Hearing and Seeing Evils: Returning to Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” Online

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1369

“Conjecture is not knowledge.”

τὸ γὰρ τοπάζειν τοῦ σάφ᾽ εἰδέναι δίχα.

Today the  Center for Hellenic Studies , the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre return to the scene of the crime, well murder, well, justifiable homicide of Agamemnon in a special presentation directed by Tabatha Gayle.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 855-860

“Citizens, this elder pride of Argives,
I will feel not shame at revealing
my spousal love to you. In time, human fear
turns to dust. I will tell you of my own
miserable live, not something I learned from others,
all that time when this man was below the city of Troy.”

ἄνδρες πολῖται, πρέσβος Ἀργείων τόδε,
οὐκ αἰσχυνοῦμαι τοὺς φιλάνορας τρόπους
λέξαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς· ἐν χρόνῳ δ᾿ ἀποφθίνει
τὸ τάρβος ἀνθρώποισιν. οὐκ ἄλλων πάρα
μαθοῦσ᾿ ἐμαυτῆς δύσφορον λέξω βίον
τοσόνδ᾿ ὁσόνπερ οὗτος ἦν ὑπ᾿ Ἰλίῳ

This week we trturn to the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Agamemnon. How famous is the story of Orestes and his father? So famous that it is the story Zeus contemplates at the beginning of the Homeric Odyssey as he looks down in frustration on the man who murdered Agamemnon. Atreus’ son, Agamemnon, appears in the middle of the epic (book 11) and at its end, complaining at each point bitterly about his disloyal wife, Klytemnestra, and praising the vengeance meted out by his son Orestes.

The story of the family of Agamemnon, however, extends before the Trojan War and then after until the death of Achilles’ son Neoptolemos. it starts back with Tantalos and Pelops in Asia Minor before it moves to the Peloponnese through sacrilegious meals, infanticide and fraternal war, all themes highlighted in the main cause of Klytemnestra’s rage, the killing of their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis.

If this story sounds familiar, it is because it is! In this series, we have heard variations of this tale from Sophocles and Euripides, contemplating both its beginnings and its ends. Indeed, ancient audiences would have been as familiar with the story as Zeus at the beginning of the Odyssey, shaking their heads and wondering how this version will play out.

This play begins with Agamemnon’s return home, but focuses on Klytemnestra’s anger and her power. It features some of the most challenging and memorable choral odes extant from the ancient world. It has a raving, yet lucid Kassandra. And at the core of the play, a murderous king’s bloody return home.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 914-917

“Child of Leda, guardian of my home,

“You have spoken aptly to my absence,
Since you have gone on at length. But proper praise
Ought to be a prize won from different sources.”

Λήδας γένεθλον, δωμάτων ἐμῶν φύλαξ,
ἀπουσίᾳ μὲν εἶπας εἰκότως ἐμῇ·
μακρὰν γὰρ ἐξέτεινας· ἀλλ᾿ ἐναισίμως
αἰνεῖν, παρ᾿ ἄλλων χρὴ τόδ᾿ ἔρχεσθαι γέρα


Tamieka Chavis
Rene Thompson
Zack Dictakis
Gabby Weltman
Special Guest and Director: Tabatha Gayle

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 684-696

“Whoever pronounced a name
So thoroughly true?
Wasn’t it someone we’d not see
Guiding the tongue with luck
From a foreknowledge of fate?
Who named the spear-bride,
Struggled-over woman
For, appropriately,
That ship-killer [hele-nas], man-killer [hel-andros]
City-killer [hele-ptolis], sailed
From her fine-spun, curtains
On the breath of great Zephyr
and many-manned bands
Of shield-bearers followed
The vanished journey struck
By the oars to the banks
Of leafy Simois

For a bloody strife.”
Χο. τίς ποτ’ ὠνόμαξεν ὧδ’
ἐς τὸ πᾶν ἐτητύμως—
μή τις ὅντιν’ οὐχ ὁρῶ-
μεν προνοί-
αισι τοῦ πεπρωμένου
γλῶσσαν ἐν τύχᾳ νέμων; —τὰν
δορίγαμβρον ἀμφινεικῆ
θ’ ῾Ελέναν; ἐπεὶ πρεπόντως
ἑλένας, ἕλανδρος, ἑλέ-
πτολις, ἐκ τῶν ἁβροπήνων
προκαλυμμάτων ἔπλευσε
Ζεφύρου γίγαντος αὔρᾳ,
τε φεράσπιδες κυναγοὶ
κατ’ ἴχνος πλατᾶν ἄφαντον
κελσάντων Σιμόεντος
ἀκτὰς ἐπ’ ἀεξιφύλλους
δι’ ἔριν αἱματόεσσαν.

