The Danaids

Published February 26, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, due to massive time-suck to write a paper that will hobble my grade (oh, god, it’s so horrible!) I don’t have time to narrate a long myth this week, but I thought of a short one which I originally would never have planned to write, but I did find a way to tie it into the “Hades” theme, so…yeah.  Here it is, warts and all.  (Keep in mind that in Greek myths, “Libya” means pretty much the entire continent of Africa, and “Asia” really refers more to the Middle East than anything else…though if they’d known about the continent we now call Asia, it would have meant that as well.)

Belus was a mighty king who ruled over Libya and Asia.  He had twin sons, Danaos and Aegyptos.  When he died, he left Asia to Aegyptos and Libya to Danaos.  But the brothers quarreled, and Aegyptos conquered part of Libya, which he promptly named “Egypt” after himself.

Fearful that Aegyptos wanted all of Libya and might kill him, Danaos fled north to Argos with his fifty daughters.  Danaos was descended from Io, a princess of Argos, so he laid claim to the throne there.  The current king contested his right, but eventually lost, and Danaos became the new king of Argos.

However, long before the brothers had quarreled, Danaos had promised that his fifty daughters would marry the fifty sons of Aegyptos.  It was not long after Danaos fled to Hellas that the sons of Aegyptos wanted their brides, and came to Argos after him.  They refused to leave Argos without their wives, but Danaos was afraid that they were going to try to wrest his new kingdom away from him.

Filled with fear, Danaos agreed to the marriages, but the night before they were to be wed, he met with his daughters secretly.  He gave each of them a knife, and told them that they must slay their husbands once they were alone on their wedding night.  The girls were shocked to be given such violent instructions, but they were dutiful daughters, and promised to obey their father’s command.

All but one of them indeed obeyed:  once their new husbands had fallen asleep, the forty-nine daughters of Danaos drew their knives and lopped off the heads of the forty-nine sons of Aegyptos.

But Hypermnestra had fallen in love with her husband, Lycneus, and could not bring herself to obey her father’s commands.  Instead, she helped him to escape from Argos, alone but alive.

The next morning, Danaos was presented with the decapitated heads of forty-nine of his nephew/son-in-laws.  But he was enraged with Hypermnestra for her disobedience.  He had her locked up, and placed her on trial for her refusal to obey her king and father.  But the people of Argos were horrified by what the other daughters of Danaos had done, and refused to condemn Hypermnestra for her act of kindness.  Eventually, Danaos himself came to accept Hypermnestra’s actions, and permitted her to live peacefully with Lycneus.

In the meantime, however, Danaos found that no man wanted to marry his other forty-nine daughters.  The men of Hellas were all afraid that they might end up the way the sons of Aegyptos had.

The gods themselves came down to arbitrate the matter:  Hermes and Athene performed the purification rites for the forty-nine Danaids, as Zeus himself had ordered them to do.

But still no men wanted to marry the murderous widow-brides.

Danaos held athletic competitions, inviting heroes from all regions of Hellas, and in addition to the usual valuable prizes, he gave each winner one of his daughters as an additional prize…though the winners rarely wanted them.

But as time passed, the Danaids managed to win over their reluctant husbands, and they had many children, who spread all across Hellas, and that is why the Hellenes are sometimes called the Danaans, because of their descent from Danaos.

When the Danaids died, they received a terrible shock.  They were led to the throne room of Hades, who frowned at them from his throne.  Without a word, he called for the Hundred-Handed Giants to take them to Tartaros.  The dead women began to weep and wail at their fate.

“What are you saying?” Persephone objected from her throne.  “Why should they be treated so wretchedly?”

“They murdered their husbands,” Hades pointed out.  “On their wedding night, no less.”

“But they were only following their father’s orders!”

“When a mortal woman is married, her duty is no longer to obey her father, but to obey her husband,” Hades said coldly.

Persephone giggled.  “Does that mean I don’t have to obey my father anymore, even though he’s the king of the gods?  If you tell me to disobey him, do I have to do it?”

Hades cleared his throat uncomfortably, avoiding her gaze.  “I said mortal women,” he pointed out.  “Besides, I would never ask you to disobey my brother.  Except…perhaps…to stay here with me longer than your allotted time….”

