Sunday, October 27, 2013

A curse tablet in Jerusalem

Speaking of curses and charmed language: 1,700 years ago, a tablet in Jerusalem called upon a motley assortment of gods to curse Iennyes:
A lead curse tablet, dating back around 1,700 years and likely written by a magician, has been discovered in a collapsed Roman mansion in Jerusalem, archaeologists report. 
The mansion, which is being excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Givati Parking Lot, is located in what is known as the "City of David," an area that holds at least 6,000 years of human occupation. The mansion itself covers at least 2,000 square meters (about half an acre) and contains two large open courtyards adjacent to each other. It was in use between the late third century and A.D. 363, when it was destroyed in a series of earthquakes on May 18 or 19. 
The text is written in Greek and, in it a woman named Kyrilla invokes the names of six gods to cast a curse on a man named Iennys, apparently over a legal case. [See Photos of the Ancient Curse Tablet]

"I strike and strike down and nail down the tongue, the eyes, the wrath, the ire, the anger, the procrastination, the opposition of Iennys," part of the curse reads in translation. Kyrilla asks the gods to ensure that "he in no way oppose, so that he say or perform nothing adverse to Kyrilla … but rather that Iennys, whom the womb bore, be subject to her…" 
To obtain her goal Kyrilla combined elements from four religions, Robert Walter Daniel, of the Institut für Altertumskunde at the University of Cologne, told LiveScience in an email. Of six gods invoked, four of them are Greek (Hermes, Persephone, Pluto and Hecate), one is Babylonian (Ereschigal) and one, Abrasax, is Gnostic, a religion connected to early Christianity. Additionally, the text contains magic words such as "Iaoth" that have a Hebrew/Judaism origin.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The tallest woe: Notes on Theseus

Theseus was a huge cultural icon for Athenian audiences.Traces of his heroic past can be heard in his speeches in the Hippolytus.

In scene 5, when the palace doors open to reveal the body of Phaedra, Theseus sings a powerful lament. His language breathes the heroic world of forces he long strove to tame:

ὤμοι ἐγὼ πόνωνἔπαθον τάλας,
τὰ μάκιστ᾽ ἐμῶν κακῶν τύχα,
ὥς μοι βαρεῖα καὶ δόμοις ἐπεστάθης,
820κηλὶς ἄφραστος ἐξ ἀλαστόρων τινός:
κατακονὰ μὲν οὖν ἀβίοτος βίου.
κακῶν δ᾽ τάλαςπέλαγος εἰσορῶ
τοσοῦτον ὥστε μήποτ᾽ ἐκνεῦσαι πάλιν
μηδ᾽ ἐκπερᾶσαι κῦμα τῆσδε συμφορᾶς.
τίνι λόγῳτάλαςτίνι τύχαν σέθεν
βαρύποτμονγύναιπροσαυδῶν τύχω;
ὄρνις γὰρ ὥς τις ἐκ χερῶν ἄφαντος εἶ,
πήδημ᾽ ἐς Ἅιδου κραιπνὸν ὁρμήσασά μοι.
830αἰαῖ αἰαῖμέλεα μέλεα τάδε πάθη:
πρόσωθεν δέ ποθεν ἀνακομίζομαι
τύχαν δαιμόνων ἀμπλακίαισι τῶν
πάροιθέν τινος.

What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless one, the greatest [τὰ μάκιστ᾽] of my woes. O fate, [τύχα] how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, [820] an unknown [ἄφραστος] taint sent upon me by baneful powers! No, it is the very destruction of my life! Unhappy woman, I look upon a sea [πέλαγος] of troubles so great I cannot swim out of them or cross the flood of this sorrow. What is the name, poor woman, what is it, that I can rightly call your grievous fate? For you are gone from my hands like a bird, and have sped your swift leap to the house of Hades. [830] Alas! Alas! Terrible, terrible are my sufferings! I am reaping the stroke of the gods because of the sin of someone before me, someone in time now gone.
The shock of what he sees provokes his outcry. 
τὰ μάκιστ᾽ ἐμῶν κακῶν
"the greatest of my woes" 
The word for "greatest" -- μάκιστ᾽-- is a physical word that basically means "tallest." As we meet Theseus for the first time, this hero of a thousand exploits (think George Washington melds with Davy Crockett but looks like Anthony Quinn) is encountering an opponent more daunting than any previous challenger.

It might help to hold on to this sense of a man who measures his world in terms of big and small, strong and weak. The world he knows is the heroic world of external monsters -- the list of those he killed is long: from club-wielding Periphetes to Sinis the pine-bender to Sciron, who kicked men off a cliff as they bowed to his demand they wash his feet -- not to mention his adventures: the Marathonian bull, the voyage of the Argo, the battle with the Centaurs, the Calydonian boar hunt, the Minotaur.

