Crying Everyone’s Tears

Euripides, Trojan Women 101-106.

When fortune changes, get used to it.
Sail with the sea. Sail where fortune goes.
Don’t even steer life’s prow into the waves;
Let fortune do the sailing.
Ah me! Ah me!
There’s nothing for me, a wretch, not to cry about.

μεταβαλλομένου δαίμονος ἀνσχου.
πλεῖ κατὰ πορθμόν, πλεῖ κατὰ δαίμονα,
μηδὲ προσίστη πρῷραν βιότου
πρὸς κῦμα πλέουσα τύχαισιν.
αἰαῖ αἰαῖ.
τί γὰρ οὐ πάρα μοι μελέᾳ στενάχειν . . .

What does it mean to steer life’s prow into the waves?

David Kovacs explains in his commentary that a captain turns his ship’s prow into the waves to avoid capsizing. Not to do so then–Hecuba’s counsel–is to despair of saving the craft, and by extension, one’s own self.

Why this harsh advice from Hecuba? Because, as the final line of the quoted passage says, her world has been reduced to a thoroughgoing lament (her country, children, and husband have been lost).

The scholiast unpacks the nautical metaphor this way:

“The ship suffers damage regardless of whether it sails into the waves or into the wind. That being the case, she says don’t station yourself  against fortune by sailing into the waves.”

ὅταν γὰρ ἢ ναῦς πρὸς χῦμα ἡ πρὸς ἄνεμον πλέῃ, βλάπτεται. σὺ οὖν, φησὶ, πλέουσα πρὸς χῦμα μὴ ἀνθίστασο τῇ τύχῃ [Eduard Schwartz. Scholia in Euripidem.II.351]

The invocation might seem a bit off kilter, but Jean-Sartre’s Les Troyennes (his adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan women) nicely draws out the nihilism of Hecuba’s counsel. In addition, as if to underline the extreme character of her words, Sartre adds a line in which she resists the very philosophy she’s articulating:

Jean-Paul Sartre. Trojan Women. Scene III.

Fortune turns: learn to be patient.
What good are regrets?
Why live life against the current?
Go with it! Go with it!
Destiny takes you: let yourself be carried.
Ah, I can’t accept this.
Pain, o my pain,
There’s no pain in the world which isn’t mine!

La chance tourne: apprends la patience.
A quoi bon les regrets?
Pourquoi vivre à contre-courant?
Dérive! Dérive!
Le destin t’entraîne: laisse-toi porter.
Je ne peux pas me résigner.
Douleurs, Ô mes douleurs,
il n’est pas une douleur au monde qui ne soit mienne!

Black an white photography of a woodcut. A stulized skeletal woman in black with head on her own shoulder and hands across her body
Kathe Kollwitz. The Widow I.
Woodcut on paper. 1921-1922.
Tate Museum, London.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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