The Suppliants

by Aeschylus

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Out of Aeschylus’s extant dramas, the earliest is The Suppliants (or The Suppliant Maidens). This tragedy forms the first part of the trilogy which was likely staged in the fifth century BCE and was based on the myth about the fifty daughters of Danaus (the Danaides). In the course of the drama, the maidens flee from Egypt to find refuge in Argos, and they try to evade getting married to their cousins: Egypt’s sons.

The plot of the drama is simple. The Danaides plead with Argos’s king to protect them. This is why they are referred to as the suppliants. Hesitant as he is, the king brings this concern up for the people’s consideration. The latter decide to grant the Danaides asylum. The king later then interferes with the attempt to bring the maidens back to Egypt that the herald of Egypt’s sons makes, and the Danaides end the drama safe within the city of Argos.

As far as the literary structure is concerned, this tragedy reflects the traditional features of early classical drama. The main role is allotted to the chorus of the Danaides. All action in The Suppliants revolves around their plight. The chorus’s pleas, hopes, fears, threats, and hymns of thanksgiving are the focus:

Nay, but ye Gods of the bride-bed and begetting,
Hear me! Ye should be jealous for the Right!
Grudge lawless youth, with the hot blood fretting.
Lore that perfects passion’s neophyte!
Set the brand of your scorn on lust that profanes,
And mingle love’s rite with austerities sweet!

And again:

But, if these will not, then I will essay
The sun-loathed courts of Death,
Where never a sick soul is turned away
That wearies of this breath;
And, since Olympian Gods no help afford.
My corpse shall access find to Zeus, Earth’s Lord,
When suppliant boughs shall be decked with the knotted cord.

In this early tragedy, we see a blueprint for the development of the themes that are characteristic of Aeschylus in his later works. Argos’s king is presented as a fair ruler who consults the counsel of his people; he is shown to be in support of free and democratic rule and is opposed to despotism on numerous occasions. While expressing sympathy for the Danaides, who oppose Egypt’s sons’ attempts at enslaving them, Aeschylus nevertheless makes it a point that revulsion toward marriage is not to be tolerated.

At the end of the drama, the Danaides’ chorus is joined by the semi-chorus (or the chorus of female servants), who eulogize the might of Aphrodite (Cypris), the goddess of love:

But we forget not Cypris. Let none deem
Our harmless song is meant in her dispraise.
For she with Hera sways
The heart of Zeus, and he is Lord Supreme.
The subtle Goddess hath her rites; — with young
Desire playing at his mother’s side;
Nor less Persuasion to whose charming tongue
No boon that heart can give or worth approves
May be denied.
Yea, music hath her share
In Aphrodite’s Empire fair,
Music with all the train of whispering Loves.

The remaining parts of Aeschylus’s trilogy (The Egyptians and The Danaides) did not survive, but the outcome of the myth is well-known. Egypt’s sons managed to marry the Danaides, but the latter killed their husbands on their wedding night. Only one of them spared her husband, and that couple became the progenitors of the future kings of Argos. Thus, the trilogy ends with the affirmation of the principle of marital harmony and the importance of familial legacy.

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