Tag: Greek

“Nevertheless They Persisted: Hecuba/Helen” – Stanford Rep Delivers Engaging Interpretation of Greek Tragedy

Last month, I was given the opportunity to catch a fantastic performance of Stanford Repertory Theater‘s “Nevertheless They Persisted: Euripides’ Hecuba/Helen.” This combined production of two Greek tragedies was adapted and directed by Rush Rehm, Stanford professor of theater and Classics and specialist in Greek tragedy.

As it turns out, he might be one of my future instructors at the Stanford Classics Department, and it would be extraordinary to benefit from his practical expertise in staging ancient plays as a way to enhance my literary study of Greek tragedy. Watching one of Prof. Rehm’s productions, as well as hearing him speak at a Q&A session afterward, was a nice preview of what awaits me, if I get to take a class with him in the future.


The name of the production comes from the phrase “nevertheless she persisted,” which refers to the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor, and her refusal to stand down. The expression has become a statement of female empowerment, and these modern revivals of Euripides’ plays build on that theme by bringing together the stories of two mythical women, Hecuba and Helen, who each experience suffering and adversity, yet are able to re-gain some measure of power and autonomy through their courage, cleverness, and willpower.

In many ways, the positive ideals of empowerment and female strength clash with the dark, grim world of Euripides’ Hecuba, and the brutal act of vengeance that concludes the play. After the Trojan War, Hecuba (Courtney Walsh), the queen of Troy, becomes a slave to the conquering Greek army. After already losing her sons, her power, and her city, she learns that her daughter, Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada), is to be sacrificed by the Greeks as a tribute to the ghost of Achilles. Then, she discovers that her son, Polydorus (Shayan Hooshmand), has been betrayed and killed by the greedy king Polymnestor (Joe Estlack).

Hecuba takes revenge by blinding Polymnestor and murdering his two innocent young sons. She does “persist” to re-gain control over her circumstances, but revels in a gleeful act of violence that suggests an abandonment of morality. Perhaps that is what makes this a tragedy: despite the efforts of Hecuba to overcome suffering and seek justice, we have nothing to show for it in this play, except for a trail of bloodied bodies and the destruction of innocent lives. Nothing seems to change, and there is no hope for a better tomorrow.

But there are fleeting glimmers of hope, too: in one of the most moving moments of the play, Polyxena delivers a profound speech in which she affirms her own inner strength and retains her dignity by willingly accepting her death. She wins praise from her Greek captors, who look on in admiration at her noble heroism, even as they are cutting her down.

Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada) gives her final speech. Odysseus (Joe Estlack) waits impatiently in the background to take her away for her sacrifice.

All in all, I enjoyed the emotional ups-and-downs of this play, embodied in the intensity of the actors’ powerful performances, especially as Hecuba shifts from the depths of despair to the joy of triumphant revenge.


Courtney Walsh as Helen (left) and Hecuba (right).

In the second play, Prof. Rehm flips things on their head. In the last moment of Hecuba, the queen switches costumes on stage and Walsh, who plays both title roles, transforms into the beautiful Helen. From the darkness of the first play, we move to the lighter, ironic, and even humorous Helen, which features a different sort of tragedy: Helen never went to Troy, but it was a phantom Helen that the gods sent there with Paris, in order to cause the Trojan War.

In other words, a terrible war was waged and a great city destroyed in pursuit of a meaningless illusion, which points to the limits of human knowledge and the pointlessness of conflict: these concerns were relevant to the ancient Athenians watching the play, who were engaged in a long war with their Spartan foes, but also to our modern world. In interviews, Prof. Rehm explicitly brings up the modern parallel of the Iraq War and the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”

Not only that, but the real Helen, through no fault of her own, has her reputation smeared by those who blame her for the war and call her an adulterous whore.

In this twist on the traditional myth, Helen faithfully awaits her husband Menelaus (also Joe Estlack) in Egypt, where she’s been trapped for the war’s duration, and invents a clever scheme to escape from the tyrannical clutches of king Theoclymenus (Doug Nolan), who seeks to marry her himself. She persists and endures until she can be reunited with her husband and return to Greece, where she can reveal the truth and restore her reputation.

Helen (Courtney Walsh, right) is reunited with her husband, Menelaus (Joe Estlack, left).

Rush sprinkles his adaptation of Helen with comedic moments, reminding us that tragedy is not only a genre of suffering, but, as he explained at the Q&A, also something we can laugh at, by finding humor in the ironies and cruel jokes of life. Many of these moments, however, are not present in Euripides’ original play, but were added during the process of adaptation. These alterations are a bit uncomfortable for a student like me who studies tragedy as a form of written literature, and would prefer to rely on the actual text of Euripides.

Admittedly, the added comedic portions align well with the ironic tragedies of the play. When Helen laments, “I’m famous for my beauty. It’s a curse,” she uses her wit to suggest the complexly double-sided nature of beauty, at once her greatest asset yet a burden that contributes to her reputation as an air-headed, vain adulteress, as well as its devastating role as a glorified, illusory ideal for which pointless wars are fought.

