Sunday, August 31, 2014

TFBT: Philoctetes by Sophocles

The tragedy study group at Hour 25  selected Philoctetes for our latest project.  I highly recommend the translation by Ian Johnston  Of course; I highly recommend anything by Johnston.

The play is about the wounded warrior Philoctetes abandoned by his comrades. Ten years later they discover they need him after all.  The play begins with the ever-devious Odysseus instructing Achilles’ son Neoptolemus how to entrap Philoctetes “tell him a story.   You have to trick him, lead his mind astray.”  The play ends with Philoctetes willing departure with his comrades in arms. 

In previous re-readings of the Ancient Athenian tragedies I have concentrated on some aspect of the story line other than the main characters.  Under the mistaken impression that Sophocles blamed one of Heracles poisoned arrows for Philoctetes unhealing wound, I thought that those famous arrows dipped in the bile of the Hydra would be my focus.  Rather Philoctetes says,   “I was bitten by a savage deadly snake”, the guardian spirit at the shrine of the nymph Chryse that lamed Philoctetes.  Chryse and her snake get mentioned three times in the play.   In the Oresteia we heard Apollo’s shafts compared to snakes when he threatened the ancient Erinnyes. 


But the word I kept stumbling over was “boy”.  Neoptolemus was 10 years old when the story takes place.  Ludicrous at first glance, but Encyclopedia Britannic, via Wikipedia says the life expectancy of the Ancient Greeks was between 26 and 28.  So maybe the heroes of the Trojan War grew up quickly.   One theory says that Castor and Polydeuces were twelve when the lead the Spartan army that rescued their sister Helen from her Athenian captors.


Around line twenty Odysseus sends the boy to scout out a two mouthed cave where they left the reeking archer a decade before.  I was reminded of Somnus’ two gated cave from which pass the true and false dreams respectively. 


Odysseus starts this education in deciet by saying ” Son of Achilles, to fulfill your mission   you must be loyal to your ancestry, but at line 79, admits that ” My boy, I know your nature is not fit  to make up lies or speak deceitful things tow which the boy replies   “It’s not my nature to do anything    based on deceit. My father, so they say,    was just the same”   This debate is surely a foretaste of things to come.   By line 135 the boy ass, “   But how can anyone control his face when he dares speak such lies?”  Which make me wonder how much of the following dialogue between the apprentice liar and the desperate warrior deserted a decade before is lies on Neoptolemus part, second thoughts about his deceit and truths of another nature.    Particularly when Odysseus admits the only way the city can be captured is with Philoctetes’ bow and arrows. “So I am not the one who’ll take that city, as you told me.”  “It’s not my nature to do anything   based on deceit. My father, so they say…” I would much prefer to fail in something honorable, than to win out with treachery. “Still the boy eventually says at line 120, “All right,   I’ll do it. I’ll set all shame aside.”  Of the Ancient Greek works we’ve read this might be the firmest most passionate commendation of lying and deceit.  I was reminded of Creon and Polydeuces trying to convince or kidnap Oedipus and return him to another place.


Odysseus leaves before Philoctetes returns to his cave and recognizes that deceit is at hand.  Neoptolemus and the chorus hand about.  The boy observes,   “He lies all by himself,    apart from other human beings,   with shaggy goats and spotted deer,    suffering from hunger pangs   and from his painful wound.   It’s pitiful—he has to bear   an agony that has no cure,   and, as he cries in bitter pain,   the only answer comes from Echo,   a distant, senseless babble. “      I was reminded of Polyphemus and the crew of Odysseus at his cave.


