Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The drowning queen: The song at the center of the Hippolytus

Phaedra has just walked off, committed to her own death. The remarkable choral ode that begins with line 732 is at the center of Euripides' Hippolytus:
ἠλιβάτοις ὑπὸ κευθμῶσι γενοίμαν,
ἵνα με πτεροῦσσαν ὄρνινθεὸς ἐν ποταναῖς
ἀγέλαις θείη:
Would that I could flee to secret clefts in the high mountains, and that there a god might make of me a feathered bird amid the wingèd throngs!
As we consider the "I" who sings (and dances) this choral song, we note the desire embodied in the wish to fly to high, hidden places, to blend in with a flock, to be anything other than a single, individual human being. It could be Phaedra's desire. The dream of flight immediately brings the memory of the Heliades, the seven sisters of Phaethon, whose name traps the name of the sun just as the ἠλεκτροφαής -- the amber radiance of their tears -- captures the beaming sun in mourning his precipitous fall, as they weep into the Eridanus.
ἀρθείην δ᾽ ἐπὶ πόντιονκῦμα τᾶς Ἀδριηνᾶς ἀκτᾶς Ἠριδανοῦ θ᾽ ὕδωρ, ἔνθα πορφύρεον σταλάσ-σουσ᾽ ἐς οἶδμα τάλαιναι         740
κόραι Φαέθοντος οἴκτῳ δακρύωντὰς ἠλεκτροφαεῖς αὐγάς.
Would that I might soar aloft over the surf of the Adriatic shore and the waters of the Eridanus where into the deep-blue swell the luckless girls, in grief for Phaethon, drop the amber radiance of their tears.
The strong, up-down vertical trajectory of the first strophe is balanced against an equally strong horizontal movement in the antistrophe:
To the apple-sown shore of the Hesperides, famous singers, would I go my way, there where the lord of the deep-blue mere forbids further passage to sailors, fixing the sacred boundary of the skies, held up by Atlas.
Ἑσπερίδων δ᾽ ἐπὶ μηλόσπορον ἀκτὰν
ἀνύσαιμι τᾶν ἀοιδῶν,
ἵν᾽  πορφυρέας πον-
τομέδων λίμνας
745ναύταις οὐκέθ᾽ ὁδὸν νέμει,
σεμνὸν τέρμονα κυρῶν
οὐρανοῦτὸν Ἄτλας ἔχει:
Both the waters of Poseidon's sea and the waters of the Eridanus are πορφυρέας -- purple -- like the waters of the first choral ode, as we noted here. The boundary is imposed by the lord of the sea, but its manifestation is the σεμνὸν τέρμονα, the sacred limit, or term, held up by Atlas.

At the center of the play is this song sung by an "I" whose deepest desire is to go to, or past, limits of sky and sea that have already been tested by mortals. Limits that have been upheld as impassible.

Aphrodite names this limit in the opening lines of the play:
Of all those who dwell between the Euxine Sea and the Boundary (τερμόνων -- Kovacs: "Pillars") of Atlas and look on the light of the sun, [5] I honor those who reverence my power, but I lay low all those who think proud thoughts against me.
Holding up the sky, Atlas himself is the living horizon and terminus ad quem of horizontal human motion. This limit is not something we sailors can overgo. Even Heracles who managed to steal those golden apples didn't find a way to go beyond Atlas. Using a ruse, he stood in Atlas's place, substituting for him in his role as sky-holder, while Atlas went to gather the precious fruits.

The erotic play of Zeus and Hera -- their one moment of bliss -- is endowed with the fertile potency of Earth:
There fonts immortal flow by the place where Zeus lay, and holy Earth with her gifts of blessedness makes the gods' prosperity wax great. 
κρῆναί τ᾽ ἀμβρόσιαι χέον-
ται Ζηνὸς μελάθρων παρὰ κοίταις,
ἵν᾽ ὀλβιόδωρος αὔξει ζαθέα
χθὼν εὐδαιμονίαν θεοῖς.
The "I" singing now loses human bounds, merging with the Muse remembering things beyond the power of any human eye to have seen. A witness, like Tantalos, at a table of eternal fruition.

