HE.S.T.A.F.T.A. - Scientific Society of Mental Health Professionals


(The thoughts about Darius's role in the tragedy in this text arose from the discussion in the Ancient Greek Tragedies study group, which was held by HESTAFTA)

The Persians is considered the 1st historical work in European literature, it was likely performed in a national celebration.

Aeschylus was a warrior in the Battle of Salamis, therefore an eye witness.

The tetralogy in which The Persians belong, won 1st place when it was performed in Great Dionysia (473-472 B.C.). The ''Didaskalia'', meaning the official report of the performance in Athens, has been rescued. The play was sponsored by Pericles. One or two years later Aeschylus brought the Persians to Syracuse.

Murray wonders why The Persians is considered a great tragedy. The plot is lacking in many ways and character study is almost nonexistent.  The play was written for a public celebration of a national victory, one of the worst sources for good poetry. How could it be a great tragedy? The feeling of victory, self satisfaction of success and triumph against the opponent are all against true poetry. Defeat, not victory provides a deeper experience.

Themistocles in his speech after the Battle of Salamis said: ''We were not the ones who achieved this''. This is the passion expressed at a great moment. The Greeks were liberated and their liberation was impossible, so it must have been God's work, not man's. Aeschylus in the Persians retains that passion from the beginning to the end.

Not even one Greek name is mentioned in The Persians. If a Greek general's name was mentioned in the play, it would become contemporary and would be subjected to all the small temporary sufferings of the present. Even gods who fight for Greece are not named, besides Zeus and Athena once.

In contrast many Persian names were mentioned (55 names). Persians are strange, exotic and heroic. There is no danger for the act to become ephemeral. Persians are portrayed with a heroic spirit; they are formidable, full of pride, greedy, disrespectful and contemptuous towards the gods. However, there is no hatred towards them. No Persian is presented as weak; he will either be brave or knightly. The greatness of the Aeschylian spirit in processing the subject of the enemy is remarkable.

The drama was played some time before Themistocles' ostracism and some philologists (Podlecki) believe that it was presented to defend the politician during the time in which his position was insecure. Aeschylus did not write the drama with a political purpose in mind but everyone has the right to wonder if a play with the Battle of Salamis as a subject does not inevitably become a tribute to the person who was the soul of the defense.

What is the message from this tragedy by Aeschylus? Murray will say that Hubris leads to fall. («μηδέν άγαν»)

Aeschylus begins the narration describing the Persian forces in a majestic way. Then he describes the fall and destruction in the same way. At the same time, he repeatedly talks about the pain and mourning of the relatives of the dead as if he were a Persian himself. Simultaneously on a different level he mentions the meaning of the war for the Greeks and the Persians (liberating/invasive), while comparing two different political systems, democracy and absolute monarchy.

And here in the wake of absolute destruction, what is the next step? How will mourning end so that life can continue?

He must intervene and listen to the understandable Persian language (the chorus says in the second stasimon), the wise, beloved, benign dead king. Only he can understand and help in the writing of a new story which will contain destruction. And the most moving of all: Darius encourages Atossa to welcome her son Xerxes in the most lavish clothing.

Regarding the role of Darius: Why is the presence of Darius necessary in the drama? Why is he summoned by Hades? Darius comes to help with the mourning process. It is he who reinstates balance, helps with processing facts and as a result allows mourning to happen. He makes the connection to the past (he comes from the past and makes an extensive reference to the way kings have reigned, from his predecessors and himself to Xerxes) and the future (his wisdom allows him to make future predictions) based on the present (genogram). He who can see what is happening from a distance, he who can be compassionate and he who can restore continuity to life. To sum up, Darius' role is that of a therapist, a chorus advisor.

Darius' last words of advice, before returning to the underworld are: ''You old ones be happy, even through calamities, and give relief to your souls as it comes every day. Riches do not benefit the dead''. (The principle of reality in all its glory!)

Darius departs and then Xerxes appears on stage, he mourns with the chorus. Xerxes does not go on stage with his mother Atossa or his father Darius; the tragedy is not a family drama. Xerxes has a dialogue with only the chorus. The chorus is the one he answers to, the one he justifies his actions to and the one he commands.

