Sunday, March 23, 2014

When Laius met Pelops, and other tales of Thebes

The third choral ode in the Antigone refers to the house of Oedipus, naming his grandfather, Labdacus:
I see that the ancient sorrows of the house of the Labdacids [595] are heaped upon the sorrows of the dead.
Another ode later in the play alludes to Niobe. It might be helpful to situate these and other key figures in the back story of Thebes. The problem is, there isn't one epic tale that manages to weave them all into one text. The Cypria apparently made an effort, but only 50 lines survive.

One thing to note is, the line of Theban kings beginning with Cadmus and going past Creon is rife with dynastic interruptions. Amphion and Zethus, who built the walls of the Thebes later ruled by Oedipus, were not Cadmeians, but were sons of Antiope and (not unlike Theseus) two fathers: Zeus and a mortal, Epopeus. Niobe was Amphion's wife.

The pair seized power at a certain point, as others would at other points. An overview of the line of kings is here. Note the frequent appearance of regents. Lycus is twice a regent, once for Labdacus and once for Laius. Later on Creon similarly will twice be a regent. Many events seem paired, for example, Labdacus will be torn apart by Bacchantes just as Pentheus had been. Labdacus was the son of Polydorus, who was the son of Cadmus and Harmonia, and the brother of Semele.

There are many side plots and strange intersections. For example, Labdacus dies in a battle with Athens over a border. Athens wins in part because its king, Pandion, receives aid from Tereus of Thrace. Tereus is of course the notorious rapist of Philomela, whose tale Ovid told with gruesome relish.

One could go on. But here's one thing that might shed light on the curse on the Labdacids, which the chorus mentioned. It has to do with Labdacus' son, Laius. We all know that Laius was given a prophecy that he should not ever have a child, and that if he did, that child would murder him. One version of the tale explains the reason for the prophecy, and it has to do with the mighty Peloponnesian hero and son of Tantalus, Pelops:
While Laius was still young, Amphion and Zethus usurped the throne of Thebes. Some Thebans, wishing to see the line of Cadmus continue, smuggled Laius out of the city before their attack, in which they killed Lycus and took the throne.[1] Laius was welcomed by Pelops, king of Pisa in the Peloponnesus.[2] According to some sources, mostly belonging to the Christian era, Laius abducted and raped the king's [bastard] son, Chrysippus, and carried him off to Thebes while teaching him how to drive a chariot, or as Hyginus records it, during the Nemean games. This abduction is thought to be the subject of one of the lost tragedies of Euripides. Most scholars agree that the rape or seduction of Chrysippus was a late addition to the Theban myth. With both Amphion and Zethus having died in his absence, Laius became king of Thebes upon his return.
There are other variants. In one, Pelops' wife Hippodamia tries to get her two sons by Pelops to kill Chrysippus, the bastard by a nymph. Those two sons of Hippodamia and Pelops are Atreus and Thyestes, father and uncle respectively of Agamemnon and Menelaos. (See Parada, Greek Mythology Link, for more on this story). Surprise connections between the mythologies of different Houses of Greece pop up like this.

Anyway, after this we get to the part of the tale which most have heard:
After the rape of Chrysippus, Laius married Jocasta or Epicasta, the daughter of Menoeceus, a descendant of the Spartoi. Laius received an oracle from Delphi which told him that he must not have a child with his wife, or the child would kill him and marry her; in another version, recorded by Aeschylus, Laius is warned that he can only save the city if he dies childless. One night, however, Laius was drunk and fathered Oedipus with her . . .
And thus we arrive by a commodius vicus at Sophocles' tale of Antigone.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Enter the Guard: Voice and polis in Antigone

A motif that comes up again and again in Sophocles' Antigone is a tension between one voice and more than one. It surfaces stylistically as well as thematically. Take for example, the first entrance of the Guard, a study in characterization. Many have noted his similarity to some of the lower characters in Shakespeare, how their language seems to run at one thing, then another.

