Sunday, June 08, 2014

The sons of Phineus, Fate and blinding in Antigone

The last two strophes of the fifth ode of Antigone enrich the theme that Fate cannot be dodged, outwitted, or subjected to our will.

From Danae's permeable prison in Argos, to Lycurgus's hopeless repression of Bacchus in Thrace -- both touched on here -- the fifth ode moves to Salmydessus and the tale of the sons of Phineus.

It's a tale of a very bad stepmother -- Idaea, or Eidothea, the second wife of Phineus. This king first married Cleopatra, the daughter of Boreas and Orytheia. The choral ode reminds us that Cleopatra was not only high-born, but that through her mother she traced her lineage to Erechtheus -- the first Athenian culture hero and sacred offspring of an averted rape of Athena by Hephaestus. (More on Erechtheus here.)

The ode, then, concerns a king who was married to a woman descended from the founding hero of Athens and from the North Wind, who bore him two sons. But he put Cleopatra away and married Idaea/Eidothea, the stepmother described in the ode using her shuttle to crush the eyes of the sons of Cleopatra and Phineus.

παρὰ δὲ κυανεᾶν πελάγει διδύμας ἁλὸς 
ἀκταὶ Βοσπόριαι ἥδ᾽  Θρῃκῶν ἄξενος 
970Σαλμυδησσόςἵν᾽ ἀγχίπτολις Ἄρης 
δισσοῖσι Φινείδαις 
εἶδεν ἀρατὸν ἕλκος 
τυφλωθὲν ἐξ ἀγρίας δάμαρτος 
ἀλαὸν ἀλαστόροισιν ὀμμάτων κύκλοις 
975ἀραχθέντωνὑφ᾽ αἱματηραῖς 
χείρεσσι καὶ κερκίδων ἀκμαῖσιν.
And by the waters of the Dark Rocks, the waters of the twofold sea, are the shores of Bosporus and the Thracian city Salmydessus, [970] where Ares, neighbor of that city, saw the accursed, blinding wound inflicted on the two sons of Phineus by his savage wife. It was a wound that brought darkness to the hollows, making them crave vengeance [975] for the eyes she crushed with her bloody hands and with her shuttle for a dagger.

κατὰ δὲ τακόμενοι μέλεοι μελέαν πάθαν 
980κλαῖονματρὸς ἔχοντες ἀνύμφευτον γονάν
 δὲ σπέρμα μὲν ἀρχαιογόνων 
ἄντασ᾽ Ἐρεχθειδᾶν
τηλεπόροις δ᾽ ἐν ἄντροις 
τράφη θυέλλαισιν ἐν πατρῴαις 
985Βορεὰς ἅμιππος ὀρθόποδος ὑπὲρ πάγου 
θεῶν παῖςἀλλὰ κἀπ᾽ ἐκείνᾳ 
Μοῖραι μακραίωνες ἔσχον παῖ.
Wasting away in their misery, they bewailed their miserable suffering [980] and their birth from their mother stripped of her marriage. But she traced her descent from the ancient line of the Erechtheids, and in far-distant caves she was raised amidst her father's gusts. She was the child of Boreas, running swift as horses over the steep hills, a daughter of gods. Yet she, too, was assailed by the long-lived Fates, my child.

Phineus is variously said to be the son of Agenor or of Phoenix - either way, he's a close relation, possibly a brother, of Cadmus. In a sense, he's a variant of Cadmus -- both were sent to find their sister Europa. Both failed. Cadmus via an oracle ends up founding Thebes, marrying Harmonia, and siring a line that leads to Dionysus, Amphion and Oedipus. Phineus chooses a woman who destroys his family, and according to some versions of his story, causes him to be cursed with blindness for blinding his sons. He also is said to have became endowed with prophecy.

Phineus cancels an alliance with the human cult hero of Athens for a marriage with a woman so violent (ἀγρίας δάμαρτος = savage spouse) as to personally mutilate children.

At this point we can at least see how this background creates a link to the earlier ode that begins:

εὐδαίμονες οἷσι κακῶν ἄγευστος αἰών
οἷς γὰρ ἂν σεισθῇ θεόθεν δόμοςἄτας 
585οὐδὲν ἐλλείπει γενεᾶς ἐπὶ πλῆθος ἕρπον
ὅμοιον ὥστε ποντίαις οἶδμα δυσπνόοις ὅταν 
Θρῄσσαισιν ἔρεβος ὕφαλον ἐπιδράμῃ πνοαῖς
590κυλίνδει βυσσόθεν κελαινὰν θῖνα καὶ 
δυσάνεμοιστόνῳ βρέμουσι δ᾽ ἀντιπλῆγες ἀκταί.
[583] Blest are those whose days have not tasted of evil. For when a house has once been shaken by the gods, [585] no form of ruin is lacking, but it spreads over the bulk of the race, just as, when the surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath of Thracian sea-winds, [590] it rolls up the black sand from the depths, and the wind-beaten headlands that front the blows of the storm give out a mournful roar.
Phineus's house has been shaken - the sea winds of Thrace, roiling the ocean, are a fit image of his kingdom overturned by his love of Idaea. We are reminded that Cleopatra was the daughter of the North Wind. 

This relevance of one ode to another leads us to consider that the odes of Antigone might be read as a closely composed group of mutually allusive texts -- a subject for a book-length study. Having no time for that just now, let's just look briefly at two passages that bring the tale of Phineus into line with salient lines of earlier odes:

The first evokes how a house can violently lose light -- a blinding:
(599) For now that dazzling light (φάος) that had been spread over the last roots of the house of Oedipus in its turn is cut down by the blood-stained dust of the gods infernal and mindlessness in speech and frenzy.
The second, from the ode addressing Eros, speaks in a strangely detailed manner to the errant love of Phineus:
. . . you (i.e., Eros) roam over the sea and among the homes of men in the wilds. Neither can any immortal escape you, [790] nor any man whose life lasts for a day. He who has known you is driven to madness.
φοιτᾷς δ᾽ ὑπερπόντιος ἔν τ᾽ ἀγρονόμοις αὐλαῖς
καί σ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ἀθανάτων φύξιμος οὐδεὶς 
790οὔθ᾽ ἁμερίων σέ γ᾽ ἀνθρώπων δ᾽ ἔχων μέμηνεν.

If nothing else, the tale of Phineus is an apt illustration of one who has been "driven to madness" by love. In the ode we have been reading, his tale follows those of Acrisius and Lycurgus -- two other kings who strove to outwit destiny, to subject Fate to their will.

It is this that the last strophe addresses. Though the entitled sons of Cleopatra had every reason to "look forward to" a distinguished life as royal princes, as well as scions of Boreas, they languish in a prison, where they see only darkness. The future we have the temerity to anticipate exists for us as a mode of unauthorized prophecy -- it can prove false, as it did for these children, as well as for Cleopatra.

If any one could have outrun fate, or dodged the Symplegades, it would have been Cleopatra:
She was the child of Boreas, running swift as horses over the steep hills, a daughter of gods.
But no:
Yet she, too, was assailed by the long-lived Fates, my child.
In fact, the ode tells us, we are, and can only be, blind to the future. Anticipation is illusion. No matter how much cause we might have to foresee great things (or terrible things) for ourselves, what comes is not what we prophesy to ourselves, but what Fate holds in store. As Oedipus came to see, the Fate he dreaded was what he, the unriddler, saw too late. We are always too late to control what is to come.

By coincidence, or Fate, the next voice we hear is that of Teiresias, who knows what we can and cannot see, or foresee.

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