Sunday, February 15, 2015

TFBT: Book Review "Murder Among Friends" Part I

First, “Murder Among Friends” is a great title.  Elizabeth S. Belfiore’s excellent book is subtitled “Violation of Philia in Greek Tragedy”.  The Ancient Greek word; philia refers to your closest friends and blood relatives.  Belfiore says,  “The Greek concept of kinship included relatives to the degree of children of cousins.”  Professor Nagy calls these your near and dear ones.   
The first chapter is a review of betrayed philia relationships in Greek literature.  The quick summary is that “epic either lacks or fails to emphasize violence among blood kin or spouses.  There is no mention in Homer of a sacrifice of Iphigeneia by her father."  On the other hand, violation of philia is an important element in most of the extant tragedies.” If you don’t know Greek tragedy well, some of the most famous plays include cannibalism, incest, patricide, matricide, human sacrifice, suicide, mariticide, infanticide and genocide all of which happens between cousins or closer.  I read elsewhere recently, “Just as Dante put those who defrauded kinsmen and benefactors at the bottom of the Infernal pit, the Greeks saw this kind of fraud as beyond remediation. 1

Chapter One and Two together discuss purification and supplication.  In epic the decision to accept a suppliant “is usually swift and without painful consequences.” In the olden days of Greek myth some criminal comes to you for forgiveness; a complete stranger.  You sacrifice a pig, more or less adopt him and call it a day.      “Moreover, reference to pollution (is) absent from epic” compared to supplication in tragedy.  Of all people Odysseus complained in his own epic that “any one with even a moderate amount of right feeling knows that he ought to treat a guest and a suppliant as though he were his own brother.” (Homer, Odyssey 8.545)
“Although (suppliants) are complete strangers in epic, in all but one of the four suppliant tragedies, suppliants are related by blood to those whom they supplicate.”     Supplicates in tragedy aren’t necessarily exiled criminals, sometimes they are people running from criminals as is the case of the daughters of Danaus one of Belfiore’s major examples in a play called “The Suppliants”. 
Supplication may occur at a sacred place or it may occur at the knees of the supplicated individual.  The suppliant carries "hiketeria", suppliant branches.   He crouches by while making contact altar, sacred object, or with the knees, right or chin of the person he supplicates.  To accept a suppliant, the person supplicated uses his right hand to grasps the suppliant’s left and raises him formally for what is technically called “the anastais"...   Another gesture often accompanies the anastais is the leading of the suppliant to a place suitable to a guest.  In "The Suppliants", Danaus instructs his daughters on supplication etiquette, telling them to sit ...where the statues are and to hold the branches in their left hands.  This will leave them free to stretch out their right hands in a gesture of supplications.
In the third chapter Belfiore makes a compelling argument that there is a relationship between ritual pertaining to a suppliant and that of a bride.  The daughter of Danaus claim Io as a common ancestress with the people that supplicate.  Belfiore explains that “Io (was) the mythological prototype of the Greek bride as respected suppliant.”  Aristotle is quoted that  “Concerning a wife…the Pythagoreans say that one should least of all do wrong to her, for she is like a suppliant and one led from the hearth.   Belfiore sees close parallels between raising a suppliant and leading a bride.   “The groom nearly always takes the bride’s left hand or wrist with his right.”  There is a great discussion about wedding imagery in Heracles supplication to Theseus in Euripides play of the former’s name.   Belfiore also point out that “Medea’s marriage to Jason began, in a significant reversal of the traditional procedures with his supplication of her. 
Chapter Four discusses Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” concentrating on the charter of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles.  Neoptolemus was ordered by Agamemnon to help Odysseus trick Philoctetes into giving up the bow given him by Heracles. “Neoptolemos asks to be allowed to do reverence to it as to a god.”  Belfiore explained that “the bow has never left Philoctetes hands; it is untouchable as well as sacred.”   Neoptolemus ends up deciding to do the right thing.  He lets Philoctetes keep his bow and promises to take him home rather than returning to Troy.  “Neoptolemus is willing to sacrifice glory for friendship.”  Which explains the meaning of his name “New Warrior” because his father the ultimate warrior did the opposite; sacrificing his friend Patroclus for unfailing glory.   After a length and thorough analysis of Neoptolemus and his friendship with the title character, Belfiore brings in traditions from other sources to round out her portrayal of the Peleuides.  A lot of what she brings up makes the son of Achilles and grandson of Peleus look back.  But summoning all these other traditions, Belfiore fails to deal with the tradition of Neoptolemus age.   Belfiore is in good company; every poet and analyst dealing with is play fails to include the fact that Achilles’ son is 11 years old at the time of the play.
Chapter 5; Sleeping with the Enemy discussed examples of women who slept with (married) the murderer of her kinsman; and “authentes”.  It doesn’t end well for all involved.  One short quote will make the point.  “Marriage with an “authentes” killer of a relative is one of the greatest of evils in Greek thought…Clytemnestra’s terrible marriage with Agamemnon began when he killed her husband and child.”

I am still reading this wonderful book.  It is slow going because there are so many moment of quotable text and thought provoking insights.    More later.





  1. Wikipedia presents the slain first husband and child of Clytemnestra as Euripides' invention:
    "In a late variation, Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis, Clytemnestra's first husband was Tantalus, King of Pisa; Agamemnon kills him and his infant son, then made Clytemnestra his wife."
    I've read somewhere (can't remember where) that Tyndareus gave Clytemnestra to Agamemnon to appease him, after Helen chose his less powerful brother. So this myth seems to have evolved.

  2. The philia in tragedy reminds me Tove Jansson's Moominsummer Madness - have you read it?

  3. Maya M,
    I believe your analysis is correct about Agamemnon and Cltymenstra. That said, I and imagine a scenario a scenario where Tynaderas felt obligated to give his blessing to a de-facto wedding.

    Tell me about MMadness.

  4. This is one of the numerous Jansson's novels about a family of "Mummintrols" and other imaginary creatures (written originally for children but actually liked by adults). In this novel, the family's father writes and stages a tragedy where, as it should be in a tragedy, everybody is related. You can read several pages here:
    The tragedian himself forgets what sort of relations his characters are.