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Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

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Frogs of Aristophanes

The main protagonist in The Frogs is Dionysus, but Aristophanes shows us an altogether different side of the god than Euripides did in The Bacchae.  Euripides’ Dionysus is cryptic, subtle, rather scary, and tremendously powerful.  Aristophanes’ Dionysus, from the time he appears on stage in a ridiculous costume, is a bit of a buffoon.  On  one level this is simple caricature for comic effect; Aristophanes was fond of singling out and lampooning his audience members, and the god whose stature observed every performance had finally received his turn.  We need to keep in mind, however, that Dionysus, as the god of the theater, was actually Aristophanes’ patron deity.  Dionysus was god of comedy as well as tragedy, and Aristophanes’ portrayal actually captured one of the God’s aspects.  Drinking, sex, and humor were all part of the god’s ethos.  Even the costume, which combines a woman’s robes, a tragic actor’s shoes, and Heracles’ lion skin is appropriate for a god who was normally portrayed androgynously and was known for trickery and disguise.

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Dionysus’ mission is to descend into Hades to retrieve Euripides, as Athens no longer has any good tragic poets.  Presumably this task has fallen to him as god of theater.  We are also reminded of tradition of Orpheus in Hades, and the close association between the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus.

In many ways, The Frogs is Aristophanes’ eulogy for Euripides, who had died several months earlier.  Euripides was one of the favored targets for the comedian’s humor.  The Frogs is his way of showing that he actually had great respect for Euripides’ work.  After all, he didn’t write a play about Dionysus going after Sophocles, who had died a year earlier.

After various comic hijinks, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias arrive at Hades’ palace. There, they find that a contest is about to take place between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine which will be allowed to dine at Hades’ table.  Hades allows Dionysus to judge the contest.  Furthermore, he offers to let Dionysus take home the poet of his choice.  In the ensuing throw-down it becomes clear that, while Aeschylus is by far the better poet, Euripides is wittier and more accessible.  Aeschylus presents larger-than-life heroic characters, while Euripides presents relatable characters with real flaws and quirks.

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, Dionysus chooses to take Aeschylus.  Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War. The final defeat was a year or so off, but few citizens questioned that it was coming soon.  The people didn’t need wit, satire, and realism.  They needed beauty and elevation.  They needed to be reminded of the days when heroes walked and Athens was still great.  Aeschylus, not Euripides, was the man for the job.

The Frogs is a fantasy.  In real history, no tragic poet emerged who could match the talents of the “big three”.  While Greek tragedy continued to be performed for centuries, the art all but ceased to evolve after the passing of Sophocles and Euripides.  In late Hellenic times Euripides was easily the most popular playwright of the three, possibly because his language and themes seemed more “modern” to later readers.

Greek comedy remained viable for a longer time.  Aristophanes himself lived another twenty years, long enough to take part in the transition from old comedy to middle comedy and to see the new comedy on the horizon.  His son and others wrote in the new comedy, which stayed popular throughout the Macedonian period.

Thucydides Book 2: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Thucydides Book II: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Greek Tragedy: The Bacchae of Euripides

Euripides wrote The Bacchae at the very end of his career and did not live long enough to see it produced.  In it he finally manages to achieve a happy balance between the classicism which bogged down the plots of some of his mid-career plays and the satire and social commentary that run through his earlier works.  The god in the play is an integral, developed character, not a stilted deus ex machina like Aphrodite in Hippolytus.

The Bacchae is fascinating partially because of its subject matter, Dionysus, whom Durant calls “the most troublesome, the most popular, the most difficult to classify of all Greek gods.”  Most of us have a passing acquaintance with Greco-Roman mythology, gained mainly from pop culture tropes inherited from Victorian writers.  If we know Dionysus at all, we probably picture him as the fat, tipsy Bacchus in Disney’s Fantasia.  After all, he’s just the god of wine.  How important can be be compared to the other Olympians?