“Regardless, I don’t think it’s right to send them down to Tartaros.  They were already purified of their guilt, and they were devoted wives the rest of their lives,” Persephone reminded her husband.

“And what would you have me do with them, then?” Hades retorted.

“Just send them out with the regular shades, of course,” Persephone responded, sounding a little confused.

“And do you really think that would be a good idea?  The shades of women who hated their husbands but suffered through their long and unpleasant marriages would torment them out of jealousy that these women did what they never had the courage to do.  The shades of men of all sorts would torment them even more, out of hatred for what they had done, and out of fear that their action was going to encourage other women to do the same.  They will be happier in Tartaros than they would be with the regular shades.”

Persephone paused a moment, biting her lip.  “I suppose you may be right about that, but it still doesn’t seem very fair.”

“I’ll give them a very light punishment,” Hades promised her, then turned to the Hundred-Handed Giants who were guarding the frightened shades.  “Set up two troughs of water, one full and one empty.  They’re to fill the empty one from the full one.  But put holes in their ladles.”

The women moaned in sorrow, but Hades felt that was the best he could do for them.  It was not strenuous labor, nor was it painful.  There really wasn’t anything else he could do for them…

Obviously, I had originally planned to omit this because it’s so shockingly misogynistic.  But I came up with that argument between Hades and Persephone on the subject last night (while I was having a very bizarre, super-depressed nega-fantasy in which the heroine of my quasi-young adult novels was trying to throw herself into Tartaros because…well…because I was depressed) and thought that could at least make it slightly less unpalatable.  And, more importantly, it would be fast to write.  (But really, it doesn’t make any sense that the Danaids were punished so harshly, considering they were following paternal orders.  There’s no mention of the women of Lemnos being sent to Tartaros after they collectively murder their husbands, their husbands’ concubines, their husbands’ concubines’ children, and all the unmarried/widowed men on the island as well.  They completely get away with it–and spend a year sleeping with the Argonauts as a bonus!–but the Danaids are punished eternally?  So not right.)

Eventually, I might go back and fill in some of the missing details, like the manner in which Danaos won the throne of Argos, or the cause of the quarrel between Aegyptos and Danaos.  But right now I don’t have the time.

I think I’m totally wrong about the athletic games part, too.  I’ve forgotten exactly what happened, and I’m writing this on campus, so I can’t check my usual reference books.  I’ll fix it later if it’s wrong.  (I was going to use the new iOS app to write this, using the partial draft that was already saved, but for some reason it discarded all my line breaks.  Uh, yikes, you know?  I guess that thing’s only intended for single paragraph mini-entries.)  I also fell flat on my face regarding the punishments of other mortal shades in Tartaros.  Ordinarily, for a painful punishment, I’d use Ixion and the wheel of flame, but Ixion won’t have even been born yet, let alone have died yet, so I can’t.  I know there’s someone in Tartaros getting his liver eaten out (not Prometheus; he’s not usually said to be in Tartaros, but on a mountain somewhere) but I don’t remember who.  [Edit 12/17:  I hadn’t been thinking about just how very early the Danaids actually were.  Not one of the usual Tartaros suspects would be there yet.  So now it has an even weaker ending…] I shouldn’t be writing this from campus…anyway, like with the games, I’ll fix that later, when I’m home and I have my research books.  (I know, you’re thinking “well, just go to the library and look it up, if you’re on campus!”  But the thing is, it’s snowing out there, and I really don’t want to walk all the way down to the library.  I’m already in the building where my class is going to be held, and I’m totally staying in here until the class is over.  It’s too cold to be wandering about on campus.)

3 comments on “The Danaids

  • I like the bit you added. Thanks for that.

    You have a very readable style with these stories. Your endings drive me crazy, other than this one, but I have enjoyed stopping by tonight and reading the stories. Thanks!


    • Sorry about the endings; the myths all sort of flow together (even more so in my mind than in reality) so it’s hard to figure out where to stop them.

      Also endings have always been my weak point. I never know when to stop my novels, and they just sort of peter out. (Except the one about the Trojan War. That one had a strong ending. But in that case, the way I was going to handle the ending was one of the first things I came up with, which probably helped.)

      I’m glad you enjoyed them in spite of their endings. I’ll try to improve the quality of the endings if I can, but…well, I don’t wanna make promises I can’t keep, so I’ll have to leave it at “try.”


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