This world as a place of dangers in need of weeding and clearing, ordering and cultivation is basic to the tale of Theseus. It was he who first made the road from Troezen to Athens passable. When Theseus confronts Hippolytus, the father's world of heroic and civic action comes into sharp relief against his son's private cult of Artemis and Orpheus -- a scene we'll look at later.

What's very different about this new, tall, heavy evil that Theseus meets in the bedchamber of his own home is that it is ἄφραστος -- literally, "unable to be shown," "unutterable." Note the symmetry of going from μάκιστ᾽ (tallest) to something that's not simply too large, but rather has no magnitude, no tangible presence, no name: τίνι λόγῳ, he says, 
What is the name, poor woman, how can I speak to (address) your grievous fate?
τίνι λόγῳτάλαςτίνι τύχαν σέθεν βαρύποτμονγύναιπροσαυδῶν τύχω;
The thing he would have wrestled with, that has conquered him, is a thing he can neither see, nor hear, nor touch. And now Phaedra is also gone from him:
ὄρνις γὰρ ὥς τις ἐκ χερῶν ἄφαντος εἶ, 
you are gone from my hands like a bird
The translation from Kovacs is potent, but perhaps misses the strangeness of Theseus's word, ἄφαντος. The alpha in ἄ-φαντος negates the word it precedes. Just as with ἄφραστος the evil was unable to be spoken, here Phaedra is  - φαίνω, unable to appear, to be seen, to come to light. The living queen, wife, mother whose own name means "bright" is deprived of the visibility dependent upon the brightness of light.

For Theseus, the world he can sense and touch is vividly, massively real. And he touched everybody, everything. Phaedra is not just beyond his hand, like some person out of immediate reach; rather she is invisible to it, forever beyond, like a bird in flight who made it to the "secret hiding places of the rocks" of the central choral ode (732) .

The same physicality informs his characterization of her death as a robust act. She doesn't simply die, as one to whom death happens: 
πήδημ᾽ ἐς Ἅιδου κραιπνὸν ὁρμήσασά 
You rushed in a headlong leap to the house of Hades.
It's as if, like an Olympic broad jumper, she beat him in a contest of speed, stamina, muscular strength.

Phaedra's inexplicable leap leads Theseus to his conclusion:
I am reaping the stroke of the gods [τύχαν δαιμόνωνbecause of the offense [ἀμπλακίαισι] of someone before me, someone in time now gone.
πρόσωθεν δέ ποθεν ἀνακομίζομαι
τύχαν δαιμόνων ἀμπλακίαισι τῶν
πάροιθέν τινος.
Just as Phaedra is beyond reach, so this event seems to Theseus to spring from some hidden origin. Moved by a source inaccessible to the senses, it's impossible to take on in a fair fight.  Perhaps for the first time, Theseus is experiencing what it's like to be ἀμηχανία -- without resources, helpless.  ἀμηχανία is how the chorus describes a woman's inharmonious imbalance of birthpangs and madness:
φιλεῖ δὲ τᾷ δυστρόπῳ γυναικῶν ἁρμονίᾳ κακὰ δύστανος ἀμηχανία συνοικεῖνὠδίνων τε καὶ ἀφροσύνας. 
Women's nature is an uneasy harmony, and with it is wont to dwell the slack unhappy helplessness of birth-pangs and their folly. [165]
Before Theseus even enters, Phaedra has taken matters out of his hands. His news from Delphi is pre-empted, as is his "management" of Phaedra's predicament. He is in full reaction mode to her acts. Even as he experiences the birth of his own helplessness, she has authored an interpretation of her death. Under a golden seal, dangling from her hand, her news is about to explode.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Beware the poets -- and Attic tragedy

In a possibly apocryphal dialogue called Minos, Plato has Socrates explain how Minos came to have the terrible reputation he garnered at Athens. He blames the Athenian authors of tragedy:
Do you not know which of the Greeks use the most ancient laws?
Do you mean the Spartans, and Lycurgus the lawgiver?
But whence is it that [318d] the best of those ordinances come? Do you know?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The wound and the knife: a note on reading

according to unfounded report, he was trained for a professional wrestler; note on Euripides

ἰὼ ἰὼ τάλαινα μελέων κακῶν:
τοσοῦτον ὥστε τούσδε συγχέαι δόμους,
αἰαῖ τόλμας,
βιαίως θανοῦσ᾽ ἀνοσίῳ τε συμ-
815φορᾷσᾶς χερὸς πάλαισμα μελέας.
τίς ἄρα σάντάλαιν᾽ἀμαυροῖ ζόαν;

Alas, poor woman, how luckless you are! You have endured, you have done such things as to destroy this house! What hardihood was yours: you have died by violence and by deed unhallowed, [815] yourself the wrestler and yourself the thrown. Who was it, poor woman, that brought your life down to darkness?

