery, when the Plymouth sailor told the boy Raleigh endless stories of the Great Cham and Prester John, or the wondrous wealth of El Dorado. But of all wonderful lands of monsters, the most wonderful was Egypt. There was no good or strange thing which was not supposed by the Athenians of that day to have come from Egypt. The gods of Greece, the letters, the philosophy, all inventions and all history, were popularly derived from the country of the miraculous Nile; and to explore Egypt was the great object of the traveller's ambition. Among the experiences of Herodotus his Egyptian researches occupy a prominent place; and any story which the priests chose to tell him about their animals or their gods, or their endless genealogies, was eagerly accepted. In the light of this fact we see why Æschylus dwelt so much in the "Prometheus" on the wanderings of Io, and traced her finally to Egypt; and we are ready to appreciate the interest with which a chorus of Egyptian girls, in the dress and character of their country, would be received on the Athenian stage. Of these there were of course fifty, as the story required; but as the usual number of the chorus was twelve, we must imagine twelve only of the Danaids as singing and dancing, while the rest remained silent, and probably were disposed in a group behind the actual chorus.[3]

With the entrance of these fifty Danaids the play begins. Slowly they march, with audible tramp, to the sound of their own chanting, appealing as they go to Zeus, the god of suppliants, for the protection which he especially owes them as the founder of their race. They describe in few words the causes of their flight, and pray that their pursuers may be overwhelmed in the sea, and never reach the shores of Argos. And now they have reached the orchestra, and dividing into ranks and companies, they range themselves about the altar, there to sing, no longer to the music of a march, but in more varied strains, their prayers and lamentations. Just as Prometheus compares his sufferings with those of Atlas and Typhon, so these maidens compare themselves to Tereus' bride, the piteous nightingale:—

"As she, driven back from wonted haunts and streams,
Mourns with a strange new plaint,
And takes her son's death as the theme of song,
How he at her hand died,
Meeting with evil wrath unmotherly;
E'en so do I, to wailing all o'ergiven,
In plaintive music of Ionian mood,
Vex the soft cheek on Neilos' banks that bloomed,
And heart that bursts in tears,
And pluck the flower of lamentations loud."

In their appeals to Zeus, here and throughout the play, the suppliants assert the sublimest truths about the one supreme God. The mystery that shrouds His ways and the certainty of His justice are their favourite themes:—

"For dark and shadowed o'er
The pathways of the counsels of His heart,
And difficult to see.

And from high towering hopes He hurleth down
To utter doom the heir of mortal birth:
Yet sets He in array
No forces violent;
All that God works is elfortless and calm:
Seated on loftiest throne,
Thence, though we know not how,
He works His perfect will."

There is much in these songs of the Chorus that reminds us of the Hebrew poetry. They exhibit the same intermingling of general statements about the ways of God and the nature of man with particular applications to the immediate occasion, while their form closely resembles the "parallel" structure of the Jewish writings. The Chorus is divided into two bands, which answer one another in strophe and antistrophe. One band sings a stanza, and then rests while the other, in a corresponding stanza, utters a somewhat similar sentiment, repeating sometimes the same words, and always using the same metre, music, and measure of the dance. And in the "Suppliants" these points are particularly noticeable, for the chorus predominates here more than in any other of our poet's dramas. Hence it has been thought to be one of his earliest, written when the dialogue had not yet acquired its full prominence on the stage; and even if other evidence makes this doubtful, yet certainly we have in this play a return to the older style.

But the long choric song comes to an end; and now Danaus, who has hitherto been waiting in suppliant posture at the foot of the statues of the gods which stand upon the stage, addresses his daughters, and calls them to come and take a position near him, within the place of sanctuary. For a host, he says, is approaching; and whether their coming be friendly or hostile, it is well to await it under the immediate protection of the gods. He warns them, too, how to bear themselves towards the strangers; to tell their tale simply and modestly;

"And be not prompt to speak
Nor full of words; the race that dwelleth here
Of this is very jealous: and be mindful
Much to concede; a fugitive thou art,
A stranger and in want, and 'tis not meet
That those in low estate high words should speak."

