On reading Aeschylus’ Suppliants

“Tell me now, Muses,
Who live on Olympus—for you are
Goddesses, and are present,
And know all things, while we
Hear only reports and know nothing.”
—Iliad 2.522-526, Stanley Lombardo translation

“The mind of Zeus
Is trackless, unbounded.”
—Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, Peter Burian translation

The partial, subjective nature of human knowledge seems to be a prominent theme threaded through ancient Greek thought. The Iliad is filled with reminders via the invocations of the Muse, whose omniscience is contrasted with the hearsay and rumors that characterize human knowledge, and omens from the gods that characters continually misread, often in their own favor. The message seems to be: Though it will at times be painful and difficult, strive to see things as they are rather than as you wish them to be; otherwise, you will be perpetually fighting a battle you cannot possibly win.

Many of the tragedies I’ve read revisit the theme by invoking the unknowability of the gods’ plans and will in their fullness. One I read most recently is Aeschylus’ The Suppliants. In the play, the Danaiads flee from Egypt and forced marriage to their cousins, seeking protection in Argos from King Pelasgus. He puts the matter to the Argive people, who agree to protect the women. But even alongside this unequivocal decision to protect them, the women receive a warning from their handmaidens about the “awesome power” of Aphrodite and her “darling daughters,” Desire and Persuasion.

What are the handmaids getting at? Interpretations run the gamut, as the saying goes, from reading events in terms of Athens’ political circumstances, to the relationship between myth and ritual, to the intersection of rising philosophical perspectives. I love how exhilarating and thought-provoking these texts’ inexhaustibility of interpretation and irreducibility of meaning are.

What (if anything) do you enjoy about reading ancient literature?

2 thoughts on “On reading Aeschylus’ Suppliants

  1. It’s so interesting how you point out this mortal inability to know all as part of the Ancient Greeks’ perception of life. I never thought about it, which makes me think that part of it stems from the fact that I feel the same way, both as a neurotic mortal always afraid of what might be lurking around the corner, and as a writer who often has to think about point of view when telling a story. I appreciated the parts of “The Iliad” that addressed that, too, bemoaning that the poet or speaker couldn’t possibly show the full picture to the audience the way the gods see it.

    I think what I personally like about Ancient literature in general is just that – finding these things, whether tragic, comic, or just observations, that I still relate to today. I especially love when they include humor. There’s something about how the same thing might still be funny thousands of years later that really touches me.

    Thanks again for giving me a lot to think about this evening!

    1. Thank you for the same, Alysa! And I feel similarly about ancient humor and more generally the emotional relatability. It’s so moving to me to see how the emotional landscape is basically indistinguishable from any other time or place.

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