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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-25 11:05
Secret Women's Business
The Thesmophoriazusae (Or The Women's Festival) - Aristophanes

I actually quite like Aristophanes, not because he is a brilliant playwright, though since eleven of his works have survived 2500 years I really do not think that I am in a position to comment on his ability. Obviously there is a reason, and probably a good reason, not only why his plays have managed to survive, but that his plays managed to survive a somewhat puritan Dark Ages where pretty much anything that wasn't Christian was discarded. Okay, that is probably a bit too general since the Catholic Church didn't really begin banning books until after the Catholic Reformation (and despite my respect for my former Church History Lecturer, I still somewhat disagree with his assessment of the Catholic Reformation).

Aristophanes' comedies stand out in two ways: first of all they give as an insight into the common people of Athens of the 4th century, and also gives us an understanding, and some very good examples, of the vernacular language. It is the difference between reading a book written in proper English and a book that relies heavily upon a region's slang (such as Australia: for instance, the word <i>sook</i> and <i>prima-donna</i> mean the same thing, but in Australia we use the former, where as the latter is probably a more polite and correct usage). The second thing about Aristophanes' plays is that they are incredibly imaginative, and in some cases quite fantastic. Moreso, the plays are actually pretty funny and remains so despite the 2500 year gap and the language complications. Okay, a lot of the humour (such as the puns) are lost, however the Barrett translation of his works is still very good (and he even manages to use a rhyme scheme in places, noting that English is probably the only language, at least what I know of, that uses rhyme as a poetical form).

The Thesmophoriazusae is one of those interesting, and imaginative, plays that also gives us a bit of an insight into Classical Athens. Remember that the tragedies are written in a stylised language, and people do not, and have not, transacted like that. People in Elizabethan England did not talk to each other using blank verse and Shakespearian language. While the vernacular was no doubt a lot different to what it is now, they still used it. The only time such high form language would have been used would have been in diplomacy, and even then I can't imagine Queen Elizabeth and the King of France speaking to each other (or even writing to each other) in blank verse.

The play is set around a festival known as the Thesmophoria, which was a woman's only festival that lasted three days at a place known as the Pynx. Having read this play I have now learnt that the Pynx was the location of the assembly (I always thought it was the Areopagous, but that was the high court). Type Pynx into Google Images to get an idea of what it looked like, and I have also managed to locate it on the Google Maps image of Athens. It is located to the west of the Acropolis just to the southwest of the intersection of Dimitriou Aiginitou and Apostolou Pavlou. From what I can remember of Athens, there is a promenade that runs along the south side of the Acropolis, and then another path to the west heads uphill, past the Areopogaus, and then curves around to the north of the Acropolis (with a gate that leads to the Agora). Anyway, you do not take that path, but actually continue along the promenade to the west, and it will then curve to the north, but you should be able to find it (and if you don't ask somebody, they do tend to be quite helpful in Greece). Okay, that is enough of me showing off how well I know Athens after spending only a week there, so now onto the play.


Pynx and Acropolis


The play is about Euripides and how he learns that the women of Athens are upset about his portrayal of them, so he decides to sneak into the Thesmophoria in an attempt to convince the women that he was not all that bad. However, his plan involved a young Athenian who had yet grown a beard (all Athenian men had beards, some quite long at that) to disguise himself as a woman and sneak into the festival. However, this young Athenian didn't want anything to do with it so he gets his brother-in-law, the foul mouthed Mnesilochus, to do it instead. Obviously getting Mnesilochus to act like a woman was never going to work, and sure enough he ends up getting found out and tied to a stake to be executed. However Euripides comes in and convinces them (through a fine sounding argument) to release him.



This play is clearly about women and their role in Athenian society. It is not incredibly deep, but it is clear that the women, despite their lower status in the society, did have some freedom, and also the right to religious celebration (as is clear with the Thesmophoria). These women though are compared to two women from antiquity, namely the model wife that is Penelope, and Euripides' presentation of Helen. Sections of the play actually recite Euripides' Helen, and while I will not go into details of that play here, I will simply mention that the purpose behind Helen was to redeem her in the eyes of the Athenians. Euripides borrowed from a legend that had the Helen of Troy as nothing more than a mischievous phantom, and that the real Helen had been kidnapped by the king of Egypt and that was were she spent the war. In Euripides' mind, Helen was innocent of the charges laid against her.