The answer is, “incredibly important”.  Even though he was the last deity to be formally admitted to the Olympian pantheon, Dionysus was a popular god in the Greek world from Mycenaean times right up until the Christian domination of the Roman Empire.  He was a fertility god and, at times, an almost messiah-like figure who promised rebirth in the afterlife.  Unlike the other Olympians, who had been brought to Greece by conquerors and always maintained their associations with the ruling class, Dionysus was a god of the working class, women, and counter-cultures.  The cult of Dionysius played a similar role to later religions that originally evolved among oppressed minorities, such as Voodoo, Rastafarianism, and Primitive Christianity.  The orthodox elites were never able to stamp out Dionysianism, but they accepted its presence only grudgingly.  While it existed, though, it provided an important social “safety valve” for people who would otherwise have had little hope.

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Dionysos [photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC-BY 2.5 via Wikimedia]

Many people have written about the parallels between the Dionysian cult (particularly its later off-shoot, the Cult of Orpheus) and Christianity.  Like Christ, Dionysus was the son of a father god (in this case Zeus) who had been killed and then rose from the dead.  Like Christians, Dionysians believed in a happy afterlife, in contrast to the usual Greek vision of a dim eternity as shades in Hades.  Much has been made of the importance of wine in both faiths, and of the superficial similarities between Dinonysus’ arrest and trial by Pentheus and Christ’s trial by Pilate.  All of these synchronicities are fairly cosmetic, however.  Christianity and Dionysianism had very different moral teachings and doctrines.  It is doubtful that Dionisianism influenced Christianity in any meaningful way.  They were simply two different faiths that occupied the same niche in different periods.  Many of the features that they have in common are also found in other mystery cults throughout the ecumene.

The primary mode of worship for the Dionysians was the bacchanal, in which groups of worshipers went into the country and made themselves incoherent with wild music and alcohol.  Usually, the climax of the bacchanal came when the bacchae tore a live animal apart with their bare hands, reenacting the god’s death at the hands of the Titans.  Usually the victim was a goat or bull, but it was not unknown for them to seize and kill innocent bystanders.

Euripides’ play is the story of Pentheus, king of Thebes.  Pentheus is worried about the growing influence of the Dionysian cult and has determined to suppress it.  He arrests a young man whom he believes to by a Dionysian rabble rouser, but who is actually an avatar of the god.  Dionysius has already determined to punish Pentheus for his impiety and make an example of him, thus removing any doubt about his god-head.  After giving Pentheus a chance to repent, Dionysius takes control of his mind, convincing him that it is a good idea to infiltrate the bacchae and spy on them, disguising himself as a maenad, or Dionysian priestess.

Dancing Maenad in a Roman relief [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikime

Dancing Maenad [photo by Ana Belén Cantero Paz, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia]. The Maenadae were full-time priestesses of Dionysus who traveled the countryside leading bacchanalia.

Of course, the bacchae immediately notice Pentheus, helped by the fact that Dionysus has placed him in a tree for a better view.  They tear the tree down, then rend Pentheus limb from limb, led by Pentheus’ own mother, whom Dionysus has enchanted to believe she is fighting a wild animal.

The semiotics of this play are very rich, with each image connoting multiple levels of symbolism.  For example the scene where Dionysus helps Pentheus adjust his female clothing symbolizes not just how far he is in the God’s power, but probably also an inner jealousy of the bacchae and their freedom–on some level he wants to join in the bacchanal and forsake his kingly duties.  At the same time, it could be interpreted as Dionysus decorating and preparing a sacrifice.  It should also not be forgotten that the sacrifice in a bacchanal represents Dionysus himself.  On one level of meaning, he is helping Pentheus to be more Dionysus-like.  I’m sure you could find at least as many semiotic observations about the tree, the scene where Dionysus is bound and his hair is cut, the severed head of Pentheus, and many other symbols in the play.

