Caitlin Mulvey
Clas 095
Jacques Bailly

Euripides and Deus ex Machina
~When the gods have something to say about it~

    This Latin phrase originally described an ancient plot device used in Greek and Roman theatre. Many tragedy writers used Deus ex Machina to resolve complicated or even seemingly hopeless situations in the plots of their plays. The phrase is loosely translated as “god from the machine.” This translation refers to how the Deus ex Machina was often performed in ancient theatre. An actor playing a god or goddess would be lowered on stage by a “mechane” which was the name of the crane device used.

 Diagram of "machene"

    The above diagram depicts the mechanics of the "mechane". This device was the crane that the Greeks used in their theatre mostly in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The "mechane" was composed of wooden beams and used a pulley system to pick up an actor into the air and elevate them above the stage to simulate flight. Mostly this device was used for Deus ex Machina purposes, but there were a few instances of using the machine to introduce other non-divine characters as in Euripides' "Medea."

    The term Deus ex Machina is still used today, however, it has taken on a broader meaning. Deus ex Machina is now the phrase used to describe any situation where something unexpected or implausible is brought in to the story line to resolve situations or disentangle a plot. The resolution could come from a new character, device, or event. The definition of this phrase has also been stretched to include any story resolutions that are not drawn directly or logically from the preceding plot and defy even the broad concept of suspension of disbelief. The new and broader definition of Deus ex Machina helps authors of such modern works to end their stories with improbable but more acceptable conclusions.

A well-used example of this is the “it was all a dream” or “it was all in his/her head” plot:

Wizard of Oz movie posterFight Club Poste

    In ancient theatre, it was a god or goddess that was introduced. Normally, a member of what was referred to as the Olympian twelve: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, Hephaestus. Dionysus,  and sometimes Hestia.

    Euripides was the most notable user of the Deus ex Machina. He included this plot device in many of his plays. Many scholars believe that he was the first to pioneer the concept. Euripides’ had an almost notorious reputation for trying new ideas in the tragedy genre. For instance he wrote his plays in a manner that rendered the chorus independent from the primary action of the drama and he used explanatory prologues to explain what happened preceding the play and may have outlined events to come. His unconventional and revolutionary ideas that toyed even with the traditional structure of the tragedy garnered Euripides a lot of criticism. With this in mind, it’s not too difficult to believe that he was the first to use Deus ex Machina in a play. And, since Euripides was often criticized for his ideas, it makes sense that he was the primary user of the concept out of the three great writers of tragedy.

    Euripides used Deus ex Machina more frequently than any of the other tragedians, but he also used it in a different manner. He went beyond utilizing it to solve difficult plot issues. Instead, Euripides would use the Deus ex Machina to provide divine criticism, approval, dissaproval, and insight into mankind and its actions. Euripides brought in the gods and goddesses also to incorporate a religious and devotional aspect. By using the deities in this manner he emphasized the fact that man was subject to the gods who had ultimate control. Yet, even though they had such control, Euripides also referenced the imperfections that were famous among the Greek deities. By incorporating the vendettas, feuds, jealousies, and other imperfections amongst the gods and goddesses Euripides showed the connections between human mortals and the gods in addition to showing the ultimate control and power that the Greek deities possessed.

Some examples of Deus ex Machina in Euripides' tragedies:

Medea- When Medea is shown in the chariot of the sun god Helios, the god himself isn't present. From her vantage point in the chariot she watches the grieving Jason. It was thought that this particular scene would have been accomplished using the same mechane designed for a Deus ex Machina.

Hippolytus- In this play three deities are present: the jealous Aphrodite, Artemis the object of Hippolytus' devotion, and vengeful Poseidon. However it is only Artemis who appears. She explains to Theseus that Hippolytus was innocent all along and that it was Aphrodite who had caused been manipulative and caused all the grief. Additionaly in this appearance, Artemis vows to destroy any man Aphrodite ever loves.

Andromache- At the end of this play, Thetis the sea goddess appears to Peleus. She comes to take Peleus back with her to her ocean home. The play ends with Peleus going with Thetis his wife, into the ocean.

Helen- In Helen, Theoclymenos becomes enraged when Helen and Menelaus trick him and run away together. As a result, he tries to murder his sister Theonoe for not telling him that Menelaus was not dead. The demi-gods Castor and Polydeuces, Helen's brothers and sons of Zeus and Leda, appear miraculously to intervene.

Orestes- In Euripides' Orestes, Apollo appears on stage to set everything in order. Apollo closes up all the loose ends by revealing that Helen had been put amongst the stars and therefore Menelaus should return to Sparta. He also orders Orestes to journey to Athens to stand trial in their court which will lead to his acquittal. Apollo also states that Orestes will marry Hermione and that Pylades and Electra will also marry.

 Greek vase with Peleus and Thetis   
Depicted here are Peleus and Thetis. Thetis is a sea goddess who appears as Deus ex Machina in Euripides’ Andromache.

    The Deus ex Machina remains a popular plot device even today, being used in modern films, novels, and short stories. Though its definition has been broadened to accomodate the greater and different scope of its usage from ancient times, the main concept still exists. The Deus ex Machina has been existence at least as early as the fifth century BC. This convention swiftly became popular in early Greek theatre but it began as a revolutionary idea from the mind of Euripides one of the tragedy genres great innovators. Euripides may have been known for using unconventional ideas in his plays and he may have received a lot of criticism for it, but nonetheless the Deus ex Machina would still persist as one of oldest, useful, and popular plot devices.


-Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia (

Abstract: Wikipedia provided a lot of background information for this document. An article about Deus ex Machina talked about the history as well as the modern connotations of the phrase. Wikipedia also provided plot summaries of many of Euripides plays which easily displayed where the Deus ex Machina occured. It also provided the information on how the Deus ex Machina would be performed and where it originated. It also talked about the "mechane" device that was used to perform the Deus ex Machina.


This website provided information ranging from the structure of his plays to a list of his surviving dramas. The encarta online article talked about plot and the unconventional plot devices that Euripides would use. It also mentioned Euripides development of the Deus ex Machina as well as the criticism he would often recieve for his unorthodox ideas for his plays.

-Appleton, R. B. The Deus Ex Machina in Euripides. The Classical Review. February-March, 1920. (p. 10-14). JSTOR.

I used this article that I discovered on JSTOR and summarized for my first document. The article pertained heavily to my topic so I found it particularly useful.This article discusses the use of the deus ex machina in Greek Tragedy. Specifically, this article refers to Euripides use of the plot device since he was known for using the deus ex machina ten times more frequently in his works than in any of the other surviving works of other tragedians. The article specifies that Euripides didn’t use the deus ex machina to simply solve difficult plot issues. Instead, Euripides usually utilized the deus ex machina to provide divine criticism, approval, or disapproval of mankind and its actions. Bringing in the gods and goddesses, Euripides incorporated the religion in a very complete way. He made reference to vendettas and feuds amongst the gods as well as between gods and men.