Legend tells us that Aeschylus died from fatal wounds caused by a tortoise falling on his head. Apparently, this freak accident was due to the victim’s bald noggin being mistaken as a rock by a hungry eagle who dropped the tortoise in order to crack open the shell and devour the soft inner flesh. Thus, two tragedies in one – Aeschylus died and an eagle was deprived of its dinner.
The death of Aeschylus, Maso Finiguerra (c.1400s). Source: Ancient Origins
While it is common practice for eagles to drop tortoises to smash their shells, Aeschylus, the great Ancient Greek playwright, born in 525/524 BCE, is potentially the only unfortunate soul in the history of humankind to have met his end due to being confused with a lump of hard stone. Rocks are still, human heads move. Further, as implied by the saying “to have eyes like an eagle”, eagles have exceptionally good eyesight. How then could an eagle make such a error? Or was Aeschylus an exceptionally still man?
Comparison of bald head (Source: Wikipedia Commons) and round rock (Source: Brooklyn Museum).
The poet Aeschylus’ departure was not voluntary, but the novelty of the occurrence makes it worth mention. He was in Sicily. Leaving the walls of the town where he was staying, he sat down in a sunny spot. An eagle carrying a tortoise was above him. Deceived by the gleam of his hairless skull, it dashed the tortoise against it, as though it were a stone, in order to feed on the flesh of the broken animal. By that blow the origin and beginning of more perfect tragedy was extinguished.VALERIUS MAXIMUS, c.1-100CE, Memorable Doings and Sayings
Was Aeschylus sitting as still as a rock? Or did this particular eagle have poor eyesight? It’s not impossible for a person to die from an airborne reptile, but still, I can’t help but speculate if this fateful ending was really the imaginative concoction of a fellow dramatist rather than a freak of nature. Or was it a cover up for something more sinister … I’ll go over the drama aspect first.
Drama. The Ancient Greeks were masters of captivating audiences with their enthralling storylines full of tragedy, double meanings, and allegorical puns. Aeschylus was particularly good at writing plays, as evidenced by his numerous winning of awards (equivalent to today’s Hollywood’s Golden Globe awards). He set the bar so high he’s been dubbed the father of tragedy. In addition to mastering the art of story telling, he innovated stage productions by introducing multiple characters who had dialogues with each other. The standard for theatre plays prior to Aeschylus was to have a single actor presenting a monologue with an accompanying chorus. Aeschylus’ innovation of drama conventions with multiple characters interacting with each other in dialogues is still followed by playwrights today.
The Ancient Greeks were great thinkers and as a society who loved philosophy, their dramas were filled with irony and puns, subtle gestures, multiple storylines, symbolism, ethical references, and moral lessons. Thus it seems more than fitting for Aeschylus’ death to have same elements. Additionally, the Greeks (like many ancients) were staunch believers in prophecy and destiny … and apparently, according Pliny, Aeschylus spent a lot of time outdoors because he’d been told by a fortune teller that he was going to die by a falling object indoors … tragically, this prophecy was half right and/or the laws of destiny found a way to demonstrate their authority despite Aeschylus best efforts to avoid the Gods’ will.
The layers of intrigue associated with Aeschylus’ death are just superb! However, simply recognising similar elements between Greek drama and the circumstances surrounding Aeschylus’ death are not sufficient to suspect the details were purely the fabrication of an astute creative mind. A motive is needed if one really wants to claim a conspiracy was at hand.
Why would anyone want to kill a playwright then lie about how it happened? A potential explanation is zealous devotion to religious protocols. The ancient religion to be put on the stand for this cold case is the Eleusinian Mysteries. On a surface level, this cult worshipped the Goddess Demeter who was associated with the growing of crops, as told in the Homeric poem about Hades’ abduction of Kore (also known as Persephone).
The Eleusinian Mysteries were the dominate cult of the Classical Era. At least once in a lifetime anyone who could speak Greek, whether they be male, female, free, slave, child, or other, were expected to partake in annual festivals that included a walk from Athens to the cult centre in Eleusis; a journey that took approximately nine days. Many who could not speak Greek were also interested in the festival, however, access to the mysteries were denied to all those who did not meet the language requirement. (Several centuries later permission was extended to all Roman citizens.)
The origin of the Eleusinian Mysteries extends back to the grass roots of Greek culture, to what is termed the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100-750BCE). There are few written records of this era, however, there is reason to suspect it had some egalitarian aspects, as evidenced in records of women owning property. Traditionally, Homeric poems were passed down orally, till about c.800BCE when they were penned in Greek (the Greek alphabet developed via influence from the Phoenician alphabet – this point is mentioned to highlight the fact that Greek culture did not evolve in a vacuum).
