“Mother, I wish I could choose one of three things:
That you were no longer alive, or, if you lived
That you would be someone else’e mother, or at least
Change your thoughts to something better than you have now.”
“I have come from the hidden places of corpses, darkness’ gates,
Once I left the place where Hades lives separate from the gods.
I am Polydorus, a child of Hecuba, the daughter of Kisseus,
And my father was Priam who sent me to this Phrygian city
When danger pressed upon us with a Greek spear.
Because he was afraid he sent me from the Trojan land
To the home of his guest friend Polymestor.”
Each week we select scenes from a play, actors and experts from around the world, and put them all together for 90 minutes or so to see what will happen. This process is therapeutic for us; and it helps us think about how tragedy may have had similar functions in the ancient world as well.
Euripides’ Hecuba was performed in 424 BCE during the first part of the Peloponnesian War in a period when Athens and Sparta had both suffered reversals. The play tells the story of Hecuba coming to terms with the deaths of her children Polyxena and Polydoros after the end of the Trojan War and before her own death. Euripides’ use of both characters exemplifies well his adaptation of myth: Polyxena’s sacrifice on Achilles’ grave is only one part of a revenge fantasy that has Hecuba plotting the murder of her son’s killer, Polymestor. In the Homeric tradition, Polydoros is Priam’s bastard son. But Euripides’ play maximizes on the appearance of the child’s ghost and the rage of a woman at the end of a disastrous war.
Homer, Iliad 20.407-418
“Then Achilles charged with his spear at godlike Polydoros,
Priam’s son. His father did not want him to fight at all
Because he was the youngest of his children
And was dearest to him: he could beat everyone with his feet
And he was foolishly showing off the excellence of his speed
As he raced through the fighters in front, until he lost his life.
Shining, swift-footed Achilles struck him right in the middle of the back
As he tried to leap past, in that place where the belt’s golden buckle
Comes together and the double-thick tunic meets.
The tip of the spear drove straight through to his navel
And he fell to his knees with a groan as a grey cloud
Overshadowed him. He fell forward holding his bowels in his hands.”
“The passion of the debate burned equally
On both sides, until that craft-minded
Criminal, the sweet-talking salesman of the people
The son of Laertes persuaded the army
Not to reject the best of all the Danaans
Over slaughtered slaves…”
Technical, Moral, Administrative Support: Lanah Koelle, Allie Mabry, Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott, Keith DeStone
Euripides, Hecuba 369-378 [Polyxena speaking]
“Ok, then, take me Odysseus, take me to die.
For I see no little hope or expectation here
That I will ever live well at all.
Mother, don’t put any kind of obstacle in my way
By saying anything, by doing anything. Share my plan
To die before meeting some shame I don’t deserve
Someone who is unaccustomed to facing troubles
Endures them but it hurts to bend the neck to the yoke.
One like this who dies is much luckier than being alive:
For not living well is terrible toil.”
“Who defends me? What family do I have?
What kind of city? The old man is gone.
Our children are gone.
What kind of path do I take?
This one? That one? Where would I be saved?
Where is there some god or spirit to help?
Trojan women who have endured evils,
Oh, the evil pains you’ve gone through,
You are dead, you have killed—
A life in the light no longer surprises me.”
No one who is mortal is free—
We are either the slave of money or chance;
Or the majority of people or the city’s laws
Keep us from living by our own judgment.
Since you feel fear and bend to the masses,
I will make you free of fear:
Understand anything wicked I plan against
My son’s murderer, but don’t help me do it.”
“Agamemnon, it’s not right for people
To possess tongues stronger than deeds.
If someone has done good things, then they ought to speak well
If they do wretched things, well, their words are rotten to,
And they are incapable of ever speaking of injustice well.
Wise are those who have become masters of precise speech!
But they cannot be wise all the way to the end.
They all die terribly. There’s no escape from that.”
Eustathius, Comm. ad Hom. Odyssey, 11.538 1696, 50
“The story is that Paris killed Achilles by shooting him with his bow. Sôstratos records that Alexandros was lusted after by Apollo and was his student in Archery. He was holding an ivory bow he got from Apollo when he shot Achilles in the stomach.”
“To be a Cretan: People use this phrase to mean lying and cheating. And they say it developed as a proverb from Idomeneus the Cretan. For, as the story goes, when there was a disagreement developed about the greater [share] among the Greeks at troy and everyone was eager to acquire the heaped up bronze for themselves, they made Idomeneus the judge. Once he took open pledges from them that they would adhere to the judgments he would make, he put himself in from of all the rest! For this reason, it is called Krêtening.”
There is another tradition too for why Cretans are liars:
Medeia’s Beauty Contest: Fr. Gr. Hist (=Müller 4.10.1) Athenodorus of Eretria
“In the eighth book of his Notes, Athenodorus says that Thetis and Medeia competed over beauty in Thessaly and made Idomeneus the judge—he gave the victory to Thetis. Medeia, enraged, said that Kretans are always liars and she cursed him, that he would never speak the truth just has he had [failed to] in the judgment. And this is the reason that people say they believe that Kretans are liars. Athenodorus adds that Antiokhos records this in the second book of his Urban Legends.”