Menelaus’ bewilderment, as he struggles to understand how he could possibly have two wives, both of whom claim to be Helen, daughter of Zeus or Tyndareus (no one knows for sure), is funny, but the moment also asks us to ponder the deeper absurdities of human existence and the difficulties of achieving an objective understanding of reality.

Menelaus (Joe Estlack, left) laughs at Theoclymenus (Doug Nolan, right) in his ridiculous military garb: note the three swords.

When Theoclymenus emerges from his palace in ridiculous camo gear, absurdly juggling three swords, we laugh at his buffoonery, before remembering the threat he poses to Helen and Menelaus. We are reminded of the inane boasting and grandstanding of certain politicians and authoritarian strongmen: is it a horrible joke, or a terrifying reality that these are the types of leaders who run our world today? Certainly, the ancient Athenians asked the same question of their politicians.

The text of Euripides which comes down to us has no stage directions, and so, it is up to the director and actors to interpret the lines of the play into movements on stage. Menelaus’ encounter with the housekeeper, who berates him and prevents him from entering the palace, becomes funnier through the addition of physical comedy. At the end of the play’s text, Helen’s twin brothers appear, but we don’t know which of them speak when making their divine pronouncement: this becomes a joke as Castor comedically speaks over his brother, but again, this is located nowhere in the text.

Edition of Euripides’ Helen in its original Greek.

All this raises the question of what we are trying to do when staging a Greek tragedy: reproduce an ancient author’s play as closely as possible, or create our own interpretation of it? How far can we depart from the original Greek text, when it comes to translation, adaptation, and stage directions? What exactly counts as a authentic production of a tragedy? Can there an objective standard for what makes a “true” tragedy? As the play Helen would have us ask, what does it even mean for something to be “real”?

In the end, as a director, Rush Rehm has succeeded in making his own version of Helen that is uniquely humorous, and one that would have aligned with Euripides’ thematic intentions. Whether that is authentic or not remains up for debate.


Finally, I appreciated Prof. Rehm’s ability to convey the peculiar, idiosyncratic elements of Greek drama without making them seem too foreign to a modern audience.

First, the music. We know that Greek tragedies were originally accompanied by music and that the plays alternated between spoken dialogue and lyric passages which would have been sung or chanted, to mark shifts in register. To create a sense of this effect, musical director Michael Keck utilizes musical instrumentation with Asian influences to set the scene in Thrace, near the coast of modern-day Turkey where the ships of the Greek army are stranded, or in the exotic land of Egypt.

Daringly and unusually, this production attempts to suggest the lyrical, poetic nature of song in tragedy, with Hecuba singing her lamentation alongside music to emphasize the emotional intensity of her suffering, and so too does Helen sing in a similar lamentation scene. But Prof. Rehm doesn’t overdo this: there is only one song per play, which grants special significance to the heightened register and formal tone of those scenes and prevents us from being overwhelmed. Any more than that would feel like musical theater, a modern genre that has little resemblance to tragedy.

Hecuba (Courtney Walsh) stands together with the chorus of captive Trojan women.

Now, the chorus, an essential part of any Greek play. They are a unified group of characters who act and speak as one. They set the tone of the play, give it structure, and provide narrative and mythical background. They are involved in the action, but represent a generalized perspective that allows them to step back and offer commentary not only on the events of the play itself, but on the broader universal human experience.

Modern productions sometimes struggle with the chorus. One method is to emphasize their unity, by having them sing, chant, or speak their lines in unison, but in addition to being an unfamiliar style to audience members, this has the problem of obscuring the clarity of the verses: not ideal, if we want to grasp the important information they are sharing.

The Chorus in action.

The chorus of this production achieves a nice balance. Each line is spoken separately by individual chorus members, so we can hear what they’re saying, but at times they speak together for emphasis.

Yet their essential unity remains, primarily through the highly engaging and energetic choreography, which allows the chorus to rhythmically dance and move across the stage as if they were all parts of one body. Every movement occurs in synchronicity with their words. Choreographer Aleta Hayes does great work here: the ancient Greek chorus is brought to life in a way that feels organic, and not at all forced.


Overall, “Nevertheless They Persisted: Hecuba/Helen” was an excellent achievement of a production that shows what is possible when it comes to modern adaptations of Classical drama. Ancient works performed on stage need not be thought of as alien or unfamiliar after all.

Unfortunately, the run of this show at Stanford’s Roble Studio Theater is over. Rush Rehm is now bringing his version of Hecuba to Athens, Greece, the city where Euripides presented that same play over 2000 years ago. Besides that, there will be no chance to catch these plays anymore, so be sure to see Stanford Repertory Theater’s next production, hopefully of another Classical work.


Other Reviews and Media:

Photo credits: Frank Chen and Zachary Dammann

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December 2015 Update – Looking to the Future

As we’re wrapping up 2015 and heading towards a new year, it’s time for an update about the status of this blog and what the future has in store.

