To the sea he leads me, like a spider

This weekend I resumed my long-delayed project of reading straight through Grene and Lattimore’s Complete Greek Tragedies. I started up again with Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens. Almost immediately, things got real. Too real.

The Suppliant Maidens is about fifty sisters, refugees from “a holy precinct bordering Syria,” who come to Argos to beg for shelter. Hot on their trail is an army sailing at the behest of fifty brothers who want to forcibly install the sisters as their wives. The sisters ask the local ruler, Pelasgus, to give them sanctuary. But he’s dubious, offering the politician’s excuse:

…never may people say, if evil comes,
“By honoring immigrants you destroyed the city.”

This is a play about what it feels like to be “an immigrant group in a foreign land, which bears the brunt of every evil tongue, and is the easy target of calumny.” I did not expect that. This play is very topical, right now.

Refugee Women
Refugee Women

The sisters manage to convince Pelasgus to give them sanctuary. But not before the army of Egyptus (their pursuers) shows up and attempts to abduct them. That attempted abduction involves some really intense and disturbing language. [Trigger warning.] Sexual violence seems imminent:

Hasten to the boats
fast as you are able,
lest torn and pricked,
pricked and scratched you’ll be,
bloody and bloodstained,
your heads cut off!
Hurry, hasten, curses! Curses! To the boats!

Like all great literature, The Suppliant Women raised a bunch of questions I had to work through.

First, there was the matter of why Pelasgus finally decides to shelter the sisters. Here’s the speech where he sums up his reasoning:

If I do not carry out what’s due to you,
you’ve warned us of unmatchable pollution.
But if before these walls I take a stand
and bring the battle against Egyptus’ sons,
your cousins, wouldn’t that be a bitter waste—
men to bloody the earth for women’s sake?
But yet the wrath of Zeus the Suppliant—
the height of mortal fear—must be respected.

The “unmatchable pollution” he mentions is that the sisters have promised to hang themselves outside the city gates if they’re not given shelter. Horrifyingly, Pelasgus requires the threat of an avenging Zeus to give a shit. Other things being equal, he’d rather leave the women to their fate.

This reasoning made me wonder about the far-famed hospitality of ancient cultures. You hear and read people waxing nostalgic for the duties of hospitality. But it had its ugly side. I wonder if it wasn’t largely a duty of fear, an unpleasant duty that you performed so as not to be smote by a god. (And while we’re enumerating its unpleasant sides, let’s not forget Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, and the murderous, carousing suitors that descend upon her and demand her hospitality the moment her husband disappears.)

Another question the play raised for me is an old one that I frequently reconsider when I read a new Greek tragedy: the discomforting theology. I wrote about this regarding another Aeschylean tragedy, Prometheus Bound, for Open Letters, and I’ll quote something from that piece: “This must have made very uncomfortable viewing for pious Athenians at the festival of Dionysus—here was a play that proclaimed Zeus unjust and anti-human.” The same could be said for The Suppliant Women, in the larger context of the tragic trilogy it was originally part of. Early in the play, the sisters observe that, “an altar’s stronger than ramparts; it’s a shield impenetrable.” In other words, even assholes like Pelasgus have to help those who need, because Zeus.

But here’s the thing: the army of Egyptus does eventually seize the sisters. Not in this play—though there are omens at the end—but eventually. Their marriage night is the occasion for one of the other, now lost, plays in the trilogy: on it, at the urging of their father, forty nine of them stab their new husbands to death.

So much for the impenetrable shield of an altar…

I bet someone has written a book on the theology of the Greek tragedies. It would be interesting to see what a systematic exposition would reveal. I would have found them very discomforting to watch, assuming I believed that beings like Zeus, Artemis, and Aphrodite really existed. The tragedies would have undermined my confidence in the gods.

Finally, I had to ask myself how this play was a tragedy. Obviously lots of unpleasant things happen in it, and it’s part of a larger narrative (if we look at the whole trilogy) of typically Greek ruination and horror. But the plot of this specific play is a happy one! Some refugees come to a city, beg to be protected, almost get abducted, but are rescued at the last moment and given a home. That’s no so bad, right?

But there is something deeply tragic about this play, something that goes below the level of mere plot, something that has more to do with what makes a drama tragic (I am coming to believe) than whether things end better or worse at the end of the story. My current thesis is that the greatest tragedies are about inherent and inalienable precarities and tensions. In this case, the tragedy of The Suppliant Women is the condition of being a woman in the heroic age.

These fifty sisters are really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their father is one of those sexual-purity-or-death types, who tells them: “Only regard this command of your father: value modesty more than life itself.” And so they’re utterly terrified of the would-be husbands on their trail. And then these would-be husbands are the worst sort of men, whose bitterness at their rejection by the women has turned into a vicious, brutal anger. The sisters are disregarded as people by Pelasgus, who only helps them because he’s afraid they’ll hang themselves and bring Zeus down on him, and even when they’re given shelter they’re told to watch out, because they should expect sexual violence just as a consequence of who they are and not merely from the bad guys: “I beg you,” says their father, “not to bring me shame, you who have that bloom which draws men’s eyes: there is no simple guard for fruit most delicate, that men and beasts, both winged and footed, devour.”

The last words of the play are the women trying to extract some maxim for future behavior from the trauma they’ve just undergone. This is the best they can come up with:

I am content with two-thirds
of good, just one of ill;
and justly, with my prayers,
through the saving arts of god
to follow justice.

Translation: being a women sucks at least 33% of the time. At least. So stop hoping for anything better and just try to be pious in the hope that you get the maximum 66% of happiness. At best. Yikes.

One final note. I would be remiss not to mention how poetic this tragedy is. The language sings. It’s amazing to me that Aeschylus could have written both The Persians, which I found mostly tedious and pedestrian, and things like The Suppliant Women, Prometheus Bound, and Agamemnon (to which we will come next!). But he did. I know which I like better.

Here’s a parting shot, something the women sing as they think they’re about to be abducted. It would make a fascinating libretto for a song in an opera:

Ah, father, to the sea he leads me;
like a spider, step by step,
a dream, a black dream.
O woe, woe!

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