Of course, in the Odyssey Idomeneus shows up in Odysseus’ lies
“I heard of Ithaca even in broad Krete
Far over the sea. And now I myself have come
With these possessions. I left as much still with my children
When I fled, because I killed the dear son of Idomeneus,
Swift-footed Orsilokhos who surpassed all the grain-fed men
In broad Krete with his swift feet
Because he wanted to deprive me of all the booty
From Troy, over which I had suffered much grief in my heart,
Testing myself against warlike men and the grievous waves.
All because I was not showing his father favor as an attendant
In the land of the Trojans, but I was leading different companions.
I struck him with a bronze-pointed spear as he returned
From the field, after I set an ambush near the road with a companion.
Dark night covered the sky and no human beings
Took note of us, I got away with depriving him of life.
But after I killed him with the sharp bronze,
I went to a ship of the haughty Phoenicians
And I begged them and gave them heart-melting payment.”
This is the first ‘lie’ Odysseus tells upon his arrival on Ithaca. He does not know that he is speaking to Athena and a scholiast explains his choices as if he were speaking to a suitor or one who would inform them.
Scholia V ad. Od. 13.267
“He explains that he killed Idomeneus’ son so that the suitors will accept him as an enemy of dear Odysseus. He says that he has sons in Crete because he will have someone who will avenge him. He says that the death of Orsilochus was for booty, because he is showing that he would not yield to this guy bloodlessly. He says that he trusted Phoenicians so that he may not do him wrong, once he has reckoned that they are the most greedy for profit and they spared him.”
“But as soon as pleasure, spent, comes to its goal
And bodies lie thoroughly exhausted with the mind
When it gets annoying and you prefer to have touched no girl
And you seem unlikely to touch one again for a while,
Then gather in your mind whatever faults are in her flesh
And hold each of her imperfections in your eyes.
Perhaps someone else will consider them small—as they are,
But what is no advantage alone aids in numbers.
A viper slays a giant bull will a small bite;
A boar is often held by a hound of no great size.
Make sure you fight with such a number: collect your judgments,
A mountain will grow from so much sand.”
At simul ad metas venit finita voluptas,
Lassaque cum tota corpora mente iacent,
Dum piget, et malis nullam tetigisse puellam,
Tacturusque tibi non videare diu,
Tunc animo signa, quaecumque in corpore menda est,
Luminaque in vitiis illius usque tene.
Forsitan haec aliquis (nam sunt quoque) parva vocabit,
Sed, quae non prosunt singula, multa iuvant.
Parva necat morsu spatiosum vipera taurum:
A cane non magno saepe tenetur aper.
Tu tantum numero pugna, praeceptaque in unum
Contrahe: de multis grandis acervus erit.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 168–176
“But when the shepherds gather back to the fold
Their cattle and strong sheep from the blooming meadows,
Then over Anchises she was pouring sweet sleep
Gently and she wrapped her shining cloths around her.
Once clothed well over her entire body, the shining goddess
Stood near the bed, and her head touched the well-made roof,
And the immortal beauty shone from her cheeks
As it does from well-crowned Kytherea.
And she woke him from sleep and spoke his name:
“Get up, Dardanian. Why do you still stretch out in deep sleep?…”
After Athena reveals herself to Odysseus when he has arrived in Ithaka, he takes a moment to imply that she wasn’t very helpful during a period of his life. Oh, and he questions whether or not she’s just messing with him about the whole Ithaka thing. A scholiast takes issue with the authenticity of the passage. Modern editions retain it.
“But after we sacked Priam’s high city
And went in our ships, a god scattered the Achaians,
And I no longer saw you, daughter of Zeus, I did not notice
You coming aboard my ship so you might ward some pain from me.
But always as I wandered I kept an expectant heart
That the gods would release me from evil—
Until that day when in the rich land of the Phaeacian people
You encouraged me with words and led me into the city yourself.
Now I beg you by your father—for I do not think
I have come to beautiful Ithaca, but I have turned up
In some other land. I think you are mocking me
When you say this so you might deceive my mind.”
“These lines are inauthentic. First, instead of “my thoughts” it has “his thoughts”, which is third person and the poet always pays attention to the difference in these things. The second problem is that [Odysseus] attributes his rescue to the gods when Athena is present. The third and fourth are because he did not know that the goddess appeared to him among the Phaeacians and that she has not encouraged him, but rather the opposite.”
“You are more infertile than the gardens of Adonis”. A proverb which is applied to those who are able to produce nothing true. Plato brings this up in the Phaedrus. The gardens of Adonis are planted in clay pots and grow until they turn green only. Then they are carried out with the dying god and tossed into springs.”
“The gardens of Adonis: a proverb applied to things that are out of season and without roots. As the myth goes, Adonis, Aphrodite’s lover, died before adolescence. The people who celebrate his rites plant gardens in pots. They grow quickly and then die because they do not take root. They call these Adonis’ plants.”