Upon the guard's first entrance, he narrates the circus within himself:
My king, I will not say that I arrive breathless because of speed, or from the action of a swift foot. [225] For often I brought myself to a stop because of my thoughts, and wheeled round in my path to return. My mind was telling me many things: “Fool, why do you go to where your arrival will mean your punishment?” “Idiot, are you dallying again? If Creon learns it from another, must you not suffer for it?” [230] So debating, I made my way unhurriedly, slow, and thus a short road was made long.
The divided consciousness, at the beck of multiple voices, going round in a circle, trying to adjudicate the case at hand, insulting itself on both sides of the aisle, a mini-political assembly all in one. The guard narrates this internal scene to Creon, then more or less pulls himself together and speaks in a more composed voice:
At last, however, the view prevailed that I should come here—to you. Even if my report brings no good, still will I tell you, [235] since I come with a good grip on one hope, that I can suffer nothing except what is my fate.
In the space of a few sentences, Sophocles has both given dimension to the guard and offered a glimpse into the inner imbroglio of an undecided mind, moving from the realm of "fool" and "idiot" to the officiousness of, "the view prevailed." The guard goes on to describe the scene at the grave, shifting to a lyrical power that provides a most memorable simile of Antigone in action, a bird bewailing its empty nest.

But it's what the guard says upon his return after arresting Antigone, that, within the full text of the play, will haunt Creon:

ἄναξβροτοῖσιν οὐδέν ἔστ᾽ ἀπώμοτον
ψεύδει γὰρ  'πίνοια τὴν γνώμην:
My king, there is nothing that a man can rightly swear he will not do. For second thought belies one's first intent. [390]
Moreso than many others, this play cannot be read, only re-read. Only after we have seen Creon change his mind, reversing his order on the question of Antigone and the burial of Polyneices, does the guard's seemingly commonplace remark reverberate with the somber ironies of Sophocles' art.

The theme runs throughout -- from the Ode to Man which resists single definition to the motif of coerced political silence to the increasingly heated exchange between Haemon and Creon: To rule is to subject multiplicity to one mind, to speak with one voice. But the creature that seeks to subject itself to one voice is itself a creature of many voices, many attributes, many parts. It is deinos. The heterogeneity of man, as exemplified in the guard's distinctive patchwork of sentences might lead us to consider the insights of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote about what he called heteroglossia, and the hybrid utterance:
The hybrid utterance, as defined by Bakhtin, is a passage that employs only a single speaker—the author, for example—but one or more kinds of speech. The juxtaposition of the two different speeches brings with it a contradiction and conflict in belief systems.
Bakhtin was interested in the open-endedness of the novel in contrast to what he saw as the closed, finalized world of epic. Perhaps in Sophocles we see a dramatist using a heteroglossic speaker in a play that is, at least in part, about the complications and dangers of trying to silence all but one tongue.

As Creon will find out. A telling exchange comes later, line 736 ff:

Am I to rule this land by the will of another than myself?         
ἄλλῳ γὰρ ἢ ᾽μοὶ χρή με τῆσδ᾽ ἄρχειν χθονός;
That is no city, which belongs to one man. 
πόλις γὰρ οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ἥτις ἀνδρός ἐσθ᾽ ἑνός.
Creon uses the word ἄρχειν for "to rule" - the idea of arche as "first" -- of all the many, this one, the first. Creon will call the guard a "babbler" (λάλημα) and claim that the man's voice sickens him (ἀνιαρῶς316). But Creon's firstness slides into onlyness, and the dialogic -- an open political order in which differences coexist and self-organize via a coherent discourse -- collapses into empty monologue. At the extremes you get either a cacophany of babblers, or one big tongue.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


