Last Updated September 6, 2023.
The Danaides collectively constitute the chorus of the play. This makes The Suppliants unlike later Greek dramas, where the chorus exists mostly to serve as a vehicle for exposition. The fifty Danaides, like their father, are descendants of Zeus and Io. They have fled to the kingdom of Argos to entreat the king, Pelasgus, to protect them from being forced into marriage to their cousins in Egypt. They are desperate, bedraggled, and frantic. Upon arrival in Argos, they have to convince King Pelasgus that they are indeed his distant kin. To make their desperation clear, they cling to the altars of the gods of Argos and threaten to kill themselves if they are not granted asylum.
King Pelasgus of Argos
King Pelasgus of Argos is confronted with a difficult choice. He has the moral imperative to protect the Danaides; furthermore, to refuse them safety would anger Zeus. However, Argos is a small city-state, and he fears retribution from the fifty would-be husbands of these maidens. Never a tyrant, King Pelasgus turns to the citizens of Argos to see if they would approve of granting asylum to the Danaides. Once they give their consent, he welcomes the maidens and sternly sends away the herald of Aegyptus before preparing for war.
The Herald of Aegyptus
The Herald of Aegyptus arrives in Argos shortly after King Pelasgus has agreed to grant asylum to the Danaides. He stands in as a representative for the fifty Egyptian men who pursue the Danaides. As an Egyptian, he cares nothing for the laws and gods of the Greeks. As he puts it:
I do not fear the native gods, be assured. They did not rear me, nor by their nurture did they bring me to old age.
He is depicted as barbaric, brash, and impudent. In fact, he threatens to commit sacrilege by forcefully removing the maidens from the sacred altars to which they hold in supplication. He is finally forced out of Argos, but not before issuing a threat to return and wage war over this matter.
Danaus is the elderly father of the Danaides who has accompanied his daughters on their flight to Argos. His brother Aegyptus has demanded that their children marry, a prospect that horrifies the old man. He wishes to protect the Danaides from the forced marriage to their lustful cousins and urges them to resist on several occasions. Throughout the drama, Danaus serves as a compass and mentor for his many daughters, providing them with advice and guidance. He is a descendant of Zeus and Io, the latter of whom was a priestess of Hera and the daughter of an Argive king. Jealous of Zeus’s love for Io, Hera turned Io into a heifer and sent her fleeing across the world, tormented by the stings of a gadfly. In Egypt, however, Zeus and Io conceived a son, Epaphus. Epahus, in turn, became the father of Libya, father of Belus and Agenor. Belus then had two sons, Danaus and Aegyptus, who had fifty daughters (the Danaides) and fifty sons, respectively.