Sunday, October 13, 2013

Enter Theseus: Uncanny echoes, ambiguous oracles

A kind of fateful ambiguity seems to pursue Theseus throughout his life, extending even to the time before his birth. When Euripides has him enter the Hippolytus, he has just returned from a voyage to Delphi. Instead of announcing some word from the oracle, some response to his quest, his first words respond to the sound of wailing:
[790] Women, do you know what was the shout that came with leaden sound through the door? For the house has not seen fit to open its gates and greet me in friendly (εὐφρόνως) fashion as befits a sacred ambassador (θεωρὸν).
 Informed of Phaedra's suicide, Theseus cries out:
Oh! Oh! Why then is my head crowned with these plaited leaves since my sacred embassy has ended in disaster? 
Instead of Oh! Oh!, Theseus actually says αἰαῖ -- the common Greek cry which is also, according to myth, the grief-stricken cry uttered by Apollo when, while playing with his beloved Hyacinth, his discus accidentally struck the boy in the head, killing him. It's the cry found ever after inscribed on the flower's petals.

Thesesus' return to Troezen from Delphi repeats the act of his father, Aegeus, who had once made a voyage to Delphi to learn the reason why he was not able to have a son. The oracle gave him an answer so cryptic that Aegeus needed to consult his wise friend Pittheus:
"Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief."
Pittheus's understanding of the oracle was to get Aegeus drunk and have him sleep with his daughter Aethra. Immediately after, Aethra fell asleep and had a dream in which Athena told her to wade out to the island of Sphairia, where Poseidon possessed her the same night. The child of both unions, Theseus, has questions about his father(s) that receive an answer in this play.

One interesting detail is that Aethra was told in her dream to make a libation at Sphairia to Sphairos, the charioteer of Pelops. For one thing, this reminds us that Pittheus was brother to Atreus and Thyestes, all sons of the son of Tantalos.

For another thing, Sphairos died before Pelops' great race against Oenomaus for the hand of Hippodamia took place. Pelops honored him greatly in death, and legend has it that Sphairos helped him win the race.

Yet the libation to the charioteer recalls another story of that race. Pelops was granted winged horses by his lover, Poseidon, but still doubted he could win, so he bribed Oenomaus's charioteer, Myrtilus, to rig the axel, causing Oenomaus to crash. In return for the help, Pelops was supposed to give Myrtilus the first night with Hippodamia. Instead he killed the charioteer, who cursed him and his house before dying. This was considered one of the main causes of the long-lived curse upon the Atreidae.

Pelops and Hippodamia
The peculiar origin of Theseus links to events earlier in his ancestry that foreshadow what is to come. And the arrival of Theseus now, direct from the Oracle, strikes an uncanny chord, echoing the arrival of Aegeus to Troezen and the curious, fateful events of his own ambiguous conception.

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