Friday, April 27, 2012

Men and women in Trachis

A choral ode from Sophocles' Women of Trachis - the chorus recalls the battle of Achelous and Heracles. The "she" on the hill is Deianeira:

Great is the power of Aphrodite's triumph!
I will not mention                                               500
the gods, nor how she deceived the son of Kronos,
nor Hades the lord of night,
no, nor Poseidon, shaker of earth.
But when this woman was wedded,
what mighty-limbed men came to claim her in marriage?
Who were they who entered the hard-hitting, dust-clouded conflict of battle?

[Antistrophe]One was a violent river in a bull's form,
four-leggèd, high-horned                                     510
Achelóüs from Oeniadae; the other came from
Bacchian Thebes, and his bow
was bent and he wielded the spear and cudgel -
Zeus's son; and they came together
in battle, desiring to win her in wedlock,
while Aphrodite the blesser of marriage sat in the middle and judged them.

[Epode]Then was the clash of fists and arrows
mingled with the clatter of bull's horns;               520
intricate grapplings were joined;
there were deadly blows of the forehead,
and groaning was heard from both.
But she, in tender beauty,
on a far-seen hilltop,
sat and waited for her husband
even as the battle raged.
The bride these men had fought for
piteously remained;
and then she left her mother                                   530
like a lost and helpless calf.
We know how Deianeira felt as she watched their combat, because the play opens with her recollection:


There is an ancient proverb people tell
that none can judge the life of any man
for good or bad until that man is dead;
but I, for my part, though I am still living,
know well that mine is miserable and hard.
Even while I was living with my father
Oeneus in Pleuron I was plagued by fear
of marriage more than any other woman.
My suitor was the river Achelóüs,                                  10
who took three forms to ask me of my father:
a rambling bull once - then a writhing snake
of gleaming colors - then again a man
with ox-like face: and from his beard's dark shadows
stream upon stream of water tumbled down.
Such was my suitor. As I waited there
I prayed my agony might end in death
before I ever shared my bed with him.
But later on, to my great joy, the glorious
child of Alcména, son of Zeus, arrived                             20
and joined in combat with the river god,
and freed me
The helpless girl, at the mercy of who was stronger in combat, has lived years with Heracles, borne his children. She then learns that Iole, who has been sent to her home by the still absent hero, is his new lover. She is no longer helpless. To Lichas the messenger, who has been concealing the actual state of things from her, she says:
Tell me the truth! It is a foul disgrace
for a free man to be known as a liar.
And do not think you will escape detection,
for many heard you speaking, and will tell me.
If you have fears, dismiss them, for to me
the greatest pain is not to learn the truth.
What harm in knowing?

Far from emulating Hera (Juno), Deianeira, in speaking of love, sounds almost like an Enlightenment philosopher, before turning her imperious gaze back upon Lichas:


Whoever stands opposed to Love, with fists
clenched like a boxer, does not understand him;
for he rules over gods as he desires,
and over me. Why not another like me?
So if I blamed my husband for the passion
which has afflicted him, I would be mad -
or this girl either, who has shared with him
what is no shame for them, no wrong to me.
. . .

Has not Heracles                                               460
taken more brides than any other man?
And yet none of them ever was reproached
by me, or slandered. She will not be either,
not even if she melts with passion, for
I pitied her most when I first beheld her
because her beauty has destroyed her life,
and she, against her will, has sacked and ravaged
her native country. But let all this be
cast to the winds: to you I say, deceive
anyone else, but do not lie to me!

Sophocles' Deianeira is a woman in full possession of reason, compassion, and dignity. The thrust of the play is not that she is a "jealous wife"; far from it. When she discovers her error, she ends her life without a word. It is Heracles whose complaints and execrations and howls of pain fill the stage after she has gone:

And pity me, for I 
am pitiful indeed as I lie sobbing
and moaning like a virgin! No one living
has ever seen me act like this before;
for I have never groaned at my misfortunes
till now, when I have proved myself a woman. 

Ovid tells the story somewhat differently in Metamorphoses 9, but the conversation with Alcmena shows that Iole is part of the family -- married to Hyllus, as per Heracles' last order to his son.

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