Euripides' "Alcestis": Narrative, Myth, and Religion 3110330857, 9783110330854

This volume is an accessible yet in-depth narratological study of Euripides’ Alcestis - the earliest extant play of Euri

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Euripides' "Alcestis": Narrative, Myth, and Religion
 3110330857, 9783110330854

Table of contents :
Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion
I. Introduction
II. Tragic Storytelling: Form and Content
III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis
IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation
Chapter 2 Narrative
I. Introduction
II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering
Chapter 3 Myth
I. Introduction
II. Mythological Intertextuality: Alcestis and Heracles
III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero
Chapter 4 Religion
I. Introduction
II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage
III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation
I. Abbreviations
II. Editions & Translations
III. List of Works Cited
General Index
Index of Greek Words
Index of Alcestis Passages

Citation preview

Andreas Markantonatos Euripides’ ›Alcestis‹

Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte

Herausgegeben von Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Peter Scholz  und Otto Zwierlein

Band 112

Andreas Markantonatos

Euripides’ ›Alcestis‹ Narrative, Myth, and Religion

ISBN 978-3-11-033085-4 e-ISBN 978-3-11-033097-7 ISSN 1862-1112 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the Library of Congress. Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data are available in the Internet at © 2013 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston Typesetting: Michael Peschke, Berlin Printing: Hubert & Co. GmbH & Co. KG, Göttingen ♾ Printed on acid free paper Printed in Germany

For Alexandros

Preface In this book I seek to show that a narratology of Greek tragedy requires a broader view on the narrational creation of ancient plays, for plays are constructed as constellations of embedded storylines – that is, narrative configurations which are essentially dynamic rather than static, incessantly intersected as they are by infinite narrative cross-currents. The main contention of theatre narratology is that the linear datastream of a tragic narrative comes along with a crucial editorial overlay of various viewpoints and narrations, in which certain events are repeatedly recounted, thereby building up and challenging narratorial authority. Since there is surely an extratextual input from the audience’s knowledge of the mythical stories, as well as from their social, political, and religious experiences, it is reasonable to argue that narratology is expected to explore the storylines which are alluded to within a historical frame rather than keeping the spotlight trained on taxonomic classifications. Besides, it has now become the communis opinio in the study of Greek tragedy that not unlike comic dramatists tragic poets were constantly observant of their surroundings. In other words, a narratology of drama calls for interpretation; pedantic analyses can be useful maps of narrative situations; but more often than not tragic action is widescreen, the setting geographically expansive through choric narration, and the epoch ranges from mythical times to the audience’s own day and beyond. The immense power and beauty of tragic narration lies in the fact that a set of popular myths has been overlaid by later topical applications; fifth-century history bestows upon the whole duration and meaning. Given the recent developments in possible-worlds theory with their special emphasis on the blurring of the distinction between actuality and possibility in literary works, it is not unnatural to conclude with some degree of simplification that the plot of a tragic play captures the movement of an autonomous possible world in the Greek narrative universe, while at the same time making inroads into various systems of reference. In other words, Attic drama thrives on the similarities and differences between textual worlds and the real worlds the audiences live in. I strongly believe, therefore, that the timing could not have been more pertinent for a narratological study of a Greek tragic play in the light of new advances in the field of modern narrative studies. The impact of narratology on the study of Classics cannot be overstated especially in the last two decades. Despite her often bland and unimaginative readings, Irene de Jong’s painstaking narratological analysis of Homer’s Iliad (Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad, Amsterdam, 1987; see also her helpful but rather plodding narrational explication of the Odyssey in a large and unwieldy volume of running commentary: A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey, Cambridge, 2001),



together with the lesser known but clearly more readable and incisive study of the Homeric narrator by Scott Richardson (The Homeric Narrator, Nashville, 1990), not only opened up new vistas for the students of epic, but also paved the way for more groundbreaking research in the fields of Greek historiography, novelistic writing, and (surprisingly enough) drama. In recent years, however, the dynamism of narratology petered out for lack of new ideas and creative applications which aim to exploit the latest developments in literary theory in particular and in the humanities in general. It should be admitted that Irene de Jong made a determined effort to bring the study of narrative to a wider audience by initiating the production of a string of multi-authored volumes on narratology and Greek literature [I. J. F. de Jong, R. Nünlist & A. M. Bowie (eds) (2004), Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, Volume One (Leiden & Boston), I. J. F. de Jong & R. Nünlist (eds) (2007), Time in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, Volume Two (Leiden & Boston), and I. J. F. de Jong (2012), Space in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, Volume Three (Leiden & Boston)]. These volumes were, nonetheless, received with mixed feelings as to their internal coherence and clarity of purpose; in fact, they were considered to be glaring examples of the problem. One cannot therefore help feeling that narratological interpretation currently faces a period of stagnation, mainly because major players in the field of narrative studies (again Irene de Jong is a case in point) choose to remain enwombed within their tiny theoretical horizons, perpetually consoled and reassured by their tendentious but unchanging certainties. Apart from a small number of specialized studies which aim to explore ancient plays from a purely narratological perspective, while at the same time presuming that plays are indeed composites of implicit meanings and historical allusions given material embodiment in formal patterns and technical devices [B. Goward (1999), Telling Tragedy: Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (London), A. Markantonatos (2002), Tragic Narrative: A Narratological Study of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (Berlin & New York), and A. Lamari (2010), Narrative, Intertext, and Space in Euripides’ Phoenissae (Berlin & New York)], it is sad to see narratology losing momentum, mainly because there is resolute unwillingness on behalf of certain classical scholars to move with the times despite the fact that outside the domain of Classics more audacious critics have effectively addressed the theory’s various teething problems by taking a broad view of the term ‘narrative’, as well as by giving precedence to historically-conscious methodological hermeneutics over pointless taxonomy. It is on these grounds that I have produced a book that brings into play the recent attempts by narratologists to unearth hidden meanings in both verbal and



visual narratives through a rigorous critical evaluation. I have chosen to combine narratology and interpretation rather than expending all my efforts on futile taxonomic assignments and unsophisticated descriptions of the obvious. Given the irresistible allure of classifications and hierarchies, readers totally unversed in the intricacies of modern literary theory (unless possessing strikingly susceptive antennae) rarely notice that they are being misled into believing that the orderly codification of narrative phenomena qualifies for an exegesis of ancient texts in its own right. Properly combined, I should suggest, modern narratology and interpretative criticism can offer novel insights and allow us to pose new questions to the tragic texts. By contrast, traditional narrative analyses with their preference for classification and indifference to hermeneutics hold the obvious risk of excessive schematization, generalization, and inflexibility; in fact, they prohibit us from viewing Greek tragedy in the context of the interlocking historical codes which pervade the underlying mental structures of Athenian society. Tragic narratives combine heroic and historical values, fiction and non-fiction. This book is, therefore, underpinned by the principle that narratology is a means to an end and should never be an end in itself. In order to make the book more widely accessible, I have provided English translations of all Greek quotations. If not otherwise noted, translations of substantial Euripidean passages are reprinted from The Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press) [D. Kovacs (1994), Euripides. Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea (Cambridge, MA & London)], Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1994, by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. I would like to thank E. J. Brill for permission to use material that appears in slightly revised form in this volume. More specifically, in Chapter 1 I have chosen to reproduce with minor changes and improvements the introductory section of my chapter on the narrative craft of Sophocles which was first published in the Brill’s Companion to Sophocles (2012): ‘Narratology of Drama: Sophocles the Storyteller’ (pp. 349–354). Furthermore, I am profoundly grateful to Georgia Xanthaki-Karamanou, Daniel Iakov, Antonios Rengakos, Ioannis Perysinakis, Theodoros Pappas, Chris Carey, Bernhard Zimmermann, Angus Bowie, Alan Sommerstein, Patrick Finglass, Hanna Roisman, Anton Bierl, Marianne McDonald, Sophie Mills, Chris Pelling, and Scott Scullion for their intellectual friendship and personal support. Penelope Frangakis served as an invaluable copy-editor. One old friend and teacher is no longer alive to thank: Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, whose work on Athenian religion and mythology has opened unimagined vistas into Greece’s ancient past. I owe a great deal to the kindly encouragement which she unceasingly gave me at the beginning of preparing this book. Last but



not least, I owe a special debt of thanks to Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, a uniquely gifted classical scholar, who has not only enormously helped me to improve my ideas but also encouraged me through the most trying stages of revision. Without his vision, faith, and patience this book would not be in print. Whatever faults and errors remain are very much my own. The book is dedicated to my son Alexandros, whose birth has brought indescribable joy to my family.

Contents Preface 


Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion   1 I. Introduction   1 II. Tragic Storytelling: Form and Content   1 III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis   7 IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation 


Chapter 2 Narrative   22 I. Introduction   22 II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


Chapter 3 Myth   86 I. Introduction   86 II. Mythological Intertextuality: Alcestis and Heracles   88 III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero   94 Chapter 4 Religion   131 I. Introduction   131 II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage  III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation  Conclusion 


Bibliography   164 I. Abbreviations   164 II. Editions & Translations   164 III. List of Works Cited   165 General Index   217 Index of Greek Words   220 Index of Alcestis Passages   221

 135  151

Chapter 1  Narrative, Myth, and Religion I. Introduction The principal aim of this book is to integrate narratological insights into the plot of Euripides’ Alcestis with mythological and religious views of the staged events, thereby highlighting the need for a multi-disciplinary and multi-modal narratology of drama. There can be no doubt that a traditional application of narrative theory to Greek tragedy, exclusively focusing on the systematic cataloguing of narrational devices and techniques without however making enough room for interpretative perspectives, fails to account for the pervasive influence of tragic stories throughout human history. In particular, mythological, social, political, and religious elements undergird tragic narratives, preserving a sense of closeknit structure which resists the ravages of time and thereby maintains its covert force into the present; as a matter of fact, they all are merged with tragic storytelling, for these primary intertexts are warehoused in the collective memory of the ancient audiences as an essential part of their biological and spiritual inheritance. A narratology of drama should, therefore, take into consideration the profound impact of these contextual discourses in order to shed a revealing light on the dialogic transactions between various verbal and visual narratives unfolding every time a tragic text is brought to the stage. It is not too bold to argue that the embedded narrative modes serve as a shaping and connective force in tragic plays, offering another and much less evidential kind of origin of the staged events. The hermeneutic possibilities and determinations allow the audience to see the deeper significance of actions, to create narrational combinations which have an important expository force. Much as the relationships of events and interpretations are more often than not undecidable, we cannot deny the fact that the world of fifth-century Athens is hardwired into the narrative patternings of the tragic plots. To interpret Euripides’ Alcestis narratologically is to bring out this complex embeddedness of the tragic narrative’s meanings in the Athenian culture from which it derives.

II. Tragic Storytelling: Form and Content Although I am fully aware of the fact that theories about narration are amongst the least amenable of all modern critical formulations to being summarized, we cannot properly understand the following discussion of the narrative semiotics


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

of drama in general and Euripidean storytelling in particular without emphasizing some recent crucial developments in the field of modern narratology.1 It is commonly accepted that storytelling, and by extension narrative making, is an intrinsically human practice.2 The same applies to storylistening, storyreading, and storywatching – neologisms which aim to describe the full spectrum of relationships between tellers of tales and their audiences. These newly coined terms form part of a wider set of ideas and proposals intended to explain the special ways in which humans make sense of the world around them through various acts of storytelling. People listen to, read, or watch stories being told in different media and from diverse perspectives. There are indeed cases in which the narrator of the story is either indiscernible or altogether absent. But do not let this one fact escape your notice: there is always an ultimate teller, narrator, in both narrated and narratorless media, namely the person behind the story, be he the author, the dramatist, or the cinematographer. Much as storytellers of all eras have taken great pains to hide their true identity behind countless personas, or even completely erase it in theatre and cinema, there is always a commanding intelligence pulling the strings, producing the narrative, and making the story the way it is.3 Further, what is remarkable about stories is that, if recounted effectively, they have the power to capture the imagination of audiences and transport them to another world – in other words they induce an altered state of consciousness. It goes without saying that both theatre and cinema have the technological means to create large-scale fictional worlds out of actual and non-actual states and events, thereby engaging audiences in an extraordinary aesthetic and learning experience. This notion is as old as Aristotle, in whose famous treatise the Poetics it is a fundamental premise, that there is a natural human propensity towards mimesis: people of all cultures find pleasure in make-believe, because on one level they enjoy artistry and craftsmanship, but on another level they delight in acquiring new knowledge through verbal-visual works of the imagination.4 These are the basic principles of what has lately become known as storytelling theory, which in 1 On recent general introductions to narratology, see Kindt & Müller (2003); Ryan (2004); Herman & Vervaeck (2005); Jahn (2005); Meister (2005); Phelan & Rabinowitz (2005); Herman (2007); Herman, Jahn & Ryan (2008); Hühn, Pier, Schmid & Schönert (2009); Fludernik (2009). 2 See (e.g.) Abbott (20082) 1–12, who notes that ‘[g]iven the presence of narrative in almost all human discourse, there is little wonder that there are theorists who place it next to language itself as the distinctive human trait’ (p. 1). 3 See Markantonatos (2002), who offers a detailed theory of a narratology of drama, while at the same time giving prominence to the narrativity of Greek tragedy. Cf. also Markantonatos (2004– 2005), (2007b), (2008a), (2012g) esp. 14, (2012h), and (2013b). 4 See Halliwell (1987) 78–84 and (1992).

II. Tragic Storytelling: Form and Content 


its ever growing expansion has come to include all long-established branches of narratology in a comprehensive theoretical proposition aiming at analyzing not only the form and content of verbal and visual tales but also their historical and literary context.5 In particular, most critics working in the field of modern literary theory today seek to integrate the entire range of narratological methods with aesthetic and ideological critical idioms, bringing a wide variety of viewpoints to bear upon individual works. They make effective use of numerous critical resources such as Old and New Historicism, Anthropology, Sociology, Reception Aesthetics, and Intertextuality in order to deal with the intricate narratological questions raised by the plays. As it now seems better to grapple with the phenomenon of narration more holistically than before, it is fair to suggest that narratology has gradually evolved into a grand theory which aims to characterize and tackle the fiendish complexity of storytelling by offering profound considerations which approach the issue from more than one angle. Most classicists have become acquainted with these novel theoretical formulations professing to explain the workings of narrative patterns and, more generally, the forces governing the manipulation and dissemination of narrative information in storytelling activities, through the scholarship of Irene de Jong, a Dutch academic expert, who was the first to apply the lessons of traditional narratology to ancient Greek literature, especially Homer’s Iliad.6 Notwithstanding the excessive rigidity of her taxonomy and the abstruseness of her algebraic notations, the importance of her contribution to a better understanding of Homer’s narrative techniques cannot be overestimated. More crucially for my argument, after dissecting the Homeric text to uncover its underlying narrative structures, de Jong went on to revive long-forgotten views on the subjectivity of the tragic messenger speech, as well as attempting to classify selected instances of Euripidean angeliae in narratological terms. In particular, she pressed the point that the often seriously overlooked figure of the Messenger, one of the most familiar conventions of the Greek stage, is in fact a highly individualized character 5 See recently Grethlein & Rengakos (2009), who convincingly argue that ‘technical analysis of narrative ought not however to be an end in itself, but needs to be made fruitful for interpretation’ (p. 3). 6 De Jong (1987). But Fusillo (1985) has also a fair claim to be the first, although his narrative analysis of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica made little impact on scholarly circles at the time (cf. also Fusillo 1989 & 1992). For a more interesting and readable discussion of Homer’s narrative techniques, see Richardson (1990). Cf. recently Morrison (2007) esp. 36–102, who offers a thought-provoking discussion of archaic narrative prototypes, especially primary narrators, and their adaptation in the early Hellenistic poets. For a brief overview of the various applications of narratology to classical literature, see Fowler (2001).


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

whose judgment is inevitably limited and biased as opposed to the widely held opinion that tragic angeliae lay claim to impartiality and reliability in view of their seeming detachment and comprehensiveness.7 To put it in a nutshell, de Jong was able to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the tragic Messenger is a fully-fledged storyteller. More importantly, her analysis of the functionality of the Euripidean Messenger was narratology’s first major foray into the study of Greek drama amid an atmosphere of intense hostility towards modern critical methods, not to mention of course a deeply entrenched conviction, prevalent mainly amongst traditional narratologists and often bordering on instinctive antipathy, that a narratological explication of a narratorless literary work is nothing less than a travesty of the narrative theory itself. Although in her monograph on Euripides de Jong again failed to break free from her customary pedantry and abstractionism, she removed (unconsciously, as it has become perfectly evident in her later work!)8 a significant barrier between narrative and drama in the mind of many experts who were until then under the illusion that there is an unbridgeable gap between telling and showing, thereby paving the way for significant changes in the critical idiom of classical scholarship. In her wake appeared a small number of classical scholars who treated Attic drama as pure storytelling, working on the assumption that the term ‘narrative’ is broad enough to include stories comprised only of characters, events, and a setting, but not recounted by external tellers, while at the same time reacting against her exclusive categorization of Euripidean messenger speeches and inflexible, reactionary dogmatism on the applicability of narratological principles to narratorless media such as dramatic texts and cinematic works.9 Since then Greek tragedy has been seen as a special kind of narrative which lacks an external narrator, while simultaneously thriving on internal narrators 7 De Jong (1991). Cf. also Burgess (1984); de Jong (1990); Barrett (2002). 8 De Jong (2006) 74–75. For a critique of de Jong’s narratological work on Greek tragedy, see Machemer (1995); Markantonatos (2002) 16, n. 37. Cf. also Gould (2001) esp. 329–331. 9 The initial step towards the interpretation of Greek tragedy as narrative seems to have been taken by Gould (2001/orig. 1991), with perceptive remarks on the narratological machinery of the plays. Further, see Goward (1999); Lowe (2000) esp. 157–187; Markantonatos (2002); Lamari (2010). Cf. also Bezantakos (2004) esp. 17–27; Rutherford (2007); Poe (2009); Hopman (2009); Scodel (2009); Iakov (2010a); Kyriakou (2011). On the application of narratological concepts to drama, see recently Jahn (2001); Vanhaesebrouck (2004); Sommer (2005); Schenk-Haupt (2007); Richardson (2007); Fludernik (2008); Hühn & Sommer (2009); Nünning & Sommer (2009); Ryan (2009); Weidle (2009). Nevertheless, some critics are not amenable to this broad view of narrative: Dunn (2009) sides with de Jong against those who embrace a larger perspective on dramatic storytelling, arguing that ‘among classicists the attempt to offer a comprehensive narratology of drama has not succeeded’ (p. 340).

II. Tragic Storytelling: Form and Content 


– that is, a story employing exceptional techniques (more in line with distinctly cinematic effects) to circumvent the total absence of a perceptible extradramatic teller-figure, as well as giving intradramatic characters great narratorial leverage.10 In fact, there are strong grounds for believing that ancient dramatists, not unlike modern cinematic auteurs who enunciate their narratives in accordance with their personal creative vision, had enormous control over the special ways in which the story unfolded onstage, given that, among much else, they authored the script, as well as training the actors (the members of the Chorus included) and arranging the scenery.11 However much one might suppose that the staging of an ancient play was a collective process involving both amateurs and professionals, together with wealthy sponsors and democratically elected administrators, and all these operating harmoniously under pressure in the context of popular religious festivals, there is no doubt at all that the dramatist shines through this collaborative endeavour, as is clearly evident from the everlasting fame of the three great tragedians of classical Greece (i.e. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides) and the paucity of information about their numerous amateur and professional associates. It is not therefore too bold to suggest that in fifth-century Athens all other men who had a hand in an ancient dramatic production were completely eclipsed by the playwright.12 The radical idea that ‘narrative is not an adjunct to dramatic technique but part of its very essence’13 made a profound impact on the study of ancient (and modern) theatre, principally because classical scholars became acutely conscious of the fact that each and every tragic play is a narrative construction on a large scale – that is, a mimetic narrative in the form of a pregnant conflation of crisis and resolution where the present distends itself to include past and future through scores of onstage narrators, be they characters or choristers. More generally, as I shall discuss in detail in the following section, tragedy is a remarkable narrative tool for shaping the confused material of Greek mythology into intentional structures which in turn generate fascinating insights into Athenian 10 See Gould (2001) esp. 319–320. 11 On film narratology, see Bordwell (1985), (1988), (1989), (1998), and (2008) esp. 85–252; Branigan (1984), (1992); Verstraten (2009). 12 On the centrality of the playwright in Athenian drama, see Rehm (1992) 20–30, who states categorically that ‘[t]he sine qua non for dramatic productions was, of course, the playwright’ (p. 23). Cf. also Ley (1991) 8-10; Wiles (2000) 171–176. This is not to say that actors made little or no contribution to a successful performance; in fact, fourth-century star actors enjoyed an iconic status (cf. Flickinger 19364, 162–195; Pickard-Cambridge 19883, 126–176; Csapo & Slater 1995, 221–274; Easterling 2002). Moreover, Lada-Richards (2002) 417 goes so far as to suggest that ‘the tragic actor in particular can be seen as the successor of the Muse-inspired bard’. 13 Markantonatos (2002) 221.


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

life and history. Unlike the practitioners of novelistic prose who find pleasure in hiding behind tellers of various levels of reliability, or that famous rhapsode known by the name of Homer who allows omniscient narrators to command the flow of his monumental epic compositions with a sure hand, the dramatist takes it upon himself to bring the tragic narrative to life for his audience without recourse to avatars and personas. Besides, the mimetic nature of theatrical storytelling, compounded by the compulsory use of masks in Attic drama, renders narrative personas superfluous and ineffective.14 Furthermore, it is important not to overlook that dramatic (and cinematic) storytelling makes allowances for this generic peculiarity: the dramatis personae, together with the members of the Chorus, enact all temporal digressions, be they flash-backs or flash-forwards, narrative strategies named by Genette as analepses and prolepses, given that both acceleration and deceleration of action are virtually impossible in view of the rigorously fixed pace of theatrical time.15 There are, however, cases in which dramatic time is conveniently bent to make room for particular spatiotemporal discrepancies: narrative breaks can occur in scene changes, as well as between plays of a single-themed trilogy. It is also noteworthy that often in Greek drama choral odes and act-dividing lyric dialogues allow for longer or shorter stretches of time to elapse than one would expect from their actual performance. To blur the line between indoor and outdoor space, dramatists use the ekkyklêma, a wheeled platform rolled out through the central gate of the stage building. The ekkyklêma brings out a tableau from inside the skênê into the sight of the spectators, openly flouting all spatiotemporal conventions, while at the same time weaving the secondary story material integrally into the play without textual input from the characters’ knowledge of the myth; it is, in fact, a remarkable instance of a mimetic narrative imported into a larger mimetic narrative for the purpose of pushing an essential part of the story inside the limited borders of the principal narrative level.16 More importantly, and more crucially for my last point, in Greek tragedy the dramatist, through the agency of his characters, controls the access to and flow of information around a complex network of primary and secondary narratives. Staged action, forming the principal narrative level of the play, expands to include multiple subordinate levels of narrational knowledge by means of the 14 Cf. also Taplin (1999) 54, n. 55, who rightly notes that ‘the essential function of the mask is […] to signal the act of total impersonation without narratorial frame’. 15 See Markantonatos (2002) 7–8. 16 On the ekkyklêma, see Markantonatos (2002) 9 with further bibliography. Cf. also Hourmouziades (1965) 93–108 on the Euripidean ekkyklêma; Scullion (1994) 93–100; Sommerstein (2002) 10; Davidson (2005) 201; Scodel (2011a) 48.

III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis 


characters’ storytelling ability. It is often the case that specific events, either past or future, are repeatedly filtered through different characters, the reason being that Greek dramatists favour a polyphonic presentation of unstaged action, rather than exclusively screening offstage episodes through a single storyteller. Given the diverse cast of characters inhabiting tragic space, not to mention of course the impassable chasm that often separates personality from personality as regards foibles and whims, the manifold recounting of the same set of events in the course of the play allows for an extraordinary narration which replicates itself, transforms itself, challenges itself, sometimes even leaving crucial gaps in the analysis of side stories so as to highlight the chaos and lack of order or design in the past and the future.17 In Greek tragedy we can hardly fail to recognize the suspending function of repetition in the fragmentary and disjoined causal sequence of narrated actions, regardless of the characters’ continuous efforts to lay these narrative hanks end to end in a neat series.18 Given that throughout the plays characters and actions are constantly seen through the narrative glass and perhaps distorted by it, the introduction of subordinate tales (that is, digressions that interrupt the main narrative thread) complicates moral principles and commitments, while at the same time teasing the audience with glimpses of storyline twists held in reserve. It is reasonable to suggest that in Greek tragedy the interface between staged action and reported action, as well as the cross-connections between theatrical fiction and Athenian reality, allow for endless forms of hermeneutic play with space, time, and narration.

III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis This last point brings me to my notion of interpretation as the ultimate aim of narrative analysis. There have been theoretical approaches to literature, and especially theatrical performance, which have attempted to make the social, political, and religious environment of drama clearer by drawing attention to the precise social, political, and religious circumstances of the audience. Though it is fair to say that dramatic events, settings, characters, and space-time modes are distinctly fictional ways of narrative construction, one can see, I think, that the 17 On repetition in Greek tragedy, see Markantonatos (2002) 14. Cf. also Segal (1995) 16–25. On repetive frequency, see (e.g.) Genette (1980) 113–160; Rimmon-Kenan (1983) 48ff.; Bal (19972) 111–114. On parallel actions in Greek narratives, see Rengakos (1995), (1999), (2001), (2006a), and (2006b). 18 See Markantonatos (2002) 16ff.


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

fictionality of dramatic worlds assumes intimate relations with the real world.19 There are therefore within Greek tragedies both fictional and non-fictional elements. Narratologists working in the field of Greek tragedy are expected to view fictional information, as well as other nonfactual elements, through the prism of fifth-century history. Essentially, they should treat all tragic narratives as retrospective, in that tragic plays invite the audience to reconstruct the plot by means of supplementing and recombining the narrative material in the light of contemporary knowledge and experience. In particular, in the concluding section of his thoughtful monograph on what he flamboyantly, though fairly appositely, called literary anthropology Wolfgang Iser, a world-renowned literary theorist and one of the founders of the Constance School of reception aesthetics, laid great stress on the social function of performance as an important means of human self-definition by asserting most succinctly that ‘staging is the indefatigable attempt to confront ourselves with ourselves, which can be done only by playing ourselves’.20 One cannot but concur with Iser’s opinion that theatre caters to our endless fascination with our own species by offering an artistic representation of emblematic slices of humanity. Or to put it another way, as I hope will become apparent in some of the discussions that follow, we would be deluding ourselves if we thought that the staging of imaginary stories is completely and utterly divorced from the ever-flowing stream of real-life events. We should be in no doubt (and Iser again is adamant about his stance on performance as, among other things, a refined exploration of current issues and concerns through the re-enactment of all-too-human situations) that the plays’ tensions and resolutions are relevant in very tangible ways to contemporary ones and in this manner are capable of directing the members of the audience to build an interpretation of the staged stories from a conscious understanding of the close relation between fiction and history. Although contextualizing the plays in terms of their reception by the original audience is an extremely complicated task, and for some sceptical critics even a leap in the dark on account of insufficient evidence, the spectators could hardly fail to appreciate the parallels between the fabricated tale and the present moment.21

19 On possible-worlds theory as a promising branch of narratological research which uses possible-world semantics to divide texts into their constituent worlds, fictional and non-fictional, see principally Bruner (1986); Riffaterre (1990); Ronen (1994); Ryan (1991); Doležel (1998); Divers (2002). Cf. also Iakov (1998a) 41–66 and (2004a) 55–89. 20 Iser (1993) 303; see also Iser (1989). On reader-response criticism, see (e.g.) Freund (1987). 21 A convenient summary of the divergent views concerning this central issue is given by Markantonatos (2002) 19–25 with further bibliography. Cf. also Taplin (2010); Goldhill (2012) 38–55.

