Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TFBT: The Experiences of Tiresias Part II of II

 Nicole Loraux subtitled her lovely book; The Feminine and the Greek Man  I reviewed the first half of the book previously.  Here is the second half.

Chapter Seven; The Contradictions of Heracles  

Heracles being the most popular of the Ancient Greek heroes it only follows that he would be the most sung and written about.  All those stories illustrate myriad different aspects of the ultimate male.  She warns us against discussing the characters of Greek myth Heracles as” an actual being endowed with actual childhoods” and suggests instead that,  If myth is actually something like the collective equivalent of a dream.  Heracles is not the proper object of our analysis; rather we should be analyzing the workings of the Greek imagination…”

Among the contradictions Loraux discusses is Heracles servitude to Queen Omphale.  His mistress insists the mighty hero swamp clothes with her.  This allows Loraux to touch on the hero’s homosexuality and the topic of transvestism.  As an amusing aside, Casanova has a different perspective on mutual cross dressing,“The moment we entered she bolted the door, much to my surprise. "I wish you," she said, "to dress me up in your ecclesiastical clothes, and I will disguise you as a woman with my own things.”...“Our disguise being complete, we went together to the dancing-hall, where the enthusiastic applause of the guests soon restored our good temper. Everybody gave me credit for a piece of fortune which I had not enjoyed” 

Chapter Eight and Nine; The Immortality of Socrates

These two chapters on the immortality of Socrates are, of course, a discussion on the immortality of all men.  But, now unfettered by “actual beings” she seems to leave behind the fact that the Ancient Greeks were indeed actual beings with actual childhood and actual beliefs in the world to come.  A careful reading can follow the logic of her writing to its unsatisfactory conclusion.  But along the way a careless reader or one not schooled in the classics and mythology might get lost in the labyrinth of Platonic quotes. 

  •         “…the wind literally blows  the soul to bits when it quits the body and scatters in all directions…”.  Which is contradicted by  “Socrates is leaving, going to some happy land of the blessed, the philosopher’s lot is that which Hesiod reserved for the elite of the heroes of the Trojan War and which Pindar in his second Olympian kept for the favorites of the gods”.
  •         She talks about  “Plato’s innovative theory of the immortality of the soul.” as if Homer didn’t  present the options for an immortal soul in the Odyssey
  •         She talks  of  “the imaginary journey that Socrates takes under the spell of  civic eloquence, believes himself to have made to the Island of the Blessed.”  and “Socrates, stronger than the (strength of Heracles) in the mythical accounts.”  Is she implying that the afterlife is imaginary and mythical? 
  •    And concludes with  “We have tried to read Plato’s dialogue on immortality as an argument playing on two levels; the soul is immortal, but that immortality is upheld by the memorial that was Socrates’ unforgettable body.” 
I can’t make out here what Loraux believes.  Does she think the afterlife is a fable? Does she think the ancients thought the afterlife a fable?  Is her translator true to her intent? 

But maybe there is another issue at hand here.  Not too far from Athens was the town of  Eleusis.  The first great Athenian playwright, Aeschylus grew up there.  It was famous for the Eleusisian Mysteries.  These are two great ceremonies, that theoretically taught initiates the secret to immortality.  Hercules, in  Euripides play of the same name, states that he was able to escape Hades (Death) because he had been initiated into the he Eleusisian Mysteries . The catch was that you could not reveal what you saw or heard there.   The poet Aeschylus grew up in Eleusis.  Several accounts charge him with being indiscreet upon the stage.  The audience rose up and attempted to stone him to death on the spot.  (To quote Loraux “Philosophers desire death, declares the multitude, promptly offering them the fate to which they aspire. ) A trial ensued in which he was acquitted primarily because of his and his brother’s bravery in service to the state.  Maybe Plato wanted to avoid a similar fate and consequently wrote in conflicting terms about the immortality he and his teacher Socrates were sure of. 

 Chapter 10; Delphi Revisited

For those that don’t know the stories of Delphi, I will offer a summary here.  The first thing the twin gods Apollo and Artemis did after their remarkably short childhoods was to slay the serpent Python.  Python had chased their pregnant mother across the world when it came time for their births. In revenge the godlings quickly slew the semi-divine snake.  Then just as quickly Leto’s children went across the world seeking purification for the murder.  In those days, it meant finding a piglet and a king, but for some reason the ceremony didn’t ever stick and it took some time for Apollo to get on with his life.  The first thing Apollo did was found his famous oracle.  He chose Delphi.  It was guarded by Python’s snakish spouse Delphyne.  Quite often in Greek Myth a traveling prince rescues a princess from some asymmetrical monster and as a reward gets her hand in marriage and her father’s kingdom.  You wonder if these monsters are ravaging the king’s territory or protecting his ravishing daughter.  In point of fact, the oracle belonged first to Mother Earth, then Themis, then Apollo’s grandmother Phoebe who turned it over to him.  Most mythologists consider Phoebe no more than a place name on a family tree.  Loraux agrees with all that and uses it to demonstrate that “The feminine; the primitive, the obscure, the completed, the time that has passed and therefore I always pat or better that has been assimilated by what came after 

The thing that came after in this case is the rule of Zeus and submission of the feminine to the male rule.  And yet, the first book of the Iliad proves that the will of Thetis is greater than all the gods combined.  Can the Fates now be denied?  And wasn’t it a goddess who orchestrated every revolt among the gods?

