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!

The earth all furrowed up by fingernails

I’m reading straight through Grene and Lattimore’s edition of the complete Greek tragedies. I intend to write on this blog about each tragedy as I read it.

The oldest extant tragedy, and the first in Grene and Lattimore’s collection, is The Persians, by Aeschylus.

It’s notable, though, not just for priority and antiquity. It’s also the only tragedy we possess which was written about an event from its author’s lifetime. Mostly the tragedies are about remote stories from the iron age, stories whose provenance is as ancient as the story of Troy recounted in the Iliad. (Indeed, one of the lost works of Homer was about the family of Oedipus, who inspired dozens of tragedies.) The Persians, though, is about the defeat of the Persian king Xerxes’ navy at Salamis, which spelled doom for his ill-fated campaign to add the Greek city states to his empire. The same campaign included the famous land battle of Thermopylae (known to you, perhaps, from the film 300).

Aeschylus fought in this war—in fact, he took part in the victory at Salamis. You might think that surely a great victory like this isn’t the matter for a tragedy—and you’d be right! Neither Aeschylus nor the Athenian audience who were regaled by the first performance would have found the Battle of Salamis particularly tragic. Which is why Aeschylus made the decision to set his play in the Persian court.

He probably hadn’t been there. He gets it pretty wildly wrong in lots of ways. But he has fun with it: there’s Atossa, the famous queen of Darius and mother of Xerxes. There’s a visit from a ghost (good ol’ Darius himself, who was the leader of the first unsuccessful Persian campaign against Greece), and then poor Xerxes creeps in, with tattered clothing and woe-is-me speeches.

So maybe The Persians throws a spanner in the theory about Greek tragedy which makes it out to be universally edifying. I’m not saying these plays aren’t noble art. (I wouldn’t be honoring them with my full attention if I didn’t respect them.) But I think we tend to attribute a weight of seriousness and moral purpose into ancient things in general that’s often out of whack with their original function. At any rate The Persians surely provoked as much schadenfreude as it did catharsis in its original audience! I’d be willing to bet a few Athenian wits made a cat-call or two when Xerxes came wailing on stage.

But as for me, I was bored. I’ve got to be real with you: I hated almost every moment of The Persians. Primarily I hated it because nothing happens. Or nothing that makes a difference. People worry the campaign has failed; a messenger says the campaign has failed; people mourn that the campaign has failed; a ghost mourns that the campaign has failed; Xerxes mourns that the campaign has failed. I get it. The campaign has failed.

But I don’t think the static nature of the plot entirely explains my ennui. After all, my favorite Greek tragedy of all time, Prometheus Bound, which I just wrote about for Open Letters Monthly (and which I will therefore be skipping when I come to it in this blog series), also boasts a grand total of zero plot twists. Yet I find it dramatic, utterly riveting.

The problem is that there’s nothing in The Persians to compensate for its plotlessness. The language is pretty pedestrian as far as I could tell, far short of the brilliant imagery Aeschylus creates in his Agamemnon, for example. The psychology of the characters wasn’t particularly rich. The events of the play (or lack thereof) give rise to no particularly profound thoughts or arguments. It’s just one woe-is-me exclamation after another. Some of the things that Athenians liked about the play when it was first performed were the singing, dancing, and backdrops. So we’re in the position of reading a musical without the music. No wonder I was bored.

Well, there’s one exception. Exactly one speech, right in the middle of the play, enthralled me. It marked a precious few seconds of pleasure in half an hour of otherwise unmitigated torture. And predictably a ghost delivered the lines I liked.

Is the ghost of Darius the first ghost in dramatic literature? He may be. Peak-ghost was probably the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or the ghost of Hamlet’s dad. But Darius, formerly the Great King, is their distinguished literary ancestor.

This is what he says when he appears, and I love it:

O faithful followers, companions
of my youth! O Persian counselors!
What burden is burdening the city, and why
is the earth groaning and beaten, all furrowed up
by fingernails? Anxiously, I saw my wife
beside my tomb, and graciously received
her offerings; and you lament now, standing
at my tomb, with cries for resurrection
calling piteously. Ascent is not so easy.
The cthonic deities more readily
receive than give; but I, a potentate
among them, came. Be quick, that I be un-
reproached for being late. What recent woe
weight now so heavily upon the Persians?

What do I like about this monologue? So many things!

First, I just thrill with the horror of this image: “the earth groaning and beaten, all furrowed up by fingernails.” Holy shit that’s good. And I can’t help but extrapolate from that image to picture the dead, down below the earth, wondering what’s going on as they see how the earth is furrowed, like fishes speculating about a hurricane by watching waves from the depths.

Second, I love the whole theme in Greek literature of the living visiting the dead and the dead visiting the living. I wrote about the obvious line between Homer, Virgil, and Dante on the matter of the trip to Hades; here’s the other side of the coin, the trip up from Hades. I think haunting is easier than trespassing, though; it happens more often; and apparently your rank in life can make things even easier for you, because Darius implies he was able to crawl up from Hades because he’s a potentate down there too.

On the other hand—third—whenever the Greeks talk about death, they keep things real. It’s the end, dust to dust, for them. Better to be a nobody on earth than a somebody in the afterlife, as Achilles—I paraphrase—tells Odysseus. So despite Darius’s potentate-status down below, he still acts like a nervous kid, asking people to be quick so the “cthonic deities” don’t “reproach” him for staying out too late. Touch of humor there. I love it.

Those are the main things I like about Darius’ speech. Was it enough to redeem the half-hour of boredom I spent with the godawful repetitive rest of The Persians? Nope. But it’s a consolation.