The Danaïds’ “Eye” — A Parable of Untwinning


“ intention wasn’t to write about typical things anyway. I’m just describing what once happened on the Desna right at the spot where the River Seim flows into it.”
Oleksandr Dovzhenko, The Enchanted Desna, 1954-1955

Part I : Arrival In Leipzig


This is a research report conducted within the emergency support fellowship program for Ukrainian cultural workers of Goethe-Institute in Ukraine. Its theme is the results of research on the Ukrainian art scene in exile. When one writes a research report in the English language, one has to abide by its grammar rules. The latter implies writing this report from the point of view of an “I” subject.[1] On the other hand, I would like to include the Ukrainian tradition of using a collective subject for research texts. Out of the incommensurability between these two academic modes, appeared my perspective that assumed the identity of the collective subject of the Danaïds’ parable. It is conceived as a supplication—a parallel to that of the Danaïds—in response to the Open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed by 26 German cultural workers. 

Café Kapital gfZK, Leipzig

I interrupt my work on the report to pay a monthly visit at ONA, a social service desk for refugees. Luxembourg City administration renamed Third Street, a new southern gateway to the city, to the Boulevard of Kyiv. On crossing the street, I am back to the point of origin of this research text. I arrived in Leipzig on Thursday, May 26th, 2022. It was the opening of the exhibition When The Sun Is Low — The Shadows Are Long on June 11th,  by Belarusian curator Anna Kharpenko. The art show was featuring artists from Belarus in exile, in the timespan of 105 years (1917-2022). I came all the way from Schnorrstrasse 54, Schleussig, where I was renting a room for 250 euros a month (May 26–June 26), to café Kapital at gfZK, to meet with my hosts, two Leipzig artists. We were discussing the Open Letter to Scholz: its rhetoric of twinning Ukrainian resistance with Russia’s aggression; the line it draws between peaceful Ukrainian civilians and dehumanized state armed forces; the way it frames Ukrainian resistance as a specular reflection of the actions of Russian army; the way it victim-blames Ukrainians who are not alienated from their national statehood for the support of Russia’s genocide of Ukrainian civilian population. In this letter, the peaceful “redivision of borders”[2] after the collapse of the USSR and emergence of new national statehoods, which British musician and writer Bill Drummond[3] compared to the birth of the hydra of the Danaïds,[4] is replaced with the “installation of flags” (in the words of my interlocutors) on both Russian and Ukrainian sides. In this twin mythology, the Roman iconography of the Danaïds is reenacted. The disembodied gaze of the Western listener, disconnected from Ukrainian wartime testimonies, produces a surplus of sympathy

In his interpretation of the iconography of the Danaïds, Lacan established a parallel between Marx’s concept of symbolic value and the Hegelian theater of master and slave.[5] The gesture of the Danaïds is reversed in the figure of the master. Whereas the Danaïds are filling the barrel, the master is taking from it. Hence, his gesture is specular to that of the Danaïds. While the collective body of the Danaïds is enslaved in the endless task of filling the barrel, the master’s figure empties it time and again, subjecting them to the barren ordeal. In this specular schema, the master is taking the work of a slave with a shell of the body. Lacan remarks that Hegel errs in his analysis of the master and slave economy, in accordance to which the master appropriates the slave’s bodily knowledge together with his work. In Lacan’s version of the Danaïds’ iconography, the Hegelian master is ignorant of their ordeal. In this reversal of the Danaïds’ perspective, he is drawing from a barrel that is always barren for him: “…it is a master’s discourse, this discourse of Hegel’s, which relies on substituting the State for the master via the long pathway of culture, culminating in absolute knowledge.…”[6] The text of the Open Letter to Scholz reflects this phantom of absolute knowledge in its appeal to the abstraction of the universal law, depriving Ukrainian citizens of their subjectivity: “…the moral responsibility of the further cost in human lives among the Ukrainian civilian population falls exclusively within the competence of their government. Morally binding norms are universal in nature.” The sentence echoes Roman justes that is reflected in the Danaïds’ Hellenistic mythology. From the position of Lacanian master, German cultural workers who signed the open letter to Scholz do sympathize, twin and twin, not hearing the words of the subjects of their sympathies. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, in Roman iconography, the forehead of the Danaïds bears a “hidden figure” of an “idle furrow”, in which the hell of endless sufferings is replaced with the futility of an endless task of supplication that the Danaïds have to replay time and again in the barren cycle .[7]

In this research report, I would like to re-articulate the Danaïds’ supplication: wartime communication of the Ukrainian context is likewise the action of filling the barrel that is depleted time and again with my listener’s twinning surplus. And I have to repeat once again: it is not the spectral nationalism of antinationalists (as in the Soviet antinationalist rhetoric that supported Russian imperialism of Soviet period) that drives Ukrainian resistance, as it is implied by those who signed the Open Letter to German Chancellor Scholz, withdrawing their support of Ukrainian fight for its national statehood. 

