Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Voiceless informers: A contrast of entrances in the Oresteia

[Edited to clean up some minor infelicities - the major ones remain...]

Chorus of Erinyes

εἶεντόδ᾽ ἐστὶ τἀνδρὸς ἐκφανὲς τέκμαρ.
245ἕπου δὲ μηνυτῆρος ἀφθέγκτου φραδαῖς.
τετραυματισμένον γὰρ ὡς κύων νεβρὸν
πρὸς αἷμα καὶ σταλαγμὸν ἐκματεύομεν.
Aha! This is a clear sign of the man. Follow the hints of a voiceless informer. For as a hound tracks a wounded fawn, so we track him by the drops of blood.  (Eum. 244-47)
If Charles Sanders Peirce were here he might make note that whatever else is going on here, the Furies are reading the track of Orestes as a set of indices. The scent of blood neither resembles Orestes nor is a conventional signifier.

Aeschylus's Fury interestingly notes that these signs they've been following are clear even as they are μηνυτῆρος ἀφθέγκτου, "voiceless informers." This characterization of the path of signs suggests both something that can be read unambiguously -- they speak clearly -- at the same time they are unable to speak. Blood here is a natural trace the Furies can read thanks to the materiality of the signifier.

Indexical signs often are proximate to the thing they refer to, just as water on the ground would indicate that it has rained.

When the Erinyes arrive at the Temple, what they see is Orestes clutching the famed wooden statue of Athena -- an icon of the goddess whose help he seeks. The contrast of the two kinds of sign is a feature of the scene.

It's remarkable how Aeschylus's theatrical imagination can offer what seems a barely disguised ideogram of semiotics writ large. Take Clytemnestra's speech, her first important one in Agamemnon that describes each station of her blazing relay. It's a Big Concatenated Sign from Ida that flashed news of the fall of Ilium to her rooftop Watchman.

Here's just the beginning:


Ἥφαιστος Ἴδης λαμπρὸν ἐκπέμπων σέλας.
φρυκτὸς δὲ φρυκτὸν δεῦρ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ἀγγάρου πυρὸς
ἔπεμπενἼδη μὲν πρὸς Ἑρμαῖον λέπας
Λήμνουμέγαν δὲ πανὸν ἐκ νήσου τρίτον
285Ἀθῷον αἶπος Ζηνὸς ἐξεδέξατο,
ὑπερτελής τεπόντον ὥστε νωτίσαι,
ἰσχὺς πορευτοῦ λαμπάδος πρὸς ἡδονὴν
πεύκη τὸ χρυσοφεγγέςὥς τις ἥλιος,
σέλας παραγγείλασα Μακίστου σκοπαῖς:
290 δ᾽ οὔτι μέλλων οὐδ᾽ ἀφρασμόνως ὕπνῳ
νικώμενος παρῆκεν ἀγγέλου μέρος:

Hephaestus, from Ida speeding forth his brilliant blaze. Beacon passed beacon on to us by courier-flame: Ida, to the Hermaean crag in Lemnos; to the mighty blaze upon the island succeeded, third, [285] the summit of Athos sacred to Zeus; and, soaring high aloft so as to leap across the sea, the flame, travelling joyously onward in its strength, the pinewood torch, its golden-beamed light, as another sun, passing the message on to the watchtowers of Macistus. [290] He, delaying not nor carelessly overcome by sleep, did not neglect his part as messenger.. . . 
The entire speech is stupendous -- revealing on the level of story that this relay of fires was set up by Clytemnestra to have the earliest news of the downfall of Troy. It moves through distances with the dexterity of a winged goddess, and her description blurs from that of the architect of this system of signals to an omniscience that sees the warders at every site quickly kindling this blazing message.

We could spend time on the significance of these fires as images of both Troy and an impending event in Hellas, etc. But staying with Peirce we'll note that  they've become conventional symbols thanks to the pre-arranged sign system set up by the Queen. The iconic has become a symbol with a meaning that it does not resemble.

What's more, the rich descriptive details of the watchmen along the way vividly enact precisely how messages move from sender to receiver, each in his own context, working with his own materials. A semiotician might observe that all relayed messages depend on contingent means that are supposed to faithfully replicate the message. Describing her chain of messengers, Clytemnestra notes that the warder at Macistus could have fallen asleep and missed the signal.

Her telling itself of this barreling relay of fires itself catches fire. Flame seen from a mountain where goats roam stimulate flames that don't simply "answer," but grow with ungovernable autonomous energy. As the flames swoop, leap, are stoked to be larger than ordered, inevitable contingency at play around each link of the chain inserts itself. Anyone who has played telephone knows how messages can go astray, or get out of hand.

In foregrounding both the import of the message and the contingencies along its path, Clytemnestra, like many messengers in Greek plays, gives us insight into who she is. Her role as her husband's surrogate has assumed new energy, a life of its own. Exulting in the alacrity of those tending her voiceless informers, she paints an epic picture and demonstrates with a field marshal's grasp of the Great World -- all its moving parts, and what can go wrong. We know her better after she's done.

Athena's first speech comes as she enters the temple of Athena Polias, where she finds Orestes clinging to her image, and the Furies ready to drain him.


