Civic Dialogue and Irrational Desire in Euripides’ Orestes

Euripides tells a story of the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, which Aeschylus had already dealt with in the Oresteia.  There are  major variations in Euripides’ telling.  In both stories Agamemnon is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after his return from the Trojan War, their son Orestes murders her with the help of their daughter, Electra.  What Euripides most obviously adds is a story about Menelaus and Helen (of Troy).  As Homer explains in The Iliad (the story of Ilium, the Greek name for Troy which is a Roman word), the Trojan War began because the Trojan Prince Paris seduced Helen, wife of the Spartan King Menelaus, and took her to Troy.  Menelaus’ brother King of Argos (Mycenae) assembles an army of all the Greek states.  After 10 years Troy falls, Menelaus takes Helen back as his wife, and all the surviving Greek leaders and soldiers return to Greece.   Homer’s story may have a historical basis in a Greek assault, towards the end of the Bronze/Mycenaean Age, just before a Mediterranean Dark Age,  on now the ruined city in Hısarlık, western Anatolia, which is possibly the city known to the Hittites as Wilusa, but it is impossible to know this for sure.

According to Euripides, Menelaus sends Helen ahead of him by ship, at the end of the journey back from Troy, by night because she is so widely hated.  She is hated because her adultery with Paris (and adultery was a serious crime for the Ancient Greeks) lead to the deaths of thousands of Greeks.  The suggestion is that women in particular hate her because of the deaths of husbands and sons, with the implication that jealously of her famous beauty is also a factor. Orestes has murdered his mother in cooperation with Electra.  He is in a state of what we now think of as mental breakdown, though Euripides describes it as visions of the supernatural.  What Orestes sees are the Furies, the ugly looking semi-divinities which pursue revenge justice, and are understood to be female.  Orestes even mistakes Electra for one of the Furies.  Orestes comes under pressure from two directions.  Firstly, he is hated in Argos for murdering his mother.  Though Clytemnestra murdered King Agamemnon, for Orestes to kill hİs mother is to pollute himself and go against ideas of divine and Greek law.  Secondly, the return of Helen intensifies his frenzy to kill evil women.  Electra also hates Helen.  Se helps Helen to pass on a funeral offering for Clytemnestra, which includes some of Helen’s hair.  Electra is outraged by what she sees as Helen’s vanity in only cutting the end of some of her hair, so that her beauty is not impaired.  Orestes has an encounter with Tyndareos, father of both Helen and Clytemnestra.  He is deeply angry with Orestes, and condemns Menelaus for having friendly relations with Orestes despite the murder of  Clytemnestra.  Orestes and Tyndareos have an argument, which partly revolves around the idea of Orestes speaking his mind fully, which could be taken as a reference to the value of free public speaking, which Euripides emphasises in connection with Athens in The Suppliant Women (see two posts back).  The argument establishes that Tyndareos regards Orestes as a criminal, and that Orestes thinks he was right to kill his mother.  This is a moment of free speaking which does not resolve anything or lead to a political solution.

Tyndareos and the common people of Argos want Orestes executed.  Euripides represents the opinions of the common people in a negative way despite his apparent respect for free speaking citizens. There may be an implicit criticism of Athenian democracy here.  The people are shown to speak out of anger and manipulation, rather than well formed judgement.  Though the aristocratic and royal characters do not appear very rational either.  Orestes is faced with mob justice, the divine vengeance of the Furies, and the possibility of more normal forms of legal condemnation.  This drives him further into a frenzy in which he consider joint suicide with Electra, and wants to kill Helen.  He succeeds in trapping Helen and nearly kills, but she suddenly disappears.  In his continuing frenzy Orestes grabs a Phrygian man, that is a man from a people who lived in western Anatolia, who has come back with the Greeks from the Trojan War.  This results in a grotesque parody of the sort of free speaking Orestes had engaged in with Tyndareos, and which was associated with Athenian democracy.  Orestes forces the man to speak his mind, but of course the man is frightened that Orestes will kill him if he says the wrong thing.  So he says what he thinks Orestes wants to hear, denouncing Helen, and so on, and Orestes realises the mans just says what he thinks Orestes wants to hear, which makes Orestes even more frenzied.

