The opening scene of The Suppliants is set in the holy ground of the sanctuary of the goddess Demeter in Eleusis. The Eleusinian Demeter was a grain goddess, whose Great Mysteries were celebrated annually in September, when the autumn rains were expected to renew the life of the earth. At the climax of the mysteries, a reaped ear of wheat was revealed. Grain was stored in underground rooms in the sanctuary. By placing the play at this site, Euripides is invoking the idea of civilization, which the Greeks associated with the practice of agriculture. Thus, in the description of the shield of Achilles in Book XVIII of The Iliad, the cultivation of wheat is tied to prosperity and the rise of kingship: “at a furrow’s end the king stood pleas’d at heart,/Said no word, but his scepter show’d. And from him, much apart,/His harvest-bailiffs underneath an oak a feast prepar’d” (ll. 506-08). According to Athenian legend, the demi-god Triptolemus, to whom a temple at Eleusis was dedicated, was a favorite (perhaps even the son) of Demeter and is depicted in her company in many Athenian vase paintings. Triptolemus, whose name seems to mean “thrice-ploughed” or “thrice-sown” and who presided over the sowing of grain and the milling of wheat, was credited with inventing the plough and spreading the cultivation of agriculture. Hence he was thought to have originated civilization, which resulted from his discoveries. Sophocles wrote a lost play called Triptolemus. See Susan B. Matheson, The Mission of Triptolemus and the Politics of Athens (1994).
There are many echoes of these legends in The Suppliants. One critic goes so
far as to suggest seeing the entire play “as a kind of fertility ritual ensuring Athenian and Argive prosperity.” See D.J. Conacher, Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure (1967). The Athenian king Theseus praises “whatever immortal power” it was whose wisdom “[g]ave us earth’s fruit for food and, lest supply should fail/Sends rain to nourish growing plants, and fertilize/The womb of earth.” (Here and hereafter, I use Philip Vellacott’s Penguin Classics translation of the play). And in the speech that opens the play, Aethra, Theseus’ mother, tells us that she has come to Demeter’s shrine at Eleusis “to make sacrifice,/For a good harvest, at this holy shrine, where first/Bristled above the soil the fruitful ears of [wheat].” Aethra is there, apparently, to officiate as Athens’ Queen Mother at the feast of the Eleusinian Proerosia, when the first fruits are gathered. The founding hero of the festival was Triptolemus; it commemorates the beginnings of agriculture. See Noel Robertson, New Light on Demeter’s Mysteries: The Festival Proerosia (1996). Note that Aethra claims that Athens is the place where grain “first” appeared.
Furthermore, the sanctuary at Eleusis was emblematic of Athenian prestige and glory. The Eleusinian Mysteries “were for a thousand years one of the crowning glories of Athens, the pride of her statesmen, poets, and orators, a focal point of piety which though intimately civic was at the same time panhellenic.” Francis R. Walton, Athens, Eleusis, and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (1952). Many of Athens’ greatest leaders, including Pericles, were associated with renovations of the sanctuary. The accusation against the Athenian politician and general Alcibiades, that he and his friends had profaned the Eleusinian rites, charged him with an extremely serious offense, fed into suspicions that he intended to overthrow the democracy, and prompted him to demand that he be put to death if tried and found guilty. See Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 28-29. The fourth century Athenian orator Isocrates, in celebrating Athens’ contributions to the world, significantly put first two gifts of Demeter, “the greatest [gifts] in the world—the fruits of the earth, which have enabled us to rise above the life of the beasts, and the holy rite [i.e., the Eleusinian mysteries (RJD)] which inspires in those who partake of it sweeter hopes regarding both the end of life and all eternity.” Panegyricus, IV, 28.
Eleusis and panhellenism
Although Eleusis was located on Athenian territory and although the rites celebrated there were used to serve Athens’ self-presentation, the sacred precincts had a panhellenic as well as a specifically Athenian significance. Athens claimed “to be connected to all of Greece through the panhellenic and beneficial institutions” at Eleusis. Barbara Goff, Aithra at Eleusis (1995).
Athens attempted to be at once exclusionary and engaged in relation to the rest of Greece. After a law of Pericles adopted in 451, Athens excluded from citizenship all those who were not born of Athenian parents on both sides. But Athens was happy to open the city to foreigners, and non-Athenians (like the Argive women in the play) were free to worship at Eleusis. Indeed, the shrine at Eleusis, along with those at Dodona, Delos and Samothrace, was one of the four great “common shrines” of Greece, with unrestricted access to all. And sometime in the 420s (i.e., around the time The Suppliants was written), Athens issued the so-called Aparkhai decree, which ordered the city’s allies, and invited other Greek states, to send offerings of corn and barley annually to Eleusis. Athens seems to have been promoting Eleusis as a common religious center for the whole of Greece. See Ian Rutherford, State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece (2013).
