Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TFBT: Nart Sagas from the Caucasus

While exploring an underground used-book full of musky leather bound books I began talking with the clerk.  We had something in common, we were both classicists.  (Are all clerks at used bookstores classicists?)  His academic credentials gave him far great claim to the title.  I asked about a fairy tale I had long looked for; a witch and king in a marriage of convenience. He didn’t know the specific tale, but he knew a similar motif in the Nart Sagas from the Caucasus by John Colarusso. 

Oddly enough, I was familiar with the Nart sagas thanks to My Adventures in the Caucasus by Alexander Dumas.   Monsieur Dumas is the person who made me aware that the people of the Caucasus knew about the binding of the Titan Prometheus.  It is Saga 34 in Colarusso’s book.

Colarusso translates myriad folk tales from the myriad peoples of the Caucasus.  All though these peoples used indifferent languages, practiced different traditions and worshipped different versions of the Abrahamic God they all seemed to share similar folk tale.  The “Nart” are the demi-god children of a Golden Tree.  The tales are degenerate myths of ancient gods.  They did not display the artistry or length I expected from a “saga”.   The wives are witches or fairy brides.  It is easy to read into them the Choice of Achilles, Prometheus/Loki, the Sword in the Stone all sorts of Indo-European mythological myths.  But, maybe it is better to read them as the wise folk tales and ancient lays they are. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

TFBT: The Event at Mecone

“to see Mecone, the seat of the blessed gods, again

Where the gods threw lots and for the first time divided

The domain among themselves after the war of the Giants”

Callimachus, frag 119 Pfeiffer


Hesiod says at Theogony [881] that it was after the Titanomachy that the blessed gods “pressed far-seeing Olympian Zeus to reign and to rule over them…So he divided their dignities amongst them.”  Presumably all the victorious gods and their allies came sort of like other divine gatherings; “There was no river that came not, save only Oceanus, nor any nymph, of all that haunt the fair copses, the springs that feed the rivers, and the grassy meadows. (Iliad 20.5)   


 So all the gods came to Mecone except Oceanus, (too big I presume) and Helios, who had to work as it were.  Pindar says at Olympian Ode 7. 54   "when Zeus and the immortals made division of the lands of earth …But for Helios (the Sun) no lot was drawn; for he was absent”.  Helios was given the island of Rhodes with the Fates assistance.


At Iliad 15.187 Poseidon attests that he casts lots with his two brothers to determine their realms  I “won for my portion the grey sea to be my habitation forever, and Hades won the murky darkness, while Zeus won the broad heaven amid the air and the clouds; but the earth and high Olympus remain yet common to us all”


Presumably Zeus reaffirmed the traditional honors of the elder gods like he promised Hecate at Theogony [410] and reconfirmed promised honors like those give to Styx prior to the war (Theogony 383)


Finally Hesiod (Theogony 545) references “For when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone.”  The dispute was over which group got which portion of the burn offerings.  Jenny Strauss Clay offers a slightly different translation “In Mekone it was decide what is a god and what a human being”


Clay writes well and extensively in “Hesiod’s Cosmos” and “The Politics of Olympus”

Thursday, July 24, 2014

TFBT: Random Notes on The Eumenides

The phraseology of Orestes prayer summoning Athena around 290 sounds odd.  He calls to her regardless of whether she is in 

  • Northwest  Africa or the River Triton
  • action or rest,
  • with her near and dear ones or her enemies the giants. 
    The last two bullets represent a dichotomy: action/rest, friends/enemies.  But the first bullet doesn’t seem too.  Athena is Africa is mostly commonly associated with the long dead Lake Tritonis and its outflow, which are in Northwest Africa.  So did Aeschylus nod here, I’m being too picky or was there another River Triton on the southeast corner of the world?   According to Wikipedia; a River Triton ran into Lake Copais, west of Thebes. Is this the one that Aeschylus meant? If so the dichotomy could be explained as far/near.   Does that make more sense?  Of course, she was nowhere near either place.  She was at Troy (400)
    Some Great Quotes

