Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Geometries of desire: Anne Carson, Women of Trachis

A slender volume by a close reader. Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet culls superb lines from the entire corpus of Greek literature on the subject of Eros, and ponders them with the mind of a poet and the knowledge of a teacher of ancient Greek. She speaks of the divided soul, of love as lack, and is particularly suggestive when it comes to staged erotic triangles.

In Sophocles' Women of Trachis, triangles proliferate:

                           Achelous                           Heracles                          Hyllus

                                                  Deianira                             Iole


Monday, October 27, 2014

Night and Sun in the first ode: Women of Trachis

He to whom flickering Night, despoiled of shining armor 
gives birth and lays down to sleep ablaze, 
Sun, Sun, I ask 
that you proclaim this,
where is Alcmena's son, 
where dwells her child? O radiant fiery flash, 
is he in the hollow seas, or does he wander the twin continents? 
Speak, O strongest eye!


The chorus of Women of Trachis begins its first ode at a very high pitch. The compressed scene of the first two lines: Night, stripped of her starry armor like a slain Homeric hero, gives birth to the sun, whose plundering blaze is extinguished within her deep folds. It's the agon of light on Earth. To hear that Night is stripped like the corpse of a Homeric warrior should cause wonder. Who, what, is this mother who births the warrior that despoils her arms, and tucks him in?  

Mothers so despoiled by their children might not be content. Is Night angry with the plunderer? She tucks him in every evening - a mild ministry of love? Or a reassertion of her ineluctable primacy, her beforeness, that no entity, however hot and bright, can displace. Certainly Heracles, whose whereabouts the sun is begged to publicly proclaim after the manner of a herald, has encountered his share of potent angry goddesses. The anger started before he was born, and ended only with his conflagration. Hera's fury.

Enfolding mother and solar son, each taking the other down just when that other appears invincible. The virginal maidens of Trachis might be singing the ode, but its burden is Sophoclean. In this cosmic context, nothing, not even motherhood, is sacred. In the unceasing sacrifice, a making sacred might not be unimaginable -- but it's probably not going to be demonstrable. Yet even Zeus fears to anger Night.

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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A lesson in cross-dressing

Ovid's Fasti contain a host of tales, some rather bawdy. Here's part of the tale (Fasti Book 2) of Faunus, who spied Omphale walking with Hercules and was wounded by love.
By chance Tirynthian Hercules was walking with Omphale,
His mistress, and Faunus saw them from a high ridge.
He saw and burned. ‘Mountain spirits,’ he said,
‘No more of your company: she will be my passion.’
It was midnight. What will unruly love not dare?
Faunus came through the dark to the dewy cave,
And seeing the servants lost in drunken slumber,
Had hopes of their master also being fast asleep.
Entering, as a reckless lover, he roamed around,
Following his cautious outstretched hands.
He reached the couches spread as beds, by touch,
And this first omen of the future was bright.
When he felt the bristling tawny lion-skin,
However, he drew back his hand in terror,
And recoiled, frozen with fear, as a traveller, troubled,
Will draw back his foot on seeing a snake.
Then he touched the soft coverings of the next couch,
And its deceptive feel misled him.
He climbed in, and reclined on the bed’s near side,
And his swollen cock was harder than horn.
But pulling up the lower hem of the tunic,
The legs there were bristling with thick coarse hair.
The Tirynthian hero fiercely repelled another attempt,
And down fell Faunus from the heights of the couch.
At the noise, Omphale called for her servants, and light:
Torches appeared, and events became clear.
Faunus groaned from his heavy fall from the high couch,
And could barely lift his limbs from the hard ground.
Hercules laughed, as did all who saw him lying there,
And the Lydian girl laughed too, at her lover.

 Tintoretto: Hercules expels Faunus from Omphale's bed

Xenocleia's tripod

The stories about Heracles are so various and numerous as to dwarf all other heroes. The tale of Xenocleia, linked to the murder of Iphitos and the mandatory service to Omphale, is worth a look:
Xenoclea, who appears as a character in the legend of Hercules, was the Pythia, or priestess and oracle, of the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
The Delphic oracle was a historical reality and was established in the 8th century BC. 
According to Pausanias and others, Hercules travelled to Delphi to consult the Oracle following the death of Iphitus, whom he had thrown off a wall in the city of Tiryns while Iphitus was staying with him as a guest. Suffering from nightmares, Hercules sought advice as to how to be cured. However, when he came to address his request to Xenoclea, she refused to help him, considering that he was still unpurified from the blood and death of Iphitus and also being shocked by the nature of his crime. Her only answer to him was "You murdered your guest, I have no oracle for such as you".  
This contemptuous reply so enraged Hercules that he sacrilegiously seized the priestess's Delphic tripod, took it away, and would not return it until she had agreed to grant his own request.
After the return of her tripod, and after bathing in the Castalian Spring, Xenoclea pronounced that Hercules would be purified of the death of Iphitus only by serving a year as a slave, with the price he fetched going to the children of Iphitus as compensation for the loss of their father. Asked who was to buy him, Xenoclea replied that it would be Omphale, Queen of Lydia. Hercules accepted the guidance of the oracle and agreed to serve Omphale for one year. 
Ancient depictions of the incident in the temple survive. On one ancient vase, Hercules is shown carrying off the sacred tripod, while Apollo, holding a branch of laurel, struggles to recover it and Xenoclea, apparently terrified by the dispute, looks on from a window, awaiting the outcome.
Heracles is more than the brilliant hero of the labors. He struggles with gods, scares oracles, and destroys innocent humans, including his first wife and children. Yet he was the splendid, saving alternative to Achelous:
Deianira: But at last, to my joy, the glorious son of Zeus and Alcmena came and closed with him in combat and delivered me.

Apollo and Hercules struggling for possession of the tripod, with Artemis on the left helping her brother, and Athena, in the center, helping Hercules.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hercules in chains - of gold

Ovid offered another perspective on Hercules and Iole in Heroides 9, a letter from Deianira to the hero, with a sly dig - here's Kline's translation:
Now a foreign rival is brought before my eyes,
and I cannot hide from myself what I suffer!
You won’t let me avoid her: she walks like a captive
through the middle of the city to be seen by unwilling eyes.
But not with unbound hair in the manner of a captive:
she confesses her good fortune by her seemly looks,
walking, visible far and wide, covered with gold,
just as you yourself were dressed in Phrygia:
Omphale in Hercules' garb

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Heracles still at work

The BBC brings us yet another Heracles. A show in which the images allegorize the achievements of the Russian strongman.

He grapples with the hydra of Western sanctions:

Here, Putin is destroying the coarse "oligarch beasts":

Here he's riding a Crimean ox that's broken away to return to mother Russia:

The participating artists preferred to remain anonymous. More here: The 12 Labours of... Putin.

[Added]: Happy Birthday Mr. Putin