Blog Status

First off, here’s a quick look at the content coming up in the near future:

  • I will be posting the last few parts of my series on Euripides’ Medea, as well as the final part of my series on snake images in Vergil’s Aeneid.
  • My cousin, Maithy Vu, has come out with her first book, a two-act play written in verse called Wounded Wisteria. I will be writing a review that will be up soon, but for now, please check out the book on Amazon, and also be sure to visit her website.

Beyond that, as we head into 2016, you’ll see a slight shift in content. The focus of this site will remain stories, words, and the power of literature, with an emphasis on the ancient Greeks and Romans. But the form of that content will, I hope, become more appropriate for a blog. It will be more accessible and more easily digestible. I will try to write in a succinct way that makes a bit more sense for a general audience.

While in school, it is difficult for me to consistently produce new material for this site. To compensate for that, I’ve been reworking school essays into bloggable material. The problem is that academic papers are filled with the analysis of minute details, and as a result are generally too long or too complex on a blog. Cutting up the essays into pieces doesn’t help either: I just end up posting many articles about the same thing over and over.

So, I’ve decided to re-adjust things. I won’t attempt to turn massive essays into bite-sized pieces anymore, although brief summaries might work. Instead, I’ll try to create content suitable for a blogging format and specific for this site. Things will be cleaner and easier to absorb, but I will still maintain a certain level of intellect and complexity. I’m sure you all can handle it.

The topics I discuss may become more eclectic. So far, I have written mainly about ancient literature, but focusing solely on it is restrictive, not to mention that it may start to feel esoteric and arcane if I overdo it. That is why I’ve also written a few posts about film, TV, and modern novels–to expand the scope of this site and mix things up. To show how the power of stories is as important to the modern world as it is to the ancient, I will bring in more content of that sort, which will hopefully make this site more accessible.

Finally, I have updated this website’s “About” page. I’ve removed the quotations from Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey and replaced them with my own translation, since I can now read the original Greek for myself. I have added a few sections about my disability, as that is an important to who I am and why I am doing this. I’ve also fleshed out my interest in stories and the ancient world and how exactly it came about.

The Future

Right now, I am considering my options for the future, when I have earned my degree at Santa Clara University. One path I am definitely thinking about is graduate school. I’ve spent the past few years of my life learning Greek and Latin and immersing myself in the ancient writings of these languages, but I still feel as if I have not yet learned enough. It feels like I am only now getting started. So a part of me thinks that it’d almost be a waste of the knowledge I’ve gained to stop at the undergrad level. I have earned unique skills at the SCU Classics department, and I think I should try to continue making use of them.

Of course, there are other considerations to make. With my living situation and disability, will I be able to handle grad school? Which school works best in terms of geography? How far do I want to go: just an MA, or a PhD? Is teaching my goal? Right now, it looks like Stanford’s MA program is the best fit for me, but I’ll have to see what makes sense.

The deadline for applications is in December, so I will not be able to submit in time to begin a graduate program in fall of 2016. But I will be able to submit by December of 2016, so wish me luck as I begin working on my application!

Another option is to start writing a book. If were to go with non-fiction, I might write about the Odyssey or other myths and find ways to connect them to the world we live in today or my own life experiences. If I write fiction, I might attempt to write a novel of some sort, perhaps a fantasy story based on the classical world or a reinterpretation of mythical Greek material. Just some ideas.

The future is open. It is a bit nerve-racking to think about what will happen. But I have hope that no matter what happens I’ll find something positive, enjoyable, and productive to do with my knowledge, skill, and experience.

December 2015 Update – Academics

It’s been awhile since my last post! Things at school this quarter have been quite busy. Now that winter break has come, here’s an update about what’s been happening as far as my academic work is concerned.

Senior Thesis

As some of you may know, I am currently working on my Classics senior thesis project, focusing on Homer’s Odyssey. Over the summer, I re-read the entire epic to get ready for the project. I also began working through some articles and books recommended to me by my thesis advisor, Prof. Daniel Turkeltaub, based on my preliminary topic: the role of food and feasting in the Odyssey. That was where things stood as of my last post. Since then, an entire quarter of research has passed, so here’s what been going on.

The role of food in the Odyssey is a huge topic, so the first step as I began my research was to narrow the focus of my project. I decided to discuss the specific intersection between food and another area, so I wouldn’t need to discuss every aspect of food.

As I was reading the Odyssey again, I noticed many scenes in which eating or drinking affects memory. Most famously, eating the Lotus-Flower makes Odysseus’ companions forget their need to go home. I began to wonder what the connection was between acts of consumption and remembering. I went to the original Greek to figure out what memory meant to the ancient Greeks, and I found that memory is tied to life, energy, and action. So the connection with food probably has to do with the biological energy we’re putting into our bodies and minds.

After doing some more reading, I discovered that there is also a social component. Eating and drinking together provide an occasion for the telling of stories, the recollection of the “good old days,” and the swapping of memories. In the Odyssey, this connection between food, drink, and memory occurs in the context of ancient Greek hospitality, or xenia, as hosts seek to give their guests a nice meal and good entertainment.