Then they all ascend to the stage, and group themselves there under the statues which decorate the temple front. The scene is a striking one. Their limbs are dark, and their robes and veils are chiefly white, though varied with rich embroidery of gold and purple, and in their hands they bear branches of myrtle wreathed about with festoons of white wool, the well-known badge of the suppliant; and as the sunshine streams in upon them, with contrast of bright light and deep shadow, the whole group stands out in intense relief of black and white, with a strange and fascinating distinctness. At their father's bidding they offer prayers to each of the great gods in turn, those "gods of contest" who presided over the great games of Greece, to Zeus, Apollo, Neptune or Poseidon, and to Hermes or Mercury, the herald and guide. These prayers are scarcely completed when the king Pelasgus, with his chariot and his train, comes on the scene. "Whence," he asks, "is this strange company, whose dress proves them of no Grecian race? How has a band of helpless women, without guide or herald, ventured to our shores?" In return the maidens ask to whom they speak, whether to a citizen, a herald, or a prince. Pelasgus unfolds his name, and boasts the greatness of his kingdom; and tells how it gained its name of the Apian land from Apis, a physician-prophet of old, who had cleared the region of the dragons and monsters by which it had been infested. Finally he asks them to tell their story, and to tell it shortly. That they are of Argive ancestry he will not at first believe, for they resemble more, he says, the Egyptians or the Cyprians, or Indians who ride on camels, or the hateful Amazons; but in the course of a series of short leading questions and suggestive answers their true connection with Argos is explained.

On hearing the causes of the maidens' flight, the king is reluctant to incur, as he must by protecting them, the dangers of a war with Ægyptus and his sons; while, on the other hand, he fears the anger of the gods if he should neglect the sacred claim of the suppliants. And so he trembles when he sees the branches and the woollen fillets with which the shrines are decked. But religion is to prevail over fear. The two bands of the Chorus sing each in turn an appeal to his piety and generosity, and after each the king replies. At first he only expresses his hope that no evil may come upon his land through their request; then he reminds them that it is for the whole state, not for himself alone, to answer them; soon he acknowledges that he cannot willingly consent to reject them. The appeal is continued. The king urges objections. "What if the suitors have some legal claim upon them? What if his people condemn his clemency, and say that he prefers the interest of foreigners to that of his own subjects?" But it gradually becomes evident that his inclination is to yield, so terrible is the risk of provoking the suppliants' god. Loss of wealth may be repaired by Zeus the giver; malicious words, if the people were offended, a soft answer might appease; but if he should incur, for himself and his people, any stain from the blood of suppliants abandoned, and those suppliants, too, a kindred race, that pollution many sacrifices could scarcely expiate. One more argument remains, a threat so horrible that it is only dimly and gradually unfolded. If Pelasgus refuses their request, the desperate maidens will destroy themselves at the very shrines of the gods, will hang themselves by their girdles to the statues, and so lay the whole land under an intolerable pollution. Pelasgus resists no longer. "Lo then!" he says—

"Lo then! in many ways sore troubles come.
A host of evils rushes like a flood;
A sea of woe none traverse, bottomless,
This have I entered; haven is there none,
For if I fail to do this work for you,
Thou tellest of defilement unsurpassed;
And if for thee against Ægyptos' sons,
Thy kindred, I before my city's walls
In conflict stand, how can there fail to be
A bitter loss, to stain the earth with blood
Of man for woman's sake? And yet I needs
Must fear the wrath of Zeus, the suppliant's god;
That dread is mightiest with the sons of men.
Thou then, O aged father of these maidens,
Taking forthwith these branches in thine arms,
Lay them on other altars of the gods
Our country worships, that the citizens
May all behold this token of thy coming;
And about me let no rash speech be dropped,
For 'tis a people prompt to blame their rulers.
And then perchance some one, beholding them
And pitying, may wax wrathful 'gainst the outrage
Of that male troop, and with more kindly will
The people look on you; for evermore
All men wish well unto the weaker side."

Danaus expresses the thanks of his daughters, and goes forth, attended by an escort given him by the king, to seek the other altars and appear as a public suppliant before the citizens. Meanwhile the Chorus are bidden to leave the shrine, and await in a neighbouring glade their father's return. Being thus removed from the consecrated spot, in which they were safe at least for the time, they begin to mistrust the goodwill of the king, and think themselves betrayed; but he reassures them thus:—

"Nay, no long time thy sire will leave thee lorn;
And I, all people of the land convening,
Will the great mass persuade to kindly words;
And I will teach thy father what to say.
Wherefore remain, and ask our country's gods,
With suppliant prayers, to grant thy soul's desire;
And I will go in furtherance of thy wish:
Sweet Suasion follow us, and Fortune good."

The opening of their new supplication is striking. They appeal to Zeus by his old love for Io, their mother:—


"O King of kings, and blest
Above all blessed ones,
And power most mighty of the mightiest!
O Zeus, of high estate!
Hear thou and grant our prayer!
Drive thou far off the wantonness of men,
The pride thou hatest sore,
And in the pool of darkling purple hue
Plunge thou the woe that comes in swarthy barque."


"Look on the women's cause;
Recall the ancient tale
Of one whom thou didst love in time of old,
The mother of our race:
Remember it, O thou
Who didst on Io lay thy mystic touch.
We boast that we are come
Of consecrated land the habitants,
And from this land by lineage high descended."