Menelaus arrives and Orestes grabs Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, threatening to kill her.  Since Helen just disappeared (Menelaus thins Orestes has killed her and wants the body to bury), Orestes wants to use up his anger on the nearest thing.  He wants to destroy all wicked women and seems to regard women as largely wicked.  This is an extreme version of  general Greek attitudes, according to which women were inferior, irrational, and willing to betray.  His threat to kill Hermione contains an echo of Agamemnon killing his daughter Iphigenia, to win favour from the gods.  Orestes also threatens to burn down the royal palace in Argos. The god Apollo appears suddenly in order to resolve the situation.  He reveals that Helen was swept away by divine influence from murder by Orestes, so that she can live with dead heroes in a kind of Greek heaven.  He tells Menelaus that Helen cannot continue her previous life, because her beauty is so dangerous, serving the gods as an instrument to promote war between Greeks and Trojans, something they want because they wish to reduce the number of humans.   Apollo’s argument opposes Orestes’ view that Helen is an evil woman with the view that she is just one of the victims of a beauty which surpasses that of normal humans.  Apollo tells Menelaus to find another wife and escape from the cycle of disasters associated with Helen.  Apollo  tells Orestes that he will have to go into exile in a place called Parrhasia, which is the Greek word of free speaking.  So the suggestion is that Orestes is the victim of his tendency to speak too freely, to fail to exercise moderation in his use of free speaking, and to be dominated by uncontrolled emotions.  Apollo tells Orestes that after one year, he will  have to go trial in Athen, on the Mount of Ares, the hill associated with the god of war, and with the historically real court of Areopagus.  Apollo tells Orestes he will be acquitted after the Furies have presented their case.  He will then marry Hermione (who Orestes was just threatening to kill) and become King of Argos.  He tells Menelaus that he can only be King of Sparta, and not take Argos as compensation for losing Helen.  Apollo appears to have ended the war of the gods against the House of Atreus which led to the cycle of killings.  His intervention makes Athens the centre and judge of the Greek world, and suggests that Sparta does  not have the right to dominate Greece, all very relevant to relations between Greek states in the time of Euripides.

Apollo appears in a more positive role than in Ion, where he has become the evasive dissembling and rapist god. His role as giver of order, particularly the Athenian domination of the Hellenic order is still present, and with much less unfavourable context. We seem to have a much more straight forward celebration of divinity and civic life, though based on the overcoming of very extreme tensions. Women are present in two aspects: the dangerous excess of attraction on the side of Helen; as safe women who can be married without danger. There is an implied anxiety about sexuality and desire, that it might become to dominating over a man, leading him to treat a woman as a goddess, or be bewitched by her like a sorceress, possibilities both explored by Homer in The Odyssey. Euripides ideas about proper civic dialogue seem great from the point of view of any kind of liberal, republican, or democratic theory, but are embedded in a much disturbing struggle with desires and fears, which have a nonhuman force.


Law, Burial and Liberty in The Suppliant Women of Euripides.

Euripides deals with events that come between Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone in Sophocles’s Theban plays, and he expands on a major theme of Antigone, the links between the rights of a citizen, death in war, and the rights of female relatives to bury a male family member who died on the battlefield. There are aspects specific to Ancient Greece, but the role of burial and ceremony for the dead, and the links with the way a community is defined by war have cross historical significance. The centrality of women in providing funeral rites, particularly for battlefield deaths, their role in petitioning in the play, and the real exclusion of women from public life in the Athens of that time, bring tension in plays such as Antigone and The Suppliant Women.  The events described by Euripides follow the battle between the sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, for control of Thebes.  As Sophocles suggests, both sons die and Creon is left in power.  As in Antigone, women want their male relatives to be buried.  However, Antigone does not appear in The Suppliant Women, and Euripides does not refer to the women of Thebes at all.  The suppliant women are the mothers of men of soldiers from Argos who fight for Polyneices, and die in the assault on Thebes.  Creon forbids the burial of these men, just as forbids the burial of Polyneices in Antigone, bringing him into conflict with his niece, and Polyneices’ sister, Antigone.  The women of Argos have come to Athens because they cannot find anyone else to tae up their cause.  Significantly they have unsuccessfully asked for help from Sparta.  This is significant because Sparta was the most powerful state in Greece, along with Athens.  Sparta, and its allies, fought a Thirty Year War with Athens, and its allies, known as the Peloponnesian War.  Sparta was not just an alternative power source, it also offered an alternative ideology to that of the Athenian democracy, with regard to how many people would participate in politics along with liberties of speech, trade, culture and so on.