III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis 


We would not be far off the mark if we argued that this could not be otherwise because all fictitious worlds are constructed out of real-life components. Regardless of how much these components are in the course of the play seriously warped to serve the further purposes of the plotline, irremediably distorted through their direct contact with outrageously unreal circumstances, or simply turned on their heads for the sake of suspenseful developments, the truth is that at a deeper level theatrical performances have the admirable ability to engage contemporary responses: the spectators never fail to experience an instantaneous connection to the numerous real-life elements of the drama. It is as if the fire of the theatre needs oxygen from the air of the real world in order to burn. In this respect, every imaginary person and event owes its existence, and that minimum degree of intelligibility we may add, to our very real world: fiction presupposes the existence of history, life on stage always follows from contact with life on earth. Without wishing to elaborate on broader philosophical questions about the extremely complicated relationships between our world and limitless other possible worlds admiringly invented through the ingenuity of great many playwrights, I hope that in this book I shall at least manage to characterize and tackle a little of this complexity by offering considerations that approach this burning issue from my perspective as a student of Greek tragedy. The view about the inextricable connection between fiction and non-fiction, myth and reality, lies at the heart of all recent theories that seek to explain to what extent drama mirrors the live social, political, and religious issues of the day. In particular, over the last decades many classical scholars have paid keen attention to the social, political, and religious role of Greek tragedy and argued, with great plausibility, that far from standing outside the temporal flux tragic plays strongly reflect current feeling in fifth-century Athens.22 Surely this is not to say that tragic dramas served as a mere vehicle 22 On the political dimension of Attic drama in general and Euripidean tragedy in particular, see Zuntz (1972); Forrest (1975); Lupher (1979); Rösler (1980); Conraidie (1981); Goldhill (1986) esp. 57–78, (1990), (1999), (2000), (2004) 210–232; Heath (1987b), (1997), and (2006); Borowska (1989); Euben (1990) 32–63; Ober & Strauss (1990); Redfield (1990); Henderson (1990), (1998), and (2007); Meier (1993); Osborne (1993); MacDowell (1995); Goff (1995); Griffith (1995), (1998); Neumann (1995) esp. 9–32; Pelling (1997), (2000) 164–188; Cartledge (1997); Easterling (1997b), (2005); Nesselrath (1997); Iakov (1998a) 41–66, (2004a) 73–89; Griffin (1998), (1999); Saïd (1998); Wilson (2000), (2007), and (2009); Seaford (2000); Rhodes (2003) and (2011); Rehm (2003) esp. 87–118; Xanthaki-Karamanou (2004–2005), (2009); Carter (2004), (2007); Debnar (2005); Boedeker & Raaflaub (2005); Finglass (2005); Zimmermann (2005); Garvie (2007); Markantonatos (2007) esp. 121–193, (2011a), (2011b), (2012a), (2012b); Hesk (2007); Goette (2007); Robson (2009) 162–187; Rosenbloom (2009) and (2012); McCoskey & Zakin (2009); Gibert (2009); Sidwell (2009); Rosen (2010); Olson (2010a); Hutchinson (2011). Cf. also the earlier discussions by Appleton (1927) 89–108; Thomson (1938) and (1941); Gomme (1938) and (1954) esp. 95–115; Winspear (1942); Little (1942) esp. 14–28; Reinhardt (1948); Ehrenberg (19512); Zuntz (1955);


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for democratic propaganda, effortlessly instructing massive audiences of Athenians and foreigners in the various social, political, and religious institutions of radical democracy within the convenient civic context of the Dionysian festivals and many other agonistic celebrations.23 In contrast to other highly politicized artistic media, past and present, Greek tragedy not only asks a lot of probing questions about Athenian social, political, and religious values and assurances, but also, and most importantly, seeks to increase the richness and density of those same ideological patterns by means of an innovative editorial overlay of viewpoint and narration alongside an inventive reconfiguration and synthesis of traditional themes and images. In other words, we should not run the risk of reducing the social, political, and religious role of tragedy to an issue of democratic half-truths and misinformation by either striving to uncover one-to-one correspondences between real-life events and staged stories, or even speculating endlessly, mostly based on flimsy evidence, about how multivariate audiences responded to the social, political, and religious stimuli of the plays over a considerable period of time. Furthermore, in attempting to estimate the narrative constructions of the Athenian tragic poets, we must also guard against allowing too much weight to the ancient notion of dramatists as educators of their audiences in the vein of Homer and Hesiod; but neither can we ignore it.24 It is necessary to realize that the Greek tragedians sought to establish a direct sympathy with the living soul of the spectators, speaking out of the fullness of profound consciousness of a common good expressed in law and custom to their fellow Greeks. The view of tragic drama as primarily didactic is simply a recognition of tragic narration as the fifth-century most powerful incarnation of the heroic spirit, as this was duly transferred from the archaic period into the heart of the Athenian city-state. Essentially, the Athenian self-image, systematically promulgated by numerous political and social institutions, perfectly developed by the creation of an atmosphere of memories which connected the achievements of the present moment Goossens (1962); Aylen (1964); Rodich (1968). 23 Cf. the sobering comments in Carter (2007) esp. 1–20. 24 On the educative function of Greek tragedy, see principally Croally (1994) esp. 17–69 and (2005); Gregory (1991) 1–17, (2002), (2005), and (2012); de Romilly (1995) 171–184; Rehm (2003) 108–113, who points out that ‘the narrative thrust of Greek tragedy already depends on the assumption that theatrical performance matters’ (p. 109); Pucci (2007). Cf. also Jebb (1893) 164– 166; Adam (1908) esp. 286–319 on Euripides as religious teacher; Koukoulommatis (1979) esp. 81– 123. For a rather sceptical approach, see Griffin (1998). On the controversial issue of spectatorial competence in antiquity, see primarily Lada-Richards (2008) with further helpful references (cf. also Easterling 1997a). Revermann (2010) esp. 86 grossly misunderstands the evidence, thereby making light of tragedy’s strong moral impact on ancient audiences.

III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis 


with great exemplary deeds of the Athenian race, was closely modelled on epic prototypes. Heracles and Achilles, to take two pre-eminent mythical examples, served as fine moulds in which Athens’ unique moral sense was cast. Not unlike Athens herself, these Panhellenic heroes displayed the most intense emotions, curbed with difficulty by strong self-command; they surveyed the spectacle of life with their glowing fervour of wrath and of affection; they were courteous and kind-hearted towards the afflicted and the helpless; they were intrepid champions of the public good; and they were ever conscious of the limits set on the human lot without allowing either apathy or complaint to curtail their hopes. In this regard, and in diametric contrast to modern theories about the problematic status of the hero in Attic tragedy, it is reasonable to argue that there was no significant gap developing between political thought and mythical tradition in fifth-century Greece.25 Athens came to represent the embodiment of the noblest aspiration of both historical and mythological domains: sensibility to the sight of suffering is not only the unambiguous proof of moral refinement but also, and

25 See principally Vernant (19902) [orig. 1972], whose theory of ‘the tragic moment‘ brought at the time a salutary shift of the critical paradigm from the obsessive pursuit of the origins of Greek tragedy to the fruitful exploration of the social and psychological conditions which allowed the tragic genre to flourish in fifth-century Athens. This interpretative model, however, was seriously marred by its constant emphasis on an unreal polarity between fifth-century social thought, which was supposedly unique to the city-state, and legendary tradition (see the sobering discussion of the highly complicated interconnection between Homeric epic and Greek tragedy in Gould 1983; cf. also Arrowsmith 1968). Much as the Paris school of classical scholarship has made critics more sensible of the historical and social dimensions of the tragic phenomenon, the glaring schematization and the grave abstractionism of the theoretical methodologies hitherto employed have often reduced Greek tragedy to a mere focus of conflict and tension between Athenian legal axioms and heroic assurances. This post-modern tendency to refuse the embrace of positive values and life-affirming principles has misled many a contemporary critic into believing that Greek tragedy lacks an educational role. But this is absurd: Greek tragedy is capable enough of replacing the social and political disjunctions and distortions it debunks by constantly attempting to impose resolution to the numerous contradictions and ambiguities it holds. Besides, the continual presence of the Chorus in the orchestra is an eloquent witness to the rich social reserves upon which the tormented characters can draw freely in order to console themselves with the thought that their private suffering is but an incident in a worldwide history. The Greek Chorus serves as a constant reminder that people with strong socialsupport networks are buffered against the paralyzing effects of extreme grief. For the opposite view, see recently Steiner (2008), who argues unconvincingly that ‘a core of dynamic negativity underwrites authentic tragedy’ (p. 32); duBois (2008); Goldhill (2008). Cf. also Eagleton (2003); Houlahan (2007). On the idea of the ‘tragic’, see the various essays in Silk (1996); Lambropoulos (2006); Markantonatos (2013a).


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most strikingly, the well-spring of power and longevity, given that human existence is embittered and shortened by men’s own depravity and corruption.26 Therefore, instead of reopening the question whether Athenian playwrights relish the idea of continual invocations of particular social, political, and religious slogans against a fifth-century backdrop of intense civic turmoil and imperial ambition, a stronger and more fruitful line of enquiry arises if we focus our attention on the ways in which tragic drama serves as a hugely valuable powerhouse generating polis-saving strategy through the foregrounding of numerous wise figures of authority and the advancement of plentiful rational arguments.27 Athenian tragedy allows the audience to see heroic memories staged, indelible in the realism of their mythical details but edited and compressed over narrative time: the world as processed by the mind of the dramatist, with finally only those bright human players in which the Greeks recognized their own ideals and aspirations remaining to flash against the darkness of horrible events. It is easy to understand that the ancient spectators must have invested a deeper sympathetic commitment in a character who acts on principles that they would have interpreted as essentially righteous and honourable. One should not also overlook the fact that certain arguments with Panhellenic orientation would have encouraged an even larger chunk of the first audience, and no doubt of later audiences in Athens and elsewhere, to find in the plays a pointedly social, political, and religious emphasis. The suggestion of Panhellenic ideas, and most strikingly the

26 See also Konstan (2005a), who interprets the idea of to philanthrôpon in Aristotle’s Poetics as the sentiment which ‘responds directly to the suffering of another person’ (p. 24). Interestingly enough, Halliwell (2002), discussing Aristotle’s Rhetoric 2.8.1385b31–32, brings attention to the fact that overtly self-regarding fear does not create an atmosphere conducive to feelings of compassion and pity; in fact, Aristotle is adamant that fear can urge against pity. The abiding consciousness of some overhanging doom can be at times so powerful as to lead people to entrench themselves within the precincts of a narrow self-centredness and mean-spiritedness. In this regard, it is fair to suggest that the emotion of the tragic hero should be transfused with fearless thought in order to carry forward powerfully and without self-doubt. Cf. also Nussbaum (1986) 318–372 and (2008) esp. 152–158; Carey (1988); Nuttall (1996); Konstan (2001) and (2005b); Johnson & Clapp (2005); Munteanu (2012). 27 For this novel approach and its considerable interpretative potential, see Markantonatos (2012a) and (2012b). Cf. also Markantonatos (2007) 121–193, who offers a reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus as a mythological exemplar of political and social conciliation in the wake of factional strife and internecine rivalries, thereby going against the grain and laying great stress on the singular educational usefulness of an extraordinary tale which has hitherto been treated as simply another typical story of redemption that nonetheless feels like a gaping wound, namely an archetypal tale of killer turned into healer.

III. Tragic Worlds: Narrating the Athenian Polis 


endorsement of distinctively Hellenic concerns, must have juxtaposed topical references and universal considerations in new and sudden combinations.28 It should also be remembered that in tragic plays the enthusiastic approval of collective issues would have added layers of connotation, more or less suggestive depending on the spectators’ breadth and responsiveness of viewing, to distinctly local attitudes and beliefs. One of my main aims in this book is to show that Greek tragic narratives achieve an Athenian voice at once more central and more intense by superimposing one ideological and mythological pattern on another; especially, I suggest, the Athenian political and religious lines in the plays are intersected by countless topical and Panhellenic ideological crossroads at innumerable mythological junctures. Ultimately, it is no more possible to disprove that there is a lot to be gained by contextualizing the tragic plays in the religious, political, and social dynamics of fifth-century Athens. Nevertheless, it is a wise precaution to add to such generalization the recognition that recent critics have given particularly close attention to the matter, devoting more than a few pages to what they call the ideological background of Greek tragedy. In the following paragraphs I shall look a little further into exactly those aspects of this heated debate about tragic politics and religion which have generated the sharpest controversy among classical scholars owing to the fact that there is huge disagreement over the different use of terminology. It is generally admitted that tragic narratives tread a fine line between the mythological, the religious, and the political; put differently, the staging of celebrated tales drawn copiously from the treasure trove of Greek mythology ricochets endlessly between an invented remote past and contemporary civic themes. For that reason, before proceeding with my analysis of the special ways in which Euripides’ Alcestis was not only politically, intellectually, and theologically relevant to the Athenian citizens and other non-Athenian spectators, but also powerfully expressive of the cross-connections between the separate ideological lines of a distinctively Athenian branching system of national ideas and values, one should observe additionally that there are critics who strongly believe that the jury is still out on the question of how much, or for that matter how little, tragic plays bring together, rather alchemically I should admit, a peculiar mix of heroic and historical values. As has already been noted here, it is also important to point out that among those classical scholars who are all too ready to acknowledge the social, political, and religious texture of Greek tragedy there is continuing controversy over whether there should be some kind of a working definition of what has been termed the ‘historical’ backdrop in classical Athens, otherwise known 28 See (e.g.) Ziolkowski (1981); Hall (1989) 160-200, (1996), (1997), (2007); Orwin (1994) 15–29; Mills (1997).


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

in many critical domains under the controversial, and for that reason rather nebulous and overworked name Athenian democratic ideology.29 Given that in recent years many critics have persistently striven to identify the ends of this term’s thematic range, I hope that I will not sound particularly crude if I choose to dispose of this difficulty summarily. There seems to be so far no reason to doubt, at least to my mind, that tragic narratives do indeed act as valuable reflectors of social, political, and religious currents in fifth-century Athens and, more generally, in the classical Greek world. More than this, it is fair to say that with its indisputable authority the Athenian theatre performs a distinctly didactic function by offering a frame in which fifth-century problems and concerns can be conveniently contained and rigorously analyzed.30 Civic ideology is my useful shorthand for this notoriously impossible to classify with any degree of precision complex web of beliefs and axioms that underlies the continuously shifting self-image of the Athenian polis in the classical age. And that is why, as a shorthand for the real world of fifth-century Athenian history, democratic polis ideology will suffice for the further purposes of this study that seeks to shed some revealing light upon what has been fittingly called ‘the tragic otherworld’. It must be noted, however, that in my discussion this quite practical term will be used interchangeably with such expediently broad and familiar terms as society, democracy, religion, mythology, polis, and indeed Athens. Had we taken any other path, we would, I think, be treading on shaky ground trying to pin down a ghost term, because my contention is that the Athenian community’s policies and official ideologies are not at all unalloyed entities waiting patiently to be dissected relentlessly by us critics. I am not forgetting, of course, that the serious problem about all-too-rigid definitions is moreover compounded by the undeniable fact that a constituent element of this same Athenian ideology is a genuinely conservative attitude to state polity, although I submit that the democratic current is dominant in the sense that the sheer brilliance and overwhelming popularity of the liberal achievement had obscured the markedly oligarchic, or in certain cases characteristically monarchic, provenance of a wide range of institutions, not least that of the Attic theatre itself. This theoretical impasse should not dispirit the narratological critic of Greek tragedy. Happily enough, in real life as much as in dramatic fiction (in the case of the latter to our immensely pleasant surprise) there are intricate networks of competing ideological forces that not only defy strict categorization but also play havoc with our ludicrously immovable critical boundaries.

29 Cf. the seminal discussions by Loraux (1986) esp. 132–171 and Mills (1997) 43–86. 30 See Goldhill (1986) esp. 1–32. Cf. also Longo (1990); Ober & Strauss (1990).

IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation 


For the purpose of my discussion, I would conclude, Athenian ideology should be seen as a handy all-encompassing term that amounts to everyone of those aspects of the Athenian state, be they social, political, religious, moral, philosophical, intellectual, economic, military or otherwise, on which tragic narratives draw unreservedly in order to make themselves understood by their audiences in Athens and elsewhere in the classical age of Greece or in any other. This is all the more so, principally because in fifth-century democratic Athens all those aspects and, to be sure, many more, were so indissolubly linked with each other that it would not be too bold to suggest that each one of those aspects cannot literally stand without the others. My principal interest therefore is to discuss the special ways in which tragic narration, in this case Euripides’ Alcestis, brings important issues into sharper focus by reflecting an instructive light upon the dense matrix of ideological, intellectual, religious, and mythological patterns that play a pivotal role in shaping Athenian and, for that matter, ancient Greek society.

IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation As I have already noted, the aim of this book is twofold: firstly, to highlight that in view of the undeniable universality of narrative, Greek tragedy cannot help but thrive on narrative, indeed it is narrative; and secondly, to emphasize the interpretational potential of narrative analysis, seen more broadly as a means to peer deeply into the storyworld and unearth hidden layers of social, political, religious, and mythological meaning, taking Euripides’Alcestis as a case study.31 This expansion of the notion of narrative as something we all engage in, in other words as a prodigious variety of genres, tragedy included, gives us enough grounds to substantiate the idea that a narratological investigation requires more 31 For a useful overview of modern scholarship on the play, see Dubischar (2005). Cf. also Gounaridou (1998) 1–24; Parker (2007) xxxvi-lvi; Iakov (2012) 25–127, who offers a wide-ranging survey of interpretative approaches to the play, coupled with admirably detailed bibliographies (cf. also Iakov 1985 and 1988). For some twentieth-century interpretative assessments of the play within the European and American critical traditions, cf. also Lesky (1966) 364–367 and (1983); Drew (1931); Cremaschi (1946); Beye (1959); Stumpo (1960); Albini (1961); Torraca (1963b); Kullman (1967); Golden (1970); Erbse (1972); Musurillo (1972); Rivier (1972) and (1973); Fernández-Galiano (1977); Diano (1975) and (1976); Bell (1980); Smith (1983); Lloyd (1985); Riemer (1989); Luschnig (1995); Donzelli (2003); Gavrilov (2006). For nineteenth-century interpretative scholarship on the play, see (e.g.) the positive assessments in Patin (1843) and Hartung (1843) I.216–234. More notices regarding special thematic points, as well as general discussions of broader issues, will be made available in the following chapters.


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strenuous effort than abstract taxonomy calls for. In fact, the experience of Greek tragedy is at the heart of narrative pleasure, for tragic plotting is predicated upon a labyrinth of narrative interlacings binding mythical characters and events to Athenian society and its ideology. Essentially, the value of tragic narration lies in its power to draw on the world of classical Athens in the construction of its mythical world, changing contemporary premises and axioms at will, adding and subtracting. Therefore, it bears repeating that tragic narratology is interpretation pure and simple through narrative exploration of the ancient plays rather than obsessive classification and meaningless categorization. In Alcestis Euripides creates a mythical anti-Athens, indeed a mythical antiGreece, only to throw an ideal light around the civilizing achievements of Greek culture, as well as the social, political, and religious institutions of the Athenian polis, by dismantling his terrifying creation piece by piece in the course of the play. In the opening sequences of the drama he affords the distance that enables the kind of irony which generates a privileged vantage point from which audiences can frame and stand aloof from their world, thereby recognizing that social and religious pledges and assertions are illusory, that long-established convictions and assurances are not what present themselves, that traditional beliefs and values are merely sentimental fictions, only to refuse that distance in the closing scenes, defending the morally-informed, un-ironized, indeed uniquely Greek experience of the special conditions of human existence. In a purely narratological sense, he thematizes the painfully slow but redeemingly steady transit of narrative information about well-known mythological and religious safeguards against mortality and chaos from the sphere of contrafactive hypothesis to the sphere of all too real actuality. During this series of repeatedly frustrated human attempts to break the deadlock and reinstate time-honoured certainties and axioms the principal characters, each in one’s own turn and time, are empowered to draw structure and meaning from a complex network of extraordinary events. Manifold stories of woe, together with useless strategies for dealing with human adversity, appear constantly to confront the situation of familiar mythical and religious stories of hope and rescue. Throughout the play, and especially during its first movement, these comforting tales seem to be lost from sight, buried under heaps of joyless accounts and ominous forecasts. The striking thing is that these stories are not ordinary tales of consolation: the most central amongst them have a strong grounding in fifth-century Athenian religious life, as well as in popular mythical tradition, deriving their authority from the Panhellenic sanctuary of Eleusis and more generally from the deep wells of Greek mythological and mystic morality and theology. Τhe closing scene of the play re-establishes these hopeful heroic and mystical stories in a circuit of communication by forming the complete antithesis to successive episodes of ruined human lives

IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation 


and serial arrays of portentous narratives. Euripides makes out a strong case for preserving certain long-established Athenian institutions, pressing the point that great institutions do not dwarf men but enlarge them. In a sense, Euripides’ Alcestis is a multilayered text, where on the one hand one mystical story is superimposed on another, and on the other hand, one mythical story is integrated with another. It is important not to overlook that these hopeful tales are presented in the negative, namely as impossible scenarios that tumble under the enormous weight of the bare, unprotected realities of human finitude. The happy ending of the play breathes new life into those consolation narratives; indeed, Euripides’ Alcestis takes its place among those comforting stories not only as yet another welcome example of a heroic labour of Heraclean proportions but also as yet another popular tale of divine protection and benevolence towards mankind. In this case, Euripides brings to the foreground the moral importance of mythological prototypes of human accomplishment in the presence of danger, as well as that very theology which gives pride of place to the pure ethical teachings flowing through Eleusinian and Orphic channels. In fact, through an admirably intricate narrative construction he integrates Athenian notions of heroic excellence and mystical felicity: his multifaceted narration, interlaced as it is with mythological intertexts of the Heracles stories, intensifies the moral message underlying the mystical matrix. It is therefore reasonable to argue that he emphasizes his deep moral conviction that by daring beyond their mortal frailty in immortal deeds humans keep alive the profound emotions which make life bearable and worthwhile. In particular, the Orphic and Eleusinian network helps to draw a solid line between the various mythological and religious links, for the spiritual dimension of mystical pledges connects the terrestrial initiation ritual with epic heroism and poetic kleos. In this respect, the immortality of the initiate is closely associated with heroic everlastingness. Athenian Orphic beliefs play a complex and ambivalent role in the audience reception of the tragic narrative. These beliefs are tempered in the context of fifth-century Athens not only by contemporary moral arguments over human responsibility and judgement, but also by Eleusinian and Bacchic principles and ideas of mystical release. Certain passages, once taken together, form a consistent thread of allusion to Eleusinian-Orphic mysteries. My basic contention is that these references, which help to maintain the Eleusinian-Orphic colouring, offer a powerful metaphor for the experiences undergone not only by Alcestis in her display of awe-inspiring courage and unconditional love but also by Admetus and Heracles in their assuming contrasting postures in confrontation with the frail nature of life. The play echoes a number of features from Orphic and Eleusinian lore only to challenge the validity of their hopeful claim through flashbacks and fill-ins, predictions and conjectures, dense with pessimistic feelings


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

and associated dismal thoughts. At the concluding stages of the play, however, it becomes apparent that the optimistic message intrinsic to the Eleusinian-Orphic pattern of demanding initiatory trials and unbound afterlife blessedness is duly restored through Alcestis’ valiant wifely virtue and, even more emphatically, through the moral enlightenment, the intellectual illumination, and the psychological ripening of Heracles and Admetus. With these considerations in mind, it is not overbold to argue that in the eyes of the Athenian audience death-doomed Alcestis would have been elevated to the level of a model initiand. Her life-denying commitment, emanating as it does from her incomparable ethical integrity and reflective understanding of the human condition, stands in total contrast to both Admetus’ unbound self-destructive mourning and Heracles’ unrestrained mindless self-indulgence, not to mention, as a further example of an impudent posture in the teeth of fatality, Pheres’ self-regarding conduct, when he unreservedly rejects his son’s pleas and chooses to cling dishonourably to his useless shred of life beyond its worth. As this formulation suggests, concern about the moral foundation of mystical promise in the face of the degenerative force of human circumstances – a force that is consistently compounded by the distressing consciousness of the inevitability of death – arises from two adjacent angles: serious doubts about whether disheartenment and withdrawal will in fact be a vital counterbalance to life’s unending trials, and about whether such an expression of grief and despair (demonstrated regularly in endless lamentation and, even more devastatingly, in self-laceration and suicide) and the unhealed tensions that it brings in its train should in fact be the only means of self-improvement and moral rearmament in a civilized community. The same applies to the opposite etiquette guide for survival in view of the exertions that life makes necessary. In fact, when life is solely regarded from the retiring and unambitious point of view that mortality is a severe sentence that has already been passed upon all men and hangs ever over their heads, injudicious pursuit of pleasure, lawless extravagance, blatant cynicism, and thoughtless self-approbation may well be seen as less unnatural and repelling. I wish to contend, therefore, that in the case of the varying fortunes of Alcestis Euripides exerted all his narrational ingenuity to transform a popular legend into a profound and enlightening meditation on mortality and, more importantly, to give point and significance to the ethical foundations of mythological and mystical promises. In other words, Euripides produced a narrative, in which the moral links chaining together the parts of celebrated consolation stories vanish momentarily because of an unexpected distortion of the familiar patterns of cosmic order, and what is left is a disturbing phantom of despair and denial; in the end, however, while the scale of extreme dejection increases, the full articu-

IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation 


lation of those narrative scenarios of final and ultimate disaster is happily withheld. There are, nonetheless, important benefits to be gained from this. Far from being an ephemeral disruption of celestial order, this temporary derangement of the codes expressing the harmonies between man and god forces the mind to reach beyond the seemingly agreeable interlocking of all those human and divine patterns in the agonizing search for other reassuring principles of order, this time conspicuously moral. Without wishing to propound a thesis that would sound moralizing and one-dimensional about a play so rich in religious echoes, I suggest moreover that what has not been noticed is the special way in which Euripides’ Alcestis places strong emphasis on the paramount importance of moral rectitude in the accomplishment of mystical redemption. I strongly believe that this is one of the central modal points of the play, which not only reflects contemporary concerns with the often uneasy conjunction of supernatural principles and moral truthfulness, but also underscores the intensifying urgency to infuse the mystical promise of underworld bliss with considerable measures of genuine spirituality and ethical sensitivity. For that reason, when we consider more closely Admetus’ utter hopelessness and Heracles’ careless hedonism (not to mention Pheres’ unashamed cynicism, brazen self-centredness, and lack of moral fibre) as archetypal ways in which men come to terms with the distressing fear of death, it will be seen that Alcestis’ genuine self-devoting love and illimitable affection for family and friends, even for the humblest members of her household, give dramatic embodiment to the optimistic thought that, however deep the impression on the human heart left by the painful recognition of the fragile nature of life, it can be so introduced in the context of mythological morality and mystical ethics as to have the effect only of a passing shadow. On the final count, the prevailing idea is the triumph of voluntary self-abnegation, and the downfall of unrelieved negativity and unblushing egotism; and this depth of purpose is all the more remarkable, since those same heroes, Admetus and Heracles, who assume for a short time reprehensible postures in confrontation with the precariousness of life, eventually find the strength and determination to keep faith with their conscience. In Euripides’ Alcestis what is driven home with significant force and emphasis is that the often soul-destroying realization of human imperfection and defencelessness in the presence of mortality need not bring out the worst in people. By the refinement of mystical feeling and heroic aspiration through moral reflection men’s thoughts are widened to a more comprehensive scope: human suffering is ennobled with good character, firm principles, and fighting spirit. One can plausibly argue that Alcestis’ lesson is not at all lost on Admetus and Heracles, who are certainly celebrated for their compassion and gallantry; in fact, with her unequalled courage, unbounded


 Chapter 1 Narrative, Myth, and Religion

love, and unconditional kind-heartedness she brings out the best in the people around her, not least in Admetus and Heracles, as well as (we may suppose with good reason) in the members of the audience. More widely, the narrative of human endurance, so essential for keeping the flame of hope alive, is finally revivified; the primeval, unquestioned customs and laws, which suddenly seemed alien and insufficient to a novel, strange concatenation of untoward events, prove to be still meaningful and important. Especially the time-honoured tradition of hospitality, the noblest manifestation of human graciousness and kindness, a most significant contributory factor in the protection and survival of men, loses its straightforwardness and becomes doubled with its own unattractive and deeply problematic excessive demonstration, only to stand forth at the end revealed as something amounting to a true divine right determining nobility and social status, as well as securing the prolongation of human life. In other words, the Greek ideal of moral living as an important contributor to the prolonged existence of humankind (the beclouded violence of the beast by contrast being conducive to precarious survival) is swept away in the tide of cynical realism and unreflective pessimism, only to free itself from the shackles of distinctively un-Greek notions of human existence. This intersection of certain opposing aspects of age-old norms and assurances passes into the narrative construction of the play: the more shocking and violent the trivializations of life-affirming mythological and religious schemata, the more fully the heroic and mystical entities renew their strength and validity with their order-imposing power of civilizing principles. The remarkable complexity of the tragic narration, both becoming and resisting the perversion of mythological and religious conventions and fictions, renders back to the audience the desecration of the most revered laws and practices of human society, as well as the enormous effort and determination required to reinstate them. This magnificent narrative tour de force can be read as a reflection on the consolatory power of Athenian tragedy itself. It represents the comforting process, by which the survival feeling is refined through moral reflection; and this is all the more important when religious belief is disturbed and the spell of mythical tradition broken. It is undeniable that a world of terrifying ghosts speaking of the utter futility of human life has fallen to our inheritance: humans attempt to placate it through mythical stories of hopeful resolution, as well as spiritual axioms about post mortem justice – Euripides’ Alcestis is one of those mystical narratives not only offering comfort to mortals but also honing and refining mythological and religious ethics. It is therefore fair to conclude by saying that the poet’s narrative art causes the spectator’s thoughts to hang with unabated interest upon the new situations that the main action constantly creates; and it is needless to remark that in the

IV. Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative and Interpretation 


play, despite the whole range of horrible imaginings, as well as the steady drumbeat of doom-laden predictions, the sources of consolation turn out to be deeper than the deepest sources of sorrow. Greek tragedy vouchsafes human existence by confronting the mind-destroying terror following from the consciousness of life’s pointlessness and therewith by addressing the perennial issue of honourable living in the face of mortal frailty and external obstructions. In order to live life to the full, the tragic texts reveal to us, we should first renounce the kind of suicide which lacks a higher cause and thereupon struggle to remain absolutely free and untrammelled in our moral essence. Tragic narratives are miniature versions of the Athenian polis: in both domains dishonourable survival is unacceptable and unbearable.

