When fortune changes, get used to it.
Sail with the sea. Sail where fortune goes.
Don’t even steer life’s prow into the waves;
Let fortune do the sailing.
Ah me! Ah me!
There’s nothing for me, a wretch, not to cry about.
What does it mean to steer life’s prow into the waves?
David Kovacs explains in his commentary that a captain turns his ship’s prow into the waves to avoid capsizing. Not to do so then–Hecuba’s counsel–is to despair of saving the craft, and by extension, one’s own self.
Why this harsh advice from Hecuba? Because, as the final line of the quoted passage says, her world has been reduced to a thoroughgoing lament (her country, children, and husband have been lost).
The scholiast unpacks the nautical metaphor this way:
“The ship suffers damage regardless of whether it sails into the waves or into the wind. That being the case, she says don’t station yourself against fortune by sailing into the waves.”
The invocation might seem a bit off kilter, but Jean-Sartre’s Les Troyennes (his adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan women) nicely draws out the nihilism of Hecuba’s counsel. In addition, as if to underline the extreme character of her words, Sartre adds a line in which she resists the very philosophy she’s articulating:
Jean-Paul Sartre. Trojan Women. Scene III.
Fortune turns: learn to be patient.
What good are regrets?
Why live life against the current?
Go with it! Go with it!
Destiny takes you: let yourself be carried.
Ah, I can’t accept this.
Pain, o my pain,
There’s no pain in the world which isn’t mine!
La chance tourne: apprends la patience.
A quoi bon les regrets?
Pourquoi vivre à contre-courant?
Le destin t’entraîne: laisse-toi porter.
Je ne peux pas me résigner.
Douleurs, Ô mes douleurs,
il n’est pas une douleur au monde qui ne soit mienne!
Euripides. Iphigenia Among the Taurians. 1259-1280.
When displaced Themis, Earth’s daughter,
From the sacred seat of oracles,
Earth begat nightly sleep-apparitions
Which showed the mass of men, asleep in darkened beds,
What has been and what’s later destined to be.
And so Earth, sore about her daughter,
Robbed Phoebus of oracular authority.
The fleet-footed lord rushed to Olympus
And reached his youthful arm ‘round Zeus’s throne:
Would Zeus lift the chthonian goddess’s wrath
from the Pythian temple? Zeus laughed:
His son had come in a hurry, eager
For gold piled on gold in worship of him.
Nonetheless Zeus shook his locks: he put an end
To the night-time voices, and he deprived mortals
Of truthful night-time visions. He had restored
Loxias’s old authority.
“Since it is right that the structure of the best tragedy not be simple but be complex instead and evoking both fearful and pitiful emotions—for that is the particular power of this kind of artistic representation—as an initial principle, it is clear that decent men should not be be shown undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune, for that is repugnant rather than pitiful or fearful. And it is also not right for depraved people to enjoy a change from bad fortune to good fortune, because that is the least tragic notion of all and has none of the necessary qualities. Such a plot does not create empathy and fails to produce pity or fear.
[Tragedy] should also not show an especially bad person falling from good fortune to bad—for this might engender empathy but without pity or fear since the first is felt for someone who is unworthy of bad fortune and the second is for someone who is similar [to us] (pity is for someone unworthy of suffering; fear is for someone like us suffering). The response to [a wicked person] falling is not pitiful or fearful. What remains [for tragedy] is the person in between. A person like this is not impeccable in terms of justice nor for his wickedness and evil, but he falls into misfortune because of some kind of mistake. This kind of person is from those well-known families, like Oedipus or Thyestes.”
This passage (and a few others) have been misread since the rise of Christianity to mean that the tragic protagonist “suffers a fall because of a tragic flaw”. This is essentially bogus for lexicographical and contextual reasons. In early Greek, hamartia means to make a mistake: it comes from an archery metaphor and is related to the verb hamartanô, which means “to miss the mark”. This is a mistake that is not connected to an essential character goodness or badness.
from Beekes 2010
The Christian use of hamartia is “sin”, which, as we all know from our Sunday School, is innate and a sign of our essential badness. Wanting to have sex with people is a sin; driving badly and hitting someone from inattention is an accident. In my understanding of tragedy, hamartia means the latter. Yes, one might be distractable and an essentially bad driver and we may see this as in some way a flaw, but this is a cultural perspective that mixes determinism and responsibility in a strange way.
Contextually, Aristotle makes the specific point that the tragic hero should not be essentially wicked. If one is essentially wicked, the audience cannot make the key identification necessary to feel pity or fear. Now, one could argue that in a Christian context where everyone is flawed because of sin, the doctrine might still be said to apply. But this is not the Aristotelian context and this is not what Aristotle had in mind.
“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.”
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.”
“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,
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
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
Wednesday, November 2nd: A Reading from Nikos Kazantzakis’ verse play “Odysseus” at 3pm EDT. Online and archived forever
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.
Rene Thornton, Jr.
Director: Paul O’Mahony
Special Guest: Maria G. Xanthou
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.
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.”
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”.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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…”
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.
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
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.
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.”
“[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.”