Thursday, June 26, 2014

TFBT: Winged Furies and Snatched Girls, Part I

On July 7th, at Hour 25 we begin the study of the “Oresteia”; a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus starting with “Agamemnon.  In the Iliad, during the funeral games for Patroclus, (XXIII 326-343) Nestor famously and in beautiful detail advises his son on how to win a chariot race, specifically how to turn the post at the far end of the race.  Universally, scholars and researchers acknowledge that his advice has nothing to do with turning-posts.  I am coming to the conclusion that Aeschylus’ play “Agamemnon” has nothing to do with King Agamemnon. 

Rather the play is about; Furies, generally called Erinyes and children.  The Erinyes are more ancient gods than the Olympians, born of the divine ichor split when the primordial sky-god Uranus was ambushed and castrated by his own sons.  The Erinyes are fearsome, gorgon-like, winged goddesses clothed in black with serpent-entwined hair and arms.  The children we discuss here are young women, little boys and unborn baby bunnies.

 "… when Aphrodite went up to high Olympus to entreat Zeus to let these girls (Pandareus’ daughters) attain the moment of happy marriage ... the Harpies snatched them away and delivered them to the ministrations of the detested Erinyes." Homer, Odyssey 20. 68

Helen as Victim

The first reference to lost children is at line 49,
starts with a pair of eagles screaming as they circle over their empty nest.  Screaming because they have lost their nestlings.  The winged wrathful creatures represent Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Though unnamed the fledgling snatched from their nest was Menelaus’ young wife Helen.  Aeschylus makes a habit of not naming characters in their “victim” role .  Iphigeneia herself is not named until line 1527 out of 1672.   Helen is snatched up by Paris and taken to Troy.  Helen was also snatched up by Theseus as a child and taken to Athens , snatched up by Menelaus at the end of the Trojan War and taken home, if we are to believe Stesichorus and Hilda Doolittle snatched by some deity (Hermes?) and taken to Egypt. Helen ever the handmaiden of the Erinyes is the tool Zeus’ uses to destroy Troy for the sins of Paris. She is called “a vengeful Eriny to be lamented by mourning brides.” (749)

Doe and Kits

Next reference to children is at line 119 where two eagles devour a rabbit bursting with a litter of kits ready to be born.  According to Calchas, the doe represents Troy and the atrocities that will be committed by the Achaeans on the night the city falls.  Oddly enough these two eagles (Agamemnon and Menelaus again) are the same eagles sent as Erinyes by Zeus to punish Paris' transgression of the laws of hospitality. (55)   

It is interesting to contrast the unborn bunnies with a litter of Argive beasts, (850) like lions  born from the belly of that wooden horse that leapt down and gorged themselves on royal blood.  Philip Vellacott in the Oresteian Trilogy (1956) points out that “locos” means both “litter” and “ambushers”.  He says that it is used here in reference to the Achaeans in the belly of the wooden beast.

The Unnamed Child

155 “It is a treacherous keeper of the household. It is an anger   that remembers, and it comes with punishment for whatever happened to a child. Such dire things did Calkhas proclaim,”  It struck me odd on first reading that Calchas didn’t say “Iphigenia”, but her name isn’t mentioned until line 1555.  Otherwise I would have expected “daughter”.  That not being said I wondered for moment if Aeschylus allowed for the death of the Broteides here.  The unnamed boy was the son of Clytemnestra’s first husband.  The child was son or grandson of Broteas, the ugliest man who ever lived.  As Clytemnestra avers in “Iphigeneia at Aulis” by Euripides “by force that thou didst take and wed me, after slaying Tantalus, my former husband, and dashing my babe on the ground alive, when thou hadst torn him from my breast with brutal violence.”  But the little boy, never named like the other victims in this play is never referenced. 

Thyestes Sons

At line 1095 Cassandra in fearsome trance points out “Behold those babies bewailing their own butchery and their roasted flesh eaten by their father!  The chorus doesn’t acknowledge that they know about “Thyestes' banquet” until several hundred lines later.  The boys, who the poet does name, but others have,  are Agamemnon’s cousins butchered and boiled up for a stew given to their father to eat.  Their father Thyestes suffered this vengeful deed in retaliation for sleeping with this brother’s wife.


And the finally we come to Iphigeneia taken up by her father’s ministers, her saffron robe falling from her,  and raised on the altar of Artemis and sacrificed in order to charm the Thracian winds.  (235 & 1414)  Artemis, however, snatched her away and transported her to the Tauroi, making her immortal, and put a stag in place of the girl upon the altar." Stasinus of Cyprus or Hegesias of Aegina, Cypria Fragment 1 

Summary on Snatched Children

The snatched children in “Agamemnon” consist of Helen, the unborn bunnies, Thyestes' Sons and Iphigeneia.  Of the kits I can write no more, but continue to ponder and contrast them with the brood of the Wooden Horse. 

