Monday, December 17, 2018

Agamemnon seen glancingly through Hesiod's readers

The Catalogue of Women was a rich epic treatment of famous and heroic women of antiquity. Attributed to Hesiod, only fragments have come down to us, mainly via mentions by a slew of ancient writers. The book was apparently known at least through the Hellenistic age and even in Byzantine times.

Clytaemnestra and Iphigeneia
Louis Billotey
Among the fragments one finds tantalizing tidbits that offer some background and depth to the story of Tyndareus, how he brokered the marriage of Helen, who among the great Greeks of the day sought to woo her, why Achilles was not the obvious choice (he was too young at the time), why Menelaos won out, and why Tyndareus's daughters both betrayed their husbands. 

Whether actually by Hesiod or no, the fragments have the flavor of learned epic gossip, rich in lore, serving to satisfy those who love all the ancient tales and are full of questions. For those curious about the tale of Helen, the poet has answers. Ovid clearly was in his debt.

For the Helen story, see fragments 67-70.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Rolling stars Agamemnon 2-21.

The Agamemnon opens with the watchman's anticipation. He's on the look-out for the sumbolon, a prearranged fiery relay carrying the good news that Troy has been taken. He talks at some length about that long lonely wait, and how, doglike, he fights sleep, boredom, and dreams. But before that, he speaks of how he's come to understand the assembly of stars (astron).



I have learned well the gathering of the night´s stars, bringers of winter and summer to mankind, those radiant ruling stars conspicuous in the night sky, whenever fading or rising. 
So now I am still watching for the signal [sumbolon] of the flame, the gleaming fire that is to bear word from Troy and tidings of its capture. (Ag. 4-10 - Smyth Nagy - modified.)
In his aside, he looks up and first sees gatherings of stars bringing the frosts of winter and heat of summer. He uses two words for stars in this brief aside: Commonplace stars that form the gatherings are ἄστρων. Ruling stars conspicuous in the night sky, fading or rising, are ἀστέρας.

His nod to the heavens is brief, yet the watchman manages to include a nuanced appreciation of these fires in the sky -- the commoners bearing the seasons and temperatures, then, his tone heightens as he speaks of the radiant giants. It's a quick moment, and one might wonder why Aeschylus bothered. Why not just have the watchman speak of what he's waiting for, and why?

One possible motive for a seemingly gratuitous nod to the stars is its effect within this speech. It sets the gallery of lights up there as a stable and predictable but distant realm. It's a point of reference -- far, but not entirely beyond, our earthly existence; orders of magnitude larger, especially if we are likened to dogs. Stars bear larger tasks than we do, but even the brightest undergo regular routines of change. From his nightly chore the watchman feels on familiar terms with them.

As he turns from the night sky to the horizon and his work of watching, the fiery object of his watch, unbenknownst to him, is already racing across the dark waters between the Troad and Argos, about to blaze into view.

He speaks of fighting off sleep, trying to keep a sharp line between dream and waking, and wishes for this ponos to end:
νῦν δ᾽ εὐτυχὴς γένοιτ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴ πόνων  
εὐαγγέλου φανέντος ὀρφναίου πυρός 
But tonight may there come a happy release from these ordeals [ponoi] of mine!
May the fire with its glad tidings flash through the gloom!
The signal fire suddenly flashes out.
 χαῖρε λαμπτὴρ νυκτός, 
Oh welcome, you blaze in the night . . .
He reads the light, welcoming it as the good news he's been expecting. This fire appearing out of the murk (φανέντος ὀρφναίου πυρός) is his lucky star. It will reorient Argos, it will the watchman's longeurs and bring the great ruler home.

But this star of good tidings won't have the enduring serene stability of the astron or the asteras. It'll be more comet than star.

A tentative interpretation: Aeschylus interpolates the watchman's view of the heavens on line 4 to establish the first moment of a pattern in the Agamemnon.  Those heavenly stars bearing gradual change seem distant and aloof, but what if that distance suddenly vanished? What comes rolling into view certainly seems a star blazing out of the East, double speaking of Troy past and of something veiled, yet to be disclosed.

