Sunday, April 27, 2014

How bad was Lycurgus of Thrace?

And Dryas's son, the Edonian king swift to rage, was tamed in recompense for his heart-cutting insults, when, by the will of Dionysus, he was encased in rocky bonds. There the fierce and blooming force of his madness trickled away. [960] That man came to know the god whom in his frenzy he had provoked with mockeries. For he had sought to quell the god-inspired women and the Bacchanalian fire, [965] and he angered the Muses who love the flute. Sophocles, Antigone.

Lycurgus (also Lykurgos, Lykourgos) was the king of the Edoni in Thrace, son of Dryas, the "oak", and father of a son whose name was also Dryas.[1] He banned the cult of Dionysus. When Lycurgus heard that Dionysus was in his kingdom, he imprisoned Dionysus's followers, the Maenads, or drove them and Dionysus out of Thrace with an ox-goad.[2][3] Dionysus fled, taking refuge in the undersea grotto of Thetis the sea nymph.

Lycurgus mistook his son for a mature trunk of ivy, which is holy to Dionysus, and killed him, pruning away his nose and ears, fingers and toes.
Consequently, the land of Thrace dried up in horror. Dionysus decreed that the land would stay dry and barren as long as Lycurgus was left unpunished for his injustice, so his people bound him and flung him to man-eating horses on Mount Pangaeüs.[4]
Lycurgus cut off his own foot when he meant to cut down a vine of ivy. With Lycurgus dead, Dionysus lifted the curse.
Lycurgus tried to rape his mother after imbibing wine. When he discovered what he had done, he attempted to cut down the grapevines, believing the wine to be a bad medicine. Dionysus drove him mad as a punishment, causing him to kill both his wife and his son, and threw him to the panthers on Mount Rhodope.[5]
The tragedian Aeschylus, in a lost play, depicted Lycurgus as a beer-drinker and hence a natural opponent of the wine god.
In Homer's Iliad, an older source than Aeschylus, Lycurgus's punishment for his disrespect towards the gods, particularly Dionysus, is blindness inflicted by Zeus followed not long after by death.[8] 
According to Sophocles, the frenzied Lycurgus mocked at Dionysus and as punishment was shut in "a prison of stone" until his madness went away.[9]
Dryas, the father of King Lycurgus, was killed when his son went insane and mistook him for a mature trunk of ivy, a plant holy to the god Dionysus, whose cult Lycurgus was attempting to extirpate.

ζεύχθη δ᾽ ὀξύχολος παῖς ὁ Δρύαντος,
Ἠδωνῶν βασιλεύς, κερτομίοις ὀργαῖς
ἐκ Διονύσου πετρώδει κατάφαρκτος ἐν δεσμῷ.
οὕτω τᾶς μανίας δεινὸν ἀποστάζει
ἀνθηρόν τε μένος. κεῖνος ἐπέγνω μανίαις
ψαύων τὸν θεὸν ἐν κερτομίοις γλώσσαις.
παύεσκε μὲν γὰρ ἐνθέους γυναῖκας εὔιόν τε πῦρ,
φιλαύλους τ᾽ ἠρέθιζε Μούσας.
(Antigone 955 ff.)


Danae, Lycurgus, Phineus: Myths of the 4th stasimon of Antigone

Danae, reclining on a couch and grasping her hair ribbons, is impregnated by the god Zeus in the form of a golden shower.

Lycurgus of Thrace
On this vase, Lycurgus, armed with a sword, has slain Dionysos' companion, Ambrosia. Dionysos summons an Erinys to drive the King of Thrace to madness. The Erinys is depicted as a winged huntress, whose arms and hair are draped with poisonous serpents.

On the famous Lycurgus Cup, the King is tangled in vines as a Satyr, Pan, a panther, and Bacchus all avenge Ambrosia. Photos of the scenes on the cup, which turns blood red when backlit, can be seen here.

Lycurgus's story has several variants, but each has him driven mad by Dionysus.

Lycurgus Cup

The last two strophes of the ode contain a series of allusions to the story of Phineus, a king who was blinded because he shared his prophetic knowledge with the Argonauts, but whose sons by Cleopatra were also blinded because Phineus believed their stepmother, Idaea's lie. The Phineus story has many variations (see Sophocles frag. 704).

Phineus and the Harpies

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Anatomy of an idiot

This is a kind of thought experiment, an attempt to regard the very rich text of the Antigone from just one angle, centered on the figure of Creon. It's merely a way to discern a pattern of failed reading in the play, which one hopes will not act out the pattern it seeks to describe. There are many ways to look at this play, because there's nothing schematic about Sophocles, and the Antigone is far richer than any diagram.