The boy introduces himself to the castaway, “My birthplace is the island Scyros…I’m Neoptolemus,    Achilles’ son.  The supplicant responses, “My lad, son of a man I truly loved,   and from a land I cherish, you were raised by old Lycomedes, your mother’s father.   Which makes Philoctetes sound like an old friend of the family and puts Neoptolemus under obligations of family friendship and alliance.  Philoctetes’ pathetic and lengthy self-introduction continues with a listing of all the crimes that the Astresides and Odysseus are guilty of.  The boy replies, “I, too, can testify to what you say.  You speak the truth.  For I’ve experience (380) how bad the sons of Atreus can be and Odysseus’ brutality as well”  Just got to wonder if he isn’t thinking about his father’s armor which he still hasn’t received. 


Odysseus, hiding in the bushes, sends one of his men disguised as a passing merchant to spread the gossip that another ship is looking for Philoctetes is hopes of convincing the stinking archer to climb into their ship all the faster.  Philoctetes, thinks all this odd, then after reminding everyone the Chryse’s snake wounded him suggests they leave quickly.  The boy says at 639 “   We’ll set sail when the wind stops blowing in
   right at our bow. Its course is now against us. “  Is he having second thoughts about betraying Philoctetes? He tells Philoctetes to pack up his stuff; an herb that helps sometimes.  Philoctetes replies that he also needs “Any of the arrows I’ve forgotten  or overlooked.”   The arrows in question are the poisoned arrows of Heracles that did in two centaurs; Chiron and Pholos, when they were left lying around.  Neoptolemus offers to hold onto the sacred bow while the older man gathers his things. 


While they pack the chorus compares the sufferings to Philoctetes to those of Ixion.  Ixion killed his father-in-law and is purified by Zeus.  In gratitude Ixion attempts to rape Hera and ends up bedding Nephele.  Consequently he is tied to a burning wheel and rolled up and down a stygian hill for all of eternity and he became the father  or grandfather of the centaurs Nesus and Pholos who were killed by these poisoned arrows.


As they exit the cave, the snake venom sends the poor man into a fit; “a storm of pain” .  His cries and shrieks remind me of the death of Agamemnon at the hands of that often-deemed “viper” Clytemnestra.  The whole “fit” seemed inappropriate for the stage, based on other readings of the Ancient Greek tragedies.


At 468, the Chorus, Neoptolemus’ sailors pray to Rhea for assistance.  Now, when  the poor man falls asleep the chorus prays again at 1098 to Sleep

  O Sleep who knows no pain,
   sweet Sleep so free of suffering,
   come to us with joy, my king,                                                          
   and bring him happiness.
   Hold before his eyes that lightt                                                                  
   which shines around them now.
   Come down, I pray, and heal him


Neoptolemus assists the ailing archer to his feet but then in the throes of a new round of second thoughts confesses all the conspiracy.  Philoctetes tells the boy  You’re not an evil man,” Which seems to be Odysseus cue to jump out of the bushes. 


Odysseus is at his worse and most abusive.  He leaves the chorus to see to Philoctetes and leaves with Neoptolemus to prepare the ship.  Philoctetes laments his fate to the chorus.  Their debate continues until they see Odysseus coming and bringing with him Achilles’ son.


ODYSSEUS;    Why are you coming back along this path  at such a rapid pace (boy)?

NEOPTOLEMUS;   I was wrong before.    I have to fix all those mistakes I made.

ODYSSEUS;    You sound odd. What mistakes are those?

NEOPTOLEMUS;    When I obeyed you and the entire army.      


Odysseus no longer refers to Neoptolemus as boy.  Neoptolemus returns the bow and apologizes to Philoctetes, promising that he will not force Philoctetes to go anywhere.  He tries to convince Philoctetes to see the wisdom of attaining a cure and glory at Troy, but the archer will not give up his anger at Odysseus and company.  Neoptolemus advices; “My dear man, in such troubles you must learn   not to be so stubborn.”  Although another  translation says “You must learn to extract yourself from this anguish” which I liked better. “  They agree to forget Troy and head to their mutual homes. 


“Not yet…” says the voice of the now divine Heracles, who’s returned to the man who graciously lit his funeral pyre.  He instructs both me that they must go to Troy and promises there you “make your life something men honor.”  The two heroes promise they will.  Philoctetes bides good bye to the place including the nymphs of streams and meadows.  The chorus runs ahead to pray to the Nereids.   