Chapter 2  Narrative [Death:] ‘As far as I’m concerned, their birth-cry Is the first cry of the fatally injured. The rest is you – and your morphine. That is why they call you the god of healing. Life is your hospital and you call it a funfair. Your silly sickroom screen of giggling faces, Your quiverful of hypodermic syringes That you call arrows of inspiration. Man is deluded and his ludicrous gods Are his delusion. Death is death is death.’ Ted Hughes (1999), Euripides: Alcestis (London) p. 7

I. Introduction In Euripides’ Alcestis there is a suffocating sense of doom settled over all human characters through various gloomy prolepses; what is more, these disheartening forward projections for humankind are compounded by equally bleak accounts of past and present action. In particular, Euripides keeps the narrative spotlight trained on multiple past and present episodes that are sharply edged with sadness and hopelessness by means of numerous dismal analepses and up-to-the-minute reports on unfolding poignant developments. This is a remarkable case of a continuous series of ominous secondary narratives standing in total contrast to the happily resolved main storyline – in other words there is here an incessant stream of narrative information guiding the audience to assemble a dark picture of both past and future as regards not only Admetus and the royal house but also humanity in general. As we march towards the ending of the play, it appears that Necessity, in all her might and inexorableness, rules over human destiny with no prospect of relief in sight. Nevertheless, at the close of the drama the unexpected happens. Although this massive accumulation of negative narrative energy is held in readiness for its final discharge in the concluding scenes, where the dreary patternings of the plot are expected to be stitched together in an overall frightening nexus of human despondency and disaster, the ominous stories refuse to mesh or synchronize. Surprisingly enough, despite the dismal endings looming without fail on the far horizon throughout the narrative journey, mocking all human belief in divine kindness and heroic transcendence, the supernatural revivification of Alcestis

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


restores faith in religious schemata promising gods’ generous and compassionate involvement in human affairs, as well as in legendary tales advocating man’s superhuman potential.1 Euripides shows us the spring of a horrifying narrative machine as it slowly unwinds; and the audience watch as the human players walk into the trap and ever closer to complete disaster. Even so, the trap symbolizing the demolition of family and city, the total annihilation of the Greek world view, does not snap shut on poor mortals. Once Alcestis is unearthed, brought alive again, the consolation stories of human endurance and survival are unearthed, brought alive again. Her rebirth is their rebirth. In purely narratological terms, as has already been intimated in the previous chapter, Euripides’ Alcestis is a remarkable narrative experiment in the ways in which the disnarrated, namely those elements in a play which consider and refer to unactualized possibilities and unexploited lines of development, can turn out to be in the end the only path followed by the events recounted.2

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering Prologue 1–76 From the very beginning of the play, a stream of events filtered through two distinctly opposing viewpoints hammers home the fact that at this opening stage of the plot the human element becomes of less importance, and Alcestis and Admetus, as well as their respective varying fortunes, sink into the background. This is not mainly a case of two mortals trying desperately to win out over death, but here the real mighty combatants waging a fierce battle over prerogatives and honours are indeed a great god of Olympus and the deities of Tartarus: Apollo asks for the release of Alcestis from fated premature death, while Thanatos demands what is his due according to the primordial codes moderating the interrelations between man and god. To be specific, at the commencement of Alcestis Euripides exhibits the main crisis of the action on the divine level by bringing the sharply contrasting elements into actual collision by means of two memorable divine figures. In fact, he unfolds the full capacities of his genius in highlighting the total futility and helplessness of human effort and aspiration through the prefatory narrative of 1 See also Slater (2005) esp. 96, who is right to argue that in the play γόος segues into κῶμος – that is, the audience experience a smooth transition from tragedy to comedy. 2 On the disnarrated, see mainly Prince (1988) and (2005).


 Chapter 2 Narrative

Apollo and the unsolaced approach of Death, who in all his inflexibility remains unmoved by any plea for compassion, dismissing without reservation each and every alternative scenario of optimistic expectation and last-minute reprieve from pain and tribulation (1–63). More pointedly, this ferocious clash of conflicting ordinances heightens the feelings of horror with which the coming doom of the human characters is anticipated. Although the opening scene of the play concludes with a prolepsis, Apollo’s confident forecast of the happy denouement (64–71), the gruesome figure of Death with his sword in hand, ready to proceed with what he characteristically calls the ‘sacrifice’ of Alcestis, casts an ominous shadow on the action. Thanatos remains frostily unimpressed by Apollo’s prediction, stating with absolute certainty that he himself will officiate at the death ritual of Alcestis, and no power or force can stand in his way: he turns down angrily Apollo’s request to spare the ill-fated queen and allow her to reach old age, ardently defending his divine rights (72–76). The most glaring instance of this unbridgeable abyss between kindly Apollo and pitiless Thanatos, and more generally between Olympian gods and underworld divinities, is found in the bestial images clustered around Alcestis: the death-doomed woman is constantly pictured as a mere animal ready to be slaughtered in honour of Hades at a perverse sacrificial ceremony.3 In this respect, the ultimate issue of the Prologue centres on the notion of man as sheer property of the nether deities. Especially from Thanatos’ ruthless point of view, man appears to be eternally trapped in a wild, pain-filled world of beasts, being himself no more than an animal all set to be butchered without mercy as a sacrificial offering to the gods below. Unfortunately for Admetus and Alcestis, this bestial imagery relegating all mortals to the level of irrational and unrefined existence prefigures not freedom and potentiality but endless bondage to the heartless and hideous figure of Death. In the play it is only Apollo who can discern godlike qualities in mortals; for he is willing to establish a close rapport with them, and in so doing he shows sincere empathy for their cruel destiny. It is, moreover, only Apollo who can recognize the exceptional humanness of man, his capacity to forge lasting bonds of friendship and kinship with his own kind, namely that admirable human element working ineradicably beside the bestial.

3 On warped sacrificial rituals in Greek tragedy, see principally Rehm (1994) following Zeitlin (1965); Segal (1982); Seaford (1986), (1987), (1989), and (1994a). It is noteworthy that in Greek mythology and religion there is a close association of women with wild animals, no doubt deriving from the intimate link between courtship and hunting (cf. Reeder 1995, 299–300). It is reasonable to argue that by the use of this subtext in the Euripidean play Thanatos can be seen as hunting down Alcestis as if he were an avid suitor pursuing his bride.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


This is the reason why Apollo’s opening story is so significant to the play’s strong admixture of opposing feelings and rival standpoints. It is a critical stately narrative, and we must attend to it carefully.4 Apollo walks out of the palace door with his bow and arrows and delivers the introductory speech, ‘a narrative preamble’, addressing the house of Admetus:5 Ὦ δώματ’ Ἀδμήτει’, ἐν οἷς ἔτλην ἐγὼ θῆσσαν τράπεζαν αἰνέσαι θεός περ ὤν. Ζεὺς γὰρ κατακτὰς παῖδα τὸν ἐμὸν αἴτιος Ἀσκληπιόν, στέρνοισιν ἐμβαλὼν φλόγα· οὗ δὴ χολωθεὶς τέκτονας Δίου πυρὸς 5 κτείνω Κύκλωπας· καί με θητεύειν πατὴρ θνητῷ παρ’ ἀνδρὶ τῶνδ’ ἄποιν’ ἠνάγκασεν. ἐλθὼν δὲ γαῖαν τήνδ’ ἐβουφόρβουν ξένῳ, καὶ τόνδ’ ἔσῳζον οἶκον ἐς τόδ’ ἡμέρας. ὁσίου γὰρ ἀνδρὸς ὅσιος ὢν ἐτύγχανον 10 παιδὸς Φέρητος, ὃν θανεῖν ἐρρυσάμην, Μοίρας δολώσας· ᾔνεσαν δέ μοι θεαὶ Ἄδμητον Ἅιδην τὸν παραυτίκ’ ἐκφυγεῖν, ἄλλον διαλλάξαντα τοῖς κάτω νεκρόν. πάντας δ’ ἐλέγξας καὶ διεξελθὼν φίλους, 15 [πατέρα γεραιάν θ’ ἥ σφ’ ἔτικτε μητέρα,] οὐχ ηὗρε πλὴν γυναικὸς ὅστις ἤθελεν θανὼν πρὸ κείνου μηκέτ’ εἰσορᾶν φάος· ἣ νῦν κατ’ οἴκους ἐν χεροῖν βαστάζεται ψυχορραγοῦσα· τῇδε γὰρ σφ’ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ 20 θανεῖν πέπρωται καὶ μεταστῆναι βίου. ἐγὼ δέ, μὴ μίασμά μ’ ἐν δόμοις κίχῃ,

4 Cf. also Iakov (2012) 13–16 drawing on Riemer (1989) 132, n. 312. On the importance of the Euripidean prologue-rhesis as, among others, a scene-setting device, see Bendixen (1858) 4–5 on Alcestis; Manning (1916) 27–30; Kitto (19612) 278–287; Lewin (1971) esp. 22–73; Hamilton (1978); Elferink (1982); Chalkia (1983) and (1986) esp. 240ff.; Erbse (1984) and esp. 23–33 on Alcestis; Halleran (1985) 8–10; Saïd (1989); G. Markantonatos (1991) 160; Kuntz (1993) esp. 99– 100; Easterling (1993); Allan (2000) 50–53; Dunn (2007) 71, who tries to see the issue of tragic prologue speakers from a different perspective, arguing (rather tendentiously, in my view) that ‘in Euripides the power of the past over the present recedes’ in view of his strong preference for narrative information overkill at the beginning of his plays; Lloyd (2007) 304 and (2012) on Euripidean scene-setting. 5 Cf. also Hourmouziades (1965) 162, who is right to argue that Apollo ‘has come out through the central door’; Olson (2010b) 505.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

λείπω μελάθρων τῶνδε φιλτάτην στέγην. ἤδη δὲ τόνδε Θάνατον εἰσορῶ πέλας, ἱερέα θανόντων, ὅς νιν εἰς Ἅιδου δόμους 25 μέλει κατάξειν· συμμέτρως δ’ ἀφίκετο, φρουρῶν τόδ’ ἦμαρ ᾧ θανεῖν αὐτὴν χρεών. (1–27) House of Admetus! In you I brought myself to taste the bread of menial servitude, god though I am. Zeus was the cause: he killed my son Asclepius, striking him in the chest with the lightning bolt, and in anger at this I slew the Cyclopes who forged Zeus’s fire. As my punishment for this Zeus compelled me to be a serf in the house of a mortal. I came to this land and served as herdsman to my host, and I have kept this house safe from harm to this hour. I am myself godly, and in Admetus, son of Pheres, I found a godly man. And so I rescued him from death by tricking the Fates. These goddesses promised me that Admetus could escape an immediate death by giving in exchange another corpse to the powers below. But when he had sounded all his near and dear in turn, [his father and the aged mother who bore him,] he found no one but his wife who was willing to die for him and look no more on the sun’s light. She is now on the point of death, held up by the arms of her family within the house, for it is on this day that she is fated to die. And I, to avoid the pollution of death in the house, am departing from this palace I love so well. Ah, I see that Death, the sacrificer of the dead, is already drawing near. He is about to take her down to the house of Hades. He has arrived punctually, watching for today when she must die.

His account begins not far back in the past, winding its way briefly and speedily through a violent divine quarrel, and increasing in breadth and passion as it draws closer to the time of the action, until in vivid detail, when we reach the present moment, it focuses intensely on a poignant scene of human suffering taking place inside the palace building. First, Apollo explains why he came to accept a hired labourer’s life at the royal court of Pherae, a god though he is.6 We are told the story in flashback (3–7). The narrative technique of analepsis, as is used here, displays in a rapid fashion the events that the dramatist wants to highlight as essential background information; what is more, the distinct conciseness of the analepsis, merely extending over five lines, plays up the speedy succession of the horrible events, thereby putting strong emphasis on the extreme and unimpeded brutality on both sides. Acting as a true Prometheus-like figure, Apollo comes into fierce conflict with his father and supreme deity, Zeus, over the lavish protection he chooses to extend for mortals. The reason behind this terrible clash of wills is the vicious execution of Asclepius by Zeus through his invincible 6 On the explicit identification of the setting, see Arnott (1989) 134–135. Cf. also Méridier (1911) 146–147 & 153–154.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


thunderbolts; Apollo wastes no time in avenging his son’s death by mercilessly slaughtering the Cyclopes, the manufacturers of these same lightning bolts. It has been rightly noted that the epic χολωθείς (5) brings to mind Apollo’s darker side as an archer-god displayed most intensely, and memorably for that matter, in his wrathful onslaughts on the Greek warriors at Troy (Iliad 1. 43–52): aside from being the god of music and healing, Apollo can be a ruthless slayer of males.7 The use of the historic present (6, κτείνω), moreover, brings out in sharp relief the violent passions that are as yet far from dormant. We may indeed say that the strong feelings of resentment that brought Zeus and Apollo into conflict are still in place until that very day on which Alcestis is destined to depart this life. Apollo’s brutal act aims at causing a serious blow to his father’s strength and authority because the fiery lightings are the unmistakable symbols of Zeus’ power and dominance.8 This is certainly not a petty squabble between father and son on Mount Olympus, but at a single glance one may come to the conclusion that what is at stake here is far more important than two gods fighting their corner.9 Judging from Apollo’s monologue, it becomes more than apparent that the divine sphere, especially the absolute ruler of the universe, Zeus, is particularly averse to providing men with a welcome respite from death: restoring mortals to life can be a cause of severe punishment. One may guess that Asclepius’ revivifying practices violate the normal relations between man and god, thereby flouting the limits set by the human condition, limits that the gods, not least Zeus himself as the highest deity, should both symbolize and enforce.10 Legend has it that Zeus blasted Asclepius because he was angry with him for bringing back the dead to life with his medicinal cures. Later, in the parodos, the Chorus will elaborate on Apollo’s allusion to the special conditions of his son’s downfall, when they will openly acknowledge that it was Asclepius’ blasphemous wish to raise people from the dead that angered almighty Zeus, who put a violent end to these resurrection methods with his death-dealing fire-thunders (121–130). The brief flashback to the divine conflict, the manipulation of temporal order through the technique of analepsis, highlights the colossal gap between god and man in more ways than one. It is not only Zeus’ merciless attack on human-loving Asclepius, but also Apollo himself who is never tired of calling attention to

7 See Graf (2009) 14–15 and 32; cf. also recently Detienne (1998) and Monbrun (2007). 8 In an alternative variant of the myth, he kills the sons of the Cyclopes. Apparently this vicious act aims to counterbalance the slaughter of Apollo’s son, Asclepius (cf. Iakov 2012 ad 5). 9 See Ambrose (2005) esp. 23–24, who rightly associates the parental/filial betrayal theme with the tense atmosphere in the scene between Admetus and Pheres. Cf. also de Romilly (1968) 165–166. 10 On Zeus, see (e.g.) Cook (1914–1940); Arafat (1990); Dowden (2006) esp. 92ff. (Zeus in Greek tragedy) with further bibliography.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

the paradoxical nature of his punishment, framing his short narrative with references to his highly unusual serfdom in the house of a mortal (2, θεός περ ὤν and 7, θνητῷ παρ’ άνδρὶ).11 It is important to understand that Apollo is not blind to the fact that the gods are the absolute administrators of the cosmos, controlling, among other things, human fate often with a heavy hand; he does not show, however, an unfeeling, spiteful indifference to disasters inflicted on mankind. In fact, he implies that a vital distinction should be made between two main groups of men on a purely ethical basis, acknowledging that in the special case of his supremely xenophile host a mortal is capable of possessing godlike qualities in contradistinction to others of his kind who are found wanting in this respect. The remarkable piousness and kindheartedness of Admetus motivate Apollo to keep the royal family from harm at least until the moment of his departure from the palace. The significant repetition of ὅσιος (10), a notable example of Euripides’ frequent linguistic acrobatics, brings into prominence the close association of Apollo with Admetus: the god’s high praise puts Admetus into a sacral connection with the Olympian sphere, joining him with the heavenly powers in a deep spiritual and moral fellowship.12 Furthermore, the exceptional use of the same adjective with reference to a major divinity not only throws the reciprocal interrelationship of man and god into sharp relief, but also helps to highlight one of the guiding ideas of the play, namely that man’s ethical integrity and deep sense of duty may render the line of demarcation between heaven and earth less rigorous and clear. It should be said, therefore, that through an extraordinary gesture of divine benevolence towards mankind Apollo descends to human level with good grace, feeling honour-bound to express his gratitude to Admetus like a thankful employee reciprocating the guest-friendship of a generous-minded master. Apollo goes on to narrate how he tricked the Fates into a deal so as to obtain a respite from death for his human protégé (11–12). The strange contract led to a temporary destructuring of the cosmic order, since the Fates, beguiled though they were, seem to have retained some of their powers, which allowed them to negotiate the terms of the unprecedented bargain; they finally agreed to give Admetus a reprieve from his cruel destiny but on condition that someone else should submit to death for him (12–14).13 It is particularly important to note that 11 See Torraca (1963a) 55, n. 8. 12 Cf. also Earle (1894) ad 10, who argues that ‘[t]he use of the same adjective to describe the character of both god and man sets the two in a certain degree on an equality’; Wildberg (2002) 28–29; Donzelli (2003) 60. On the moral dimension of the term ὅσιος, see Blakeney (1900) ad 10; Earp (1929) 219–220; Parker (1983) 323. 13 On Apollo’s deceptive stratagem, see recently Iakov (2012) ad 12.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


this unheard-of agreement stipulating the sacrifice of a life for the preservation of another reflects and encapsulates the central overriding theme of the play – that is, the ever-returning contrast between ephemeral hope and interminable gloom, the depressing thought that, Asclepius being now dead, human survival can only be secured at the immense cost of another life.14 The uncertainty about the legitimacy of what strikes one as a highly controversial compact is overwhelmingly increased by the fact that, although Apollo wins a concession from the Fates that Admetus shall be rescued, willing volunteers to make the substitute sacrifice are extremely hard to come by even from the close circle of the regal family.15 And, to complicate matters further, the scenes of divine clash are intercut with a short but telling description of offstage action: Apollo’s narrative speech shifts the focus from the past to the present, recounting briefly but powerfully a harrowing event currently unfolding inside the palace (19–20). This gives us a fleeting glimpse into the intrascenic world which comes close to being an imago mortis.16 The image of the feeble queen holding on the arms of her nearest and dearest for support remains etched in the memory, driving home with unsurpassed vividness and density the acute ambiguity of Apollo’s gift.17 In fact, the snapshot of ailing Alcestis walking slowly and 14 Cf. also Goff (2004) 44–45, who lays stress upon the Asclepius cult as a privileged forum of female anxieties and crisis-feelings. In this regard, albeit tentatively, it can be argued that the emphasis on Asclepius as a doctor-god chimes in with the pervasive female emotionality of the play. On Asclepius, see mainly Edelstein & Edelstein (19982). 15 Contra Dindorf, Earle, Hayley, Diggle, and Kovacs, I agree with Dale, Conacher, Parker, and Iakov that line 16 should be retained. This information about the refusal of Admetus’ father and mother to sacrifice their lives for their son is absolutely essential for setting the scene at the beginning of the play; in fact, as Iakov rightly notes (2012 ad 16), Apollo’s stress upon the refusal of Admetus’ aged parents to die for their son is the first indication that the divine plan is not without problems given the unpredictability of human emotion. Cf. also Bacalexi (2007) 10, n. 5. On Euripides’ strong emphasis on the biologically related bond between Admetus and his mother, see Ritter (1875) 16; Nindel (1893) 4–10; Woolsey (18764) ad 15–16, who comments on ἔτικτε (16), observing that ‘[t]he imperfect and present participle of τίκτω are often used by the tragic poets, where the aorist forms might be expected. In such cases τίκτω denotes I am a parent’; Vernardakis (1903) ad 15–20. There is a possibility that Apollo drops another hint at Admetus’ parents clinging tenaciously to life at line 50 (οὔκ, ἀλλὰ τοῖς μέλλουσι θάνατον ἀμβαλεῖν), if the manuscript reading ἐμβαλεῖν is retained instead of Bursian’s ἀμβαλεῖν and τοῖς μέλλουσι is interpreted as ‘those lingering in life’; cf. also Bauer (1871) ad 50; Weil (1891) 20, n. 2; Hayley (1898) ad 50; Lazzeri (1999). Pace Kovacs and Parker, Garzya and Seeck follow the lectio tradita; I think they are right to do so, primarily because in his prologue-rhesis Apollo eagerly attempts to reformulate the role and duties of Thanatos in order to realize his ambitious plan. 16 On the play’s offstage space, see Hourmouziades (1965) 115–117. 17 Admittedly, so early a use of the passive of βαστάζω makes one suspicious of the received text; as a matter of fact, Usener conjectured ἣν and ψυχορραγοῦσαν to obviate the difficulty,


 Chapter 2 Narrative

with effort round the halls under the lengthening shadow of death is only a tiny fraction of what will transpire after that: it prepares the ground for her heartrending onstage appearance. The dramatist once again effectively prepares his audience for what is to occur later. He sets the necessary elements of the story in such a way so as to built up the suspense. Soon enough, contrary to expectations, the general atmosphere of the play will become weird and somber, as befits an event of dubious morality. Alcestis’ unconditional love for her children will find expression in relentless demands on her husband for an unmarried life after her slipping away, and the pangs of Admetus’ conscience will begin to make themselves felt all the more deeply and forebodingly before the audience. Be that as it may, the same image of Alcestis being held up by the arms of her kin should not only have negative connotations adumbrating inevitable disaster. It is fair to say that the idea of the close family of Alcestis attending to her needs accentuates the worth of genuine human relations, by which in Greek tragedy, as we very well know, not rarely suffering can be ennobled and pity enhanced. When seen under this aspect, the actions of mortal men acquire singular dignity and grandeur: it is this that Thanatos will soon play down, treating humans as mere sacrificial animals left to the mercy of the cold-hearted infernal deities. Against this backdrop of contrasting sentiments, it comes as no surprise that Apollo’s prefatory speech is rounded off with repeated references to the coming doom of Alcestis (20–27). Apollo openly talks of Alcestis’ imminent passing no less than four times, without offering at least a glimmer of hope that the miserable woman will survive the current ordeal.18 He announces his intention to depart from the royal halls without delay in order to avoid the pollution of death, making plain that Alcestis is fated to gasp out her life on that very day.19 Moreover, the impending disaster is thrown into sharp relief by the awe-inspiring figure taking for granted that it is indeed Admetus who props up Alcestis with his hands, while Kirchhoff implausibly suggested a lacuna after line 19. Both Parker (2007) ad 19–20 and Diggle (19872) accept Usener’s conjecture (cf. also Hadley 1896 ad 19, who retains the lectio tradita, whilst assuming that Alcestis is supported by the hands of Admetus) but fail to offer an adequate explanation for the unparalleled middle form of βαστάζω especially in view of the use of the active voice in lines 40 and 917, while missing what appears the most notable reinforcement for their theory, namely the telling echo of ἐν χεροῖν in line 201 (cf. also line 204) where the Maidservant describes Admetus holding his wife in his arms inside the palace. One is tempted to argue that this is the earliest example of the passive of βαστάζω, and this is even more so, principally because in the ensuing line σφ’ (21) argues very strongly for taking Alcestis as the subject of both sentences despite the absence of a possessive pronoun in line 19. Cf. also Hayley (1898) ad 19, who suggests that ‘ἐν χεροῖν is purposely left indeterminate’; Iakov (2012) ad 19. 18 See also Iakov (1982) 56. 19 For a similar scene with Artemis, Hippolytus, and Theseus, see Barrett(1964) ad 1437–1439; Parker (1983) 33.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


of black-robed Death approaching the skênê with certain steps along the parodos; ogreish and repulsive though he may seem, the chthonic god is zealous to complete his time-honoured task, arriving promptly to take Alcestis down to the infernal regions. Apollo and Thanatos may appear at first sight to be of a completely different mould. Yet, even though there are piercing contrasts between the two deities, the latter have many points of similarity.20 As they inhabit a world far removed from the sphere of fragile human beings, they are always eager to defend their inalienable rights and privileges at all costs. In particular, Death by no means stands in a subordinate rank to Olympian Apollo; he is a force to be reckoned with, having his own special characteristics. While Apollo is willing to come down to human level as a gesture of goodwill towards his pious and considerate host, he is not unmindful of the fact that there are always the worldly and the divine views of a human situation. The beguilement of the Fates allowed an unexpected sparkle of hope amidst desperation, but the brief yet revealing glance at actual life inside the palace leaves an impress on the heart that is ineffaceable, paving the way for the supreme crisis of the play. Once Apollo notices Thanatos drawing near the palace, he calls him the priest of the dead (25). It is significant that in his exit-speech Thanatos describes himself as the high priest at the sacrificial ceremony of Alcestis, thereby giving an awfully sinister twist to his primeval office. The punctual arrival of Thanatos at Pherae is greeted with some respect by Apollo, although both divinities stand ready to fight fiercely for their age-old privileges. Apollo pictures Thanatos as keeping a watch over the exact day on which he will carry out his official duties (27, φρουρῶν). After a while Thanatos himself reproaches Apollo for standing guard over Alcestis (35, φρουρεῖς), expressing worry over the Olympian god’s ulterior motive for loitering at the palace gate all armed with his bow and arrows. Further than this, and more importantly, in the heated dialogue that follows between Apollo and Death each narrative voice sings its own tune, generating multiple versions of a single event. In this case, the repeated recounting of Apollo’s cunning trickery problematizes the morality of the new dispensation of divine justice. Some would say that here Thanatos’ account presents a somewhat lopsided view of events; but we have already argued extensively in the introductory chapter that it is typical of tragic characters to state their case by means of manifold recitations of the same experience. In fact, Death provides a completely different perspective on the past, retelling in brief the story of Apollo and Admetus 20 Cf. Graf (2009) 14–19, who brings attention to the sinister side of Apollo as merciless purificator and plague god (see also n. 37). See further (e.g.) Burkert (1985) 145–146; Bremmer (1994) 16–17; Dowden (2007) 49–51.


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in a way that accentuates those details which reveal the magnitude of the offence resulting from the curtailment of his divine prerogatives: ἆ ἆ· τί σὺ πρὸς μελάθροις; τὶ σὺ τῇδε πολεῖς, Φοῖβ’; ἀδικεῖς αὖ τιμὰς ἐνέρων 30 ἀφοριζόμενος καὶ καταπαύων; οὐκ ἤρκεσέ σοι μόρον Ἀδμήτου διακωλῦσαι, Μοίρας δολίῳ σφήλαντι τέχνῃ; νῦν δ’ ἐπὶ τῇδ’ αὖ χέρα τοξήρη φρουρεῖς ὁπλίσας, 35 ἣ τόδ’ ὑπέστη, πόσιν ἐκλύσασ’ αὐτὴ προθανεῖν Πελίου παῖς; (28–37) Ah! What are you doing at the palace? Why do you loiter about here, Phoebus? Are you engaged in more injustice, curtailing and annulling the prerogatives of the gods below? Was it not enough that you prevented the death of Admetus, tripping up the Fates by cunning trickery? Are you now standing guard, bow in hand, over her, Pelias’ daughter, who promised to free her husband by dying in his stead?