One of the practical results of close reading is that instead of discussing "Greek Tragedy" as if that were some single, unified thing, we remain attuned to one play, in this case Euripides' Hippolytus, which we've been reading slowly and with much discussion.

The tale of the play is extreme, and can provoke heated responses from the spectator/reader. One can't help but argue with what happens. We find ourselves looking for alternative paths to those chosen/suffered by Phaedra, Hippolytus, Theseus and even the Nurse. To not look for other ways of resolving the antagonism of Aphrodite and Artemis, other means of coming to terms with the choices faced by Phaedra and Hippolytus, is to refuse the play's invitation to work on its problem. There is a difference between mere onlooking and this sort of wrestling with a text.

In the passage above, the chorus, addressing the dead Phaedra, says she has had a bold and violent death, and compares her, in a remarkable figure, to a wrestler: "yours the hand that throws you down." Think of how that could be, for a single being to wrestle with herself, to be the hand that overthrows even as it is resisting being overthrown. A fatal opposition of self to itself, clearly etched 2,000 years before Baudelaire would write
Je suis la plaie et le couteau! I am the wound and the knife!

Every reader of the Hippolytus faces the play's predicaments. One might decide that Phaedra had other options than to kill herself; other choices than to write her letter. Another might say the conditions of the play set a steel trap.

Simply put, one might ask: In this play that keeps turning upon sophrosyne, upon the sound-minded possession of oneself (and, thus perhaps of choice), could anything that happens have run another course? Could these characters have acted otherwise? Got a better idea of how Phaedra could have "managed" this "situation"? Where, when, how? To confront these ineluctable difficulties is to engage Euripides, to wrestle with his text, to read.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Plutarch's Theseus

Given the rich mythical background of Theseus, one could do worse than have a look at the Life as produced by Plutarch -- bearing in mind that Plutarch's sources won't be identical to those of Euripides.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Enter Theseus: Uncanny echoes, ambiguous oracles

A kind of fateful ambiguity seems to pursue Theseus throughout his life, extending even to the time before his birth. When Euripides has him enter the Hippolytus, he has just returned from a voyage to Delphi. Instead of announcing some word from the oracle, some response to his quest, his first words respond to the sound of wailing:
[790] Women, do you know what was the shout that came with leaden sound through the door? For the house has not seen fit to open its gates and greet me in friendly (εὐφρόνως) fashion as befits a sacred ambassador (θεωρὸν).
 Informed of Phaedra's suicide, Theseus cries out:
Oh! Oh! Why then is my head crowned with these plaited leaves since my sacred embassy has ended in disaster? 
Instead of Oh! Oh!, Theseus actually says αἰαῖ -- the common Greek cry which is also, according to myth, the grief-stricken cry uttered by Apollo when, while playing with his beloved Hyacinth, his discus accidentally struck the boy in the head, killing him. It's the cry found ever after inscribed on the flower's petals.

Thesesus' return to Troezen from Delphi repeats the act of his father, Aegeus, who had once made a voyage to Delphi to learn the reason why he was not able to have a son. The oracle gave him an answer so cryptic that Aegeus needed to consult his wise friend Pittheus:
"Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief."
Pittheus's understanding of the oracle was to get Aegeus drunk and have him sleep with his daughter Aethra. Immediately after, Aethra fell asleep and had a dream in which Athena told her to wade out to the island of Sphairia, where Poseidon possessed her the same night. The child of both unions, Theseus, has questions about his father(s) that receive an answer in this play.

One interesting detail is that Aethra was told in her dream to make a libation at Sphairia to Sphairos, the charioteer of Pelops. For one thing, this reminds us that Pittheus was brother to Atreus and Thyestes, all sons of the son of Tantalos.

For another thing, Sphairos died before Pelops' great race against Oenomaus for the hand of Hippodamia took place. Pelops honored him greatly in death, and legend has it that Sphairos helped him win the race.

Yet the libation to the charioteer recalls another story of that race. Pelops was granted winged horses by his lover, Poseidon, but still doubted he could win, so he bribed Oenomaus's charioteer, Myrtilus, to rig the axel, causing Oenomaus to crash. In return for the help, Pelops was supposed to give Myrtilus the first night with Hippodamia. Instead he killed the charioteer, who cursed him and his house before dying. This was considered one of the main causes of the long-lived curse upon the Atreidae.

Pelops and Hippodamia
The peculiar origin of Theseus links to events earlier in his ancestry that foreshadow what is to come. And the arrival of Theseus now, direct from the Oracle, strikes an uncanny chord, echoing the arrival of Aegeus to Troezen and the curious, fateful events of his own ambiguous conception.