So, what does Aeschylus do? He writes an anti-war drama, in the Greek language, using a special poetic meter that makes Greek sound like Persian, without referring to politics. He expresses a deep compassion concerning the enemy's pain while being on the side of the winners, without presenting the Greek side in a triumphant way (not even one Greek name or achievement is mentioned).The pain is the same for both sides; death is death on both sides (in Atossa's dream Greece and Persia are sisters).

In the work of Aeschylus man's responsibility for his actions is presented for the first time, even though God's influence is still present (double causation). Xerxes is responsible for the destruction, no one acquits him but he has the right to therapy and the restoration of his mental balance. The welcome with the lavish clothes that Darius recommended maybe restores his self-image and in restoring it, will it also help him take responsibility in his position? In a sense this is the ultimate healing act. That is Aeschylus way of showing the great reserves of his humanity.

The tragedy ends with a dialogue between Xerxes and Chorus (the people), when he has to answer to them. Feeling uncomfortable, he asks for their support while trying to impose his way of mourning in an autocratic way, as he has already lost all the prestige he had and is aware of that, and at the same time he is trying to exert authority. He has a long mental road to travel before he can realize the reality of his situation. Aeschylus leaves an unwise Xerxes on stage, having already prepared a healing process. Moreover, we do not know what answer he would give in the other two tragedies from the same tetralogy. (The Persians is the 2nd tragedy of the tetralogy in which it belongs.)

What do the above bring to mind about contemporary politics? There are, and always will be, many Xerxes in the global political scene. How do Choruses (people) function today? Are they thinking? Are they fighting for their past (people’s collective memory) the present, the future? (Verses: 402-405). «Ω παίδες Ελλήνων, ίτε ελευθερούτε πατριδ’ ελευθερούτε δε παίδας, γυναίκας, θεών τε πατρώων έδη, θήκας τε προγόνων νυν υπέρ πάντων αγών», “For the values in life”, as G. Vasiliou said.

What is the main hubris today? That could be the topic of the whole conference. The first thing that comes to my mind is the extreme focus on the present and the annihilation of the value of the past and the future. In ancient Greek mythology Memory was a titan, daughter of Earth and Sky and Zeus's companion, with whom she gave birth to the 9 Muses, the creators of the arts.

Now, let's imagine the scene in the theater of Dionysus, in the Great Dionysia, where The Persians is playing, a few years after the Battle of Salamis. In the audience there are families with their children, to see at least 12 tragedies in a row. (In those times every activity stopped and watching the dramas was subsidized by the state, so that everyone could attend.) Can we respond to such a long feat today? What is the equivalent of such an event in today's collective education? Unfortunately, there is none. We have the rubbish on television, social media, information overload that we cannot process since we are constantly on the open system phase, because the closed system phase, comprehension and learning requires, active and not passive effort.

There is one last comment to be made. Theater's heyday in ancient Greece was caused by democracy, and it ends definitely and permanently, when philosophy is developed and sciences are separated. Here, man and the ancient world are a whole (it is essentially a unity of man, the divine, the natural and the body and soul). ''While man remains pure, however not uncultivated, he is presented as an undivided and harmonic unity. Senses and speech are not yet separated and they are far less contradicting'' (Schiller).We have, therefore, in front of us a source to utilize. As ''synthetically'' thinking therapists, we can actively allow it to fertilize our thoughts and our work, since there are few similar chances.


The tragedies of Aeschylus, Pub: Estia bookstore (translation by I.N. Gryparis)

Murray Gilbert, Aeschylus the creator of tragedy, Pub Kardamitsa

The Persians: booklet of the play, directed by Aris Biniaris

Lesky Albin: Tragic poetry of ancient Greeks (Pub MIET)

Aeschylus, The Persians: Translation Moulas Panagiotis (Pub Stigmi)

Read the next article:

ARTICLE 5/ ISSUE 14, April 2019

Aeschylus "Persians": A Psychotherapeutic Reading

Katia Charalabaki, Psychiatrist, Family Psychotherapist, coordinating director of Family Therapy Unit of Attica Psychiatric Hospital
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