Saturday, October 30, 2021

Undersea Dionysus

 Quite by chance, as we are about to begin reading Bacchae, we find the god beneath the waters of Baiae, Italy:

A copy of a statue of Dionysus, commissioned by Emperor Claudius,
in the Nymphaeum at Baiae.
 Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Fish flit around Enrico Gallochio as he gently brushes away a layer of sand to reveal an ornate mosaic floor on which Roman nobility would have hosted non-stop parties in Baiae, an ancient resort in the gulf of Pozzuoli, close to Naples. Four metres below the surface of the water, Gallochio passes more mosaic pavements and the remains of walls that once surrounded a spa.

The mosaics date from the third century and are just a small part of the remains uncovered since Baiae, now a vast undersea archaeological park, began to emerge from its watery grave. The site has become an unlikely tourism destination, even as work continues to uncover more ruins.

“It was incredible,” said archaeologist Gallochio, who manages the undersea park. “In this area alone, we have found 20 rooms. There is still so much to discover, but it is a job that will take years.”

Angela Giuffrida's story in The Guardian continues here.

Friday, May 14, 2021

A few thoughts on Medea

The messenger has just brought Medea breathless word of the deaths of Jason's royal spouse, Glauce, and of Creon, her father, king of Corinth. The long, painfully detailed description depicts the poisoned gifts delivered by Jason and Medea's children; the Princess's delight in her golden crown and dress, and the sudden dreadful effects of the poison, climaxing as Creon and Glauce blur into a single unrecognizable mass of melted flesh, protruding eyeballs, and bone.

The chorus begins to react:


ἔοιχ᾽  δαίμων πολλὰ τῇδ᾽ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ
κακὰ ξυνάπτειν ἐνδίκως Ἰάσονι.
[ὦ τλῆμονὥς σου συμφορὰς οἰκτίρομεν,
κόρη Κρέοντοςἥτις εἰς Ἅιδου δόμους

οἴχῃ γάμων ἕκατι τῶν Ἰάσονος.]

It seems that fate is this day fastening calamity on Jason, and with justice. [O poor woman, daughter of Creon, how we pity your misfortune: because of your marriage to Jason [1235] you have departed to the halls of Hades.]

Medea evinces no reaction. She's thinking about the next item on her list: 


φίλαιδέδοκται τοὔργον ὡς τάχιστά μοι
παῖδας κτανούσῃ τῆσδ᾽ ἀφορμᾶσθαι χθονός,
καὶ μὴ σχολὴν ἄγουσαν ἐκδοῦναι τέκνα
ἄλλῃ φονεῦσαι δυσμενεστέρᾳ χερί.
1240πάντως σφ᾽ ἀνάγκη κατθανεῖνἐπεὶ δὲ χρή,
ἡμεῖς κτενοῦμεν οἵπερ ἐξεφύσαμεν

Medea: My friends, my resolve is fixed on the deed, to kill my children with all speed and to flee from this land: I must not, by lingering, deliver my children for murder to a less kindly hand. [1240] They must die at all events, and since they must, I who gave them birth shall kill them.   Perseus online, Translations are by David Kovacs unless otherwise noted.

Medea had earlier asked the chorus not to spare any savory detail of the poisoning of Glauce and Creon. A reader might wonder why Euripides would pass on the opportunity to show us her reaction to the Messenger's report -- a moment that could be richly complex, or a whoop of sadistic delight. (What would one give to be there as Euripides told his actors what he wanted from them!)

We sense the loss of a dramatic opportunity; what if anything is gained? 

For a moment I'd like consider that something quite important about Medea comes through in this scene. The fates of Glauce and Creon, though shattering in their power, she foresaw. As in her previous encounters with Creon, Jason and Aegeus, the gruesome deaths of the royals play out as she contrived, as if they were characters in a play she's writing, directing, and acting in all at once. 

Euripides could be thinking about theatrical craft here.

