Saturday, September 20, 2014

TFBT: Random Notes on Rhesus

Here are some random notes on my studies of the tragedy “Rhesus” seemingly written by Euripides.  I preferred Lattimore’s translation.
Will it ever happen again that our ancient Troy will know the day-long revelries the love pledges and companionship, the strumming of the lyres and the wine cups circling, passed to the right, in sweet contention while on the open waters the sons of Atreus make for Sparta, gone from the shores of Ilium?” Beautiful line, sounds a lot like the Isle of the Blest on the Zephyr blessed shores of the deep -whirling River Ocean.
Hector to Rhesus; “Yet here are others, who are not our kin by blood.”  Just in case you were curious, based on their riverine heritage; Rhesus and Hector were first cousins thrice removed.  The Rivers Strymon and Scamander (Xanthus in the divine language) were brothers.  Scamander's daughter Strymo was the mother of Priam, Hector's father. 
Rhesus to Hector “You seem content to be acted on, not to act.  This could have a double meaning.
Euripides’ Rhesus recounts times when Odysseus was in and out of Troy during the previous ten years.  Ten years!  Really?  What were these people doing all this time?  The Achaeans seem to have no clue on how to lay siege or of any siege craft.  The level of slaughter we seen in The Iliad at the final stages of the war would have eradicated both armies if maintained for ten years.  Based on the bragging and speeches upon the battle field between the nobles I wonder if it had been nine years of ritual warfare.  At Troy it was all rattle and roar, with a few duels and the real fatalities happening on night raids to over whelm smaller towns and ambushes to catch the unwary. 
Hector to the guards “death by flogging or by the headsman’s ax awaits you.”  I don’t recall any mention of corporal punishment or threat of such in Epic.  (Excepting Odysseus and Thersite's of course.)  Is this demonstrating barbarian despotism?
Starting around line 200 Dolon and the Chorus offer prayers for his success.  None of these prayers are proper by Epic standards.  No overly flattering epithets, no reminder of relationship and obligation and no promise of thighs burned on an altar.  (See “Proper Pray and Personal Conversations in the Iliad for further discussion.)
When Dolon set out on the task that would win him Achilles’ horses he wore a wolf skin.  When Rhesus’ charioteer dreamt of the theft of his master’s horses, the thieves were wolves.  What’s that all about?
We can overrun the camp and walls of the Achaeans, fire their ships and that this sunlight that begins to climb brings us of Troy our day of liberty.”  Of course Hector is wrong, but a nice analogy between firing the ships and the rising of the sun. 
Chorus speaking of Agamemnon’s severed head in Helen’s lap says “he lead the thousand ships” I thought the first reference to “a thousand ships” was Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus!  Learn something new every day.

For further thoughts on Rhesus, please see 


TFBT: Jasper Griffin’s “The Epic Cycle”

On a long flight after a great get-away weekend with my wife, I delighted in re-reading The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer by Jasper Griffin.  I found this fourteen page essay somewhere on my Nook.  You can find it at JSTOR by clicking the link above.  (If you do not have institutional access to JSTOR you can read it on line simply by registering at MyJSTOR.) 

If you take the glory of Homer for granted, here is the place to renew your sense of awe and appreciation for “the exceptional genius which went into the creation of …the Iliad.   

Griffin insists that between Homeric and Cyclic a distinction did exist. “The strict, radical, and consistently heroic interpretation” of the Iliadic world made it quite different from the Cycle, with its miracles, un-tragic attitude towards mortality, exoticism, romance and flattering, flowery, less-dense style of composition.   If you need proof of his opinion; the second half of the essay is a careful analysis, stylistically of Cyclic fragments.  

He observes “The Iliad is notably more cautious with the fantastic.” Then uses Aristotle to point “out that Homer puts many things into the mouths of his characters, when he himself does not wish to vouch for their truth, most notably in the stories told by Odysseus… The fantastic, the miraculous, and the romantic, all exceeded in the Cycle the austere limits to which the Iliad confines them.” 

“Even more, in the accommodating world of the Cycle death itself can be evaded.”  My friend Maya M1 refers to this phenomena as “scholia as savior”.   Griffin then summons Patroclus’ ghost, (Iliad 23. 69) to expound that in Homeric epic “the dead do not return”.  “For the Iliad, human life is defined by the double inevitability of age and death; for the gods, men's opposite, immortality and eternal youth are inseparable.  Men must die:” 

Just a sampling of contrasts he notes are that The Iliad 
  • excludes low human types and motives.
  • knew and suppressed the story about Achilles’ impenetrable armor.  Hence the reason Apollo knocked it off Patroclus (Iliad xvi) so Hector can kill him. 
  • Fragments xviii and xix of the Cypria explain Chryseis was captured by the Achaeans when her city of Chryse was not because she was visiting Thebe at the time.
  • In the Cycle, but not in Homer, homicides need to be purified; Griffin suggests this is due to the influence of Delphi.

