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An introduction to the play by Aeschylus

THE trilogy to which this drama belonged, like that of which "The Seven Against Thebes" formed the concluding member, was founded upon an ancient epic, by an unknown author. Of this poem little is known, except that it contained five thousand five hundred verses, and bore the title of "The Danaides."

The story which it embodied appealed powerfully to that passion for legendary genealogies which formed such a striking feature of the Grecian character. Alleged descent from a common ancestor was the bond of union between the members of every Grecian community, great or small; and as this legendary personage was usually of divine or semi-divine origin, even the humblest citizen thus felt himself brought into more or less direct filiation with the gods. The divine element thus, according to the popular conception, incarnated in humanity, culminated in the great national hero, Herakles, "the most renowned and ubiquitous of all the semi-divine personages worshipped by the Hellenes"--the only mortal who, from a life of toil and suffering on earch, was admitted to the godhead, and received into the society of Olympos. His descendants, moreover, the Herakleids, associated with the Dorians in the conquest of the Peloponnesus, were glorified in the popular imagination as the founders of the great Dorian cities of Argos, Sparta, and Messenia, and as the introducers in those localities of a new special order. Peculiar interest thus attaches to Io, the progenitrix of Herakles, and to the birth of her offspring, Epaphos, an event celebrated in such glowing strains by the chorus of "The Suppliants" (v. 580).

In thus veiling the grosser features of the Io legend, as popularly conceived, while, at the same time, investing it with a more spiritual meaning, Aeschylus appears not only as the great creative poet, but also as the true prophet of his generation. The numerous legends of which the story of Io may be regarded as a typical example embodied, in vulgar form, the idea that it was only through association with the divine principle that man could raise to his true ideal as man. The poet seizes upon this idea, separates it from the grosser elements of the popular symbol, and extols the benignity of Zeus in thus seeking fellowship with mortals--giving prominence to the idea that through this agency alone the human race was raised to a higher level, physical and moral, than it could otherwise have attained.

The introductory character of "The Suppliants" has been inferred from the extreme simplicity of the plot, and from other considerations; accordingly, it is now generally regarded as forming the first member of a trilogy of which the succeeding dramas were "The Egyptians," and "The Danaides," both of which have been lost. Though deficient in dramatic interest, this piece is characterized by the remarkable beauty of the choral odes, which, from their sublime simplicity, and from the high conception which they embody of Zeus, as the supreme and omnipotent ruler, remind us occasionally of the Hebrew psalms.

It must be remembered, moreover, that, at the time of Aeschylus, the national legends had not yet lost their hold upon the popular belief, and accordingly mythical events, such as the arrival of the Danaides in Argos, were considered not only as having influenced the subsequent destinies of Greece, but also as having been brought about by the inscrutable counsels of Zeus; the unfolding of whose designs, through the medium of tragedy, was regarded as the highest function of the poet.

The ancient legend tells of the strife between the sons of Belos; how Danaos was driven from his home by Ægyptos, who usurped his throne; how the latter sought to force the Danaides to marry his sons, and how Athena herself exhorted Danaos to flee with his daughters to the land of Io.

The introductory drama opens with their arrival, in the character of suppliants, at Argos, and is founded upon the protection accorded to them by the Argives and their king, Pelasgos: the appearance of the Egyptian herald, at the conclusion of the play, together with his forcible attempt to carry off the suppliants, prepares the spectator for the arrival of the Egyptian pursuers in the succeeding drama. Attention has been called to the picturesque beauty of the opening scene, where, holding in their hands their wool-wreathed myrtle boughs, and arrayed in white apparel, which formed a striking contrast to their swarthy limbs, the suppliants grouped themselves under the statues of the gods: they would, moreover, be regarded with peculiar interest as wanderers from the valley of the Nile, "the wondrous river fed with snow," upon whose fountains no human eye had been permitted to gaze.

Of "The Egyptians," unfortunately, no fragments remain; it doubtless embodied the main incident in the tragic story of the Danaides. It is related in the legend that Danaos was elected king by the Argives, in place of Pelasgos; being unable to cope with Ægyptos and his sons, who still press their suit, he is compelled to yield to their demand, and promises to give his daughters in marriage to their detested suitors. In secret, however, he furnishes each with a dagger, enjoining her, at the same time, to slay her lord during the nuptial night. The terrible deed was executed, Hypermnestra alone, soothed by love, and preferring the reputation of cowardice to that of blood-guiltiness (Pro. 887), spared Lynceus, the partner of her couch. Here one duty could not be observed without violating another, and thus was brought about the collision between two primary principles of human nature, the reconciliation of which constitutes the essence of the Æschylean drama. The remark of Grote with reference to this feature of Grecian tragedy will be perused with interest: "The tragedian," he says, "not only appeals more powerfully to the ethical sentiments than poetry had ever done before, but also, by raising these grave and touching questions, addresses a stimulus and challenge to the intellect, spurring it on to ethical speculation."

From the Hellenic point of view, Hypermnestra was regarded as a criminal, while the bloody deed of her sisters was extolled as an act of heroism, enjoined not only by their father, but by the gods themselves.

The suitors, moreover, are represented from the first as in the highest degree insolent and overbearing: barbarians, they had dared to invade the sacred soil of Hellas, and the vengeance which had overtaken them would ally itself in the popular imagination with the destruction of the Oriental hosts which had so recently crowned the grand contemporary conflict between Persia and Hellas. This feeling would be heightened by the war between Egypt and Athens, which began B.C. 462.

The trial of Hypermnestra most probably formed the principal subject of "The Danaides," the concluding member of the trilogy. From a fragment of the prologue which has been preserved, we learn that the drama opened with the hymn with which it was customary to awaken the newly-married pair:

"Since now arises the bright lamp of day,
The bridegrooms I awake with friendly lay,
Chanted by choral bands of youths and maids."

The horrors of the bridal night would thus be revealed, together with what was regarded as the treacherous clemency of Hypermnestra. According to the ancient story, she was cast by her father into prison, and subsequently brought to trial before a court with the constitution of which we are not acquainted. The goddess Aphrodite herself appears to plead her cause, reminding us of the trial of Orestes before the court of Areopagus, when Pallas Athena, as president, gave her casting vote in his favour.

One fragment from the address of Aphrodite has been preserved:

"Longs the pure sky to blend with Earth, and Love
Doth Earth impel to yield to his embrace;
The rain shower, falling from the slumberous heaven,
Kisses the Earth; and Earth brings forth for mortals
Pasture for sheep-flocks and Demeter's grain.
The woods in spring their dewy nuptials hold;
And of all these I am in part the cause."

Hypermnestra was acquitted, and from her union with Lynceus sprang in course of time the demigod Herakles. The remaining daughters of Danaos were purified from the stain of blood by Athena and Hermes, or, according to another form of the legend, by Zeus himself.

This article was originally published in The Dramas of Aeschylus. Trans. Anna Swanwick. London: George Bell and Sons, 1907. pp. 395-400.


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