When Euripides wrote The Bacchae, he was treating on a religious friction which still quite active in his day, even though the play is supposedly set in mythological times.  The cult of Dionysus was still quite active and making the ruling class uncomfortable.  Euripides was treading beyond the edge of political correctness to write a play about them, particularly one with such an ambiguous message.  Euripides, like most of the Athenian playwrights, was an educated man from an affluent citizen family.  If anything, we would expect him to denounce the cult.  He really doesn’t though.  What he does is create a work where the audience’s sympathies are divided between the two sides, and where the final message is open to multiple interpretations.  The Bacchae is “classic Euripides”, in every sense, the perfect play on which to end his career.

Greek Tragedy: Hippolytus of Euripides

I read Hippolytus and The Bacchae as part of a single volume, translated by Gilbert Murray, who also translated my copy of Medea.

Of the three plays, I found Hippolytus to be the most forgettable.  I’m not really sure what makes it a Great Book.  Phaedra, the young wife of Theseus, has fallen in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ bastard son.  She first attempts to stay loyal to Theseus but then gives up and tries to make advances to Hippolytus.  Hippolytus, who has chosen a life of voluntary celibacy, is horrified at the idea of an affair with his father’s wife and chastises her at length.  Phaedra then commits suicide, leaving  note that falsely accuses Hippolytus of raping her.  The enraged Theseus banishes Hippolytus and calls down a curse on him which results in his death.  A plot with this much human interest would have been a fertile field for any tragedian, but Euripides’ efforts are underwhelming.

The two most important characters, Phaedra and Hippolytus, are underdeveloped.  Phaedra only falls in love with Hippolytus through the powers of Aphrodite, which is convenient but adds much less plot interest than a less arbitrary romance would. There is no foreshadowing of Phaedra’s suicide note; none of her dialogue indicates that she blames him for the situation or wishes to punish him.  Until the point where she writes the note and hangs herself, she is a completely passive character, little more than a tool in the real conflict, which is between Aphrodite and Hippolytus.

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo byFinn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia]

Phaedra in a fresco at Pompeii [photo by Finn Bjørklid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia]

As for Hippolytus, none of his motivations are developed.  Why is he celibate?  The only reason we are given is that he is a follower of Artemis, who was a patron goddess of virgins, but did not normally demand celibacy of her followers.  He would be a more interesting character if he showed that he was at least a little bit tempted by Phaedra, but he clearly isn’t.  Alternately, the author could have given him a back-story about why he is distrustful of women, or why he has chosen to worship Artemis in this particular way.  Again, there is no depth and the the character seems unresolved.

And speaking of Artemis, if Hippolytus is so devout, why can’t she protect him from Aphrodite?  Artemis’ explanation, when she finally does take the stage to comfort the dying Hippolytus, seems a bit weak:

Artemis:
...'Twas the will
  Of Cypris that these evil things should be,
  Sating her wrath. And this immutably
  Hath Zeus ordained in heaven: no God may thwart
  A God's fixed will; we grieve but stand apart.
  Else, but for fear of the Great Father's blame,
  Never had I to such extreme of shame
  Bowed me, be sure, as here to stand and see
  Slain him I loved best of mortality!

After all, Aphrodite is already interfering with Artemis. Why isn’t she standing up for herself or appealing to Zeus?

The device of using Aphrodite at all seems like lazy plotting. Granted, the core theme of Greek Tragedy is man’s final helplessness in the face of destiny. Aphrodite is used more as the embodiment of a universal force than a character. The characters are destined to be destroyed by Love, and there is no escape. But the script doesn’t quite work, and a playwright of Euripides’ stature should have found a way to fix it.

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

Venus and Amor, Hans Balung [public domain via Wikimedia]

This play was written towards the middle of Euripides’ career.  Possibly, we are just seeing an example of mid-career burn-out.  Maybe he needed a play for the festival that year and didn’t have any good ideas, so he dusted off a script from the slush pile.  There is no way to know.