The Eleusinian temple was built on a shoreline that had an underground cave (this where Hades took Kore). The earliest known building on the ground above the cave was a Mycenaean Megaron, which consisted of a central hall with small spaces attached to the edges (as per the myth it was built to honour Demeter). The style was typical to the region from about 1380BCE to 1190BCE. Over the years, the temple was repaired, replaced, and expanded according to maintenance needs and population increases. In Aeschylus’ lifetime it was a geometric building with a large rectangular hall, most probably constructed with what would later become known as Classical Greek Columns.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were considered to be of up most importance, so much so, that cease fires and temporary peace treaties between conflicting groups were honoured in weeks leading up to the festival to allow pilgrims to travel and partake in the rites without delays or safety fears. To emphasis how important the Eleusinian Mysteries were to the Greeks, I’ll say that again, wars stopped every year to allow the great festival to go ahead without interruption.
Very few precise details are known about the beliefs and customs of the Eleusinian Mysteries. What is known is that it had a hierarchical structure. The ceremonies of entrance level initiations could be witnessed by crowds, however, higher level initiations were done in private, possibly within the caves below the temple.
Secrecy over the rites, ceremonies, and rank of individuals was strictly guarded. Males and females were separated during certain parts of the rites, thus each gender had equivalent leadership in so far as priestesses lead women and priests lead men. The person/s in highest position/s were called the hierophant. The process of obtaining this post is not known. The level of secrecy was so high, it is believed the hierophant had their face covered during rites so as no one knew their identity. Like I said, secrets were strictly guarded. Under Greek law, anyone who disclosed details of the Mysteries to an uninitiated person could be charged as having committed a crime against the state. If found guilty, punishment was death. Which brings me back to Aeschylus.
Aeschylus was accused of revealing Eleusinian Mystery secrets in his plays. Specifically, there are reports of calamity during a production of Prometheus Bound. Members of the crowd supposedly attempted to kill Aeschylus on the spot because the drama contained direct references to sacred knowledge. Potentially, this didn’t eventuate because doing so would make it clear what those secrets were and who had been initiated to a rank of knowing such information. When formally questioned, Aeschylus escaped persecution by claiming he did not know what the mysteries were, therefore any reference to them in his play were done so with ignorance. In order for this defence to be validated members of the law establishment must have had access to the secret records of who was initiated and to what level. Moreover, the accusers and legal teams knew the significance of what may or may not have been revealed in the play.
The situation of Aeschylus’ charges and subsequent acquittal implies the law officials did know the Eleusinian Mysteries and they were privy to knowing the secret doctrines. Conspiracy theorists could have a field day speculating the connections between religion, wealthy families, and the leadership of Ancient Greece. On the outside, their culture and governance had a veneer of democratic rulership, however, beneath this was a web of secret connections that can be affiliated with the Eleusinian Mysteries.
To add insult to injury, not only was Aeschylus accused of revealing religious secrets, he also made cynical references to aristocratic rulership in his play Eumenides that were not well received by all viewers.
Given the common aristocratic desire to maintain power through the status quo, I can’t help but wonder if Aeschylus was quietly disposed of then an elaborate cover up story told? In my imagination, I wonder if “Death by tortoise” was a code name of a mission given to Ancient Greek special agents … a secret operation that needed to be carried out in order to silence a social media influencer … then again, maybe that is just my imagination going wild.
As a sidenote, it is interesting to ponder the premise of absolute secrecy associated with cultic practices. This scenario was by no means unique to Ancient Greece and the Eleusisian Mysteries. Judaism, Orphism, Mithraism, and several other ancient religions, including Early Christianity, all have subtle indications that their faith was cloaked in sacred shrouds of mystery. (E.g., one of the reasons the Pharisees’ wanted Jesus killed was because he dared to educate the masses about hidden codes within the scriptures; Luke 24:27). The question is, how many of these cults perceived the death penalty as being justified if anyone went against group rules by choosing to act openly, with transparent expressions of religious doctrines? Ancient worlds held very different attitudes towards knowledge and education compared to that of today. Time and time again it can be observed that aristocratic structures placed limits on access to education so as to preserve and maintain upper and lower levels of citizens. Keeping “lower classes”, like slaves, women, and manual labourers ignorant of information was a means of elevating “upper classes”, like men, senators, kings, queens, and priests to a divine sphere affiliated with the Gods.
As many have said, knowledge is power. And sometimes those in power will kill in order to maintain their position and keep others ignorant. The use of so-called divine reasoning based upon the authority of the Heavens as justification was more readily accepted in the past than contemporary times.
Through chance or design, in addition to being highly entertaining, Aeschylus dramas presented ideas that promoted thought and expansions of the mind. To share such information may have been deemed threatening to those in power who did not want their status overthrow. As stated earlier, it is possible Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise falling on his head, and personally, I am one to believe that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction … but all the same, an eagle mistaking a bald head for a stone sounds like a tall tale.
Aeschylus’ death is cold case that will probably never be reopened. The evidence for or against foul play has long expired … but still I wonder …
Eleusis, Telesterion (Building). (2022). Tufts.edu. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/artifact?name=Eleusis,%20Telesterion&object=Building
Theodoros Karasavvas. (2018). Eagle Mistakes Bald Head for a Rock: The Bizarre Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Aeschylus. Ancient-Origins.net; Ancient Origins. https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/eagle-mistakes-bald-head-rock-bizarre-circumstances-surrounding-death-021785