Producers and Crew

Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre)
Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University)
Executive Producer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)
Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society)
Poster Artist: John Koelle
Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)

Aristophanes, Assemblywomen 176-183

“[Zeus] puts mortals on
The journey of comprehension.
And made this the powerful law:
We learn by suffering.
Pain-recalling trouble trickles
Through the heart in sleep—
And wisdom comes just so
To the unwilling.
The gods seated on their sacred seats
Bestow a hard grace I think.”

Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων
τεύξεται φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν,
τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
στάζει δ’ ἀνθ’ ὕπνου πρὸ καρδίας
μνησιπήμων πόνος· καὶ παρ’ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.

Virginia Woolf, On Not Knowing Greek

If then in Sophocles the play is concentrated in the figures themselves, and in Euripides is to be retrieved from flashes of poetry and questions far flung and unanswered, Aeschylus makes these little dramas (the Agamemnon has 1663 lines; Lear about 2600) tremendous by stretching every phrase to the utmost, by sending them floating forth in metaphors, by bidding them rise up and stalk eyeless and majestic through the scene. To understand him it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one separately is too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of the mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means. Take this from the Agamemnon for instance–

      ὀμμάτων δ’ ἐν ἀχηνίαις

          ἔρρει πᾶσ’ ᾿Αφροδίτα.

The meaning is just on the far side of language. It is the meaning which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive in our minds without words; it is the meaning that Dostoevsky (hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation) leads us to by some astonishing run up the scale of emotions and points at but cannot indicate; the meaning that Shakespeare succeeds in snaring.

Aeschylus thus will not give, as Sophocles gives, the very words that people might have spoken, only so arranged that they have in some mysterious way a general force, a symbolic power, nor like Euripides will he combine incongruities and thus enlarge his little space, as a small room is enlarged by mirrors in odd corners. By the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and make splendid.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 37-39

“This house itself, if it found a voice,
Would be able to speak most clearly. I am talking
Willingly to those who know and forget for those who know nothing.”

…οἶκος δ᾿ αὐτός, εἰ φθογγὴν λάβοι,
σαφέστατ᾿ ἂν λέξειεν· ὡς ἑκὼν ἐγὼ
μαθοῦσιν αὐδῶ κοὐ μαθοῦσι λήθομαι.

Ignoring the Cause, Assailing the Symptoms

Euripides, Andromache 170-180 (Hermione speaking) (Full text on the Scaife Viewer)

“You are so far into ignorance, you pitiful woman,
That you dare to sleep with the man who killed
Your husband and to rear a child from a family that killed yours.
This is completely the barbarian way—
A father has sex with a daughter, a child with his mother,
A daughter with her brother and the dearest of relatives
Turn on each other in murder and no law restrains them!
Don’t bring those laws here. It is also not noble
For a man to have two women in his reins.
Everyone who desires to live apart from evil
Is happy to look to a single bed for sex.”

ἐς τοῦτο δ᾿ ἥκεις ἀμαθίας, δύστηνε σύ,
ἣ παιδὶ πατρὸς ὃς σὸν ὤλεσεν πόσιν
τολμᾷς ξυνεύδειν καὶ τέκν᾿ αὐθεντῶν πάρα
τίκτειν. τοιοῦτον πᾶν τὸ βάρβαρον γένος·
πατήρ τε θυγατρὶ παῖς τε μητρὶ μείγνυται
κόρη τ᾿ ἀδελφῷ, διὰ φόνου δ᾿ οἱ φίλτατοι
χωροῦσι, καὶ τῶνδ᾿ οὐδὲν ἐξείργει νόμος.
ἃ μὴ παρ᾿ ἡμᾶς ἔσφερ᾿· οὐδὲ γὰρ καλὸν
δυοῖν γυναικοῖν ἄνδρ᾿ ἕν᾿ ἡνίας ἔχειν,
ἀλλ᾿ ἐς μίαν βλέποντες εὐναίαν Κύπριν
στέργουσιν, ὅστις μὴ κακῶς οἰκεῖν θέλῃ.

387-393 (Andromache speaking)

“You do huge things for minor reasons—
Listen to me! Why are you hurting me? What’s the reason
What city did I betray? Which child of yours did I kill?
What home did I burn down? I was forced to bed
With my master. You’ll kill me and not him
When he is the cause of these things? You’ll ignore
The cause and just keep pounding on the symptom?”

ὦ μεγάλα πράσσων αἰτίας σμικρᾶς πέρι,
πιθοῦ· τί καίνεις μ᾿; ἀντὶ τοῦ; ποίαν πόλιν
προύδωκα; τίνα σῶν ἔκτανον παίδων ἐγώ;
ποῖον δ᾿ ἔπρησα δῶμ᾿; ἐκοιμήθην βίᾳ
σὺν δεσπόταισι· κᾆτ᾿ ἔμ᾿, οὐ κεῖνον κτενεῖς,
τὸν αἴτιον τῶνδ᾿, ἀλλὰ τὴν ἀρχὴν ἀφεὶς
πρὸς τὴν τελευτὴν ὑστέραν οὖσαν φέρῃ;

Go here for a reading of the play and a discussion of its themes (and here for the Reading Greek Tragedy Online Series):

What Use is a Good Reputation?