  • “Erinyes; We drive murderers from their homes. Athena; And where is the end of exile for a killer? Erinyes;  Where happiness is not a custom”
  • “We are many, but we shall speak briefly.” The Eumenides 585
  • We undertake to ruin any house, where domestic violence  kills someone” The Eumenides; 355
  •  “We are awesome and hard for mortals to appease...we stand apart from the gods” The Eumenides; 385
  •  “For while this council-hall is filling, it is good to be silent,” The Eumenides 570  
    What’s with the comparison to Ixion?  Both Athena and Apollo compare Orestes to the father of centaurs (440 & 717) “Then was my father (Zeus) mistaken in his decisions about Ixion’s supplication in the first case of bloodshed?”  To answer the question; first Ixion did NOT kill his mother; he killed his father-in-law, so not a very good comparison.  That said, immediately after Zeus took Ixion into his house and purified him, the murderer violated the laws of hospitality by attempting to rape Hera.  So yeah I think we can confirm that Zeus made a bad decision in Ixion’s case. 
    Lots of talk about balance

  • Do not approve a lawless life nor a life of tyrannical repression. The god grants power to all in the middle rank, (530)” 
  •  Neither anarchy nor tyranny 697 - I advise the citizens of my city
  • Rejoice, rejoice in the wealth allotted to you by fate. Rejoice, people of the city, as you sit near to Zeus; you are the dear ones of the dear maiden, (1000) you who learn balance in the fullness of time. The father stands in awe of you,”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TFBT: The Eumenides of the Oresteia

The Eumenides is the third play in the series.  So far Agamemnon returned victorious from Troy, his wife rolls out the red-carpet, wraps him in an amazing bathrobe, pushes him into the tub and stabs him to death.  Their sole remaining daughter Electra pines for the return of her brother Orestes and for vengeance upon her father’s killers.  Orestes returns, kills his mother’s lover, and threatens to kill his mother.  She warns
him the Erinyes; the ancient goddess of vengeance will hound him to death if he becomes a mother-slayer.  He kills his mom and the Erinyes appear. He flees to the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  Now, at Hour 25 we are discussing the third and final play, The Eumenides  In my reading I concentrate on the Erinyes rather than the mortal-story line.

Hurray!  After two plays full of talk, whining, wailing, praying and poetic flights of fancy about the Erinyes; the ancient ones finally appear on stage.  At line 210, a conversation with Loxias explains why they didn’t enter the story line until now.

Erinyes; We drive matricides from their homes.
Apollo; What about a wife who kills her husband?
Erinyes; That would not be murder of relative by blood

Later they sing at 335; “Relentless destiny spun out our fate so that we continuously have the duty to pursue mortals who are saddled with fruitless kin-murders, to pursue them until they go under the earth, and even when they die.” (See 605 also.) So regardless of society’s expectations; the death of a spouse, the death of a slave like Cassandra, the death of a sister-in-law’s bastard like Iphigenia is none of their concern.  That is why, although Cassandra had visions of the Erinyes’ response to that nastiness between brothers Atreus and Thyestes, the Erinyes have not actually appeared on stage until now.

At 150, the Erinyes say of Loxias, “you, a youth, have ridden down elder female daemons   To which the son of Zeus responds at 180, “Out of my temple at once, I order you. Be gone, quit my sanctuary of the seer’s art, or else you might be struck by a flying, winged, glistening snake shot forth from a golden bow-string,  At the end of the previous play Orestes describes the Erinyes as Gorgon-like.  That means snakes for hair and snakes as accessories.  So in affect he is threatening to throw glistening, maybe golden jewelry at them.  And rather than forcing them to flee he is delaying their chase of Orestes.  There is no mention of fear and trembling on among the Erinyes.  Actually, the scene sounds to me like a spoiled little boy threatening his great-aunts with a toy bow and arrow.  Then Apollo says the effect of his “snake” will be “you would spit out black foam from your lungs in pain, vomiting the clotted blood you have drawn.”   That’s what Erinyes do for a living!  (800 But here you are, vomiting your heavy anger on this land.)  So, here we have little Apollo threatening to shot creatures who are virtually snakes with more snakes, which will make them throw up, which is what they are planning to do once he gets out of their way and they catch up with Orestes. 