The contrasts help to bring out the greatness and the uniqueness that is Homer.



1 Maya M is the blogger at Maya Corner  where  “ I write about things that interest me, in as politically incorrect style as I like.”  She is a frequent contributer to Bill’s Classical Studies.  She writes “ I had some interest in mythology as a child, and "Ancient Greek Legends and Myths" by Nikolay Kun was among my favorite books. However, this interest was nothing out of the ordinary. My education had no leaning to classics, except for the mandatory review of ancient Greek literature in 9th grade. I was truly engaged only about 2 years ago, when a kid to whom I am a teaching aide got to the above mentioned 9th grade. My student seemed just bored by mythology and ancient literature, but I looked at them with new eyes and was fascinated. My background in biology naturally predisposed me to science-fiction rewriting of some myths, but I try also to understand what they meant to their original audience in the pre-scientific, "daimon-haunted" world.




Friday, September 19, 2014

TFBT: The Race for Rhesus

 The tragedy group at Hour 25 currently studies “Rhesus” a play by Euripides.  First I must point out the irony of studying a play of questionable authorship based on the book of the Iliad least likely to be composed by Homer.[i]  That out of the way, on with the play. 
King Rhesus of Thrace arrives late to the battle-fields before Troy and beds down for the night outside the city walls. “Rhesus like a god upright behind his horses in the Thracian car. The golden balance of a yoke enclosed the necks of his young horses and they were whiter than snow. The buckler on his shoulders glowed with beaten plates of gold and upon a goddess’ aegis; the bronze face of a gorgon on the horses’ frontlet shields glared and with bells beat out a clashing sound of fear. (301 Lattimore trans.)  We’ll hear more about Rhesus from himself and otherwise along these lines.  Lattimore points out in the introduction that “If a man is too confident, even if that confidence is justified or if other speak too well of him, his is doomed to destruction.” 

The Trojans previously sent out beguiling Dolon to spy on the Achaeans forces.  In exchange for his services Hector promises him the horses of Achilles; They are immortal, born of an immortal strain who bear the fighting son of Peleus, the king of the season Poseidon, broke them once and tamed and gave them to Peleus (185)  The Achaeans dispatch “that big mouth, Odysseus” and Diomedes as spies also.  They intercept Dolon; sneak into “golden-armored" Rhesus' camp, kill the king and his companions leap into his chariot and return to the Achaean camp.  The horses from the Thracian chariots, so white that you can see them through the dark gleaming, as if they were the wings of swans on the water.” (617)    In other words Rhesus’ horse are pretty special themselves; glowing in the dark and being compared to winged creatures upon the surface of the water.  Is it always like this?  In every Greek myth do we always end up talking about a chariot race and Nestor’s sage advice for living life?  (Iliad 23.326–343)  Shoot in line 383-386 of this play Rhesus is even called a stallion with sleigh bells and all.  Is every myth about a chariot race where the hero crashes and dies at the far end of the course or makes the turn and comes back behind a pair of immortal horses?
As of late when studying the tragedies I’ve taken a different approach ( Rather than concentrate on the mortal story line I’ve found some other key element and followed it through the play.  I also try to avoid reading commentaries prior to re-reading the plays for fear of reading something into the text rather than getting something out if it.   However, I had a hint of things to come, (oracular heroization of Rhesus) so I looked for olbios; blessed.  Olbios indicates good fortune now and, according to Gregory Nagy, good fortune in the world hereafter. (Pindar’s Homer 8.45-46)  For example;
  • Line 107 “each has his own special excellence” That is a special blessing or divine gift or calling for each mortal, which suggest we all have a chance at immortality.
  • Line 196 “Blessed will be your (Dolon’s) name.”  Which based on Lattimore’s observation above about “if others speak too well of him” this is the kiss of death for Dolon, but at the same time he has attained unwilting glory in Achilles epic.
  • Although Rhesus is not specifically called “blessed” the way the chorus goes on and on about “ a monarch to behold”, the way he brags about his might and forces, and Hector’s enumerations of his territory you get the impression this boy is living the good life.  Even after death his mother declares that “Rhesus will not go to the black meadow in the earth.” (962) but rather “he shall live on, a human spirit” (971) 
In the process of searching out these lucky mortals I kept stumbling I kept stumbling across hyper-morons.  (Sorry, I can never resist that pun!)  Within the conventions of epic composition, an incident that is untraditional would be hyper moron  'beyond destiny'.” (Best of the Achaeans, chapter 2, §17)    Beyond destiny" also indicates something outside the scope of the story being told and contrary to the Will of Zeus.  It is the line mortal cross at their peril.  It is the moment when the gods fear their rights and privileges are being infringed upon.  Their response can be horrific.  For example;
  • “The great Thracian singer and we blinded him, Thamyris, who vilified our craft of song.”  This reminds me of both of the singing contest between the muses & sirens and the poet Stesichorus of Sicily.  The singing contest ended with the daughters of Achelous getting their wings torn off. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 34. 3 ) In the latter case Stesichorus vilified the mortal Helen for her behavior regarding Paris; the goddess Helen blinded him as a result.( Isocrates Hel. 64)  He regained his vision when he wrote a lengthy poem admitting that Helen never went to Troy.  The Achaians and Trojans in fact fight and dying for a phantom. 2
  • At line 457 and 467 both the chorus and Rhesus offering prayers hoping to avoid the resentment of the gods to the Thracian’s brag, acknowledging they are over-reaching in their hope, offending the gods and defying destiny
  • At lines 634 and 607 Athena makes it clear that certain acts are beyond Diomedes and Odysseus’ destinies. 
In short, god-like Rhesus arrives in the night like a dream, as substantial as Helen upon the ramparts of Troy. Then he and his army are snatched away before dawn.  The whole sta- lit event drawing a line in the sand for Troy.  As Hector reports;   
But these diviners, these educated men who know
The mind of heaven, persuaded me to wait…  