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 141

“He is terrible to look at and terrible to hear”

δεινὸς μὲν ὁρᾶν, δεινὸς δὲ κλύειν

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 258-259

“What use is a good reputation? What good is
Fame flowing off to no end?”

τί δῆτα δόξης, ἢ τί κληδόνος καλῆς
μάτην ῥεούσης ὠφέλημα γίγνεται

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 852-855

“I know it and you will recognize it in time
That are are neither act rightly now
Nor did you before, because in your love of your strength
You gave first place to your anger, the very thing that always ruins you.”

χρόνῳ γάρ, οἶδ᾿ ἐγώ, γνώσῃ τάδε,
ὁθούνεκ᾿ αὐτὸς αὐτὸν οὔτε νῦν καλὰ
δρᾷς οὔτε πρόσθεν εἰργάσω, βίᾳ φίλων
ὀργῇ χάριν δούς, ἥ σ᾿ ἀεὶ λυμαίνεται.

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 954-55

“Old age has nothing of rage except for dying
And no pain touches the dead.”

θυμοῦ γὰρ οὐδὲν γῆράς ἐστιν ἄλλο πλὴν
θανεῖν· θανόντων δ᾿ οὐδὲν ἄλγος ἅπτεται.

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 1335-1339

“We are beggars and strangers, but you are a stranger.
You and I both live thanks to the good will of others
Since we have met the same fate.
A tyrant is in our home—it is terrible—
And he laughs as he mocks us in common.”

πτωχοὶ μὲν ἡμεῖς καὶ ξένοι, ξένος δὲ σύ·
ἄλλους δὲ θωπεύοντες οἰκοῦμεν σύ τε
κἀγώ, τὸν αὐτὸν δαίμον᾿ ἐξειληχότες.
ὁ δ᾿ ἐν δόμοις τύραννος, ὢ τάλας ἐγώ,
κοινῇ καθ᾿ ἡμῶν ἐγγελῶν ἁβρύνεται·

Oedipus at Colonus, Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust, 1788, Dallas Museum of Art

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, “Bad Reputation”

I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation
You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation
A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s what I’m gonna do

The Problem With Too Much

Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1211-1223

The man who jettisons moderation
And desires more life than is his right
Is tending an absurdity.
That’s quite clear to me.

Long days gather up much,
Drawing pain closer in the process.
Nowhere will you see pleasure
When a man falls into more life than is right.

But, relief comes to one and all in the end
When, without wedding song, lyre, or dance,
Hades’ dispensation at last appears:

ὅστις τοῦ πλέονος μέρους
χρῄζει τοῦ μετρίου παρεὶς
ζώειν, σκαιοσύναν φυλάσσων
ἐν ἐμοὶ κατάδηλος ἔσται.
ἐπεὶ πολλὰ μὲν αἱ μακραὶ
ἁμέραι κατέθεντο δὴ
λύπας ἐγγυτέρω, τὰ τέρποντα
δ᾽ οὐκ ἂν ἴδοις ὅπου,
ὅταν τις ἐς πλέον πέσῃ
τοῦ δέοντος: ὁ δ᾽ ἐπίκουρος ἰσοτέλεστος,
Ἄϊδος ὅτε μοῖρ᾽ ἀνυμέναιος
ἄλυρος ἄχορος ἀναπέφηνε,
θάνατος ἐς τελευτάν.

Scholia on line 1211 (The man who desires more life than his right):

“The chorus is clear . . . about the greed of men, and what the chorus says is like what Hesiod says: ‘Fools don’t know how much half is more than the whole.’ This gets to Oedipus’s misfortune.”

ὅστις τοῦ πλέονος μέρους: κατάδηλός ἐστιν ὁ χορὸς ἐν ταὐτῷ ἀναφωνῶν καὶ ἀλληγορῶν περὶ τῆς τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἀπληστίας καὶ ἔοικε τῷ παρʼ Ἡσιόδῳ νήπιοι οὐδὲ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντός” τείνει δὲ ταῦτα εἰς τὴν δυσποτμίαν Οἰδίπου”

Black and white picture of a marble sculpture of an old man, partly shirtless, holding a lamb in one hand and a walking stick in another
c.180 B.C. Marble sculpture.
Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

An Unhappy Homecoming: Reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Odyssey: A Verse Play”, Online

Wednesday, November 2nd: A Reading from Nikos Kazantzakis’ verse play “Odysseus”  at 3pm EDT. Online and archived forever

Poster advertising a performance of Odysseus by Nikolas Kazantzakis

The stories surrounding Odysseus stretch far beyond the bounds of Homer’s Odyssey.. Ancient narratives like the lost Telegony imagine what happened to the hero outside the sacking of Troy and tragedies like Sophocles’ Philoctetes or Ajax fill in the stories not told in the Iliad and Odyssey.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Nikos Kazantzakis composed among other works The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, a poem that stretches out to twice the length of the Homeric Odyssey. He also wrote a verse play that has not been widely available in English until the publication of Kostas Myrsiades’ translation This play functions as a kind of ‘prequel to Kazantzakis’ epic, but it also advances some of the themes surrounding the story of Odyssey outside of his homecoming.