I don’t hate this play, but it doesn’t seem to belong with the other fifteen tragedies I’ve read so far in this project.  I suppose I’m probably missing something.  Hippolytus shows up on many Great Books lists, so others must have seen something in it that I don’t.

Luckily, I do not have the same objections to the next play on my list, The Bacchae.

Greek Tragedy: Medea of Euripides

This week in my Great Books project I read Euripides’ Medea.  As a child I read (and reread) several books about Greek mythology.  Even then I remember being disturbed by the story of Medea: the Colchian princess who falls in love with Jason and gives up everything to help him the Argonauts on their quest, only to be discarded by him as soon as they get back to Greece.  Now, reading Euripides’ treatment of the story, I have more context from Ancient Greek culture, not to mention my own adult love life, to apply to it.  The story still disturbs me.

As a play, Medea is rarely a crowd pleaser.  In its debut year it only took third place in the annual drama competition, losing out to SophoclesPhiloctetes and a play by Aeschylus.  I suspect the reason audiences have trouble with Medea is that Euripides did entirely too good a job capturing his themes:  betrayal, a painful break-up, madness, and vengeance that hurts the avenger as badly as their victim.  Great art is often disturbing on some level.  To the citizens of Athens, however, Medea would have been like one of those modern movies that are you think are brilliant but you never want to see again because they freak you out.

As it happens, the centuries immediately after the Golden Age were kinder to Euripides than they were to his rivals.  The reason that more of Euripides’ plays have been preserved than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles put together, and in better copies, is that learned Hellenes of the Seleucid era held them in high esteem and made them required reading in their schools.

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

The Golden Fleece, Herbert James Draper [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In Medea, Euripides takes a myth which was already ancient and casts it as a story which is as unfortunate as it is timeless:  an ambitious man sets aside the lover of his youth and mother of his children for a younger, better connected woman who is a better fit for his new career and lifestyle.  Jason isn’t a particularly evil or vindictive man.  He is happy to support Medea and her children, he just wants her out of Corinth before she embarrasses him with his new wife and father-in-law.  He tries to keep things amicable.  In his mind, he owes Medea nothing more than this.  He has already brought her to “civilized” Greece and made her famous, they have had some good times, and now she should be mature enough to step aside and let him live his life.

Have you ever been dumped by someone who liked you, but decided that you just didn’t fit into their career plans?  I have, and it hurts.  Anyone who remembers the pain of still being in love with someone who has fallen out of love with them can relate to Medea.  Even more, in a way, is the reminder of people I have broken up with who were truly in love with me, but with whom I saw no future.

Then Medea goes completely insane, murdering the other woman and her own children.  As atrocious as these acts are, they are also a bitter story of how strong the emotions of one-sided love can sometimes be–strong enough to push someone over the edge into madness.

Medea Abou to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

Medea About to Kill her Children, Eugène Delacroix [Public domain, via Wikimedia]

In our own culture, possibly in our own families, we have seen plenty of examples of ugly divorces in which a successful man leaves his “starter wife” for a new “trophy wife”, deciding that the alimony payments are worth it.  It would have been the same, if not worse, in Periclean Greece.  Foreign born women like Medea were not even legally allowed to marry Greek citizens, and so would have had none of the divorce rights of Greek women.  Even native women could be easily divorced by their husbands and had no claims to custody of their children or to property beyond their original dowry.  Concubinage was also common, and could hardly have been a comfortable situation for either the wife–replaced in bed by a younger woman–or the concubine who, in the words of Will Durant, “when her charms wear off, will become in effect a household slave, and that only the offspring of the first wife are accounted legitimate.”

We know that could and did attend the Athenian theater.  There must have been some rather tense households in Athens the night after Medea played.

