As the Facebook group FML ("fuck my life"): Greek Mythology Edition* amply proves, life is nasty, elaborately brutish, and tragically short for pretty much everyone who shows up in ancient Greek myths - human, nymph, cyclops, centaur, god - with the exception of Zeus, king of the gods and philanderer-in-chief. For Prometheus, however - the titan who helped Zeus overthrow his tyrannical, child-eating father Cronos - life is not nasty, brutish, and short, but nasty, brutish and unrelentingly long. All because he chose to help humankind against Zeus' wishes - as the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (526-456 BCE) has him say in the tragedy Prometheus Bound:
PROMETHEUS: And fire has proved
For men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.
That was the sin for which I now pay the full price.
For the "offence intolerable to the gods" of giving us fire - together with maths, agriculture, medicine, mining and, er, soothsaying - Prometheus was condemned to be chained to a rock for eternity. Each day, an eagle sent by Zeus arrived to eat his liver; each night, his liver grew back so that it could be eaten all over again. FHisL, indeed.
Prometheus Bound - one of only seven surviving plays attributed to Aeschylus, out of what is thought to have been a corpus of over seventy - is a shriek of outrage against the horrific injustices of fate and/or the gods. Reflecting perhaps its protagonist's trapped state - the entire thing takes place with him already chained to his rock - it is a notably static play. Even by the standards of Greek tragedy - in which scenes generally consist of set-piece speeches and regimented dialogue exchanges between at most two or three characters (and the Chorus) at a time, and in which action invariably happens offstage, to be reported second-hand in lengthy Messenger speeches - Prometheus Bound is not lively. More or less the entire 'action' of the play comprises characters recalling past events, or characters predicting the future. Virtually nothing happens in the dramatic present, beyond the entrance and exit (one at a time) of interlocutors for Prometheus, begging or ordering him to back down and "cease acting as champion of the human race", or else providing other examples of suffering caused by Zeus' actions.
Chief among these exemplars is Io, a human woman who has had the misfortune to become the most recent, and utterly unwilling, target of Zeus' dubious affections. We're told that after being "beset" by dreams urging her to give in ("Do not reject / My child, the bed of Zeus"), poor Io complained to her father, who supported her in her resistance until he received an oracle ordering him to turn Io out of the house on pain of thunderbolts, leaving her alone and vulnerable. Then, for the terrible crime of being raped the ancient world's most notoriously unreliable player - and no doubt with the looming spectre of the ancient world's most notoriously jealous wife, Hera, in her mind - Zeus turns the now homeless, family-less Io into a cow, allegedly to hide her from his wife. Hera - who invariably takes out her rage on Zeus' victims and by-blows, rather than Zeus (seriously, Hera, DTMFA) - is not remotely fooled, and conjures up a stinging gadfly to follow Io-the-cow everywhere she goes, tormenting her to within an inch of her sanity. But never mind: Prometheus is able to tell her that the gadfly will eventually leave her alone when she gets to Egypt, at which point she'll give birth to a child whose seventh-generation will eventually liberate... Prometheus. WELL, THAT'S OKAY, THEN.
Plays like Prometheus Bound were staged as part of an annual religious festival in honour of Dionysus, and it is hard not to wonder how such an apparently iconoclastic, humanistic play fits within this context. Even the god Hephaestus, from whom Prometheus nicked the secret of fire in the first place, is shown to take pity on Prometheus and regret the severity of the punishment that he is obliged to help carry out. (He forges the chains.) I gather there is debate over whether the play is really the work of Aeschylus, who appears quite pro-gods in general and Zeus in particular in his other plays; certainly, it is difficult to reconcile all this with the author of the Oresteia, a trilogy in which humans are the horrors and gods end the cycle of violence with their just and rationalistic (by the standards of the time) authority.
We can perhaps find some explanation or justification in certain characters' comments about things like the irresistible "harmony of Zeus' government": Prometheus did, after all, break the law, and if the play is interested in juxtaposing chaos and order, barbarism ("the blind tribes of men") and civilization, then we might read this as a necessary rather than a capricious exercise of authority on Zeus' part. Even so, a reference to the "laws [...] By which Zeus tyrannically rules" is hardly an unambiguous endorsement of the king of the gods' strategy; he, after all, makes those same laws that enable his tyranny, and can (and does) break them whenever he chooses. Perhaps Zeus, like the unfortunate house of Atreus in the Oresteia, is himself doomed to repeat the sins of his father.
