Thursday, October 16, 2014

Deianira and erotic alchemy

Deianira's opening speech in Women of Trachis is a powerfully compressed reminiscence of a married woman in the prime of life. Exiled thanks to her husband's horrific act of violence against Iphitus, she looks back to when as a young girl, already the object of desire by the ancient bull-dragon-River God Achelous, she experienced a nightmarish dread of marriage (and of erotic desire), and a kind of dreamlike salvation through the mighty arms of Heracles.

The surfacing of those early fears leads to ruminations on what it's like to be married to a kind of superman action figure always away, always on call. Heracles is hounded by Hera, exploited by Eurystheus, dominated by Omphale, and about to be destroyed by Deianira, who speaks of her man as the sole guarantor of her and her children's lives and happiness.

Trachis opens at ground level, exposing the roots of men and women, the latent terrors and erotic alchemy that make it possible for a young virgin to be attractive to an ancient shape-shifting god who's the scariest thing imaginable to her; etching as well the status of a woman, a centripetal home-maker (and fertile seedbed) yoked to a potent wandering Punisher who is subject in turn to the inestimable enmity of the most powerful goddess.
ἐγὼ γὰρ ἥμην ἐκπεπληγμένη φόβῳ 
μή μοι τὸ κάλλος ἄλγος ἐξεύροι ποτέ
But I was struck with terror,
lest my beauty should win me torment in the end.
Right from the start, Sophocles enmeshes us in a web of opposites that repel and attract. Deianira's word for being "struck" is ἐκπλήσσω:  It carries the sense of being driven out of one's senses by shock, fear, or amazement; panic-struck. It means can also mean: seized with desire, love-struck. 

The opening of Women of Trachis is seething with latent forces, desires, and fears, some of the deepest known to women and to men. Torment and beauty sit at the root of Deianira's and Heracles' world. One might describe such an opening, in short, as over-sexed.

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