From there, I will say that the tie between memory and items of sustenance occurs within social structures, and that when Odysseus travels outside of civilization, these structures are broken, and as a result, the relationship between food, drink, and memory fails to function properly, with disastrous consequences.

There are a few more ideas that will follow this, including the importance of this connection in sustaining human life and society, and what happens to those who are denied these essential social ties. But those ideas are still unclear, so we’ll see what comes up as I continue my research. In the next quarter, I am supposed to create an outline and begin writing, so wish me luck!

Latin – Seneca

In addition to my senior thesis, I also took a regular load of language classes.

For my advanced Latin course, I read Phaedra, a tragedy by the Roman author Seneca, in which Phaedra, wife of Theseus, falls in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and accuses him of rape when he refuses her advances. After her husband curses his own son, leading to his death, Phaedra kills herself in guilt. The main issue of the play is the danger of uncontrolled love and passion.

The Latin edition we used

Although Seneca was a major player in Roman drama, he’s more well-known as a Stoic, part of a school of philosophy (Stoicism), which emphasized rational decision-making and following one’s given role in the order of the universe. For years, scholars have struggled to reconcile his philosophical views on reason and control of the self with the destructiveness of emotion and passion and revenge portrayed in his plays. But Seneca seems to be suggesting that it’s not easy to be a Stoic, and that, unfortunately and tragically, passions tend to win out in the end, meaning that we should actually work that much harder to become the ideal, rational Stoic.

As a tutor and advisor to Nero, Seneca tried to keep a lid on the violent and power-hungry tendencies of the emperor. His life ended when he was accused of conspiring against Nero and forced to commit suicide–an ending that mirrored the tragic world of his plays.

Later dramatists in the Renaissance would be influenced by Seneca’s work. Shakespeare would pick up on the following elements of Senecan drama and adapt them in new ways:

  • the dark power of spirits and ghosts from the underworld
  • powerful, manipulative figures intent on revenge
  • gruesome depictions of death and dismemberment
  • huge moral transgressions with cosmic consequences

Greek – Aristophanes

For advanced Greek, I read Aristophanes’ Acharnians, a comedy in which Dikaiopolis, a citizen of Athens tired of war, makes his own private peace with Sparta. The play depicts the huge and absurd benefits he earns–food, wine, sex, power, etc.–as he creates his new world of peace, in order to argue against the destructive horrors of war.

We covered many topics in this class, but here are two aspects that interested me:

The Greek edition we used
  1. Digestion mirrors the political power dynamics of this comedic world. I wrote my paper for this class about this idea. Those who eat and drink have power, while those who lack food and drink or are themselves “eaten” have no power. This occurs literally with actual food items or wine, as well as with metaphoric language concerning digestion.
  2. Politics is portrayed as a form of theatre, with politicians “performing” for their “audience members,” the citizens of Athens. The point is to unmask the falsehoods inherent in politics, to reveal politicians as fools participating in the farce of political theatre, and also to show us, the citizens of a democracy, as idiots for actually believing what politicians tell us.

Next Quarter

During the next quarter, I will continue with my thesis work, but I will also be taking a couple of additional classes. I’ve exhausted my elective units on “fun” classes (i.e. language classes, my idea of fun), so I now need to move on to courses applicable to major and core requirements.

I will taking a fascinating course on public art in democracies, featuring a comparison between ancient Athens and modern America. I can’t say for sure what will come out of this comparison, but I suspect that the ancient Athenians with their publicly-funded tragedies and comedies and their massive Parthenon saw a lot more civic importance in public art than we currently do. Americans used to emphasize public art a lot more (just look at Washington, D.C.’s famous monuments!) but that has disappeared in recent years.

To complete a requirement unrelated to my Classics major, I will take an art history class about Native American cultures, which will include the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incans. It will be interesting to move away from ancient Greece and Rome for a bit and to approach cultures that I don’t know so much about. I have always been fascinated by the Mayans and their ability to bring science and astronomy into their religious rituals, so it this will be a great opportunity to learn about them.

So, that’s what’s been going on with my academic work. In my next post, I will tell you about what to expect from this blog as we wrap up this year and head into 2016. Stay tuned!

Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part VII: Honor and Erotic Passion

Time for more about Euripides’ Medea! Last time, we saw that Medea is a woman of extremes, but what drives her to such extremes in the first place? Here again is that quotation in which she lays out her motives:

σὺ δ᾽ οὐκ ἔμελλες τἄμ᾽ ἀτιμάσας λέχη
τερπνὸν διάξειν βίοτον ἐγγελῶν ἐμοὶ
οὐδ᾽ ἡ τύραννος, οὐδ᾽ ὅ σοι προσθεὶς γάμους
Κρέων ἀνατεὶ τῆσδέ μ᾽ ἐκβαλεῖν χθονός
(1354-7)
You were not about to, having dishonored my bed, lead out a pleasurable life, mocking me; nor the princess; nor Creon, who, unpunished, gave the marriage to you: he was not about to drive me from this land.