  1. Friedrich Schlegel wrote in Gespräch Über Die Poesie (1800) that England is an island where each printed text is an essay: „Wie jedes Buch auf dieser Insel ein Essay.“ 
  2. Knauer and Walkowitz, Introduction, 10.
  3. Drummond and Manning, Bad Wisdom, 4.
  4. Robert Graves introduced the metaphor of hydra to Danaïd iconography. “This ritual myth has become attached to that of the Danaïds, who were the ancient water-priestesses of Lerna. The number of heads given the Hydra varies intelligibly: as a college of priestesses it had fifty heads.” Lernaean Hydra appears in Aeschylus’s satyr play Amymone that was part of the Danaïds’ tetralogy, complimenting three tragedies, in which The Suppliants was the first one, with subsequent The Egyptians and The Daughters Of Danaus. The latter two tragedies and the satyr piece were lost.
  5. Lacan, The Seminar of Jacque Lacan: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, 87-104.
  6. ibid, 79.
  7. Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 119.

Part II : A Suppliant


So, let us make a slight shift from the Danaïds’ to the Ukrainians’ supplication. The frontispiece of Yevgenia Belorusets’ War Diary (February 24-April 5, 2022) features the seventeenth century icon of Pokrova (in English Protector) — Intercession of the Blessed Virgin from a church in the town of Stara Sil in Ukraine.[1] In Belorusets’s self-mythologization, multiple voices of various wartime practices of Ukrainian artists communicate a kind of intercessory prayer, or supplication of Ukrainians on behalf of one another. I argue that the Open Letter to German Chancellor Scholtz follows the supplication of Ukrainian cultural workers in refuge. Hence German hospitality to Ukrainians includes listening to suppliants. The question is, if the German public is listening to the suppliant’s supplication, then why is it not heard: why is it only the part of Ukrainian society that would take refuge that is welcomed? 

The concept of hospitality is connected to listening to the refugee’s supplication. Its genealogy goes back to Aeschylus’s Suppliants, the first Greek tragedy with supplication as its main theme. Moreover, the episode of suppliants is plausibly Aeschylus’s own addition to the Danaïds’ parable.[2]The supplement of supplication is announced in the title of the tragedy and interpellated in the first words of Aeschylus’s text addressed to Zeus, the protector of suppliants:[3]

Zeus! Lord and guard of suppliant hands 
Look down benign on us who crave
Thine aid…[4]

Aeschylus’s version of the Danaïds’ parable was followed by Euripides’s Suppliants, establishing a new canon.[5] However, Simone Weil introduced the character of a suppliant in her reading of Homer’s Iliad, which predates the work of Aeschylus. According to the French philosopher, Homer’s epic is a seesaw of two figures: a humble suppliant[6] and the victorious force.[7] She notes that in The Iliad a suppliant is turned into a “thing”, a live “stone” until his supplication is “answered”.[8] Weil developed her vision of the pendulum structure of The Iliad in 1939, when France declared war against Germany. She meant her essay as a warning for her French audience. Weil never mentions Aeschylus Suppliants in her writing, yet the Danaïds present a contradiction to Weil’s character. Her concept of supplication based on her background in Greek philology supplies a whitewashed, non-violent version compared to that of Aeschylus’s one. Weil never conflates her Christian-Marxism with anti-colonial struggle. As to The Suppliants, the motive of listening and reciprocal hearing of supplication becomes the central figure in the tragedy. With the suppliant as a heroic suffering subject, supplication transforms into demands for justice—a lawsuit, but abandons its connotation as a humble prayer.

This is the most enigmatic moment of The Suppliants: the Danaïds’ threat to pollute the supplication altar, when the Argives reject their supplication for hospitality. Henceforth, they act “against the rights of the society”.[9] Moreover, Aeschylus’s contemporaries knew that the Danaïds were going to commit regicide, killing their husbands in the lost second part of the tetralogy.[10] Nevertheless, the Greek audience was sympathetic with the course of the Danaïds’ supplication for armed protection, otherwise they would not have honored the play with the first prize at the Festival of Dionysus in 464.[11] It is only in Roman times, 500 years after Aeschylus, 2000 years ago, that the Danaïds’ uprising received its modern iconography, which follows the Roman one. In the Hellenistic version of the myth, the Danaïds are relocated to hell for impiety to their husbands, punished to fill a leaking barrel in a futile attempt to cleanse the pollution of guilt from their bodies.[12]

The Enchanted Desna 

Before proceeding with the analysis of the play, I should first note that I am not a Greek scholar, and this essay is not strictly the reading of Aeschylus’s Suppliants or research of the canon of supplication in Greek tragedy. It is rather an attempt to review how the canon of The Suppliants is perceived within the discourse of migration studies. An essential feature of this canon, and something that all the scholars of Aeschylus’s tragedy complain about, is the poor state of its manuscript which was damaged considerably. Hence, The Suppliants, more than any other Greek tragedy, is a text that is simultaneously deciphered as much as encrypted with the contexts of those who read it. 