In one of Antigone's exchanges with Creon, there's this:
Why then do you wait? In none of your maxims is there anything that pleases me—and may there never be! Similarly to you as well my views must be displeasing. And yet, how could I have won a nobler glory than by giving burial to my own brother? All here would admit that they approve, [505] if fear did not grip their tongues. But tyranny, blest with so much else, has the power to do and say whatever it pleases. 
You alone out of all these Thebans (Καδμείων - Cadmeians) see it that way. 
They do, too, but for you they hold their tongues.
The word for "hold" Antigone uses in her reply to Creon is ὑπίλλω -- which has a basic sense of pressing down, pushing under. It was used to describe how a dog holds its tail down between its legs.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Throne of troubled blood: the game of Thebes

Jebb, whose translation of Antigone is used by the Perseus edition, has a note on the proclamation speech of Creon. It's the speech by which the new ruler imposes heavy penalties on anyone who would bury the body of Polyneices. (An aspect of that speech is discussed here.)

Jebb finds a clear parallel between Creon's decree and that which Oedipus delivers after learning that the murderer of Laius must be found to lift the plague afflicting Thebes. "There is a general dramatic analogy," Jebb says, "between this speech and that of Oedipus in O. T. 216 - 275."
In each case a Theban king addresses Theban elders, announcing a stern decree, adopted in reliance on his own wisdom, and promulgated with haughty consciousness of power; the elders receive the decree with a submissive deference under which we can perceive traces of misgiving; and as the drama proceeds, the elders become spectators of calamities occasioned by the decree.
One can extend the parallel a bit further: For both kings, their proclamations set up a form of doom that ends up crashing down upon themselves. Oedipus believes he's speaking as a stranger to the murder of Laius when he says of the murderer:
And I pray solemnly that the slayer, whoever he is, whether he alone is guilty or he has partners, may, in the horrible way he deserves, wear out his unblest life. And for myself I pray that if he should, [250] with my knowledge, become a resident of my house, I may suffer the same things which I have just called down on others. (Oedipus Tyrannus)
In like manner, Creon says:
if anyone who directs the entire city does not cling to the best and wisest plans, [180] but because of some fear keeps his lips locked, then, in my judgment, he is and has long been the most cowardly traitor. And if any man thinks a friend more important than his fatherland, that man, I say, is of no account. Zeus, god who sees all things always, be my witness— [185] I would not be silent if I saw ruin, instead of safety, marching upon the citizens. (Antigone)
Built into the ironies of the Antigone is the troubling fact that before he became king, Creon learned from Teiresias that only the death of his son, Megareus (also called Menoeceus), would placate Ares and enable Thebes to withstand the seven Argive generals. That scene is fully played out in Euripides' Phoenissae, and is worth reading (as is that entire play in relation to the Antigone). In sum, immediately before the battle begins, Teiresias tells Creon of the one way to save Thebes: One of Creon's two sons must die to appease Ares. Haemon cannot, as he is engaged to marry Antigone, but Megareus -
this tender youth, consecrated to his city, might by dying rescue his country . . . Phoenissae 947-8
Creon immediately makes arrangements to save Megareus by spiriting him out of the city secretly:
[970] But come, my son, before the whole city learns this, fly with all haste away from this land, regardless of these prophets' reckless warnings; for he will tell all this to our rulers and generals [going to the seven gates and the captains]; [975] now if we can forestall him, you are saved, but if you are too late, we are ruined and you will die.(Phoenissae)
Megareus plays along with his father, but in fact does exactly as Teiresias prescribed. He kills himself to save Thebes.