The Erinyes catch up with Orestes (and Apollo) at Athena’s temple in Athens. Around line 215 Apollo accuses the Erinyes of dishonoring Hera, goddess of marriage and Aphrodite the goddess of love, by not avenging Agamemnon.  Dishonoring another god is a pretty serious charge.  At Mecone after the great war between the Titans and the Olympians, Zeus distributed honors and rights to his allies and confirmed the honors of the elder gods.  As Artemis says at the very end of Euripides' Hippolytus, “For this is law amongst us gods; none of us will thwart his neighbor’s will”.  That being said, Athena and Apollo attempting to infringe on the Erinyes’ rights and honors is just as serious, particularly since they predate the Olympians.  To quote them at 349 “These duties were granted to us at birth, and it was also granted that the deathless gods hold back their hands from us” At 389 “What mortal does not stand in awe of these things  and tremble, when he hears the law enacted by destiny, the law ordained by the gods for perfect fulfillment? My prerogative is ancient” Athena even acknowledges that “these women have (such) a duty” at 478.

 The Showdown Begins

Athena rounds up a jury. They have a trial   Apollo swears an oath before testifying at the trail of Orestes (615) by saying, “Since I am a mantis, I will not lie.  (Hera at 23.55 in The Iliad proves he’s a liar on other occasions.  His concept of conception proves him a fool here.)  The jurors vote. Orestes is declared innocent.  Loxias snatches up Orestes and slips out stage left leaving Athena to fend for herself, just like he did when Typhon attacked Olympus. 

As Loxias flees, the Erinyes scream, “Younger gods, you have ridden down the ancient laws and snatched them from my hands! And I, wretched, deeply angry, and without honor in this land.” 

Athena pleads (800) that they don’t vomit their “heavy anger on this land.” making it sterile and withering the fruit trees.  The virgin goddess continues desperately with, “You are not without honor, so do not be moved by your excessive feeling, O goddesses

At line 825 out of 1035, the Erinyes are finally acknowledged as “O goddesses" by the Olympians rather than “monsters, totally loathsome, hated by the gods! (645)” The Pythia compares them to Harpies and Gorgons.  Apollo says they are so vile that, “no god, no man, no (male) beast ever consorts” with them and they are “hateful to men and to the Olympian gods.”

Athena promises them everything imaginable to stay their anger “sanctuaries and sacred hollows   “bright thrones at places of fire-sacrifice”,  honor from the citizens”, to share the Acropolis with her, first-fruits and “fire-sacrifices before childbirth and matrimonial initiation”.  Their poisonous anger is their birthright confirmed by Zeus; Athena can do nothing according to the laws of the gods to interfere.  So after promising to indulge their anger out of respect for their age and wisdom, Athena adds to the list of honors, “a place in the house of Erechtheus”, “a processions of men and women” and more honor from Athens than from other mortals.  No house will flourish without you. 895”

At line 827 Athena lets slip that she has the keys to the storeroom where her father’s “thunderbolt is kept safe”.  The Erinyes didn’t seem to shudder.

It couldn’t have escaped Athena’s notice that the Erinyes had “thrice prayed for, most fair, best–beloved Night” to witness what was happening.  (325, 745 and 845)  Athena must have known too that Night comes to Olympus.  That is the goddess Nyx whom, Homer calls the subduer of gods and men.  Of her, even Zeus stands in awe. (Iliad 14. 231)  (See  Divine Aversion to Death and Nyctophobia  for more on this topic.)

Finally at line 900 the elder goddesses end the standoff by saying, “You seem to enchant me, and I am not angry anymore.”  The Erinyes then sing a song so full of blessing for the land that they are burdensome to recount. A torch lit procession guides them to their new home.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

TFBT: Quizzes on the Gods

I write weekly quizzes to help participants at Hour 25 review what we've discussed the previous week.  Here is the pile of them to date!  Give them a try!

“I Name this Child, Alexander” http://gotoquiz.com/O6SnT

“Herackles…” http://gotoquiz.com/HMKIF

Nicole Loraux’s book. http://gotoquiz.com/V4ZdG

TFBT: Orestes Kills His Mother

“Ah, ah! You slave women, look at them there: like Gorgons, wrapped in sable garments, entwined with swarming snakes! I can stay no longer” Orestes, speaking of the Erinyes at the finale of The Libations Bearers 

At Hour 25 we continue to study The Oresteia; a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus.  Currently under review is The Libation Bearers.  As usual my emphasis is not so much the main character; Agamemnon of the first play of the same name, nor his son or daughter who are the main characters in the present play, but rather on the Erinyes; the ancient goddesses of vengeance.
1. Still No Erinyes

