Around 500 B.C.E. an ancient playwright named Aeschylus retold a story that was ancient in his own time: the story of the 50 daughters of Danaus who fled to Greece seeking refuge from forced marriage to the sons of Aegyptus. To read this play now, centuries later, is to be astonished and humbled for it is our story, too.
This is because it is a play about refugees and the problem of welcoming the stranger among us. Pelasgius, the king in the play, is faced with a terrible dilemma. The daughters of Danaus have come to him claiming the right of asylum. They do not wish to be married against their will even though the laws and customs of their homeland may demand it. He immediately senses the justice of their cause yet his heart is troubled. Firstly, the daughters look like “others.”
Their skin is dark and their dress outlandish. Neither in appearance nor custom do they seem “Greek.” Will the citizens of his land accept them as kith and kin?
Even worse, the sons of Aegyptus are hot on their heels threatening violence.
Can he sacrifice his own people in war for the sake of women who are not even native in hue or Greek in manner?
Both Pelasgius and the people he rules decide they must. The rights of the stranger are hedged with the most powerful of religious sanctions.
Zeus himself, King of the Gods, may appear in the form of a stranger and take note of how he is treated. The question we are confronted with today is whether our own moral stature can rise even to the level of the archaic Greeks.
Pelasgius stakes the city itself on the question of asylum.
We have nothing so grand at stake when faced with the claims of strangers from Syria or Honduras.
The other is different. She changes the “look” of the community and brings potential danger. But there is one part of the play I would like to point to.
The 50 daughters claim kinship with the Pelasgians on the basis of an ancient tale: the story of the love of Zeus for Io. The implication for us is clear: as humans we have a love of story in common. These stories may be about forgotten kinship, as the story Aeschylus tells is, or they may be stories of perceived victimization, exclusion and hate. That is up to us.
Dr. Bernard Wills is an associate professor of Humanities at Grenfell Campus.