In his prefatory narrative, Apollo painted a relatively bright picture of the extraordinary bargain with the Fates, laying great stress on the willingness of Admetus’ wife to offer her life in order to save her spouse. Here, by contrast, not only does Death bring to the foreground Apollo’s offensive treatment of the infernal deities (30–31), carefully focusing attention on the act of deception and conveniently omitting the ensuing peaceful agreement, but also makes an allusion to the immense sacrifice undertaken by Alcestis. Although ἥθελεν (17) conveys a sense of intrinsic motivation, softening down the inconsistency between the life-giving plan of Apollo and the enormous price to be paid for the survival of Admetus, ὑπέστη (36) leaves open the possibility that Alcestis placed herself under a horrendous engagement perhaps not as readily as Apollo would care to acknowledge. In any case, the use of ὑφίσταμαι to describe the difficult choice made by Alcestis is not devoid of deeper significance, given the verb’s negative implication that the unenviable task of laying down her life for her spouse was undertaken rather unenthusiastically. It could be argued then that Thanatos drops broad hints that Apollo’s gift to Admetus may turn out to be far from unproblematic.21

21 Cf. also Baconicola-Gheorgopoulou (1993) 45–141; Baconicola (2005) 74–75.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


The stichomythic exchanges between Apollo and Thanatos lend continual emphasis to the dominant theme of the play – the inexorable spirit of Necessity infects every extraordinary arrangement for human survival with a morally dubious taint by looking only at the strict letter of the infernal laws, regardless of other optimistic considerations or ambitious strategies for escaping mortality. Soon enough the stern reality of Alcestis’ imminent departure from life will hurl down Admetus from his high-towering hopes into utter destruction and absolute despondency. In fact, as the play marches on, it will become more than evident that Admetus’ confidence has been slowly eroded by the looming death of Alcestis, and thereby Apollo’s generous benefaction will seem all the more futile. Unmoved by Apollo’s enticing offers, Death confirms repeatedly what the Olympian god predicted earlier in his introductory speech: Alcestis is destined to die on this very day, and any effort to reverse that would prove totally unavailing (47, 49· cf. also 72–76). It is fair to say that all through this line for line conversation new goals are set, new tactics deliberated, innovative forms of divine intervention proposed, but all this remarkable surplus of narrative invention, reaching a climax with Apollo’s desperate suggestion that Alcestis should be allowed to reach old age so that Death would benefit from her rich burial (56, κἂν γραῦς ὄληται, πλουσίως ταφήσεται, ‘And yet if she dies old, she will receive a rich burial’), is eliminated confronted as it is by Thanatos’ solid wall of persistent blunt refusals (55, νέων φθινόντων μεῖζον ἄρνυμαι γέρας, ‘I win greater honor when the victims are young’· cf. also 57).22 This remarkable proposal that Death should spare the young in order to receive more substantial funeral offerings when they die old brings home to the audience with thoroughly undisguised cynicism and unprecedented emphasis the utterly contrasting perspectives of the two gods.23 Either of them finds it virtually impossible to see things from the other’s point of view. Shocking though it may be for mortals, Apollo (and by extension, the Olympian deities) appears to favour a long life for human beings so that he may enjoy the benefits accruing from their lavish gifts, while Thanatos relishes the thought of obtaining more power and glory from their untimely demise. The important theme of premature death running throughout the play comes across most strikingly in the razorsharp contrast between πλοῦτος and γέρας which underlies the considerable disagreement between two irreconcilable enemies, Apollo and Thanatos. As will become apparent presently in this chapter, despite the fact that the appalling truth about the deplorable insignificance of human life is laid bare before us to 22 See also Manning (1916) 87. 23 Cf. also Dörrie (1939) 176; Seaford (2004) 163. On the motif of untimely death, see Griessmair (1966).


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see, Apollo goes so far as to suggest with the irrepressible sublime confidence of a young Olympian a new ethically informed dispensation of celestial justice. All in all, at this juncture of the tragic narration, in addition to establishing a basic backdrop and a framework in the sense of setting off what will be put in front or framed in the following scenes, Euripides teases the audience with glimpses of strategies for cheating Destiny of a life and hints at possible getaway scenarios, the full articulation of which is eventually withheld because of Death’s implacable resolve to take Alcestis to the nether regions. There precisely comes the moment that provides a coup de théâtre. The tone of the play rapidly changes from one mood to another: only moments before his hasty departure from the royal halls Apollo proclaims with wrathful, predetermining foresight that Heracles will come to the house of Pheres and save Alcestis from the suffocating embrace of Necessity (64–71):24 ἦ μὴν σὺ παύσῃ καίπερ ὠμὸς ὢν ἄγαν· τοῖος Φέρητος εἶσι πρὸς δόμους ἀνὴρ 65 Εὐρυσθέως πέμψαντος ἵππειον μετὰ ὄχημα Θρῄκης ἐκ τόπων δυσχειμέρων, ὃς δὴ ξενωθεὶς τοῖσδ’ ἐν Ἀδμήτου δόμοις βίᾳ γυναῖκα τήνδε σ’ ἐξαιρήσεται. κοὔθ’ ἡ παρ’ ἡμῶν σοι γενήσεται χάρις 70 δράσεις θ’ ὁμοίως ταῦτ’ ἀπεχθήσῃ τ’ ἐμοί. (64–71) I swear to you that, ruthless as you are, you will yet cease from your hateful ways. The man to make you do so is coming to the house of Pheres sent by Eurystheus to fetch the horses and chariot from the wintry land of Thrace. He, entertained as a guest in this house of Admetus, shall take the woman from you by force. You shall do precisely as I have asked and yet get no gratitude from me but hatred instead.

His prophecy, coming as it does at the opening stage of the tragic narrative, imparts a particularly strong push to the course of the play, unveiling a divinely

24 Pace Diggle and Parker, Schmidt’s emendation πείσῃ is not at all convincing, since the manuscript reading παύσῃ (64) not only harks back to καταπαύων (31) in the sense of annulling the prerogatives of Death, but also chimes in with the threatening tone of Apollo. Cf. also Paley (1857) ad 64, who rightly notes that ἦ μὴν ‘has a sense partaking of the nature of a threat’; Vernardakis (1903) ad 64; Kovacs (1994) 159; Iakov (2012) ad 64. For a different suggestion, see Hayley (1898) ad 64.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


authorized escape route from imminent disaster.25 Contrary to his entrancespeech, in which the past events are measured, made part of a logical system of cause and effect leading up to the present state of affairs, his exit-speech has no time to waste in unravelling events that have already happened but instead casts the narrative net far into the future. Apollo appears to have an important narrative edge over Death. He informs the audience of all the relevant backstory, as well as giving the play a sense of forward thrust and directional movement by revealing comprehensible coherence and closure in what strikes one as an impossibly complicated situation, not to mention of course his exclusive knowledge of offstage action concerning sorrowful personal moments of the royal family inside the palace. It is reasonable to argue that in the first movement of Alcestis he is portrayed as an all-powerful divine figure, a true plot-maker holding the narrative keys to the past, present, and future. By contrast, Death lags far behind Apollo in displaying insightful penetration into the reported world. Aside from his heavily viewpointed version of the past and his abiding belief that the natural progression of human condition will continue without interruption reaching its ordinary completion in the murky halls of the netherworld, he chooses to close the narrative door on any further innovations that would threaten his command of the future, persistently advocating a kind of narrational stasis. From his inflexible standpoint, the tragic narrative, and by extension human life per se, is not a potentially vast field of play but a single unchangeable storyline crystallizing along the thread of the inexorable march of time – that is, a self-enclosed narrative circle without escape. It is clear, then, that Euripides prefers to get across vital proleptic information in the authoritative guise of a divine prediction, rather than allowing Death to emerge victorious at least for now in his verbal conflict with Apollo. Thus the optimistic possibility of a wondrous disturbance of the narrative linearity of the human condition and the bleak prospect of a monotonous unspooling of the human story are placed in sharp juxtaposition and sustained tension. Admittedly, there is surely something to be gained from following the narrative path of Death’s verbal victory over Apollo. A triumphant exit for Thanatos would have heightened the claustrophobic intensity of the action, wringing the hearts of the spectators and keeping glumness at full stretch. After a carefully designed heart-stopping oscillation of hopeful and hopeless scenarios, Euripides favours, by contrast, a narratologically intricate climax instead of a highly emotional finale pregnant with the most poignant awe and pity. In fact, he offers an unexpected culmination of the Prologue scene, where we find ourselves on the brink of an abyss. This is arguably the most decisive point for our interpretation of the 25 See also Roberts (1984) 80–83.


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opening scene because it is by now more than evident that the ultimate issue of the play depends entirely on whether anything will happen to trouble the straightforward linearity of the narrative. In other words it is made abundantly clear that the twisting and breaking of the primary narrative line would signal a better future for the race of men, while the binding of an extraordinary story to an inhumanly strict narrational frame would pluck asunder the jaws of darkness and unveil a world of utter destruction and absolute bleakness, forcing the dramatis personae to sink into a slough of despair and misery. For these reasons, therefore, although the action of the Prologue appears practically finished when Thanatos angrily berates Apollo for his importunate request and offensive behaviour, advising him to operate within his purview (63, οὐκ ἂν δύναιο πάντ’ ἔχειν ἃ μή σε δεῖ, ‘You may not have all that you should not have’), this new forecast about the imminent arrival of Heracles is crucially appended, turning Thanatos’ previous confident proclamation on its head. Nevertheless, we are still at the beginning of the drama, and Death is a strong and forceful adversary. The presentation of the possible unfoldings of the story is artfully achieved mainly through what is revealed by the different perspectives of the secondary narrators. Such a variation preserves the suspense as the outcome of the whole story still remains unpredictable: the audience are bound to follow step by step the horrible tribulation of Alcestis out of the labyrinth of suspenseful anticipation into the light of miraculous resurrection. As we noticed earlier, Euripides achieves in this play a continuous sense of antithesis through the direct clash of rival viewpoints on past and future. Accordingly, the closing statement of Thanatos changes again the tone of the play from positive expectation to uncertain probability: πόλλ’ ἂν σὺ λέξας οὐδὲν ἂν πλέον λάβοις· ἡ δ’ οὖν γυνὴ κάτεισιν εἰς Ἅιδου δόμους. στείχω δ’ ἐπ’ αὐτὴν ὡς κατάρξωμαι ξίφει· ἱερὸς γὰρ οὗτος τῶν κατὰ χθονὸς θεῶν 75 ὅτου τόδ’ ἔγχος κρατὸς ἁγνίσῃ τρίχα. (72–76) Your plentiful talk will gain you nothing. The woman is going down in any case to the house of Hades. I go to her to take the first sacrificial cutting of her hair. For when this sword has consecrated the hair of someone’s head, he is sacred property of the gods below.

Although the Prologue leaves the audience with an awareness more of possibilities open than of resolutions closed, the exit of Thanatos into the palace hammers

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


home the fact that from this time forth the human players will be treading among the snares of death. On the other hand, Apollo shows fervent resolve to preserve the welfare of his worshipful host and his family as the world never before saw; but the human characters, frequenting the ensuing scenes, warm with life, active in the pursuits of laudable ambition, and arduously preparing for future worth, will be tottering against the paper partition between them and unbounded abyss. In this respect, it is reasonable to suggest that the exit of Death into the gates of the Thessalian palace marks an impressive intrusion of divine time upon a great human crisis: the earthly moment expands to include endless perspectives of celestial reality. Thus the subordinate divine story is funnelled into the larger human story through the agency of the horrifying figure of Thanatos, who together with his minatory words always brings a chorus of hideous netherworld deities in his wake.

Parodos 77–135 I have been maintaining the view that the basis of the action is a contrast between two powerful standpoints. Apollo and Thanatos are moving in diametrically different channels of thought, attempting to give their exclusively personal order and design to the past, the present, and the future. One creates, the other destroys, one reconstructs and the other abolishes what still remains the highly ambiguous future of the story. It cannot be otherwise: in Greek tragedy the Prologue scene keeps before our minds certain important ideas, but at the same time includes the acceptance of numerous perplexing narrative blueprints and mazes of incongruity, thereby holding out the prospect of alternative solutions of the unfolding crisis. Upon this atmosphere of gloomy despair and hopeful expectancy the Chorus of the old men of Pherae enter, bringing the human drama to the foreground after a tension-filled scene of inveterate and passionate divine conflict.26 From this time forth, a relentless storm of horrible events is unleashed, during which, through a complex system of multi-modal gradations of onstage and offstage information, the unredeemed suffering of the human characters and the deplorable ineffectiveness of supernatural intervention are the constant focus of attention, whereas, by contrast, the Apolline prophecy drops in the background buried under sackfulls of unreal hypotheses and suppositions per contrarium, fictitious assumptions and arguments καθ’ ὑπόθεσιν.27 Notwithstanding this gradual 26 See also Lawton (1900) 28–29; Foutrides (1916) 86; Iakov (2012) II.50–52. 27 On these rhetorical tropes, see Quintilian, Insitutio Oratoria 5.95–99.


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unravelling of a sorrowful past and an even more unhappy future, the prolepsis foretelling the glorification of Alcestis and her eventual exaltation to the level of higher being is inserted into the play repeatedly. Nevertheless, especially during the first movement of the play, the voice of despair progressively evicts all other voices from the stage until the narrative gaze turns to the sudden arrival of Heracles and his boozy antics inside the royal halls. With genuine Bacchic abandonment and unruliness the semi-comic entrance of drunken Heracles signals the slow and painful reversal of what has already been established by then as a resolutely fixed narrational outline of a ghastly future. This is indeed a unique case of proleptic narrative creation, in which the playwright puts together a full-blown story in coherent fashion, laying out methodically the future in successive episodes of utter woe, each tied pessimistically to the same location, the city of Pherae, so that the human characters accept the necessity of what cannot logically be denied. To be specific, in the following scenes, and especially during the first and second Episodes, the play is chiefly concerned with the unveiling of a horrendous future for Admetus and the Thessalian people, a future which denies the revitalizing possibility of music and dance, those natural accompaniments of each fresh access of human vitality. Instead it is overflowingly filled with secondary narratives exhibiting a future reality so credibly structured in view of particularly strong causal connections between each link, so convincingly rationalized by way of a continuous series of doom-laden analeptic accounts which hunt closely together with proleptic allusions to grim potentialities, that the repeated forecasts of Alcestis’ post mortem grandeur sound as unsatisfactory solace. This narrational force appears to shape the confused material of human lives into an absolutely nightmarish configuration which generates disheartening insights into the general prospects of humankind, as well as foreshadowing a musicless existence for the dramatis personae. The crowning horror of this emphatically un-Greek way of living evolves through a razor-sharp contrast between the actuality of death and the possibilities of life. Nevertheless, Euripides’ Alcestis is not one those plays which aim solely to plumb the depths of horror and despair. Fortunately for the human race, the prolepses of impending disasters prove tentative indeed, ready to come undone as soon as they are fastened together. It could be said that in this play, unlike any other dramatic constructions of similar happy-ending finales, the terrible future, causally woven into the main strand with hard-edged realism, is ultimately torn to shreds, ousted by a strong yet unobtrusive undertow running against an oceanic stream of misery. As I have already adumbrated, this inconspicuous undercurrent displacing the dominant idea of a looming catastrophe is none other than a tangled web of contrafactive statements and speculative calculations, an inchoate welter of contrary-to-fact wishes, implausible scenarios of deliverance from

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


mortality, purely hypothetical arguments for human survival, imaginative evasions of inevitable developments, and fictitious suppositions about divine protection – in effect a misty imbroglio of counterfactuals.28 As I shall have plenty of opportunities to suggest in this chapter and in the following chapters on myth and religion, in Euripides’ Alcestis the unreal proves very real indeed; in fact, the opportunities of deriving comfort from tales of supernatural generosity turn out to be far from illusory and misleading. It is therefore sensible to argue that in this play the aspect of human destiny varies with the shifting fortunes of the characters, as the essential gloom of the situation is amazingly relieved and lightened with a true joy each time the human players choose compassion over private considerations and are rewarded by eventually winning their personal advantages without paying the price of the sacrifice of their honour. Still less can the scope of the play be summed up in what appears to be a mere piece of embroidery in which a narrative pattern is wrought with such dark-coloured threads as false calculations, crushed hopes, flawed ponderings, unactualized possibilities, and unrealized imaginings upon a sombre ground. In the last part of the tragedy, fortunately for the human species, no inarguable reasoning is left to counter the optimistic idea that (paraphrasing Roger Scruton) imaginary things do not necessarily offer an imaginary consolation. In the dialogue between the semi-choruses, the theme of life and death is thrown into sharp relief by recurring assumptions about the fate of Alcestis; in particular, the old men wonder whether the queen is alive or dead, searching in vain for proof of the first or the latter. Here the hemichoric division accentuates the contrast between the optimistic stance of the one group of the elders and the pessimistic thoughts of the other.29 Nevertheless, regardless of their divergent 28 Not unlike Alcestis, Medea is replete with wish-thinking that things did not unfold the way they did; especially the Nurse and Medea never grow tired of wishing that Jason had not travelled to the Black Sea to seize the Golden Fleece. It is surely no accident that the play begins with the Nurse praying that the Argo had never winged its way to the land of Colchis through the Clashing Rocks (1–2; cf. also 3–13). The play, however, contradicts all those wishful utterances serving as a pitiless clashing rock that smashes Jason before materializing his ambitious plan, or, to put it another way, it is the reverse of Jason’s expedition, an aborted attempt at seizing another Golden Fleece in the form of the king’s daughter. This time Jason lacked the valuable assistance of Medea; in fact, it appears that Jason is inextricably linked with Medea because without her any adventurous expedition is doomed. This is the reason why there are repeated analeptic references to the episodes of Apsyrtus and Pelias, in which Medea was instrumental in carrying out the deceitful plans. The same of course applies to the snatching of the Golden Fleece and Jason’s escape from Colchis. Cf. also Gérin (1974); Sale (1977) esp. 18–25; Luschnig (1992b); Mastronarde (2002a) ad 1–8; Hose (2008) 41–49; G. Markantonatos (2009) 130–136. 29 See Dale (19612) ad 77–135. On the polarity of life and death, closely related to the opposition between light and dark, see Wiles (1997) 159; cf. also Keith (1914) 43 & 96. On the problems


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sentiments and acute puzzlement, they unanimously agree on Alcestis’ outstanding wifely virtue (83–85, Ἄλκηστις, ἐμοὶ πᾶσί τ’ ἀρίστη / δόξασα γυνὴ / πόσιν εἰς αὑτῆς γεγενῆσθαι, ‘Alcestis, the best of wives to her husband, as I and everyone regard her’). As has already been observed, the ἀριστεία of Alcestis will be sounded many a time in the course of the play, paving the way for the climactic prolepses of her elevation to the sphere of semi-divine beings. More importantly, this uncertainty arising from insufficient narrative information about the current status of Alcestis prepares the ground for the following scenes, which are punctuated by numerous fictive assumptions, wishful statements, and unsupported theories. It is worth noting that in an effort to make some kind of contact with the offstage world of the palace, the old men of Pherae try to pick up on mournful sounds coming from inside the skênê (87–89), sounds that would indicate the passing of Alcestis. We cannot escape the conclusion that in this exceptional case of an unsuccessful tragic eavesdropping the elders are denied access to the offstage events because, as we have already suggested, in this play the new story must be recreated consistently over the narrative gulf of an informational void, a narrational abyss of unproven and untestable premises.30 In this way, the human characters are greatly encouraged to engage in endless hypothesis. Unlike other similar instances of onstage overhearing in Greek tragedy, here the aural connection with the offstage world is never established, and the Chorus, unable as they are to find solid grounds for their suppositions, are given over to a sorrowful reverie on the cruel fate of their masters (109–111).31 But before that, the aged nobles implore Apollo, the god of healing, to bring relief from disaster (91–92, εἰ γὰρ μετακοίμιος ἄτας, / ὦ Παιάν, φανείης): this is the first prayer for celestial protection in a long series of desperate invocations of divine deliverers coming as it does after Apollo’s prophecy.32 It is surely above concerning the division in the anapaestic sections, cf. Kaimio (1970) 108 & 109, n. 2; Parker (2007) 69–73; Iakov (2012) II.50–52, who follows Hayley (1898) and Garzya (19832); Rodighiero (2012) 104. 30 In Medea Euripides makes frequent use of eavesdropping in the scene with the Nurse and the Tutor (96–97 and 111–114). Medea’s offstage loud lamentation and threnodic cries are audible to the onstage characters and the Chorus. In this case, the audible cries of Medea and her threats against the royal family are offstaged because Euripides is at pains to show that her wrath is so powerful and unrelenting that it breaks through from the offstage world into the onstage world reaching the ears of all the citizens of Corinth. The second instance of tragic eavesdropping is the death cries of Medea’s children piercing through the walls of the house (1270 ff.). In lines 873–881: Medea herself quotes in direct speech her thoughts. This is a remarkable way of revealing the inner life of a tragic character, when this character renders personal thoughts in direct speech. 31 Cf. also Markantonatos (2008a) 198–201. 32 See also the hapax μετακύμιος 'among the waves [i.e. of disaster]', which is favoured by Parker

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accident that the old men call upon Phoebus in his character of healer-deity: in the first stasimon they will also turn their thoughts to Apollo’s son and doctor-god, Asclepius. As they are puzzled and confused about what is exactly happening inside the palace, the Chorus describe ways in which Alcestis would be given a respite from woe, making mention of miracle-working temples such as the distant shrine of Zeus in the oasis of Siwa and the far-away oracle of Apollo in Patara, as well as imagining what would have happened if Asclepius had been still alive effecting a miracle-cure for the dying: ἀλλ’οὐδὲ ναυκληρίαν ἔσθ’ ὅποι τις αἴας στείλας, ἢ Λυκίαν εἴτ’ ἐφ’ ἕδρας ἀνύδρους Ἀμμωνιάδας, 115 δυστάνου παραλύσαι ψυχάν· μόρος γὰρ ἀπότομος πλάθει. θεῶν δ’ ἐπ’ ἐσχάραν οὐκέτ’ ἔχω τίνα μηλοθύταν πορευθῶ. 120 μόνος δ’ ἄν, εἰ φῶς τόδ’ ἦν ὄμμασιν δεδορκὼς Φοίβου παῖς, προλιπεῖν ἦνεν ἕδρας σκοτίους Ἅιδα τε πύλας· 125 δμαθέντας γὰρ ἀνίστη, πρὶν αὐτὸν εἷλε διόβολον πλῆκτρον πυρὸς κεραυνίου. νῦν δὲ βίου τίν’ ἔτ’ ἐλπίδα προσδέχωμαι; (112–130) There is no shrine on earth where one might send even by ship, either Lycia or the waterless seat of Ammon, to save the life of the ill-starred queen. Death inexorable draws nigh. And I know not to what sacrificial hearth of the gods I am to go. Only Phoebus’ son, if he still looked upon the light of the sun, would cause her to leave behind the gloomy realm and the portals of Hades. For he used to raise the dead, until the two-pronged goad of the lightning-fire killed him. But now what hope can I still cherish that she will live?

(2007) ad loc., though she considers Zacher’s invented word μετακοίμιος an ingenious solution to the problem. If we follow the manuscript tradition, here Apollo is pictured as revealing himself amidst the waves of disaster to lull the raging storm. Cf. Paley (1857) ad 91; Woolsey (18764) ad 91, who notes that ‘[t]here is, perhaps, an allusion here to Castor and Pollux, who were thought to appear in storms to sailors, and to bring about a calm’.


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As we have already noted, once the narrative focus shifts from the divine level of the action to the human plane the forceful arguments and confident assertions of Apollo and Thanatos give place to a complex network of conflicting feelings and clashing suggestions: depressing thoughts are coupled with wild flights of fancy, gloomy reflections are tied to impossible wishes. From that moment on, the human characters are constantly plagued by doubt, formulating hypotheses about how the future might have been if things had turned out differently with respect to the relationships between gods and men. After tense dialogues ending in uncertainty and mourning, the semi-choruses come together unanimous in their acknowledgement of the hopelessness of the current situation: all expeditions to the far-flung corners of the world in search of a miracle cure for the dying would definitely prove unavailing. The remarkable invocation of far-away shrines lays even more emphasis on the sheer impossibility of freeing Alcestis from the fetters of mortality, especially now that Asclepius is dead, killed by mighty Zeushurled fire-thunders. In particular, the elders of Pherae are well aware of the fact that there has never been a place of worship powerful enough to provide humans with a respite from death. This is the reason why in the second antistrophe of their song they reflect ruefully that only the son of Apollo has attained the impossible – that is, to bring men back from the shadowy halls of Hades with his supernatural therapies. The curative properties of Asclepius’s unusual medicines offer an exceptional relief of suffering that the ordinary temples and altars, however remote and exotic they might be, are unable to rival.33 Moreover, it is important not to overlook that the Chorus’ allusion to a firmly established nexus of well-regarded religious sites and age-old sacrificial ceremonies (in other words what has been so far the normal order and way in which men regularly communicate with the divine sphere) highlights the absolute uniqueness of Asclepius’ life-saving medicinal treatments, as well as the major threat posed by those same revitalization methods to the traditional harmonies between god and man.34 33 Cf. Sommerstein (2010) 99, who places due emphasis on the extraordinary prestige attached to the sanctuary of Ammon. Dunbar (1995), discussing Aristophanes’ Birds 19, notes that by the late fifth century BCE the oracle of Ammon in the Libyan Desert ‘had come to rival that of Delphi and Dodona’ (p. 407). See also Parke (1967) and (1985); Mikalson (2003) 179–180. 34 See also the choral reference to the city’s altars dripping with sacrificial blood (131–135) which has been deleted by Wheeler. The image of bloodstained altars coupled with repeated statements about the finality of the disaster chimes in with the general mood of the choral song, concluding the prayer with analogous references to the impossibility of the situation. Moreover, the idea of Admetus offering numerous sacrificial victims in honour of the gods highlights his love for his wife, as well as harking back to the scene with Apollo and Thanatos in which strong emphasis is laid on the notion of man as a sacrificial animal ready to be slaughtered at any given

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First Episode 136–212 and First Stasimon 213–237 The elder nobles look at the horrible tribulation of Alcestis from the standpoint of those citizens of Pherae who understand and feel sorry about the troubles of their king and queen. They have a distinctly sympathetic outlook on the misfortunes of the regal family because they remain loyal to their masters in the face of an unfortunate concurrence of untoward events. This does not mean to imply that their kindly thoughts find an echo in the hearts of all of the citizens of Pherae. It is reasonable to assume that Euripides favoured a varied, slightly gendered perspective on events at this juncture of the play in contrast with the Chorus’ rather neutral interpretation of the story especially with reference to the moral complexities surrounding Admetus’ escape from mortality. This assumption is fathered by the conviction that in the first Episode Euripides chose to convey information about offstage action, in particular events unfolding inside the royal oikos, by using a female character eminently suitable for this role, the Maidservant, who is so emotionally involved in Alcestis’ ordeal that she is emboldened enough to speak her mind about Admetus’ choice with a slightly disapproving tone.35 Euripides did this, moreover, because the Maidservant, contrary to the Chorus’ uncertain suppositions and tentative conclusions following from the deafening silence enveloping the palace gates, speaks about what is happening in the recesses of the house of Admetus with the certainty of an eyewitness; in fact, as she is a loquacious ἐξάγγελος, a messenger bringing out news from within, her detailed account of Alcestis’ effusion of despair at the approaching spectre of death is the longest narrative in the play (152–198 and 201–212).36 Further, the Maidservant’s story is purposely divided into two parts, the first being almost four times longer than the latter. The first narrative part focuses on the recent past, describing in depth Alcestis’ impassioned plea to the gods for benevolence towards her children and her outpouring of grief for her imminent death, while the latter zeros in on the present, elaborating on Apollo’s brief glance at the royal family. Not only does the Maidservant’s fascinating tale supply the relevant backstory to Apollo’s rare glimpse at Alcestis’ calamity, protime as a tribute to the nether deities. One may wonder whether this mention of lavish offerings to Olympus and Tartarus evokes Apollo’s proposal to Thanatos about letting human beings reach old age so that he can harvest a bigger crop of rich burials. See also Iakov (2012) ad 132–135, who wisely remains ambivalent as to the authenticity of the lines. 35 Parker (2007) 113 notes that ‘it was, however, a bold stroke, shocking, indeed to eighteenthcentury critics, to allow us, through the eyes of the maid, to see Alcestis alone’. 36 See also Riemer (1989) 84–85; de Jong (1991) 150–151; Barrett (2002) 81–83. Norwood (1954) 35 misses the point of the maidservant’s description of Alcestis’ farewell, when he argues that the servant’s speech is too deeply affecting to contribute to the groundwork of the drama.