Eleusis and the legends associated with the site thus functioned as a kind of bridge to other Greek cities. In Xenophon’s Hellenika (Book VI, c. 3.4-6), the Athenian envoy Kallias reminds the Spartans that “the first foreigners to whom Triptolemus, our ancestor, revealed the secret rites of Demeter and Kore were Herakles, your founder, and the Diskouroi, your citizens; and he first gave the seeds of the fruit of Demeter to the Peloponnese” (The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Robert B. Strassler (ed.), John Marincola (trans.)). Through Eleusis and its cult, Athens claimed to be the source and provider of benefits, both material and spiritual, to the whole of the Greek world. It sought to be (as we might say) the supplier of international public goods for the other Greek cities (and hence entitled to a hegemonic role in their affairs). Panhellenic values will loom large in the play: Athens goes to war against Thebes for the sake of upholding panhellenic law and custom.
The rites of supplication
By situating the beginning of the play at a sacred site, Euripides has also underscored the social and religious significance of the actions of the Argive King and women in “supplicating” Athens. “Supplication” (“hiketeia”) was an important and distinctive social practice in ancient Greece. It was highly ritualized and was enacted through stylized symbolic gestures, such as kneeling and clasping or touching the beard, chin, hands or knees of the person to whom the supplication is made. The two main forms of supplication were a face-to-face encounter between a human being and a god (or another human), and an appeal through contact with the altar or sacred precincts of a god. See John Gould, Hiketeia (1973). Supplication of the first kind is illustrated by King Priam’s visit to the camp of Achilles in Book XXIV of The Iliad, ll. 414 et seq., when – following the instructions given by the god Hermes — he kisses Achilles’ hand and beseeches him to release to him the body of his son Hector. The action of The Suppliants, which takes place at a shrine, illustrates the second form, although it includes significant elements of the first. (For example, the Argive women cling to the knees of Theseus, clasp his hand and touch his beard.) Theseus himself describes the Argive women and their king as “formal suppliants.”
Suppliants were under the special protection of Zeus. In Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women (l. 1, l. 438), Zeus is said to “guard suppliants.” In Sophocles’ Ajax, the archer Teucer, fearing for the life of the son of his brother Ajax after Ajax’s death, bids him to assume the posture of a suppliant next to his father’s body and places a curse on any evil-doer who may seek to harm the lad. In Book IX of the Odyssey (ll. 303-05), Odysseus appeals to Polyphemus to bear in mind that he is a suppliant, guarded by Zeus of the Strangers, who will punish disregard of his rights. “[A]ll suppliants were placed under Zeus’ protection, and those who harmed a suppliant or violated the established rules were liable to divine sanctions.” Nonetheless, whether to yield to a suppliant’s pleas was in the discretion of the more powerful person to whom the appeal was made. Angeliki Tzanetou, City of Suppliants: Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (2012).
As suppliants at the Eleusian sanctuary, the Argive women and king occupy a liminal position between the gods and men: they stand at the border where humanity encounters the divine, and so demonstrate the “extra-territoriality of the sacred” (Gould). Moreover, they are powerless, but their very powerlessness invests them with the mystery and aura of the supernatural. (The blind, aged, ruined, destitute Oedipus, also portrayed as a suppliant in Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus, exerts the same kind of power when seeking refuge from Thebes at the village of Colonus, near Athens.) Their speech, gestures and posture demonstrate their shameful vulnerability; but they also pose an implicit threat to the more powerful, because it would be shameful not to pity those who are so wretched, especially when the supplication is enacted in a public space. “The suppliant is by definition weak and defenceless; yet he carries within him the threatening power of what is ‘beyond’” (Gould). Moreover, the Argive women are foreigners, strangers to Athens; and yet they assert some claim to its protection, as if they were members of the city’s community. Supplication, in short, was “a ritual one of whose functions is to bring an aberrant human being within the norms of the social order and to mitigate or resolve the crises which result when the community or its representative agent is confronted with what is ‘outside’” (Gould).
Just as the unburied sons are “outsiders” at Thebes, lying on its soil but given no place in its social order, so the suppliant women are “outsiders” at Athens. But Euripides will show that Athens, unlike Thebes, has the humaneness and the courage to take the outsiders “in.” As Sophocles’ Oedipus will say of Athens, it must show itself to be “that rock of reverence all men say it is,/the only city on earth to save the ruined stranger,/the only one to protect him, give him shelter.” Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 277-79 (Robert Fagles trans.).