“Would a farmer of any sense, when he cares about some seeds and wants them to grow to fruit, seriously plant them in some gardens of Adonis during the summer and then take pleasure in seem them growing beautifully only eight days later and would he do this thing only as a game or for sake of some distraction when he did it? Wouldn’t he apply the art of farming to those matters in which he was serious and plant his seeds in the ground and then be delighted when everything he planted reached full size in the eighth month?”
Some of the language used by scholiasts to designate sections of the Odyssey as spurious is based in a metaphor drawn from the legitimacy of offspring. As such, it might be rigidly authoritarian and misogynistic in emphasizing one (paternal) authority and one legitimate text.
Schol. HQ ad Od. 13.320-323
“These lines are spurious…”
νοθεύονται δ′ στίχοι.
Schol H. ad Od. 15.19
“Some people think these lines are illegitimate…”
ἔνιοι τοὺς γ′ νοθεύουσιν…
Schol. H ad Od. 15.45
“This [line] is spurious because it is adapted from a half-line from book 10 of the Iliad
Listen, I know Hektor gets a lot of love in the world and he is often seen as the one good man in a rather bad world. So, I hate to share this with you, but he’s not perfect either…
Euripides Andromache, 222-227
“Dearest Hektor, I tried for your sake
With your love affairs if Kupris made you stumble,
And often then I offered my breast to your bastards
So that I might demonstrate no bitterness for you.
And by doing these things I attracted my husband
To my virtue…”
“For they claim that this is against the history—for there is no history of sons born to Hektor from another woman. But those who say these things have not done their research. For Anaksikratês says in the second book of his Argive Affairs that those with Aineias and Skamandrios, Hektor’s son and an older son […] that first was his bastard who was taken away…[and the legitimate son] was killed.
But these men were saved. For Skamandrios arrived in Ida and Aineias—along with his son Askanios—and Ankhises his father, and his other sons and, and Aigestas who was Ankhises’ servant moved to Dardanos. Therefore Euripides does not oddly claim that [Hektor] had illegitimate sons.”
Anatole Mori in her commentary on this fragment for Brill’s New Jacoby notes that there are several later mythographical traditions that put Askanios and Skamandrios together:
“According to the fifth-century mythographer Hellanikos of Lesbos, Neoptolemos released Skamandrios and other descendants of Hektor, who returned with Askanios to Troy (BNJ 4 F 31 = Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Antiquities of Rome 1.47.53). The joint foundation of Skepsis by Skamandrios and Askanios is likewise noted by the geographer Strabo (Geography 13.1.52; Geography 14.5.29… On the various sources for the tradition of Skamandrios as a Trojan survivor, see P. M. Smith, ‘Aineiadai as Patrons of Iliad XX and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite’, HSCPh 85 (1981), 17-58, at 53-58. C.”
As Mori also notes, this name might be familiar to readers of the Iliad which takes pain to not that “Hektor used to call his son Skamandrios but the rest / called him Astyanax, for he alone kept Ilion safe” (τόν ῥ’ ῞Εκτωρ καλέεσκε Σκαμάνδριον, αὐτὰρ οἱ ἄλλοι
/ ᾿Αστυάνακτ’· οἶος γὰρ ἐρύετο ῎Ιλιον ῞Εκτωρ. 6.402–403). The Homeric scholia are silent on this. This seems a likely case of an instance where the Iliad knowingly suppresses details from myth to streamline the themes in its narrative (so, here, conflating multiple sons of Hektor into one). Indeed, Homeric epic seems to have a thing with eliminating second sons (as with Telegonus in the Odyssey.)
When it comes to the act of nursing a husband’s illegitimate children, the scholia to Euripides do bring up a Homeric example:
“[and I often then [gave my] breast]: This is the kind of woman Antênor’s wife was. For Homer has “Megês killed Pedaios, the son of Antênor / who was actually a bastard, but shining Theanô raised him carefully / equal to her own dear children, because she wanted to please her husband.”
(Note some linguistic similarity to Euripides’ passage above in the phrases χαριζομένη πόσεϊ ᾧ and τὴν σὴν χάριν.) The Homeric epics are not wholly silent on bastard sons--they feature Menelaos’ son Megapenthes. According to the scholion to this passage (Schol. A ad Hom. 5.70b) “it was the foreign custom to have children with a lot of women. (Ariston. ὅς ῥα νόθος μὲν ἔην: ὅτι βαρβαρικὸν ἔθος τὸ ἐκ πλειόνων γυναικῶν παιδοποιεῖσθαι. A). The bT Scholion to the same passage goes further:
“It is the foreign custom to have sex with many women—indeed, Laertes* “avoids the wrath of his wife” (1.433) Or she must quickly make it right through the priesthood. But the poetry attributes this custom to women—for it is a mark of a wise woman to cover the mistake her husband has made.”
*The Odyssey specifically remarks that Laertes did not sleep with Eurykleia, his very attractive slave, because he did not want to anger Antikleia, his wife.
So, in Euripides’ play, Andromache’s nursing of her husbands’ bastards is both a sign of her foreignness and of her dedication to her husband (and, perhaps here, a mark of her quality as a slave since she was already so accustomed to supporting another….).