I find it interesting the both Helen and Iphigeneia became goddesses. Helen alongside her brothers and sisters-in-law were worshipped at Therapnae and she was divine patroness of sailors.  Iphigeneia was either one of the Artemis nymph-companions or confounded with Hecate.  Admittedly deification is a common destiny for the descendants of Gorgophone, but still one wonders at the coincidence. 

Likewise, I wonder at the lack of heroic honors for Thyestes’ sons.  Snake-bit baby Opheltes was given heroic honors and a PanHellenic game by the Seven Against Thebes.  Medea’s children got “solemn festival and rituals” according to Euripides (Medea 1377).  The boys' grandfather Pelops was reborn with physical perfection and later heroic honors at the Olympic Games.

Part II will concentrate on the appearance of the Erinyes in “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus

Monday, June 23, 2014

TFBT: This Week at Hour 25


If you haven't been to Hour 25 lately, we hope you will visit right now! There are many wonderful events and discussions open to members of our community this week.

Were you fascinated by Homer during HeroesX? You aren't alone! Some H25ers are learning more about the Homeric phrase that is typically translated as "wine-dark sea." Here is their latest post, . Look for a new post tomorrow!

Do you crave drama? Kimie has invited everybody to read Aeschylus' Oresteia. I'll be joining these events. I hope you will too! Kimie can be reached here: 


Discuss Iliad X and the theme of ambush with the Hour 25 Book Club in the Project Chatroom on Wednesday, June 25th at 2:00 p.m. EDT. Learn more here: .

Join us for a CHS Open House and Q&A with Professor Olga Levaniouk on "Penelope and Weaving." This live webcast will take place on Thursday, June 26th at 11:00 a.m. EDT. Learn more: .
The Friday Cafe is a great place to relax and greet people. Don't miss the latest "On the Road" Cafe . And don't forget to check in each Friday for a brand new topic!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

TFBT: Agamemnon's Refusal of Chryses' Ransom

At Hour 25, Harvard and the Center for Hellenic Studies' community-development project we are discussing Agamemnon's Refusal of Chryses' Ransom. 
If you don’t know the story you can read more about it in the Iliad.  Chryses, the priest of Apollo comes to the Achaean camp before the walls of Troy to ransom his daughter.  The Greeks called her Chryseis; that is Miss Chryses.  Agamemnon refused the ransom and sent the priest way with dire threats.  No too smart!  His decision and threats “brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs” (Iliad 1.2)  I would like to suggest that for Agamemnon, Chryseis was not  “a girl, just one girl”, but rather the latest in a series of “daughters” he’d lost.  He simply couldn’t lose one more. 

Loud rang the battle-cry they uttered in their rage, just as eagles scream which, in lonely grief for their brood, rowing with the oars of their wings, wheel high over their bed, because they have lost the toil of guarding their nurslings' nest. Aeschylus (Agamemnon 47) 

Helen was barely of marrying age when she married Agamemnon’s younger brother.  However, the most beautiful woman who ever lived was kidnapped by a prince from Troy.  At the discovery of her disappearance, the poet compares Agamemnon to an eagle that’d lost a fledgling, that is a father eagle that’d lost a child. 

Not long afterwards Agamemnon loses his own daughter Iphigenia at the Port of Aulis.  Regardless of the gory details, Agamemnon the father lost another daughter.   

In the opening scene of the Iliad Agamemnon is faced with the loss of Chryseis.  She is replaced with golden-haired Briseis, Miss Briseus.  But later Agamemnon makes a great “oath, that never went he up into her bed, neither had dalliance with her” (Iliad 9.278) Is it possible that he never touched Chryseis?  That for all his protestations of love it was actually fatherly love he felt for Chryseis.   

And that when her father came for her Agamemnon could not face the loss of one more daughter?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

TFBT: Pindar's Victory Songs Part II

This is part two of my review of Pindar’s Victory Songs by Frank J. Nisetich.  This has been a beautiful book.  If you are a bibliophile you will know how sometimes you just dread to reach the final page.  I would encourage anyone who loves reading just to delight in pretty words, the right word, and the turn of a phrase to read this book.  Classists; if you’ve never read Pindar, just mined him for gems, you have missed so much and will find so much more to treasure.  

The Aeacides and Zero

Pindar quite often celebrates victors at the PanHellenic games who claim descent from Aeacus.  If you don’t know the hero, he was the son of Zeus (aren’t the all) and an island nymph named Aegina.  Aeacus, friend of the gods, had such a reputation for piety and justice that he became a judge of the dead in the afterlife.  Meanwhile, she bore him two sons, Telamon, companion of Heracles and father of Ajax the Greater of the Iliad.  Nisetich suggests that the other son Peleus was visiting King Akastos, Akastos’ wife Hippolyta offered herself to the hero.  Peleus rejected the married woman’s advances.  Consequently, “Because he had respected the claims of hospitality and chastity, Zeus…rewarded him with the hand of Thetis.”  The Nereid Thetis insured her husband’s immortality by snatching him from earth towards the end of his life and taking him to live forever in her father’s halls beneath the Aegean Sea.  Meanwhile   Thetis bore to Peleus, Achilles the hero of the Iliad.  Ajax and Achilles attained fame beneath the walls of Troy and spent eternity on the paradisiac Isle of White.   