The main contrast in the play is between Athens and Thebes, which stands in for the Athenian/Spartan rivalry.  Athens is represented as if it was the democracy of the time the play was written.  The play refers to a largely mythical archaic past, which if it has any clear historical location would be that of Mycenaean Bronze Age Greece, represented by Homer,  attributing to Athens the characteristics of its later democracy.  The biggest distinction from Athens of the time of Euripides is that there is a king, Theseus, in the play, but he rejects the idea of absolute power, saying than citizens share power in Athens and alternate in power.    The women emphasise the freedom to speak freely in Athens, which includes the right to make requests of the most important person in Athens.  This probably reflects the origins of free speech in Athens, and other Greek states, In the right of citizens to petition kings for favours.  Over time kings declined in power and citizens’ assemblies made the decisions, becoming the places where feee speech was exercised.

The women emphasise the inferiority of women to men, and the need for women to act through men.  This is why they have to petition King Theseus.  That is the only way they can have their sons buried.  The happiness of their lives has been greatly disturbed by the loss of children, and they need the consolation of the recognition of the sons as part of human community, through the right to proper burial with appropriate ceremonies.  Theseus is at first unwilling to take up an issue concerning what happens in another Greek state, but finds that what Creon has done is against the law of the Greeks.  There was not unitary legal system of the Ancient Greeks, states had their own laws and courts.  However, Athens demanded that its courts have authority in allied states.  What partly underlies Euripides’ account of Theseus’s generosity in defending the rights of those women from Argos, is a justification of the powers that Athens exercised over its allies, which alarmed other Greek states.

Theseus assumes that there is law for all Greeks, presumably thinking of the kind of divine law that Antigone opposed to Creon’s laws, in Sophocles’ play Antigone. He is disturbed during his discussion with the women that Argos was so willing to go to war with Thebes and that the daughters of the king had married foreigners under religious advice.  Though Theseus believes there is Greek law, he also believes in the very self-contained existence of Geek states, where foreigners do not have power, and do not marry into important families.  Theseus/Euripides seeks a balance in religion, between ignoring the sacred and giving too much importance to supposedly sacred sources which argue against good judgement.  There might be an implicit criticism of the Spartans in there,as the Spartans were famously religious, and even delayed their entry into the war against Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BCE for religious regions.

All of these comments by Theseus build up the idea of Athens as the moral core of Greece, which is entitled, and even duty bound, to enforce justice throughout the Greek world.  Theseus expressed views about the correct government of Argos, and other cities.   The government should not be dominated by the very rich, who are only concerned with money, or the very poor, who are only concerned with  jealously of those with more money.  The city’s government should rest on those in the middle who are capable of good judgement. Theseus is concerned that Argos has been undermined by the over enthusiasm of its wealthy citizens for war as a chance to make money.   Theseus’s views extend to human life in general, which he says has been improved over time through writing, agriculture  the building of cities, and other fundamentals of human society.  He has an idea of the special status of humanity compared with other animals, which is maybe the source of his views about the rights of all humans, or at least all Greeks, to have certain things recognised, such as dignified burial of the dead.