The first encrypting figure of this reading lies in Ukrainian literary tradition. Aeschylus’s Suppliants have a cameo appearance in Dovzhenko’s The Enchanted Desna [Zacharovana Desna] (1954-55). As Ukrainian literary critic Iaroslava Strikha asserts, Dovzhenko’s ambition was to write history of Ukrainian literature, inscribing the succession of its styles,[13] as well as its multiple allusions, in the body of his text. The predecessor to Dovzhenko’s suppliants was Nechyi-Levytskyi’s story Kyiv Beggars [Kyivski Prokhachi] (1906). However, the prokhachi of The Enchanted Desna  (1954-55) present shift away from beggars and towards something parallel to Aeschylus’s the Danaïds, an allegory of armed resistance to the occupier.

The gestation time of Dovzhenko’s work on The Enchanted Desna (1954-55) spanned over ten years. Strikha points out that Dovzhenko even included diary entries starting from 1942 in the body of the cinematic story.[14] She combines the autobiographical story in one thematic series with the movie Ukraine in Flames (1943). Both spring out of one catastrophic traumatic episode: the burning of Dovzhneko’s native village by the Nazi army, supposedly as a punishment for the villagers’ assistance to partisans: “Our village vanished from the face of the earth not by flood, but by fire. It happened in spring as well, half a century later. The village went up in flames, because it had helped the partisans, and those of its residents whom the Nazis failed to massacre right away jumped into the river with their clothes aflame… I, too, burned in the fire at that time, dying all the deaths of humans, animals and plants…”[15] To narrate the tragic event, the filmmaker oscillates between “I” and “we” subject. His narration of childhood memories give voice to his fellow villagers who fell victim to the Nazi troops. The storyline is interrupted with one and the same catastrophic events of the fight against the occupation that is taken out of the flow of time. 

Dovzhenko creates the collective subject of suppliants representing civilian resistance to the occupier. They are unified in the estranged figure of their leader, Bohdan Kholod (in Ukrainian Bohdan “Cold”). Kholod is distinguished by his sight and voice. His eyes are drawn to the ground, hesitating between blindness and clairvoyance, “it was doubtful whether he saw anything else but the ground under his feet,” “it was questionable whether he was blind at all”[16] respectively. He possessed a “furious (liutyi) voice”, unfit for a humble supplication: “He did not beg for alms, he demanded them. His thunderous angry voice was not suited for begging.”[17] Kholod “disliked both people and dogs.”[18] Instead of visiting homes, he chose to supplicate at public places. Another individual suppliant figure in the story is Kulyk. He is the opposite of Kholod, and yet his double. He is a figure of myths and of collective memory, evoking the association with the mythic Kulykivska battle against Tatars told in The Tale of Bygone Years, a 12th century chronicle. Dovzhenko’s father favored him to Kholod: “…Kulyk roamed about with a bandura, singing about things far from the divine. Father respected Kulyk for his artistic look.”[19] Just as in Aeschylus’s tragedy, a collective of suppliants in The Enchanted Desna is estranged from the dwellers of the settlement which s/he/they are part of, and for whose support they supplicate.[20]

Untwinning Parable I

Aeschylus’s Suppliants[21] takes place in a mythologized version of the Athenian polis during the period of Greco-Persian wars (499-449). The tragedy’s narrative is based on a myth in which Danaus and Aegyptus are twin brothers. Twinship in the Danaïds’ parable signifies geographical, political and cultural unification of two separate contexts.[22] Twinning in The Suppliants is determined with a colonial aspect: Aegyptus renamed Libya, the land of his twin brother Danaus, to Egypt, and is attempting to force the collective marriage of his 50 sons to Danaus’s 50 daughters, the Danaïds. 

