Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Chorus's war-torn ode to Love

The stasimon to Eros punctuates the dialogue between Phaedra and the Nurse in Hippolytus scene 2. Scene 3 will begin with Phaedra silencing the Chorus so she can overhear what is being said, inside the palace, between Hippolytus and the Nurse. 
Eros, Eros, shedding yearning upon the eyes, bringing sweet pleasure to the souls of those against whom you make war. (Kovacs, modified by me).
Eros and War fuse in the descriptive ἐπιστρατεύσῃ -- march upon, make war. The verb is cognate with the noun strategos, "general," which is the root of the English word strategy.

The ode is far too rich to do justice to it here. A few notes will have to do. The next strophe gives us Eros as the τύραννον ἀνδρῶν, king of men, who holds the keys to the sweetest inner chamber of Aphrodite:

The third strophe begins with Iole, the virgin child ("foal") of Eurytus, and ends in her marriage to Heracles, rank with the blood and smoke of her father's city. 

That filly in Oechalia, unyoked as yet to marriage-bed, unhusbanded, unwed, Cypris took from the house of her father Eurytus [550] and yoked her like a footloose Naiad or a Bacchant and gave her—to the accompaniment of bloodshed and smoke, with bloody bridal—to Alcmene's son. O unhappy in her marriage!
Eurytus was the grandson of Apollo and king of Oechalia who taught Heracles how to use a bow. But when the hero won his teacher's archery contest and Iole, he was shown the door. He returned to claim his prize with extreme prejudice.

Archers are usually linked with Apollonian mastery -- aiming and hitting your target from a distance -- precisely what "not missing the mark" (see Nurse 507) means. The ordered Apollonian world of Oechalia and Iole's expectation of a harmonious hymeneal are wrecked by Heracles, ruled by the τύραννον ἀνδρῶν.

The final strophe depicts Semele, daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, incinerated by the βροντᾷ γὰρ ἀμφιπύρῳ "Double blazing thunder" of the king of the gods. Can we say there's a progression in power from the key-holding Eros in the second strophe to Heracles to Zeus? As well as from chamber door to marital bed to womb holding Bacchus? Or would this be our interpretive effort going astray (hamartia) under the pressure of the inevitable desire for order?

(Speaking of going astray, I misspoke earlier today: Eurytus's bow was a gift of his grandfather Apollo, and it passed, via Eurytus's son Iphitus, to Odysseus. A different bow passed from Heracles to Philoctetes. It too might have been a gift from Apollo, but different from that of Eurytus.)

Much more could be said about this ode. The audience need not accept the chorus's vision of Eros either as the sole view or the author's view. Other images of love appear in the play.

The yoking of love and war is a familiar topos in Greek literature. Here's the unforgettable beginning of Sappho's Fragment 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
the one you love ... more

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