In the third part of the song, the "I" snaps back to the immediate backstory of the play, recalling the ship that brought Phaedra to Athens:
O Cretan vessel with wing of white canvas, that ferried over the loud-sounding wave of the sea [755] my lady from her house of blessedness, a boon that was no boon to make an unhappy bride: 
Grene has: "O Cretan ship with the white sails."

Euripides is more condensed:
 λευκόπτερε Κρησία πορθμίς
 O white-winged Cretan ship
It seems odd to ignore the wings given that the ode began with the chorus's desire to be turned into a bird. Even more odd, given that the ship is δύ̣σ-ορνις - which Kovacs translates as ill-omened. The root meaning of ορνις is bird. 

The fateful ship's white wings remind us of the folly of Theseus's black sails, which should have been white, leading to the death of Aegeus, who threw himself from a cliff. Given how things turn out, the white sails of Phaedra's ship should have been black.
it was with evil omen, at the start of her journey and its end, that she sped from the land of Crete [760] to glorious Athens and they tied the plaited ends of the mooring-cable on Munichus' shore and trod the mainland.
What carries through here is symmetry at either end of her voyage. Like the two wings of a bird, the beginning of Phaedra's sailing venture, Crete, is as ill-fated as its end upon the mainland of Greece. The mooring cable's ends are "plaited" -- πλεκτόςtwisted, wreathed -- an interesting detail, because πλεκτός is used only in two other places in the play. It describes the crown made by Hippolytus for Artemis when we first see him, and it's used again to characterize the ambassadorial garland worn by Theseus upon his return from Delphi. Like Phaedra's white winged ship, the "crowns" of Hippolytus and Theseus are symmetrical, mirroring images, ill-fated: seeming bright, but boding ill.

In view of the actual title of the play, Hippolytos Stephanophoros (Hippolytus Crown Bearer), the intertwining of Phaedra's ship's cable with the wreaths of father and son might evoke the fatal knot interweaving the three main characters.

The waters of the first three parts of the choral ode reach flood level in the final antistrophe, as the "I" again seems to gaze, in an amplified and prophetic mode, beyond the palace walls, into the bridal chamber of Phaedra, and into the interior state of the queen:
Therefore her mind is wrenched (φρένας κατεκλάσθη: mind/heart is broken, snapped off) by a terrible malady of unhallowed passion sent from Aphrodite; and sinking under a load (ὑπέραντλος: "full of water") of hard misfortune she will fasten about her from the beams of her bridal chamber a hanging noose, fitting it about her white neck . . .
κρεμαστὸνἅψεται ἀμφὶ βρόχον λευκᾷ καθαρμόζουσα δείρᾳ
The word for "hung" or "suspended" is κρεμαστὸν, which can also signify "ship's rigging." As Phaedra drowns, the noose fastened "about her white neck" carries forward the image of the coiled ship's cable binding the white-winged ship to the port of Athens. The image she presented when first addressing the chorus culminates here:
Many a time in night's long empty spaces I have pondered on the causes of a life's shipwreck. 
The I of the chorus seems a floating voice -- part Phaedra, part Muse, part women of Troezen. Its song charts the limits of human space and tells the tale of Phaedra's journey and end. After seeking flight, the "I" comes to rest upon the queen in her bridal chamber. If the union of Zeus and Hera enjoyed the flows of ambrosia, Phaedra's chamber is flooded with sorrows too great to contain.
. . . feeling shame at her bitter fate (δαίμων), choosing in its stead the glory of a good name (φήμαν: report), and putting from her heart her painful desire.
The limits of her world prove too constricting, but the silent utterance, the "report" of her good name, remains to be read.

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