The other three plays in this 1961 Penguin Classics collection, translated by Philip Vellacott, are to varying degrees more concerned with human flaws and folly than with a critique of the gods. Although it's hard not to read the end of The Suppliants, which takes up the story of Io's descendants, without a heavy dose of irony. The titular suppliants are the Danaids, the daughters of one Danaus, who - in a clear parallel to their unfortunate ancestress - are facing the prospect of being married against their will to their cousins, the sons of Aegyptus. Unusually, the Danaids function in the play as a sort of protagonist-Chorus, providing both the choral odes and engaging in virtually all the dialogue with the other characters; only only two brief occasions do any non-Chorus characters interact with each other, rather than solely with the Chorus.
The Danaids persuade the people of the Greek city-state of Argos to protect them, but their opposition to the match angers their father, who condemns them in the sort of terms that patriarchal authority still evokes today:
DANAUS: I urge you then, having such bloom of comely youth
As makes men turn their eyes – do not bring shame on me.
A full ripe orchard is no easy thing to guard.
What wonder? It wakes men's cunning, turns them covetous,
And tempts, no less, winged and four-footed plunderers.
That's right, ladies: if badly-behaved men harass you, it's your fault and you bring shame on the most important person in this equation, me. Thanks, Dad!
The Danaids, who at the start of the play remind the audience of both poor Io's grim fate and whose fault it was ("When by the nod of Zeus / It is decreed that a thing be accomplished, / The event falls firm on its feet / For the paths of his purposing heart / Stretch dark and tangled, baffling sight and thought"), turn in their despair to begging Zeus for help. Yeah, that'll work. Despite their maids' rather callous urging to make the best of the inevitable ("The purpose of Zeus / Is a strong frontier which none can overstep. / This marriage might well achieve its end / In happiness greater than women have yet known"), the Danaids try to reassure themselves that the one god who has shown the least interest in the women's agency and consent might save them:
May Zeus, who rules the world,
Save me from cruel subjection to a man I hate;
Zeus, who set Io free from her affliction.
The affliction that he caused, sure. Once he'd raped her, sure. Again, while it's possible to read this play as a demonstration of Zeus' implacable authority and majesty, in the face of which puny humans should cower because God Knows Best, the dramatic irony of this final statement on the part of the Danaids' is almost overpowering, given how it balances the opening ode about Io. I do think the play pities the Danaids, even as it sees their fate as inevitable - that's why it's a tragedy.
Seven Against Thebes is an entry into the House of Oedipus saga, and as such it's rich in human folly, talk about fate, and characters whose relationships can only be expressed with hyphenated terms. The play was, apparently, the last part of a trilogy, and it certainly has the flavour of blow-out climax. Oedipus, having learned that he accidentally killed his own father and married his mother, has stabbed his eyes out and left his four unfortunate children-siblings to go noisily mad and tear each other apart. One of his son-brothers, Polyneices, has rounded up an army consisting largely of epic heroes to attack his home city of Thebes; another, Eteocles, is trying to hold the city's defences together while gloomily reflecting that he is clearly fated to face his brother-uncle in battle.
I found this play fascinating, and would love to see it performed; of all the tragedies in this collection, it's the one easiest to imagine translated to the stage, and in particular to a context of religious devotion. The drama has a strong ring of ritual to its pacing and structure: from the steady, rhythmic drumbeat of the formulaic way each of the eponymous Seven attackers - one for each gate of Thebes - are introduced, to the sonorous duel lament offered for the dead at the play's end.
A chaotic, scattered opening Choral ode - so different from the usual tidy stanzas of the form - conveys a sense of panic and disarray felt by the Thebans (specifically, the women of Thebes) very ably:
I heard the thud of chariots!
They are circling the city. O Queen Hera!
That sound was the rattle of axles
Heavily loaded. Pity us, Artemis!
Rather than reassure the rightly frightened women, Eteocles rebukes them and cows them into temporary quiet ("War is for men, and words from women are not wanted. / You have no place here; get indoors, where you can do / No harm"), marking him out - deliberately, I think - as a harsh and unreasonable ruler. The play as a whole is more sympathetic to the women's plight, giving the Chorus space to deplore the fate of women in times of war, bewailing the fact "That widowed women young and old / Should be led like horses by the hair":
And tears must flow for girls gently bred
Who before the marriage rite has gathered their maiden flower
Travel the hateful road to new homes.
