Storyboard, first action scene of The Black Tail. Triton abducts a slave girl named Erostes from the Harpies.
Oil on canvas
Ancient Greek western mythology meets eastern aesthetic of stacking perspectives. (Unwittingly)
God, not god? Structuralists come at mythology with the intent to weed out opposing binaries, rooted in biology, that stand out as clear thematic red flags within a read. Claude Levi Strauss thought this kind of view was important in accessing mythology because the human brain works that way. In binaries. The human brain processes information as pairs of opposites used to structure our basic understanding of the world.
Dionysus: God, not god? Man, or beast? Man, or woman? It is the detail in these opposing relationships that matter in the myth, according to structuralists. What is the distinction in what makes a man in Euripedes’ Bacchae, and not man? What are the defining features of being a God? Is it about being drunk? Not drunk? Is it about perception? As in visual appearances, or how other people perceive the truth?
So, if structuralists pick at the biologically-rooted binary opposites that permeate the Bacchae, what would they find? What makes the myth tick?
What drives this story is fundamentally the dissolution of identity as Dionysus returns years later to punish people for not according him the worship/rituals of a deserving god. Dionysus AKA Bacchus. In the pantheon of Greek gods, we learn that Dionysus is seen to be some kind of misfit.
The God of Wine insists that his worshippers are drunk and therefore outside of themselves, when they worship him. His rituals happen at night, in the hillsides, with a hunt staged. We learn that Dionysian rituals are the complete opposite of standard Greek rituals, which happen in daylight, crowded/public spaces in the center of the city, inside a main temple, involving controlled animal sacrifice.
Pentheus is the King of Thebes who bans the worship of Dionysus and forbids women from joining in his rites. The ensuing wrath of Dionysus sees a scheme hatched where Pentheus, disguised as a woman, climbs a tree to spy on what he thinks are the sexual activities of women engaged in Bacchic rites. Instead, the women (including his own mother) are in a trance. They mistake him for a lion, hunt him down, tear him from limb to limb and decapitate him.
Red flag 1: Man or beast? So we see Pentheus’ identity dissolved. Is he man, or beast? Is he King of the land, or a lion, king of all animals? But what about the women who kill him? Are these Dionysian revellers logical (wo)men or posessed beasts? Categorizing “civilized” humans as repressed and rational and controlled, whereas “savage” beasts have unfettered appetites and actions in a Dionysian ritual — involving alcohol and orgies… And what about Dionysus? Does he exact controlled justice or does he unleash monstrous wrath? Is it necessary to punish everyone in Thebes with such violence save Tiresias? Do Agave and Cadmus really deserve their ends?
Is Dionysus a Greek God? He certainly has the name of one. But the circumstances around his birth are suspect, right. His mortal mother Semele was impregnated by Zeus. Through some trickery by Hera, Semele insists Zeus shows himself to her and when he does, Semele is immolated by his glory. Zeus snatches the baby Dionysus who is reborn from his father’s own thigh.
Red flag 2: Mother — not my mother? Dionysus’ stature as God is in question. Is Semele really his mother? Or is Zeus his mother for giving birth to him from his own thigh? There’s been scholarly debate about whether Dionysus went too far in punishing Agave after she’d already suffered by mistaking her son Pentheus for a lion and ripping him to pieces/beheading him. If you see the whole story as a son avenging others for insults on his mother, you can understand why he targeted her. Perhaps more than he targeted Pentheus.
Red flag 3: Myself — not myself. Dionysus disguises himself as a stranger. Pentheus disguises himself as a woman. Are the Dionysian worshippers really themselves when they are drunk? Being drunk, we step outside ourselves and excuse ourselves from normal behavior. You have unwilling worshippers on this hillside driven mad by Dionysus. And those who willingly followed him from Asia to Thebes. Going into a trance, the maenads have magical powers imbued by Dionysus. Out of the trance, the maenads realize their undoing.
Red flag 4: Predator, or prey? And now we’ve come full circle to the most obvious of binary oppositions in this play. Pentheus stalks women from up a tree – he certainly starts as predator. But is he, really? A victim of a god’s scheme, the women he spies on mistakes him for a lion. Isn’t a lion a predator? But wait. If a lion’s a predator, what’s it doing in a tree? It gets ripped apart and becomes a sacrificial animal in a Dionysian rite.
According to Peter Jones‘ <Eureka! Everything you wanted to know about the Ancient Greeks>, it is one of the very rare instances in which politics openly rears its head on the tragic stage. That year, it won the prize for tragedy. Aeschylus’ Oresteia assumes that we – like its contemporary audience – are familiar with the unbreakable curse tainting the House of Atreus.