This is why I find the play rather strange because Euripides is being accused of being anti-women, but it is quite clear from his writings that he is not. Of the plays that I have read, particularly the ones involving women, they are the tragic figures. Consider Medea, Hecabe, Helen, and Iphangenia. They were all innocent of any crimes, yet suffered simply because they were women. In fact, with regards to Medea, it is Jason that is considered to be the antagonist by tossing Medea out of his bed for a younger, more influential, woman.


However, the charges that Euripides (and in a way Aristophanes) is that the women of then modern Athens, were nothing like those women in Euripides' plays. In fact they came nowhere close to them in virtue. Remember, at this time Athens was in the middle of a very long and drawn out war, which means that a lot of the young men were off fighting leaving only the women, the children, and the elderly at home in Athens. It is suggested here, and it is the bait that Euripides uses to free Mnesilochus from the Thesmophoria, namely that while the cat is away then the mice are at play. Of course, you don't want anybody telling the husbands what their women were up to when they returned, and in a way this is a reflection of the Orestia, despite that play being written prior to the Peloponesian War.


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/348724269
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review 2016-10-18 13:33
Plato's Dystopia
The Laws - Plato

For some reason when people think of Plato and government we seem to automatically jump to the though 'gee, what a wonderful idea' as if a Platonic government would actually be a good thing. The question that I raise is what if it isn't? What if this form of government that Plato outlines actually isn't all that good, or moreso what if it doesn't work. In a way it is a bit like the western reaction to Buddhism. For some reason the young and hip seem to love Buddhism, believing that it is the one religion that you can do whatever you like, but as long as you treat other people okay then everything will be all right. However, when they delve into it (such as offering to volunteer at the Tiger Temple in Thailand) they pretty quickly discover that Buddhism is not all that it is cracked up to be – what no sex!?! No alcohol !?! Okay, I've known Buddhists that have breached both of those restrictions – at the same time – however they probably fall into the category of 'nominal'.


As for Plato we seem to have this idea that because he is this really famous, and apparently really smart, philosopher then any form of government that he comes up with has to be good, and has to work. Well, my argument is what if it turns out that this wonderful form of government sort of turns out to look a little like this:





The thing is that the more I think about Plato's political theories the more I realise that the freedoms that we enjoy under our modern democracies will be basically non-existent. For instance, you know how when you are in school you get to choose what you want to study at University, or even if you go to university – well, that won't happen in Plato's realm – your career path will be chosen right from the word go, and if you don't like it then tough, deal with it because the state that Plato envisages is a perfect, and efficient, state, which basically means that human free will sort of takes a back seat because free will is actually the thing that causes half the problems that we face today. Oh, and you know that idea that is known as the family - well we have none of that in Plato's realm because families are bad since they work to undermine the perfect nature of the society (or was that 1984: I don't know, but I recently saw it in London, and this book was so long and, well, dull that I may have got the two mixed up).


Another interesting thing about Plato's state is that it happens to be communist – it is against the law to have excess wealth, and if you have excess wealth well, at best it simply gets confiscated, at worse you are severely punished. Oh, and don't think that you can get around it by hiding it in another form of currency because he has that area covered as well. Oh, and let us talk about punishment because in Plato's mind nobody does wrong willingly – the only reason they do bad things is because they don't actually realise that they are doing bad things – even though we have free will this free will isn't actually free because we only do things out of ignorance, and if we weren't ignorant then we wouldn't do these things. However, Plato seems to acknowledge that people will do bad things even if they are told that they are bad. Well, it seems that in Plato's mind they have some sort of inherent defect so we might as well kill them. Yep, you heard me right, Plato is a big fan of the death penalty – if you are criminal then, well, there is no way that you are going to change so off with your head (or whatever way they decided that they will kill you).


Another rather interesting thing that I noticed in this particular edition was that the editor, and I assume translator, had a go at us moderns because we look down on slavery, and because we look down on slavery then we consider the ancient Greeks to be somewhat barbaric. Well, it is probably a good thing that we consider slavery to be barbaric because as far as I am concerned we really shouldn't be owning people and forcing people to do things against their will. However, those who look down on the Greeks because of slavery really don't understand the world in which we live – we have a form of slavery – it is called employment. Okay, we can leave our job whenever we like, but when we have a mortgage, and countless other debts, then the ability to walk away from our job really doesn't exist. While our employer may not be the slave master, the banks certainly are because if you don't pay back those debts they will let you know about it.