What of them? I say that the dead
Enjoy a happier lot.
It's still some way from Euripides' The Trojan Women as a portrait of women in wartime: no individual women characters with their own hopes and personalities emerge from this group, and the dwelling on how the purity of "maidens" will be sullied is a stock image that rather implies women are wasted if they haven't yet been useful to men. But amid a rather chest-beating story, it still offers an interesting undercurrent. In addition, it may or may not foreshadow the appearance of sister-aunts Antigone and Ismene, who take over the stage to do the women's work of lamenting the dead at the play's end, in a very powerful piece of writing in which their divided sympathies lead them to interweave and counterpoint each other's words, moving back and forth to address first one and then the other brother-uncle:
ANTIGONE: With the spear you killed -
ISMENE: By the spear you died -
ANTIGONE: Pitiful in inflicting.
ISMENE: Pitiful in suffering.
ANTIGONE: Let the cry rise -
ISMENE: Let the tear fall -
ANTIGONE: For you who died.
ISMENE: For you who killed.
(I say the Chorus' words 'may or may not' foreshadow this final section, because it is thought by some scholars that it was a later addition to Aeschylus' play. Although whether it was the original author's intent or not, it certainly works that way now.)
The Seven then enter the action one-by-one, described to Eteocles and the Chorus by a soldier - acting in the Messenger role. Each comes, in the soldier's description, garlanded with prideful epithets that would not be out of place in Homer; of Melanippus, we're told that "he reveres the throne of Modesty / And hates proud speech", and Polyphontes is said to be "Grudging of speech, fiery in courage". The Chorus punctuates these capsule portraits with short exhortations to the gods to strike down these invaders ("Death to the loud boaster against our city! / May the thunderbolt be the weapon that halts him"). As I say, I can imagine it being very striking on stage.
The deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices at each others' hands is a tragedy that comes about in large part because Eteocles is utterly convinced he has no choice in the matter. "O house that gods drive mad, that gods so deeply hate," he says, before going out to face his brother-uncle, "O house of endless tears, our house of Oedipus! / It is his curse that now bears fruit in us his sons." The Chorus, however, sees things rather differently, putting the blame squarely on the pair's perversity and their unwillingness to listen to reason:
CHORUS: Alas, perverse men,
Whom your dear one could not persuade
Who wickedness could not weary!
With all your pitiful courage
What you have overthrown is your father's house.
The collection's final play, The Persians, is a more conventional tragedy in many ways, despite being about a real-life protagonist - the Persian king Xerxes - who was not just a non-Greek, but a figure who had been a deadly existential threat to Greece within recent memory at the time of the play's performance. The Persians is, I believe, our earliest surviving account of the Battle of Salamis in 480, a major victory for the allied Greek city-states - led by the Athenian Themistocles - over a formidable Persian fleet. This came right on the heels of the now more famous clash at the pass of Thermopylae, in which the Persian army overwhelmed a small but doughty force of Spartans and others. The latter might seem a more obvious choice for the subject of a tragedy; instead, though, Aeschylus to have lit upon Athens' finest hour, and told it from the other side.
Well, sort of. There's no doubt that The Persians parades many of the stereotypes that would come to be such staples of Orientalist discourse in later years: the outnumbered but valiant Greeks fighting for their individual freedom, versus the largely interchangeable hordes at the disposal of - cue ominous strings - Eastern Despotism. Here is Xerxes' mother, unable to comprehend that the people lining up to face her sons' armies might be defending their homeland of their own free will, rather than being forced as the natural order of things demands:
ATOSSA: Who shepherds them? What master do their ranks obey?
CHORUS: Master? They are not called servants to any man.
ATOSSA: And can they, masterless, resist invasion?
Later, faced with the ghost of Xerxes' father Darius, the Chorus says it cannot even look upon Darius' face, since "[r]everence forbids" them; "Now as before," they say, "we dread your majesty".
The fact that free citizen Greeks were, for the most part, a tiny elite male class ruling over huge subject populations of slaves, near-slaves, and women (or that many Greek city-states were monarchies too) = a detail not remotely featuring on this play's triumphalist radar.