[i] Based on reading and conversing with Casey Dué and Mary Ebbott, that the Doloneia is a legitament part of the Iliad
2 Hmm, Thamyris, Stesichorus, traditionally Homer, and Demodocus all blind poets

Thursday, September 11, 2014

TFBT: Saving the Drown Toddler Glaucus

“A prodigy has been born for you. Whoever explains it will restore the child to you.”  (Hyginus, Fabulae 136) 

When Glaucus, child of Minos and Pasiphae disappeared, Minos made a great search of Crete looking for his son.  Finally with not hope remaining he consulted the oracles.  The gods responded as above.  The “prodigy” was found among Minos’ herds.  Wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last; first Zeus as “the white bull, the spotless cloud” (Cox) that sired him on his mother Europa, then the  splendid bull of extraordinary beauty the gods sent him, the wooden cow Daedalus designed because of bull  and the Minotaur that resulted.  )  This prodigy this time was a cow that changes colors; from white, to red to black.    The seer Polyidus, son of Coeranus, explained the prodigy by showing that the bullock was like a mulberry tree.  For a thorough discussion of what happen next see Lenny Muellner’s paper “Glaucus Redivivus

No offence to Polyidus, the gathered seers, Apollodorus (Bibliotheca 3.3.1) or Hyginus, but I can think of a better answer. 

The bullock in question most resembled a cloud.  White with gold tint on a sunny day.  Black when heavy with rain.  Ruddy when following the setting sun to his western home.  Clouds like the Vedic god Indra won.

“Indra shatters Vrtra with his bolt  . He cleaves the  mountain, making the streams flow or taking the cows, even with the sound of his bolt.. He releases the streams which are like imprisoned cows  or  which, like lowing cows, flow to the ocean. He won the cows and Soma  and made the seven rivers to flow.”  AA MacDonell 1

MacDonell’s  “many-horned swiftly moving cows” are what Cox calls “golden tinted clouds or herds of Helios”. 2  Helios cows were white with gold horns3  as were Apollo’s. 4 Geryon’s kine grazing in the far west were red.5    Hades’ grazing nearby were black.6  And finally Hera had a cow named Io which changed in color from white to black to violet. 7

So there you go, whether you prefer mundane clouds or the divine kine, both answers are better than Polyidus’.  
3  Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 4.965
4  Homeric Hymn to Hermes  and Philostratus Eder 1.16-31
5  Apollodorus, The Library 2.106-108
6  Apollodorus Bibliotheca 2.125
7  Suida Isis

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Derby Tales; Run of the Backyard

So, a few weeks back the weather was fine and I had a chance to patch some holes in the backyard fence.  My Black Labrador Derby tested my repairs and ever since had the run of the backyard rather then hooked to the run.  Labor Day was sunny and every time I checked on her, she was rolling in the deep grass at the far corner of the yard basking in the hot sun.  Yesterday, the day after Labor day was foggy, but Derby wanted to be left in the backyard.  She called it right, probably three hours into my day, the sun came out.   