Creon appears not to know all this, both when it comes to uttering his decree (above) and when he reiterates it to Haemon:
I will not make myself a liar to my city. I will kill her. So let her sing of Zeus who protects kindred blood [ξύναιμον]. If I am to foster my own kin to spurn order, [660] surely I will do the same for outsiders. For whoever shows his excellence in the case of his own household will be found righteous in his city as well. But if anyone oversteps [ὑπερβὰς] and does violence to the laws, or thinks to dictate to those in power, [665] such a one will never win praise from me. (Antigone)
Uncannily, the very word he uses to mock the union of blood kinship, ξύναιμονis inscribed with the name of Haemon (Αἵμων). Furthermore, Creon is lying. He has overstepped. Sophocles used the same legend that Euripides later drew on for the Phoenissae, and makes sure we know it. It's found in how Creon is told of the suicide of Eurydice, the mother of Haemon and Megareus:
By the altar, with a sharp-whetted sword, she struck until her eyes went slack and dark. Before that she bewailed the noble fate of Megareus who died earlier, and then the fate of this boy [Haemon], and also, with her last breath, [1305] she called down evil fortune upon you, the slayer of her sons. (Antigone 1301ff)
Creon and his decree echo that of Oedipus, but with a difference. Oedipus could suspect he himself killed Laius, but at this moment had no certain knowledge of it. Creon could hardly forget he had tried to protect his son; Euripides has him say:
I will never come to such misfortune as to devote my son to death for the city; [965] for all men love their children, and no one would give his own son to die. Let no man praise me, and kill my child at the same time. I myself, for I am in the prime of life, am ready to die to save my country. (Phoenissae 964 ff)
Creon could never dream of sacrificing his child, yet even as he claims his kindred blood ties to Antigone are what legitimate his claim to Kingship, he assumes a power that has nothing yielding about it.
in no way can we let a woman defeat us. It is better to fall from power, if it is fated, by a man's hand, [680] than that we be called weaker than women. (Antigone 678-80)
κοὔτοι γυναικὸς οὐδαμῶς ἡσσητέα
κρεῖσσον γάρεἴπερ δεῖπρὸς ἀνδρὸς ἐκπεσεῖν
κοὐκ ἂν γυναικῶν ἥσσονες καλοίμεθ᾽ ἄν. 

State power as pure command, law, is at odds with the tenderness of love, but this not just a complication between Creon and Antigone. It's trouble between the King Creon and father Creon. It's trouble within Creon, who is not all of a piece, and trouble within the polis. Trouble is in the torque of the conflict of blood and political power.

Witnessing Creon's soulless rejection of Haemon, the chorus will sing of the strife born of radiant desire and the mighty primordial powers. They sit enthroned πάρεδροςside by side, and the game of thrones cannot trump the game of eros. Dancing they will sing:
[791] You seize the minds of just men and drag them to injustice, to their ruin. You it is who have incited this strife of men whose flesh and blood are one [ξύναιμον]. [795] But victory belongs to radiant Desire glimpsed in the eyes of the sweet-bedded bride. Desire sits enthroned in power beside the mighty laws. [800] For in all this the god plays her irresistible game, Aphrodite. (Antigone)
σὺ καὶ δικαίων ἀδίκους φρένας παρασπᾷς ἐπὶ λώβᾳ
σὺ καὶ τόδε νεῖκος ἀνδρῶν ξύναιμον ἔχεις ταράξας
νικᾷ δ᾽ ἐναργὴς βλεφάρων ἵμερος εὐλέκτρου νύμφας
τῶν μεγάλων πάρεδρος ἐν ἀρχαῖς 
800θεσμῶνἄμαχος γὰρ ἐμπαίζει θεὸςἈφροδίτα. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Man, Earth, Scale

Perhaps the first striking thing in Sophocles' Ode to Man is the disconcerting scale. On one hand, nothing is so wondrously strange as man. On the other, our first glimpse of this wonder is something the size of a gnat shooting across wintry seas at terrible risk to itself. A blip on a radar. At least we see him, before giant Earth appears

θεῶν τε τὰν ὑπερτάτανΓᾶν 

Earth, too, the eldest of the gods, 
the immortal, the unwearied

Which the wondrous creature spends eons rubbing, wearing down, scratching.

That something this diminutive can do all it does is part of what's strange and wondrous about man. But in this play, the initial sense of the relatively infinitesimal scale of this gnat, is always present, though always forgotten. To be human, to dare great things, leads to trouble, according to the third ode:

                                      οὐδὲν ἕρπει 
θνατῶν βιότῳ πάμπολύ γ᾽ ἐκτὸς ἄτας.

                                                   no vast thing
steals upon the life of mortals without blind delusion.

Since Sophocles' chorus first sang those words, we have learned more about the cosmos. Its scale in relation to the human wonder has inflated by incomprehensible orders of magnitude. Still, we are surprised when something as large as an airliner goes missing. Why can't they find it, we wonder. 

A recent image in the Washington Post puts us in mind of the fact that the earth is not simply huge, it is deep. The image begins with the still missing Malaysian jetliner. Click on this image to get an artist's rendering of a sense of scale that could be called "Sophoclean."

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The decree of relation: Creon's three card monte

The so-called "Ode to Man" -- the second ode in Sophocles' Antigone -- poses a challenge. It is, in effect, an effort to "read" man, this creature who shoots across the seas, rubs the earth, snares other kinds, struts on stage. No creature is more deinos than man. The interpretive effort to assign some meaning to this word has been huge, and ranges from the cheerleading valorization of "wonderful" to the somewhat less reassuring sense, offered by Heidegger among others, of unheimlich, uncanny.