Beyond this deeply personal and individual pathos, Medea symbolizes and older and larger conflict in Greek civilization.  The original societies of the Mediterranean, such as the Minoan Crete or Pelasgian Hellas, had been matriarchal.  Their religion had been much simpler and more shamanic, focusing on appeasing local fertility goddesses and earth spirits.  Many centuries before Euripides they had been conquered by the Dorians, a patriarchal Aryan people who worshiped the sky gods.  While is was dominated, the older culture was never completely destroyed.  Medea, a powerful barbarian shaman, symbolizes the old culture.  Jason, a “civilized” Greek aristocrat, is the new.  They are able to work together to achieve a common goal, but conflict is inevitable when the new culture turns on the old.

Medea is one of Euripides’ earlier plays.  I go now to read Hippolytus and Bacchae, from his middle and late periods, respectively.  I am curious to see how his style changed and whether he kept his disturbing artistic edge, or blunted it in an effort to win more popularity.

Greek Tragedy: Sophocles’ Women

One of the standard criticisms of the Great Books approach is that nearly all of the texts are written by “dead white guys” and therefore have less resonance with members of other groups.  This is especially true of women who, despite making up more than half of the population of Western Civilization, are noticeably absent from most Great Books reading lists.  I have already mentioned Y, the (probably) female editor of the first four books of the Torah.  The books of Ruth and Proverbs were also quite possibly written by women.  Overall, though, very few women prior to the nineteenth century had the sort of educational background to produce a Great Book.  Of these, even fewer had the wherewithal to get their work published.  Nor were the male scribes of of the middle ages as interested in copying and preserving the work of women.  The result is that the writings of the few women we know of who might be included–Sappho of Lesbos, for example, are either completely lost or exist only in a few fragments.

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

Sappho Plays Her Lyre, Jules Elie Delaunay [public domain via Wikimedia]

While regrettable, this situation would be less of a problem if the male authors of the Great Books had written more about women, their issues, and their experiences.  In general, though, they did not do a good job at this.  It has been observed by many people in modern times that, while most female fiction writers are adept at writing male characters, relatively few male writers can write believable female characters.  This seems to have also been true in the ancient world.  Our first two Greek authors, Homer and Aeschylus, betrayed a rather shallow understanding of women.  Their female characters exist as prizes to be fought over or are on stage only to react to the words and actions of the male characters.  Even Aeschylus’ Electra, one of the great tragic heroines of all time, is almost painfully under developed.  This treatment is interesting since we know that the women of ancient Greece were actually fairly outspoken and aggressive compared to their contemporaries in the ancient world.  It is hard to reconcile the scared and fawning female choruses of The Supplicant Maidens or Seven Against Thebes with the angry female lynch mobs who occasionally tore men limb-from-limb or stabbed them to death with their broach pins.  Homer’s Penelope, waiting patiently for Odysseus to return and rescue her bears little comparison to Queen Artemisia, the Greek commander of a Persian Trireme squadron, whom Herodotus describes as deliberately ramming an allied ship in the straits of Eripus, then receiving a commendation from Xerxes after convincing him it was actually an enemy vessel.

Sophocles is different from Homer and Aeschylus in that he did write strong female characters.  His Antigone, Electra, and Deianira are all different portraits of an ideal woman:  brave, principled, and loyal.  All are internally conflicted between their perceived duty and emotional needs.  His Tecmessa (Ajax’s concubine) is a much more vulnerable and submissive character, yet still completely believable, torn between her loyalty to Ajax and her awareness that if he dies or is disgraced there will be no protection for herself or her son from the other Greek soldiers.

There are still deficiencies in the way Sophocles dealt with women.  Not one of his plays actually passes the modern Bechdel Test, a measure of female inclusion in a script–although the some of Antigone-Ismene scenes come close.  Then again, relatively few modern screenplays pass the Bechdel Test.  Overall, however, his writing does a better job of representing women than most in the Great Books.