This morning Wednesday, she wanted out again, which seemed like a bad call, because rain is in the air and in the forecast.  So, I put her in the backyard and she bolts for a big hole in the fence.  She stops and gives me the come chase me look and then runs off on her little route of the neighborhood.  I missed her at the front door of the people kitty corner behind us, she got distracted in route to the house three doors up from there where she visits as part of her route, I walked around calling for a bit, sat on the porch and finally gave up and headed to work.  

 I'd walked about a block towards the muskegs when I heard a horn honk somewhere behind, probably in front of my home.  I turned back and saw her in the distance.  It must have been spectacular to see, one of my neighbors driving to work stopped to watch my seven year old  70# dog run, tongue flapping, heavy collar heaving into my arms.  Of course that's not how it happen, she veered off at the last second and ran into a neighbor's carport .  He leaves food and water there for his semi-feral cat .  Derby was glad to finish off the contents of the cat's food dish. That's where I caught her and returned her home after her big adventure.   

Here's the interesting part of the story.  Remember in the beginning, she ran to a hole in the fence.  The hole was already there first thing this morning.  That means that at some point in the last two weeks, she found a weakness in the fence.  She's been getting out, going on her little route and return through the hole in the fence before I noticed.   

To quote my wife, "The little stinker!"

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

TFBT: Correct Conversation in the Iliad

In preparation for a live discussion on the Language of Heroes Professor Richard Martin asked members of Hour 25 to make sense in context of the speech-acts in three passages of The Iliad;
·      Text A - Iliad 1.1-52,  Chryses and Agamemnon
·      Text B -  Iliad 20.176-258,   Aeneas and Achilles
·      Text C – Iliad 11.618 – 654, Nestor, Machaon and Patroclus

And then try to apply our sense of the overall speech-situation to Text D - Iliad
6.119 -236, Glaucus and Diomedes.  Unfortunately my observations seem to have turned the post and gone back the other way.  But I suppose that is to be expected with discussing conversation and Nestor.

Here’s what I got so far;

In “Text A” the priest Chryses demands the return of his daughter in the name of the god Apollo.  Lord Agamemnon  “spoke fiercely to him”, and maybe with good reason.  Based on the examples of Thetis supplication of Zeus and Priam’s of Achilles, Chryses was not supplicating Agamemnon  properly.  If the priest had maybe Agamemnon’s response might have been similar to Nestor in “Text C”; “he sprang from his seat, seized his (Patroclus’ s) hand, led him into the tent, and bade him take his place among  them”  Of course that didn’t happen, Agamemnon sent the priest away.  “The old man feared him and obeyed.”  But as we know from Hour 24 in HeroesX just because one party goes away, the dialogue doesn’t end, rather “Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely fine haired Leto had borne.”  Chryses continuation of the conversation foreshadows Achilles own prayer apart by the sounding sea.  And we all know how affective that was for Achilles in the Iliad and for Demeter in her Homeric Hymn.

In Text B when I read Aeneas say, “I will, can brag and talk unseemly…We could fling taunts… and talk all sorts of ways” I took this for the normal sort of chest puffing, trash-talk you can witness before some sporting events and on the playground before recess.  It wasn’t until Text D when  I heard the graciousness of the son of Hippolokhos and the son of Tydeus on the battlefield that I realized Achilles barely got a word in edgewise and that Aeneas was disrespectful of Achilles lineage. Maybe if Aeneas hadn’t been talking like Thersites he might have walked away with the much coveted armor of Achilles.

Text C brings us a man who knows how to converse.  Nestor as host takes Machaon to the shore so they can dry their shirts in the breeze, while a wise woman sets a meal for them.  And the mixing of the wine took on such precision and ritual that it conjured up images of Demeter’s sacred drought  then “they fell talking with one another”.  You just know this was a great talk.  Enter Patroclus, greeted graciously as mentioned above.  His response to the offer of wine is almost as curt as Demeter’s had been.  He gets what he wants and is gone.

In Text D two chivalrous Bronze Age nobles exchange gracious respectful words  and part with gifts to amaze their peers for generations to come.  One would have the armor of Diomedes and the other armor of gold.  (As to Glaucus taking leave of his wits; keep in mind these are the words of an envious iron age bard who sings for his dinner singing of two bronze age heroes whose world view was as different from his as ours is of all of them. )

Visit the full text of Professor Martin's book at the Center for Hellenic Studies;