Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Antigone 141-154: Mathematics and the Dance

ἑπτὰ λοχαγοὶ γὰρ ἐφ᾽ ἑπτὰ πύλαις 
ταχθέντες ἴσοι πρὸς ἴσους ἔλιπον 
Ζηνὶ τροπαίῳ πάγχαλκα τέλη
πλὴν τοῖν στυγεροῖν πατρὸς ἑνὸς 
145μητρός τε μιᾶς φύντε καθ᾽ αὑτοῖν 
δικρατεῖς λόγχας στήσαντ᾽ ἔχετον 
κοινοῦ θανάτου μέρος ἄμφω.
[141] For the seven captains, equal number stationed against an equal number at the seven gates, left behind their brazen arms in tribute to Zeus the turner of battle—all but the accursed pair who, born of one father and one mother, set against each other their double-slaying spears, both victorious, and who now share in a common death.
In bold are the specific numerical terms as well as some that involve a mathematical operation like adding or averaging. The language is markedly formal, a spectacle of mirroring symmetries - seven against seven, of course, but also the idea of one generating two who fight and share one death. So there are symmetries of space as well, we could say, of time, (and unity of plot): beginning (1), middle (2), end (1). Common to both the seven and the pair of brothers is the moment of mutual-annihilation -- a fateful act that first showed itself when Cadmus, sowing the dragon's teeth, witnessed the symmetric mutual destruction of all but five of the spartoi.

Mathematical symmetry (equality, ἰσότης) is the root of ratio that allows for laws, alliances, and the balances of nature, Jocasta tells her sons in Euripides' Phoenician Women:
Equality . . . always joins friend to friend, city to city, allies to allies; for Equality is naturally lasting among men; but the less is always in opposition to the greater, [540] and begins the dawn of hatred. For it is Equality that has set up for man measures and divisions of weights, and has determined numbers. Night's sightless eye, and radiant sun proceed upon their yearly course on equal terms, [545] and neither of them is envious when it has to yield.
Even as Jocasta says these lines, her sons are preparing to kill one another. Equality at Thebes seems doomed to yield mutual annihilation.

After this militant display of numbers, the first Ode of the Antigone concludes with the chorus of elders turning to Bacchus and to forgetting:

ἀλλὰ γὰρ  μεγαλώνυμος ἦλθε Νίκα 
τᾷ πολυαρμάτῳ ἀντιχαρεῖσα Θήβᾳ
150ἐκ μὲν δὴ πολέμων 
τῶν νῦν θέσθαι λησμοσύναν
θεῶν δὲ ναοὺς χοροῖς 
παννυχίοις πάντας ἐπέλθωμεν Θήβας δ᾽ ἐλελίχθων 
Βάκχιος ἄρχοι.
[148] But since Victory whose name is glory has come to us, smiling in joy equal to the joy of chariot-rich Thebes, let us make for ourselves forgetfulness (λησμοσύναν) after the recent wars, and visit all the temples of the gods with night-long dance and song. And may Bacchus, who shakes the earth of Thebes, rule our dancing! 
The earth shaking -- ἐλελίχθων -- of Bacchus comes from ἐλελίζω - to whirl round, to cause to vibrate, to turn.  Dionysus here stands counterposed to Ζηνὶ τροπαίῳ -- Zeus turner of battle -- in the preceding strophe.

Where Zeus's tropism powered a decisive victory for Thebes against the Argives, the city-shattering power of Bacchus is bound up with music and rhythm, which the god is said to lead. There is no equality here, just the power of the ruling god, leading mortals to forget the strife of wars, ambition and mathematics as they turn in the dance.

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