Deus ex machina

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Deus ex machina [1][2] is the Latin version of an ancient Greek phrase ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός.

The phrase means means "the god from the machine". It comes from the theatre of ancient Greece, which had a kind of crane for delivering gods onto the stage on wires.

By extension, the term means a plot device whereby a seemingly overwhelming problem is suddenly solved by means which are arbitrary, and do not follow from the logic of the narrative (story).

For example, in Euripides' play Alcestis, the heroine agrees to give up her own life in order to spare the life of her husband, Admetus. At the end Heracles shows up and seizes Alcestis from Death, restoring her to life and to Admetus. A more frequently cited example is Euripides' Medea in which the deus ex machina is used to convey Medea, who has just committed murder and infanticide, away from her husband Jason to the safety and civilization of Athens.

Aristotle criticized the device in his Poetics, where he argued that the resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from previous action of the play:[3]

"It is obvious that the solutions of plots... should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance, as in the Medea and in the passage about sailing home in the Iliad. A contrivance must be used for matters outside the drama—either previous events which are beyond human knowledge, or later ones that need to be foretold or announced... There should be nothing improbable in the incidents; otherwise, they should be outside the tragedy as, for example, in Sophocles' Oedipus.[4]

Notes[change | edit source]

  1. pronounced /ˈdeɪ.əs ɛks ˈmɑːkiːnə/ or how to say: /ˈdiː.us ɛks ˈmækɨna/ day-əs eks MAH-kee-nə
  2. Random House Dictionary
  3. Janko (1987, 20)
  4. Aristotle Poetics (1454a33-1454b9)

Books[change | edit source]

  • Bushnell, Rebecca ed. 2005. A Companion to Tragedy. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1405107359.
  • Heath, Malcolm, trans. 1996. Poetics. By Aristotle. Penguin: London. ISBN 9780140446364.
  • Janko, Richard, trans. 1987. Poetics with Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II and the Fragments of the On Poets. By Aristotle. Cambridge: Hackett. ISBN 0872200337.
  • Mastronarde, Donald, 1990. Actors on High: The Skene roof, the Crane and the Gods in Attic Drama. Classical Antiquity, Vol 9, October 1990, pp 247–294. University of California.
  • Rehm, Rush, 1992. Greek Tragic Theatre. Routledge, London. ISBN 0415048311.
  • Tanner, Michael ed. 2003. The Birth of Tragedy. By Nietzsche, Friedrich. Penguin: London. ISBN 9780140433395.
  • Taplin, Oliver, 1978. Greek Tragedy in Action. Methuen, London. ISBN 0416717004.
  • Walton, J Michael, trans. 2000. Euripides: Medea. Methuen, London. ISBN 0413752801.