Friday, March 15, 2019

National Geographic piece about Delphi

Pythia - The Delphic Oracle with laurel leaf

Nat Geo has a fine story this month about Delphi, the navel of the Earth -- worth a look given that The Eumenides, when we get to it, opens with a long speech of the Pythia, followed by the appearance of Apollo. The article echoes the opening of that play, though it has a variant on the genealogy of the presiding deities of the site:
. . . this impressive spot in central Greece (about 100 miles northwest of Athens) was originally sacred to Gaea, mother goddess of the earth, who placed her son Python, a serpent, as a guard for Delphi and its oracle. Apollo, god of light and music, slew the serpent and took over the site for himself. Priestesses who served Apollo there were called the “Pythia,” named in honor of Gaea’s vanquished son. Throughout the classical world spread the belief that these priestesses channeled prophecies from Apollo himself. (Read about the science behind the Delphic Oracle's prophetic powers.)  NatGeo

The opening of The Eumenides offers its own genealogy of the site, beginning with the striking description of the Earth as πρωτόμαντιν - the first prophet:

πρῶτον μὲν εὐχῇ τῇδε πρεσβεύω θεῶν 
τὴν πρωτόμαντιν Γαῖανἐκ δὲ τῆς Θέμιν
 δὴ τὸ μητρὸς δευτέρα τόδ᾽ ἕζετο 
μαντεῖονὡς λόγος τιςἐν δὲ τῷ τρίτῳ 
5λάχειθελούσηςοὐδὲ πρὸς βίαν τινός
Τιτανὶς ἄλλη παῖς Χθονὸς καθέζετο
Φοίβηδίδωσι δ᾽  γενέθλιον δόσιν 
Φοίβῳτὸ Φοίβης δ᾽ ὄνομ᾽ ἔχει παρώνυμον
λιπὼν δὲ λίμνην Δηλίαν τε χοιράδα
10κέλσας ἐπ᾽ ἀκτὰς ναυπόρους τὰς Παλλάδος
ἐς τήνδε γαῖαν ἦλθε Παρνησοῦ θ᾽ ἕδρας
πέμπουσι δ᾽ αὐτὸν καὶ σεβίζουσιν μέγα 
κελευθοποιοὶ παῖδες Ἡφαίστουχθόνα 
ἀνήμερον τιθέντες ἡμερωμένην
15μολόντα δ᾽ αὐτὸν κάρτα τιμαλφεῖ λεώς
Δελφός τε χώρας τῆσδε πρυμνήτης ἄναξ
τέχνης δέ νιν Ζεὺς ἔνθεον κτίσας φρένα 
ἵζει τέταρτον τοῖσδε μάντιν ἐν θρόνοις
Διὸς προφήτης δ᾽ ἐστὶ Λοξίας πατρός

The Priestess of Pythian Apollo

First, in this prayer of mine, I give the place of highest honor among the gods to the first prophet, Earth; and after her to Themis, for she was the second to take this oracular seat of her mother, as legend tells. And in the third allotment, with Themis' consent and not by force, [5] another Titan, child of Earth, Phoebe, took her seat here. She gave it as a birthday gift to Phoebus, who has his name from Phoebe. Leaving the lake1and ridge of Delos, he landed on Pallas' ship-frequented shores, [10] and came to this region and the dwelling places on Parnassus. The children of Hephaistos,2road-builders taming the wildness of the untamed land, escorted him with mighty reverence. And at his arrival, the people [15] and Delphus, helmsman and lord of this land, made a great celebration for him. Zeus inspired his heart with prophetic skill and established him as the fourth prophet on this throne; but Loxias is the spokesman of Zeus, his father.

Another article offers Some prophecies of the oracle

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What did Helen look like?

The splendid Sententiae Antiquae blog tackles the almost eternal question of Helen's appearance:
What Helen actually looks like is never stated in HomerWhen the Trojans look at her, they say she has the “terrible appearance of goddesses” (αἰνῶς ἀθανάτῃσι θεῇς εἰς ὦπα ἔοικεν). This, of course, is not terribly specific.. . . 
To stay with the ancient world, think of that seminal first stanza in Sappho fr. 16: 
Some say a force of horsemen, some say infantry
and others say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
[whatever] you love 
Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται 
As long as beauty is relative and in the eye of the beholder any time we disambiguate it by saying that it is one thing and not another we depart from an abstract timeless idea and create something more bounded and less open to audience engagement. I think that part of what makes Homeric poetry work so well is that it combines a maximum amount of specificity within a maximized amount of ambiguity. 
Paris and Helen

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

'The play speaks to the polis' - Goldhill

From Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia, 18-19 (pdf of entire book here):

What of the audience of the drama? The spectators perhaps as many as 16,000 - were ranged in wedge-shaped sections in the amphitheatre. The front seats were reserved for dignitaries. It is also likely that the seating was arranged by tribal division, with each tribe seated in a particular wedge. The theatre thus mapped the city in its space as it addressed the city in its plays. Over the years, foreigners attended the Great Dionysia with increasing frequency, and, after the transfer of the treasury from Delos, the ambassadors who brought the tribute to Athens sat in the theatre to watch its display. Unfortunately, we do not have any decisive piece of evidence that can demonstrate whether women were allowed in the theatre. Scholars debate the issue at length, but without a consensus. One thing is clear, however: if there were any women there, they were in the vast minority and were not the 'proper or intended' audience (Henderson). Greek tragedy, with its all-male cast, all-male producers and writers and male audience, remains a citizen affair.