Tabatha Gayla

Lily Ling

Toph Marshall

Eunice Roberts

Rene Thornton, Jr.


Director: Paul O’Mahony


Special Guest: Maria G. Xanthou

Amazing People
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre)
Host and Faculty Consultant: Joel Christensen (Brandeis University)
Executive Producer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)
Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society)
Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University)
Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)
Poster Illustration Artist: John Koelle
This play could be seen as an alternate version of the Odyssey  or a modern reception. It engages both with variations in ancient myth and a tradition of literary responses. We have a summary of some of those tales in Apollodorus.


Apollodorus, (Ep. 7.38-39)

“Some say that Penelope was corrupted by Antinoos and that Odysseus sent her back to her father Ikarios. When she came to Mantinea in Arcadia she had Pan with Hermes. Others allege that she was killed by Odysseus because of Amphinomos, who seduced her. There are also those who say that Odysseus was charged by the relatives of those he had killed who took Neoptolemos as judge, then king of the islands near Epirus. He handed down a judgment of exile and Odysseus went to Thoas the son of Andraimôn who married him to his daughter. When he died from old age, he left a son Leontophonos.

τινὲς δὲ Πηνελόπην ὑπὸ Ἀντινόου φθαρεῖσαν λέγουσιν ὑπὸ Ὀδυσσέως πρὸς τὸν πατέρα Ἰκάριον ἀποσταλῆναι, γενομένην δὲ τῆς Ἀρκαδίας κατὰ Μαντίνειαν ἐξ Ἑρμοῦ τεκεῖν Πᾶνα: [39] ἄλλοι δὲ δι᾽ Ἀμφίνομον ὑπὸ Ὀδυσσέως αὐτοῦ τελευτῆσαι: διαφθαρῆναι γὰρ αὐτὴν ὑπὸ τούτου λέγουσιν. [40] εἰσὶ δὲ οἱ λέγοντες ἐγκαλούμενον Ὀδυσσέα ὑπὸ τῶν οἰκείων ὑπὲρ τῶν ἀπολωλότων δικαστὴν Νεοπτόλεμον λαβεῖν τὸν βασιλεύοντα τῶν κατὰ τὴν Ἤπειρον νήσων, τοῦτον δέ, νομίσαντα ἐκποδὼν Ὀδυσσέως γενομένου Κεφαλληνίαν καθέξειν, κατακρῖναι φυγὴν αὐτοῦ, Ὀδυσσέα δὲ εἰς Αἰτωλίαν πρὸς Θόαντα τὸν Ἀνδραίμονος παραγενόμενον τὴν τούτου θυγατέρα γῆμαι, καὶ καταλιπόντα παῖδα Λεοντοφόνον ἐκ ταύτης γηραιὸν τελευτῆσαι.

Rather than being just a record of later responses to Homer, this passage likely echoes traditions that were extant during the performance and composition of the Odyssey we have. Pausanias provides a record of cult traditions around Penelope in the Peloponnese:


Penelope’s Grave, Pausanias 8.12.5

“In addition to the roads discussed, there are two others to Orkhomenos. On one we find what is called the Ladan Stade where Ladas practiced running and near there a temple of Artemis. On the right side of the road, there is a high mound. People say that this is the burial place of Penelope, although in this they don’t agree with the story about her in the poem called the Thesprotis.

In that poem, Penelope has the child Ptoloporthês with Odysseus after he comes home from Troy.  But the story of the Mantineans says that she was accused by Odysseus of bringing lovers into his home and then he kicked her out. They say she returned to Lakedaimon but later moved from Sparta to Mantineia where she met the end of her life.”

ἐπὶ δὲ ὁδοῖς ταῖς κατειλεγμέναις δύο ἐς ᾿Ορχομενόν εἰσιν ἄλλαι, καὶ τῇ μέν ἐστι καλούμενον Λάδα στάδιον, ἐς ὃ ἐποιεῖτο Λάδας μελέτην δρόμου, καὶ παρ’ αὐτὸ ἱερὸν ᾿Αρτέμιδος καὶ ἐν δεξιᾷ τῆς ὁδοῦ γῆς χῶμα ὑψηλόν· Πηνελόπης δὲ εἶναι τάφον φασίν, οὐχ ὁμολογοῦντες τὰ ἐς αὐτὴν ποιήσει <τῇ> Θεσπρωτίδι ὀνομαζομένῃ. ἐν ταύτῃ μέν γέ ἐστι τῇ ποιήσει ἐπανήκοντι ἐκ Τροίας ᾿Οδυσσεῖ τεκεῖν τὴν Πηνελόπην Πτολιπόρθην παῖδα· Μαντινέων δὲ ὁ ἐς αὐτὴν λόγος Πηνελόπην φησὶν ὑπ’ ᾿Οδυσσέως καταγνωσθεῖσαν ὡς ἐπισπαστοὺς ἐσαγάγοιτο ἐς τὸν οἶκον, καὶ ἀποπεμφθεῖσαν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ,  τὸ μὲν παραυτίκα ἐς Λακεδαίμονα ἀπελθεῖν, χρόνῳ δὲ ὕστερον ἐκ τῆς Σπάρτης ἐς Μαντίνειαν μετοικῆσαι, καί οἱ τοῦ βίου τὴν τελευτὴν ἐνταῦθα συμβῆναι.