In Olympian 8 the odean says of the clan (and I paraphrase a lot) “Aiakos, whom Leto's child and Poseidon, lord of the tide summoned to help them crown Troy with her ring of walls… Apollo … said to Aiakos; “In the place where your hands have worked,  Pergamos is taken…and she will fall through battle-might of yours, beginning with the first and ending in the third of your line.”  
Nisetich explains that this means that “Telamon, in the first generation  after Aiakos, sacked her the first time .  In the next generation  Telamon’s son Ajax” and his cousin Achilles besieged the city but “It was reserved for (Achilles’ son ) Neoptolemmos to destroy the city forever.“  

Nisetich logic seems perfect.  My confusion is that I was taught that the archaic counting system didn’t have “zero”.  For example, the Ancient Greeks thought the Olympics were 5 years apart. Pretend it is 2016.  You and I are in Brazil at the games.  The next one is 2020 in Japan.  How many years apart is that?  Easy; 2016 is the first years, 2017 the second, 2018 the third, 2019 the fourth and 2020 the fifth.  Was I taught wrong about the Ancient Greeks counting system prior to introduction of “zero”?  Or was Pindar just smarter that everyone else?


Immortal Zeus Let the Titans Go 

 “immortal Zeus let the Titans go.”  Pythian 4  This is about the clearest indication that the Zeus finally released the Titans defeated in the Titanomachy.  Hesiod claims that their leader Cronus was also released from Tartarus “And they live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed along the shore of deep swirling Oceanus, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. (Hesiod, Works and Days 156)    Aeschylus, Fragment 114 Prometheus Unbound  indicates that Prometheus to betrayer of the Titans and the Olympians was released.  Pindar used the expression “immortal Zeus let the Titans go  as a sign that things can change;  an expression of hope.


The Antenorides and Helen 

Nisetich says that “Pindar tells us that the sons of Antenor came (to Cyrene) with Helen in their midst. Meaning , apparently that they accompanied Menelaus in his wandering after the fall of Troy.  Antenor has known for his disapproval of the marriage of Helen and Paris.  The Greeks spared him and his family when Troy fell. According to by Carlos Parada  ( ) Antenor and his household were saved that awful night because Odysseus and Menelaus were bound by ties of hospitality to him.  Antenor was their Trojan host during early peace negotiations.   Antenor and his sons ended up founding  Padua in  Italy


Man; a Shadow’s Dream  

“Man; a shadow’s dream”  Pythian 8   The shadow in question is the shade of a beloved ancestor.  The point is that we are the accumulation of our ancestors’ dreams and hopes.  As Pindar points out repeatedly the deceased delight in the successes of their descendants.  We discussed this in Hour 24.  I will ask in Hour 25, which reference we used for the discussion back then.


Alceme and her Family 

Nisetich declares that “Iolaos (son of Iphicles, son of Alcmene) had risen from the dead in order to kill Eurysetheus, the persecutor of Herakles and his children.  The Thebans then buried him again in the tomb of his grandfather Amphitryon.”  This sort of implies that Amphitryon the mortal father of Heracles and his grandson Iolaos enjoyed joint heroic honors at Thebes. 

Pythian 11 begins with Pindar calling upon the goddesses Semele ( in the company f Olympian goddesses) and her sister Ino (undersea with the Nereids) , Heracles’ mother Alceme and the local nymph Melia.  He refers to these Thebans as a “band of heroines. Heroic honors for Alceme?  Pindar buts here in the company of some pretty high powered gods.  Quiet the honor even if it isn’t heroic.


 A Crooked Phrase upon my Lips 

 “a crooked phrase upon my lips; sung out of tune”  (Nemean 7).  Pindar is apologizing for himself , but it made me think of Thersites in the Iliad 2.212 “chattering on Thersites of measureless speech, whose mind was full of great store of disorderly words... in no orderly wise”



Pindar is full of sage advice and proverbs.  I have thorough enjoyed this book and found words to live by repeatedly both from the poet and his translator.  Let me leave you with one last thought.  