Tantalus’ serves his own son Pelops up as stew to the Olympian gods. Pelops’s sons Thyestes and Atreus duke it out for power over his kingdom. A vicious cycle is perpetuated. Atreus cooks Thyestes’ children and serves it to him. Thyestes takes advantage of his daughter Pelopia, who bears Aegisthus. Years later, she kills herself upon a sword. Aegisthus slays Atreus to end his rule. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia for better winds on his journey to Troy, Clytaemnaestra (with Aegisthus) murders Agamemnon and his new wife Cassandra for sacrificing her daughter. Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns years later to revenge his father’s death by slaying Clytaemnastra and Aegisthus. He is hunted down by Chthonic Gods, the unrelenting Furies.
Paraphrasing Peter Struck, Upenn Classicist: “If someone was killed or had a violent episode of death visited upon them, miasma would hover around the corpse. The person who did the killing would have miasma stuck on them, and be subject to retribution. Unfortunately, anyone who happened to be walking by would also be tainted by miasma and be subject to retribution as well, like collateral damage”. So miasma can be understood to be like an independent elemental force that is a pollution that seeks purification, but seems to breed more miasma just like the House of Atreus’ never-ending saga of vindictiveness.
In Agamemnon, Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon, to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. In the Libation Bearers, Orestes is back from exile. He has to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, in order to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon.
The Oracle of Delphi makes Pelopia instrumental in propagating an heir to take revenge for Thyesthes, clean out the blood crimes of Atreus murdering Thysthes’ children. Here Pelopia represents the feminine role of procreating justice. She is also the keeper of family secrets. By holding onto the sword, she knows the real identity of Aegisthus’ father. She’s a tragic figure who meets a tragic end by no wrongdoing of her own. Taking her own life by Thyesthes’ sword, she serves to highlight how betrayals in terrible families pollute others around it. Pelopia reinforces Aeschylus’ portrayal of family as an incredibly destructive, terrible, opposite-of-nurturing structure. She just happens to be there, and she was stained by the miasma of Atreus’ and Thyesthes’ crimes before her.
Now, let’s look at Agamemnon. Clytemnestra has a system of beacons set up to tell her when the Trojan War is over. Not to welcome her husband Agamemnon, like the loving family reunion we’ve come to expect between Odysseus and Penelope in Homer’s The Odyssey. No, it’s because Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus want to lay out the trap that will kill the returning King.
The real meaning of this beacon is evident to her but no one else. It’s a secret. Just like in the example with Pelopia above, family secrecy that doesn’t result in closeness, but fatality. Aeschylus again departs from Homer, where the secrecy that Odysseus and Penelope shares is a driver for family support against the suitors of Ithaca.
Clytemnestra is bitter at Agamemnon’s licentiousness. She has the dalliances of her husband rubbed in her face (he presents Cassandra). Penelope, on the other hand, reinforces, through the secret she shares with Odysseus that is the olive tree bed, her fidelity to him.
“Hey honey, haven’t seen you for a long time. Step on out of your boat with your muddy boots and trample on this beautiful cloth that I’ve woven for your return”. She’s bitter, she’s been harboring so much hatred – ‘of course you’re going to trampple on this fine piece of work I’ve woven for you’. When he steps on it, Clytemnestra proves what a brute he is.
Her crimson tapestry, with its royal color, symbolizes the blood of family ties and the dark sides of intimacy (family betrayal, injustice, closeness as a negative thing). Penelope’s weaving, on the other hand, is meant to stave off suitors while Odysseus spends years abroad delayed on his journey home from the Trojan War.
Cassandra foreshadows her own fate: “Clytemnestra is going to shred me into a bowl” like preparing drugs (pharmacon) to cure the blood disease of the House of Atreus.
Iphigenia and Cassandra are pharmacons in this story. Killed in order to ‘cure’ the blood-crimes of the past. Agamemnon kills Iphigenia, his own daughter, for ‘the winds to get corrected’ on his ship’s journey out to Troy. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon’s new wife Cassandra to cure her own bitterness at his betrayal. Women die as a result of purification needed for the perpetuation of blood crimes. But instead of purification, what happens is that more blood crimes get perpetuated. The cycle of injustice prevails.
In the Libation Bearers, Elektra, Orestes’ sister, as new generation, appeals to Chthonic gods in seance by Agamenon’s grave to ask for permission to exact revenge on Clytemnestra. They give it. Clytemnestra, in verbal test of wills, challenges Orestes’ right to do so before she gets dragged behind the door and then murdered by her own son.