After hearing the messenger, Medea has no time to waste before Jason and his angry mob shows. She tells the chorus what will happen and why. Then, like a playwright speaking to actors, she coaches partx of herself on how to do the scene:

Medea: Come, put on your armor, my heart. Why do I put off doing the terrible deed that must be done? Come, wretched hand, take the sword, [1245] take it and go to your life's miserable goal. Do not weaken, do not remember {μηδ᾽ ἀναμνησθῇς} that you love the children, that you gave them life. Instead, for this brief day forget (λαθοῦ) them—and mourn hereafter: for even if you kill them, [1250] they were dear to you. Oh, what an unhappy woman I am!  Exit Medea into the house.

Medea turns to this new task in that way she has: dreading its difficulty as she ticks it off her to-do list. She fixes our attention upon a horror greater even than the poisoning that moments before had us all agape, even as she composes the next scene with calculated concentration.

The chorus's response is to call upon the sun:

O earth, o ray of the Sun that lightens all, turn your gaze, o turn it to this ruinous woman before she lays her bloody murderous hands upon her children! 
Before they can utter the words, Medea is out of view of her grandfather's all-seeing gaze, having entered her house to act.

Playing around the edges of this scene (and of the play as a whole) is web of images relating to light, to seeing and the eye, as well as to fiery overbearing wrath that drives a person to actions they would never do in their "right mind." As Medea herself said a bit earlier:

Kovacs renders:
And I know well what pain I am about to undergo (τολμήσω)
but my wrath (θυμὸς) overbears my calculation (βουλευμάτων)
wrath that brings mortal men their gravest hurt.
At last I understand the evils [kaka] that I will perform; but my thūmos, responsible [aitios] for the greatest troubles [kaka] for mortals, is stronger than my sober thoughts.
Kaka appears twice in the passage: Kovacs opts for the sense of Medea anticipating her own suffering, and renders kaka first as "pain" and then as "hurt."  The CHS version sees kaka in its basic sense of "evils," and then "troubles" emphasizing Medea's intended action rather than the suffering she will experience in so acting. 

Medea has the clarity -- the wits -- to plan the murder of her children, time it perfectly, and have her escape all worked out. She does not lose control like Ino, whom Hera drives literally over the edge to destroy her children. If thumos is setting this woman on fire, it doesn't seem to affect the cool temperature of her plotting. 

It would be difficult for one translation to convey both legitimate renderings. In ancient Greek, as it happens, the word for both "undergo" and "perform" is τολμάω -- Liddell Scott offers several senses, one of which seems close to what is going on here:
to have the courage, hardihood, effrontery, cruelty, or the grace, patience, to do a thing in spite of any natural feeling . . . (emphasis mine)
Courage, hardihood is also the core sense of the word in Le Grand Bailly.

Another way of rendering the first line might be:
I know the horror I'm about to do
Medea comes poised, impossibly, in the co-presence of intense human passion and godlike dispassionate intellect -- a child of the sun.


What we learn of Medea in her elision of any overt reaction to the Messenger's description of the deaths of Glauce and Creon is that she is already working on another scheme. As her plan falls into place, she takes aim at the total dismantling of the man whose stature she helped set up in the first place.

Jason's final pleading with the gods to witness how every possible action -- loving touch, mournful burial, vengeance upon Medea, is out of reach -- also goes unanswered, by Medea and by the Olympians:

[1405] Zeus, do you hear this, how I am driven away and what treatment I endure from this unclean, child-murdering monster? But with all the strength I have, I make my lament and adjure the gods, [1410] calling the heavenly powers to witness that you killed my sons and now forbid me to touch them or to bury their bodies. Oh that I had never begotten them, never seen them dead at your hands!


|1405 Zeus, do you hear how I am driven from here and what we have suffered [paskhein] from this polluted woman, this child-slayer, this lioness? Yet in so far as I may and can, I will raise for them a dirge, |1410 and call on the daimones to witness your murder of my sons, and how you will not let me embrace or bury their dead bodies. I wish I had never begotten them to look upon them slain by you!

                                            The chariot carries Medea away. 