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viding a wider perspective on what has been so far a fleeting image of domestic misery, but also gives significant details about the protagonists of the sorrowful family scene. The latter part of the Maidservant’s narrative is further proof of the wide disparity between gods and mortals. As will become plain in our discussion, the same scene that merits a passing mention on the part of an Olympian deity is deemed worthy of an emotionally charged, long description on the part of a human character. Taking her cue from the Chorus’ proleptic reference to the future glorification of Alcestis on account of her ascendancy to the peak of moral integrity (150–151), the Maidservant goes on to recount the poignant events currently taking place inside the palace:37 πῶς δ᾽ οὐκ ἀρίστη; τίς δ᾽ ἐναντιώσεται; τί χρὴ λέγεσθαι τὴν ὑπερβεβλημένην γυναῖκα; πῶς δ᾽ ἂν μᾶλλον ἐνδείξαιτό τις πόσιν προτιμῶσ᾽ ἢ θέλουσ᾽ ὑπερθανεῖν; 155 καὶ ταῦτα μὲν δὴ πᾶσ᾽ ἐπίσταται πόλις· ἃ δ᾽ ἐν δόμοις ἔδρασε θαυμάσῃ κλύων. ἐπεὶ γὰρ ᾔσθεθ᾽ ἡμέραν τὴν κυρίαν ἥκουσαν, ὕδασι ποταμίοις λευκὸν χρόα ἐλούσατ᾽, ἐκ δ᾽ ἑλοῦσα κεδρίνων δόμων 160 ἐσθῆτα κόσμον τ᾽ εὐπρεπῶς ἠσκήσατο, καὶ στᾶσα πρόσθεν Ἑστίας κατηύξατο· Δέσποιν᾽, ἐγὼ γὰρ ἔρχομαι κατὰ χθονός, πανύστατόν σε προσπίτνουσ᾽ αἰτήσομαι, τέκν᾽ ὀρφανεῦσαι τἀμά· καὶ τῷ μὲν φίλην 165 σύζευξον ἄλοχον, τῇ δὲ γενναῖον πόσιν· μηδ᾽ ὥσπερ αὐτῶν ἡ τεκοῦσ᾽ ἀπόλλυμαι θανεῖν ἀώρους παῖδας, ἀλλ᾽ εὐδαίμονας ἐν γῇ πατρῴᾳ τερπνὸν ἐκπλῆσαι βίον. πάντας δὲ βωμούς, οἳ κατ᾽ Ἀδμήτου δόμους, 170 προσῆλθε κἀξέστεψε καὶ προσηύξατο, πτόρθων ἀποσχίζουσα μυρσίνης φόβην, ἄκλαυτος ἀστένακτος, οὐδὲ τοὐπιὸν κακὸν μεθίστη χρωτὸς εὐειδῆ φύσιν. κἄπειτα θάλαμον ἐσπεσοῦσα καὶ λέχος 175 ἐνταῦθα δὴ 'δάκρυσε καὶ λέγει τάδε· Ὦ λέκτρον, ἔνθα παρθένει᾽ ἔλυσ᾽ ἐγὼ 37 See Webster (1967) 49–50.

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κορεύματ᾽ ἐκ τοῦδ᾽ ἀνδρός, οὗ θνῄσκω πάρος, χαῖρ᾽· οὐ γὰρ ἐχθαίρω σ᾽· ἀπώλεσας δέ με μόνον· προδοῦναι γάρ σ᾽ ὀκνοῦσα καὶ πόσιν 180 θνῄσκω. σὲ δ᾽ ἄλλη τις γυνὴ κεκτήσεται, σώφρων μὲν οὐκ ἂν μᾶλλον, εὐτυχὴς δ᾽ ἴσως. κυνεῖ δὲ προσπίτνουσα, πᾶν δὲ δέμνιον ὀφθαλμοτέγκτῳ δεύεται πλημμυρίδι. ἐπεὶ δὲ πολλῶν δακρύων εἶχεν κόρον, 185 στείχει προνωπὴς ἐκπεσοῦσα δεμνίων, καὶ πολλὰ θαλάμων ἐξιοῦσ᾽ ἐπεστράφη κἄρριψεν αὑτὴν αὖθις ἐς κοίτην πάλιν. παῖδες δὲ πέπλων μητρὸς ἐξηρτημένοι ἔκλαιον· ἡ δὲ λαμβάνουσ᾽ ἐς ἀγκάλας 190 ἠσπάζετ᾽ ἄλλοτ᾽ ἄλλον ὡς θανουμένη. πάντες δ᾽ ἔκλαιον οἰκέται κατὰ στέγας δέσποιναν οἰκτίροντες, ἡ δὲ δεξιὰν προύτειν᾽ ἑκάστῳ, κοὔτις ἦν οὕτω κακὸς ὃν οὐ προσεῖπε καὶ προσερρήθη πάλιν. 195 τοιαῦτ᾽ ἐν οἴκοις ἐστὶν Ἀδμήτου κακά. καὶ κατθανών τἂν ᾤχετ᾽, ἐκφυγὼν δ᾽ ἔχει τοσοῦτον ἄλγος, οὔποθ᾽ οὗ λελήσεται. (152–198) Most assuredly the noblest! Who will say she is not? What should we call the woman who surpasses her? How could any woman give greater proof that she gives her husband the place of honor than by being willing to die for him? This, of course, the whole city knows, but what she did within the house you will be amazed to hear. When she learned that the fated day had come, she bathed her pale skin in flowing water, and taking her finery from its chambers of cedar she dressed herself becomingly. And standing in front of the hearth-goddess’ altar she made her prayer: ‘Lady, since I am going now beneath the earth, as my last entreaty I ask you to care for my orphaned children: marry my son to a loving wife and give my daughter a noble husband. And may they not, like their mother, perish untimely but live out their lives in happiness in their ancestral land!’ She went to all the altars in Admetus’ house and garlanded them, breaking off a spray of myrtle for each, and prayed. There was no tear in her eye or groan in her voice, nor was the lovely color of her skin changed by her looming misfortune. Then she entered the bedchamber. Here at last she wept and said, ‘O marriage-bed, where I yielded up my virginity to my husband, the man for whose sake I am now dying, farewell! I do not hate you, although it is you alone that cause my death: it is because I shrank from abandoning you and my husband that I now die. Some other woman will possess you, luckier, perhaps, than I but not more virtuous.’ She fell on the bed and kissed it and moistened all the bedclothes with a flood of tears. When she had had enough of weeping, she tore herself from the bed and walked bent with weakness, and again and again, as she was going out of the chamber, she turned back and threw herself


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upon the bed once more. Now the children were hanging onto their mother’s gown and weeping, and she, taking them into her arms, gave them each her last kiss. All of the servants in the house were weeping and bewailing their mistress. She reached out her hand to each of them, and none was so lowly that she did not address him and receive his blessing in return. Such are the troubles in Admetus’ house. And if he had died he would be gone, but since he has escaped death, he lives with such grief as he shall never forget.

Like a typical tragic Messenger, she calls attention to her amazing story (157, ἃ δ’ ἐν δόμοις ἔδρασε θαυμάσῃ κλύων, ‘but what she did within the house you will be amazed to hear’), placing strong emphasis on the exclusiveness of her information in contradistinction to what is widely known about the royal troubles amidst the people of Pherae.38 It is a common practice for messengers on their arrival to state as briefly as possible the core message of their narrative. It is also very common for this kind of messenger-like storytellers to open their account proper with the temporal adverb ἐπεὶ (158), which frequently introduces the crucial event that plays the role of the catalyst for a new episode in the mythical tale.39 Alcestis is purposely described as having a well-developed instinct for danger: she is said to have felt, without advance warning, that the day on which she is destined to depart this life has finally come. Apparently she could tell that her end is near judging from the first symptoms of the mysterious malady that is to eat away at her life so rapidly. In any case, her unmistakable realization of the coming doom is amazing in itself. It is not without significance that here Alcestis is pictured as possessing almost superhuman mental faculties.40 Indeed, the notion of Alcestis as inhabiting a place far beyond the human sphere on account of her remarkable prescience is extremely important for what is to follow within the house. The Maidservant turns the narrative spotlight on the grief-stricken queen, making use of a wide range of narratorial techniques. The scenes of Alcestis’ preparation for her passing away are intercut by long citations of her own voice. In particular, there is a twice-repeated schema consisting of certain religious activities in front 38 See a similar claim in the messenger-speech of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Not unlike the Maidservant’s confidence in the amazing nature of her story about what happened within the skênê, the follower of Theseus lays stress on the amazing events that have taken place in the recesses of the skênê – that is, inside the tabooed grove of the Eumenides. Cf. also Markantonatos (2002) 132–133. 39 See Rijksbaron (1976); Markantonatos (2002) 135. 40 The scene is strongly reminiscent of blind Oedipus’ wondrous entrance into the grove of the Eumenides unaided, where he found the fated place of his passing led by an inner impulse or the god himself. In a similar fashion, his daughters bathe Oedipus and provide him with clean clothes to wear moments before his mysterious disappearance. Cf. Markantonatos (2002) esp. 135–137.

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of altars within the palace followed by Alcestis’ quoted words. These narrative patternings reach a climax in a series of farewell scenes with Alcestis, her children, and the house servants. Once Alcestis felt the presence of Death within the house, her instinctive reaction was to bathe herself in fresh water from an unsullied stream and then put on her most excellent attire. Aside from the fact that both the ceremonial bath in fresh water and the donning of a fine apparel evoke the preliminaries of the funeral proper during which the body of the deceased is carefully cleansed and fittingly clothed so as to be buried with due honour, Alcestis’ extraordinary sudden impulse to prepare herself for her imminent slipping away creates an atmosphere of numinous awe, more suitable for a godlike being rather than a young woman on the brink of death. Alcestis has such an enormous confidence and strength of purpose in the face of inevitable disaster that she reminds one of those heroic personalities who prescient as they are of the coming danger never cease to show unflinching courage and gritty determination. Alcestis is the cynosure of all eyes. By focusing attention on the almost superhuman figure of Alcestis making herself ready to meet her death with absolute coolness and self-possession under what must have been at that moment immense emotional pressure, the narratrix conveys a harrowing sense of utter loneliness and personal tribulation: the finery with which she dresses herself so becomingly (161, ἐσθῆτα κόσμον τ’ εὐπρεπῶς ἠσκήσατο) is none other than the attire held in store for her own burial, as the Maidservant herself has already told the elders (149, κόσμος γ' ἕτοιμος, ᾧ σφε συνθάψει πόσις, ‘The finery in which her husband will bury her is ready’). Against this backdrop of mystical wonder and dignified grief, Alcestis, all dressed up in her most exquisite garments, is said to have stood in front of the altar of Hestia and entreated the goddess to save her children from harm (163– 169). Her affectionate prayer is given in direct speech, affording us a rare glimpse into the complex recesses of her heart, as well as highlighting the importance of Alcestis as a character in the play, where no one is quoted in a secondary narrative but her alone and Charon himself. We cannot overestimate the significance of this narrational mechanism of quoted speech; it is, among other things, a helpful way of painting the most intense of passions with frankness and straightforwardness, together with giving distinctiveness and individuality to a portrait. Those little private touches, sudden changes of heart, and minute personality traits put flesh – indeed muscles – on the bones of an offstage character. By presenting directly the speech of this character the dramatist allows the audience to have direct access to her behaviour and to assess it. More than this, repeating the exact words of the dramatis personae serves to project fears and guesses, inferences from the past onto the future, thereby


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touching a depth of at least two levels of narrative embedding.41 Alcestis’ impassioned plea for the welfare of her son and daughter adumbrates a special kind of life which stands in total contrast to her own. In particular, she prays that her children find happiness in their marriage and, more pointedly, live long enough to grow old in their homeland. Apart from the recurrent theme of untimely death and the attendant motif of personal fulfilment through a successful struggle for survival, Alcestis’ reference to a blissful life in the land of one’s birth has great significance because this is indeed what she failed to achieve when she left her native town Iolcus to marry Admetus at Pherae.42 Furthermore, according to the Maidservant, Alcestis visited all the altars and decorated them with a small branch of myrtle, a funerary symbol par excellence.43 The narratrix speaks of altars in Admetus’ house rather than making mention of the palace in a more general fashion (170, πάντας δὲ βωμούς, οἳ κατ’ Ἄδμητου δόμους, ‘She went to all the altars in Admetus’ house’), thereby putting some distance between Alcestis and Admetus’ abode. It is, after all, in that very house of Admetus that having left her native city Alcestis came to stay as a bride and therewith undertook the unenviable task of sacrificing her life to save her husband. In agreement with the dominant narrative format, there is a long citation full of mournful emotions, but before that Alcestis is described as staying surprisingly cool, calm, and collected in the present crisis (173–174). In this case the Maidservant uses the typical λέγει (176) as the verbum dicendi in contrast to the previous introductory verb, the highly emotive κατηύξατο (162), thus laying stress on Alcestis’ admirable composure. Moreover, it is important to observe that the extensive quotation from Alcestis’ effusion of excessive grief (177–182) follows her entrance into the royal bedchamber, signalling a slight deviation from the narrative plan of ritual activity preceding a passage of oratio recta. This prolonged narrative digression is filled with symbolism, and is also used by the dramatist as a narrative device for making interconnections between different time periods. It would not be too bold to suggest that this minor divergence from the prevalent narrative model is deliberate, not only investing the nuptial bed with the great religious significance of a family shrine but also marking a new phase in the way Alcestis deals with her impending doom, caught as she is in the storm and stress of the offstage action. In particular, although Alcestis appears to have taken a firm grip on the terrible situation coping admirably with the horrendous prospect of premature 41 See recently Markantonatos (2012h) and (2013b), who discusses at length this narrative device. Bers (1997) remains fundamental. 42 Cf. also Thomson (1898) 102. 43 See Parker (2007) ad 172; Iakov (2012) ad 172 with further references.

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death, her cool-headedness and self-assurance suddenly collapse upon entering her marriage bedroom. The image of her nuptial bed lets loose a tide of doleful sentiment, as she finally breaks down and starts to weep uncontrollably. Like another altar of Hestia, the marriage bed becomes the focus of powerful crisis-feelings, as well as the trigger for murky flashbacks and sad projections. In fact, this series of well-connected analepses and prolepses, strung tightly around the nuptial bed, ranges widely from Alcestis’ first wedding night to her brave decision to give up her life for Admetus and her gloomy prognostication that some other woman will take her place in the palace. This neatly tabulated chronology highlights not only the immensity of her sacrifice but also her unsurpassed self-denying virtue. The quoted passage from her sad musings offers in the most emphatic way possible a revealing insight into the actual motivation behind her assent to Admetus’ proposal, setting Apollo’s impassive flashback to her promise and Thanatos’ problematical version of her agreement in a far wider ethical context. Unlike the gods’ passing glances at Alcestis’ moment of truth, her own no less brief but highly emotional analepsis allows deep access to her inner life, bringing out with vivid force not only her high moral standards but also her entirely rational thinking. Alcestis does not have an unkind bone in her body; nor does she allow resentment to cloud her reasoning. She has such a forgiving nature coupled with a common-sense way of thinking that the bitterness and tears have not congealed into hatred. It is purely out of respect for her marriage vows that she offers to die in Admetus’ place, knowing all too well that she could have survived her husband and continued living her life with her children. The analepsis of her crucial choice reveals that the keeping of the nuptial promising bonds has been one of the most important motivational factors in her final decision. This unmediated outpouring of sorrow underlines her highly developed moral sense, her ethical obligation to stay true to her conscience. Further than this, Alcestis’ cited words serve as her first response to the horrendous prospect of her premature death, providing a valuable yardstick by which to measure her firm onstage requests for her husband’s celibacy. Her thoughts on the complicated matter of Admetus’ survival will prove instructive of her personal way of dealing with the crisis in another respect. Although she is certain that a new bride will take possession of the marriage bed (181, σὲ δ’ ἄλλη τις γυνὴ κεκτήσεται, ‘Some other woman will possess you’), soon enough she will change her mind asking Admetus not to marry after her death. This point is not in the slightest trifling and insignificant because it reveals with realistic plainness the contrast between the offstage and the onstage personas of Alcestis. It is clear to see that the character of the queen develops in the stream of life, experiencing swift changes of mood from courageous determination and unrelenting self-con-


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trol to terrified hopelessness and desperate resignation back again to bold assertiveness and unshakeable self-confidence. Be that as it may, Alcestis emerges in the end as an admirable figure capable of acting calmly and rationally, though she loses control of her emotions momentarily. For it should be said that she has never been shy of praising herself for her right thinking and eminent good sense. In the prediction of her husband’s new marriage, she rules out the possibility that the future bride will surpass her in soundness of mind (182, σώφρων), thereby dropping a broad hint that the pragmatic analysis of her situation has been a more powerful motivator than merely visceral drives. For the time being, however, the Maidservant focuses more closely on the intense emotions flooding over Alcestis while she bids farewell to her bridal chamber, her children, and the palace servants (183–195). Alcestis is not alone in her inconsolable weeping: this release of irrepressible feelings of unhappiness provoking an endless river of tears is the prelude to a spontaneous outpouring of loud sobs and threnodic cries on the part of the children and the servants.44 Moreover, there is here a narratory compression in the single recounting of similar movements and gestures. This iterative type of narration places constant emphasis on one-to-one relationships, as well as underlining the equal status of all those involved in the events. In fact, Alcestis makes a point of saying her farewells, addressing and greeting each one of those around her regardless of age and social standing, thereby treating even the lowliest on the same footing as her family members. It is interesting to note that this increasing tempo of high emotion and mournful keening culminates in the servants’ unconcealed lamentation, as Alcestis’ sobbing diffuses rapidly down the levels of the social pyramid. In this case, the hand of the narratrix is evident in putting her social class centre stage.45 More specifically, it should always be remembered that the offstage events are being constantly filtered through the prism of a female servant who is inextricably involved in her mistress’ tribulation. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the description of the harrowing leave-taking scene begins with the recurring analepsis of Alcestis flinging herself time and time again upon the bed her eyes filled with tears (183–188), continues with her weeping children clinging pathetically to her clothes (189–191), and reaches a climax with the house servants bewailing her and taking turns to speak to her for the last time (192–195). Brief mention should also be made to the repetition of the ordinary verb ἔκλαιον (190, 44 On the importance of the social environment, see Diller (1960) 92. 45 See Appleton (1927) 119, who rightly observes that ‘[i]n Euripides […] we find not only a remarkable consideration for the feelings of slaves, but also a remarkable loyalty of slaves towards their masters’. Cf. also Brandt (1973) 44–45.

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192) which throws into sharp relief the maid’s strikingly high poetic diction as regards the description of Alcestis’ uncontainable tear-floods (183–184). However sincere and heartfelt the lamentations of the onlookers, they are obviously rather tamed compared to Alcestis’ welter of charged emotions, as she has to prepare herself for her own death, her eyes growing misty to the point of drenching the bedcovers. Up until the point where the Maid’s narrative keeps bringing the mournful sentiments of the palace residents into sharp focus there has never been a single mention of Admetus, who appears to have been denied any active involvement in Alcestis’ ‘last day on this earth’ scene; in fact, the narrative spotlight remains purposely trained on the lacerated figure of Alcestis and the grief-stricken bystanders. It is all the more striking for that reason that the Maidservant concludes her account with a telling reference to Admetus, dropping a broad hint that his privilege of living past the allotted time of his death has gained him only inconsolable sorrow and unending torment: τοιαῦτ’ ἐν οἴκοις ἐστὶν Ἀδμήτου κακά. καὶ κατθανών τἂν ᾤχετ’, ἐκφυγὼν δ’ ἔχει τοσοῦτον ἄλγος, οὔποθ’ οὗ λελήσεται. (196–198) Such are the troubles in Admetus’ house. And if he had died he would be gone, but since he has escaped death, he lives with such grief as he shall never forget.

More importantly, with this startling contrafactive utterance, the Maid points to an alternative narrative path, an altogether different version of the story, in which Admetus would have departed this life instead of winning out over death with the help of Apollo. The use of ᾤχετ’ (197), in particular, is expressive of the narrator’s yearning for closure in a situation which appears not only fiendishly complex but also extraordinarily weird, continuously rebuffing the resolution of its prior issues and hard-edged tensions. In other words, with evident frustration at the strange turn of events, the Maidservant considers the possibility of a different outcome of the tale without however being all that careless and audacious to express open disapproval of Admetus’ policy in the presence of the elder Thessalian nobles. One is tempted to argue that overcome with emotion the Maid suggests that the severe disadvantages of the Apolline plan far outweigh the rather few advantages, making out a strong case for what has been so far the well-ordered scheme of things with regard to the age-old interrelationships between gods and men. It seems, therefore, that Thanatos is not alone in raising serious doubts about


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the practical effectiveness and moral legitimacy of Apollo’s deceptive stratagem, but there is yet another character, human for that matter, who is not excitedly enthusiastic of this cosmic disturbance. In fact, the Maid is very conscious of the serious problems involved, especially once she is brought face-to-face with the dire repercussions of so violent a disruption, repercussions that, to be sure, will continue to reverberate throughout the world for a long time. All in all, this is another contrafactive statement in a long series of similar hypothetical suggestions and speculative utterances, bringing an altered situation of plot to the fore, which wishes to break away from the dominant end-determined narrative process and form a new state of affairs. It should be noted, however, that the Maid’s fictive scenario is distinctively realistic to the point of being cynically elemental, adumbrating a return to normality – that is, a return to the earlier, age-honoured arrangements between the divine sphere and the human world. Surely, this is characteristic of someone who feels the loss of Alcestis very deeply, but, nonetheless, remains a minority speculation in view of the approaching tidal wave of wish-fantasies and hypothetical statements asking for the impossible. Further, while the first part of the Maidservant’s account ends in intriguing supposition about how things would have been if Apollo had never derailed the smooth run of the system moderating the inexorable process of human condition from the beginning of time, the latter part gives us yet another rare glimpse of the royal family, not only enlarging upon the previous fleeting analepsis of the same domestic scene but also revealing crucial details concerning the principal agents of the offstage event as they are mirrored in the narrative window and certain traits of their personality are revealed by it. As we have already noted, one cannot help being aware that the idea of repetition goes to the heart of the intricately complex relationship between story and narrative, allowing the audience to perceive how the entire play hinges on the telling and retelling of past and future, the accounting, recounting, and even discounting of the characters’ actions, and principally the special ways in which infinitesimal discrepancies, not to mention of course substantial changes in different versions of the same set of events demand the mind to construct and reconstruct constantly novel patterns of sequence and consequence.46 The narrative coda of the Maid’s long account offers an illustrative example of how causality can be produced by tiny modifications and minor alterations, by addition of new narrative material, and, more importantly, by reinterpretation and revision of offstage action. The Maidservant responds to yet another hypoth46 Cf. also Markantonatos (2012h), who highlights the importance of repetition in tragic narration.

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esis, this time formulated by the Chorus who assume reasonably that Admetus must be grieving over these misfortunes (199–200), by describing the moving scene of Admetus holding Alcestis in his arms, refusing to accept the inevitable: κλαίει γ’ ἄκοιτιν ἐν χεροῖν φίλην ἔχων καὶ μὴ προδοῦναι λίσσεται, τἀμήχανα ζητῶν· φθίνει γὰρ καὶ μαραίνεται νόσῳ, παρειμένη δέ, χειρὸς ἄθλιον βάρος,

ὅμως δέ, καίπερ σμικρὸν ἐμπνέουσ’ ἔτι, 205 βλέψαι πρὸς αὐγὰς βούλεται τὰς ἡλίου ὡς οὔποτ’ αὖθις, ἀλλὰ νῦν πανύστατον [ἀκτῖνα κύκλον θ’ ἡλίου προσόψεται]. (201–208) Yes, he weeps, holding his beloved wife in his arms, and he begs her not to abandon him, asking for the impossible. For she is waning and wasting with her malady. And now, her body limp, a pitiful burden in his arms, . Still, although she has scarcely any breath within her, she wishes once more to look on the light of the sun since it is now for the last time and never again that she does so [she will look upon the ray and orb of the sun].

Generally speaking, through the accounts of the secondary narrators the dramatist is able to present various versions and interpretations of the story and to allow the audience to increasingly accumulate elements of the story that will allow them to solve the puzzle of the occurrence of certain events and their causality. It is important to note that, while in Apollo’s passing reference to the same event there was no mention of the relative who supports Alcestis with his hands, in this new version of the poignant snapshot Admetus himself is revealed to be the one assisting the frail woman to move through the house. Though the latter part of the Maid’s narrative is not as long as the first, it does not lack vividness and emotive intensity. The main differences between the two sections lie in the fact that the first is genuinely analeptic, while the latter describes events that are presently happening within the palace. There is also an important difference in the special ways in which the narrator regulates the flow of the characters’ words, overtly preferring the indirect speech in the scene with Alcestis and Admetus rather than the direct speech, so emphatically used in the farewell scene with the children and the servants. Moreover, it must always be remembered that the Maid’s narrative afterthought, contrary to the main body of her description, has


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a distinctly intratextual significance in view of Apollo’s cursory but adequately revealing glance at the offstage world earlier on in the play.47 The Maidservant has already made mention of Alcestis’ growing physical weakness, purposely using the rare word προνωπής (186) to describe her drooping posture; the same word of uncertain derivation was used earlier in the dialogue between the Maid and the old men with regard to Alcestis’ inability to walk upright as a result of her fatal illness (143, ἤδη προνωπής ἐστι καὶ ψυχορραγεῖ).48 The choice of this uncommon word calls attention to the strong connection between the Maidservant’s narrative and Apollo’s reference to Alcestis’ ordeal; in particular, line 143 harks back to Apollo’s glimpse of the royal family within the palace halls (19–20, ἣ νῦν κατ’ οἴκους ἐν χεροῖν βαστάζεται / ψυχορραγοῦσα, thereby associating closely the Maid’s twice-repeated sketchy portrayal of the feeble queen with the god’s fleeting glance at offstage action. These snapshots of extra drama events, forming a useful matrix of illuminating descriptions, are part of a widespread narratorial strategy of using embedded narrative modes to weave parallel stories integrally into the onstage action.49 Moreover, this thread of glancing mentions allows the audience to break through from onstage time to offstage time, from one narrative sphere to another narrative sphere, revealing another orbit out of the main narrative which is occupied by those same characters inhabiting the onstage world. In this particular case, as we have already noted, the spectators are deprived of the immediacy of direct speech, and they have to settle for the less vivid but by no means lackluster indirect speech. In fact, the use of reported speech draws some important themes into nearer focus by juxtaposing certain words in new and sudden combinations, by enriching the narrative with more subtle touches of tone and language that paint the portraits of the human characters with some rather powerful strokes. Although the absence of extracts from the protagonists’ direct discourse creates a deliberate distance between the royal couple who struggle with their personal ordeal and the various onlookers who seem to disappear from view, the reported speech of Admetus (202, καὶ μὴ προδοῦναι λίσσεται) reminds one of the pitiful words of Alcestis, cited in the first part of the Maid’s account (180–181, [...] προδοῦναι γάρ σ’ ὀκνοῦσα καὶ πόσιν / θνῄσκω). There Alcestis explained in all her dignity and goodwill the reason why she decided to take her husband’s place on the road to death. Ironically enough, Admetus entreats his wife not to betray him by abandoning him, whereas we know all too well that Alcestis would have

47 On intratextuality, see (e.g.) Sharrock & Morales (2001). 48 Cf. also Parker (2007) ad 143. 49 On embedded narrative modes, see recently Markantonatos (2012h) and (2013b).

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betrayed him had she chosen to cling tenaciously on to life, making light of her wedding vows.50 Nevertheless, seen from another point of view, his entreaty highlights very well his untenable position (201–202), making his character stand before the audience in almost bodily reality, as he is revealingly compared to the calm and composed figure of his wife, who is still capable of rational thinking in spite of utter misfortune. In particular, λίσσεται (202), the verb introducing Admetus’ indirect speech, underlines his feeling of impotence in the face of an apparently insoluble problem; βούλεται (206), by contrast, the verb introducing Alcestis’ oratio obliqua, reinforces the notion of the queen as an admirable woman of immense inner strength and determination, capable of remaining in full control of her mental faculties. This is all the more so, principally because βούλεται comes after a litany of verbs and expressions reminding us again and again of Alcestis’ rapid physical declining (203, φθίνει, μαραίνεται, 204, παρειμένη, ἄθλιον βάρος, 205a, , , 205b, σμικρὸν ἐμπνέουσα). More than that, the same verb indicates some of the main qualities and attributes of Alcestis, who is soon to appear onstage laying down hard and fast rules of conduct for her spouse, as well as making sure her claims for the future of her family are duly respected. It could be said that Admetus provides a perfect foil for the power and vigour of Alcestis, who asks to see the light of the sun for the last time despite her physical and emotional exhaustion; his kindness and piety aside, he is no match for her at voluntary self-devotion and force of personality. This the narrator is at pains to emphasize with so subtle a touch as the employment of the ordinary verb κλαίει (201), thereby grouping him together with the rest of the onlookers whose eyes are filled with tears (190, 192) but are obviously unable to experience the horrible change from life to the shadowy nothingness of death, as indeed only Alcestis would. Unlike her children and the servants, Alcestis is memorably pictured as bursting into an unprecedented eye-wetting flood before taking a grip on herself. In this way, not only the sufferings of the royal couple come home to the hearts of the spectators straightforwardly, but also the sharp contrast between desperate Admetus and determined Alcestis, emphatically established by the equally sharp contrast between λίσσεται and βούλεται, paves the way for their pathetic scene after the first stasimon. One should always remember that it is in the Maid’s detailed account that through reported discourse and psychological commentary the chief tensions and imbalances in the complex relationship between these two principal figures are established for the first time in the play. When the Maid exits into the palace, the old men of Pherae resume their narrative strategy of formulating suppositions upon suppositions about what will 50 Cf. also Paduano (1968a) 41–43; Mastronarde (2010) 269–270.