There follows a description of Io's life and wanderings, with the same fulness of geographical learning which we have noticed before, and the same revelling in euphonious and romantic names. The origin of the Egyptian settlement is told again; and the ode ends with another solemn acknowledgment of the greatness of Zeus, such as might almost come from the Book of Psalms itself:—


"Which of the gods could I with right invoke
As doing juster deeds?
He is our father, author of our life,
The king whose right hand worketh all his will,
Our line's great author, in his counsels deep
Recording things of old,
Directing all his plans, the great work-master Zeus."


"For not as subject sitting 'neath the sway
Of strength above his own,
Reigns he subordinate to mightier powers;
Nor does he pay his homage from below
While one sits throned in majesty above;
Act is for him as speech,
To hasten what his teeming mind resolves."

And now Danaus returns to say that the people have decided, and his eager hearers learn with joy that the decree is entirely in their favour. In full assembly, the air rustling with the eager raising of their hands—the sound which the Athenians knew so well in their own popular assemblies—all have unanimously assented to the reception of the strangers. Full rights and protection are accorded them, and any citizen who should refuse them his assistance, in case of any assault from their enemies, is declared degraded and outlawed. "All this," says Danaus, "the Pelasgians have decreed; but it all comes from Zeus." With pious gratitude the successful suppliants chant,—

"Come, then, come, let us speak for Argives
Prayers that are good for good deeds done;
Zeus, who o'er all strangers watches,
May he see with his praise and favour
The praise that comes from the lips of strangers.
And guide in all to a faultless issue."

The prayer that follows must have been, as a poetical and musical masterpiece, the most interesting portion of the play. We can well imagine, remembering the prayers in some of the most beautiful modern operas, what a hush of admiration must have come over the great theatre when its solemn stanzas were chanted. And if, as some suppose, the play had a political character, and was intended to promote goodwill towards Argos, and advocate an alliance with that city, a double interest must have attached to this chorus. "Never may war," such, is the burden of the strain, "reap his sad crop in these fields of the merciful and pious; nor ever pestilence nor civil strife strew them with native blood: but let old piety ever dwell here, and the favour of heaven make the earth fruitful with corn and herds; and may songs of joy rise ever here from holy lips."


"And may the rule in which the people share
Keep the State's functions as in perfect peace,
E'en that which sways the crowd,
Which sways the commonwealth
By counsels wise and good;
And to the strangers and the sojourners
May they grant rights that rest on compacts sure,
Ere war is roused to arms
So that no trouble come!"


"And the great gods who o'er this country watch,
May they adore them in the land they guard,
With rites of sacrifice
And troops with laurel-boughs,
As did our sires of old!
For thus to honour those who gave us life,
This stands as one of three great laws[4] on high,
Written as fixed and firm,
The laws of right revered."

When these prayers are ended their father warns them that he has serious tidings to announce, and begs them not to fear. From his high, position he can see the ship which brings their pursuers; and as he speaks it becomes more and more clearly visible, till the sails are furled, and the vessel approaches the shore with oars alone. Danaus encourages his daughters to be confident in the protection promised them, and to be sure that the vengeance of heaven will follow their persecutors. In short broken strains the Chorus express their fears and their abhorrence of the sons of Ægyptus, who regard not the gods of sanctuary, and may have recourse to violence before Pelasgus has had time to succour his suppliants. "There is yet time enough," the father replies, "to rouse the Argives: to anchor in a harbourless country and to get ashore is not the work of a moment, especially when night, as now, is drawing on; and we must not distrust the gods, to whom we have appealed." And so he goes away to arouse the city, and the Chorus are left alone. Fain would they find a hiding-place, but there is none. Fain would they be like the smoke that rises up into the clouds of Zeus and vanishes, or like the dust that passes out of sight. Any form of death were welcome, rather than this hateful marriage. "Ah!" they say,—

"Ah! might I find a place in yon high vault
Where the rain-clouds are passing into snow,
Or lonely precipice,
Whose summit none can see,
Rock where the vulture haunts,
Witness for me of my abysmal fall,
Before the marriage that will pierce my heart
Becomes my dreaded doom."

And the answering band replies:—

"I shrink not from the thought of being the prey
Of dogs and birds that haunt the country round,
For death shall make me free
From ills all lamentable;
Yea, let death rather come
Than the worse doom of hated marriage-bed.
What other refuge now remains for me.
That marriage to avert?"