The question of Penelope’s fidelity was a popular motif, and may be part of the uncertainty of her depiction in the Odyssey.  Lykophron in his Alexandra takes the view that Penelope was not faithful (768-773)

“For he will come, he will come to the harbor shelter of Reithron
And the cliffs of Nêritos. And he will see
His whole house upturned from its foundations
By wife-stealing adulterers. And that vixen
Will hollow out his home with shameless whoring,
Pouring out the wretch’s fortune feast by feast”.

ἥξει γάρ, ἥξει ναύλοχον ῾Ρείθρου σκέπας
καὶ Νηρίτου πρηῶνας. ὄψεται δὲ πᾶν
μέλαθρον ἄρδην ἐκ βάθρων ἀνάστατον
μύκλοις γυναικόκλωψιν. ἡ δὲ βασσάρα
σεμνῶς κασωρεύουσα κοιλανεῖ δόμους,
θοίναισιν ὄλβον ἐκχέασα τλήμονος.

Lykophron is positively chaste compared to the account provided in the Scholia:

“And Douris writes in his work on the lewdness of Agathokleos that Penelope had sex with all of the suitors and then gave birth to the goat-shaped Pan whom they took up to be one of the gods.  He is talking nonsense about Pan, for Pan is the child of Hermes and a different Penelope. Another story is that Pan is the child of Zeus and Hubris.”

Καὶ Δοῦρις δὲ ἐν τῷ περὶ ᾿Αγαθοκλέους μάχλον φησὶ τὴν Πηνελόπην καὶ συνελθοῦσαν πᾶσι τοῖς μνηστῆρσι γεννῆσαι τὸν τραγοσκελῆ Πᾶνα ὃν εἰς θεοὺς ἔχουσιν (FHG II 47942). φλυαρεῖ δὲ περὶ τοῦ Πανός· ὁ Πὰν γὰρ ῾Ερμοῦ καὶ Πηνελόπης ἄλλης †T. καὶ ἕτερος δὲ Πὰν Διὸς καὶ ῞Υβρεως.

The Odyssey is clear that the hero’s story continues on. Odysseus hears Teiresias’ prophecy in book 11 and then communicates it:

Homer, Odyssey 23.248–253

“Wife, we have not yet come to the end of our struggles
But toil without measure is still in front of us,
Great and hard toil, all the things which I have to complete.
For the spirit of Teiresias prophesied this to me
On that day when I went to the home of Hades
To inquire about my companions’ homecoming and my own.”

“ὦ γύναι, οὐ γάρ πω πάντων ἐπὶ πείρατ’ ἀέθλων
ἤλθομεν, ἀλλ’ ἔτ’ ὄπισθεν ἀμέτρητος πόνος ἔσται,
πολλὸς καὶ χαλεπός, τὸν ἐμὲ χρὴ πάντα τελέσσαι.
ὣς γάρ μοι ψυχὴ μαντεύσατο Τειρεσίαο
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε δὴ κατέβην δόμον ῎Αϊδος εἴσω,
νόστον ἑταίροισιν διζήμενος ἠδ’ ἐμοὶ αὐτῷ.

For someone who has suffered so much in this epic with not knowing the outcome of events, with the paralysis that comes from grief that is unresolved, Penelope is compelled to ask Odysseus to tell her (256-262) ending with a gnomic plea that “it is not at all worse to know right away” (πεύσομαι, αὐτίκα δ’ ἐστὶ δαήμεναι οὔ τι χέρειον). Odysseus winds up his story and prepares to recite the prophecy, but he begins differently.

Odyssey 23.265–279

“But I will tell you and I will not hide it.
My heart will not take pleasure in it. For I take no joy
Since he ordered me to go again through many cities of men
Holding a well-shaped oar in my hands…”

…αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ μυθήσομαι οὐδ’ ἐπικεύσω.
οὐ μέν τοι θυμὸς κεχαρήσεται· οὐδὲ γὰρ αὐτὸς
χαίρω, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὰ βροτῶν ἐπὶ ἄστε’ ἄνωγεν
ἐλθεῖν, ἐν χείρεσσιν ἔχοντ’ εὐῆρες ἐρετμόν.