However, The Suppliants is not a scenario of twinning. And here is one more encrypting figure of this reading. I argue that the tragedy is an untwinning parable. The schema of its overarching plot therefore presents a triangulation: the fight that is awaiting the audience in the second part of the tetralogy, is mediated with a refuge combined with supplication. Refusal to marry is then followed with their arrival to/refuge in the city in the land of their grandmother, the mythical cow Io, in order to demand armed protection from its citizens.[23] To summarize, the Danaïds flee from Egypt to Argos to fight the Egyptians. The Egyptians do not actually appear in the scenes of the first part of the tetralogy. They are represented by their herald who speaks for them, declaring the twinship of the Danaïds and the Egyptians, claiming the Danaïds to be the Egyptians’ wives. One may speculate, absurdly anachronistically yet accurately, that the Egyptians might have been represented with the image of forced  twinship in their heraldry.

Keeping in mind that the Danaïds’ parable is an allegory of the Greco-Persian wars, it is possible to identify whom the Danaïds represent in Aeschylus’s urban mythology. As Geoffrey W. Bakewell notes: “…a citizen assembly grants the Danaïds the privilege “to live as metics in this land.”[24] Hereafter, the Danaïds represent metikos, a class of immigrants with no citizenship rights that comprised the majority of the Athenian population in the 5th century B.C.E. Hence, the tragedy is often read as a successful integration of immigrants into the society. Thus, in Aeschylus’s polis, a collective subject of the Danaïds is a conjecture of the sociological and mythological aspects of the figure of the foreigner. The narration of the armed resistance to the Persian empire apparently requires the arrival to the city of an agent that operates as a stranger[25] to the established social order.[26]

A Protest Song

In Ukrainian syntaxis, “adjective” is translated as “означник” [translit. oznachnyk], which is a homonym of “signifier”. This shift is meaningful for the signifier of Bohdan Kholod’s voice in Dovzhenko’s Enchanted Desna (1954-1955). The supplication of the leader of suppliants is “furious” (liutyi). It signifies the whole cinematic story as a protest song. 

Indeed, Aeschylus’s Suppliants is a protest song.

Firstly, Aeschylus broke with the tragic canon he introduced earlier: “Since, according to Aristotle, it was Aeschylus who “reduced the choral parts and caused speech to play the leading role.”[27] Instead of “classical” protagonists, the play has a chorus of 50 Danaïds that represent a collective subject: “The prominence of the chorus and of the lyric, and the slight use made of the second actor, can all be accounted for as the consequences of a deliberate decision to make the Danaïds, collectively, in effect the principal character of this play.”[28]

Another moment in the dramaturgy that testifies to the definition of the play as a protest song is that Danaus is a “dying father” in the Danaïds’ parable.[29] There are versions of the myth in which the Danaïds arrive at Argos without him at all. Apart from being the inventor of the ship, Danaus acts as an advisor to his daughters on the stage, moreover the Danaïds are not stable in following their father’s advice. He instructs them to supplicate humbly for their armed protection. But they do not follow this imperative. Their supplication is not humble when they threaten to pollute the sanctuary by committing suicide, if the Argives are not receptive to their supplication. According to a scholarly reconstruction, based on the dramaturgy of the first part and references to the tragedy in the texts of other authors, it would be Danaus’s instruction that set the Danaïds to kill the Egyptians in the second part of the tetralogy (nevertheless, one of the Danaïds does not follow this instruction, because her forced husband did not rape her). Thus, the Danaïds do have agency in the tetralogy. Their supplication is furious and foreign, or strange, to the patriarchal rights of the Athenian polis. It advances the narrative of untwinning that, in modern terms, can be described as resistance to colonization.

The actions of the Danaïds are driven with clairvoyance. On arriving in Argos, the choir of Danaïds sings that their flight is the effect of Danaus’ oracle, according to which Aegyptus has a scheme to destroy them.[30] The oracle is doubled with the premonition of one of the Danaïds, who asserts that if she is to marry an Egyptian, her fate will be as that of Procne, the wife Tereus, who killed her son Itys, after her husband raped her sister.[31] This vision of the rape of a sister and the following “madness”, or killing of the husbands, is to be enacted in the second part of the tetralogy.[32] Again: why would the audience be sympathetic with the “impiety” of the Danaïds to their husbands, a gesture that would be against the audience’s patriarchal rights?

Lada Nakonechna. “Popular View: Looking through the lilac in the Kyiv Botanical Garden, towards the Dnipro River” (2012) In April 2022, the artist created a video-commentary to this postcard landscape of Kyiv botanical garden named after M. M. Gryshko, transforming it into still life. It commemorated the genocide of Ukrainian civilian population in Borodyanka, Bucha, Irpin and other suburbian areas of Kyiv that were occupied by Russia’s troops during the blitzkrieg of February-March 2022. The video documents the destruction of the artwork, observing the hand of the occupant with the knife cutting through the postcard view: in the proximity to the arched bridge that connects left and right banks of City of Kyiv, through the residential district on the left bank, and through the waters of the river Dnieper; leaving intact the domes of Vydubychi Monastery[33] and the spring lilac in the foreground. Talking about the video-commentary, Lada Nakonechna says that the violent gesture was performed in affectivity, halfblindly. It presents symbolic moment of perpetuity of one and the same event, taken out of time. The surface of the artwork is divided on two clashed events: the hand of the invader will be bringing destruction and death to innocent people, again and again; whereas lilacs will be blooming and blooming. The video-supplement was displayed within the framework of the pop-up exhibition Peilung #1 : Звіт про втрату / Verlustmeldung / Loss Report, at the DAAD gallery, Berlin, on June 25, 2022.