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come of this crisis, making wishful statements upon wishful statements, entreating the gods for some way out of hardship.51 They pray to Zeus and Apollo as in fact they did before when they called upon Zeus Ammon and Lycian Apollo (112– 115) in their company-song in the parodos.52 Having listened to the Maid’s narrative, they have come to realize that Alcestis is doomed, unless some god offers release from disaster, and, thus, after a while a deep sense of despair overwhelms them. Their antiphonal wish-fantasies fade away swiftly, ending in the most terrifying fictive prolepsis of absolute wretchedness for Admetus (228–229, αἰαῖ· ἄξια καὶ σφαγᾶς / τάδε, καὶ πλέον ἢ βρόχῳ δέραν / οὐρανίῳ πελάσσαι, ‘Oh, this calls for death by the sword and is more than enough to put one’s neck in a noose hung high’). Considering the imminent loss of Alcestis, they come to the sad recognition that it would be far better for Admetus to put an end to his misery by taking his own life either by killing himself with the sword or hanging himself. For the old men the thought of the future is a cause for anguish rather than hopefulness. It remains to be seen whether Admetus, whose mind is a cataract of inconsolable grief and unconquerable sorrow, will be driven to despair and commit suicide, thereby rendering Apollo’s benefaction yet another ineffectual attempt to break out from harsh human reality.

Alcestis’ Monody 244–279 and Second Episode 280–434 Against this background of clashing suggestions and depressing thoughts about the future, conflicting propositions and sad prognostications of coming disasters, the narrational formation of the second Episode of the play is stretched to breaking point, braiding together numerous narrative stretches that either cut boldly back and forth or unveil an uncanny reality far beyond the human sphere. It is fair to say that, contrary to the limits set by the theatre’s motionless primary-narrative frame, the narrational density during Alcestis’ final hour is such that all subordinate storylines are so expertly integrated as to defy successive time and spatial boundaries. For that reason, I shall argue that the death scene of Alcestis is the most narratologically complex scene in the play, weaving together numerous narrative strands to make a single powerful fabric.53 In particular, in 51 On the Chorus’ searching questions about Alcestis’ welfare, see Iakov (1998b) and (2012) ad 213–214 & 215. 52 Cf. Centanni (1991) 90; Mitchell-Boyask (2008) 132–133. 53 The death scene of Alcestis is remarkable for its metrical variety –that is, the admixture of emotive lyrical metres and dispassionate iambic trimeters. Cf. Mahaffy (1879) 119; Barlow (1971) 57; Roisman (2000); Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 180–181 (see further Tsolakidou 2012, esp. 1–6).

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order to add further layers of meaning and dramatic force to the event of Alcestis’ onstage passing to the underworld, Euripides makes use of manifold narrative lines which are carefully threaded through this fundamental occasion, as well as retarding and elaborating crucial events to make room for extraordinary effects of anticipation or response. The death of Alcestis is indeed the narrative hub of the play, the rest are secondary storylines that keep revolving incessantly around it, bundling together spatial and temporal dimensions in a remarkable common arrangement – or, to put it another way, at this crucial juncture of the play the slipping away of Alcestis not only opens up several purposeful perspectives on past, present, and future, but also exerts an extraordinary gravitational pull on various secondary narrative lines.54 This is the moment when the life of Alcestis is critically balanced on the point of utmost intensity, and so is the conflation of various temporal elements, the collocation of onstage actions and multiple parallel offstage fields. In the purposely extended death scene of Alcestis the dimensions of time and space melt into one, giving the protagonist a revelatory insight into the highly complicated interrelationships between man and god, indeed between man and man: for a while the whole history of the world hangs poised on Alcestis, turns on her as axis. This remarkable unbinding of numerous narrative knots filled as they are with resonant imagery touches Alcestis with spirituality, manifesting her direct attunement with powers more than human. The exit of Alcestis, Admetus, the children, and their attendants from the palace gate brings the reported world onstage for the audience to see and appraise without any narrative glass distorting their view. It is important, however, to emphasize once again that every tragic play is constructed as an intricate assemblage of embedded narratives; and as a matter of fact a wide assortment of them strongly evokes places beyond the visible dramatic setting, especially places within the skênê imperceptible to the audience. As I have already noted in the On Alcestis’ monody, see Schadewaldt (1926) 143–147; Webster (1970) 144–145; Kakridis (1971b); di Benedetto (1971) 25–26. Cf. also Lorch (1988) 76 and (1989); Chong-Gossard (2008) 80–83, who explores the gender-specific language of Alcestis, arguing, unconvincingly in my view, that this epirrhematic amoibaion ‘can also be read as a scene of female self-assertion and resistance to comfort’ (p. 80). 54 Countless critics have expressed their profound respect for Alcestis’ self-sacrificing virtue, as well as her conjugal love and motherly care; in fact, her voluntary death has earned her a distinctive place among the noblest figures in Greek tragedy’s great gallery of heroes and heroines. Cf. (e.g.) Murray (19572) 57 & n. 6, who, counting Alcestis among the distinguished company of Oedipus, Orestes, Prometheus, Eteocles, Menoeceus, and Antigone, rightly argues that ‘[t]he Greek hero, when he suffers, almost always suffers in order to save others’; Stadter (1975); Humphreys (2004) 70; Susanetti (2005) passim and (2007) 13–42.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

previous chapter, the tragic narrative faces outward towards the discernible here and now of the story but also inward towards unseen spaces in the recesses of the scene-building. The obvious dramaturgical advantage of this two-way tragic narration is the superimposition of one narrative line on the other without having to transpose main action to different scenery or employ so complicated a theatrical gimmickry as the ekkyklêma in order to adapt for the stage what may just as well be recounted. More importantly, the stream of information guiding the audience to assemble a picture of offstage events not only gives adequate warning that the onstage action is by no means a line free of all intrication and complexity, open simply to eyesight, but also offers a backdrop and a framework in the sense of setting off what is put in front of the spectators, besides encouraging comparisons between particular dramatized and reported incidents. The second Episode of the play re-enacts the strains and asymmetries, the stresses and differences in the relationship between Admetus and Alcestis, placing strong emphasis on Admetus’ yielding and tractable disposition, as well as on Alcestis’ firm and indomitable character. This does not mean, nonetheless, that both leading figures stand unalterable in their attributes and traits. Though Alcestis is steadfast and unshaken as a rock in her determination to offer her life to save her husband, eventually she modifies considerably her overall stance on family issues. Admetus, on the other hand, slowly resigns to the fact that there can be no god-given release from Alcestis’ suffering, ultimately agreeing to grant her requests at considerable cost to his personal well-being. From a purely narratological pespective, it is in this second episode of the play that Euripides gathers up all the dismal versions of the future into a unified picture of absolute disaster, giving the audience a solid ground on the basis of which they can read the story as a pitiless narrative machine churning out human suffering and grief. In particular, the demands made by Alcestis on her husband, Admetus’ obedient acquiescence in his wife’s resolute appeals, and his pathetic proclamation of endless mourning, as well as the male child’s unremittingly gloomy accounts of the future, spin a terrifying web of analepses and prolepses, thereby accumulating enough narrational bulk to create a nightmarish world of eternal sadness. Fortunately for mankind, at the close of the play the conditions imposed by the human characters prove more frangible than Apollo’s hopeful prognostication; the future of the story recombined by the human players according to their plans and ambitions turns out to be all too provisional and incomplete. But, until this series of desperate human attempts to deal with immense misfortune is cut short by Heracles’ breach of the terrible deadlock in the third Episode, as well as by the hopeful recovery of mystical promises in the conclud-

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ing scenes, the play remains primarily concerned with the full unravelling of a tightly woven narrative of utter devastation and boundless grieving. From the very first words of Alcestis speaking of flitting forms and supernatural manifestations it becomes more than evident that frightening external forces haunt the onstage action, bringing a divine control-level to bear on the unscrambling of what as yet seems a confused narrative signal. Once more divided storylines begin to converge, and the net of action draws tighter in space and time: this is the moment when every person, place, word, and deed is set in a tangled web of stories which embrace the past, present, and future, as well as onstage and offstage areas. The dramatist creates for the audience a complex spatio-temporal experience. The narrative line of Apollo and Thanatos, shadowily present as oblique echoes dispersed in fragmentary allusions throughout the previous scenes, comes into view. Alcestis’ premonitory vision of Charon and Hades demanding her immediate submission to the powers below is a brilliant moment of narrative economy. It picks up the storyline of Thanatos from where it was cut off at the end of the Prologue and was therewith conveniently sucked into the offstage narrational turbine (which extracts energy from the onstage fluid flow of information and converts it into powerful narrative work) and grafts it into the plot yet again. Once again this narrative line, populated as it is by outlandish, ghoulish personages, finds its way into the play remarkably enriched and diversified; the fearsome images of Charon and Hades mark the return of the repressed tale of Thanatos’ proclaimed sacrificial activities. At a deeper level, these ghastly apparitions of infernal divinities invite the audience to reflect that in this play the hidden world of Tartarus comes to the human surface as something that can never emerge as sense data or phenomena but for Alcestis alone. More than this, they demand the mind to look back on the offstage scenes with Alcestis and her family within the royal halls and recognize behind the suffering and grief the powerful invisible presence of implacable forces proceeding with the performance of their sacrificial duties in the face of Apollo’s diametrically opposing proclamation. They undo the supposed causal links that appear to bind together in tight chains the offstage events as they follow one another in the Maid’s detailed narrative, challenging the coherence of particular emotionally charged incidents, as well as the possibility of synthesizing them around the conception of Alcestis’ demise as another inevitably typical human death. The numinous epiphany of Charon and Hades gives expression to their frustration at the contravention of their prerogatives, besides revealing the great importance attached to the unobstructed conveyance of Alcestis to the abode of the dead. In the final analysis, the passing of Alcestis is seen as a litmus test of their authority over humankind.


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It is, then, at this time not at all difficult for the spectators to imagine Death carrying on with his horrible sacrifice regardless of entreaties and prayers on the part of the living, while Alcestis and her relatives are experiencing the dire consequences of his indiscernible workings inside the palace.55 Helpless human beings interpret as the deeply resented beginning of their doom what Thanatos calls, in macabre metaphorical language, the sanctification of his victim through the cutting of a lock of hair with the sword. Apparently, now that Death has performed his task of consecrating Alcestis to the gods below the earth with his blade, Charon the ferryman of the dead and pitiless Hades take over to complete the gruesome ceremony. Thus the phantoms of those horrifying divinities indicate not only a supernatural narrational substratum constantly underlying human action but also the last phase of Alcestis’ passing to the underworld, making a narrative incursion into the present to reveal the inexorability and relentlessness of the chthonic deities at a moment of deep emotional impact. Not unlike Orestes’ disturbing visions of the Erinyes in Aeschylus’ Choephori 1061 and Pentheus’ muddled visualization of two Suns, a double Thebes, and beast-like Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae 918–922, Alcestis’ unnerving and fear-provoking vision of Charon’s two-oared boat in lake Acheron highlights her utter loneliness at the time of her terminal experience, principally because she and no one else is capable of seeing and hearing the terrible ferryman of the departed.56 Her penetrating gaze into the netherworld stands in total contrast to Admetus’ complete narrational nescience; his is only the task to lament the impossibility of getting outside the complicated narrative maze into which each and every one of the human characters finds oneself entrapped on account of Apollo’s controversial plan to cheat the Fates of their prey. It is moreover here that the play carries the strongest narrative punch of all: multiple narrative lines, viewpointed through Alcestis alone, slot together in a preterhuman experience. Alcestis breaks through at the moment of the acutest narrational tension from mortal time to divine eternity, while Admetus slowly becomes socially isolated.57 His narratory segregation anticipates his future of unaccompanied darkness; by 55 Interestingly enough, at the turn of the twentieth century critics, unversed in the intricacies of tragic narration, interpreted the arrival of the Death-figure as purely decorative, given that ‘very little more is heard of any activity on Death’s part’ (Whitmore 1915, 65–66). Cf. also Klotsche (1919) 6–7, who argues that ‘[s]uch fancies are nothing unusual in a woman who is approaching inevitable death’ (p. 6). 56 According to the Chorus, the lake must be the Acheron and not the Acherousia. There is no doubt a conflation of the two names and the images of Charon punting his boat in a lake or down the river Acheron or Acherousia. 57 See also Barlow (1971) 56–57. On seen and unseen in Greek tragedy, see Zeitlin (1990) 75–78; Padel (1990) and (1992).

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contrast, Alcestis is never shut out of the unfolding stories, asserting and capitalizing upon her informational lead over her husband and children as the ultimate superior authority. In her monody, Alcestis feels the stab of visceral horror at the approaching spectre of death: she rises from her couch in spite of her physical exhaustion and describes vividly the portentous image of Charon holding the boat pole with his hand:58 ὁρῶ δίκωπον ὁρῶ σκάφος ἐν λίμνᾳ· νεκύων δὲ πορθμεὺς ἔχων χέρ’ ἐπὶ κοντῷ Χάρων μ’ ἤδη καλεῖ· Τί μέλλεις; 255 ἐπείγου· σὺ κατείργεις. τάδε τοί με σπερχόμενος ταχύνει. (252–257) I see the two-oared boat in the lake. Charon, the ferryman of the dead, his hand on the boat pole, calls me now: “Why are you tarrying? Make haste, you hinder my going!” He speaks impatiently, urging me on with these words.

Although her account is brief, surely because she is caught up in a whirling vortex of emotion, and her physical powers are waning rapidly, it resonates with complex themes and sentiments through the skilful combination of a horde of narrational techniques such as repetition, description, reproduction of direct speech, and narrative commentary. It goes without saying that in polar contrast to Admetus’ spoken verses, the lyric mode deepens the impression of Alcestis’ noble isolation, as well as endowing her death-song phantoms with even more

58 It is worth noting that in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus Oedipus is not alone in sensing the presence of chthonic powers; but nonetheless in this play the communal element takes precedence over individual suffering, though it is right to suggest alongside Abbott (1880) that ‘the inward consciousness of innocence makes the outward suffering of less moment’ (p. 66). Compare similar narrative techniques used in the cases of the death scenes of Ajax, Antigone, and Iphigenia, in which the protagonist becomes a world in itself where past, present and future are related inextricably. On the possibility of motion, as well as singing, see Ley (2007) 89. On the intertextual filiations between the Euripidean play and Sophocles’ Ajax and Antigone (as well as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Eumenides), see Italie (1950); Blumenthal (1974); Aélion (1983) II.132–137; Kilpatrick (1986); Muller de Inda (1996); Heinze (2000); Gregory (2006); Di Giuseppe (2010).


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intense vitality and energy.59 In particular, the reiteration of ὁρῶ (252), which divides noun (σκάφος) and epithet (δίκωπον), lays great stress not only on the otherworldly reality of the ghastly apparition that manifests itself almost palpably before the eyes of Alcestis but also on her own singular state of consciousness, now that her sense becomes strangely so razor-sharp that she is allowed rare access to supernatural places beyond ordinary geography. More than this, and more importantly for that matter, the twice-repeated use of ὁρῶ places heavy stress on the sheer incongruity of the terrible vision, the amazing conflation of the human and the chthonic worlds: a two-oared boat breaking through from another time and space into the here and now of the royal court of Pherae; a lake that is unlike any other lake, its quiet and calm waters stretching out as far as the murky halls of the dead; a gruesome figure talking reproachfully through the glass of a phantasmal scenery. Alcestis’ description of Charon holding the boat at the bank of the lake with the pole ready to sail to the nether regions intensifies the urgency of his summons. Despite the brevity of the account, a rendering of Charon’s command in oratio recta is inserted into the narrative, reinforcing the vividness of the apparition by adding an aural dimension to what has been so far a hallucinatory depiction of an afterlife locality, as well as highlighting the inextricable linking of Alcestis and the divine sphere. In a manner similar to Oedipus, who is urgently, and censoriously for that matter, called to his miraculous death within the recesses of the holy meadow of the Eumenides in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Alcestis is deemed worthy of a special invitation, impetuous though it is, from the gods below to make haste for her death journey.60 The summons is brief and disapproving consisting of a staccato series of question, order, and reproach, but coming from a divine being in charge of the transition of the departed to the netherworld it stresses and sanctifies her elevated status. Alcestis tries desperately to make Admetus see and hear Charon but to no avail; she adds that the dead people’s ferryman is in a hurry to take her to the infernal regions. Not unlike the offstage scene of Admetus weeping helplessly for the imminent death of his wife, this scene shows him reduced to utter sorrowfulness: he bewails the cruel fate in store for him and Alcestis, totally unable to catch even a mere glimpse of the uncanny epiphany of Charon waiting impatiently on Lake Acheron (258–259). The second antistrophe, with its remarkable combination of visual and tactile stimuli, brings Admetus’ resignedness into sharp relief. While in the second strophe Alcestis saw Charon and listened to his words, here she perceives 59 On Admetus’ disconnection from Alcestis’ ecstatic experience, see also Mastronarde (1979) 75; Chong-Gossard (2008) 82. 60 See Parker (2007) ad 256–257. Cf. also Markantonatos (2002) 143–144.

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a winged figure staring at her from under his dark brows and leading her away to the abode of the dead. Once again Admetus is unable to share in his wife’s otherworldly fantasy. At first, it was Alcestis’ aural and visual images, now physical motivation is frighteningly integrated with ophthalmic sensation; but in both versions of the hideous apparition Admetus, shorn of narrational comprehension, stands plunged in gloomy despair, his efforts to construct meaning dreadfully shattered against a wall of sensory deprivation. As he is powerless to obtain ocular proof of the underworld phantasm, much less aural and tactile evidence of the movements of these divine beings supervising the transition of men from this life to the darkness of death, he succumbs to a feeling of impotence in the presence of an apparently insoluble crisis. He is left only with the frantic agony of Alcestis, who piteously implores Hades to spare her: ἄγει μ’ ἄγει τις· ἄγει μέ τις (οὐχ ὁρᾷς;) νεκύων ἐς αὐλάν, 260 ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι κυαναυγέσι βλέπων πτερωτὸς Ἅιδας. τί ῥέξεις; ἄφες. οἵαν ὁδὸν ἁ δειλαιοτάτα προβαίνω. (259–263) Someone is taking, is taking me (don’t you see him?) away to the court of the dead. It is winged Hades, glowering from beneath his dark brows. What do you want? Let me go! Ah, what a journey it is that I, unhappiest of women, am making!

More specifically, as Alcestis keeps on looking through the ivory gate of visions into the world of the dead, she witnesses a winged figure taking her away to the nether regions.61 She identifies this menacing character as Hades himself, the king of the underworld, who unlike Charon refrains from addressing her but instead prefers to exercise his prerogatives with a heavy hand, taking possession of his victims against their will. Commentators, however, have rightly observed that Hades is generally represented as wingless, and therefore the figure glowering at Alcestis must be either Hermes in his capacity as conductor of the dead to the infernal regions or, more probably, Thanatos himself flying to get a firm grip on his prey.62 61 On the spatial conceptualization of death as a journey, see Lloyd (2012), who draws on Turner (1996) 31–36. 62 See recently Parker (2007) ad 259–262; Iakov (2012) ad 259.


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The conflation of Death and Hades, although perhaps hardly noticeable to the original audience, as well as the image of Charon in his barge, conjures up the different phases of the soul’s underworld journey from its sacrificial consecration to Thanatos to its final capture by Hades after the crossing of Acheron. In this regard, one can argue that once again Thanatos appears to be a force to be reckoned with. It is essential to note that here winged Death is seen as acting upon the impatient urging by Charon for a speedy descent of Alcestis to the land of the dead; as a matter of fact, Death is not a private agent taking hold of his victims for personal satisfaction but a loyal instrument in the hands of the king of the underworld, who is devoted to defending his rights and privileges in the face of Olympian human-loving concern. In this respect, though initially presented as a brutal and ogreish figure, Thanatos proves an indispensable piece in the pitiless machinery of the netherworld, ever keen on overcoming humans who struggle passionately to cling on to life. Here he is purposely made to appear to be a terrible force inspiring fear in the souls of men, the urgency of Charon’s command galvanizing him into action – indeed, a formidable opponent of anyone who would attempt to contravene his hard and fast rules and regulations, as Heracles would do in this play. More importantly, and more crucially for my discussion of the boundaries of Alcestis’ narrative power, the confusion between Death and Hades highlights the extremely heightened state of emotional arousal of the focalizer. The sheer weight of unbearable pure cold horror at her expected parting from this life lies heavy on her every description – the figure of Death, that pathetically uncomplicated embodiment of human worries and uncertainties, is by no means so powerful as that of Hades to express the intensity of her terror and revulsion. Unable as she is to distinguish between the different personifications of death, Alcestis perceives the onrush of Thanatos as a violent assault on her by the king of the underworld. To match the depth of her misery, her focalization of netherworld images, which no one among those present are capable of appraising, is, without doubt, an emotionally charged one, riddled with ambiguities, anxieties, sensitivities, insecurities, and even paradoxes. Caught in the storm and stress of her terminal experience, Alcestis is explicitly unconcerned with details about the underworld hierarchy, perceiving only the phantasmal hic et nunc, in which frightening wraithlike figures may intrude, though without sharp differentiation. One is tempted to think that in order to emphasize the unbridgeable gulf separating men and gods Euripides allows a minimum refraction of the netherworld events through the prism of Alcestis’ slightly incomplete viewpoint. This minor limitation on Alcestis’ narratorial privilege is by no means a sign of her waning narrative significance now that she finds herself on the brink of death and therefore on the verge of exiting the play. Contrary to the conspicuously constrained

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perceptual field of the rest of the characters, who are caught in the temporal gap between the original apprehension of what Alcestis’ death signifies and the final understanding that behind those terrible events there was a synthesizing consciousness doing its work in spite of chthonic resolutions and protocols, Alcestis becomes an extraordinary symbol of the atemporal agony of a moment when human life is balanced on the point of termination, when in a sudden flash of unprecedented insight the perspectives of upperworld and underworld interpenetrate. This slight hint of narratorial restriction, moreover, enables us to make more sense of the Prologue scene with Apollo and Thanatos. In fact, the altercation between an Olympian deity and Hades’ proxy introduces a divine control-level which is consistently screened from the human players – so much so that the slightest breach of the barrier distinguishing man from god gives mortals a narrative edge over the other dramatis personae. Alcestis’ dreadful visions remind the audience that the story has merely no personal or local orbit. Euripides continues to weave the thread of divine causation into the human action of slow and painful discovery of broader designs and plans: the gods preside over the events despite the fact that a relentless battle is raging amidst divine agents as to who will snatch control of the human story. Unfortunately for Alcestis, the chthonic apparitions make clear for the audience to see that Thanatos remains unbowed on his horrible assignment, even with Apollo threatening to unleash his wrath against the infernal deities in case they refuse to grant his request. These anxieties of the otherworldly visions will come to dominate the mood of the latter part of the second Episode, where Euripides will push the tensions even further in the characters’ proleptic accounts of a dark future, letting the slowly built up sinister premonitions explode in a horrid projection of utter woe, powerful enough not only to enslave all human characters under the past’s hated burden but also to render them incapable of thinking of a brighter future.63 Until then, however, there is a retarding movement that pulls back towards the veiled origins of Alcestis’ self-sacrifice, as well as plunging Admetus back into his dreaded past and its fears. It is indeed remarkable that, although Alcestis is dragged down into a emotional whirlpool of agony and sadness because of the eager onslaught of Hades (269–270, πλησίον Ἀΐδας, / σκότια δ’ ἐπ’ ὄσσοισι νὺξ ἐφέρπει, ‘Hades is near and night creeps darkly over my eyes’) and Admetus sinks deeper into the depths of despair, as he feels that life is no longer endurable (278, σοῦ γὰρ φθιμένης οὐκέτ’ ἂν εἴην, ‘For if you are gone I live no more’), the tragic narrative appears to freeze 63 On Euripides’ conceptualization of supernatural forces and his sense of the mysterious in life, see Matthaei (1918) esp. 158–216.


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for a significant amount of time in order to make enough room for Alcestis’ death-bed wishes (280–325) and Admetus’ steadfast promises (328–368) before completely uncoiling the narrative rope of Alcestis’ death through a long series of single alternating lines and mournful lyric pieces.64 This is one of those rare occasions in Greek tragedy in which, though there is not a lack of dramatic movement, a character comes along to deliver an extended speech, as if in a suspended moment, despite the urgency of the situation which either calls for immediate action on the part of the human players to avert the imminent threat of a future attack or encourages the audience to think that the dynamic of the tragic narrative is caught in an irreversible and ever-accelerating process of immediate closure, whatever this closure might be.65 In fact, when this happens, contrary to all expectations, the play, driving towards the end of a particular narrative chapter, creates the illusory impression of slowing down, as if temporarily suspended on invisible rails which tend towards the end without ever being able quite to tell the exact moment of reaching the terminus. Essentially, the narrative element overflows and claims an interest superior to that which is felt in the immediate scene. In this case, as the forward movement of the push for Alcestis’ death begins to accelerate especially in view of the chthonic apparitions, there is a retarding movement that pulls back towards a vague temporal duration that facilitates the revelation and recovery of a deeply buried past, as well as the unravelling of the mysteries of the future. This retardation helps refocus the action on Alcestis’ recollection of her past, as well as her delineation of her family’s future; moreover, it brings again into sharper focus her power of judgement and self-command in the face of disaster, while at the same time placing strong emphasis on Admetus’ firmness of his promises to stay unmarried for the remainder of his life.66 It is also important not to overlook that Alcestis’ calmness and self-control are magnified in their implication by the immediately preceding scene with her 64 See also Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 183, who convincingly argue that ‘the meter underscores the abruptness of the recovery’, for there is a sudden transition from Alcestis’ funereal epodes to her contractual rhesis delivered in plain iambics. On the polarity of passion and intellect, as this is reflected in the contrast between emotive lyrics and unemotional iambic trimesters, see also Schadewaldt (1926) 141–147; Dale (19612) ad 280 ff.; Rosenmeyer (1963) 225. About the constant emphasis on the basic, often contrasting, features of Alcestis, cf. Myres (1917) 200–204; Pelling (1990) 247, who presses the point that the individuality of Alcestis consists of a few essential traits, concurring with Heath (1987a) 119 in the view that the outlines of certain tragic characters are not sketched out in exhaustive detail; Rutherford (2012) 221, who draws attention to the fact that ‘Alcestis effectively dies twice, first in lyrics and then in iambics’. 65 See Markantonatos (2002) 8, n. 16. Cf. also Bain (1981) 24–29. 66 On Alcestis’ revival scene, see Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 182–186.

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paranoid visions of otherworldly beings and locations.67 This striking oscillation between fearful agony and coolheaded rationality, prefigured in the Maidservant’s account of Alcestis’ funereal preparations inside the palace and temperate farewell to the servants, gives us clues to understanding the central vacillation of the play from unrelenting gloom to unexpected joy. A rollercoaster of emotions is on display for the spectators. As I have already noted, both Heracles and Admetus are caught in their own fluctuations between senseless self-gratification and moral enlightenment, depression and joy; but, contrary to Alcestis who has proved admirably capable of weaving in and out of emotional tension with characteristic ease, they are only prompted to reappraise their status in view of catalytic events. This is a further proof that the second Episode of the play, together with Alcestis’ monody, develops in mood and subject out of the foregoing narratologically intricate scene with the Maidservant as accomplished narratrix, thereby serving as the most far-reaching complex of narrative themes and images in Euripides’ Alcestis. It is indeed an essential component of the play’s distinctively gendered agenda that two consecutive episodes are dominated by consummate female narrators. In particular, Alcestis, shining a narrative spotlight on the past and future of her family, lays down the ground rules for the creation of a terrible world, while Admetus is to follow suit to affirm and enlarge upon this conception, in which lifetime and deathtime are identical. More importantly, the retardation effect of Alcestis’ death-bed speech, threading the past together with the future, keeps a particularly important theme in the foreground: extra time as a desideratum for mortals. Apollo made a determined effort to win his human protégés a reprieve from imminent death by persuading the Fates to accept a substitute victim for Admetus and soon after by asking Thanatos to stay his hand and spare Alcestis. The illusionist impact of Alcestis’ extended rhesis, as it is placed in time immediately after the haunting visions of instant death, prompts the audience to catch the same excitement for the prolongation of human life in a totally different way: Hades is put off until Alcestis makes her frosty demand that Admetus should not marry. It is a momentary glimpse of something central and formative in the thematic structure of the play, for it records with narrational intensity and completeness a permanent element of human experience: humanity’s craving for the attainment of a long life, as well as its struggle against the utterly unassailable fact that death cannot be undone. The subtle distortion of narrative time, as if the play pauses over a critical moment a little longer, serves as a miniature instance of the eventual 67 See Gregory (2005) 261, who rightly points out that ‘[Euripides] aims to set forth the two modes, emotional and rational, with which human beings confront their own mortality’.