And still they appeal to God, "whose eyes look upon the thing that is equal," without whom nothing comes to the children of men. Their appeal is interrupted by the arrival of a herald who comes on behalf of the sons of Ægyptus, to command the Danaids to embark immediately in their ship with them. The complaints and prayers of the Chorus are now mingled with the haughty orders of the herald. They refuse; he threatens force; they cry, and call upon the gods, and imprecate bitter curses upon their ravishers, but all in vain; the herald seizes their leader to drag her by her hair towards the ship. At this point the king with his train appears, and indignantly demands an account of this outrage. The herald protests that he is only asserting a legal claim, and is prepared to justify it by war. The king replies, that if he can persuade the maidens to accompany him, he may take them, but that no constraint shall be put upon them. "Here," he says, "the nail is fixed." The decree is unchangeable, and the herald is peremptorily dismissed. "The Greeks," says the king, "will be more than a match for the Nile; wine and bread are better than barley-beer and byblus-fruit, the food of the Egyptians." Then, turning to the maidens, he offers them safe dwellings in the city—whether they prefer to live among others in the public palaces, or to dwell apart with their attendants; and they refer the choice to their father, who is now returned with a force of soldiers. His answer is wise and fatherly, but a little reminds us of the somewhat tedious wisdom of Polonius. "Men are apt," he says, "to find fault in foreigners, and young girls especially must beware of the least breath of scandal; the safer course must be theirs, to dwell apart in maidenly modesty."

And now all the action of the play is ended, and nothing remains but the final ode. Divided into two bands, the Danaids sing good wishes for their new country. No longer is the Nile to claim their praise,—

"Nay, but the rivers here, that pour calm streams through our country,
Parents of many a son, making glad the soil of our meadows,
With wide flood rolling on in full and abounding riches."

Then they are somewhat divided in their words: the one band can only repeat its fears of their hateful pursuers, and finds all love and marriage henceforth odious; while the other half of the Chorus is anxious rather not to disparage the divinity of the Cyprian goddess, and looks forward yet to happy wedlock. Yet both unite in speaking well of Aphrodite:—

Semichorus A.

"Not that our kindly strain does slight to Cypris immortal,
For she, together with Hera, as nearest to Zeus is mighty,
A goddess of subtle thoughts she is honoured in mysteries solemn."

Semichorus B.

"Yea, as associates too with that their mother beloved
Are fair Desire and Suasion, whose pleading no man can gainsay;
Yea, to sweet Concord too Aphrodite's power is intrusted,
And the whispering paths of the Loves."

And so, with good hopes for the issue of the trial which yet remains finally to decide their case, the play concludes. This trial probably formed the subject of a succeeding piece.

The motive which predominates in this play is one with which moderns, at least in civilised countries, are not familiar. The claim which any fugitive was supposed to possess on the protection of those to whom he might address himself, naturally ceases to he acknowledged when the improvement and extension of law guarantee safety to all who deserve it, and take out of the hands of private individuals the punishment of those who do not. A suppliant in England nowadays would be at once referred to the law to be protected from wrong or punished for fault. But when law could not do these things, but left the inflicting of punishment in great measure to the offended person, or, in the case of murder, to the relatives of the dead, it was obviously the interest of every man, as well as his duty, to accord to others that protection which he might some day need for himself. Especially in the case of accidental or justifiable homicide the protection of private men was necessary to the slayer, and took the place occupied among the Jews by their cities of refuge. And when the case was such as could be tried at law, it was only by private protection that the accused was preserved from his accuser until the matter could be legally decided. It is clear, then, that in such times the acknowledgment of the suppliant's claim was necessary to society. Being so, it was invested with a religious sanction. The temples of the gods were the natural refuges, since in so holy a spot a man could not be killed without defilement; and hence the gods themselves were believed to befriend the suppliant. And then to fulfil this special function a special person or a special form of the supreme God was believed to exist, and "Zeus of Supplication" was added to the list of deities. In just the same way "Zeus of Hospitality" enforced the duty, then so important, of receiving those who, in the absence of inns, could find no other resting-place. And how tremendous was the authority of these deities the play before us shows.

But both these duties lose their relative importance as civilisation advances. They were losing it even when Æschylus wrote; and here, as well as elsewhere, we may see him lingering affectionately about the traces of past times and creeds, and investing with picturesque solemnity ruins which he could not restore.

  1. See, on this subject, De Quincey's admirable essays on the Greek tragedy.
  2. This consideration, however, will not excuse the monstrous fable of St Ursula, in which the numbers are so exaggerated as far to pass the boundary which separates the sublime from the ridiculous.
  3. If this was part of a trilogy, the choruses of all four plays perhaps appeared here, as at the end of the "Eumenides."
  4. The "three great laws" were those ascribed to Triptolemus: "To honour parents, to worship the gods with the fruits of the earth, to hurt neither man nor beast."