πρόσωθεν ἐξήκουσα κληδόνος βοὴν
ἀπὸ Σκαμάνδρου γῆν καταφθατουμένη,
ἣν δῆτ᾽ Ἀχαιῶν ἄκτορές τε καὶ πρόμοι,
400τῶν αἰχμαλώτων χρημάτων λάχος μέγα,
ἔνειμαν αὐτόπρεμνον εἰς τὸ πᾶν ἐμοί,
ἐξαίρετον δώρημα Θησέως τόκοις:
ἔνθεν διώκουσ᾽ ἦλθον ἄτρυτον πόδα,
πτερῶν ἄτερ ῥοιβδοῦσα κόλπον αἰγίδος.
405πώλοις ἀκμαίοις τόνδ᾽ ἐπιζεύξασ᾽ ὄχον
καινὴν δ᾽ ὁρῶσα τήνδ᾽ ὁμιλίαν χθονὸς
ταρβῶ μὲν οὐδένθαῦμα δ᾽ ὄμμασιν πάρα.
τίνες ποτ᾽ ἐστέπᾶσι δ᾽ ἐς κοινὸν λέγω:
βρέτας τε τοὐμὸν τῷδ᾽ ἐφημένῳ ξένῳ,
410ὑμᾶς θ᾽ ὁμοίας οὐδενὶ σπαρτῶν γένει,
οὔτ᾽ ἐν θεαῖσι πρὸς θεῶν ὁρωμένας
οὔτ᾽ οὖν βροτείοις ἐμφερεῖς μορφώμασιν.
λέγειν δ᾽ ἄμομφον ὄντα τοὺς πέλας κακῶς
πρόσω δικαίων ἠδ᾽ ἀποστατεῖ θέμις.
From afar I heard the call of a summons, from the Scamander, while I was taking possession of the land, which the leaders and chiefs of the Achaeans assigned to me, a great portion of the spoil their spears had won, [400] to be wholly mine forever, a choice gift to Theseus' sons. From there I have come, urging on my tireless foot, without wings rustling the folds of my aegis. As I see this strange company of visitors to my land, I am not afraid, but it is a wonder to my eyes. Who in the world are you? I address you all in common—this stranger sitting at my image, and you, who are like no race of creatures ever born, [410] neither seen by gods among goddesses nor resembling mortal forms. But it is far from just to speak ill of one's neighbor who is blameless, and Right stands aloof.

Her speech offers many telling details that contrast with both Clytemnestra and the Furies. Busily engaged in public affairs, she hears a call from afar that arrives without need of fire warders. Her reference to her mode of travel has a blithe tone:
From there I have come, urging on my tireless foot, without wings rustling the folds of my aegis 
The impression is that she moves effortlessly, in strong contrast to the exhausted Furies at their first entrance. Her reference to the aegis has an unaffected, offhand quality. She seems approachable, down to earth.

Her entrance offers interesting theatrical possibilities. If we consider the audience might have been terrified just moments before by the Furies' magniloquence:


τίς οὖν τάδ᾽ οὐχ ἅζεταί
390τε καὶ δέδοικεν βροτῶν,
ἐμοῦ κλύων
τὸν μοιρόκραντον ἐκ θεῶν
δοθέντα τέλεον;
What mortal, then, does not stand in awe and dread when he hears from me the law ordained by Fate and accepted by the gods? 
Athena's chatty absence of dread can be played to conjure a gentle comic contrast. The mention of her foot recalls that the dread chorus had just moments before sung of -- and presumably danced with vehemence -- their power to trip up even speedy mortals:


μάλα γὰρ οὖν ἁλομένα
ἀνέκαθεν βαρυπεσῆ
καταφέρω ποδὸς ἀκμάν,
375σφαλερὰ καὶ τανυδρόμοις
κῶλαδύσφορον ἄταν.
For surely with a great leap from above I bring down the heavily falling edge of my foot, my limbs that trip even swift runners —unendurable ruin.

Their showy awfulness is instantly defused as Athena exhibits wonder and curiosity, but no dread:

καινὴν δ᾽ ὁρῶσα τήνδ᾽ ὁμιλίαν χθονὸς
ταρβῶ μὲν οὐδένθαῦμα δ᾽ ὄμμασιν πάρα.
τίνες ποτ᾽ ἐστέπᾶσι δ᾽ ἐς κοινὸν λέγω:
As I see this strange company of visitors to my land, I am not afraid, but it is a wonder to my eyes. Who may you be? I speak to all alike . . . (Eum. 405-7 
Sommerstein's translation adapted here.)

After the thrilling dance of the Erinyes, (reputed to have caused infants to expire and women to miscarry) Athena's entrance is clothed in the language of daily life -- she speaks in prose.

The Athenians would notice. Here's their goddess, the embodiment and protectress of their city, yet instead of some stagy entrance replete with flashy signifiers and an entourage of devotees and hangers on, she appears as one speaking "to all alike."

This seems the very pith of what Aeschylus is getting at. Athena is wonderful, and fresh and beautiful and powerful and fearless -- and she's also sublimely natural, simple, and open. What the Furies will eventually come to see, but what we might already sense, is that Athenian democracy doesn't sound like Homer, possess wings, or look like darkly haunted demons. This goddess who came when called isn't simply wise -- she's good humored, unpretentious, and, in this her city, wonderfully one of us.

I really thought I'd get to the finish line with this -- almost there. A few final remarks will follow.

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