A couple of quick points. For one, the ode deserves to be read in its context, which is resonant with fragmentary echoes of the ode throughout. Note also that the speaker of the ode is addressing the speaker of the ode -- man is speaking of man. One thing that's strange (deinos) about man is that he is rather singular in calling himself strange. He is estranged, but not as in "fallen from some prior Edenic primal realm." Rather as if to say, "I say I do not understand I," or, "I cannot read me," or, "I am one, yet not one." This is the anthropological impass that stands between the subject who speaks and the subject of which he speaks.

What's unsettled is a principle basic to Aristotelian logic:

For that logic to function at all,  it must be that A = A.

In this text, however, it cannot be ruled out that I \ne I. Man here is strangely not intact, or whole. This creature does not possess itself, master itself, read or rule itself in a total, seamless way. There's at least a crack.

A reader might thus be advised to attend to the seismic references (σείσαντες163, 584, 1274) in the play. This rift is stated early, right after the first ode celebrates the city's integrity after a severe, seven-sided challenge.

Here's Creon's first speech:

[162] My fellow citizens! First, the gods, after tossing the fate of our city on wild waves, have once more righted it. Second, I have ordered you through my messengers to come here [165] apart from all the rest, because I knew, first of all, how constant was your reverence for the power of the throne of Laius; how, again, you were reverent, when Oedipus was guiding our city;

Creon doesn't actually use the metaphor of the "ship of state," though it's often translated this way. The state was shaken [σείσαντες] by πολλῷ σάλῳ"wild waves," or "strong tossing" - according to Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ), σάλῳ can describe an earthquake or a wild sea. Seismic shifts that reach a certain magnitude can obliterate the difference between terra firma and poluphloisboio thalassēsHomer's much-thundering sea. (A friend who just experienced the massive recent earthquake in Chile described it as a sea-sickening undulation, a series of rolling waves.) 

It seems that Creon cannot act without setting off reverberations he does not see. After declaring the gods to be both cause and cure of this latest state-shaking, Creon's initial act is to divide the populace.

"I have ordered you," he says, "through my guides to ἐκ πάντων δίχα" -- literally, to tear yourselves asunder from the all. While the colloquial sense might not sound that strong, the underlying sense of δίχα points up the fact that his first speech is addressed not to the entire city, but to a select group. They are distinguished for their unwavering loyalty to the throne of Laius.

Why does that matter? Because Creon is about to set forth two claims. First, he will assert his total legitimacy through γένους -- kinship:

I now possess all the power and the throne according to nearness of race with the dead.
He will then proceed to speak of how the whole mind of a ruler is not knowable until he has been tested in action. The word for testing, ἐντριβὴς, literally means "rubbed," as from a touchstone.

He goes on: to hold one's tongue from fear is to be a cowardly traitor, if someone is attacking the state. The state is and must be greater than any friend to its leaders and subjects, greater than those who can't be our friends because they attacked the state. The state is what saves us. He concludes his intro with:
τοιοῖσδ᾽ ἐγὼ νόμοισι τήνδ᾽ αὔξω πόλιν, 
Such are the rules by which I strengthen this city.
He then says:
Akin to these is the edict which I have now published to the citizenry concerning the sons of Oedipus: Eteocles, who fell fighting [195] in behalf of our city and who excelled all in battle, they shall entomb and heap up every sacred offering that descends to the noblest of the dead below. But as for his brother, Polyneices, I mean, who on his return from exile wanted to burn to the ground [200] the city of his fathers and his race's gods, and wanted to feed on kindred blood and lead the remnant into slavery—it has been proclaimed to the city that no one shall give him funeral honors or lamentation, [205] but all must leave him unburied and a sight of shame, with his body there for birds and dogs to eat.
Note the first word, "akin." The Greek is ἀδελφὰ, the word for brother, or sister, the first noun in the first line of the play, Antigone's address to Ismene - O my very own sister...

Creon is arguing that the speaking that will act to differentiate two brothers and sons of Oedipus is legitimate because it is brother to the logic by which he has just proved the πάτραthe fatherland, to be supreme. It is as loyal son to the Fatherland that he undoes the brotherhood of the sons of Oedipus.

Creon is professing allegiance to the ties of family, only he has substituted the Fatherland for Oedipus, making it his duty as legitimate son of the state to divide, to rend asunder, the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices.

The power to say that "A is A" and that "B is not B" is the power of the decree, the speech act authorized by Creon's nearness to the race of Oedipus, whose plight made it impossible for the King to say whether he was father, or son, or brother. Oedipus, ignorant of his race, could not know to whom he referred when he said "I."


Upon his proximity to the blood of that confusion, Creon sets forth his negation of the relation of familial brother-to-brother in favor of a brave new father, who aims to set things straight.