Just like the first play for all the talk of “malignant powers from underneath”,  blood crying out for the Furies, the personified Curses of the slain, deep-brooding Erinyes, and “the hounds of wrath that avenge a mother: Tisiphone, Megaira and Alecto don’t appear on stage.  Okay, maybe they appear at the final moment of the play, but they are clearly off-stage.    Regardless of Loxias’ prophecy that the Erinyes will hound Orestes if he does not avenge his father’s killing, they don’t.  The god of Delphi threatens the fallen Agamemnon’s son with “the wrath of malignant powers from underneath the earth, and telling of plagues & leprous ulcers” and who are stirred by kindred victims calling for vengeance, and madness, and groundless terrors out of the night, torment and harass a man” But the powers that Loxias threatens Orestes with, don’t seem interested in him, until the final moments of the play when our young hero slays his mother, Clytemnestra.  “Have you no regard for a parent’s curse, my son?....Take care: beware the hounds of wrath that avenge a mother.”  
2.  Locks and Rivers

“Look, I bring a lock of hair to Inakhos [The river-god of Argos.] in compensation for his care, “Achilles discusses this ritual in honor of his own home-town river Spercheüs.   (Iliad 23:138)  Why the river?  Why not the local nymph? 
3.  Heroic Honors and the Proto-Event

Recently at Hour 25 we meet with Lenny Muellner.  One of the topics discussed was his proto-event theory in “The Anger of Achilles”.  Proto-events are things that happen and at the time there is not context then just in retrospect.  So, Uranus was not the first King of the Gods, because, no one knew what a king was or who “gods” were. For example Julius Caesar was never crowned Caesar, Augustus was the first Caesar.  Likewise Electra was presenting her father Agamemnon heroic honors for the first time as it would be forever after.  The experiences the foreign slaves had of heroic honors is the proto-event to the Greek mind.  The House of Atreus sending a princess to perform them is the first time and hence forth Agamemnon (and Cassandra) received honors (conceptually) forever.  Ain’t that cool?
4.  The Answers to Electra’s Rhetorical Questions.

 “O mother Earth, she sends me forth, godless woman that she is. But I am afraid to utter the words she charged me to speak. For what atonement is there for blood fallen to earth?” (45)    Now there is irony or wisdom.  One mariticide, Clytemnestra asking the proto- mariticide Gaea for help.  Yes mariticide means; husband-killer.)  And the answer to Electra’s question as to what atonement there is for blood fallen to earth is; Erinyes (Hesiod, Theogony 176)
5.  More Comparisons of Agamemnon to an Eagle

At line 110 of the Agamemnon there is a reference to him as an eagle and here in the Libation Bearers the poet says, “Behold the orphaned brood of a father eagle that perishes”.  Aeschylus refers to their “nest” and calls Orestes and Electra “nestlings”.  And how did Agamemnon die?  “…a father eagle that perishes in the meshes, in the coils of a fierce viper.”   The viper in question is of course Clytemnestra and consequently it only makes sense that she should birth a viper (Orestes) in a dream later on in The Libations Bears.  “What food did it crave, the newborn viper? In her dream she offered it her own breast. “(530) It only makes sense that a viper births a viper and that the poison in her veins should be passed to him.  I am reminded of Hera’s poisoned left breast nursing the hydra and an argument that Hera’s “bile” passed through her milk to Thetis and Thetis’ to Achilles.  Both pointing out the long life and re-cycling ability of that slow poison which when clutched to the chest eventually kills its possessor.
6.  Orestes Should Have Listened to Homer

The gifts are too paltry for her offense [hamartia]. 520 For though a man may pour out all he has in atonement for one deed of blood, it is wasted effort. So the saying goes”.  That is pretty opposite the argument presented in the Embassy Scene of the Iliad
7.  Confounding of the Fates and Furies

There seems to be a lot of confusing other goddesses with the Erinyes.  Around 310 & 950 the Fates unleash a very fury-like Dike.   At 650 the Fates are the smithies producing weapons on the Dikes anvil for the Furies.  (I looked up “anvil” at Perseus.org  one of the resulting entries included “thunderbolt”)  And finally the Erinyes are described as Gorgon-like; which is odd because Medusa was originally a looker, so her immortal sisters should have been good looking.  Medusa was the only one to become scary … and dead.  What was Aeschylus trying to say?