The arc of the story of Thebes is not complete without the story of the Epigonoi, the sons of the first Seven who returned 10 years after the first attack (in which 6 of the 7 original Argive generals lost their lives) and succeeded in taking the city.
Thersander 1, son of Polynices and Argia 1 (daughter of Adrastus 1), was determined to sit on the throne he believed should have belonged to his father, by deposing his cousin Laodamas 2, son of Eteocles 1, now king of Thebes. The EPIGONI appointed as their commander in chief Alcmaeon 1, son of Amphiaraus and Eriphyle, following an oracle that predicted them victory under his leadership. This time they made sure that the army marching against Thebes would be strong enough. For that purpose, they added to their forces from Argos contingents from Messenia, Arcadia, Corinth, and Megara. More here.
Interestingly, a fragment of a play by Sophocles titled Epigonoi was found a few years ago, part of a cache that made for an exciting discovery announced in 2005:
Wisdom awakes: Sophocles' words are legible again. 
Speaker A: . . . gobbling the whole, sharpening the flashing iron. 
Speaker B: And the helmets are shaking their purple-dyed crests, and for the wearers of breast-plates the weavers are striking up the wise shuttle's songs, that wakes up those who are asleep. 
Speaker B: And he is glueing together the chariot's rail. 
These words were written by the Greek dramatist Sophocles, and are the only known fragment we have of his lost play Epigonoi (literally 'The Progeny'), the story of the siege of Thebes. Until last week's hi-tech analysis of ancient scripts at Oxford University, no one knew of their existence, and this is the first time they have been published.
Other accounts of the war of the Epigoni were produced by Pseudo-Apollodorus and Pausanias.

Indeed, the arc of the tale of Thebes was quite an arc. An earlier epic about the Epigonoi is lost, which was part of the four-epic Theban Cycle. Shameless crib from Wikipedia:
The epics of the Theban Cycle were as follows: 
The Oedipodea, attributed to Cinaethon: told the story of Oedipus' solution to the Sphinx's riddle, and presumably of his incestuous marriage to his mother Epicaste or Jocasta
The Thebaid, of uncertain authorship but sometimes attributed in antiquity to Homer: told the story of the war between Oedipus' two sons Eteocles and Polynices, and of Polynices' unsuccessful expedition against the city of Thebes with six other commanders (the "Seven Against Thebes"), in which both Eteocles and Polynices were killed. 
The Epigoni, attributed in antiquity to either Antimachus of Teos or Homer: a continuation of the Thebaid, which told the story of the next generation of heroes who attacked Thebes, this time successfully. 
The Alcmeonis, of unknown authorship: told the story of Alcmaeon's murder of his mother Eriphyle for having arranged the death of his father Amphiaraus (told in the Thebaid).
For our purposes, it is worth noting that the role of a woman, Antigone, is pivotal in the overall plot.

Friday, March 14, 2014

One more ode to one more man

Struggling with the second ode of Sophocles' Antigone this week, I came across this, and nearly wept with delight:

Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than Man:
his footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter,
up the stiff blue waves and every Tuesday
down he grinds the unastonishable earth
with horse and shatter.

Shatters too the cheeks of birds and traps them in his forest headlights,
salty silvers roll into his net, he weaves it just for that,
this terribly quiet customer.
He dooms
animals and mountains technically,
by yoke he makes the bull bend, the horse to its knees.

And utterance and thought as clear as complicated air and
moods that make a city moral, these he taught himself.
The snowy cold he knows to flee
and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in:
every outlet works but
Death stays dark.

Death he cannot doom.
Fabrications notwithstanding.
honest oath taking notwithstanding.

Hilarious in his high city
you see him cantering just as he please,
the lava up to here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Antigone 141-154: Mathematics and the Dance

ἑπτὰ λοχαγοὶ γὰρ ἐφ᾽ ἑπτὰ πύλαις 
ταχθέντες ἴσοι πρὸς ἴσους ἔλιπον 
Ζηνὶ τροπαίῳ πάγχαλκα τέλη
πλὴν τοῖν στυγεροῖν πατρὸς ἑνὸς 
145μητρός τε μιᾶς φύντε καθ᾽ αὑτοῖν 
δικρατεῖς λόγχας στήσαντ᾽ ἔχετον 
κοινοῦ θανάτου μέρος ἄμφω.
[141] For the seven captains, equal number stationed against an equal number at the seven gates, left behind their brazen arms in tribute to Zeus the turner of battle—all but the accursed pair who, born of one father and one mother, set against each other their double-slaying spears, both victorious, and who now share in a common death.
In bold are the specific numerical terms as well as some that involve a mathematical operation like adding or averaging. The language is markedly formal, a spectacle of mirroring symmetries - seven against seven, of course, but also the idea of one generating two who fight and share one death. So there are symmetries of space as well, we could say, of time, (and unity of plot): beginning (1), middle (2), end (1). Common to both the seven and the pair of brothers is the moment of mutual-annihilation -- a fateful act that first showed itself when Cadmus, sowing the dragon's teeth, witnessed the symmetric mutual destruction of all but five of the spartoi.