In The Eumenides, The Furies highlight a measure of evil using blood relations/blood guilt- which is more evil, the murder of a mother, or that of a wife? The Furies represent the importance of blood relations. To them, Orestes must be avenged because he killed his mother, who gave birth to him. They take the opposite side in a courtroom than Apollo, who argues the popular concept that the mother is just a vessel for a man’s seed and that she is not that important in the production of, of the offspring. Apollo thinks ties between man and wife, which arose out of voluntary associations, should be more important.
Similar to Hesiod’s Theogony, where Zeus wins the war over the Titans and pushes the older gods into the Underworld. At the end of The Eumenides, The Furies, when they lose the court case at the end of the trilogy, get interred. (Athena is the swing vote in favor of Apollo’s defense of Orestes). The Furies, these older Chthonic Gods representing the old order of justice are given a place underground into a new temple of worship.
Homeric Hymns are among the oldest monuments of Greek literature. The lengthy Homeric Hymn to Demeter provides the most important and complete information about Demeter, goddess of Fertility. It covers the abduction of Persephone, Demeter’s grief and anger, her arrival at Eleusis, nursing Demophoön at the home of Celeus and Metaneira, Zeus’ order to Hades, the return of Persephone for parts of the year to her mother’s realm. The story seems to functionally explain the restoration of fertility to the planet according to the seasons and how Demeter Establishes Her Eleusinian Mysteries.
Painfully aware that Myth and Ritual go hand-in-hand in Ancient Greece *this isn’t intended to be cavalier*… Giving credit to Structuralist or Functionalist interpretations… Ultimately, I gravitate to my Freudian psychoanalytical toolbox to best interpret this myth.
The cartoon my mind throws up of Hades making Persephone eat a (surreal, Dali-an) pomegranate, and thus robbing Demeter of her offspring (and fertility) for a part of the year… reminds me too much of everything we read just in Hesiod’s Theogony of Kronos and Zeus overwhelming their parents with acts of violence to exert their reproductive supremacy and propagate the universe.
Persephone prances in the meadow and grabs a flower, Hades abducts her in a chariot and effectively makes her queen of the dead (‘killing’ her). Uranus lies with Gaia and Kronos castrates him, silencing him forever. The fact that Zeus allowed Hades to abduct Persephone (it mentions in the Hymn to Demeter that it as part of the deal he made in divy-ing up the realms of the universe) — makes it Pile, High, and Deeper full of Freudian repressed subconscious/taboo desires. ‘Uh, you drew the short end of the stick, Hades, and got the Underworld for all eternity. To placate you, here, you can have my niece Persephone and reign over souls of the dead with her by your side.’
And then we have Demeter disguised as an old lady going about her miserable state and wandering through human cities. “Freud thinks that hidden messages inside a myth are always going to be about just you and me as individuals, developing, working our way through a developing, the developing of our psychological state.” Demeter plays foster mother to Demophon and takes care of him as though he’s immortal. She makes him impervious by dipping him in Lethe, feeds him ambrosia, food of the Gods, and seems to displace all the nurturing she could have done for her own daughter Persephone, who ‘died’ as an immortal, by making Demophon, a mortal, into an immortal.
Yeah, I’m using my psycho-analysis toolbox here because my mind totally sees a scene of Demeter lying on Freud’s couch there. ‘Don’t you think when you punish the world by robbing it of its harvests, you are in fact projecting your own trauma of Hades robbing you of your only offspring?’ Hmmmmm.
Hmm… lots of passionate/scholarly opinions on this issue by people far more expert, so I’ll venture one opinion without (hopefully) getting bitten.
Though most modern scholars no longer ascribe to the view above, I think that it merits discussion in our readings of Homer’s Odyssey. I believe Homer intended it that way (as in he deliberately composed 23 and 24, afterthought or not…) and I think he had good reasons to.
I think Homer had a great marketing advisor who said, OK, you’ve wrapped this long epic poem, let’s have some inter-textual reference if possible to your other long epic poem so readers will remember your canon and to go read that too. As in cross-referencing the Trojan War, the Iliad.
I like that 24 ties up some loose ends, with what happens in the father-son reunion not just with Telemachus but also with Laertes. And that the Gods (Zeus no less) surmise what the outcomes will be.
The book kind of started in heaven with Athena conversing with Zeus so there is a nice symmetry in Hermes leading souls to the Underworld, you know, full tour of the cosmos.
24 is probably better in terms of beats than 23 unless Homer was musically into break-beats.
We’re not left hanging wondering what repercussions are on Ithaca folks after all the violent scenes in preceding pages.
I like that here the suitors are telling Odysseus’ stories to Agamemnon in the Underworld, there is a king of ephemeral/divine quality to Homer’s tale, not just that the muse or the gods talked about it, but the undead as well.
All eternity in all the cosmos. I’m guessing Homer really wanted a legacy to be passed on.