Medea’s murderous and extreme acts stem from her sweeping interpretation of the heroic code of honor, which demands that she use any means necessary—even the killing of her own children—to bring vengeance upon those who have dishonored (atimasas/ἀτιμάσας) her, before they can laugh (engelon/ἐγγελῶν) at her.

This motive does not stand alone, for it is mixed with an additional strand of sexual betrayal: she has been dishonored by Jason, specifically in respect to their bed (lexe/λέχη), that is, their marriage and sexual relationship.

The extremity of Medea’s acts cannot stand apart from erotic desires: a conclusion that matches the assessment made by the Chorus in the second stasimon (627-44) regarding the destructive nature of immoderate sexual passion. They are responding to Jason and Medea’s conflict with a desperate plea for Aphrodite only to send desire in moderation.

A Renaissance painting depicting the marriage of Jason and Medea.

Sexual jealousy, alongside her sense of being dishonored, appears as a motivation throughout Jason and Medea’s final confrontation, but most clearly at 1366-8: Medea declares that it was Jason’s “outrageous insult and newly-joined marriage”(ὕβρις οἵ τε σοὶ νεοδμῆτες γάμοι) which has led to the deaths of the children. Jason, in abandoning Medea and marrying another woman, has not only scorned their sexual relationship but also has committed an insult against her honor, by breaking their marriage oaths.

Asked if she “thought it worthy to kill them on account of a bed”(λέχους σφε κἠξίωσας οὕνεκα κτανεῖν), she does not deny it; she says that this—sexual betrayal—is “no small pain for women”(σμικρὸν γυναικὶ πῆμα τοῦτ᾽).

So, betrayal in matters of erotic passion, intertwined with the hard-line stance that Medea takes in avenging insults against her honor, pushes her to commit deadly, and extreme, acts of violence. In this way, Medea specifically counters the Athenian ideal seen in the third stasimon of moderation in matters of sexual desire.

Thanks for reading! In the next post, we will see how Medea appropriates Athenian wisdom (sophia) for her own advantage.

Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part VI: A Woman of Extremes

It’s been awhile since I’ve put up a post about Euripides’ Medea. Previously, I wrote about how Medea counteracts the Athenian ideals of purity, connection with the divine, and hospitality for suppliants.

Now we shall also see that Medea challenges the positive quality of moderation, because she is a woman of extremes, one who is characterized—and made infamous—by the horrific murder of her own children, undertaken for the sake of vengeance. It almost does not need to be stated that any parent willing to go to such lengths must be regarded as extreme.

Vengeance on its own, however, is not necessarily an act of extremity. According to the traditional morality of the ancient Greeks, some would in fact find it reasonable and acceptable, if such words could be used in regard to violence, to seek vengeance upon an enemy (ekhthros/ἔχθρος) who has first given insult. However, to instead slaughter innocents—not to mention loved ones (philoi/φίλοι)—who have given no offense must be considered immoderate and extreme, even in the context of revenge.

When Medea says to Jason that “you were not about to, having dishonored (atimasas) my bed, lead out a pleasurable life, mocking (engelon) me; and not the princess either; and not Creon, who, unpunished, gave the marriage to you: he was not about to drive me from this land”(1354-7: σὺ δ᾽ οὐκ ἔμελλες τἄμ᾽ ἀτιμάσας λέχη / τερπνὸν διάξειν βίοτον ἐγγελῶν ἐμοὶ / οὐδ᾽ ἡ τύραννος, οὐδ᾽ ὅ σοι προσθεὶς γάμους / Κρέων ἀνατεὶ τῆσδέ μ᾽ ἐκβαλεῖν χθονός), she is laying out a list of those who were involved in the insult of Jason abandoning her for a new wife (Creon’s daughter): those whom she considers ekhthroi (plural of ekhthros).

A Greek vase from the fourth century BC, depicting Medea brutally stabbing her son. Now in the Louvre.

Her own children are nowhere to be found in this list; indeed, she acknowledges that they are “philoi/φίλοι”(1250), but nevertheless they become the targets of her anger. Thus, she surpasses even the “proper” and “moderate” limits of vengeance.

The princess, like the children, is also an innocent victim who herself has little control over her marriage to Jason (a decision ultimately made by her father). The princess is portrayed innocently, as a young girl taking joy in a beautiful new outfit (1156-66).

Then, moments later, the poison Medea has placed on the clothes take effect, and the princess’ death is described in graphic detail, followed by Creon’s death as he desperately clings to his daughter (1167-1221).

The horror of these descriptions, as “her flesh drips away from her bones, like the resin of a pine tree, through the unseen bite of the drugs”(1200-1: σάρκες δ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ὀστέων ὥστε πεύκινον δάκρυ / γνάθοις ἀδήλοις φαρμάκων ἀπέρρεον), heightens the extremity of Medea’s revenge.

This moment is brought into contrast with Athens, for the girl in her new dress is said to be “stepping gracefully” in the same manner as do the Athenians “through the bright pure air”—the same adverb recurs in both places: abron/ἁβρὸν (1164) and abros/ἁβρῶς (830). The innocent girl, equated with the purity and moderation of the Athenian climate, is destroyed by Medea’s act: such aspects of Athens can no longer maintain their integrity in the presence of such an extreme figure.

