Many are the forms of what is unknown. Much that the gods achieve is surprise. What we look for does not come to pass; God finds a way for what none foresaw. Such was the end of this story. (Lines 1159-1163)
This ending (with some variations) appears at the end of five Euripides plays: Helen, Medea, Andromache, The Bacchae, and Alcestis. This has caused some scholars to doubt their authenticity. It sometimes argued that this pro-religion bent was tacked on by an archivist trying to fight the humanist message of Euripides’ plays.
And yet we have to remember that this repeated ending appears in Medea, a tragedy in which no deus ex machina saves Jason’s new wife or his children from Medea, and the literal god machine carries the murderous Medea and the bodies of her and Jason’s children away to Athens. In this case, the choral passage suggests that the gods condoned Medea’s behavior by allowing it to happen, even helping her escape.
The Bacchae is the story of Pentheus, the King of Thebes, who refused to worship Dionysus, his divine cousin. His whole city begins to turn against him when the god himself descends and all of Pentheus’ female relatives run off into the wilderness to join the Bacchae, the revelers of Dionysus. Dionysus convinces Pentheus to crossdress to spy on the reveling women. And then this happens:
He is discovered and then destroyed by the hands of his mother and aunts who literally tear him to pieces. Pentheus’ mother brings his head back to Thebes to show off as a hunting trophy, unaware that she has killed her own son. She realizes it, and then we get this final choral passage, which in some ways suggests the cruelty of a young, popular god like Dionysus, and the danger of the mob and the majority. This comes to pass, the passage suggests, because we gave the gods their power and now we are helpless against them.
In Andromache, the heroic wife of Hector (and also a foreigner, like Medea) is forced into sexual slavery in the house of Helen and Menelaus’ daughter Hermione. Andromache and her son by Hermione’s husband only escape death at Menelaus’ hands thanks to the intervention of the troubled Orestes (subject of Aeschylus’ Oresteia) and the sea god Thetis. The gods may have saved Andromache’s life, but she’s still a slave and her son and beloved husband are dead. She did everything right and she’s still stuck in a foreign country at the mercy of the same men who killed the love of her life and her child. It’s enough to shake anyone’s faith.
Helen is about Helen trying to find Menelaus and then escaping a forced marriage, leaving the woman who helped her do so to be killed by the man she escaped from. Theonoe, the helper, is almost killed but she is saved by Helen’s divine brothers, Castor and Pollux, who descend to stop her suitor from killing his sister Theonoe and the whole (female) Chorus. In this case, the choral passage serves as a breath of relief for the Chorus, whose lives were threatened only moments before. But Euripides’ feminism is showing. The Chorus is a Chorus of captured Spartan women, and Theonoe is a high powered priestess, the brother of the king. Yet the most objectified woman in history is enough to make Theonoe’s brother turn on her and all his slaves, ready to slaughter them all because she got away. Is it really too much to hope for that this situation shouldn’t need divine (male) intervention? Is it too much to expect that women be treated as something better than dogs to be bought and sold and kicked when their owners are unhappy?
We know that Euripides thought about these things because he consistently gives powerful and poignant speeches to female and lower class characters. (See the Maid and Servant’s speeches in Alcestis, which are written to garner more sympathy than many of Admetus’ bits of text.) He highlighted the oppression inherent to the hegemony of the system he lived within, which was based on privileged majority rule by citizens, who were only land owning, highly educated Athenian males.
But Euripides went even further than sociology. With or without the reused choral passages, he created so much sympathy for his human characters that you can’t help but feel a little betrayed by the gods on their behalf. Iphigenia, Medea, Agave, they are all women who have been trapped by the roles they must play within their myths and within society. And if the gods created that scenario, they are to blame. In Alcestis, Euripides alludes to the rise of two new gods, Heracles and Alcestis herself, who is given divine and cult status because she escaped Death despite an order by the Fates that she (or Admetus) must die.
Alcestis is the miracle we all hope for, the reminder that darkness, though eventually eternal, is only eternal eventually, that every day is another chance to feel the sun on our faces. That salvation came from a married woman, a person not even viewed as a citizen in Euripides’ Athens. Not a man (Heracles goes down to retrieve Alcestis because Admetus hid her death from him, and probably would not have if his mother or Pheres had died.) Not a god. A woman whose value sneaks up on you in the dark. A woman who returns from the dark and makes things better. A healer who defeats Death, like Apollo’s son Asclepius. This is what makes Alcestis a goddess, worship of wayfarers. Euripides’ final choral passage reminds me a bit of Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite:
And as the wind changes, over the open sea,
so the god approached as if she were almost one of the dead,
and he was all at once far from her husband,
to whom, concealed in a slight gesture,
he threw the hundred lives of Earth.
He plunged, staggering, towards the two,
and grasped at them as if in dream. They were already
going towards the entrance, into which the women
crowded, sobbing. Once more he still saw
the girl’s face, that turned towards him
with a smile, bright as hope,
that was almost a promise: fulfilled,
to come back up from the depths of Death
to him, the Living –
At that, indeed, he threw
his hands over his face, as he knelt there,
so as to see nothing more than that smile.
-“Alcestis” by Rainer Maria Rilke
Hail Majesty, be gracious to us.