If a mournful father is unable to touch the tender flesh of his dead children, can he said to be alive?

Gazing at their bodies, Jason's last words are: φθιμένους ἐπιδέσθαι.

φθιμένους has to do with decaying, wasting away, waning like the moon. 

ἐπιδέσθαι has the sense of "live to see," "experience." 

Looking down on his impotence is the woman who played his wife. She is about to disappear, not from wasting away, but in a burst of solar energy taking her to Athens where she will create herself anew. She has disrupted the organic lineage of three male kingdoms -- Iolchis, Colchis, Corinth. In Athens, she will fail to destroy Theseus, child of the seemingly impotent Aegeus. An unexpected turn.

The final chorus offers what some see as a banality:

Chorus - Kovacs
Zeus on Olympus has many things in his treasure-house, and many are the things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men expect is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such is the outcome of this story. 

Many are the fates that Zeus dispenses in Olympus, and the gods bring many things to pass unexpectedly. What is expected does not come to telos, and a god finds a way for the unexpected. So too has this affair turned out.


This post is already too long, despite much that's been omitted for the sake of "brevity." But if I can pull this together with two brief observations, it might suggest why Euripides' interest in our powers of expectation is at the heart of Medea.

I: When we expect a thing, and it doesn't happen, the chorus says it can be that "a god finds a way": πόρον ηὗρε θεόςπόρον signifies a way, a means of passing, crossing. The negation of πόρον is aporia -- apt for Jason at the end of the play.

What was notable about Medea's response to the Messenger's tale was the absence of response -- her instant move to the next item on her agenda was unexpected, and revealed something about her nature. The scene thus performs what does not happen, and revealing a key element of the forces at work. 

Medea tells herself "do not remember" that these are her children; a few moments later, she says λαθοῦ - rendered as "forget," but more accurately, "let it escape notice." To escape notice is not the same as forgetting - it is more like the sort of contrived misdirection basic to magic tricks and sleight of hand. Part of the repertoire of Medea is to act swiftly; here she tells herself -- the mother in her -- not to see what she is doing. She's working out an endgame and needs to perform this trick of not noticing what she is completely responsible for doing. Whatever moral conclusions we come to, this is part of Euripides' meditation on his art of theatrical illusion.

II: The final line of the play: τοιόνδ᾽ ἀπέβη τόδε πρᾶγμα - "such is how these actions turned out" is a commonplace piece of language. But given the curious care Euripides devotes to images involving walking in this play, one might wonder whether the use of the verb ἀπέβη - from ἀποβαίνω - "to step off, leap" doesn't offer an unexpected frisson

Very briefly: a recurrent figure of the play is the motion of a woman's foot, stepping. 

We have in the idealized choral image of Athenians walking on air,

                                    They feed 
on wisdom most glorious, always stepping gracefully
through the bright air  (828-39)

Then Glauce, delightly prancing around the room, looking at her leg just before she falls, stricken by the poison:

And then getting up from her seat she paraded about the room, her white feet making dainty steps, [1165] entranced with the gifts, glancing back again and again at the straight tendon of her leg. But thereafter there was a terrible sight to behold. For her color changed, and with legs trembling she staggered back sidelong, and by falling on the chair [1170] barely escaped collapsing on the floor.

Then Ino, stretching her foot (the curious focus on her step highlights it) off the edge of the promontory into the sea:

One woman, only one, of all that have been, have I heard of who put her hand to her own children: Ino driven mad by the gods when [1285] Hera sent her forth to wander in madness from the house. The unhappy woman fell into the sea, impiously murdering her children. Stepping over the sea's edge, she perished with her two children. [1290] 
In slow motion, three scenes cascading: Broken into segments of walking - falling - leaping, all bearing on the fated blessedness or cursedness of the person doing the stepping. 

Medea ends with the Chorus turning to Athens in this moment, speaking of surprise, and of stepping off. Perhaps the necks of some who witnessed this strange play felt a tingle -- the final cliche slipping unexpectedly to life.