In the Agamemnon, everything is connected to everything. The watchman's seeming "aside" about the stars proves more: it's a marker in the syntax of his world, where what seems far off, or a dream, can suddenly, powerfully turn from familiar vertical hierarchic stability into a jolting usurpation of fundamental human order.

Sign and symbol [sumbolon] carry a lot of freight in this play. The shining good news from Troy "means" the triumph of General Agamemnon, until the very same sign means the rising of his Queen and the murder of the conqueror of Troy wrapped in purple, in the bath.

The watchman underscores this in another simile:

ὅταν δ᾽ ἀείδειν  μινύρεσθαι δοκῶ
ὕπνου τόδ᾽ ἀντίμολπον ἐντέμνων ἄκος
κλαίω τότ᾽ οἴκου τοῦδε συμφορὰν στένων 

. . . and whenever I care to sing or hum 
(and thus apply a remedy of song in place of sleep), 
then my tears start forth, as I bewail the fortunes of this house of ours, 

Whenever he tries to sing or hum a tune -- μινύρεσθαι can mean "to hum" or "warble" like a nightingale -- then this use of song as substitute (ἀντίμολπονfor sleep, which he intricately compares to chopping an herb's roots (ἐντέμνων) to prepare a stimulant, turns the song as it is sung into a wail.

Later the chorus will sing of heart pains dripping as we sleep; building wisdom from suffering while we're not even paying attention. The watchman's song comes out as an uncontrolled, arrhythmic croak. Beauty is undone in this house; the song and croaking sorrow are one.

At this moment, he sees the fire.

In contrast to the organic, vocal link of choking pain, disruption, and awareness he just experienced, the watchman, having seen the unambiguous sign of fallen Troy (ὡς  φρυκτὸς ἀγγέλλων πρέπει --  as this beacon unmistakably announces l.30), speaks of a lucky roll in a game of chance. The ambiguity of the symbol resolves, he believes, into clear good news.

That purported clarity has him spring into a jig, prelude to the dance of the chorus that enters as he descends from the roof into the house to relay the sign to Clytaemnestra.

αὐτός τ᾽ ἔγωγε φροίμιον χορεύσομαι
τὰ δεσποτῶν γὰρ εὖ πεσόντα θήσομαι 
τρὶς ἓξ βαλούσης τῆσδέ μοι φρυκτωρίας

And I will join the khoros in a prelude upon my own account; 
for my lord’s lucky roll of the dice I shall count to my own score, 
now that this beacon has thrown me triple six. 

Best to stay awake in Argos, where a placid starry messenger moving on high turns to a burning comet moving over dark seas, seeming sign of a lucky cast. In the quicksilver light of symbol and signifier, presumptive closure bears watching.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Agamemnon line 1

. . . until times within living memory the exponents of Aeschylus were necessarily and properly engrossed by the preliminary difficulties of language and grammar ~ A.W. Verrall
The opening line of the Agamemnon has the watchman begging the gods to free him -- from πόνος:

I ask the gods for release from these ordeals [ponoi] of mine,

He opens this tragedy spying light, fire relayed from the burning city of Troy to Agamemnon's Mycenae. His reads that light, which opens into a question of ultimate cause and import, as a signal. We see him no more - his prayer has been answered, the light has freed him from his πόνος.