A messenger comes from Thebes who represents the views of Creon.  The Theban Herald is not used to the idea that the king is not absolute.  Theseus has to explain to him that he does not have absolute power.  The Herald is shocked by this and by the idea that citizens can have a role in political decisions. Creon’s view is that there must be a strong ruler who can ignore the ignorant mob, and make wise decisions the people could not make.  At this point, it is possible that Euripides was expressing any reservation he might have himself about Athenian democracy.  Athenian writers like Plato feared that democracy led to chaotic conflict between citizens, which would collapse into tyrannical one person rule.  In taking responsibility for protecting the women of Argos, Theseus as leader of Athens is taking leadership in Greece from the most powerful state in the epics of Homer.  Something like this happens in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The idea that Athens takes over from Argos, whose King Agamemnon was leader of the alliance of Greek states against Troy, provides a mythical foundation for Athenian domination in the Greece of that time, and for its superiority over Sparta.  The Spartan monarchy is important in Homer.  It is Menelaus who loses his wife Helen to Paris, prince of Troy, and it is his brother Agamemnon who commands the Greek forces, which probably explains why Athenian tragedians were so concerned to imagine a leading role of Athens in the archaic myth time of Greece.

Euripides: Truth Telling , Communication and Inversions of Truth in Ion

I have been late finishing a sequence of nine posts on the Ancient Greek tragedies I taught during the past semester. A very large part of this is due to finding Euripides rather flat compared with Aeschylus and Sophocles. I feel ready to return to Euripides and not just think about the ways he seems less of a pure poet, who reveal through the figurative  power of language, rather than through explicit communication.

Euripides’ Ion has some similarities to Oedipus the King, and it’s possible Euripides wanted to find a different perspective on some underlying issues in the Sophocles play.  The most obvious similarity is that Ion was abandoned by his mother soon after birth, but lived on, and they meet in later life. The play opens with Hermes, messenger of the gods, who explain how Ion’s father is the god Apollo who rapes Creusa, a woman of divine origins.  She abandons the baby son who results.  Ion is taken to a temple of Apollo with the help of Hermes and is raised as a temple slave, a comfortable form of servitude.  Creusa visits the temple, when Ion is grown, and they meet without understanding how they are connected.  She tells the story to Ion of her rape by Apollo, and abandoning her baby, attributing it to a friend.  Ion does not realise this has anything to do with him.  He advise her not to try to get the story from Apollo about what happened to the baby. Ion referred to the rituals of divination normal for the Ancient Greeks, which he suggests are a kind of aggression against a god, trying to make him speak.  He demands a respectful attitude to Apollo, despite Apollo’s crime against Creusa.  After Creusa has gone, Ion is less respectful of Apollo.  He questions how the gods can do things which are crimes for humans and how gods can get away with breaking law, which leads to punishment for humans.

Creusa is now married to Xuthus, who is  also  of divine origin. Unlike Creusa, he is not an Athenian though he has been made King of Athens. Creusa’s grandfather, Erichthonious was one of the first Athenians, who are referred to as autochthonous, that is born from the Earth.  The Thebans, of whom Oedipus was king,  were also believed to have been born from the earth, after it was sown with a dragon’s teeth.  This kind of story shows the intensity with which Ancient Greeks believed they belong to the city, which was the city of their ancestors.  However, the story of Xuthus also shows that the connection was not always so clear, that there were doubts about these assumptions of absolute belonging.  Xuthus has been offered the crown because of his military triumphs while allied with Athens.

Xuthus enters the temple of Apollo.  We learn from his speech that through a temple oracle, he has heard that the first man he sees in the temple afterwards will be Apollo’s gift of a son.  Xuthus and Creusa are disappointed by their lack of children.  Xuthus had a child with a woman he met during Bacchic (Dionysian) festivals, but knows nothing of that child.  Xuthus sees Ion first on emerging from the meeting with the oracle, and appears to assume that Ion is not just a gift of a son, but the child he had with the woman, that Ion is a birth son as well as a gift son.  We see here the importance of children and carrying on a family name for the Ancient Greeks, as well as the tendency for babies from relationships outside marriage to be abandoned and to disappear.  Like Sophocles, Euripides plays on what must have been a quite widespread experience for Ancient Greeks, abandonment of a baby to probable death, as a substitute for effective contraception or for abortion.  Abandonment of unhealthy babies was even a legal requirement in Sparta. We also see here an interaction between Apollo and Dionysus. That may be partly the consequence of Nietzsche sensitising us to the distinction he placed at the heart of Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche was not just making up that opposition and unity of two divine forces. The tragedies revolve around contrasts between clarity and darkness, order and chaos, life and death, and so on, which often include reference to Apollo and Dionysus.

