The Suppliant Maidens
THE SUPPLIANT MAIDENS
The Suppliant Maidens is the first play in a trilogy or tetralogy, the other parts of which are now lost. It may be the earliest play we have in Western drama, because the Chorus functions as the protagonist and Aristotle says that this was an archaic practice. It is a dull practice too: “A chorus can convey only a lyrical mood; it can hardly support any genuine passion” (Benardete 4). The play seems to capture a middle stage in the evolution from the earlier choral dithyramb to the full-blown drama.
The fifty daughters of Danaus, descended from Io (the erstwhile cow) and Zeus (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I), have fled Egypt, “From a holy precinct bordering Syria” (7), and come as refugees to a sacred grove near Argos. They are illegally avoiding marriage to their cousins, the sons of Egyptus, and invoke the once-exiled Apollo and other gods for protection. When a group of men including Pelasgus, the King of Argos, enter, the maidens make their case and explanation, detailing their lineage. Pelasgus, fearing potential war with the Egyptians, withholds any promise of sanctuary until the populace okays it, but the maidens try to force him into an immediate alliance. He holds his ground, and the maidens are distraught, but he and the girls’ father Danaus persuade the citizens to defend them.
A sacrifice — “slaughter [of] many kine to the gods” (22) — seems in questionable taste considering the maidens’ heritage, but whatever. The Egyptian cousins, viewed as “Mad, … cursed, / In war unsated” (31), land, which is worrisome because “Women are nothing alone; no Ares is in them” (32). The Egyptian herald comes to escort them off until Pelasgus and his army arrive: “And men is what you’ll find here, who don’t / Guzzle a brew of barley-beer!” (39). They drive off the invader and the gals are invited into the city to live. Danaus speechifies about proper behavior and modesty, and the play ends with songs of deliverance and praise to Artemis and Aphrodite.
In the next play of the sequence, the maidens were forced to marry their cousins after all. Each vows to kill her husband on their wedding night, and all do except Hypermnestra. In a later play she must stand trial for violating her oath, but Aphrodite serves as the deus ex machina.
Aeschylus. The Suppliant Maidens. Trans. Seth G. Benardete. Aeschylus II. 2nd ed. by David Grene & Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 1-42.