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Zeus in Aeschylus
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan


Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.


This page offers a selection of passages that reflect something of Aeschylus' view of Zeus and of the justice that Zeus imposes on mortals. They are particularly useful in considering, e.g., the fateful decision of Agamemnon at Agamemnon 205ff.

For the background to the Aeschylean conception of Zeus, see the relevant section of the course notes on Solon.

Note: Daggers (†) mark a section of the text that is particularly uncertain or problematic.


Aeschylus, Fragment 70 (Heliades [Daughters of Helios])

Zeus is the fiery upper air, Zeus is the earth, Zeus is the heaven;
Zeus is all things, and whatever transcends them.

Aeschylus, Fragment 154a.15-20 (Niobe)

The theos engenders a fault in mortals,
whenever he wishes to bring a house to utter ruin.
†Still, being mortal, one must guard with care the olbos
which the theoi send and not engage in rash speech.
Yet those who enjoy great success never expect
that they will be tripped up and so spill their great excess of bliss.† [FN 1]

Aeschylus, Suppliant Women 86-103

Chorus
Strophê
If only all might in truth be well, through Zeus' agency!
The desire of Zeus is not crafted so as to be easily tracked down:
tangled and shaggy stretch
the pathways of his wits, obscure to peer through.    90

Antistrophê
But it falls sure, not on its back,
whatever is brought to fulfilment by the head of Zeus.
It burns bright, in all directions,
even in the darkest gloom, and brings ill fortune to mortal creatures.    95

Strophê
He tosses men
down from their high-towered hopes, ruining them utterly,
yet no force of might does he employ.
All achievement of the daimones is effected without labor:    100
seated, he fulfills his will,
somehow, from that very place,
from his sacred, pure abodes.

Aeschylus, Persians 107-19 and 739-52

Strophê D
But what man, being mortal, will avoid
the crafty deceit of the theos?
Who, though with nimble foot he be
†master of the lucky leap?†     110

Antistrophê D
For Atê, fawning in friendly fashion at first,
entices a man into her nets,
whence it is impossible for a mortal,
leaping above, to escape.

Strophê E [FN 2]
Pondering these things my heart, draped in black,     115
is mangled with fear.
Alas for the Persian host! — may the city, the
great citadel of Susa, not hear such a cry,
emptied of men.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ghost of Darius
Alas! Quickly came the accomplishment of the oracles, and on my son
Zeus has let fall the fulfillment of the prophecies. Yet I somehow     740
had hoped the theoi would fulfill them after a lengthy interval.
But when a man himself is eager, the theos too joins in.
Now it would appear that a spring of misfortunes has been found for all those dear to me.
My son, not knowing these things, has fulfilled them through his youthful daring,
he who hoped to check the sacred Hellespont in its course with bonds     745
as if it were his slave — the Bosporos, stream of the theos
and fashioned a new sort of highway and, encircling it with hammer-wrought
fetters, achieved a great roadway for his great army.
Although a mortal, he, with poor counsel, thought to subdue all the theoi
and Poseidon in particular. What can it be but a sickness of the mind     750
that possessed my son in these matters? I fear that our ploutos — the result
of my great labor — will become the spoil †of the first man to come along.†

Notes

[FN 1] Lines 17-20 are quite fragmentary. I have translated the restoration of D.L. Page, exempli gratia. [Return to text]

[FN 2] There is a shift in meter here, from ionics to more troubled trochaics, that reinforces the shift in the chorus' mood. [Return to text]


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These pages were designed by John Porter.
Last Modified: Tuesday, 28-Sep-2010 18:14:00 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.