Orestes, Elektra, Pylades - Campanian 330 BC
With masked male actors, a singing, dancing, masked male chorus, a vast audience seated according to the formal sociopolitical divisions of the state, in a five-day festival in honour of the god Dionysus, a festival whose ceremonies are replete with social and cultural significance ... the contexts of Greek tragedy are far removed, indeed, from Western bourgeois theatre, tragedy's heir.

So, then, Greek tragedy should not be viewed simply as an aesthetic, emotional or ritual experience (although it is all three of these). It is also an event that places the tensions and ambiguities of a rapidly developing political and cultural system in the public domain to be contested. What is more, the Oresteia itself ends, unlike all other extant tragedies, in the centre of the democratic polis of Athens, its law-court. The play speaks to the polis. The Oresteia is in the full sense of the term apolitical drama; and awaits your — our — verdict.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

From Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia, Cambridge University Press, 1992:

Burial in Greek society was traditionally a family affair. But in Athens from at least around the 470s those who had died fighting for the city received a collective burial, carried to the grave, tribe by tribe, on wagons. The markers raised over the graves listed the bare names of those who had fallen and did not give the father's name or deme name, those usual markers of identification. The dead lay just as Athenian citizens. The whole population was allowed to attend the burial, and an orator chosen by the city addressed the people.

The most famous surviving example of such a Funeral Oration is Pericles' Funeral Speech as represented in the work of the historian Thucydides (II. 35-46), and it is a speech that has been repeatedly used to demonstrate the public projection of the ideals of democratic ideology. Certainly when Pericles says of Athenian citizens that 
'all of us are fit to judge ... each of us is willing to fight and die', 
he resoundingly enforces the democratic rallying cries of Assembly, law-court, navy and army that I have been discussing. So too he proclaims that 
'We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority and we obey the laws themselves' 
and that 'when it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law',  just as 
'no-one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty'. 
Indeed, the requirement of participation is such that 
'we do not say that a man who takes no interest in the affairs of the polis minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all'. 
Pericles' speech thus praises the Athenian system as 'an education for all Greece', and goes on to contrast it at length with that of their enemies the Spartans. In Pericles' whole speech, however, no individual is mentioned; no individual feat of valour singled out. The speech praises the whole city as a collective, engaged in a collective enterprise: 
'this, then, is the kind of city for which these men, who could not bear the thought of losing her, nobly fought and nobly died. It is only natural that everyone of us who survives them should be willing to undergo hardships in her service.' 
Both the institution of the collective burial of those who died fighting for the polis and the speech celebrating their burial thus project and promote the collective ideals of democratic Athens.

It is in Athenian democracy alone that tragedy develops in the fifth century.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Agamemnon seen glancingly through Hesiod's readers

The Catalogue of Women was a rich epic treatment of famous and heroic women of antiquity. Attributed to Hesiod, only fragments have come down to us, mainly via mentions by a slew of ancient writers. The book was apparently known at least through the Hellenistic age and even in Byzantine times.

Clytaemnestra and Iphigeneia
Louis Billotey
Among the fragments one finds tantalizing tidbits that offer some background and depth to the story of Tyndareus, how he brokered the marriage of Helen, who among the great Greeks of the day sought to woo her, why Achilles was not the obvious choice (he was too young at the time), why Menelaos won out, and why Tyndareus's daughters both betrayed their husbands. 

Whether actually by Hesiod or no, the fragments have the flavor of learned epic gossip, rich in lore, serving to satisfy those who love all the ancient tales and are full of questions. For those curious about the tale of Helen, the poet has answers. Ovid clearly was in his debt.

For the Helen story, see fragments 67-70.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Rolling stars Agamemnon 2-21.

The Agamemnon opens with the watchman's anticipation. He's on the look-out for the sumbolon, a prearranged fiery relay carrying the good news that Troy has been taken. He talks at some length about that long lonely wait, and how, doglike, he fights sleep, boredom, and dreams. But before that, he speaks of how he's come to understand the assembly of stars (astron).



I have learned well the gathering of the night´s stars, bringers of winter and summer to mankind, those radiant ruling stars conspicuous in the night sky, whenever fading or rising. 
So now I am still watching for the signal [sumbolon] of the flame, the gleaming fire that is to bear word from Troy and tidings of its capture. (Ag. 4-10 - Smyth Nagy - modified.)
In his aside, he looks up and first sees gatherings of stars bringing the frosts of winter and heat of summer. He uses two words for stars in this brief aside: Commonplace stars that form the gatherings are ἄστρων. Ruling stars conspicuous in the night sky, fading or rising, are ἀστέρας.