Allison Bechdel's test for female inclusion in a script

I am myself a white male.  As a writer in the 21st century, however, I can not get away with writing stories about white males for consumption for other white males.  Aside from the fact that I would be frightfully boring, , white males make up an ever smaller share of the market.  Besides, our pluralistic society demands a literature that conveys the experiences of many different genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds.  This begs the question, then, “Why am I spending all this time studying a canon of works that were written by white males?”  One answer would be that I am heir to, and continue to write in a particular literary tradition and it isn’t my fault that the authorship lacks diversity.  A better answer is that Western Civilization’s Great Books contain timeless and universal ideas.  My challenge as a writer is to adapt them from their original context and make them accessible to everyone.

Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus

This month I continue my survey of the Great Books by reading the theatrical works of Aeschylus, earliest of the three great Greek tragedians.  Seven of Aeschylus’ plays have come down to us, although four of them are parts of now lost trilogies and the authorship of one of those, Prometheus Bound, is often questioned.  When I read these plays in order I realized what a powerful transformative influence Aeschylus must have been on the art form by seeing how much his own work changed over time.

Amphitheater at Delphi [user Luarvick, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Amphitheater at Delphi [user Luarvick, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

At the beginning of Aeschylus’ career, Greek tragedy was already at least a couple of generations old.  It grew out of an older tradition of bards called rhapsodies reciting religious poetry at festivals.  The first Greek playwright, Thespis had created an entirely new genre when he started writing pieces in which the Rhapsody played actual characters instead of just narrating.  He also backed him up with a chorus which could interact with the character, giving the audience cues about how they should react, and probably also enriching the piece with dance, chanting, and simple sound effects.

Greek playwrights didn’t use stage directions.  However, in his earlier plays like The Supplicant Maidens and The Persians there is the definitive sense that the actors spend much of their time standing in one place talking to the chorus, much as they must have done in Thespis’ plays.  Aeschylus is famous for being the first to have multiple actors in his plays, but in the early works he seems to still be working out the possibilities.  The dialogue between actors is limited, and there is no physical interaction between the characters.  The emphasis is on the language in their speeches.  In point of fact, Aeschylus is usually considered to be the best straight-up poet among the big three tragic playwrights.

By Prometheus Bound, one of the latest plays, he has overcome any inhibitions about interactions between the characters.  The first scene is a masterfully written three-way dialogue between the gods Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Kratos (Strength) while Hephaestus chains Prometheus and rivets him to the side of a mountain.   Not only is there plenty more expository dialogue as the play goes on, there are enough (implied) special effects to keep a modern CGI studio busy for weeks: the chorus arriving in winged cars and hovering before dismounting, a god riding a Hippogriff, a woman who has been turned half-way into a cow, and of course the entire mountain collapsing at the end of the play after it has been struck by a thunderbolt.  One can only imagine the look on the stage manager’s face when Aeschylus showed him the script.

Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, Henry Fuseli [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Hephaestus, Bia and Crato Securing Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, Henry Fuseli [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

As I said earlier, many scholars debate whether Aeschylus actually wrote Prometheus Bound.  However, the actual writer was probably either his son or another of his close associates, who would have been trained and influenced by him; the work represents an evolutionary end point of his art, whether or not he penned it personally.  The fact that the play contains so much more interaction and visual interest than the earlier works is particularly noteworthy when we recall that the main character spends his time chained to a rock and can’t move.

Aeschylus was a writer who spent his career pushing to enlarge and improve his art.  We modern writers would do well to adopt him as a role model.  The reason Aeschylus is remembered after 25 centuries is he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in his genre and “break the rules” if it would improve the end product.  And he was successful enough at it that other writers began imitating him.

These days I think many authors, particularly new authors, are afraid to take creative risks.  Following established formats and creating a mystery novel or epic fantasy (or what have you) that is just like all the others on the market is a recipe for forgettable writing.  If you want to be like Aeschylus, you need to come up with a way to innovate and do something to make it your own, not just follow the established conventions of your chosen genre.