In summary, no Erinyes until Orestes killed a blood relative, Aeschylus tossed in some ancient ritual, there is some logic for Clytemnestra asking the Earth for help, the analogy of Agamemnon to an eagle continues with his children and his inter-species marriage to that viper Clytemnestra gets tossed into the metaphoric mix, Orestes totally blew off the argument of accepting blood-money and Aeschylus seems to wax a little too poetic at times mixing up is goddesses.   


Sunday, July 13, 2014

TFBT: Paris’ Three Naked Goddesses, My Three Hypothetical Questions

Considering what the Cypria has to says it is pretty clear what the Will of Zeus is; FRAGMENT 3: PLAN OF ZEUS Scholiast on Homer, Il. i. 5:

`There was a time when the countless tribes of men, though wide- dispersed, oppressed the surface of the deep-bosomed earth, and Zeus saw it and had pity and in his wise heart resolved to relieve the all-nurturing earth of men by causing the great struggle of the Ilian war, that the load of death might empty the world. And so the heroes were slain in Troy, and the plan of Zeus came to pass.'”


Zeus also makes comments which imply that we have some freewill;

Ah how shameless--the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,
compound their pains beyond their proper share
(Odysseus 1.37-40).


The kick off to the Trojan War is when strife arrived at the wedding reception of Achilles parents.  Strife rolled an apple into the midde of the room.  Written on the golden apple was “For the Fairest”  Three goddesses; Aphrodite, Athena and Hera  claimed the prize and the mortal  Paris wasappointed judge.  He awarded the apple to Aphrodite and…the rest is history. All that being the case; here are my questions. 

  • How would the Will of Zeus come to pass if Paris gave the apple to Athena rather than Aphrodite?  Athena offered him the rule of Phrygia and the destruction of Hellas, or as some say, that he would be bravest of mortals and skilled in every craft.  
  • Hera rather than Aphrodite?   She  offered him, wealth and  dominion over the known world.  In the Iliad she is willing to destroy her favorite cities of Argos, Sparta and Mycenae to attain her ends.  What else would she do to attain the golden apple?
  • And how would Achilles the strongest and most handsome man in the world fit into Zeus back up plans?



Friday, July 11, 2014

TFBT: Cassandra, Sex Slave of Agamemnon

I preparation for next week’s Book Club at Hour 25 I read “Agamemnon again this time from Cassandra’s point of view.  Just reading her lines and skipping the rather clueless chorus, Cassandra makes a lot more sense.  She is an amazing character with an incredible scene rather than just a plot device. 

And I couldn’t help but notice the ironic difference between her and her consort.  Agamemnon is clueless the whole time he is on stage.  Clytemnestra’s gloating, bragging and delight in describing all the ways she’d heard he died just makes it too obvious that the guy is doomed.  Oblivious, he dies.  On the other hand Cassandra knows all too well what happened is happening and will happen.  Yet knowing all, she too dies.

Herbert Weir Smyth’s translation of Agamemnon at Hour 25 and at Perseus, translates Cassandra’s lament at lines 1072 and 1076 as “Woe, woe, woe! O Apollo, O Apollo!”  However, Browning, Gilbert Murray and Philip Vellacott’s various translations say something like “Woe, woe! O Earth, O Apollo, O Apollo!”  The Greek at Perseus says “τοτοτο πόποι δᾶ. πολλον πολλον.“  And the lexicon at Perseus says that δᾶ = by earth.  I have no Greek, so maybe others can help me.  Which translation is correct?  Why is Cassandra calling to Gaea?  Prayer?  Witness?  Simply an expletive?

At line 1100  Kassandra cries of Clytemnestra; “Alas, what can she be planning? What is this fresh woe she contrives here within, what monstrous, monstrous horror, unbearable to philoi, beyond all remedy? And help stands far away!”  So after that oblique dialogue Aeschylus orchestrated between the herald and chorus regarding Menelaus’ whereabouts, we now know for sure that he is no where nearby.

I just think the below is a lovely and moving bit of poetry to end on;
“Ah me, Scamander, my native stream! Upon your banks in bygone days, unhappy maid, was I nurtured with fostering care; 1160 but now by Cocytus and the banks of Acheron, I think, I soon must chant my prophecies.”