İn the action of the play,   Xuthus greets Ion as his son, much to Ion’s embarrassment, until Xuthus explains the situation. Ion says he would prefer a quiet life to the pressures of Athens, and knows he would be a complete outsider there as Athenian’s put great emphasis on origins.  Later he suggests that he could not benefit from the free speech of the Athenians as an outsider.  His view of free speech is being able to influence fellow citizens in political meetings, not just the right to express opinions.  Ion does not like the idea of being a king, the responsibility and pressure. Xuthus explains that he would be gradually introduced to the city, so the citizens would get used to him gradually.  He would also gradually bring him into family life with Creusa, so that she has time to get used to the situation.  Ion is aware that Creusa might have a very negative attitude to a child in the family who is not hers. Issues of the family and the city as places of complete integration, where there is a very big divide between those who belong and those who do not, are apparent. The rift is brought to life, but so is a sense that the opposition s unreal, that family and city life depend on outsiders. Apparent outsiders may be the greatest sons and citizen leaders.

Returning to the action, a slave informs Creusa of Xuthus’ plan to adopt Ion and claims that the oracle has said Creusa will have no children.  The slave is a negative character (suggesting the considerable moral limits of the Athenian tragedians by our standards) who provokes Creusa to murder Ion. So we move towards a reversal of Oedipus murdering his father, as Creusa moves towards murdering her son.  Creusa is shown to have an intense jealousy of a son of Xuthus who is not her son, to the extent  that he is willing to kill him.  She discusses different possible forms of murder with her slave, but settles on poison of divine origin, dating from a war between gods and giants, which is the time the first Athenians were born from the ground, including her grandfather.  She will poison wine at Ion’s temple.  The plan does not work though as Ion senses something wrong (possibly under the influence of Apollo) and tips the wine onto the ground.  A temple dove drinks some of the wine and dies.  Ion tries to arrest Creusa, but she takes sanctuary at Apollo’s alter where she cannot legally be arrested.  It is at this point that a servant woman of the temple is moved by Apollo to explain to Ion how he was found as a baby.  Creusa realises that the things the woman describes as being found with Ion are things she left with her baby.  She leaves the alter and convinces Ion that she is his mother.   They reproach Apollo, who sends Pallas Athene (the goddess linked with Athens) as his representative.  Athene explains Apollo’s rape as part of a plan which will enable Xuthus to have a son, and in which Ion goes onto found the Ionian Greeks (those Greeks who settled western Anatolia), and has 4 children who are the other 4 major ethnic groups of major Greece.  Creusa is now reconciled with Apollo.

Like the other Attic tragedies,  this play has an element of Athenian nationalism, Athens is presented as the centre of the Greek world and the origin of all the nations of Greece, which is of course completely mythical.  We see a great deal of emphasis on speech, truth and communication.  Apollo is the sun god, so the god of clarity.  Athene is the goddess of wisdom.  Hermes is the messenger god, so all the gods associated with the play are concerned with truth and communicating truth.  The play is dominated by secrets and the revelation of secrets, which is necessary to avoid violence.  Without the truth speaking at the end, Creusa would have murdered Ion.  Bringing secrets to light brings the play to its end, unites a family and prevents murder.  In the background is the Athenian belief in free speech as public truth telling.