After building up the suffering and forestalling any clarification, he seems almost to protest too much that he will not enjoy what the future brings. His curse, he claims, is that he is ordered to go through many cities of men. The absence of this line in the original narration alone would be telling, but it is even more marked because it recalls the third line of the epic’s proem: πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω (“he knew the cities and the mind of many people”. This traveling through many cities for which Odysseus is famous enough to be marked at the beginning of the poem does not really happen in our epic.

Note as well, that Odysseus’ tale of the future undoes much of what the Homeric Odyssey accomplishes. His future toils are his alone: there is no room for the lives of his son, elderly father, or wife. So, even though Odysseus is home and reunited with his family, this new revelation is enough to imply, perhaps, that when this story is over, Odysseus returns to himself, the one before the Odyssey brought him home again.

This is, I think, the inspiration behind many later authors’ engagement with the Odyssey. Consider Cavafy’s startling poem on the topic.

C. P. Cavafy, Second Odyssey [Walter Kaiser, trans.]

A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps,
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.

Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaca was small.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s aging years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.

And like rays they faded.

The thirst
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbors you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s aging years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
Bored him.

And so he left.

As the shores of Ithaca gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.

Another reception of Odysseus that echoes some of these themes is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. The poem begins with frustration, the complaint that it is useless for a king to sit and rule men less than he with an aging wife, a crowd that cannot understand him (1–5). Tennyson’s Odysseus has retreated into an interior life, rejecting the dismal repetition of his life at home, and imaging him self as he once was. For this hero, a life at home is a life of wasted opportunities. The poem’s Ulysses confesses “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees…” (6–7). This Ulysses understands his coming transformation: “…I am become a name” (11) and this name is made up of his travels, his suffering, and his joys (11–20). The narrator continues (20–30):

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Although in the next portion of the poem, Ulysses looks briefly back at the world he leaves to his son (31–42), this passage homes in on the Odyssey’s hero in a different light. Odysseus is looking forward to the boundary of death and although he concedes it is closer than ever before, he seems determined to inhabit it and atomize it, turning what remains of life to something like Zeno’s paradox, as if by filling every portion of it, he may always have another portion to fill. As will become clear from the prophecy itself, boundaries and limits are at the very core of his worry.

Tennyson’s Ulysses returns to the sea just as the Odyssey’s protagonist promises. He narrates a journey through the space of the sea that is also a straining against the bounds of time. This final battle, personal if epic still, culminates in Tennyson’s final, grasping boast: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Nikos Kazantzakis’ play–and epic–enter into this tradition and Myrsiades’ translation provides us with a new opportunity to think about how lives extend beyond the boundaries of a tale.

Responses to Monstrosity

Sophocles. Oedipus Tyrannus. 1297-1306. Chorus:

O Calamity, awful for people to see!
By far the most awful I’ve come upon yet!
Hapless man, what madness visited you?
What god has leapt farther than the farthest bound
Onto your jinxed life?
Alas, alas, disaster of a man!
I haven’t the strength to look at you,
Though there’s much I want to ask and hear.
I gawk instead–you make me shudder so.

Freud. The ‘Uncanny.’

The uncanny: “It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible–to all that arouses dread and creeping horror.”

“Everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.”

ὦ δεινὸν ἰδεῖν πάθος ἀνθρώποις,
ὦ δεινότατον πάντων ὅσ᾽ ἐγὼ
προσέκυρσ᾽ ἤδη. τίς σ᾽, ὦ τλῆμον,
προσέβη μανία; τίς ὁ πηδήσας
μείζονα δαίμων τῶν μακίστων
πρὸς σῇ δυσδαίμονι μοίρᾳ;
φεῦ φεῦ, δύσταν᾽:
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν δύναμαί σε, θέλων
πόλλ᾽ ἀνερέσθαι, πολλὰ πυθέσθαι,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ἀθρῆσαι:
τοίαν φρίκην παρέχεις μοι.

white theater mask crying tears of blood

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

“A Ball Game With Body Parts”: The Death of Pentheus

Euripides, Bacchae 1125-1136

“[Agave] grabbed his left hand in her arms
As she tread onto the ribs of that unlucky man
And then ripped his arm from his shoulder, not with her own strength
But the power which the god placed in her hands.
Ino was working through his other side,
Breaking apart his flesh, and Autonoê and the whole mob
Of the Bacchae was attacking—there was just a single cry everywhere.
He was moaning out as much of the breath he happened to have,
And they were exulting. One woman was holding an arm;
Another had a foot still in its shoes; his sides were stripped
Nude, with flesh gone. Every woman’s hands were bloodied
As they played a ball game with Pentheus’ body’s parts.”