Mathematical symmetry (equality, ἰσότης) is the root of ratio that allows for laws, alliances, and the balances of nature, Jocasta tells her sons in Euripides' Phoenician Women:
Equality . . . always joins friend to friend, city to city, allies to allies; for Equality is naturally lasting among men; but the less is always in opposition to the greater, [540] and begins the dawn of hatred. For it is Equality that has set up for man measures and divisions of weights, and has determined numbers. Night's sightless eye, and radiant sun proceed upon their yearly course on equal terms, [545] and neither of them is envious when it has to yield.
Even as Jocasta says these lines, her sons are preparing to kill one another. Equality at Thebes seems doomed to yield mutual annihilation.

After this militant display of numbers, the first Ode of the Antigone concludes with the chorus of elders turning to Bacchus and to forgetting:

ἀλλὰ γὰρ  μεγαλώνυμος ἦλθε Νίκα 
τᾷ πολυαρμάτῳ ἀντιχαρεῖσα Θήβᾳ
150ἐκ μὲν δὴ πολέμων 
τῶν νῦν θέσθαι λησμοσύναν
θεῶν δὲ ναοὺς χοροῖς 
παννυχίοις πάντας ἐπέλθωμεν Θήβας δ᾽ ἐλελίχθων 
Βάκχιος ἄρχοι.
[148] But since Victory whose name is glory has come to us, smiling in joy equal to the joy of chariot-rich Thebes, let us make for ourselves forgetfulness (λησμοσύναν) after the recent wars, and visit all the temples of the gods with night-long dance and song. And may Bacchus, who shakes the earth of Thebes, rule our dancing! 
The earth shaking -- ἐλελίχθων -- of Bacchus comes from ἐλελίζω - to whirl round, to cause to vibrate, to turn.  Dionysus here stands counterposed to Ζηνὶ τροπαίῳ -- Zeus turner of battle -- in the preceding strophe.

Where Zeus's tropism powered a decisive victory for Thebes against the Argives, the city-shattering power of Bacchus is bound up with music and rhythm, which the god is said to lead. There is no equality here, just the power of the ruling god, leading mortals to forget the strife of wars, ambition and mathematics as they turn in the dance.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Antigone 127-140: Big noisy tongues

[127] For Zeus hates exceedingly the boasts of a big tongue. And when he saw them advancing in a swollen flood, presumptuous in the clang of gold, he hurled down with brandished fire one already starting the victory cry upon our highest battlements. 
[134] Staggered, he fell to the earth with a crash, torch in hand, a man inspired by the Bacchic frenzy [βακχεύωνof the mad attack, who just now was raging against us with the blasts of his tempestuous hate. But his threats did not fare as he had hoped, and to the other enemies mighty Ares dispensed each their own dooms with hard blows, Ares, our mighty ally at the turning-point.
Ζεὺς γὰρ μεγάλης γλώσσης κόμπους 
ὑπερεχθαίρεικαὶ σφας ἐσιδὼν 
πολλῷ ῥεύματι προσνισσομένους 
130χρυσοῦ καναχῆς ὑπεροπλίαις
παλτῷ ῥιπτεῖ πυρὶ βαλβίδων 
ἐπ᾽ ἄκρων ἤδη 
νίκην ὁρμῶντ᾽ ἀλαλάξαι.

ἀντιτύπᾳ δ᾽ ἐπὶ γᾷ πέσε τανταλωθεὶς 
135πυρφόροςὃς τότε μαινομένᾳ ξὺν ὁρμᾷ 
βακχεύων ἐπέπνει 
ῥιπαῖς ἐχθίστων ἀνέμων
εἶχε δ᾽ ἄλλᾳ τὰ μέν
ἄλλα δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἄλλοις ἐπενώμα στυφελίζων μέγας Ἄρης 