Which brings me to an interesting point about bankers – being a Christian I have heard how a number of people have given up a promising career in banking to become ministers of religion. Most of the time I just let it go over my head however I suddenly realised that banking is hardly what you would call an ethical profession. Okay, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with banking, just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong with law, accounting, or even politics. However, I would hardly call the lot who brought about the global financial crisis paragons of virtue. Moreso, I have never heard anybody say that somebody has given up a promising career in plumbing to become a minister of religion (despite the fact that you can make some pretty decent money as a plumber) even though plumbing is actually a lot more honest than banking. Okay, there was one minister that I knew indicated that he didn't leave the legal profession for some holy and righteous reason, but rather because his conscience really couldn't handle the rubbish that he had to deal with. Actually, the more I think about it – bankers, fund managers, and lawyers as ministers of religions – I think I'd rather go with the plumber.


As for this book, well all I can say is don't bother – it really isn't all that great. In fact it is sort of half philosophy half idealistic legal text. In fact the translator writes it as if it were a piece of legislation, or at least the parts appeared to have been like that rather confusing stuff that politicians get paid ridiculous amounts of money to argue over. Sure, Plato may have some good ideas, however what I discovered was that these good ideas were few and far between and in reality were buried deep within what appears to be little more than a totalitarian state. Sure, Plato says that the military (otherwise known as the Guardians) and the rulers were to behave in a certain way but seriously, these are humans that we are talking about – as the saying goes power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As for the Greeks being less sophisticated that we are – all I can say is that I don't think so – apparently our lust for technology and luxuries have pushed us past the point of no return – we have destroyed our environment and the global financial crises has resulted in a greater discrepancy between the haves and and the have nots that it feels as if we are returning to the middle ages, that is if we don't nuke ourselves over Syria first.



Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1768167172
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review 2016-10-08 11:15
The story of Winter
Hymn to Demeter - Hugh G. Evelyn-White,Matthew Vossler

While the title of this poem is ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ and the poem is a part of a collection of poems referred to as the Homeric Hymns, a part of me feels that these titles are a little misleading, which is why I am more inclined to refer to this as a poem (or a song) as opposed to a hymn. First of all, having grown up in a Christian tradition my idea of a hymn is a song that is basically about how wonderful the Christian God (and in turn Jesus Christ) happens to be and is generally accompanied by an organ and a choral ode. Further, most of these songs tend to follow along the similar pattern of, well, Amazing Grace, which is basically a song about how John Newton (the composer) was this huge crook, but then he discovered that Jesus loved him and died for his sins, and all of the sudden everything was fine and dandy (despite the fact that he continued trading slaves).


The second problem that I have with the categorisation of it being a Homeric hymn is that it doesn’t feel like it was written by Homer. Okay, I would hardly call myself an expert on Homeric writings, and while I did study the Odyssey in the original language back at university I don’t sit in my sun room with a copy of the Greek text and a pot of tea, and casually read it (in fact the only book that I happen to read in Greek is the Bible, and that is usually when somebody is reading it aloud in English). However, despite my lack of authority, I still don’t believe that it was written by Homer – it just didn’t feel right. First of all the poem doesn’t take up 24 scrolls, nor does it go into explicit details of the surroundings and the people, nor does it break off into massive tangents. In fact the poem is actually quite self-contained (and pretty short as well). The other thing was that as I was reading it (though it may have more to do with the translation, which was pretty shocking by the way) it reminded me for some of the Ancient Babylonian texts that I had read in times past.


Actually, when I read a commentary on this poem, the explanation as to why it was considered a Homeric Hymn was not because they believed Homer wrote it but because tradition since the Roman times had attributed it to Homer. Actually, the whole debate over the attribution of these songs, as well as the Odyssey and the Iliad, to Homer has more to do with them being written down as opposed to composition. Actually, come to think of it, if Homer was blind as legend has it then it does make me wonder how he would have been able to write it down anyway (though no doubt he could still have been an oral poet). Well, being blind hasn’t stopped people from becoming famous poets in the past, as was the case with Milton, but that is beside the point. Anyway, the attribution to Homer, in my opinion, has more to do with the poems being written down from an oral tradition as opposed to the original composer.