λαβοῦσα δ’ ὠλέναισ’ ἀριστερὰν χέρα,
πλευροῖσιν ἀντιβᾶσα τοῦ δυσδαίμονος
ἀπεσπάραξεν ὦμον, οὐχ ὑπὸ σθένους
ἀλλ’ ὁ θεὸς εὐμάρειαν ἐπεδίδου χεροῖν.
᾿Ινὼ δὲ τἀπὶ θάτερ’ ἐξηργάζετο
ῥηγνῦσα σάρκας, Αὐτονόη τ’ ὄχλος τε πᾶς
ἐπεῖχε βακχῶν· ἦν δὲ πᾶσ’ ὁμοῦ βοή,
ὁ μὲν στενάζων ὅσον ἐτύγχαν’ ἐμπνέων,
αἱ δ’ ὠλόλυζον. ἔφερε δ’ ἡ μὲν ὠλένην,
ἡ δ’ ἴχνος αὐταῖς ἀρβύλαις, γυμνοῦντο δὲ
πλευραὶ σπαραγμοῖς, πᾶσα δ’ ἡιματωμένη
χεῖρας διεσφαίριζε σάρκα Πενθέως.

Image result for agave pentheus vase
From here

Image result for agave pentheus vase
Death Pentheus Louvre G445

Adrift in Exile: Returning to Euripides’ “Heracleidae” Online

Euripides, Heracleidae 179-180 (Full text on the Scaife Viewer)

“Who could judge or recognize a speech as just,
Before clearly understanding the issue from both sides?”

τίς ἂν δίκην κρίνειεν ἢ γνοίη λόγον,
πρὶν ἂν παρ᾿ ἀμφοῖν μῦθον ἐκμάθῃ σαφῶς;

Poster for a performance of Euripdies Children of Herakles on OCtover 22 at 3 PM ESTlive Link


Euripides, Heracleidae 26-27

“I share my exile with these children who are in exile,
And I share in their sufferings as they suffer too.”

ἐγὼ δὲ σὺν φεύγουσι συμφεύγω τέκνοις
καὶ σὺν κακῶς πράσσουσι συμπράσσω κακῶς,

The “Children of Herakles”, was performed around 430 BCE, just as the Athenians were beginning their 3 decade war against the Spartans. It may not be Euripides’ most famous play, but it has just about everything you’d ask for in a tragedy: theme of Xenia, suppliancy, noble bloodlines, battle, human sacrifice, gender, a war scene described in a messenger speech, revenge.

Like any good tragedy, it focuses on the choices human beings make outside of their fate and divine meddling. But its end is troubling, perhaps reflecting the world outside of the play, where violence is far from distant and death for many is certain. For while this is the year that Athens repels a Spartan invasion and attacks the Peloponnese, it is also the first year of the famous plague. This play, so focused on the descendants of Herakles and the end of feuds, seems so precariously set at the beginnings of things.

Euripides, Heracleidae 427-430

 “Children, we are like sailors who have fled
A savage storm’s blows to touch the land
With their hand only to be pounded back
From the shore to the sea by the winds again.”

ὦ τέκν᾿, ἔοιγμεν ναυτίλοισιν οἵτινες
χειμῶνος ἐκφυγόντες ἄγριον μένος
ἐς χεῖρα γῇ συνῆψαν, εἶτα χερσόθεν
πνοαῖσιν ἠλάθησαν ἐς πόντον πάλιν.

Scenes (George Theodorids’ translation)


Demophon/Eurystheus: Tim Delap
Makaria: Tabatha Gayle
Kopreas: Paul O’Mahony
Iolaos: René Thornton Jr
Alcmene: Gabriella Weltman
Special Guest: Katherine Lu Hsu

Euripides, Heracleidae, Medea 863-866

“…with his current fortune
He announces for all mortals a clear thing to learn,
Do not envy someone who seems to be lucky
Before you see them die. For each day is its own fortune.”

…τῇ δὲ νῦν τύχῃ
βροτοῖς ἅπασι λαμπρὰ κηρύσσει μαθεῖν,
τὸν εὐτυχεῖν δοκοῦντα μὴ ζηλοῦν πρὶν ἂν
θανόντ᾿ ἴδῃ τις· ὡς ἐφήμεροι τύχαι.

Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre)
Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University)
Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society)
Poster Artist: John Koelle
Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies)

Euripides, Heracleidae 1016-1017

“Although I don’t long for death,
I wouldn’t be annoyed at leaving life behind.”

….θανεῖν μὲν οὐ
χρῄζω, λιπὼν δ᾿ ἂν οὐδὲν ἀχθοίμην βίον.