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postponement of premature death in the concluding scene with Alcestis, newrisen from the dead, having obtained against all expectations an expansion of her earthly life. In essence, the lengthening of Alcestis’ presence onstage is symbolic of the final lengthening of human life, after which the average span between birth and decay will have no assignable value. Alcestis’ death-bed rhesis ranging well over forty lines (280–325), as well as Admetus’ elaborate pledges (328–368), not to mention of course the ensuing extended stichomythia between the two spouses (371–393) and the threnodic songs of Alcestis’ son (394–403 and 406–415), decelerate the pacing of tragic narration so as to mediate the past through an already familiar narrative recasting which features choices not made, roads not taken, and goals not reached, while simultaneously weaving the prolepsis of a nightmarish world for Admetus in particular and humankind in general integrally into the play. Here there are flashbacks on the recent past, but the narrative weight is thrown behind many flashforwards extending decades into the future. The audience relive a crucial moment in the life of Alcestis through the process of making sense of her self-denying decision before hearing of new insights about how the future can be told. Although the critical episode per se is segregated off from the framing narrative, as vital information regarding the time when Admetus confronted Alcestis with the difficult question whether she would assent to give up her life for him is tacitly withheld by Alcestis, the immediately ensuing story is told in a way that accentuates the important motivational factors in the sacrifice. The recounting of Alcestis’ arguments and sentiments by no means follows a straight line in explicating, unfolding, or unknotting the narrative of her ultimate choice. In order to bring forth the complexity of personal motivation, in other words to show that the grand reflection of Alcestis partakes of the nature of a soul in agony, Euripides runs a thread through the intricate windings of Alcestis’ heart and mind.68 In fact, Alcestis has a heart grown huge with love and grief, but she is adamant that the chief tensions and imbalances of her extraordinary story will only be repaired by Admetus’ self-denial. Her emotional statement seals off all optimistic perspectives for Admetus, forcing him to retreat onto a timeless and unreal vacuum 68 Lesky (19672) 138 argues persuasively that it was Euripides who separated the beguilement of the Fates from Alcestis’ death by a period of several years in order to show the wife and mother, who for a considerable period of time had known the deepest joys of womanhood, going to her death fully recognizing the magnitude of what she sacrificed. As a result, Alcestis’ focalization of the past and the future is so emotionally charged that especially the future is filtered through a distinctly frosty prism in view of the woman’s wild terror of death and feeling of enormous loss. See also Campbell (1891) 252–253, who, while commenting on Euripidean tales of female selfabnegation, notes that the willing victims ‘are all too much inclined to reason out the grounds of their own action’.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


from which all hope and joy have been pumped; in effect, it brings us closer to the terminal structuring moment of apocalypse when Admetus plunges into the unbounded abyss of permanent bereavement, waiting for Death to draw around him his sable curtain: ἐγώ σε πρεσβεύουσα κἀντὶ τῆς ἐμῆς ψυχῆς καταστήσασα φῶς τόδ’ εἰσορᾶν θνῄσκω, παρόν μοι μὴ θανεῖν ὑπὲρ σέθεν, ἀλλ’ ἄνδρα τε σχεῖν Θεσσαλῶν ὃν ἤθελον 285 καὶ δῶμα ναίειν ὄλβιον τυραννίδι. κοὐκ ἠθέλησα ζῆν ἀποσπασθεῖσα σοῦ σὺν παισὶν ὀρφανοῖσιν, οὐδ’ ἐφεισάμην ἥβης, ἔχουσ’ ἐν οἷς ἐτερπόμην ἐγώ. καίτοι σ’ ὁ φύσας χἠ τεκοῦσα προύδοσαν, 290 καλὼς μὲν αὐτοῖς †κατθανεῖν ἧκον† βίου, καλῶς δὲ σῶσαι παῖδα κεὐκλεῶς θανεῖν. μόνος γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἦσθα, κοὔτις ἐλπὶς ἦν σοῦ κατθανόντος ἄλλα φιτύσειν τέκνα. κἀγώ τ’ ἂν ἔζων καὶ σὺ τὸν λοιπὸν χρόνον, 295 κοὐκ ἂν μονωθεὶς σῆς δάμαρτος ἔστενες καὶ παῖδας ὠρφάνευες. ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μὲν θεῶν τις ἐξέπραξεν ὥσθ’ οὕτως ἔχειν (282–298) Because I give you the place of honor and have caused you to look on the light instead of me, I am dying. I need not have died in your place but could have married the Thessalian of my choice and lived in wealth in a royal house. But I refused to live torn from your side with orphaned children and did not spare my young life, though I had much in which I took delight. Yet your father and mother abandoned you, though it well befitted them to feel they had lived enough, well befitted them to save their son and die a noble death. For you were their only son, and there was no hope, with you dead, that they would have other children. Had they agreed to die, you and I would now be living the remainder of our lives together, and you would not be grieving at the loss of your wife or raising your children as orphans. But some god has brought these things to pass.

The first part of Alcestis’ speech is in keeping with the general scope and tenor of the play: the spectators are again introduced to the scale and issues of this astounding story about gaining reprieve from death through a series of unexploited narrative strategies, unactualized possibilities, and unrealized aspirations. Some would even argue that here Alcestis allows full rein to her most inti-


 Chapter 2 Narrative

mate thoughts and desires, unable as she is to come to terms with the illogicality of her situation, as well as with the harsh reality of the human condition. In fact, her wishful thinking that she were differently situated keeps before our minds the bewildering perplexities and troublesome complexities arising from the suspension of the normal operations of death. At the beginning of her narrative Alcestis is quick to emphasize meanings and relations her present situation denies or confutes: had she chosen to go on living she would have enjoyed a wealthy life in a royal house with a new spouse (282–286). Similarly, she rounds off the first section of her statement with further dreamy meditations and fanciful musings about procuring a respite from instant demise and spending the remainder of her years in happiness with Admetus (295–297). For this to happen Admetus’ parents ought to have given up their life; but instead they chose not to make the ultimate sacrifice so as to allow the young couple to stay together unperturbed by the spectre of Thanatos. The emphatic sequence of present time imperfects in the contrafactive suppositions (295–297, ἂν ἔζων … ἂν … ἔστενες … ὠρφάνευες) prepares the ground for the ensuing prolepsis, thereby plotting the narrative matrix of future possibilities on the firm basis of the deeper consciousness of past events.69 Not unlike Apollo, who contributes to the active propagation of narrative likelihood, Alcestis has privileged access to past and future, offering clear signs of a horrifyingly purposeful narrative pattern to the complex web of characters and episodes concerning the house of Admetus. As often in tragic narration, certain characters are persons of a different temporal order; in fact, in the case of Alcestis her pragmatic review of the past feeds her visions of the future. This does not mean, however, that Alcestis is devoid of tender feelings for her husband; her refusal to hold on to life deprived of Admetus is the clearest indication of her sincere love and affection (287), which is further accentuated by the knowledge that Admetus is an only child and thus highly prized in Greek society (293).70 The strong word ἀποσπασθεῖσα, in particular, especially used in Euripidean drama to show the violence and pain involved in tearing suppliants from altars or children from their mothers, should guard us against taking for granted the untroubled happiness following from a second marriage of Alcestis to a Thessalian noble; as a matter of fact, this emotional declaration may carry contemporary Athenian

69 See Goodwin (18893) 147–148. 70 See Garland (1990) 147–148. On Alcestis’ clarity of articulation, see Scodel (1999–2000) 133; Poole (2005) 52–53. Cf. also Gross (1974), who argues that Alcestis’ skill at persuasion is indicative of her sincere affection for Admetus; Xanthaki-Karamanou (1980) 69; Macintosh (1994) 174.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


connotations of female anxiety and despondency arising from enforced remarriage.71 In the second section of her proclamation, Alcestis strives to organize extensive swathes of future action in accordance with the rationally detailed origins of her self-sacrificing choice and humanly predictable ends. She refrains from bringing an everlasting reproach upon Admetus’ parents for refusing to give their only son precedence; she is exclusively concerned with the welfare of her children.72 Among the human players, only Alcestis is empowered to cross the temporal boundaries of past and future; in fact, her proleptic forays into the future of the story will be soon followed most zealously by Admetus, who in an effort to rival his wife in self-denying love and devotion will make himself a permament inhabitant of a world in the grip of perpetual mourning: εἶεν· σύ νύν μοι τῶνδ’ ἀπόμνησαι χάριν· αἰτήσομαι γάρ σ’ ἀξίαν μὲν οὔποτε 300 (ψυχῆς γὰρ οὐδέν ἐστι τιμιώτερον), δίκαια δ’, ὡς φήσεις σύ· τούσδε γὰρ φιλεῖς οὐχ ἧσσον ἢ ’γὼ παῖδας, εἴπερ εὖ φρονεῖς· τούτους ἀνάσχου δεσπότας ἐμῶν δόμων καὶ μὴ ’πιγήμῃς τοῖσδε μητρυιὰν τέκνοις, 305 ἥτις κακίων οὖσ’ ἐμοῦ γυνὴ φθόνῳ τοῖς σοῖσι κἀμοῖς παισὶ χεῖρα προσβαλεῖ. μὴ δῆτα δράσῃς ταῦτά γ’, αἰτοῦμαι σ’ ἐγώ. ἐχθρὰ γὰρ ἡ ’πιοῦσα μητρυιὰ τέκνοις τοῖς πρόσθ’, ἐχίδνης οὐδὲν ἠπιωτέρα. 310 καὶ παῖς μὲν ἄρσην πατέρ’ ἔχει πύργον μέγαν [ὃν καὶ προσεῖπε καὶ προσερρήθη πάλιν]· σὺ δ’, ὦ τέκνον μοι, πῶς κορευθήσῃ καλῶς; ποίας τυχοῦσα συζύγου τῷ σῷ πατρί; μή σοί τιν’ αἰσχρὰν προσβαλοῦσα κληδόνα 315 ἥβης ἐν ἀκμῇ σοὺς διαφθείρῃ γάμους. οὐ γάρ σε μήτηρ οὔτε νυμφεύσει ποτὲ οὔτ’ ἐν τόκοισι σοῖσι θαρσυνεῖ, τέκνον, παροῦσ’, ἵν’ οὐδὲν μητρὸς εὐμενέστερον. (299–319)

71 On ἀποσπάω, see Parker (2007) ad 287. 72 See the sobering comments in Iakov (2012) ad 287ff.


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Well, then. Remember to show your gratitude for this. I shall not ask you for the return my act deserves (for nothing is more precious than a life), but for what is right, as you will agree. For you love these children as much as I do, if you are in your senses. Keep them as lords of my house and do not marry again, putting over them a stepmother, who will be less noble than I and out of envy will lay a hostile hand to your children and mine. No, do not do it, I beg you. For a stepmother comes in as a foe to the former children, no kinder to them than a viper. And though a son has in his father a bulwark of defense, how will you, my daughter, grow to an honored womanhood? What sort of stepmother will you get? May she not cast some disgraceful slur on your reputation and in the prime of your youth destroy your chances of marriage! Your mother will never see you married, never stand by to encourage you in childbirth, my daughter, where nothing is better than a mother’s kindness.

Though Alcestis delineates a happy future for her son and daughter, she is not equally enthusiastic of the idea of Admetus’ enjoying a fulfilling family life after her death. Her icy demand that her husband remain single highlights her unmistakable recognition that she is in fact irreplaceable on account of her iron determination and good will, manifested so pointedly in her enormous self-sacrificing undertaking.73 Her profound concern about her daughter’s standing is thrown into sharp relief by the audience’s growing realization, not least supported by the Maid’s feelings of resentment, that Admetus’ reputation is in serious jeopardy, and soon will lie in tatters, irremediably damaged by public infamy and derision. But if we read between the lines, focusing attention on Alcestis’ fears and worries about unscrupulous guardians, it becomes apparent that the individual stories of Admetus and his daughter are by no means sealed; in fact, they seem to have their own narrative contours and alternatives. Indeed, more careful consideration of probable future challenges and dangers will make one sensible of the equally defenceless survival of Admetus and his daughter. It is, on the other hand, noteworthy that the son’s well-being is not in immediate jeopardy, his manhood lying far beyond the disapproving glares of the Thessalian public. But once more appearances can be deceiving. Despite Alcestis’ con-

73 On Alcestis’ demand that Admetus remain unmarried, see Beye (1954) 124–125, who places emphasis on the disastrous repercussions of the prohibition for Admetus’ welfare. Cf. also Beye (1974) 7, who suggests that there are comical contradictions and inconcinnities in Alcestis’ behaviour towards her husband, since in her speech to her bed she has already accepted that some other woman will take her place after her death (181–182). But this kind of interpretation is unconvincing because it overplays Alcestis’ non sequiturs in order to highlight the play’s tragicomic aspect. For a different approach to Alcestis’ prohibition, see Iakov (2012) ad 304, who argues that Alcestis forbits Admetus to remarry as long as his children remain in the palace – that is, as long as they themselves stay unmarried. On love and its discontents in Euripides, see Adrados (1985).

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


fident assertion that the male lineage of the house is out of harm’s way, adequately protected by the Thessalian king, it appears that each and every human character is irreversibly caught in an ever-accelerating process of annihilation. In the lyrical finale of the second episode with Admetus’ son mourning the complete destruction of the royal household, the sinister construction of a world without meaning for mortals reaches its full predication. The death of Alcestis is so overwhelming that the human players have no time to seek a balm for the wounds of the heart; in fact, and more widely, the principles of decay and disaster appear to be so legibly written on the tragic narrative that those who are left behind are unable to improve the benefaction of self-sacrificers to humanity’s own advantage. At the close of the second Episode the dramatis personae, especially the remaining royal family as emblematic representatives of Thessaly in particular and the human race in general, are incapable of embalming the memory of Alcestis in their bosom and emulating the shining virtues which adorned her character, as their surroundings and environment have crumbled into hopeless ruin. Returning to Alcestis' account, the use of εἶεν (299), a conversational interjection serving as an emphatic introduction to a novel phase in the narrative, signals the end of Alcestis’ reverie on what might have happened if one of Admetus’ parents had chosen to die in his stead.74 This alternation from daydreaming fantasy to realistic deliberation punctuates the death-scene of Alcestis, for Euripides aims to deepen the moral shades and hues of her choice without however loosening his almost exclusive focus on her impressive grasp on reality. 75 Alcestis’ chilly description of Admetus’ grief-stricken existence in the palace, as well as her anxiety about the reputation of her orphaned daughter in case a vicious stepmother afflicts her with some disgraceful report, evokes a pain-filled world which denies or seriously problematizes human access to familiar narrative goals such as a happy married life. In fact, Admetus is denied the prospect of finding joy in remarriage, while Alcestis’ daughter treads among the snares of public scorn, vulnerable as she is to wicked outsiders bent on depriving her of a blissful marriage, not to mention of course the hazards surrounding childbirth and the high percentage of maternal mortality in ancient Greece.76 Still it is important not to overlook that in the eyes of fifth-century Athenians the self-denying choice of Alcestis is by no means devoid of prudence and rationality, given that a fatherless child was extremely vulnerable to social abuse 74 See Stevens (1976) 34. 75 Particularly striking is Alcestis’ painful realization that her death is imminent (320–321); on the textual problems surrounding line 321, see Iakov (1990) and (2012) ad 320–321; Lapini (1997); Livrea (1998); Collard (2007). On Alcestis as a realist, see Hartigan (1990) 25. 76 See Garland (1990) 65–66.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

and unprincipled guardians whether or not the mother survived the death of her spouse.77 Characteristic of the defenselessness of orphans in Greek society is the following passage from the Iliad, in which Andromache bitterly resents the untimely death of her husband Hector, grieving over the misfortunes which are in store for her orphan son, Astyanax (22.490–498): ἦμαρ δ’ὀρφανικὸν παναφήλικα παῖδα τίθησιν· πάντα δ’ὑπεμνήμυκε, δεδάκρυνται δὲ παρειαί. δευόμενος δέ τ’ ἄνεισι πάϊς ἐς πατρὸς ἑταίρους, ἄλλον μὲν χλαίνης ἐρύων, ἄλλον δὲ χιτῶνος· τῶν δ’ ἐλεησάντων κοτύλην τις τυτθὸν ἐπέσχεν· χείλεα μέν τ’ ἐδίην’, ὑπερώιην δ’ οὐκ ἐδίηνεν. τὸν δὲ καὶ ἀμφιθαλὴς ἐκ δαιτύος ἐστυφέλιξεν, χερσὶν πεπληγὼς καὶ ὀνειδείοισιν ἐνίσσων· ‘ἔρρ’ οὕτως· οὐ σός γε πατὴρ μεταδαίνυται ἥμιν.’ (ed. M. L. West) An orphaned child is cut off from his playmates. He goes about with down cast looks and tear-strained cheeks. In his necessity he looks in at some gathering of his father’s friends and plucks a cloak here and a tunic there, till someone out of charity holds up a wine-cup to his mouth, but only for a moment, just enough to wet his lips and leave his palate dry. Then comes another boy, with both his parents living, who beats him with his fists and drives him from the feast and jeers at him. “Out you go!” he shouts. “You have no father dining here.” (transl. E. V. Rieu)

It goes without saying that girls were at greater risk to suffer public humiliation and, more ominously, could not directly inherit the assets of their household, entirely dependent as they were on their guardians’ spirit of good will.78

77 See Garland (1990) 158–160. On gender issues in classical Athens, cf. also Demand (1994); Doherty (2001). On the complex relationships between women and Athenian legal proceedings, see Lacey (1968); Pomeroy (1975); Foxhall (1985) and (1996). On women and Greek tragedy in general and Euripides in particular (with occasional references to Euripides’ Alcestis), see Thorndike (1916) 15–19; Leonardi (1922) esp. 1–10; Alsina (1958); Verdesca (1961); Meremans (1972); Kämmerling (1973); Foley (1981); Nancy (1983); Lanza (1987); Simon (1988); Rabinowitz (1989); des Bouvrie (1990); Powell (1990) and esp. March (1990); Harder (1993); Seidensticker (1995); Zelenak (1998); Felson (2001); Ghiggia (2001); Kaimio (2002); Murnagham (2005); Bushnell (2008) 95–101. 78 On mean-spirited stepmothers, cf. also Watson (1995). On the particularly strong image of the step-mother as a vicious viper in line 310, see Kurtz (1985) 296.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


Further, in the wake of Alcestis’ death-bed statement comes Admetus’ determined proclamation that he will never take a new bride (328–331),79 for he will bear the burden of his grief for his wife as long as he lives (336–337); moreover, he declares that he will loathe his mother and father for the remainder of his years (338–339). After severing relations with both his parents – surely a shocking development in the eyes of the Athenian spectators, who had grown up to respect deeply their blood relations, and especially their aged parents, considering insolent mistreatment of mother and father worthy of total loss of political rights – Admetus sets himself at odds with the whole world.80 He goes so far as to announce that he will put an end to revelries and convivial gatherings in his palace, as well as refraining from symposia and musical performances in pious observance of his sorrow for the death of Alcestis. This self-chosen marginalization symbolizes and mirrors his social isolation following from his readiness to espouse Apollo’s offer and redeem his life at the expense of his wife. In fact, by renouncing the joy arising from drinking-parties and revels Admetus relinquishes his attachment to the human community, for the symposium not only served as an extremely important social forum for men of good family to exchange ideas or simply to entertain themselves, but also marked the introduction of young people into manhood.81 In this respect, it can be reasonably argued that Admetus forsakes his manhood, as indeed he did when he promised that he will never enter into a relationship with a woman. This overflowing of sadness and despair, coming as it does from someone who experiences the ultimate emotional agony, leaves no room for hope. One feels that the narrative creation of a horrible future will soon end; there will be a close, an exhaustion of nightmarish narrational aspects. The past and its noxious legacy destroy the expansion of life, condemning Admetus to an unbearably lonely old age. Euripides has taken his human players beyond their own zero-point of misery and suffering; in fact, Admetus stands plunged in gloomy despair, ready to deny the most emblematic of his character traits – his cordial hospitality and enormous kindness in welcoming guests, one of humans’ most important means of securing an expansion of life for their fellow men: παύσω δὲ κώμους συμποτῶν θ’ ὁμιλίας στεφάνους τε μοῦσάν θ’ ἣ κατεῖχ’ ἐμοὺς δόμους. οὐ γάρ ποτ’ οὔτ’ ἂν βαρβίτου θίγοιμ’ ἔτι 345 οὔτ’ ἂν φρέν’ ἐξάραιμι πρὸς Λίβυν λακεῖν 79 Note the reassuring emphasis of the future indicative at 328; cf. also Rijksbaron (20063) 33–34. 80 Cf. Garland (1990) 261–262. 81 See mainly Murray (1990); Slater (1991); König (2008).


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αὐλόν· σὺ γάρ μου τέρψιν ἐξείλου βίου. σοφῇ δὲ χειρὶ τεκτόνων δέμας τὸ σὸν εἰκασθὲν ἐν λέκτροισιν ἐκταθήσεται, ᾧ προσπεσοῦμαι καὶ περιπτύσσων χέρας 350 ὄνομα καλῶν σὸν τὴν φίλην ἐν ἀγκάλαις δόξω γυναῖκα καίπερ οὐκ ἔχων ἔχειν· ψυχρὰν μέν, οἶμαι, τέρψιν, ἀλλ’ ὅμως βάρος ψυχῆς ἀπαντλοίην ἄν. ἐν δ’ ὀνείρασιν φοιτῶσά μ’ εὐφραίνοις ἄν· ἡδὺ γὰρ φίλους 355 κἀν νυκτὶ λεύσσειν, ὅντιν’ ἂν παρῇ χρόνον. (343–356) I shall put an end to revels and the company of banqueters and to the garlands and music which once filled my halls. I shall never touch the lyre, or lift my heart in song to the Libyan pipe. For your death takes all the joy from my life. An image of you shaped by the hand of skilled craftsmen shall be laid out in my bed. I shall fall into its arms, and as I embrace it and call your name I shall imagine, though I have her not, that I hold my dear wife in my arms, a cold pleasure, to be sure, but thus I shall lighten my soul’s heaviness. And perhaps you will cheer me by visiting me in dreams. For even in sleep it is pleasant to see loved ones for however long we are permitted.

It bears repeating that Admetus’ long peroration, in which he promises that there will be no merry-making in his house as long as he lives, is part of the play’s wider strategy of creating a dreadful future world of permament torment and sadness, into which all human players are bound to be absorbed willingly or unwillingly. In fact, the abolition of song and music, as well as the elimination of festivities and revels, evokes a world that is diametrically opposite to fundamental Greek notions of civilized human existence, for music in general and musical performances in particular, together with singing and dancing, played an integral role in the lives of ancient Greeks, being omnipresent in society, for instance from marriages and funerals to athletic and dramatic contests.82 Mousikê in all her multiversity and richness was the hallmark of civic life in ancient Greece; in fact, the eradication of instrumental music, song, and dance, namely that impressive combination of artistic skills which modern critics duly call ‘song-dance’ culture, not only is an obvious foretoken of an endlessly miserable household, a truly un-Greek way of life, but also serves as an unmistakable indication of the disintegration of Admetus’ sacral connection with the Olympian 82 See (e.g.) Anderson (1994) esp. 113–144; Halliwell (2012) esp. 18–26, who is right to suggest that singing is capable of imposing a consoling order onto grief and loss.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


gods, inasmuch as Olympian divinities were understood to take particular delight in musical performances in their honour. In this respect, the collapse of that vital union of common song and rhythmical movement as an influential transmitter of civic values and religious sentiments affording some hope to individuals signals the transformation of Admetus’ house into a Hades-like place. Obviously, in such a sinister abode Olympian divinities, indeed deities bringing the prospect of a brighter day, refrain from entering; in particular, Apollo, Admetus’ protector and friend, would have kept his distance from this house of eternal sadness, since he was known to take great pleasure in song and dance, being the leader of the Muses, as well as the progenitor of divine poets and inspired minstrels such as Linus, Hymenaeus, Ialemus, and last but not least Orpheus.83 The pledge of a musicless existence prevents Admetus from joining himself with kinder divinities in a deeper spiritual fellowship, as indeed he did before through his abundant hospitality. The only source of vicarious pleasure will be a wooden image of Alcestis – an inadequate consolation nonetheless and no doubt extremely appropriate for the insentient residents of the underworld. It is clear to see that this kind of excessive mourning engenders an atmosphere baneful to the growth of true religious feelings; Admetus will no longer be considered to be ὅσιος – that is, a member of the Olympians’ favoured circle of protégés. His denunciation of hospitality and by extension everything it stands for as one of the most admirable traits of human beings goes against the perpetual struggle for the lengthening of life. As a result, the Thessalian palace becomes a Hadeslike place: Admetus emerges as yet another king of the underworld.84 Against this ominous background of a musicless world, bringing to mind the pessimistic musings of the Chorus in the third stasimon of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus 1220–1223, where unlike the Euripidean play the extension of human life is considered to be an affliction and Death a personal deliverer putting an end to song and dance (1220–1223, […] ὁ δ’ ἐπίκουρος ἰσοτέλεστος, / Ἄϊδος ὅτε μοῖρ’ ἀνυμέναιος / ἄλυρος ἄχορος ἀναπέφηνε, / θάνατος ἐς τελευτάν, ‘but the deliverer brings an end for all alike, when the doom of Hades, with no wedding song, no lyre, no dances, is revealed, death at the last’, transl. H. Lloyd-Jones), Admetus 83 On Orpheus, see, among others, Linforth (1941); Guthrie (1952/19932); Blanchot (1981); Warden (1982); West (1966) 12–15 and (1983) 3–7 & 24–29; Schwartz (1984); Graf (1987); Segal (1989); Freiert (1991); Schmidt (1991); Bremmer (1992); Heath (1994); Benson (1995); Borgeaud (1991); Brisson (1993) and (1995a); Veillefon (2003). Cf. also below in Chapter 4. 84 On the Thessalian palace as a place of death, see Luschnig (1995) 55–56; Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 207. On Admetus as a Hades-like figure, see Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1886) 67–77 & (1899–1923) III.68–69 and Séchan (1927) 9–10, while Lesky (1925) 5–9, followed by Foley (2001) 308, expresses serious reservations about recognizing a direct correlation between the Alcestis myth and the tale of Hades and Kore.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

rounds off his proclamation of perennial bereavement with an emphatically contrafactive hypothesis. Though he made a point of abandoning any hope of merriment and festivity, as well as banishing singing and dancing from the royal halls, he wishes he could wield the miraculous potency of Orpheus’ music so as to beguile either Persephone or Hades to allow Alcestis to return with him to the land of the living: εἰ δ’ Ὀρφέως μοι γλῶσσα καὶ μέλος παρῆν, ὥστ’ ἢ κόρην Δήμητρος ἢ κείνης πόσιν ὕμνοισι κηλήσαντά σ’ ἐξ Ἅιδου λαβεῖν, κατῆλθον ἄν, καὶ μ’ οὔθ’ ὁ Πλούτωνος κύων 360 οὔθ’ οὑπὶ κώπῃ ψυχοπομπὸς ἂν Χάρων ἔσχ’ ἄν, πρίν ἐς φῶς σὸν καταστῆσαι βίον. (357–362) If I had the voice and music of Orpheus so that I could charm Demeter’s daughter or her husband with song and fetch you from Hades, I would have gone down to the Underworld, and neither Pluto’s hound nor Charon the ferryman of souls standing at the oar would have kept me from bringing you back to the light alive.