I probably should actually start talking about the poem itself as opposed to the reasons as to why I don’t consider it a hymn, or having been composed by Homer. So, the story is about the Greek God Demeter, who happens to be the god of the harvests. Basically she is the one that makes sure all of the wheat grows so that nobody starves. Anyway she had a daughter by Zeus (who else – it seems that whenever a god, or a mortal, becomes pregnant, Zeus seems to have something to do with it, which makes me wonder whether this arose as an excuse for pregnant women to cover up infidelity) and one day Zeus sort of lets his brother Hades kidnap Demeter’s daughter and take her into the underworld to be his wife. The thing is that Demeter doesn’t know what happened to her daughter (Persephone), despite the fact that not only was Zeus well aware of this, but he basically feigned ignorance when asked. Mind you, despite the fact that most of the gods were being tight lipped about the whole event, not all of them were, and Demeter soon found out what happened. As a result he basically turned her back on Olympus and travelled to the city of Eleusis where she basically becomes a domestic servant.


Eleusis Ruins


The Ruins of Eleusis


The problem was that now that Demeter had left Olympus there wasn’t anybody there to make sure that the crops grew and as such the Earth plunged into a period of darkness and sterility – can anybody say Ice Age? However, this was turning out to be a bit if a problems for the gods because, well, despite the fact that they are immortal, they still need to be worshipped, and feared, and with humanity dying off through hunger they knew something needed to be done, so they pressured Hades to let Persephone return to her mother. There was one problem – she had eaten a pomegranate, which meant that she was now a denizen of the underworld and while she could return to her mother, she couldn’t stay, so for three months every year she had to return, which as it happens tends to coincide with the winter months.


So what we have here is what is called an aetiological myth, namely a myth that tells a story of why something is the case at a time when people didn’t have a rational scientific explanation as to why the world did what it. It is like that story of the witch with the salt machine that broke down and ended up dumping countless tonnes of salt into the ocean which is the explanation as to why the ocean is salty. However, while this myth is supposed to explain the seasons I think that it goes a little deeper than that, namely because it also tells of a time when there appeared to be a huge famine in the land, which could well have been an account of an ice age. Mind you, the origins of this myth may have been far back in the mists of time if it is talking about what could have been some sort of ice age, or even just a time when there was a severe famine, though the suggestion also is that it was after this that the seasons started to become noticeable.


The other really cool thing about this poem is how it happens to be about Demeter disguising herself as a human and becoming a nurse maid for a family in Eleusis. This event eventually gave rise to what became known as the Eleusian Mysteries, a yearly festival that was performed in a small city on the outskirts of Athens. In fact even today you can visit the city, and even visit the well of the Nymphs, which is the well that the story indicates Demeter was sitting beside when she was discovered, and taken in, by this family (and no doubt the festival was based entirely around this event). Yet I also find it interesting as to how complex this myth actually is – here we have a story of a god becoming a human and living amongst humans, not so much in the Jesus is God and lived among us sinful humans type story, but rather the story of the member of an aristocratic class having a fight with the monarch and leaving to live among the normal people. In a way it is a story that is still told in different forms even today (though many of these stories tend to be based more on the story of Jesus Christ as opposed to the Ancient Greek versions).


Oh, and here is a photo of the Well of the Nymphs that I took when I visited Eleusis back in 2011.


Well of the Nymphs


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1778820131
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-03-27 05:57
The Oresteia ~ Agamemnon by Aeschylus
The Sacrifice of Ipheginia by Agamemnon (1671)
 Jan Steen


Agamemnon by Aeschylus
"Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake ...
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of Atreus like a dog."

Agamemnon is the first of a trilogy of plays called The Oresteia, the next two plays being The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, all performed in 458 B.C., only two years before the death of Aeschylus.  This surviving unified trilogy allows the reader to experience the development of these three-part stories and to observe the common strands of informatiion and enlightenment winding throughout.  Each play would have built support and framework for the others.  However, even though we have all three plays of this trilogy, the satyr play Proteus is lost, as it would have been a type of comic epilogue to finish the Oresteia.

There are two background stories important to the understanding of this play, the first being the history of the Trojan War, and the second the history of the House of Atreaus, Agamemnon's family background.

The "fuse" of the war with Troy was the kidnapping of Helen, the wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, by Paris, prince of Troy.  To get fair winds to sail for Troy, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphegenia.  The war was fought for ten long years, and at the end, because of outrages committed against the gods, many of the heroes took years to find their way home (Odysseus' journey in The Odyssey is the story of one of these heroes).

