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


  1. Rhesus attained unwilting glory by having the rhesus monkeys and, consequently, the Rhesus blood groups named after him. Quite an honor for a hero with such a brief career. I know only one other hero with similar kleos, Cadmus as namesake of the element cadmium. (I hadn't made the connection between the two names until last spring, when I wrote a description of this element for my student.)

    A blind bard (led by a young boy, like Teiresias) appeared in Kraszewski's Ancient Tale, a historical novel about pagan Poland:
    That character told that he was intentionally blinded in order to become a bard, and readers infers that this was routine in his culture. Unfortunately, he didn't specify why his job description excluded eyesight.

  2. Maya,

    You forgot to list Rhesus Pieces from the movie "ET". Oh wait that was spelled different. Maybe a simple issue of transliteration?


  3. “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.”
    Now we know why Athens lost the Peloponnesian War: Pericles in his Funeral Oration praised his polis well beyond measure :-).

  4. I think Pericles was also the one that said "If you are not for us, you are against us." That was his justification for squeezing tribute out of some small country tryong to stay neutral .

  5. If you follow this link:
    you'll see in photo No. 3 what the horses of Rhesus may have looked like. Indeed, these ones are in all colors, not only white.

  6. Maya,

    Did you notice the bells on the horses' rigging! What a great find. Thank you so much!