Attributed Fragments


The Phorcides (daughters of Phorcys), or Graeae (“old women”), were significant secondary figures in the story of Perseus and the Gorgon’s head; their most famous characteristic was that they had only one eye and one tooth between the three of them, so that Perseus by stealing the eye and tooth was able to render them helpless. In one common version of the myth, presented for example by Aeschylus’ contemporary Pherecydes (fr. 11 Fowler), he thereby forced them to tell him how to find the nymphs (waternymphs [naiads] according to the inscription on one sixthcentury vase painting [ LIMC Perseus 88]) who possessed the winged sandals and cap of invisibility that he needed in order to get near the Gorgon Medusa, and the bag (kibisis) in which to put her head. In this account there is a wide gap in space and time between the Graeae and the Gorgons themselves; Aeschylus, as we learn from [Eratosthenes], Catasterisms 22 (= Aeschylus fr. 262), closed this gap—doubtless for dramatic convenience—by making the Graeae “sentinels” to the Gorgons. Perseus seized their eye while one of them was handing it to another, threw it into




Lake Tritonis (this detail tells us the geographical setting of the play), and so was able to get past them, find the Gorgons asleep, and cut off Medusa’s head. These exploits were apparently reported by a third party in what must have been a long and elaborate messenger-speech (cf. fr. 261), presumably to the chorus (which perhaps consisted of nymphs of the lake, friendly to Perseus—cf. above).

This play is assigned by Aristotle, Poetics 1456a2–3, to the same subcategory of tragedy as Prometheus and “all those plays set in Hades”; unfortunately textual corruption has left it uncertain how he defined this category. It may have been produced together with Polydectes and the satyr-play Net-Haulers (qq.v.), though no other related play can be identified that would complete a tetralogy. There are some slight indications that this production came rather late in Aeschylus’ career.

Recent discussions: J. H. Oakley, “Perseus, the Graiai, and Aeschylus’ Phorkides”, AJA 92 (1988) 383–391; Gantz 304–6; S. E. Goins, “The date of Aeschylus’ Perseus tetralogy”, RhM 140 (1997) 193–210.

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.aeschylus-attributed_fragments.2009