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.