The Danaids

Io’s banishment was the first in a series of flights to and from Argos. In time, a boatload of her descendants fled back from Egypt. Aegyptus, king of Egypt (Io’s great-great-grandson), had fifty sons, whom he wished to marry to the fifty daughters of his rival, his younger twin, Danaus. But Danaus and his daughters, fearing it was a ruse to kill them, were unwilling. So they built a ship – the first ever – and escaped across the sea to Argos.

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Here (in a story dramatized in Aeschylus’ Suppliants), they begged King Pelasgos Gelanor (‘Laugher’) for asylum. Pelasgos referred the matter to the Argive people, who voted to protect the girls. Pausanias writes that they also voted to make Danaus their king, a decision reached in response to an omen: while they were debating, news came of a wolf descending from the mountains and killing a bull in the pasturelands, which they interpreted as meaning that the incomer Danaus should supplant the native Pelasgos. The omen was sent by Apollo Lycaeus (the Wolf God), and they established a sanctuary in his honour, which survived to Roman times.

When Aegyptus’ fifty sons arrived in hot pursuit, the Argives were unwilling to join battle. Instead, Danaus conceived a monstrous plan. Pretending reconciliation, he let the marriages proceed, all on a single day. But that night, Danaus’ daughters murdered their new husbands, skewering them through the heart with their hairpins – all except Hypermnestra, whose husband, Lynceus, had respected her pleas not to sleep with her.

The other forty-nine were exonerated, purified themselves and sought new husbands. Despite their track record, many suitors came forward, so to prevent dispute Danaus arranged a footrace: the winner could have first choice of bride; the runner-up could choose next; and so on. The system worked, and the resultant families became the ancestors of the Danaans, a term Homer commonly uses for the Greeks.

Not everything ended happily, however. Some say that Lynceus murdered his father-in-law Danaus to become king of Argos, while in Hades Danaus’ daughters were punished for their crime, condemned to fetch water in cracked jars to fill a leaking cauldron. It was a task of domestic drudgery that could never be completed, a fitting penalty for such unwifely women.

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