The word signifies work, labor, but then broadens to aggregate all kinds of difficulty:

II. stress, trouble, distress, suffering, Il.19.227; “Τρώεσσι πόνον καὶ κήδε᾽ἔθηκεν” 21.525; “ μὴν καὶ πἐστὶν . .” 2.291ἐν τούτῳ τῷ π., of a storm, Hdt.7.190 Μηδικὸς .] the trouble from the Medes, Id.4.1; “παῦροι ἐν πόνῳπιστοί” Pi.N.10.78: freq. in Trag., “πόνος πόνῳ πόνον φέρει” S.Aj.866 (lyr.); “πόνον ἔχειν” Id.OC232 (lyr.), etc.: in pl., sufferings, A.Pr.66328, etc.; πόνους πονεῖν (cf. “πονέω” B.1.2); “διά τινα πόνους ἔχειν” Ar.Ec. 975 (lyr.); also of disease, “κατέβαινεν ἐς τὰ στήθη  π.” Th.2.49; “πλευρᾶς πόνοι καὶθώρακος καὶ ἥπατος” Dsc.1.2ἰσχίων πκαὶ πλευρᾶς ib. 73.

A few lines further along, the watchman repeats his plea for release, using the same words, and makes a wish -- for good news:

But tonight may there come a happy release from these ordeals [ponoi] of mine!
May the fire with its glad tidings (εὐαγγέλου) flash through the gloom!  (Smyth, Nagy et al)

The light that frees the watchman from his care will determine the courses of the city and its king, and the lives of his successors and heirs. The signal from Troy -- a compound of intelligible light and potent flame, carries a seething contagion through the lives of all who think it is "good news" -- a message of freedom from πόνος, of hope and a turn toward peace.

The opening is the experience of this news -- that is, its portentous power turns on what this light reveals, what lies in shadow -- thus upon reading and misreading, and on what it can and will set ablaze. Behind this telegraph contrived to give earliest notice of the supreme triumph of Agamemnon will lurk love, betrayal, vengeance, hubris, murder of children, political choices, war, spoils, destruction, interpretation of signs, prophecy, bad manners, and the beginnings of a superceding order.

If Aeschylus is anything, he's a firehose of Greek insight, myth, rigor, valor, and poetic power. His text is difficult, corrupt, and long was a mystery to most readers, well after Sophocles and Euripides had been knowledgeably edited, as noted (above) as recently as 1889 by A.W. Verrall. In short, he presents ponos -- difficult interpretive work both for what he did make, and for all the garbled, missing, interpolated things he didn't. He brings news -- it will be a while before we have any idea whether it's the kind of liberating news we're happy to hear.

Leda's children

Leda and the Swan - Francesco Melzi, from a lost work of Leonardo da Vinci

The Greek fascination with symmetrical pairs is latent in this myth of Leda giving birth to two eggs, each holding twins. One egg held the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces. As with the tale of Theseus, the parentage of the Dioscuri was uncertain. It seems Castor was actually the child of Tyndareus, and therefore mortal. Polydeuces was the immortal son of Zeus.

So much for the oversimplified phrase, "point of origin."

The same goes for the other egg, which contained Helen and Clytaemnestra -- Helen, of Zeus, and Clytaemnestra, of Tyndareus. These "twin" sisters married the brothers, Menelaus and Agamemnon, sons of Atreus and Aerope. 

Aerope, daughter of Catreus and therefore granddaughter of Minos, contributed to the horrific division between Atreus and Thyestes. Indeed, traced in detail, the trajectories of Catreus and his descendants had fateful impacts not only on the Pelopids, but later down the line on Menelaos, Agamemnon and Cassandra.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Killing of Agamemnon

Here Agamemnon, diminished in stature and dripping wet, is trapped in a net, while Aegisthos stands over him, ready to strike with his sword. Behind Aegisthos, Klytaimnestra carries a double ax to lend a hand. A larger image and other views of the krater can be found at this link.
The other side features the vengeance of Orestes upon Aegisthos. Elektra is there. Klytaimnestra enters with her double ax (the labrys).

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Monday, September 17, 2018

Agamemnon: Some translators

A few basic resources for Agamemnon.

For the text in Greek with two English translations, one by Robert Browning, see the Agamemnon on the Perseus site, where the Greek text is hyperlinked to four dictionaries. The other translation there, by Herbert Weir Smyth, is the one used in the Loeb edition of the play. That dual language Loeb edition can be found online in a pdf format here.