The end.


  1. “It’s not my nature to do anything based on deceit. My father, so they say, was just the same.”
    I see irony here. How to classify Achilles' recruitment of divine help for the enemy in order to push his stocks up? Neoptolemus and the other characters know nothing of this, but the audience knows.
    However, Neoptolemus knows how he was conceived: that his father, while residing in Lycomedes' palace disguised as a girl, seduced and impregnated his host's daughter, shattering her life. My Heracles at one point says something to the effect that his very existence proves his father's ethical imperfection. Neoptolemus could say the same for himself.

    The 10-yr-old Neoptolemus is just another example of age discrepancy, together with the "old" Oedipus at Colonus and Clytemnestra from Sophocles' Electra who has children from Aegusthus, i.e. at age 45+ according to my calculations. I don't think Neoptolemus could really grow faster. You can lay on a pre-teen boy the obligations of an adult, but you cannot accelerate his physical and mental development. However, we could possibly suppose that 4 or 5 years passed in preparations and recruitment for the war after Achilles left Scyros. This would of course make Telemachus too old. Don't try to reconcile chronology of myth, it's Mission Impossible :-).

    1. Maya,

      It never crossed my mind that Achilles was being deceitful. It should have been obvious to all the Argives that things would be going badly without him, but you are right, he wouldn't have bragged about gaining divine favor for their foes. Good insight. As to reconciling " chronology of myth"; you are right " it's Mission Impossible".

  2. Because the Atreides do not appear on stage in this play, I had forgotten that it also criticizes them (the wicked rulers of wicked Sparta).
    The Philoctetes has a plot similar to that of the Prometheus plays: a strong bully (or two acting together) leaves a former ally to a dismal fate, later discovers that the outcast has something very precious and tries to take it by force or deceit without giving anything in return. After a conflict and a stalemate, mediators negotiate a dubious happy end, namely, the outcasts are brought back while the bullies continue to rule unchallenged without any trace of shame. In both cases, innocents having nothing to do with the conflict are forced to pay for the deal (Chiron & Thetis and the Trojans, respectively).
    I think the Philoctetes may have borrowed something from the earlier plays. Philoctetes' fear of birds seems exaggerated for a person whose hands are free to repel them.

    1. Maya,

      I like your comparison of Philoctetes to Prometheus. The tragedy study group discussed Philoctetes yesterday. The video should be up now at Hour 25. Our comparison was to Oedipus at Colonus which we just read. Interestingly, as you say "or two acting together) leaves a former ally to a dismal fate, later discovers that the outcast has something very precious and tries to take it by force or deceit without giving anything in return." Accept in the case of Colonus " After a conflict and a stalemate, mediators negotiate a dubious happy end, namely, the outcast...stays and attains unending glory and the bullies receive shame and death. Okay Creon doesn't die, but that's not his destiny. He has to be there to pick up the pieces when every generation of cursed Theban princes come of age and is torn apart and eaten by dog, or something equally as awful.

    2. I think you are quite right to add Oedipus at Colonus to the scheme. However, it has an even more dubious happy end. Oedipus attains glory, but what is the use of it? And though he is dying, he still manages to destroy the achievements of his life, i.e. his children and the prosperity of Thebes.
      I almost can imagine OC in a modern setting, with terminally ill and bitter Oedipus in a facility suiting his (lousy) insurance, his daughter forced to quit work to care for him, and now comes Dr. Creon holding an organ donation consent form and tries to persuade the patient to give just one little signature.

    3. Maya,

      Nice modern interpretation. Might want to add his sons trying to take over his estate, ala Sophocles' sons.

  3. About Thersites being allegedly alive: In an essay by George Huxley ("Thersites in Sophokles, Philoktetes 445), the author argues that Neoptolemus is lying.

  4. Maya,

    Thanks for the George Huxley reference.