All this is not helped by the decision of the translator to substitute Balen, the Phrygian word for 'king', for the enormously anachronistic and very loaded 'Sultan': an Arabic word meaning 'authority' that gained currency during the tenth and eleventh centuries CE, but which most obviously for a modern audience conjures images of the Ottoman empire, the eternally failing - in some accounts, for the majority of the six centuries of its existence! - and stagnantly decadent eastern regime par excellence.
Nonetheless: a tragedy has to evoke some measure of catharsis; the audience should be moved by the downfall of its protagonist(s). Thus, perhaps, the portrait of the enemy is not without sympathy; the Chorus tells us of "the flower of manhood / The pride of Persian valour" who march on Greece (and who, we know, will die in droves), and later the Messenger describes how "fear gripped every man" when the Persians belatedly realise that they have been deceived in thinking the Greeks were defeated ("They were not fugitives who sang that terrifying / Paean, but Hellenes charging with courageous hearts"). The result of their error of judgement is devastating:
The whole sea was one din of shrieks and dying groans
Till night and darkness hid the scene. If I should speak
For ten days and ten nights, I could not tell you all
That day's agony.
But ultimately the real blame lies with Xerxes, whose "youthful recklessness" and "mortal folly" cause his army's - his people's - downfall. He ignores the prophetic dreams sent to his mother contrasting "Greece" and "Asia" and foretelling the latter's doom, and is led by fate or the gods into hubristic flights of fancy, meddling - like humankind after Prometheus' intervention - with things mortal men should leave well alone. As we are told - this being rather too big a thing to represent onstage:
ATOSSA: Xerxes, whose rashness emptied Asia of its men.
DARIUS: Poor fool! Was it by land or sea he attempted this?
ATOSSA: Both; he advanced two-fronted to a double war.
DARIUS: How could he, with so huge a land-force, cross the sea?
ATOSSA: He chained the Hellespont with ships, to make a road.
DARIUS: That was a feat! He closed the mighty Bosporus?
ATOSSA: He did. Doubtless some god helped him achieve his plan.
DARIUS: Some god, I fear, whose power robbed Xerxes of his wits.
This theme would be later developed by the historian Herodotus, when he wrote his account of these events in the 440s/430s (if I remember my A-Level Classics rightly): in an excess of ambition and, frankly, skill, Xerxes had the effrontery to turn land into sea (digging a giant canal so his ships could more easily sail into Greek waters), and sea into land (with this bridging of the strait known as the Hellespont, aka the Dardanelles). As I recall Herodotus also has an episode where Xerxes goes a bit nuts and orders some of his guys to whip the waters of the Bosphorus, thus again signalling his contempt for divine power.
The upshot, for Aeschylus and for those who took his version of events to heart, was that Persia's time in the sun was up. Whereas once,
Long ago, the heavenly Powers
Laid upon the Persian name
Terms: to seek on land her fame;
Din of horsemen, crash of towers
Sack of cities - these were ours.
...now, because of Xerxes' angering of the gods by getting all clever and stuff, or possibly due to the gods' incitement of him to anger them in order to Teach Humankind A Lesson about getting all clever and stuff, doom. (Theology - whether polytheistic or monotheistic - is and always has been essentially a lose-lose proposition for mere mortals, when it comes to the question of why bad stuff happens in the world, hasn't it? As US Senate candidate Richard Mourdock has so amply demonstrated.) Because of one of those things, anyway, or maybe just because - stop me if this is too shocking an idea - people coming up with inventive ways to make warfare easier tends to result in more of said people getting killed, that being the point of warfare, the
dead heaped on dead
Shall bear dumb witness to three generations hence
That man is mortal and must learn to curb his pride.
For pride will blossom; soon its ripening kernel is
Infatuation; and its bitter harvest, tears.
Behold their folly and its recompense.
Gods and their plans, eh? FOurL. How about we just call the whole thing off, and just take responsibility for starting - and ending - our own wars?
[* Some of my favourites from that site include:
Atlas: The weight of the world is literally on my shoulders. LITERALLY. FML.
Icarus: Ahhh, it's so nice and warm up here... wait... SHIT. FML.
Cassandra: Never tell Apollo he's bad in bed. FML.
Thyestes: That's the last time I let my brother cook for me. FML. (See also.)
And who could forget:
Paris: Orlando Bloom? Really? FML.]