The curse of the House of Atreus, adds another element to the play, going back to the family's founder, Tantalus.  Offending the gods, either by attempting to deceive them into eating the flesh of his son, Pelops, or by endeavouring to plunder nectar and ambrosia from the gods, Tantalus was punished in the Underworld by being eternally inflicted with a raging hunger and thirst.  Pelops was resurrected by the gods, but eventually incurred a curse by killing his desired bride's father and fleeing with the girl, Hippodamia.  An attempted rape of the girl by Myrtilus ensued, and when Pelops threw him from a cliff, he cursed Pelops.  The hereditary nature of the curse resulted in the killing of children by their parents and vice versa, a destroying of the whole family from within.

Fleet of Greek Galleys reconstruction
The Perseus Project
source Wikimedia Commons

The play begins with a Watchman who is surveying from the roof of Agamemnon's palace, lamenting the years of watching and waiting for a very important signal, a signal that would indicate the completion of the war with Troy.  The very first lines themselves are a signal, setting a sombre, ominous tone to the scene:

"θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ᾽ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων .... "  ("I ask the gods for respite from these toils .....")

The beacon is seen and the Watchman rejoices for the return of his king, but the mood does not lighten as the Chorus enters and begins its parados (the chorus' entrance song).

The Chorus consists of elderly men who were too old ten years ago to make war on Troy, but now impart perhaps the most critical information in the play in their back-story:

  • that Zeus was requiring Agamemnon, the eldest member of his family, to act in avenging the insult to his household by Paris, by making war on Troy
  • Agamemnon was required by an offended Artemis to kill his daughter, Iphigenia, to get fair winds to sale for Troy.

Agamemon is put in an unbearable position.  He is protector of his household, therefore to kill his daughter goes against his moral obligation.  On the other hand, if he dismisses Artemis' command, he would be disobeying Zeus which would denote a refusal to fulfill his familial accountability to his brother, an offence against his very being.  He is caught in an inescapable situation. Fate is suffocating him and no matter what his choice, there will be appalling consequences.  His words are seeped in agony:

"My fate is angry if I disobey these,
but angry if I slaughter
this child, the beauty of my house,
with maiden blood shed staining
these father's hands beside the altar.
What of these things goes now without disaster?
How shall I fail my ships
and lose my faith of battle?
For them to urge such sacrifice of innocent blood
angrily, for their wrath is great ---- it is right.  May all be well yet."

Once Agamemnon makes the decision to sacrifice his beloved daughter, his whole character alters.  In spite of her heart-rending pleas, the men who have known her since she was a child, lift her upon the altar.  Although the audience witnesses the poignancy of the preparation of her sacrifice, we are left to imagine her terrible fate.

Le Sacrifice d'Iphigenie
Bertholet Flemalle
source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife and the leader of Argos during his absence, has entered during the Chorus' story, and she announces the fall of Troy, which news the Chorus is hesitant to believe, implying that the populous of Argos is discontent after these long years of war.  A Herald arrives confirming the victory of the Greeks, and proclaiming the return of their king, Agamemnon.  His wife professes overwhelming joy at his homecoming, and in an ironic twist, the Herald is impressed with the truth and majesty of her words.

Clytemnestra (1882)
John Collier
source Wikiart

Agamemnon arrives in regal impressiveness, riding in a chariot with Cassandra, the prophetess and princess of Troy by his side, his winnings from the spoils of the war. Clytemnestra greets him with overblown and excessive oratory, spreading purple carpets for him to walk on.  The king denounces such delicate pomp, yet walks on them anyway, unwittingly proclaiming a rather chilly illustration of his own character and a whisper of his fate:

"Discordant is the murmur at such treading down
of lovely things; while God's most lordly gift to man
is decency of mind.  Call that man only blest
who has in sweet tranquillity brought his life to close.
If I could only act as such, my hope is good."

Again, Agamemnon has idealistic wishes for a good outcome to his struggles, yet he almost seems to realize that it is a futile hope.  The trampling and "crushing" of the purple carpets symbolize his trampling and crushing of all that is delicate and beautiful: Iphigenia, Troy and soon, Cassandra.