His nod to the heavens is brief, yet the watchman manages to include a nuanced appreciation of these fires in the sky -- the commoners bearing the seasons and temperatures, then, his tone heightens as he speaks of the radiant giants. It's a quick moment, and one might wonder why Aeschylus bothered. Why not just have the watchman speak of what he's waiting for, and why?

One possible motive for a seemingly gratuitous nod to the stars is its effect within this speech. It sets the gallery of lights up there as a stable and predictable but distant realm. It's a point of reference -- far, but not entirely beyond, our earthly existence; orders of magnitude larger, especially if we are likened to dogs. Stars bear larger tasks than we do, but even the brightest undergo regular routines of change. From his nightly chore the watchman feels on familiar terms with them.

As he turns from the night sky to the horizon and his work of watching, the fiery object of his watch, unbenknownst to him, is already racing across the dark waters between the Troad and Argos, about to blaze into view.

He speaks of fighting off sleep, trying to keep a sharp line between dream and waking, and wishes for this ponos to end:
νῦν δ᾽ εὐτυχὴς γένοιτ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴ πόνων  
εὐαγγέλου φανέντος ὀρφναίου πυρός 
But tonight may there come a happy release from these ordeals [ponoi] of mine!
May the fire with its glad tidings flash through the gloom!
The signal fire suddenly flashes out.
 χαῖρε λαμπτὴρ νυκτός, 
Oh welcome, you blaze in the night . . .
He reads the light, welcoming it as the good news he's been expecting. This fire appearing out of the murk (φανέντος ὀρφναίου πυρός) is his lucky star. It will reorient Argos, it will the watchman's longeurs and bring the great ruler home.

But this star of good tidings won't have the enduring serene stability of the astron or the asteras. It'll be more comet than star.

A tentative interpretation: Aeschylus interpolates the watchman's view of the heavens on line 4 to establish the first moment of a pattern in the Agamemnon.  Those heavenly stars bearing gradual change seem distant and aloof, but what if that distance suddenly vanished? What comes rolling into view certainly seems a star blazing out of the East, double speaking of Troy past and of something veiled, yet to be disclosed.

In the Agamemnon, everything is connected to everything. The watchman's seeming "aside" about the stars proves more: it's a marker in the syntax of his world, where what seems far off, or a dream, can suddenly, powerfully turn from familiar vertical hierarchic stability into a jolting usurpation of fundamental human order.

Sign and symbol [sumbolon] carry a lot of freight in this play. The shining good news from Troy "means" the triumph of General Agamemnon, until the very same sign means the rising of his Queen and the murder of the conqueror of Troy wrapped in purple, in the bath.

The watchman underscores this in another simile:

ὅταν δ᾽ ἀείδειν  μινύρεσθαι δοκῶ
ὕπνου τόδ᾽ ἀντίμολπον ἐντέμνων ἄκος
κλαίω τότ᾽ οἴκου τοῦδε συμφορὰν στένων 

. . . and whenever I care to sing or hum 
(and thus apply a remedy of song in place of sleep), 
then my tears start forth, as I bewail the fortunes of this house of ours, 

Whenever he tries to sing or hum a tune -- μινύρεσθαι can mean "to hum" or "warble" like a nightingale -- then this use of song as substitute (ἀντίμολπονfor sleep, which he intricately compares to chopping an herb's roots (ἐντέμνων) to prepare a stimulant, turns the song as it is sung into a wail.

Later the chorus will sing of heart pains dripping as we sleep; building wisdom from suffering while we're not even paying attention. The watchman's song comes out as an uncontrolled, arrhythmic croak. Beauty is undone in this house; the song and croaking sorrow are one.

At this moment, he sees the fire.

In contrast to the organic, vocal link of choking pain, disruption, and awareness he just experienced, the watchman, having seen the unambiguous sign of fallen Troy (ὡς  φρυκτὸς ἀγγέλλων πρέπει --  as this beacon unmistakably announces l.30), speaks of a lucky roll in a game of chance. The ambiguity of the symbol resolves, he believes, into clear good news.

That purported clarity has him spring into a jig, prelude to the dance of the chorus that enters as he descends from the roof into the house to relay the sign to Clytaemnestra.

αὐτός τ᾽ ἔγωγε φροίμιον χορεύσομαι
τὰ δεσποτῶν γὰρ εὖ πεσόντα θήσομαι 
τρὶς ἓξ βαλούσης τῆσδέ μοι φρυκτωρίας

And I will join the khoros in a prelude upon my own account; 
for my lord’s lucky roll of the dice I shall count to my own score, 
now that this beacon has thrown me triple six. 

Best to stay awake in Argos, where a placid starry messenger moving on high turns to a burning comet moving over dark seas, seeming sign of a lucky cast. In the quicksilver light of symbol and signifier, presumptive closure bears watching.