Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Danae, Lycurgus and the strength of Fate

The next-to-last ode of Sophocles' Antigone immediately precedes the entrance of Tiresias. It speaks of three myths -- we'll look at the first two here.


ἔτλα καὶ Δανάας οὐράνιον φῶς 
945ἀλλάξαι δέμας ἐν χαλκοδέτοις αὐλαῖς
κρυπτομένα δ᾽ ἐν τυμβήρει θαλάμῳ κατεζεύχθη
καίτοι καὶ γενεᾷ τίμιος παῖ παῖ
950καὶ Ζηνὸς ταμιεύεσκε γονὰς χρυσορύτους.
ἀλλ᾽  μοιριδία τις δύνασις δεινά
οὔτ᾽ ἄν νιν ὄλβος οὔτ᾽ Ἄρηςοὐ πύργοςοὐχ ἁλίκτυποι 
κελαιναὶ νᾶες ἐκφύγοιεν.
[944] So too Danae suffered her beauty to take in exchange for the light of the sky
a brazen chamber; yoked in that hidden tomb and bridal suite;
And yet was she of esteemed lineage, O child,
and held in trust a deposit of the gold-flowing seed of Zeus.
But terrible is the strength of fate:
neither by wealth or by war, by towered city
or dark, sea-beaten ships can one go beyond it.


ζεύχθη δ᾽ ὀξύχολος παῖς  Δρύαντος
Ἠδωνῶν βασιλεύςκερτομίοις ὀργαῖς 
ἐκ Διονύσου πετρώδει κατάφαρκτος ἐν δεσμῷ
οὕτω τᾶς μανίας δεινὸν ἀποστάζει 
960ἀνθηρόν τε μένοςκεῖνος ἐπέγνω μανίαις 
ψαύων τὸν θεὸν ἐν κερτομίοις γλώσσαις
παύεσκε μὲν γὰρ ἐνθέους γυναῖκας εὔιόν τε πῦρ
965φιλαύλους τ᾽ ἠρέθιζε Μούσας.
[955] And yoked was Dryas's son -- the Edonian king swift to anger --
Dionysus closed him in rock-like bonds for his heart-cutting rages.
There the fierce and flowering force of his madness trickled away.
Raging terribly, that man came to know
the god whom his heart-cutting tongue had touched.
For he sought to silence the god-driven women and the sacred fire,
And angered the flute-loving Muses.

The first two strophes of this dark ode of inescapable fate engage in a complex symmetry of figures and agency, each mirroring the other in poetic form, and in more detailed ways -- verbal echoes, images, and so forth.

Danae is imprisoned by her father to prevent her impregnation, yet Zeus's golden sperm finds its way. Lycurgus seeks to silence young Dionysus and his Bacchae, but his heart-cutting mockery puts him in rock from which his madness "trickles out."

Both figures are said to be "yoked" (ζεύχθη), or bound, by forces stronger than they -- Danae by her father, King Acrisius, who learned from an oracle that that he'll die at the hands of Danae's son. Lycurgus is overwhelmed by Dionysus, who according to one version was still being nursed when the raging Lycurgus chased him into the sea, where Thetis protected the god.

Can these figures be seen as reflections, distorted perhaps, but nonetheless fractal images of Antigone and Creon? The parallels seem clear: A woman doomed to be barren, cut off from all future life in the form of a child; a king seeking to suppress the resuscitating powers of Dionysus, whom the opening chorus wanted to celebrate in victory dances. But there's more. Danae was buried in the bronze chamber by her father, the king. Indeed this reflection of Creon might be more apposite, since in fact Antigone experiences no revivifying rain.

Both strophes, then, recount stories of human kings attempting to control divine power, and divine power striking back, crushing them. Far from being avoided, Fate is fulfilled.

The language of the ode does still more. At first blush, Danae seems passively to endure a brazen failure to prevent a god's rape; yet she, or her beauteous form, is said to exchange -- ἀλλάξαι -- the light of the sky for the bronze chamber. ἀλλάξαι could also mean "to barter" -- it carried a connotation of commercial exchange. What first seemed the imposition of a cruel father can be read as a daring and savvy kind of transaction. This is subtly reinforced when Danae is described as ταμιεύεσκε, i.e., holding in trust a deposit, deriving from a noun meaning paymaster, treasurer, or controller, which lends a certain businesslike luster to the golden rainfall of Zeus's love.

If the apparent victim of kingly control can turn into a broker in a more complex "twist" of Fate, then the one who thought himself to be king might be nothing more than a pawn in another's game. Fate doesn't unfold like some natural, linear organic development; rather it seems to get uncorked in our efforts to avoid it. Had Acrisius not tried to avoid being killed by his grandchild . . . etc. Remind us of anybody?

The surprising turns of phrase continue with Lycurgus. He's huffing and puffing against the young Dionysus, but ends in rocky bonds while the blooming (ἀνθηρόν, from "flower") force of his madness "trickles out." The bloom of madness trapped in stone reminds us that Lycurgus was actively trying to chop at the grapevines of Bacchus when, depending on which version one chooses, he lethally mutilated his son, his father, or himself. The king who sought to control the god, to uproot his potent vine, is (like) a blooming flower that doesn't merely petrify, but oozes. The passage evokes Niobe in its curious blend of petrifaction and liquefaction.

The first two strophes of the ode thus offer a complex interplay of symmetries and reversals. A young girl yoked by a king; a king yoked by a god; one turns from bronze dungeon to divine rain, while a crazed king turns to stone, which trickles. The ode, already complex, devotes the next two strophes to the blinding of the sons of Phineus. The poetic dimensions of Antigone are too interesting to be ignored -- especially if one views the play as a meditation upon the relation of the political to the noumenal.

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