 She then argues that ” the end of the story (Apollo presiding at the Oracle on Zeus’ behalf) gives meaning to the beginning.”  Well to use an Ancient Greek word; “dh!”  Clearly that is how a story teller shares his tale.  Still can we be sure the heavy handed Fates don’t do the same.  Conversely, maybe our Dreams (which Loraux belittles), our all-powerful self-regenerating Memories and the Stories we choose to tell, all slay the alternative destinies that lay before us and drives us head long into our own self-chosen fate.

She also has some great insights on menis; a famous Greek word for wrath with cosmic consequences.  It is the first word in the Iliad.  She says, “Menis: anger as memory, the most fearsome name for fury, an ill-omened word that even the gods and Zeus himself do not dare to call by its proper name, since perhaps only the
Erinyes do not hesitate to speak of their own menis…Memory that takes the form of wrath poses a danger for all others.  It is something to be feared and avoided.”  And ends with Menis has been brought to an end.  It had to happen for the order of the world and myth has the task of telling this story.”

Chapter 11; The Contradictions of Helen

If you read about Helen, you know the wondrous mystery that is she.  If not, Loraux covers the topic wonderfully. 

 So in the beginning there was Helen…If in the beginning there is war, at the beginning of the war there is always Helen and the painful lewdness that Paris chose on fine morning in a cool vale of Ida.”  All of which reminds me HR’s comment in Helen in Egypt, “The admitted first cause of all time and all history.”

She reminds us that “Helen first appears in the poem seated at her loom and the figures that she traces in to the purple of the cloth say it all in the silent language of her weaving: There she draws the trials the Trojans and Achaians have undergone for her and the blows of Ares

Then after reciting all the contradictions that Helen can be she recalls that, “Stesichorus” speaking of Helen’s travel to Troy says, “No, it is not true that you have gone…No you didn’t got to Troy, only your double followed Paris.”  Helen was “far away in the land of elsewhere that for the Greeks is Egypt.”  And quotes Menelaus, “To have labored for a phantom made of mist, labored for wind, labored for nothing, this is more than Helen’s husband can bear after ten years of war and long wanders.  And when he cries out, the immensity of my trials here below alone convinces me and not you.

Chapter 12: What Tiresias Saw

You would think that a book about the feminine and the Greek man would use the story of Tiresias living as a woman for seven years as a key concept, but Loraux says, “Tiresias did not see the coupling of two snakes.  It  follows that he was not transformed into a woman and did not have to become a man once more, before being blinded for incautiously intervening in a dispute between Hera and Zeus concerning the intensity  feminine pleasure.”  Loraux goes with the story that Tiresias’ blindness occurred when he saw Athena nude in her bath with his own mother and then hints about bisexuality.  She mentions several other rather possibilities, each more abstract than the last.  The most solid argument being, “Callimachus’ Athena…explains that she has nothing to with this punishment which is certainly horrible but is a result of the ancient law of Cronus: one cannot behold the gods against their will.”

In short let me recommend The Experiences of Tiresias. Loraux’s dense beautiful writing evenly covers the depth and breath of Ancient Greek literature in search of what it means to be a man sharing enlightenment.  

Try the quiz on the above at  http://gotoquiz.com/V4ZdG


  1. I do not believe in afterlife and usually do not even state it explicitly because in my country, this is the dominant culture. Maybe Loraux is in the same situation.
    As for the ancients' opinion - although Socrates talked in his Apology as if he had booked a reservation for Elysium, he felt obliged to consider also the possibility that there would be no afterlife. Plato in the "Republic" descibed an afterlife which was clearly his invention. In this respect, it is intriguing for me that Aeschylus' Prometheus told the Oceanids,
    'I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom... (by planting) blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.'
    I do not see any other way to interpret this except that he told the humans about an (invented) afterlife. BTW, I don't like the bragging intonation of the statement.

  2. Maya,

    I agree I don't like the bragging intonation of the Prometheus statement either. we discussed this before. http://shortstories-bill.blogspot.com/2012/01/tfbt-to-lead-mankind-in-revolt-against.html Prometheus' motivations weren't as pure as unionists and free thinkers would have us think. I bet he had quit the attitude; knowing the future like he did. How cocky he must of been know that he could humble Zeus one day and free his brothers all in exchange for a little information about Thetis.