That’s all for now! Next time, we will examine Medea’s extreme nature in greater detail and determine what exactly drives her to such extremes.


Sources

Mastronarde, D. J., Euripides, Medea. Cambridge 2002: Cambridge University Press. See note on line 1164.

Medea and the Disruption of Athenian Ideals, Part V: The Manipulation of Supplication

Last time, we saw how Medea disrupts several of the positive qualities valued by the Athenians. Today, we will examine in greater detail how Medea manipulates the institution of supplication, traditionally respected by Athens, for her own advantage. 

Medea supplicates Creon, the king of Corinth, just as he is about to banish her from his city; as a result, she buys enough time to accomplish her plans (324-51). She, as already mentioned in a previous post, also supplicates Aegeus to guarantee refuge for herself once the deadly mission is completed (709-758).

In both cases, the institution of supplication is distorted, for Medea conceals from Creon and Aegeus her true intentions: firstly, from Creon, that she plans to kill him and his daughter, the princess for whom Jason has abandoned Medea; secondly, from Aegeus, that she plans to commit multiple murders before escaping to his city. She conceals her true nature from both of them: she is no weak and helpless suppliant deserving of protection, but herself a possible threat to her benefactors.

She even uses the supplication of others as part of her plan: she asks that the princess “entreat her father”(942: ἄντεσθαι πατρὸς) and that the children “approach the princess as suppliants”(971: iketeuete/ἱκετεύετε) as they deliver gifts laced with deadly poison to her. Supplication, the sacred right of the innocent, again becomes just a tool by which Medea accomplishes her own murderous goals.

Medea, though she makes use of supplication as a tool of manipulation, herself does not answer the entreaties of the suppliants who would approach her, as the second strophic pair of the third stasimon makes clear.

As with any other topic dealing with the ancient world, there have literally been books written on the issue of supplication. Here is one of the recent ones. The cover image depicts the traditional supplication pose.

The Chorus themselves become suppliants first, begging her not to “slay the children, by your knees (γονάτων/gonaton) in every way possible”(853-5: μή, πρὸς γονάτων σε πάντᾳ / πάντως ἱκετεύομεν, / τέκνα φονεύσῃς). This is significant in that suppliants asking for aid would traditionally grasp the knees of the person being supplicated.

Then, the Chorus members imagine that Medea “will not be able, when the children fall down as suppliants, to moisten a bloody hand with a daring heart”(862-5: οὐ δυνάσῃ, / παίδων ἱκετᾶν πιτνόντων, / τέγξαι χέρα φοινίαν / τλάμονι θυμῷ), but of course this request is made in vain: Medea proceeds with her plans and slays the children; she does indeed “moisten a bloody hand,” incurring the impure pollution of blood guilt.

So Medea’s destruction of supplication as a sacred custom and viable moral law is complete, contrary to the Athenian defense of suppliants: she uses it as a tool for destructive, pragmatic aims, but ignores it when it is directed at her, slaying her own children when they themselves are the innocent and helpless suppliants whom she ought to protect.

Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 5-8

In preparation for my Classics senior thesis project, I will be re-reading all of Homer’s Odyssey this summer. Last time, I shared my thoughts on Books 1-4. Now, let’s move on to Books 5-8:

Book 5: Hermes arrives on Calypso’ island, Ogygia, and conveys Zeus’ command that it is now time to release Odysseus. The nymph reluctantly relents and tells Odysseus that he can now leave if he wishes, but he does not believe her until she swears an unbreakable oath upon the Styx, the river of the underworld. Odysseus constructs a raft and sails off. Though he is shipwrecked by a storm sent by Poseidon, he does reach the island of Scheria, where he–almost dead at this point–tries to find shelter in the woods.

Book 6: On Scheria, there lives a race of people called that Phaeacians, led by king Alcinous. Athena appears in a dream to Alcinous’ daughter, the young princess Nausicaa, and tells her that, since she is almost ready for marriage, that she ought to go wash her clothes to prepare for a wedding.

She and her handmaidens head down to the river, where they encounter Odysseus, according to Athena’s plan. After Odysseus bathes and receives food, drink, and clothing from the princess, she gives him directions to her father’s palace, but says that they should go into town separately, so she can avoid being seen consorting with strange men.

Odysseus approaches Nausicaa. 1888 painting by Jean Veber.

Book 7: Odysseus, hidden in a swirling mist by Athena, enters the city of the Phaeacians. He arrives at the palace of Alcinous and supplicates the queen Arete, as suggested to him by Nausicaa and Athena. Thereafter, Odysseus receives food and drink, before going to sleep for the night.

Book 8: The next day, Odysseus is treated extraordinarily well by the Phaeacians: they give him many gifts, perform dances and songs for him, and allow him to watch and participate in athletic games with the young men. But the bard Demodocus’ songs, especially those concerning the glories of the Trojan War, seem to cause Odysseus excessive grief, causing Alcinous to finally ask him who he is, where he is from, and why he weeps when he hears of the sufferings experienced by the Greek heroes.

