09 August 2011

Re-reading ‘The Phoenician Women’ by Euripides

Iokasti, a restaurant in Koutouloufari in Crete ... are there comparisons between Iocasta and her daughter in The Phoenician Women and the Greek-speaking Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman in the Gospels? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am the canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, next week, and I am preaching next Sunday morning at the Cathedral Eucharist on the story of the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman who meets Christ in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15: 10-28).

In preparation for working on that sermon, over the past few days I have been-reading The Phoenician Woman by Euripides.

In both stories, we encounter Phoenician women; we are confronted with a mother who speaks up for her daughter while the majority of men in the drama appear to be disinterested and self-centred; we are forced to ask questions about the outsider and the stranger; and we also face questions about human-sacrifice and the proper exercise of kingship and when to abandon power and privilege.

In stimulating the audience to empathy, and to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the “weaker” or lesser in status members of society, Euripides invites us to create the compassion and understanding which are necessary to healthy relationships between family members, members of the city or country, and members of other nations.

Introduction to the play:

The Theatre of Dionysus, beneath the slopes of the Acropolis, where the tragedies and comedies of the great playwrights, Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, were first performed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The play The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι, Phoinissai), a tragedy by Euripides, was written between 411 and 409 or even 408 BC, in the aftermath of a major defeat of Athens, then facing a military disaster. The play is one of three representing the final period of tragic despair in the work of Euripides: Orestes, The Phoenician Women and Bacchae.

Euripides was a popular playwright who made a controversial but compelling case in Athens for rethinking the great war with Sparta, a war that, in some ways, was a product of Athenian aggression. In The Phoenician Women, the horrors of war are central, and the play is permeated by the ethical ambiguities of fraternal conflict.

The play was very popular throughout antiquity, becoming part of the so-called ‘Byzantine Triad’ of plays, along with Hecuba and Orestes, studied in the school curriculum.

The Phoenician Women is a variant by Euripides on the story as told by Aeschylus in his play, Seven Against Thebe in which the sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, fight for the crown of Thebes, ultimately killing each other. However, in the version of the myth by Euripides, Iocasta has not yet committed suicide.

The play’s title, of course, is misleading. It refers not to the principal women in the play, Iocasta and her daughter Antigone, but to the members of the Chorus. Traditionally in classical Greek tragedy, the chorus is a group of wizened old men. But, in this play, Euripides makes the Chorus a group of Phoenician women who are on their way from Tyre to Delphi, but who are accidentally trapped in Thebes by the war.

Unlike some the chorus in other plays by Euripides, the chorus in this play does not have a significant role in the plot, but represents the innocent and neutral people who are often trapped in the middle of war.

Euripides is unique too among the writers of ancient Athens for the sympathy he shows towards all victims of society, including women and foreigners. His conservative male audiences were frequently shocked by the “heresies” he puts into the mouths of his characters.

He is the great democratiser of drama, making his choruses women on occasion. He is not alone in doing this, however, and in Eumenides Aeschylus makes his chorus represent the female furies. But Euripides goes further by making the chorus foreign women. His audience would immediately recognise the lack of status of such a group, lowered in their eyes by being both women and foreigners.

The audience would ask why Euripides names the play after an anonymous group of characters who not part of the main action. But perhaps the playwright is asking us to see the world through a different set of eyes.

In keeping with the tone of moral ambiguity that separates Euripides from Aeschylus and Sophocles, the two other great writers of Greek tragedy, he builds a powerful family drama around deep existential questions, and raises more questions for us than he answers:

● Is treachery every justified?
● Should all promises be kept?
● Is the life of a family member worth more than the fate of a city?
● Is it fate or human weakness that perpetuates suffering?

The cast:

The theatre in Epidavros ... Euripides’ The Phoenician Women has performed here regularly in recent years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oedipus (Οἰδίπους): the disgraced and former King of Thebes. He has blinded himself after learning that he has killed his father and married his mother. Now Oedipus lives as a self-imposed prisoner in the royal palace, cursing himself, his family, and especially his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices.

Iocasta (Iοκαστη): the wife and mother of Oedipus, and former Queen of Thebes. She has been shamed by the revelation that she has married her son, and now lives in mourning in the palace. Her sons are on the brink of war and Iocasta, though disgraced, is the one character who appears capable of brokering a truce.