Pär Sandin proposes an anthropological reconstruction of the second part of the tetralogy, in which the Danaïds stab their husbands after their wedding night. He concludes that the marriage should be unlawful for the dramaturgy to make sense to Aeschylus’s contemporaries. In the second part of the tetralogy, king Pelasgus, who gave asylum to the Danaïds, was replaced by a new king. Whereas Pelasgus dismissed the herald who came to negotiate the twinship of the Danaïds and the Egyptians, the next king decided not to engage in the war with Egypt and withdrew Argive hospitality: “Tradition has conveniently preserved the name Gelanor as an alternative to Pelasgus as king of Argos before Danaus.”[34] Such interpretation would reconcile the Danaïds’ actions with the rights of the patriarchal society. 

Henceforth, The Suppliants can be read as a compromise between patriarchal rights and regicide. The latter is the third element that constitutes it as a protest song. The tragic author reimagines the myth of the Danaïds in the context of armed resistance to the imperialist state. The motive of “madness,” associated obviously with the use of violence, haunts Aeschylus’s narrative, specifically in the premonition of “madness” by one of the Danaïds in case of twinning with the Egyptians. However, this Danaїd’s “madness” is not specular-like to that of the Egyptians. Bonnie Honig has recently proposed an alternating reading of Euripides’ Bacchae, showing that an individual “madness” of a female collective subject in the Greek tragedy is a “substitute” for female refusal.[35] In Euripides, the “madness” of the Bacchae is analogical to the action of regicide.[36]