I have already written in a previous post last year that Book 5 represents Odysseus’ symbolic return to life from death. So this time I will discuss a couple of other things that I noticed in these books:

1) Although the Phaeacians seemingly dwell in an idyllic, civilized society, there are hints of menace, suggesting that they may somehow prevent Odysseus from returning home. They are an advanced race: their crops are eternally fresh, their ships magically sail by themselves, and they can create automatons, essentially androids. They grant hospitality to Odysseus, give him shelter, food, drink, endless gifts, and treat him as a guest of honor. Overall, they seem to epitomize the ideals of “civilization”.

However, we are told that the progenitor of the Phaeacians, Nausithoos, was the son of Poseidon and that his mother was the daughter of a cruel, lawless giant. This makes the Phaeacians relatives of the uncivilized Cyclopes, who are also the sea god’s sons. This relationship with the violent Cyclopes is as ominous as the connection with Poseidon, for the sea god hates Odysseus and wishes to make his homecoming painful (because he blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, in Book 9).

Also, Nausicaa warns Odysseus of the unpleasantness of the other Phaeacians. She tells him that they may speak rudely to them if they are seen together, especially since Odysseus is a stranger. Athena keeps Odysseus hidden until he can supplicate the right person (Arete) with the power and willingness to protect him, and the goddess, in disguise, warns him that these people dislike foreigners.

Not only that, but Nausicaa and Alcinous both express the desire for Odysseus to possibly become a husband for Nausicaa: a marriage that would keep him away from his true wife, Penelope. This was indeed precisely what Calypso wanted: to detain him, keep him from leaving, and make him into her spouse. This would be a “threat” to Odysseus.

2) These episodes act as a method of helping Odysseus to re-integrate into society. His experiences at Alcinous’ court are a “training-ground,” so to speak, where he can process his sufferings and restore himself, before returning home.

The songs of Demodocus force Odysseus to confront the reality of what happened to him—and what he did—during the Trojan War. Now that the war is over and Odysseus has re-entered the domestic world, he must find a way—as veterans have always had to—of processing the suffering that he experienced and that he caused, and this occurs through an expression of grief and sorrow.

The Phaeacian court is a safe(r) place for him to recognize and deal with these emotions, but Ithaca—filled with enemies, i.e. the suitors—will be a dangerous place where he must keep himself and his feelings hidden to reach his goals. Odysseus needs to practice handling his emotions before he continues forward with the difficult task of reclaiming his home from the suitors.

Beaten down by years of battles and wanderings, Odysseus is consumed by grief, misery, and sorrow—characteristic of soldiers with what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His pride and confidence have collapsed, and without them, he can no longer be the great, boasting Homeric hero that he once was. He has lost a key aspect of his own identity.

The athletic contests help him to regain his identity as a hero, by granting him the opportunity to demonstrate his strength and experience against the Phaeacians. He is able to boast proudly of his exploits and revel in the superiority of his abilities, as great heroes in this society are expected to. In this way, Odysseus rebuilds his confidence and begins to repair his identity, which had been shattered after years of suffering.

3) This post is getting quite long already, so I’m going to finish up here with a quick round-up of things I noticed about the consumption of food:

  • Before Odysseus departs from Ogygia, he eats a meal of human food, while Calypso consumes ambrosia and nectar, which are the food and drink of the gods. This emphasizes Odysseus’ choice to reject Calypso and her offer of immortality and to instead return to human society and remain with Penelope, a mortal wife.
  • When Odysseus approaches Nausicaa, he is compared to a fierce lion, driven by its hunger to ravage some livestock. This suggests the severity of his desperation for sustenance, but even so, he manages to control himself: he stands at a cautious distance and begs for help in a long, eloquent speech (which proves persuasive). When his survival is at stake, Odysseus remains the man of endurance and control.
  • The Phaeacians, with their eternally-fresh, maintenance-free crops, do not follow the agricultural practices of ordinary men. This difference in food indicates that they are different from normal humans, as if their unique ties to the gods or their connections to other races, such as Giants and Cyclopes, make them more than human.

That’s it for Books 5-8! Next time, we’ll discuss Books 9-12, featuring tales of Odysseus’ adventures as he tries to get home, as recounted by Odysseus himself to the Phaeacians.

Summer Reading: Homer’s Odyssey, Books 1-4

This fall, I will begin working on my Classics senior thesis, which I have decided will emphasize the Odyssey of Homer. In preparation for this project, I will be reading the entire epic again (in English: I’m not skilled enough to read all of it in Greek!) over the course of the summer. My goal is to earn a better sense of how the whole poem fits together and to gather some ideas for what direction I want to go with this project.

So far, I am considering food and feasting as a topic, since there is so much eating and consumption of sustenance in the Odyssey. There seems to be a lot I could do with the cultural, social, and literary importance of food. I’ll have to see if this turns out to be a viable topic. I might stumble across another, more interesting idea as I am reading.