Polyneices (Πολυνείκης): the second son of Oedipus and Iocasta, his name means “Much Strife.” He goes into voluntary exile in order to share the throne with his brother, Eteocles. After the passage of a year, however, Eteocles refuses to give up the throne. Polyneices marries into the royal family of Argos and raises an army against his former city, demanding his brother’s abdication.

Eteocles (Ἐτεοκλῆς): the elder son of Oedipus and Iocasta, his name means “Truly Glorious.” He ascended the throne when Oedipus was disgraced, agreeing to abdicate after a year and go into exile so his brother Polyneices can return to rule. After a year, Eteocles refuses to share power, provoking a civil war that threatens to engulf Thebes. He shares his father’s and his brother’s short temper.

Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη): the elder daughter of Oedipus and Iocasta, but younger than her two brothers, her name means “unbending.” She shares her brothers’ temper, but not their propensity for breaking oaths. She has been largely removed from the family intrigue.

Ismene (Ἰσμήνη): the younger daughter of Oedipus. She is milder and more innocent than her sister, Antigone. She too has largely been sheltered from the family’s tragedy due to her young age.

Creon (Κρέων): Iocasta’s brother and a member of the original ruling family in Thebes before the arrival of Oedipus. Creon has great political influence in Thebes, where he has sided mainly with Eteocles. Creon is prudent but opportunistic, and simultaneously tries to distance himself from the stigma surrounding his sister’s family while using the opportunities he finds to increase his power and influence.

Eurydice (Εὐρυδίκη): the wife of Creon and the mother of Heamon and Menoeceus. She is more cautious than her husband and seems to be acutely aware of the danger of trying to profit from political turmoil.

Haemon (Αἴμων): the elder son of Creon and Eurydice, he betrothed to Antigone. He is mild-mannered and is largely deferential to his father.

Menoeceus (Μενοικεύς): the youngest son of Creon and Eurydice, he is named after his grandfather, Menoeceus, who was King of Thebes before Laius, Oedipus’ father and Iocasta’s first husband and Oedipus. He is admirably moral and selfless, somewhat unlike his father.

Teiresias (Τειρεσίας): a powerful but blind seer or prophet of Thebes, he is blessed and cursed with the ability to see the future. He is something of a social pariah after revealing the true parents of Oedipus. Yet, Teiresias continues to hold considerable influence in Thebes. His prophecies are always true but rarely welcome. Because he is wary of the temper of Oedipus and his family, he is often hesitant to share his insights for fear of the repercussions.

The Messenger: a captain in the Theban armies, serving under Eteocles.

The Tutor: in charge of Antigone.

The Phoenician Women (Φοίνισσαι): the Chorus of women who give their name to the play. They are on their way to Delphi to serve Apollo as attendants, but the looming civil war in Thebes leaves them stranded, and so they become the chorus in the play.

Outline of the play:

The Phoenician Women begins a year after the events dramatised by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex. Iocasta, who is still alive in Euripides’ version of the myth, laments the tragedy of her family’s past and future as her two sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, ready their armies to fight for control of Thebes.

The play opens with a prologue in which Iocasta, the Queen of Thebes, summarises the story of Oedipus and the city of Thebes. She tells how her husband blinded himself when he discovered that he was also her son. She then explains how their sons Eteocles and Polyneices have locked Oedpius away in the palace, hoping the people might forget what has happened.

Oedpius, however, curses the two brothers, proclaiming that neither shall rule without killing his brother. In an attempt to avert this prophecy, Polyneices and Eteocles agree to rule for one year each in turn.

After this monologue by Iocasta, the play moves to a dramatic τειχοσκοπία (teichoskopia), a “viewing from the walls.” This literary motif or device is first used by Homer in the Iliad (Book 3, 161-244), where Helen describes the Greeks for her father-in-law, King Priam. In The Phoenician Women, it is a young girl, Iocasta’s daughter, Antigone, who asks the questions, and an old servant who has the answers.

Their back-and-forth questions-and-answers concern the Argive army camped outside the city gates. Through listening to this conversation, the audience is invited to see through their minds’ eyes the great warriors and their devices. In this way, Euripides makes a virtue out of necessity, for large armies could not be depicted on an Athenian stage. Through this conversation, we experience war and siege through the eyes of a little child.

