Written by Lisa Doyle
Image: Bust of Euripides. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from c. 330 BC.
There are many manifestations of divinity in the work of Euripides, the fifth century BC Athenian tragedian. For example, in his plays we see numerous depictions of the Olympian gods, the appearance of other minor deities, and mortal characters in pursuit of divine status. I believe it would be beneficial to survey the conduct of these divine characters in Euripides’ plays, focusing on just a few examples, and assess the implications of their behaviour.
Although Euripides manipulates the behaviour and characteristics of the gods, he does so within the constraints of a literary and mythological tradition in order to ensure that his plays are credible and intelligible to the audience. Firstly, the presence of the gods reaffirms the ultimate divide between mortal and divine. Many characters in Euripidean tragedy try to transcend this divide, such as the titular character of Hippolytus, who rejects human norms of sexual conduct in his divine devotion to Artemis, and of course Medea, from the eponymous play, who receives support and assistance from the gods as her actions appear to be vindicated by divinity. As Hippolytus and Medea attempt respectively to transcend the divide between mortal and divine, both characters seem to lose sight of human values. We need only take one notable example to see this, the concept of sophrosyne. Typically interpreted as meaning ‘self-control’, sophrosyne was a central Greek value in antiquity, informing the behaviour of men and women in many different ways. For example, it instructs men to exercise restraint in political affairs, and both men and women to control their desires. Another important facet of sophrosyne is that it requires humility towards the gods.
Although Euripides allows this transcendence for certain characters, who seems to reach the unique moral plane of the divine, we are quickly reminded of the consequences on a human level. That Euripides’ depiction of the gods in his plays is a device by which the humanity of his mortal characters can be explored is a common notion in Euripidean scholarship. This focus on humanity is evident throughout his work and is especially prominent in Hippolytus. Although he revises his previous misunderstanding of sophrosyne at the end of the play, the distance between mortals and deities is confirmed as Hippolytus appears to be deserted by Artemis on his deathbed. The polarity between divine and human is therefore reaffirmed.
By analysing the actions of the gods and the motivations of their behaviour, we can assess if they are subject to the same ethical constraints as mortals. The divine world is ultimately characterised by an infinite cycle of revenge, and this represents the disconnect between the human recognition of virtue and the extreme nature of divine behaviour. The concepts of revenge and justice are key motives of the behaviour of deities. Indeed, it is one of many divine qualities illustrated by Medea. As she acquires what seems to be semi-divine status, or simply by acquiring divine support for her cause, Medea illustrates a divine quality as she regards the manifestation of sophrosyne which requires honour and respect towards the gods. Similar to other divine figures, she is concerned not with how sophrosyne should inform her own behaviour but with how it should inform the behaviour of those who owe her respect.
There are many examples of the infinite cycle of revenge which characterises the divine world. We see examples of the gods’ punishment of mortals being out of proportion to the offence committed by the mortal in the first place. These acts of revenge display no moderation. This is exemplified in Andromache by Apollo’s harsh punishment of Neoptolemus, who demonstrated his sophrosyne to Apollo as he wished to pay respect for previously demanding satisfaction for his father’s death. Apollo’s violent response in assisting in the brutal murder of Neoptolemus displayed no moderation and is denounced repeatedly in the play by characters such as Thetis. A similar conflict may be found in Bacchae as Pentheus displays no humility towards Dionysus and is subsequently subject to Dionysus’ violent revenge. These plays imply that humans must engage only in humility and respect towards the gods, as sophrosyne requires.
However, the function of divine characters in Euripides’ plays is not to imply that the ethical conduct of the gods themselves must be imitated. We can confirm this by looking at the example of Peleus who is deified at the end of Andromache. His awareness of sophrosyne, and ability to point out that it was a virtue that was lacking in other characters in the play, seems to be justified and rewarded by Thetis. Now that he has acquired godlike status, perhaps we can infer that other divine figures do, in fact, understand the requirements of human moral conduct but their superiority in knowledge and power enables them to disregard even those who show humility towards them. Furthermore, we can surmise that the desire for revenge which characterises divine behaviour simply does not correlate with a civilised society such as Athens in the fifth century BC. In fact, divine characters demonstrate only an understanding and awareness of ethical concepts – but not a mastery over them. Moreover, divine conduct is not regulated by the same civil demands as human conduct.
As we have demonstrated, divine characters in Euripidean tragedy serve to tell us more about human action and how misjudgements in moral conduct have consequences for mortals. It has been established that the gods themselves are not expected to possess sophrosyne and other values, but rather a comprehension of the concepts so as to enforce their relevance on a human level. Ultimately, what we see in these plays is that the behaviour of the gods is not exemplary nor worthy of imitation.
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