I have not settled on a preferred English translation yet. In the past, I have found the Fagles translation to be quite readable, but it is not accurate enough for an ancient Greek student like me. While the traditional Lattimore translation is very accurate, it is somewhat stilted and awkward. For now, I am using the new 2014 Powell translation, which seems to strike a decent balance between smoothness and accuracy.

In this post, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the first four books of the Odyssey, and discussing what ideas might be useful for my thesis project. First, a summary of what happens in these books:

Book 1: The Olympian gods convene a council, and the goddess Athena convinces the king of the gods, Zeus, that it is time to help Odysseus, who is held captive by the sea nymph Calypso, to return home. Athena, disguised as an old friend called Mentes, visits Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, on his home island of Ithaca. She places courage within him and tells him to travel abroad for news of his father. We also witness the arrogance of the suitors trying to woo Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, as well as the grief and sadness of Telemachus and Penelope over Odysseus’ absence/presumed death.

Book 2: Telemachus, now with courage within him, summons an assembly of the Ithacans, and tries to call out the suitors for their arrogant and disgraceful behavior, but he can do nothing against the powerful group of 108 men. In the night, he leaves on his journey, accompanied by Athena, who this time is disguised as a man called Mentor.

Book 3: Telemachus sails to Pylos, where he visits the old man Nestor, a Trojan War hero. Nestor’s family are performing a grand sacrifice to the gods and invite Telemachus to join their feast. Nestor recounts what information he knows about the other Greeks returning from Troy after the war, but he has no news of Odysseus. Telemachus spends the night, before heading to Sparta to visit Helen and Menelaus.

Book  4: Telemachus arrives in Sparta as Menelaus is holding a marriage feast for the weddings of his son and daughter. He is entertained by Menelaus and his wife Helen, who tell stories of Odysseus’ cunning from the Trojan War. Menelaus also narrates his own homeward journey and says that during his time in Egypt, he learned from Proteus, an old sea god, that Odysseus is being detained by Calypso. As the book ends, the suitors plot to kill Telemachus on his way back to Ithaca.

So what did I notice about these four books?

1) Despite being the hero of the epic, Odysseus is strangely absent in this part of the story. Instead, the focus seems to be Telemachus. The Odyssey is about the return of the hero, and to emphasize that, he must begin in a state of absence. He is missing, presumed dead, completely disconnected from society, and his deferred appearance mirrors his current state.

For the full impact of his return to be felt, we must feel the impact of his absence. We must see that without Odysseus present the arrogant suitors are left free to wreck his household. Penelope is in grief. Telemachus has no father-figure to teach him strength and courage, and is left powerless against the suitors.

But Odysseus does begin to return, not physically, but through Telemachus. Athena/Mentes speaks to Telemachus about his father. Helen and Menelaus share stories of Odysseus’ grand war exploits. Everyone he meets says he looks like his father, and speaks like him too. As Telemachus learns of Odysseus and gathers the experience to be a man, it is as if Odysseus is returning, as manifested through his son’s courage and skill.

2) Time and again, we hear the story of Agamemnon (from Zeus, Athena, Nestor, and Menelaus), the commander of the Greek army, who was killed by his wife’s lover, Aigisthos, upon his return home. His wife, Clytemnestra, was disloyal, and he died as a result. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, who killed Aigisthos in retaliation, is raised up as a hero and a good son. (The fact that he also killed Clytemnestra, his own mother, is glossed over.)

The story of Agamemnon suggests the moral idea that those who commit wrongs (Aigisthos/the suitors) bring retaliation and destruction upon themselves, but it also acts as a mirror for Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope, and develops tensions within the plot: Will the missing man’s wife remain loyal to him? Will she marry a new husband? Can the man’s son find the strength to avenge his father, if necessary?

3) In these four books, it is suggested that food and feasting seem to carry significance as the markers of social structures, conventions, and values. The exorbitant feasting of the suitors as they consume Odysseus’ resources without permission present them as the “bad guys” of the Odyssey. They, as uninvited feasters, disrupt the ancient Greek cultural value of xenia, which comprises the rules of hospitality between hosts and guests, as well as respect to be afforded to strangers and suppliants.

Meanwhile, Telemachus’ journey to Pylos and Sparta allows him to see how proper feasts ought to be held. The feast is a method of showing respect to honored guests and a way of connecting with the gods (through sacrifice) and appropriately honoring them. It affirms social ties, such as marriage or that which exists between guest-friends. It provides the opportunity to remember those who are gone, especially heroes like Odysseus, and respect their memory by recalling their fame (kleos in Greek) and great deeds.

But food has a dark and dangerous side too. As everyone is weeping over Odysseus’ presumed death, Helen mixes a drug into their wine which makes them forget their pains and feel no suffering, even if they were to witness the most horrific sight. But is it possible to retain human connection if we cannot feel the pain that so often accompanies it? In this sense, what we eat and drink has a deep impact on our essence of humanity.

Next time, I will share my thoughts on books 5-8 of the Odyssey, when we actually get to meet Odysseus and witness his attempts to rejoin human society on the island Scheria, after being lost at sea for so long.