 “I would wish to lay my limbs in earth beloved by my fellow citizens because I praised the praiseworthy and scattered blame on those who deserved it”

Sunday, June 8, 2014

TFBT: Pindar’s Victory Songs

I didn’t expect to like the Ancient Greek poet Pindar, but I do!  I am reading Pindar’s Victory Songs by Frank J. Nisetich. That fact that Nisetich prefaces each translation with an explanation of equal length to the ode might help those uninitiated into the mysteries of Greek mythology enjoy Pindar.  But what I really found surprising is that I enjoyed reading Nisetich.   

The book begins with a thorough and detailed discussion of the rules that pertain to victory odes (epinician).  For example, any self-reference by the poet changes the course of the ode and topic of the moment.  Nisetich ends the discussion with, “All these tendencies – to see the general behind the particular to grasp one thing by contrast with its opposites, to trace human vicissitudes to the will of the gods…or find the right response to a present situation through reference to myth or proverb – remain a dominant form of thought and style in archaic poetry.” 

Pindar was hired to write the poems in this book; to honor various victors at various of the PanHellenic games.  I’ve read half way through the book so far, which covers the victors at the Olympic Games and the Pythian Games at Delphi.  Pindar goes way out of his way not to bluntly brag about the victor.  Often studiously avoiding his name.  Nisetich explains, “For happiness, finally is the god’s prerogative.  In a world where the gods may take offense at human exultation, it is dangerous to exult.” 

For Pindar’s part he is quick to remind those he celebrates in song that;

  • “Malignant pain perishes in noble Joy.”  (Olympian 2)
  • A man forgets the strain of contending when he triumphs “ (Olympian 2)
  • “Care born of forethought puts success and joy within men’s reach.”  (Olympian 7)
  • “The contenders, struggling for glory, breathless until they hold it.”  (Olympian   8)
  • Few have won joy without effort (Olympian 10)
  • Bring your life to completion in good cheer, with your sons standing beside you.  If the wealth a man tends and cares for be sound, his house ample and his name renowned as well, let him not envy the gods.  (Olympian 5)
  • And finally to remind them to avoid hubris he says “And the arrows of Artemis…hunted down Titys, so that men might learn to yearn for things that are within their grasp” (Pythian 4).  Titys yearned for the embrace of the goddess Leto, mother of Artemis and died for his vanity.  

The book is full of historical figures and ancient myths, but throughout Pindar’s songs in praise of heroes, gods and Olympic athletes he is quick to remind them all that “I say (the poet) you have achieved unending glory.” (Pythian 2) 

Some interesting asides include;

  • The suggestion that once her son slipped Semele into Heaven under the name of Thyone she became “beloved of Pallas” (Olympian 2) What myths would account for this friendship among the two unrelated female deities? 
  • Admittedly, Thyone’s son (Dionysius) and his sister Athena both experienced unique births.  Both were brought to full term inside the body of their common father Zeus.  Athena from his head and Dionysius from his “thigh”.  But, nowhere is there a myth mentioning that this was a bond that united Athena and Dionysius, much less Athena and Thyone.
  • The only myth I recall that remotely links Semele and Athena is the story of Dionysius in a previous form, then named Zagreus.  Zagreus, the epithet of the chthonic Dionysius was born of Zeus and Persephone.  The young man was torn apart and eaten by dogs, er I mean the Titans.  Athena rescued his heart and gave it to Zeus.  The shredded godlings essence and immortality presumably passed on to the son of Semele.  ( Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology).
  • The Titan of the sun Helios missed the division of honors at Mecone after the defeat of the elder titans.  Sailing across the sky that day the saw the island Rhodes about to surface from beneath the sea.  In recompense, Zeus promised the island as part of his time.  In Olympian 7 Pindar says Helios asked the Fate Lachesis to guarantee Zeus’ promise.  Sort of an odd request by Helios, but maybe typical of Pindar who asks the Fates to turn their backs on feuding family members (Pythian 4) and recalls Clotho lifting the butchered Pelops out of the stew pot, complete with renewed life and a gleaming ivory shoulder (Olympian 1)
  • Nisetich  says “We may suppose that a man who makes a promise and then does not keep it lied, when he made it.  But in Greek the connection is more immediate; if truth is memory, forgetfulness is a kind of lying.”  This rather makes sense because we’ve all dealt with people who were clearly not paying attention to us and would forget the commitments they made that day and even the conversation.
  • Nisetich  also explains that the wheel on which Ixion was bound is an iunx, a love charm which he tried on Hera.  Of course Zeus substituted a cloud for his wife, forming it to look like Hera.  Ixion’s son by the cloud goddess Nephele is named “Centaurus”  from the verb kentein meaning to stab and aura meaning air, in remembrance of his conception. 
Let me end with some typical beautiful writing by Pindar on a Sicilian oread; “white-capped Aetna, nursing all year long her brood of stinging snow, within her secret depths pure springs of unapproachable fire erupt -  her rivers in daytime pour forth billows of glaring smoke, while at night the blood-red , rolling blaze whirls boulders crashing onto the flat plain of the sea Pythian 1