Note, though, the counterpoint later in the play (after Athens’ victory at Thebes). Although the Argive mothers get their sons’ bodies back, they will still lament their deaths and, strikingly, they will still remain “outsiders.” Just as their unburied sons occupied a liminal place between the living and the dead, so too will their bereaved mothers:
Now in childless misery
I tread the lonely road to old age;
Numbered neither with the dead nor with the living
I inhabit the world of the outcast.
The Argive mothers
War is unfamiliar to most of us. But we should not mistake the depths of the Argive mothers’ agony. In our own time, we need only consider the anguish of the Argentine “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” Beginning in 1977, a group of mothers marched every Thursday around the central square of Buenos Aires, demanding that the government inform them of the fates of their children, who had “disappeared” by the tens of thousands in the political violence of the 1970s and early 1980s against left-wing activists. Until they discovered what had happened to their children, the mothers’ grief could not be assuaged: they marched for over thirty-five years.
For reasons that I cannot claim to fathom, it is a balm to such suffering to learn the fate of a child who has gone missing in war, and still more to be able to hold that child’s remains, visit that child’s grave, or at least know the place and circumstances of his or her death. In his moving and powerful account of how Britain and her Empire dealt with the burial of their dead soldiers after the First World War, David Crane writes of the yearning that thousands of parents across the Empire felt to identify or to visit the sites where their sons had died or been buried:
In 1931, an Australian mother was found sobbing at the grave on Gallipoli of a son who she had thought among the missing. ‘If only I could see your grave, I would die happy,’ another Australian, the mother of Jack Fothergill, killed on the first day of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, wrote . . . eight years later.
Empires of the Dead (2013).
While reflection on experiences that are, like these, nearer in culture and time to us may help us understand the Argive mothers’ sorrow, it seems that we would still have not touched the full depth of their agony. Greek epic and tragedy seem to have had a unique pathos and poignancy on this matter. In her Mothers in Mourning (1998 (French ed. 1990)), the French classicist Nicole Loraux calls attention to the fact that in Greek literature, the sight of a son’s corpse is presented as the cause of a peculiarly intense, as it were physical, anguish for his mother, activating in her what Loraux calls a “body-memory.” “Suddenly present with a heart-rending accuracy, the grief and the memory of the intimacy of these bodies produce excessive pain for the body-memory of mothers. Euripidean tragedy has much to say about this sensual intensity that expresses itself only on a background of loss.” Here in The Suppliants, the Argive women plead for the recovery of their sons’ bodies so that they can once more hold and touch them: “Out of the depth of pain I cry to your [Aethra’s] son/To give my dead into my arms,/ That I may embrace and mourn the body that I bore.” And later: “Give me my son;/ Let my arms hold him fast;/ Let my embrace rest and enfold him.”
Loraux connects this longing with the scene in Book XXII of The Iliad in which Hector’s mother Hecuba implores him not to fight Achilles: she knows, not only that Achilles will kill her son, but also that he will take his body, and so deprive her of the comfort that she has often imagined that she would eventually have in holding his body in the mourning ritual. Hecuba tells Hector (in Loraux’s translation) (ll. 86-7):
If he kills you, I shall no longer be able to weep
Over your bier, dear child, whom I myself begat.
Loraux comments: “As if mourning necessarily were part of a mother’s fate from the very beginning, Hecuba has so much anticipated the vision, both dreaded and strangely comforting, of Hector’s prothesis [the part of the Greek death ritual in which the body is laid out and ritually cleansed (RJD)] that the mother panics . . . foreseeing the loss of her son and of his dead body [my italics (RJD)], as well as of the comfort brought on by ritual. . . . Hecuba thus evokes . . . the ritual that has been imagined so often and will not take place.” The bond between the mother’s body and her son’s, ruptured by his death, must be reknitted in the funeral ritual by her holding and mourning over his body, or her grief and loss are redoubled.
And this, Euripides shows us, will become the final, exquisite agony of the Argive mothers. For Theseus, despite eventually recovering their sons’ bodies and bringing them back to Athens, will deny them the one last chance to hold them; and Adrastus will concur. Between them, the two kings, guardians of the civil order, will set limits to the grieving of the women:
ADRASTUS: Is it wrong for a mother’s hand to touch her son?
THESEUS: They are disfigured; the sight would be too great a shock. . . [W]hy inflict distress on these women?
ADRASTUS [To the CHORUS]: Wait patiently. Theseus is right.
The civic ideology of ancient Athens had little patience with women’s mourning. In Sophocles’ Ajax (ll. 579-80), the hero says to his concubine Tecmessa, “make no laments before the house. God, what a weepy thing is woman” (Richard Jebb trans.). Even Pericles’ funeral oration pays little concern to women: Pericles remarks near the end (Book Two, c. 45) that a woman’s part is simply not to be talked about. But Euripides’ play lets the Argive mothers speak, if not mourn.