Capaneus is singled out for specific attention in the first choral ode of the Antigone. He also stands out in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. In that play, the Messenger describes him:
Capaneus is stationed at the Electran gates, another giant of a man, greater than the one described before. [425] But his boast is too proud for a mere human, and he makes terrifying threats against our battlements—which, I hope, chance (τύχη) will not fulfill! 
For he says he will utterly destroy the city with god's will or without it, and that not even conflict with Zeus, though it should fall before him in the plain, will stand in his way. The god's lightning and thunderbolts he compares to midday heat. 
For his sign (σῆμα) he has a man without armor (γυμνὸν - naked) bearing fire, and the torch, his weapon, blazes in his hands; in gold are letters that speak: “I will burn the city.” 
Καπανεὺς δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ Ἠλέκτραισιν εἴληχεν πύλαις
γίγας ὅδ᾽ ἄλλος τοῦ πάρος λελεγμένου 
425μείζων κόμπος δ᾽ οὐ κατ᾽ ἄνθρωπον φρονεῖ
πύργοις δ᾽ ἀπειλεῖ δείν᾽ μὴ κραίνοι τύχη
θεοῦ τε γὰρ θέλοντος ἐκπέρσειν πόλιν 
καὶ μὴ θέλοντός φησινοὐδὲ τὴν Διὸς 
ἔριν πέδοι σκήψασαν ἐμποδὼν σχεθεῖν
430τὰς δ᾽ ἀστραπάς τε καὶ κεραυνίους βολὰς 
μεσημβρινοῖσι θάλπεσιν προσῄκασεν
ἔχει δὲ σῆμα γυμνὸν ἄνδρα πυρφόρον
φλέγει δὲ λαμπὰς διὰ χερῶν ὡπλισμένη
χρυσοῖς δὲ φωνεῖ γράμμασιν ‘πρήσω πόλιν.’ 

There is much in the language of these passages - both Sophocles' and Aeschylus' - that could keep us busy for quite some time. For example, Sophocles' elders describe the real Capaneus as having a torch in hand - in Aeschylus, the torch is part of the image on his shield. And the golden letters on the shield speak a loud prediction, a promise and intention, which some translators are tempted to turn into actual armaments:
  • With presumptuous in the clang of gold, Jebb leaves open the unspecified cause of the clang. 
  • Wyckoff, similarly: insolent clangor of gold.
  • Grene materializes it: insolent in the clang of golden armor.
  • Fitts-Fitzgerald in keeping with their freer approach introduce head covering: Their swagger of golden helms (108). 
If we ask whether the clang is from the armor, or from the hubris a reader hears in the meaning of the letters, our translators offer different accounts. There is a hypothetical material source of a sound in battle, and the immaterial sense of an inscription. Which "in fact" is resonant? Hard to say.

It's in Aeschylus that we learn what the golden letters insolently say. Writing, gold, presumption and weaponry come together in:
χρυσοῖς δὲ φωνεῖ γράμμασιν ‘πρήσω πόλιν.’  
in gold are letters that speak: “I will burn the city.” 
One more curious materialization too tempting to ignore: in Aeschylus, the conflict with Zeus -- that the Messenger poses as a possible, contingent event that could befall Capaneus -- is expressed as a literal falling to the ground:
 though it should fall before him in the plain
The idea is that Capaneus, whose sign is an unarmed (naked) man, has no fear -- even if the Eris of a struggle with Zeus were to fall to the ground at his feet. A fall is of course precisely what happens, not to Eris, however, but to Capaneus, struck by a bolt, swinging as if balanced (τανταλωθεὶς) in space, in the act of stepping from the top of his ladder to the city's tantalizingly near battlement, before crashing in flames to earth. ἀντιτύπᾳ, Sophocles' elders say, "counter-struck."

As noted earlier, the poetics of the odes - both Sophocles' and Aeschylus' - involve a complex play of grammatical number and of rhetorical figure: of γλῶσσα as material tongue and as language, of signs and meanings, sound and sense, logos and matter.

What mustn't get lost in the interstices of close reading is a larger point, made at the beginning of the Ode: Zeus really hates big noisy tongues. Now the city of Thebes, spared from doom, is about to be addressed by Creon, who is going to decree, backed by the full power and authority of his office, a distinction between two brothers, sons of Oedipus and Jocasta, siblings of Ismene and Antigone.

In Creon's mind, there is an absolute difference between Eteocles and Polyneices. Antigone's heart feels none. The Antigone turns on this difference about difference: whether in reality these are two, or one.