  1. Belorusets, In the Face of War, 12.
  2. Papadopoulou, Aeschylus: Suppliants, 101, 37-38.
  3. Aeschylus. The Suppliant Maidens, trans. E.D.A. Morshead, 7. 
  4. I cite E.D.A. Morshead’s 1908 translation for his use of sight rhyme, a type of rhyme that has the appearance of rhyme in the moment before its reading, but is in fact unrhymed in the moment of hearing; as in these two lines: “…From where the green land, god-possest / Closes and fronts the Syrian waste…”
  5. Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Suppliants, 22: one quarter of all preserved Greek tragedies include a motive of a supplication in their dramaturgy.
  6. Weil, The Iliad, Or the Poem of Force, 12: “He must humble himself, he must plead, and have, moreover, the added misery of doing it all in vain.”
  7. ibid., 15-16.
  8. ibid., 3-5, 8. To paraphrase Weil’s formula of armed resistance, someone’s victory is always someone’s suffering. 
  9. Sandin, “Aetiology and Justice in the Danaїd Trilogy,” Dramaturgias, 2021.
  10. ibid.
  11. ibid.  
  12. Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Suppliants, 10: This punishment, that Plato assigned to “the impious and unjust” in The Republic (V cen. B.C.), is first associated with the Danaïds in the pseudo-Platonic Axiochus (I cen. A.D.).
  13. Strikha, Writing Between the Lines: Formal Discontinuities in Autobiographies of Ukrainian Writers,1890s-1940s, PHD.diss, May 2017, 155.
  14. ibid, 154.
  15. Dovzhenko, The Enchanted Desna, 22.
  16. ibid., 17.
  17. ibid., 17.
  18. ibid., 17.
  19. ibid., 18.
  20. Dovzhenko’s suppliant is a male subject. However, gender specificity is non-essential in the Danaïds’ parable. According to Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Suppliants, 6: “This [the Danaïds’ parable] is probably the earliest evidence for the Greek belief that in Egypt the norms of male and female behavior and activities were wholly or partly inverted.”
  21. ibid., 42: Aeschylus staged The Suppliants at the time of the Greco-Persian war, around 463-464, in which the he took part as a soldier. 
  22. The character of twinship in mythology establishes adjacent contexts that are either sympathetic or antagonistic to each other. Twinning mythology survives in modern urban geography. Border cities, in other words adjacent contexts, bear the name of twin cities. In the post WWII period, municipalities officially adopted city twinning as an instrument for city-to-city diplomacy. Depending upon the country, city twinning programs operate under such terms as sister cities, brother cities, or partner cities. In post-Soviet countries, including Ukraine, city twinning goes under the title brother cities/міста-побратими. For the purpose of this text, it is important to note that the Soviet brother city program was developed within the Stalinist myth of brotherly nations. Another example of twinning mythology is Hellenistic myth, according to which the patrons of Rome were the Dioscuri, twin brothers Pollux and Castor. Their attribute was dokana, an emblem consisting of two vertical beams connected with two horizontal ones, symbolizing a gateway. According to Plutarch, the crossbeams symbolize the closeness between the figure of twins (Waites, “The Meaning of the Dokana, American Journal of Archaeology,  Volume 23, Number 1, January–March, 5, 11). Roman twinning mythology was emblematic of imperialistic expansion. See the project of art group Burlaka-Melnychuk Better, Worse, More Worse that investigates the colonizing function of the bridge architecture on the case study of the Crimean bridge (2016-2019). In his 1933 essay The Arcade Project, (884), Walter Benjamin also adopts Dioscuri as a frontispiece element for his research of the Parisian arcades, “awakening”, using Benjamin’s rhetoric, twin mythology in the discourse of modernity: “And when the sky opened to the eyes of this young insight, there in the foreground were standing… Dioscuri.”
  23. Danaїds supplicate repeatedly at the supplication altar, addressing  Pelasgus, the king of Argos, for refuge and armed protection from the Egyptians. In his turn, he addresses the Argivians twice. Sandin, “Aetiology and Justice in the Danaїd. Trilogy,” Dramaturgias, 2021: The result of the voting depended upon the way the king communicated the Danaïds’ supplication to the citizens.
  24. Bakewell, Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women: The Tragedy of Immigration, 17.
  25. Honig, Democracy And The Foreigner, 2001: the mythic figure of the foreigner acts as a supplement, a (re)founding agent, or an agent of change. Such as in Plato’s Republic: “Plato has Socrates say casually that the myth of the metals, the Republic’s founding myth, is a Phoenician thing, not unfamiliar and yet of foreign origin.” 
  26. After WWII, with a new political actuality for gender and refugee issues, The Suppliants became one of the most interpreted Greek tragedies in Western discourse. Elfriede Jelinek gave voice to the suppliants of the refugee crisis of 2012-2016 in her Die Schutzbefohlenen (Charges in English translation), which is loosely based on Aeschylus’s Suppliants. The writer started working on Charges in November 2012, when a group of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan occupied the Votive Church in Vienna. They turned the place into a symbolic sanctuary to voice their supplication for registration and work permits. Another allusion to Aeschylus is Jelinek’s narration from a we perspective of the asylum seekers. Georges Didi-Huberman’s Uprising is another text dedicated to the refugee crisis of 2012-2016. The French philosopher and art historian puts migrants on his list of modern uprisers: “…they are migrants who break the law, migrants out of need or political dissident, or refugees fleeing war.” Linking their “crossing borders” to a “desire for freedom”, Didi-Huberman, also draws on the Danaïds’ unhumble supplication in Aeschylus’s text. To support the Danaïds’ parable in his narrative, the author refers to the recent French translation of the play’s title as The Exiled Women.
  27. Prior to the discovery of the manuscript, indicating that the play won the prize in 464 (hence, its dating), the Greek scholars attributed the play as one of the early ones. 
  28. Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Suppliants, 43. 
  29. Sandin, “Aetiology and Justice in the Danaїd Trilogy,” Dramaturgias, 2021.
  30. Aeschylus. The Suppliant Maidens, trans. E.D.A. Morshead, 9.
  31. ibid., 9.
  32. Sandin, “Aetiology and Justice in the Danaїd Trilogy,” Dramaturgias, 2021: There is a scholarly consensus on the reconstruction of the lost second part that the Danaïds are forced to marry the Egyptians and will be raped by them and then kill them, except for Klytemnestra, who was not raped by her husband Lynxeus and, hence, spared his life.
  33. In old Slavic, vydubychi means “to emerge from the water”. Toponym vydubychi refers to the Kyiv urban myth of the baptism of Varangian/Kyivan Rus. Prince Volodymyr ordered that Perun, the old Slavic god of the sky, be thrown into the river Dnieper. However, the wooden sculpture of Perun did spring out of the waters of the ice-covered river in the place which is now called vydubychi.
  34. ibid.
  35. Honig, A Feminist Theory Of Refusal, 2.
  36. ibid., 11.

