Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Danaüs and his fifty maiden daughters flee Egypt after Danaüs’s brother, Aegyptus, decides that his fifty sons should take their cousins to wife. The fugitives finally reach the shores of Argos, the land of their illustrious ancestress Io, a mortal loved by Zeus. Holding olive branches wrapped in wool before an Argive altar, the maidens seek Zeus’s protection of their purity. Their supplications to the father of the gods include the wish that the sons of Aegyptus might meet disaster at sea between Egypt and Argos. In fear of being forced to marry Aegyptus’s sons, the maidens also invoke the wretched Procne, who was given in marriage to the perfidious Tereus and took the life of her child, Itylus, out of hatred for her husband. They repeat their supplication to Zeus to protect them from forced love, and they invoke Artemis, the goddess of chastity, to be favorable to them. They declare that they will end their lives themselves before submitting to the sons of Aegyptus. They go on to invoke not only Zeus but also Apollo, who himself was once an exile. They pray to Poseidon, god of the sea, and to Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Danaüs recalls that the gods are merciless to those who indulge in lustful pleasures.
Danaüs, observing that someone approaches, cautions his daughters to stay near the altar and to conduct themselves with modesty. A man, followed by servants and warriors, enters the sacred area. Seeing that the maidens wear Eastern clothing and that suppliant wands were placed on the altar, he asks whence Danaüs and the young women come. Questioned in turn, he discloses that he is Pelasgus, the king of Argos. One of the maidens then tells him that they are of Argive stock, descendants of Io, the Argive woman who gave birth to a son by Zeus. Pelasgus interrupts to remark that the maidens appear to be North Africans and to resemble the Amazons rather than the Grecians.
The maiden resumes her tale, recounting that when Hera, the wife of Zeus, saw that Zeus loved the mortal Io, she transformed Io into a heifer and placed her under the guard of Argus, the many-eyed god. Hera also created a gadfly to sting Io into a miserable, wandering existence on earth. Io’s wanderings took her to Memphis, Egypt, where by mystical union with Zeus—the touch of his hand—she gave birth to a son. She named him Epaphus, from the nature of his birth. Epaphus had a daughter, Libya, after whom a great stretch of North Africa was named. Libya had a son, Belus, who fathered two sons, Danaüs—the father of fifty daughters, whom the king beholds before his very eyes—and Aegyptus, the father of fifty sons.
Pelasgus, satisfied that they are of Argive stock, asks why they left Egypt. The maiden explains that they fled because they were threatened with forced marriage to their cousins; it is not so much that they hate their cousins as that they want their husbands to love them. Pelasgus, observing that in the most advantageous marriages there is no aspect of love, is not sure he...
(The entire section is 1230 words.)
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