38. The Children of Heracles, by Euripides (430 BC)

Plot: With Heracles dead, King Eurystheus fears revenge once Heracles’ children reach adulthood, and sets out to capture them. Iolaus, Heracles’ friend and companion, leads them away and seeks asylum in many places but is repeatedly turned away until Athens promises them sanctuary and protection. With Athens and Argos lined up for battle against each other, the prophets warn that only with the sacrifice of a virgin maiden of noble birth can Athens be victorious.

Claimed to be incomplete, the version I read was from the Penguin compilation of Euripides’ Orestes and other plays, edited and translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts : Given the timing of this play’s writing and performance, there is obviously a political undercurrent to the story. Athens going to war for a just cause and to fight against tyranny would obviously have resonated with the audience. Interestingly, because  Eurystheus has been captured and not killed on the battlefield, the Athenians will not execute him, and the play finishes abruptly with Alcmene (Heracles’ mother) planning to kill him herself and face the consequences.

The two stellar scenes in the play are Macaria’s self sacrifice to protect her brothers, (even refusing a lottery to share the danger with her sisters) and allow Athens to defeat Argos as required by the oracles, and Iolaus’ divinely provided rejuvenation  into a younger man to take part in the battle and defeat Eurystheus.

Favourite lines/passages:

Iolaus: “…… We should call here Macaria’s sisters and draw lots,

and let the one chosen die for her family,

It isn’t fair that you should die without this chance”

Macaria : “I will not die by choice of hazard. If I should,

the willing gift has vanished ; speak of it no more.

If you accept me, if you will wholeheartedly use what I offer

my life for my brothers’ lives

This I give with free will, and under no constraint”                                               page 121


Chorus :   “O Earth, and night-long Moon, and dazzling beams divine

That light our mortal race, Bring me your message!

Send forth the victory shout to fill the sky, and reach

The august throne where reigns Grey-eyed Athene.”                                        page 129

Diversions/digressions : A very short play (which may help prove it is incomplete) so there was not much time to be distracted. I was so taken with the courage of Macaria (who I had not heard of before this) that I searched further yet could not find any artwork depicting her bravery and self-sacrifice, yet there was also a Greek goddess Macaria (supposedly the daughter of Hades). The name means “she who is blessed” or “a blessed death”. It would be nice to think that being at the very least a demigod’s daughter, Heracles’ Macaria might have been resurrected as a goddess in the underworld to aid those who died courageously.

Personal rating : 7

Next : Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex)



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