However, after the first year, Eteocles refuses to allow his brother to rule for his year, and instead forces him into exile instead. In his forced exiled, Polyneices goes to Argos, where he marries the daughter of the Argive king Adrastus and persuades Adrastus to send a force to help him reclaim Thebes.

Iocasta arranges for a ceasefire so that she can try to mediate between her two sons. She asks Polyneices about his life in exile, and then listens to the arguments of both brothers.

This three-pronged argon is a heated and formal argument, although in previous plays Euripides had staged between two parties. Here, we have three parties: Iocasta, Polyneices and Eteocles.

Polyneices, who has come to attack Thebes with the support of the forces sent by his father-in-law, King Creon of Argos, arrives first. His mother Iocasta asks him questions about his status as a foreigner in Argos.

Through this series of back-and-forth questions-and-answers – the second in the play – we are invited to empathise with the weaker members of society, which for Euripides are the foreigners in Athenian society.

Polyneices explains again that he has been defrauded and is the rightful king. This is a departure from the convention, for traditionally he was seen as the brother who is more to blame for the conflict.

Eteocles, in turn, says he desires power above all else and will not surrender it unless he is forced to. He is shown to be both greedy and impious, for he cares for the gods only when they are of service to him.

Iocasta reprimands them both. She warns Eteocles that his ambition may end up destroying the city. And she reprimands Polyneices for bringing an army to sack the city he loves.

But the two brothers reject her advice. Having argued at length, they are unable to agree and war is inevitable. Compare this to the opening words of the Psalm for Sunday morning: “Behold how good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133: 1), or as it is put in the Authorised Version: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”

Eteocles then meets his uncle Creon to plan for the coming battle.

A third staging of question-and-answers comes when Creon rejects each one of the suggestions for repelling the forces of Argos. Eteoocles has all the questions, and Creon has all the answers. Creon tries to allow Eteocles to come up with a viable strategy that he thinks is his own.

The chorus now breaks into song, and some scholars believe that we have here an attempt by Euripides at genuine Semitic poetry.

The singing of the chorus is followed by the entrance of the old blind prophet, Teiresias. The introduction of a blind “seer” is clever device by Euripides. And he turns things further when he has Teiresias rely on the support of his young daughter. This is a scene borrowed from Sophocles’ use of Antigone to support Oedipus, but Sophocles has Teiresias led by a boy, but by a girl.

Eteocles asks Creon to petition Teiresias for advice, and he delivers his usual oracle – only human sacrifice can save the day. Creon is advised that he must kill his son Menoeceus – who is the only pure-blooded descendant from the founding of the city by Cadmus – as a sacrifice to Ares, the god of war, in order to save the city. Is Euripides poking fun at the religion of the day and the way in which oracles were often inhumane?

Certainly, Creon finds he is unable to comply with the oracle and orders his son to flee to the oracle at Dodona. However, Menoeceus secretly goes to the serpent’s lair instead to sacrifice himself to appease Ares.

Battle then begins off-stage, and we are informed of the progress of the battle through a messenger who reports to Iocasta and tells her that her sons have agreed to fight in single combat for the throne. He gives a vivid, blow-by-blow account that is almost like a live news update, and in his eye-witness account gives details of all the action.

Mother and daughter, Iocasta and Antigone, rush to the battle scene to try to stop them, but the brothers have already fought and wounded each other mortally. Both express their regrets, and Polyneices is particularly poignant when he says: “My friend became my enemy, but the bond between us remained.”

Again, Euripides invites us to consider how important it is to see the world through the eyes of others. He has each brother say a quick prayer to a god before charging the other in a killing that would earn the disapproval of the gods. Then, “both men breathed out their wretched lives as one.”

Iocasta, who is overcome with grief, kills herself, leaving Antigone without a mother.

Iocasta’s daughter Antigone enters, lamenting the fate of her brothers.

She is followed by the blind old Oedipus, who is also told of the tragic events.

All this is reported to Creon by a messenger in a speech. Out of the power vacuum, Creon conveniently comes out on top of the political order in Thebes and he assumes control of the city. He banishes Oedipus from Thebes, and orders that Eteocles – but not Polyneices -- should be buried honourably in the city.