Cassandra (1897)
Evelyn de Morgan
source Wikimedia Commons

Clytemnestra attempts to invite Cassandra inside, but she silently resists until Clytemnestra gives up and enters herself, leaving Cassandra alone with the Chorus. Finally, the girl speaks, but the words flowing from her lips are laments and apocalyptic premonitions.  She relates her own story, and also begins to offer vague prophecies of calamity and death, revealing the cause of the melancholy and impeding doom which blankets the city in spite of the return of its king.  She claims to foresee her death and Agamemnon's at the hands of a woman, however, the chorus, bewildered and startled by her claims, refuses to believe her.  Her last words are pregnant with eerie foreshadowing:

"..... That room within reeks with blood like a slaughterhouse ..."

Resigned to her fate, she enters the house.

Clytemnestra (1817)
Pierre-Narcisse Guerin
source Wikiart

Suddenly Agamemnon cries out:  "Ah, I am struck a deadly blow and deep with!"  At this point, the Chorus fragments, undecided and perplexed as to what they should do. When the doors of the palace open, Clytemnestra is standing over the prone and bloody bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, bringing the Chorus' horror to its peak, as Clytemnestra describes the murder of her husband claiming Agamemnon's evil deed to his daughter as her right.  The Chorus, while still bewildered, finally agrees that judgement between them is unclear and revisits the cause of the war with Troy: the repercussions from Helen's perfidy still resound.

Aegisthus (Clytemnestra's lover) enters the scene, exchanging insults with the Chorus, but Clytemnestra attempts to calm his ire, claiming that the curse has been cancelled by her act of retribution. She and Aegisthus will be able to reign in peace and benevolence. The altercation does not diminish as the play ends.

The next play in the trilogy is The Libations Bearers, and we get a hint of one of its characters in this play, when Clytemnestra mentions that she has sent their son, Orestes, away to safety when there were rumours of unrest in Argos.  In the second play, Orestes returns.

The Funeral Procession of Agamemnon (1787)
Louis Jean Desprez
source Wikimedia Commons

Greek scholars bring out a number if interesting points in this first play that would not be apparent to a modern audience.  The Greek spectators would have been expecting Cassandra to remain silent and have Clytemnestra draw her out, a common strategy in Greek theatre.  The fact that Cassandra actually speaks would have astounded onlookers, therefore making her speeches and presence much more powerful.

They also highlight the masculinity of Clytemnestra, noting the Greek words she uses to describe herself as being very masculine references to a Greek audience.  The fact that she is placed in the doorway of the house ("oikos" - a woman's domain) as the murderess, would have been appalling to the viewers.  While near the end of the play, she attempts to reclaim her sex as woman, the male images of power, vengeance, murder and ruthlessness still remain.

Hubris in Greek does not simply mean pride but instead indicates wanton violence motivated by pride.  Both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra suffer this poisonous quality.

My personal observations ....?   I'm continually impressed by the lack of reliance on plot by the Greeks as they, in fact, often give "spoilers" throughout the whole play or poem. The plot is only the packaging; the real story is born of the intrigues, the capriciousness of the gods, internal struggle, personal sacrifice and vengeance.  How the plot unfolds is secondary to performance, an intense and acute penetration into the soul of man.

Translated by H.W. Symth (Loeb Classical Library), edited by David Greene and Richard Lattimore




© Cleo and Classical Carousel, Years 2014 - 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cleo and Classical Carousel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content


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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-02-17 11:59
The Ultimate of Greek Tragedies
Oedipus Rex - Sophocles,E.H. Plumptre

This play is so messed up that a part of me says that it has to be based on true events. It is sort of like one of the arguments that people use regarding the authenticity of the Bible: every character (with the exception of Jesus Christ) is so flawed that one cannot consider that the stories have been made up. In particular we see the heroes of the Israelite nation, that being Abraham, Moses, and David, warts and all. However when us consider the Grecian myths we suddenly discover similar things here.


The story of Oedipus is that his parents received a prophecy that their child would kill his father and marry his mother, Laius, Oedipus' dad, and king of Thebes, pinned the child's legs together and left him to die on Mount Cithaeron. However, unbeknownst to him a shepherd found the boy, took him into his care, and then sent him to the city of Corinth to be raised by the king and queen there. However, years later when Oedipus had come of age, during a feast a man got too drunk and blurted out that Oedipus' parents weren't his true parents. Despite their pleading Oedipus left Corinth and travelled to Delphi to ask the oracle the truth. The Pythian Oracle, as usual, did not give him a straight answer and simply repeated the prophecy to Oedipus. As such, he decided not to return to Corith but to flee so as not to kill whom he believed where his parents.