Euripides, Heracleidae 1-6

“For a long time now this has been my belief
One man is born just those near him
While another’s heart lusts after profit
And he is useless to the city, a heavy burden to bear,
The ‘best’ to himself…”

Πάλαι ποτ᾿ ἐστὶ τοῦτ᾿ ἐμοὶ δεδογμένον·
ὁ μὲν δίκαιος τοῖς πέλας πέφυκ᾿ ἀνήρ,
ὁ δ᾿ ἐς τὸ κέρδος λῆμ᾿ ἔχων ἀνειμένον
πόλει τ᾿ ἄχρηστος· καὶ συναλλάσσειν βαρύς,
αὑτῷ δ᾿ ἄριστος·…

Write This Down: You are the City. You Are the people

Aeschylus, Suppliants 179-180

“I suggest you safeguard my words by writing them on tablet in your minds”
αἰνῶ φυλάξαι τἄμ᾿ ἔπη δελτουμένας

Aeschylus, Suppliants, 200-204

“Don’t be too aggressive or broken in speech:
These people are especially ready to be angry.
Remember to be accommodating: you are a foreign refugee in need.
To speak boldly is not a fitting move for the weak.”

καὶ μὴ πρόλεσχος μηδ᾿ ἐφολκὸς ἐν λόγῳ
γένῃ· τὸ τῇδε κάρτ᾿ ἐπίφθονον γένος.
μέμνησο δ᾿ εἴκειν· χρεῖος εἶ, ξένη, φυγάς·
θρασυστομεῖν γὰρ οὐ πρέπει τοὺς ἥσσονας.

Aeschylus, Suppliants, 370-375

“You are the city, really. You are the people.
An unjudged chief of state rules
The altar, the city’s hearth,
With only your votes and nods,
With only your scepter on the throne
You judge every need. Be on guard against contamination!”

σύ τοι πόλις, σὺ δὲ τὸ δάμιον·
πρύτανις ἄκριτος ὢν
κρατύνεις βωμόν, ἑστίαν χθονός,
μονοψήφοισι νεύμασιν σέθεν,
μονοσκήπτροισι δ᾿ ἐν θρόνοις χρέος
πᾶν ἐπικραίνεις· ἄγος φυλάσσου.

File:Nicolas Bertin - The Danaides in Hell.jpg

The Danaides in hell, by Nicolas Bertin

Aeschylus, Suppliants 991-997

“Write this down with the many other notes
In your mind of the wisdoms from your father:
An unfamiliar mob is evaluated by time,
But everyone has an evil tongue prepared to lash out
over immigrants and speaking foully is somehow easy.
I advise you not to bring me shame
Now that you are in the age which turns mortal gazes.”

καὶ ταῦτα μὲν γράψασθε πρὸς γεγραμμένοις
πολλοῖσιν ἄλλοις σωφρονίσμασιν πατρός,
ἀγνῶθ᾿ ὅμιλον ἐξελέγχεσθαι χρόνῳ·
πᾶς δ᾿ ἐν μετοίκῳ γλῶσσαν εὔτυκον φέρει
κακήν, τό τ᾿ εἰπεῖν εὐπετὲς μύσαγμά πως.
ὑμᾶς δ᾿ ἐπαινῶ μὴ καταισχύνειν ἐμέ,
ὥραν ἐχούσας τήνδ᾿ ἐπίστρεπτον βροτοῖς

An Archaic Love Song

Sophocles, Antigone, 781-800.

Love, unbeatable in war,
Love, who ravishes wealth,
Who in the soft cheeks
Of girls keeps vigil,
And who roams the seas
And rustic hideaways:
Gods can’t elude you,
Nor can mortal men.
Who admits you goes mad.

You wrench just men’s minds
Into shameful wrongs.
(This family strife between men,
It’s you who stirred it.)
Desire, clear in the eyes
Of a fetching bride, prevails.
Desire reigns
Beside the great laws.
Irresistible god
Aphrodite frolics.

Ἔρως ἀνίκατε μάχαν,
Ἔρως, ὃς ἐν κτήμασι πίπτεις,
ὃς ἐν μαλακαῖς παρειαῖς
νεάνιδος ἐννυχεύεις,
φοιτᾷς δʼ ὑπερπόντιος ἔν τʼ
ἀγρονόμοις αὐλαῖς·
καί σʼ οὔτʼ ἀθανάτων φύξιμος οὐδεὶς
οὔθʼ ἁμερίων σέ γʼ ἀν-
θρώπων. ὁ δʼ ἔχων μέμηνεν.

σὺ καὶ δικαίων ἀδίκους
φρένας παρασπᾷς ἐπὶ λώβᾳ·
σὺ καὶ τόδε νεῖκος ἀνδρῶν
ξύναιμον ἔχεις ταράξας·
νικᾷ δʼ ἐναργὴς βλεφάρων
ἵμερος εὐλέκτρου
νύμφας, τῶν μεγάλων πάρεδρος ἐν ἀρχαῖς
θεσμῶν. ἄμαχος γὰρ ἐμ-
παίζει θεὸς Ἀφροδίτα.

Tarnished bronze statuette: Nude venus holding hand of winged cupid
Aphrodite Spanking Eros.
c.1st Century BC. Bronze.
J. Paul Getty Museum.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.