There's also a version of Smyth that was revised by Nagy and others. Key words are often allowed to remain in Greek, which can be helpful. That revision is here.

Clytemnestra killed by Orestes

Below is a comparison of lines 8-20 - these are difficult, highly figurative lines, a challenge for any reader:

Here's Browning's version:

And now on ward I wait the torch's token,
The glow of fire, shall bring from Troia message
And word of capture: so prevails audacious
The man's-way-planning hoping heart of woman.
But when I, driven from night-rest, dew-drenched hold to
This couch of mine -- not looked upon by visions,
Since fear instead of sleep still stands beside me,
So as that fast I fix in sleep no eyelids --
And when to sing or chirp a tune I fancy,
For slumber such song-remedy infusing,
I wail then, for this House's fortune groaning,
Not, as of old, after the best ways governed.
Now, lucky be deliverance from these labours,
At good news -- the appearing dusky fire!

Here's Smyth's prose:

So now I am still watching for the signal-flame, the gleaming fire that is to bring news from Troy and [10] tidings of its capture. For thus commands my queen, woman in passionate heart and man in strength of purpose. And whenever I make here my bed, restless and dank with dew and unvisited by dreams—for instead of sleep fear stands ever by my side, [15] so that I cannot close my eyelids fast in sleep—and whenever I care to sing or hum (and thus apply an antidote of song to ward off drowsiness), then my tears start forth, as I bewail the fortunes of this house of ours, not ordered for the best as in days gone by. [20] But tonight may there come a happy release from my weary task! May the fire with its glad tidings flash through the gloom!

There is also a free Google Book version of an older (1889) edition of the play. The Greek text with notes in English is followed by a translation by A. W. Verrall. It can be found here.

For some basic orientation and sensible reading, perhaps a good place to begin would be H.D.F. Kitto's two books: Greek Tragedy, and Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of Hamlet.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

With luck from a foreknowledge of fate

As we'll soon be beginning the Oresteia, this post from the splendid Sententiae Antiquae suggests some of the richness of Aeschylus's text:

In a choral ode from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, we find a folk etymology implied for Helen’s name. Where I have translated “killer”, the Greek has versions of the aorist of αἵρεω (εἶλον) which, without its augment looks like the beginning of Helen’s name (ἑλ-).

 Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696
“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
Struggled-over woman
For, appropriately,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois
For a bloody strife.”
Helen disarms Menelaos

Χο. τίς ποτ’ ὠνόμαξεν ὧδ’
ἐς τὸ πᾶν ἐτητύμως—
μή τις ὅντιν’ οὐχ ὁρῶ-
μεν προνοί-
αισι τοῦ πεπρωμένου
γλῶσσαν ἐν τύχᾳ νέμων; —τὰν
δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ
θ’ ῾Ελέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλένας, ἕλανδρος, ἑλέ-
πτολις, ἐκ τῶν ἁβροπήνων
προκαλυμμάτων ἔπλευσε
Ζεφύρου γίγαντος αὔρᾳ,
τε φεράσπιδες κυναγοὶ
κατ’ ἴχνος πλατᾶν ἄφαντον
κελσάντων Σιμόεντος
ἀκτὰς ἐπ’ ἀεξιφύλλους
δι’ ἔριν αἱματόεσσαν.
The blog post goes on to cite other suggested etymologies for "Helen."

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Earth in view: Ars Amatoria I

Our next few weeks will be devoted to an amor somewhat less all-encompassing than that of Dante's Commedia. We'll be looking at Ovid's Ars Amatoria. As we already have an Ovid blog, posts devoted to that reading will appear there.

So far over there, there's just a note about translations. While the poetic matter might rather quotidian, nothing about Ovid is obvious or dull; he pushes genre rules and stylistic experiments to extremes, and can turn from an excursus upon Roman losers' foot hygiene to a visionary processional of Dionysus on a dime.