Antigone fights Creon over this order and because of this she breaks off her engagement to Creon’s son Haemon. She decides to accompany her father into exile, and the play ends with them leaving for Athens.

The challenges posed by Euripides

This is a politically radical and subversive play. Through his portrayal of the war between the two brothers, a war that is so bad it brings sorrow even to the Phoenician women in the chorus, Euripides clearly intends to undermine public support in Athens for the war with Sparta.

Patriotism is a significant theme in the story, as Polyneices talks a great deal about his love for the city of Thebes but has brought an army to destroy it; Creon is also forced to make a choice between saving the city and saving the life of his son. The constant prayers to Pallas Athena, the patron of Athens, by Polyneices, challenge inherited perceptions and values that could be expected among the audience.

In an earlier play, The Suppliant Women, Euripides had made Theseus articulate the reasons for not going to war, with his mother speaking in favour of war.

In The Phoenician Women, it is the mother and sister – women, like the chorus – who argue passionately against war and for peace.

As members of the audience, we are challenged to have empathy with and to see the world through the eyes of others, especially those who are weaker or have a lower status in society. Euripides invites us to have the compassion and understanding necessary for healthy relationships between family members, and between the members of society.

The end of The Phoenician Women poses problems, like the ending of Saint Mark’s Gospel. There is a “long ending” in some manuscripts, with imported material that tries to harmonise the story with the way it is told by Sophocles in his Theban plays, particularly Antigone.

Some scholars would remove parts of this, giving us a “short ending,” while others regard the play as we have it as finished and complete.

“This day has initiated a tide of suffering for the house of Oedipus. May our lives be blessed with happier fortune!” say the chorus. The principal actors in the drama, mother and sons, are dead. Oedipus, who had cursed his sons, is brought to repentance, and the concluding wish is paralleled by similar endings in Greek tragedy. Nothing further needs to be said.

Through his use of back-and-forth series of questions and answers, Euripides invites us, the audience, to empathise with the weaker members of society, the women, especially foreign foreigners. They have distinctly fewer rights in Athens than native Athenian citizens. But The Phoenician Women also challenges us in the audience to consider our own biases, with the play’s constant emphasis on the importance of recognising the limitations of one’s own point of view.

Some Gospel parallels

The Syro-Phoenician Woman ... a modern icon by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM

In Sunday’s Gospel story, we have an encounter between Jewish culture and Hellenistic culture. But in The Phoenician Women we also come across what may be an interesting encounter between Hellenistic culture and Semitic culture as Euripides appears to make a genuine attempt at Semitic poetry.

For further Gospel parallels in The Phoenician Women, we might also consider:

● The king who weeps over the death of his son;
● The king who goes into voluntary exile to share the kingdom with his brother;
● The blind prophet who delivers his usual oracle that only human sacrifice can save the day.
● The competition for power and privilege between two brothers in the play and the ambition of the mother of the sons of Zebedee for James and John in the kingdom.
● The Pieta-like image of the woman mourning the death of her sons;
● Our understanding of sacrifice and atonement.


Like next Sunday’s Gospel story, the play asks whether it is fate or human weakness that perpetuates suffering.

In stimulating the audience to empathy, to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the “weaker” or lesser in status members of society, Euripides invites us to create the compassion and understanding that are necessary for healthy relationships between family members, members of the city or country, and members of nations.

At the end of the play, in Andrew Wilson’s translation, Oedipus says to Antigone: “Go up to the mountains, where Dionysus’ Sanctuary is kept holy, by the young girls who’ve dedicated their lives to him ...” But Antigone replies: “Dionysus? The god I put a doeskin on for, and danced myself into a stupor up the side of a mountain? I honoured his mother, Semele – put in all that effort for the gods – And what did they ever give me in return?”

These were shocking, if not sacrilegious and blasphemous words in their time, for the play was first staged in the Theatre of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis, where the front-row seats were reserved for the priests of Dionysus.

When the Syro-Phoenician woman confronts Christ on behalf of her daughter in next Sunday’s Gospel reading, has she already prayed in the same way and so much to other gods that she now expects nothing on behalf of her daughter?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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