However on his way out of Delphi he is confronted by a rather arrogant man who demanded that Oedipus move out of the way. Oedipus tells him to bugger off and a fight ensures resulting in Oedipus' victory. He then arrives at Thebes while the city is being tormented by a sphinx who has a riddle that nobody knows the answer, but Oedipus correctly guesses it, kills the sphinx, and when word is brought about Laius' death Oedipus marries Jocastra, and lives happily ever after.


Actually they don't because without realising it the prophecy has been fulfilled. Further a great crime has been committed, and since a father murderer is living in Thebes the entire city is struck with a plague. Oedipus, who has become king, and is the hero of the city, decides to investigate. However his investigations quickly uncover a truth that is hidden from him and upon learning of this truth, namely that he killed Laius, who turns out to be his father, and married his wife, Jocastra, who turns out to be his mother, he is struck with the guilt of what has come about, Jocastra kills herself and Oedipus rips out his eyes and exiles himself from Thebes.


Well, I have just told you the plot of the play without actually saying anything about the themes in the play. Well, there are two reasons why I outlined the plot, one being that it is a very complicated plot, and secondly to demonstrate how messed up everything is. This is not a simple Hollywood plot where everything is resolved in the end and everybody goes away happy. In fact it does not seem that there was really anything that Oedipus could have done to get himself out of the mess that he found himself in. In fact it seems that the more he attempts to get out of it the deeper the hole that he digs for himself, but it is not as if he could avoid doing it. He flees because he doesn't want the prophecy to come true, but there is a lot that he does not know and a lot that he is not being told. His step parents are not telling him the truth, and in hiding the truth, they are also making the prophecy come true. As for Laius, once again, everything that he does only serves to make the prophecy come true. While he attempts to kill his son, this fails because of the compassionate nature of humanity. It is the shepherd's compassion that prevents him from leaving Oedipus alone on Cithaeron.


The essay question that I answered on this play involved the question of fate and freewill. However there really does not seem to be any freewill here. Every decision that Oedipus makes only brings the revelation closer to being revealed. As a good king he simply cannot ignore the plague, and as a good king, he cannot do anything but seek justice and cleanse the city, despite the fact that he is the root cause of the problem. Despite the curse that he calls on the perpetrator, he must suffer the punishment himself, despite the pleas to the contrary. Oedipus is a just king, but despite his actions it is only when the fog is cleared and the truth comes out that he discovers that he is the perpetrator. Hey, he didn't even realise that the guy that he encountered at the crossroads was the king of Thebes, and his father.


Aristotle in his Poetics writes that characters in a drama should have a fatal flaw, but nobody seemed to have told Sophocles that. Granted Ajax may have had a fatal flaw, but Ajax is not Shakespeare, and is dealing with an issue that has nothing to do with his character. Ajax is dealing with PTSD (though not by that name) and Oedipus does not seem to have that fatal flaw. In reality, other than killing Laius at the crossroads (though some could argue that he did so in self-defense), Oedipus has done nothing wrong. In fact, if he had not investigated the cause of the plague then he would have been negligent. No, it is not Oedipus that has done anything wrong, but rather his ancestors. Laius is cursed and I believe that going up the ancestral chain further we come to a situation where an ancestor fed human flesh to another human, mostly as payback (I can't remember off hand who it was, it could have been Thyestes, but it could have been somebody else - one of Agamemnon's line is also guilty of a similar offense). In a sense then it is not the actions of Oedipus that brings about his suffering and downfall, but that of his father, and of his father's father. Poor Oedipus is only caught in the middle.


One might wonder what was so appealing about a story that everybody knows. Well, it is the same with us. When we look through the video store at all the movies available we discover that the plots of each and every one of those movies are pretty much the same. It is not the question of the plot, but how we get to the ending, and how the movie ends. We pretty much know that in around 90% of the movies available the good guys win and the hero gets the girl. We know that so we don't watch the movie for that, but rather how they get there, and how the good guys win. This was the same for the Greeks, and it is fortunate that we have versions of the Electra from the three great playwrights. In this we can see how the actual event differs and how each of the playwrights treated the subject. No doubt with Oedipus, both Aeschylus and Euripides would have explored different themes, and painted Oedipus in a different light, so that despite knowing the outcome, we arrive there through a different method.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/309068235
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