June 04, 2009

The first cowgirls

The Danaides, by John William Waterhouse by way of wikipedia.

"On trouble's wing you will not find two plumes alike.."

Goat Rope lately has been looking at Greek tragedies, with those of Aeschylus being the main items on the menu at present. If you scroll down, you'll also find links and comments about current events.

Most of the plays by Aeschylus and the other tragic dramatists that survived to the present are incomplete trilogies. One such is The Suppliants, the first and only survivor of a trilogy that relates the story of the daughters of Danaus, a descendant if Io.

If you recall, Io was a young woman of Argos who attracted the amorous attention of Zeus. Hera tried to head things off and punish her by turning her into a cow tormented by a gadfly. She wandered the known world and eventually wound up in Egypt, where she was restored to human form and gave birth to Zeus' child Epaphus.

The trilogy by Aeschylus takes place a couple of generations later when Danaus and his 50 daughters flee Egypt to avoid a forced marriage to the 50 sons of their uncle Aegyptus. They seek refuge in their ancestral city of Argos, where King Pelasgus and the citizens of the city grant it. They are pursued by the sons of Aegyptus, which is pretty much where the action ends.

What probably happened in the rest of the trilogy was that Pelasgus was killed in the ensuing fight and Danaus became tyrant (non-hereditary ruler, not necessarily a dictator) of Thebes and was forced to agree to the marriages. The daughters of Danaus agree to kill their husbands and all but one, Hypermnestra, do so. She was motivated by love and for this is punished by her father.

Danaus in turn is killed by Hypermnestra's husband Lynceus, who becomes ruler of Thebes. The women who killed their husbands are pardoned with the help of the love goddess Aphrodite.

The theme may have been the power of love to promote reconciliation. One fragment spoken by Aphrodite survives from the concluding play that shows love as a cosmic force on which all things depend:

"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."

The play and the earlier myths that inspired it raise some interesting issues. One is the debt the Greeks felt they owed to Egypt. Another is the sacred relationship between guest and host and especially that between a suppliant--someone who begs for mercy and/or help--and the person to whom he or she appeals. Zeus was the patron of supplicants and it was considered dangerous to deny mercy when someone pleaded for it.

Blessed are the merciful, in other words. As the chorus puts it in the play,

"If you respect the suppliant,
The sacrifice you pay will be the best
That a man of pure life can offer
On the gracious altars of the gods"


BUBBLE (HOUSING) BUBBLE, toil and trouble.

HEALTH CARE. The recession has caused many Americans to cut back on refilling prescriptions. Meanwhile, here's the latest on President Obama's approach to health care reform.

THIS JUST IN. Scientists can track penguin poop from space. While that is undoubtedly a worthy objective in itself, they are using it to locate penguin colonies. I'm waiting for the wolverines...

STRESSED OUT. Residents of El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia have the highest rate of psychological distress, according to a new federal report.


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