406 BC.  The mountainous wilds of ancient Macedonia, under the rule of a murderous tyrant.  Here comes, in his 70s, the dramatist Euripides to live out in voluntary exile the last years of his life.  He has cannily brought with him a new play that flatters his royal host with a legitimate and heroic ancestry.  But for himself, it will be only poetry from now, the private forms, intimate.  ‘No more plays.  No more Athens.  Macedonia now.’  A quiet life – basic, too:  his village home, what once was an animal shed on a hill farm.

But this Macedonia is full of noises.  A stroke on a strange drum somewhere to the east.  Shreds of shrill music and wild women’s laughter from a ‘cruel’ mountain that dominates the landscape west of his new home. The young farmer tells him any women there ‘wouldn’t be laughing’.  The ‘King’s hounds would have them’.  And soon Euripides is ‘seeing’ too:  hallucination-like glimpses – the boy, offering Euripides himself a woman’s robe to wear...   The boy again, bull-horned now and sinisterly smiling, offering him a woman’s wig…   Meanwhile the boy’s widowed mother, aged with toil before her time, nurses failing memories of when she used to go with other women to secret celebrations on the mountain, where a man ‘with the god in him’ would lead them in rapture-inducing dance.  ‘Oh when shall he come to us again?’  But she knows he’ll never.  The cult has been suppressed long ago, the mountain is now a royal hunting-ground.  As she muses, fragments of her primal orgiastic liturgy, joyous – and terrible – begin to whisper in the old poet’s head.  Euripides, who came here for a quiet life, is receiving signals from one last wild and ruthless tragedy within him, demanding to be born.  Its extremity appals him, and he tries to blank it from his mind.  But it insists. 

And suddenly a living fragment of it explodes into his space:  a bloodied woman returning from that mountain, grieving over the mangled body-parts of her son, whom she and her sisters have in an ecstatic frenzy rent asunder there, and feasted upon.  Again the old poet tries to reject the vision;  but he knows there is no resisting.  This play comes from the god.


The gap in the Greek text represents an estimated 50 lines lost from the onstage climax of the fearsome play that comes to the old Euripides in his ‘Macedonia’. 

We know from later ancient sources the content of the scene.  The queen mother laments, one by one as they are re-assembled, the torn limbs of the son whom she and her sisters have in a Dionysian frenzy rent asunder.  At some point, the god Dionysos himself appears, in wrath and judgment.

We have also some two dozen actual lines from it, plausibly identified here and there in a 12th century Byzantine Passion of Christ, mostly in the Virgin’s lament over Jesus taken down from the Cross.  (It was a Byzantine practice to cannibalise and christianise the pagan classics in this way.)  It is in large part thanks to the formidable late 18th century Cambridge scholar Richard Porson, who first made the connection, that we can now reconstruct much of what was lost.

Though narratively covering a longer time-span, the action gives the illusion of taking place within one day.  In its evening scene, Euripides, at ease again, with his play complete, takes a sunset walk on the forbidden mountain.  But his is a strange, intoxicated serenity:  he does not hear the king’s hounds approaching....


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