Part III : Interpellation Of Constellation

The  Danaïds’  Parable

To address further the reading of The Suppliants as a protest song against imperialism, I would interpellate the citations from Pär Sandin, namely note 36 [Part II, Protest Song]. He questions the “apolitical” canon of The Suppliants in the modern context of a refugee crisis.[1] As has already been mentioned, the author takes liberty to add a reconstructed scene to the lost second part of the tetralogy. Sandin points out that the tradition of translations of The Suppliants to modern European languages shows how much the topic of national statehood is excluded from the discourse of migration studies. He criticizes “apolitical” translations, such as that of Alan H. Sommerstein, indexing to its blind spot: Aeschylus transforms the myth of the Danaïds, that was basically the Greek myth of ethnogenesis, into a nation building narrative. 

As to Sommerstein’s translation, it is the result of laborious work with the source that took over four decades. It is accompanied by the translator’s brief and scrupulous introduction. This conservative approach to Aeschylus’s script is intended to put distance between the original text and its perception in the modern canon. However, Sommerstein’s comments are directed to the analyses of the construction of the other, and possess actuality for British postcolonial contexts. In his postcolonial reading, the Danaïds’ “dark completion”[2] is juxtaposed with the “black limbs” of the Egyptians[3] that are “standing out conspicuously against their white garments, which suggests that we are to imagine them as significantly more African-looking” despite their equal share of Argive blood, and to have come across as much the more “barbarian” of the two sides.”[4]

Sandin retorts to Sommerstein that postcolonial optics for the matter of the Danaïds’ “dark skin” is out of the script: “…positivistic interpretation of each of the elements of the mythical narrative as significantly correlated to historical reality seems a little wayward.”[5] He criticizes the focus on the hypothetical racist tinge in Aeschylus: “…critics have avoided the “national” aspect of this complex, perhaps as being unsavory, generally so in recent times, earlier possibly due to the notion that the glorious Danaans should descend from a band of barbarians, explicitly dark-skinned women.”[6] He concludes: “The reluctance of the seminal German philologists to address the birth of the Danaans as a literary motif seems to have made it invisible to subsequent enlightened and apolitical scholars.”[7] Sandin’s overview of the field of the research addresses the avoided topic in the hermeneutics of the tragedy. To summarize Sandin, the issue of nationalism in the tragedy is systematically overlooked. He argues that the re-enactment of the aetiological myth of the Greeks in Aeschylus—the transition of the society of fictional Argos from indigenous Pelasgian Hellenes to heterogeneous society of Danaan Hellenes—is an early nation-building myth. Thus, the solution of a refugee crisis is not only decolonial but essentially anti-nationalistic

Moreover, the cornerstone of Sandin’s analysis is the Greco-Persian wars as a nation-shaping context. He makes a leap from nationalism to imperialism, from the Greco-Persian wars to the Peloponnesian war. In his narrative, Aeschylus’s tragedy is a document of the rise of Athenian “hegemony” from Athenian “nationalism”: nation-building precludes the emergence of imperialism. As Sandin continues, “The ‘Argive’, ‘Danaan’, ‘Hellenic’ people changed name and remained politically divided (until losing their independence completely), but the common idea in Athens after the Persian wars was that the Greek-speaking peoples were culturally and religiously unified to a significant degree, preferably under the cultural and political hegemony of Athens.”[8]

Sandin doesn’t draw any direct parallels with modern “hegemonies” in his text. On the other hand, it is beyond the geography of his research to include anti-imperialistic motives in Aeschylus’s narration. Sandin’s optics therefore, just as those of Sommerstein, are overdetermined with the mapping of Western postcolonial studies, which polarizes the European colonizer and its former colonies. Whereas Sommerstein looks for the origins of European racism in the Greek classic, for Sandin it is understandably important to underscore the parallel between Western imperialism and the Athenian “national state.” 

Untwinning Parable II

Ukrainian wartime media also picked up on the analogy with the Greco-Persian wars. Andrii Suchalkin, a Greek philologist, compares the Russian invasion in Ukraine to Greek wars with Persians in the interview “The war in Ukraine in the mirror of antiquity”: “When Persians occupied Athens, they plundered, burnt houses, ruined temples, in other words, retaliated against Greeks for their insubordination. There is no sense in destroying Ukrainian cities, it is just retaliation for insubordination.” 