New Nietzsche Translation: The Greek Music Drama (side by side with Das Griechische Musikdrama)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Das griechische Musikdrama

The Greek Music Drama

Translated by Paul Bishop

Introduction by Jill Marsden

Contra Mundum Press, New York NY, 2013

This is a translation of a text by Nietzsche not previously available in English (or certainly not in print for many years). It is the text of a lecture Nietzsche gave in the Basel Museum in 1870, closely related to his book of 1872, The Birth of Tragedy. So the lecture, along with another two weeks later ‘Socrates and Tragedy’, marks the beginning of the process in which Nietzsche moved from young lion of classical philology appointed to a chair at the University of Basel in his early twenties, to an invalid retired from academia, with no fixed abode, writing books largely ignored by the academic world. These lectures prepare the way for Nietzsche’s approach in The Birth of Tragedy where a philosophy and aesthetics influenced by Schopenhauer and by the history of German aesthetics and philosophy from the Enlightenment to Schopenhauer, is expressed through sweeping synthesising interpretations and bold claims where philological knowledge is used, but is not allowed to get in the way of a striking hypothesis.

I will  not attempt to compare what Nietzsche says  in this essay with what he says slightly later in The Birth of Tragedy, but I may return to that topic since I am teaching (the first half of) The Birth of Tragedy for a philosophy and literature course this semester. I will just note that as in the later text he regards Euripides as less of a tragedian than Aeschylus and Sophocles, at one point grouping Aeschylus and Sophocles with Pindar, and ignoring Euripides. He does also group Euripides with Aeschylus and Sophocles at least once. He does not however come up with an account of how Euripides differs from Aeschylus and Sophocles, or the cultural significance of his shift in the from of tragedies.

Here Nietzsche emphasises the role of music in Greek tragedy, going so far as too suggest that our reading of Aeschylus and Sophocles is deeply limited because we do not have the music that was used in performances. It is as if we are just reading the libretto of an opera Nietzsche suggests. This line of thought is connected with his Wagner enthusiasms of that time, so that in The Birth of Tragedy, Wagner is said to be the heir to the cultural significance of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Mozart is brought in more directly though, when Nietzsche compares the role of the actor in the Greek tragedies with the stone statue of the Commandatore which comes alive in the opera Don Giovanni. This remark in passing could perhaps be taken much further as a way in which the Stone Statue in Mozart’s opera is emblematic of the nature of art in making life out of inert matter. What Nietzsche is arguing in relation to Greek tragedy is that it is the product of a long prehistory in the Dionysian chorus. The anonymous collective experience of Dionysian destruction and rebirth is the inert material from the which characters of tragedy appear, in a way that must have been uncanny to the ancient Greek audience in Nietzsche’s account. The characters, presumably with particular reference to the hero, should not be alive, can only be alive through some strange supernatural event, and are full of a non-living substance. If we think about how the staging of Greek tragedies used drama masks, then we can see confirmation of Nietzsche’s view. The mask of a fixed expression over the face of the actor suggests something like a statue coming alive.

Statues feature in Nietzsche’s discussion when he refers to the ultra-Hellenistic mania (emphasised by Winckelmann)  for insisting on the pure whiteness of Greek statues in their original display, and the difficulty that art historians had in accepting that the statues were painted in a multiplicity of colours. There is a danger of over Hellenising Hellenism, according to Nietzsche, by which he means imposing the ideas of the Hellenic we have now on the past. Since we do not now exactly how the tragedies were staged we are in danger of an invented Hellenism in our ideas about them. We are also prey to a belief that humans cannot be strong enough to stand a pure art form, so may exaggerate the idea of a mixture of art forms in tragedy. The point here, is I presume, to suggest that the different parts of a tragedy and of tragic performance, discussed since Aristotle, should not distract us from seeing tragedy as a pure and absolute art form which makes us see something deeply painful. Nietzsche takes a critical line on Aristotle’s analysis of tragedy, suggesting that it does not apply to Aeschylus. It is certainly true that Aristotle puts forward Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the model, and that his structure of error of judgement followed by a reversal of fortunes for a happy character (ideally accompanied by an episode of recognition) does not apply to all tragedies.

Thşs publication is a welcome event, the dual text approach is one which should be used more widely. Thee is a very useful introduction and notes by Marsden. The translation is a good balance of accuracy and readability.  There is, however, no index, a major drawback. Ideally other early Nietzsche essays which build up to The Birth of Tragedy  would be included. In any case everyone concerned with reading Nietzsche in English should get hold of this book, which is an essential acquisition.