Since the Enlightenment, the history of antiquity is regarded as a lesson both for Western and Eastern European contexts. The Danaïds’ parable provides an insight into Russia’s imperialistic politics, too. However, it requires a detour from The Suppliants to The Supplicants. In the title of Aeschylus’ text, Hiketides, both figures—of the suppliant (one who demands asylum and armed protection) and the supplicant (one who asks for asylum and armed protection) —do converge. Yet, in this case, supplicant proves not merely an outdated archaic translation of suppliant. I would venture to encrypt Aeschylus’ text with the temporal distinction between suppliant and supplicant. The triangular scheme of the play suggests that it is the Argives who represent Athenian citizens in the contemporaneous context of the Greco-Persian wars, and who, together with the Danaїds, new-comers to the city, are to become subject to twinship with the Egyptians. Henceforth, the resistance to the Egyptians, and subsequent fight with them, presupposes another doubling of the subject to the Danaїds. On the one hand, it is the supplicating Danaїds, the suppliants themselves, who appear first on the scene;[9] while on the other—it is the Argives, who come to the scene of the Danaїds’ parable in response to their supplication, joining the Danaїds, and thus becoming hiketides, too, and yet in their case the word is more accurately translated as supplicants. The Egyptians’ herald addresses the Argives, who occupy the place of the supplicant in the play’s triangulation. 

So, appealing to the history of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Putin’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” was a sample of the twin mythology that characterized archaic imperialistic discourse and that persists in modern Russia’s state politics. The major inconsistency in Aeschylus’s dramaturgy (outside of the poor state of the manuscript) is that it does not provide an answer to the question: why are the Egyptians so persistent in their effort to marry the Danaïds/Argivians, who are obviously reluctant? The unanswered questions of Russia’s agenda in this war are similar to the question scholars ask of Aeschylus. Why does Putin want to occupy Ukraine? What is the meaning of his statement: “Russians and Ukrainians are one people—a single whole”?[10] and how is it that the mythological construct of the eternal twinship of two “Ruses”[11] has come so far that such a statement could be made at all? Why is Putin claiming that Ukraine is “anti-Russia”? (“There was a need for the “anti-Russia” concept which we will never accept”)[12] In other words, Putin’s rhetoric relates Russian and Ukrainian contexts as eternally twinned ones, that can be either sympathetic or antagonistic to each other.[13]

On the other side, the modern discourse of The Suppliants reflects a historical “stage”, one that is postcolonial and anti-nationalistic, that Ukrainian refugees arrive at in Germany (and other Western EU countries). Hereafter, the question becomes how it is that the Danaïds’ supplication transformed into charges of global refugees seeking citizenship rights beyond national statehoods?

The Western listener is often forgetful that this supplication is not a lament but an invitation to stop in front of the wall of words of the Danaïds’ supplication in order to hear the lamentation of oral testimonies. The supplement of suppliants is to produce an asymmetry between the Western listener and the suppliant, to present a counterforce to the surplus of sympathy. This also means their demand to destroy the heraldry of imperialistic twinning, represented by the Egyptians. At the same time, it is an untwinning of the listener and the suppliant, too. Whereas, Lacanian iconography of the Danaïds is a double figure fallen apart in the collective figure of the suppliants and their Western listener, the character of the suppliants in one’s turn is split between two gestures: supplicating and hearing the supplication, a suppliant and a supplicant, the Danaïds and Argives, also twins, sharing a common ancestor in Io. To hear the supplication, one has to become a supplicant. Therefore, to cite Robert Brewer Young’s wonderful passage, giving voice to the joint whisper of the suppliants and supplicants: “Supplication[’s]… asymmetry… require[s]… [one] to have a voice, or to dare to ask… asking to be heard… instead of mutely obeying… The begging human chorus is here curtained in smoke… It is one version of a conversation with [the suppliants and the supplicants]… in which listening, at least on [the supplicants’] side, plays no part… But this never stops us from asking to be heard… [to hear] tears of milk… to turn fragrant smoke into entreaties… ash into words… with perhaps enough music in the lines to get them to listen.”[14]

Leipzig-Luxembourg, June-August, 2022
  1. Honig, A Feminist Theory Of Refusal, 11.
  2. Sommerstein, Aeschylus: Suppliants, 28.
  3. ibid., 28.
  4. ibid., 29.
  5. Sandin, “Aetiology and Justice in the Danaїd Trilogy,” Dramaturgias, 2021.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.
  9. Aeschylus. The Suppliant Maidens, trans. E.D.A. Morshead: in this translation of The Suppliants the tragedy continues within one scene and without the change of “acts”. In other words, this translation has does not have a classical play structure. Morshead chose perhaps to omit arbitrary division of the play into parodos and episodes due to the destroyed state of the manuscript.
  10. Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, 2021.
  11. ibid.: “These territories [Ukraine] were referred to as “Malorossia“ (Little Russia).”
  12. ibid
  13. See Part II, note 22.
  14. Grose and Brewer Young, Uneasy Listening: Notes on Hearing and Being Heard, 61.
Anna Grinkevych is an art researcher. She is an assistant curator at the platform Dreams Of Sisterhood.
Published 17 March 2023


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  20. Sandin, Pär, “Aetiology and Justice in the Danaїd Trilogy,” Dramaturgias, 2021:їd_Trilogy 
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