In the last chapter I shall have the opportunity to explore the mystical connotations of these Eleusinian-Orphic allusions. As has already been noted, the play brims with elaborate secondary narratives calling upon an alternative reality, in which there is no spectre of death overshadowing life. The happy ending of the Alcestis story will prove that the undefeated individual will can win its spiritual triumph in the face of the untowardness of incalculable circumstances. But until then the human characters are forced to live with the sad realization that they are unable to unlive the past; in fact, Admetus and the children treat Alcestis as already dead, funelling all future action in a consistent retrogressive direction. In their world of endless sorrow there is no future for mortals: hopeful loose ends are carefully tidied away beforehand, and the narrative of human life is irrevocably programmed to break off with terminal extinction after a release of unbearable suffering. The wishful reference to Orpheus, the legendary musician and magician, stands in total contrast to Admetus’ craving for the immediate cessation of domestic festivities. As long as he is incapable of calling up the last reserves of his musical strength, overwhelmed as he is by the impending doom, cutting himself off from all human contact, his impossible wish to have the music and song of Orpheus intensifies the central gloom.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


After a stichomythic crescendo, during which pledges between the spouses are reconfirmed, Alcestis gasps out her life onstage.85 The childrens’ soft heart is touched by the grief; in particular, Alcestis’ son breaks into a mournful tune, a truly unique instance of a child’s song in surviving Greek tragedy, together with the solo song by Andromache’s son in Euripides’ Andromache 501–536, which reaches a climax in the sad realization that the Thessalian regal family is utterly bereft and ruined.86 Significantly enough, his threnodic lyrics signal the discontinuation of joyous song and dance in the palace: from this time forth, the happy tunes of the lyre and the flute will be replaced by the continual keening of the royal occupants. More importantly, his wrenching cries of utter woe transgress the norms of civic behaviour, for in ancient Greek society the shrill voice of lamentation was considered unfitting of a male citizen; in fact, his self-destructive grief, especially associated with unrestrained female emotionality, completes the effeminization of the male line of the royal house:87 ἰώ μοι τύχας. μαῖα δὴ κάτω βέβακεν, οὐκέτ’ ἔστιν, ὦ πάτερ, ὑφ’ ἁλίῳ, 395 προλιποῦσα δ’ ἐμὸν βίον ὠρφάνισεν τλάμων. †ἴδε γὰρ ἴδε βλέφαρον καὶ† παρατόνους χέρας. ὑπάκουσον ἄκουσον, ὦ μᾶτερ, ἀντιάζω. 400 ἐγώ σ’ ἐγώ, μᾶτερ, ὁ σὸς

85 Garrison (1995) 161–165 argues that Alcestis commits suicide; but this theory seems to me to be strained and unconvincing. On suicide and Greek tragedy, see also Faber (1970), who, drawing on Durkheim’s three categories of suicide, focuses attention on the primarily altruistic motives of the Euripidean suicide victims. 86 Cf. Dyson (1988); Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 181. On children in Greek tragedy in general and Euripides in particular, see principally Sifakis (1979); Zeitlin (2008). Cf. also Decharme (1906) 191–192; Golden (1995). On the various problems surrounding the performance of the child’s lyric monody, see Dale (1954) xix–xx, followed by Webster (1970) 145, Arnott (1989) 47, and Seeck (2008), who argues for the protagonist himself singing the song, as he lies comfortably on the death couch; but Parker (2007) ad 392–415, siding with Sifakis (1979) 76, suggests that a sufficiently trained boy-actor would have been capable enough of delivering the monody. 87 See principally Segal (1991), (1992a), and (1993b); Foley (1985) 87–88; Holst-Warhaft (1992); Loraux (1987), (1998), and (2002). But cf. also Suter (2008), who brings attention to the fact that male characters lamenting profusely recover moral authority in this way. See further Markantonatos (2009b).


 Chapter 2 Narrative

ποτὶ σοῖσι πίτνων καλοῦμαι στόμασιν νεοσσός. (394–403) Alas for my fate! My mother has gone below: no more, Father, is she in the light of the sun, and she has left me an orphan. Look at her eyes and slackened arms. Listen to me, Mother, listen, I implore you, it is I, Mother, I, your little one falling upon your lips, who calls your name!

Νέος ἐγώ, πάτερ, λείπομαι φίλας μονόστολός τε ματρός· ὦ σχέτλια δὴ παθὼν ἐγὼ ἔργ’ ἃ σὺ σύγκασί μοι συνέτλας κούρα. 410 ὦ πάτερ, ἀνόνατ’ ἀνόνατ’ ἐνύμφευσας οὐδὲ γήρως ἔβας τέλος σὺν τᾷδ’· ἔφθιτο γὰρ πάρος· οἰχομένας δὲ σοῦ, μᾶτερ, ὄλωλεν οἶκος. (406–415) I am left young and cut adrift from my dear mother. Oh, I have suffered terrible grief, and you, dear sister, have suffered it too. O father, it was all in vain, all in vain that you wedded since you did not come to the end of your life with her. For she died first. And since you have gone, Mother, the house is utterly destroyed.

It is not too bold to suggest that the death of Alcestis negates any possibility of survival advanced in the pledges between husband and wife; in fact, as already noted, the ostensibly safest member of the household, the male offspring, known in later sources by the name Eumelus, considers himself to be totally ruined in view of his mother’s untimely death (415). Not unlike his father, who sheds his manhood in order to embrace a life utterly deprived of sexual pleasure, caught as he is in a vortex of uncontrollable and disturbing emotions, the boy defies the masculine restraint and discipline which are embodied in moderate lament.88 88 Cf. also Cawthorn (2008) 107–108, who highlights the reversal of roles in Admetus’ becoming a woman mourning her husband. Later in the play, at 636–641, in blatant sarcasm Admetus will produce the outrageous hypothesis that he is of slavish origin; cf. also Anthon (1877) ad 638–647; Griffth (1978), who offers further parallels for this rhetorical topos.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


Dominated by an unenlightened pessimism, he appears to belie his male nature, lapsing into female emotionality and unmelodious howls of pain. In this regard, there seems to be no unambiguous safeguard against bereavement, inasmuch as the rationally conceived plan of Alcestis founders amidst the shrill cries of uncontrollable lament. The boy’s keening, purposely replacing as it does the funerary grief of female mourners, places before us with inexhaustible suggestiveness and unrivalled energy a vision of the human world as a place of potential turmoil and disarray. The total effeminization of Admetus and his son, relegating them to the same level of danger as the orphaned girl, brings before our eyes the unspeakable pain, the wail of humanity, the triumph of death, the mocking mastery of chance, and the irreversible fall of the just and innocent. This sinister world-building, unfitting human beings for the rational conduct of their lives, appears to be but one step from achieving finality and repose. Indeed, the members of the royal family are not the only ones who are absorbed in the feeling of their own sorrows, cut adrift from joyous festivities and music-making. Sadness pours down the social pyramid, infecting everything in the wider area of Thessaly with her disease of uncontrollable pessimism, as Admetus commands all citizens to take part in the grief for Alcestis for one whole year:89 πᾶσιν δὲ Θεσσαλοῖσιν ὧν ἐγὼ κρατῶ 425 πένθους γυναικὸς τῆσδε κοινοῦσθαι λέγω κουρᾷ ξυρήκει καὶ μελαμπέπλῳ στολῇ· τέθριππά θ’ οἳ ζεύγνυσθε καὶ μονάμπυκας πώλους, σιδήρῳ τέμνετ’ αὐχένων φόβην. αὐλῶν δὲ μὴ κατ’ ἄστυ, μὴ λύρας κτύπος 430 ἔστω σελήνας δώδεκ’ ἐκπληρουμένας. οὐ γάρ τίν’ ἄλλον φίλτερον θάψω νεκρὸν τοῦδ’ οὐδ’ ἀμείνον’ εἰς ἔμ’· ἀξία δέ μοι τιμῆς, ἐπεὶ τέθνηκεν ἀντ’ ἐμοῦ μόνη. (425–434) I command all the Thessalians in my realm to join in the mourning for my wife: let them cut their hair and wear black apparel. All you who yoke teams and all single riders, cut your 89 The play abounds in desperation speeches. In lines 935–961 once more Admetus gives expression to his extreme sorrow; cf. also Mannsperger (1971) on tragic rheseis; Friis Johansen (1959) 170, who places emphasis on Admetus’ use of sad reflections on humankind (on Euripidean gnomae, cf. also Hofinger 1896, esp. 8–12); Fowler (1987) 7; Segal (1993a) 39. Murnaghan (1999– 2000) suggests that Admetus’ concealment from Heracles of Alcestis’ death is an important step in the grieving process of recovering from loss and moving forward; but this idea strikes me as far-fetched.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

horses’ manes with a blade. And let there be no sound of pipe or lyre in the city for twelve full months. For I shall never bury one I love more or who has been kinder to me. She deserves my honor since she died for me as would no one else.

This kind of massive mourning pervading the Thessalian realm and casting its heavy shadow over the citizenry for twelve months leaves no room for hope which would turn upon the conviction that there might be other circumstances in which the possibilities of evil might have been overruled by still greater possibilities of good.90 In order to lay great stress on the idea that there is no escape from the trammels of death, Euripides makes mention of the extreme practice of shearing the horses’ manes as a sign of funeral grief; in fact, hogging the manes of horses appears to have been associated with northern Greece, since Plutarch cites two similar incidents in Thessaly (Pelopidas 33) and Macedonia (Alexander 72).91 Apparently acute sadness becomes the northern Greek mainland, in that Athenians held the view that their northern counterparts were incapable of controlling the emotional energy of lamentation, susceptible as they were to female suicidal grief. More importantly, once more this excessive manifestation of bereavement is compounded by the abolition of music and dance, the elimination of jollification in the broader region of Thessaly. This must have been unacceptable for Athenian audiences who had grown up to be intolerable of unrepressed ululating wails and extreme gestures of physical self-harming.92 It is fair to say that in Thessaly all Athenian valences are reversed. This intensity of agony stands in marked contrast to Pericles’ restrictions on female emotionality in his Funeral Speech: female relatives are allowed to lament the departed warriors at their tomb (2.34.4), but women’s greatest glory is to be least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad (2.45.2). In this regard, as already intimated, the threnodic cries of Admetus and his son contradict the masculine culture of the polis, for they break out from inside the domestic space of the house to interfere with the public, male-centered world of civic affairs, thereby threatening the virility of men in authority and the manly strength of their heirs. This self-destructive misery was an anathema to Athenian 90 Much as one would be inclined to assume that Admetus’ proclamation for a year-long grieving is further proof of Thessalian excessiveness, there is no doubt that this kind of royal edict commanding the populace to share in grief for twelve full months would have sounded highly immoderate and unnatural to Athenian audiences, given that in Athens the prescribed period of mourning did not exceed one month; in fact, there is every reason for thinking that the performance of the triakostia, the thirtieth-day rites in honour of the dead, marked the lifting of mourning. Cf. Garland (20012) 38–41. 91 See Parker (2007) ad 428–429. 92 Cf. Segal (1995) esp. 119–137 with further notes.

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


citizens, for even the most painful imaginable loss was not considered to be enough cause for the annihilation of houses and cities. But in Thessaly the human players are absorbed by the suicidal cries of grief and bereavement, dragging everyone down to their ruin, not least the whole population who are expected to sink into a year-long sorrow. It is needless to enforce the repeated consideration that in the bosom of that unrestrained sadness no pulses of life can stir, no anticipations of a wider good can wait for the hand of some great spirit to draw them forth into forms of hopefulness and strength. At this point the tragic narrative is shadowed by the darkness of utmost unhappiness springing from the overwhelming feeling that the inrush of death is unstoppable.93 Against this tremendously bleak backdrop, the first movement of the play concludes with the prolepsis of Alcestis’ elevation to the rank of divine being, for the Thessalian elders are certain that the queen will be copiously eulogized by aspiring poets in Athens and Sparta, thereby setting out the cultic honours due to her. In response to Admetus’ unusual request for a paean to the inexorable king of the netherworld (423–424, [...] ἀντηχήσατε / παιᾶνα τῷ κάτωθεν ἀσπόνδῳ θεῷ, ‘sing a paean to the implacable god below’), their own lyric piece, as well as creating at first a paradoxical atmosphere through the oxymoronic deployment of a paeanic song as mournful dirge, turns out to be a celebratory song, thus functioning as the prototype of future acclamations and encomia for Alcestis’ unequalled devotion. But at no time do the old men of the Chorus fail to remember that the god below is impervious to hymnical requests other than those aiming to secure a safe transition into the nether regions for the deceased, that is, those confirming the rights and privileges of Hades:94

93 Cf. also Dik (2007) 80, who rightly observes that the word order in line 434 gives prominence to the fact of Alcestis’ death. 94 I have chosen to follow the lectio tradita and retain ἀσπόνδῳ (424) against the judgement of Diggle (1994) 419–420, who supports the reading ἄσπονδον by offering several examples of this kind of interlaced word order, and Parker (2007) ad 423–424, who explains ἀσπόνδῳ as a typical case of assimilation to θεῷ. Elaborating on Rutherford (2001) 120, Seeck (2008), and Iakov (2012) ad 423, I wish to point out that, although it just may be that the scholium on 424 (Σb θρῆνον ἐφ’ ᾧ οὐ σπένδουσιν ὥσπερ ἐν τοῖς παιᾶσιν) indicates an alternative reading, namely a libationless paean, the received reference to the pitiless god of the underworld is well calculated to keep alive the complex of profound emotions of hope and dread which have been excited by the main action. Not unlike the Chorus in the fourth stasimon of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (1556– 1578), trying to propitiate the nether divinities to grant Oedipus a painless passing by asserting his innocence, the old men of Pherae attempt to placate the infernal gods, stern though they are to human prayers, to receive Alcestis with due honour by pressing upon them her incomparable wifely virtue.


 Chapter 2 Narrative

πολλά σε μουσοπόλοι 445 μέλψουσι καθ’ ἑπτάτονόν τ’ ὀρείαν χέλυν ἔν τ’ ἀλύροις κλέοντες ὕμνοις, Σπάρτᾳ κυκλὰς ἁνίκα Καρνείου περινίσεται ὥρα μηνός, ἀειρομένας 450 παννύχου σελάνας, λιπαραῖσί τ’ ἐν ὀλβίαις Ἀθάναις, τοίαν ἔλιπες θανοῦσα μολπὰν μελέων ἀοιδοῖς. (445–454) Poets shall sing often in your praise both on the seven-stringed mountain tortoise shell and in songs unaccompanied by the lyre when at Sparta the month of Carnea comes circling round and the moon is aloft the whole night long, and also in rich, gleaming Athens. Such is the theme for song that you have left for poets by your death.

All in all, the profusion of praise for Alcestis marks the ending of a highly significant narrative phase in the play, indeed the most elaborate narrational creation of a horrifying future world in Euripidean tragedy, in that this extraordinary paean addressed to the implacable infernal deities serves as the symbolic condensation of human hopelessness in the presence of Necessity. Nevertheless, although at this most crucial point an inscrutable divine determination still forms the warp of choral narration, the awe and dread which it symbolizes are slightly modified by the oxymoronic nature of the woof.95 The paean-performance, so appropriate in a play where Apollo and Asclepius figure so prominently, expresses the Greek ideal that the essential nobleness of self-sacrificing heroes and heroines is vindicated even after death, for the χθόνιοι θεοί are not unconscious of human merit as long as this exercise of power in clemency does not pose a threat to their long-established prerogatives. The choral song with its connotations of paeanic healing presents a distinctly moral challenge to the underworld deities, who are implored to look favourably on Alcestis on account of her self-giving devotion; but the ensuing contrafactive 95 On the oxymoronic use of the term paean as ‘mournful chant’, see Rutherford (2001) 120, who rightly points out that ‘the direct confrontation between παιάν and death here reflects a more general antithesis between the forces of life and death’. Cf. also Paley (1857) ad 423; Bayfield (18942) ad 424, who, interestingly enough, argues that the Chorus‘ celebrates a triumph of Death’; Hadley (1896) ad 424; Blakeney (1900) ad 424; Dale (19612) ad 422–424; Parker (2007) ad 423–424. On paean-singing, see also Käppel (1992).

II. Death is Death is Death: Narrating a World of Perennial Suffering 


hypothesis (455–462) concerning the elders’ impossible wish to descend to the abode of the dead and rescue Alcestis from Hades keeps the theme of human vulnerability to the foreground. Even though the memory of Alcestis’ self-denying achievement runs against the grain of inexplicable and inexorable nether forces, ironically affording the only possibility of jollification within a world in the grip of endless sorrow and brooding silence, the wounds of the living are not healed and their broken spirit is not mended. At this juncture of the play the gates of Hades stand open and destruction is real. There is no salvation in sight to descend to the bruised spirit of the human survivors; in fact, the song and dance of the Chorus, evidently the last instance of musical performance in Thessaly before the commencement of a polis-wide year-long musicless mourning, palpably evokes the ominous oppressiveness before the storm. The tragic narrative carries the audience to the brink of terror, because the dramatis personae are no longer capable of crossing the shadow line between the consciousness of terrible disaster and the act of self-reformation and re-adaptation, being eternally trapped in limbo by irremediable suffering. The awareness that Alcestis will never come back to life hits Admetus and his children in terrible waves of existential permanence, thereby making things impossibly hard for them. Not even the time-honoured rituals (paeans and encomia included) that humans build around the excruciating pain inflicted by the loss of a loved one are sufficient enough to medicate the torment and ease the passage. To recapitulate briefly, the first movement of the play, dominated as it is by the onstage death of Alcestis, closely observes the bending force of perennial sorrow upon human lives by means of narratologically intricate scenes and narratorly complex flashbacks and flashforwards; in actual fact, a tangle of private lives is thrown into relief against a narratively complicated background of cosmic turbulence and mortal suffering. All this remarkable narrative invention weaving together an earthly strand and a celestial strand leaves one with the intimation of something finished, an inner design of horrifying gloom complete and conclusive. But in the following scenes the tragic narrative gradually veers away into a detour of fresh narrational creation, as Euripides shows that he could bend his profuse narrative powers to the necessary limitations of the Attic stage through the skilful employment of the mythical cycle of Heracles and the mysteric motifs of the Eleusinian-Orphic doctrines. Soon the entire play will start moving into a more luminous key; in effect, the current nightmarish forms of utter affliction and sadness will eventually prove a mere scaffold to the inner narrative shape of heroic and mystical blessedness. It is for that very reason that we propose to trace the outline of the Heracles theme, as well as the contours of the Eleusinian-Orphic patterning, in the following chapters.

Chapter 3  Myth I. Introduction The play’s extremely complex narrative patternings forming a horrific world of perennial human suffering, indeed a distinctly un-Greek world, take place within a dense intertextual matrix of familiar legendary tales which serve as an ever more intricate resistance to this sinister world-building. As I have already intimated in the previous chapter, throughout the second part of the play there is a recurring insistence on special experiences and unique moments of superhuman accomplishment which open and close epochs in the life of the greatest Greek hero, Heracles. In particular, the cycle of Heracles’ twelve Labours, as well as his numerous other heroic achievements and undeserved misfortunes that have been happening parallel to the action of Euripides’ Alcestis, encourage the audience to take into consideration one more narrative line, one of the utmost mythological significance in this case, which in due course converges with the Alcestis story on a common endgame. As I shall try to show in this chapter, this divinely authorized narrative possibility, namely the salvation of Alcestis through the good offices of Heracles, is one of the finest conceptions in Euripides, whether regarded from the theatrical or from the moral point of view. Among other things, the employment of the celebrated Heraclean myth by the tragic poet places a topical story within the embrace of a Panhellenic saga; it alerts the spectators to a novel channel between two independent narrative entities allowing one to sustain and energize the other. In essence, the evocation of the Heracles story provides a wider perspective on the ultimate issue of the play, posing the critical question, so important for narratologists: how two legendary tales of prima facie contrasting narrative frameworks and differing moral hues will be reconciled, made the main thematic structures of a coherent and intelligible tragic narration. The considerable dynamics released when Apollo turns the tables on Thanatos by prophesying the eventual rescue of Alcestis reminds one of the most important piece in the narrative jigsaw, namely that in spite of everything the tale of Alcestis is closely intertwined with the currently unravelling legendary story of Heracles’ twelve Labours, especially the one involving the man-eating mares of the Thracian king Diomedes. Furthermore, it is important not to overlook that the battle of Heracles with Death at the tomb of Alcestis is strongly reminiscent of the hero’s final Labour: Heracles wrestled Cerberus, the monstrous guard-dog to the gates of Hades, with his bare hands and brought it up to the land of the living. On his way to the netherworld, he set Theseus free and tried to unchain

I. Introduction 


Peirithous, the king of the Lapiths, but his efforts were unavailing; no doubt, the rescue of Theseus from the underworld is yet another mirror-story of the salvation of Alcestis from death. Surely, as I shall presently show, the same applies to all the related tales of Heracles wrestling valiantly with Death-like figures at the outer limits of human civilization. It is not overbold to argue that Alcestis faces the inexorable finality of sacrifice with the same unrelenting courage. Such lives cannot be allowed to decline with fading strength; they need for their appropriate end the impressive finale of immortalization. More generally, and more relevantly for my narratological approach, since plots must generate narrative force, especially the kind of narrative force that encourages the audience to see the deeper significance of well-known actions, to recognize the widespread ramifications of familiar tales, the introduction of the legend of Heracles into the play ushers in multiple optimistic stories of human rescue and achievement in order to erode and finally destroy the seemingly indestructible foundations of a horrific world of permanent mourning. The multilateral Heracles tradition serves as the connecting rod transmitting motion to the primary narrative; as a matter of fact, in view of this inescapable intertextual web of subordinate mythical stories the play becomes part of an immense, unfolding tapestry. Indeed, this massive assortment of hopeful tales sends out complex ripples of secondary associations and meanings, adumbrating the benign resolution of the staged story. Most importantly, these Heraclean yarns with their expansive geographical setting, overwhelming variegation of human and superhuman life, and joyful resolutions of prima facie impossible crises and ferocious conflicts about survival and dominance provide an important yardstick by which to measure the happy ending of the play. At a deeper level, when we consider more closely the functions of the Heracles legend, it will be seen that it allows the mind to make connections between different narrative moments; in fact, it invites the audience to interpret Euripides’ Alcestis as a powerful recital of Heracles’ twelve Labours and his numerous other accomplishments, athletic achievements included – that is, a welcome addition to an extraordinary Hellas-wide mythical cycle of admirable and inspiring human undertakings. Further, operating on an ethical plane, the Apolline prophecy, coming as it does unexpectedly as early as the opening stage of the play, leads the spectators to one of the essential clues of the tragic narrative: the happily concluded story of Alcestis is not an isolated instance of divine goodwill and human achievement but, more crucially, gives deeper meaning and strong moral impetus to a particular narrational structure that was created with the first Labour of Heracles. Indeed, one of the initial impulses to this kind of happy-ending storytelling was given with the long series of Heracles’ astonishing feats of courage and determination – a gifted man attempting to attain the impossible in the face of


 Chapter 3 Myth

supernatural opponents and life-threatening challenges eventually emerges from his ordeal triumphant and unscathed. For this reason, it would not be too bold to argue that Euripides’ Alcestis is a kind of palimpsest, a heavily layered text which echoes diverse versions of the same story, thereby allowing the audience to reconsider the sequences of the terrible events at Pherae, especially the deviously constructed future world of endless misery and misfortune, in terms of their narrative, religious, and moral significance for a wide range of renowned tales of human endurance and divine generosity, not least of course those of one of the principal characters of the play, Heracles. Most remarkably, the rescue of Alcestis from premature death proves the complete reversal of certain Heraclean tales of familial disasters and public scorn. To be sure, it is indicative of the play’s narrational intricacy that the embedded storyline of the Heracles cycle of legends ends up exerting such a tidal pull on the shape and pace of the action. Surprisingly enough, through this narrative embedding, the secondary narrative becomes the next orbit out from the primary narrative, as the tale of Alcestis turns out to be yet another piece in the narrative jigsaw of the far more extensive Heraclean tradition. Thus, the wider mythical story absorbs, and eventually eliminates, the pain arising from the local legend.

II. Mythological Intertextuality: Alcestis and Heracles In Euripides the mythical tales of Alcestis and Heracles are linked together with an ease and smoothness and apparent facility which are apt to deceive the critic into believing that the employment of the Heracles argument is nothing less than an ingenious novelty. It is, however, fair to point out, at the beginning of this section, that Euripides should in fact take all the credit for using an already familiar theme to the full extent of its possibilities; in effect, the nature of the connection between Alcestis and Heracles gave the tragic poet many opportunities for revealing his sentiments on certain issues of deeper moment for him and fifth-century Athenian society.1 The generality of scholars now agree that the injection of the Heracles-narrative into the myth of Alcestis transformed an otherwise conventional folktale about procuring a respite from instant demise into a fascinating story about 1 On the uses of mythology, see (e.g.) Gúpin (1968); McDermott (1989); Austin (1990); Dowden (1992); Graf (1993a); Frick (1998); Nesselrath (1999). On the politics of myth, see Dowden (1992) 150–168; J. M. Hall (2007). On tragic myth, see recently Burian (1997); Buxton (2007) with further references. On intertextuality in general and Euripidean intertextuality in particular, see Markantonatos (2004b) and (2007b); Torrance (2013).

II. Mythological Intertextuality: Alcestis and Heracles 


winning out over fated premature death through heroic bravery and moral integrity.2 There has been, nonetheless, much debate on the issue of Admetus, whose ethical credentials are by no means reinforced by his highly controversial choice to allow his wife to die in his place. There are lingering doubts about whether Admetus’ actions are morally defensible despite the fact that he proves himself a punctilious host to a fault, as well as an abundantly loving husband, eaten up by regrets about asking Alcestis to take his place when Death comes to claim him. However much Admetus is prostrated with grief over the loss of his caring companion, his plans having gone badly adrift and the tentacles of remorse closing around his body, some critics maintain that his acceptance of Apollo’s offer forever unframed his moral fabric – it was an event that not only darkened his life, but also made him vulnerable to unwavering glares of public disapproval, adding social opprobrium to loss and bereavement.3 Notwithstanding the legit2 See mainly Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 190–195, who perceptively argue that ‘Euripides situates the present story within the life and labors of Heracles and keeps the issues of death and loss from becoming too oppressive’ (p. 191). On the folkloric elements of the Alcestis legend, see principally Hesseling (1914); Lesky (1925) 20–42; Megas (1933) and (1977); Weber (1936); Gaster (1939); Kakridis (1944) esp. 15–16; Trenkner (1958) 69–70; Dale (19612) vii–xii; Paduano (1968a) 9–14; Andriotis (1976); Aélion (1983) I.284; Kalogerakos (1997); Silveira Cyrino (2002); Bruit Zaidman (2002); Panagouli-Triaridou (2007); Gavrilovic (2008); Iakov (2009). On the play’s Nachleben with occasional references to the folkloric material, cf. also Disselius (1882) esp. 1–21; Huddilston (1898) 4–17; Heinemann (1920); Wiener (1921); Butler (1937–1938); Lucas (1963) 107, 115, and 129–130; Conradie (1963) and (1997); Guentner (1966); Rau (1967) esp. 170–173; Paduano (1968b); Petersen (1974) 18–23; Wood (1978); Tabory (1979–1980); Beekes (1986); Greenberg (1989); Phelan (1990); Brown-Kazazis (1995); Hartigan (1995) 120–124; McDonald (2002) 44 and (2003) 98–100; Wetmore (2002) esp. 120–130 and (2003) 78–79; Parker (2003); Iakov (2004b); Garland (2004) 220–221; Hall & Macintosh (2005) esp. 117–118, 446–447, and 456–459; Taplin (2007) 110–113; Arnould (2008); Gavrilovic (2008); Most (2010); Wygant (2010); Davies (2010). On Alcestis Barcinonensis, the late Latin mythological poem on the Alcestis tale, see, among others, Lebek (1983); Marcovich (1984) and (1988); Nosarti (1992); Liebermann (1993); Hall (2008); Moreno Soldevila (2011). 3 A passionate proponent of the extreme view that Admetus is nothing less than a self-centred and insensitive man is Roisman in Luschnig & Roisman (2003) esp. 165–166 (cf. also Roisman 1984, 159ff., 1999, 70, n. 14, 2005 and 2013; see further Paley 1857, 240; Donne 1877, 83–84; Decharme 1906, 81; Murray 19113, 269; Steiger 1912, 104–109; Chapman 1915, 19–44; Bowra 1966, 150, who has a very pronounced view on Admetus, calling him a ‘selfish prig’ and 1967, 51; Melchinger 1973, 71–80; Kott 1974, 78–108; Pandiri 1974–1975; Luschnig 1992a; Falkner 1995, 176; Walton 2009, 50–51), while moderate critics of Admetus’ ethical position include: Croiset (1912); Sheppard (1919), who instead lays great stress upon the guilt of Admetus’ parents for the moral impasse; Greene (1944) 195–197; Zürcher (1947) 31ff.; Jones (1948); Blaiklock (1952) 4–13; von Fritz (1956), who is followed by Schwinge (1962) 42–43, (1968) 100–102, and (1970); Kamerbeek (1960) 4–5 & 25; Jones (1962) 253–255; Rosenmeyer (1963) 199–248, esp. 232, who finds fault with Alcestis for asking her husband to forswear all enjoyment in life; Lattimore (1955), (1958) 111–114,


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imacy of these arguments, I concur with Conacher and Galinsky in the view that the appearance of Heracles as an unanticipated saviour, totally unrelated to the core of the legend, facilitates the depiction of Alcestis’ rescue from Hades as resulting from Admetus’ compulsive hospitality, thus reducing the moral hazard problem following from Apollo’s problematic arrangement.4 It is my contention that Euripides was heavily influenced by Phrynichus, an early Athenian tragic poet, whose career ranged from 511 BCE to 476 BCE, in organizing his drama in terms of plot.5 Phrynichus’ lost play, Alcestis, must have been an important recasting of the rudiments of the myth, far exceeding the preceding treatments of the Alcestis legend in dramatic power and moral sensitivity.6 According to the little we can surmise from exiguous ancient information, Euripides followed Phrynichus in bringing on the stage Thanatos with sword in hand for the sacrificial cutting of Alcestis’ hair, as well as Heracles in the role of Alcestis’ unexpected rescuer. Contrary to Conacher and Galinsky, who closely echo Ebeling in his suggestion that it was Euripides who expanded and developed the and (1964) 70–71; Rivier (1973) 137–139 and (1975) 93–100; Vickers (19792) 116–119; Gregory (1979); Bradley (1980); Bell (1980); Steinmann (1981) esp. 155; Buxton (1982) 152; Lloyd (1985) and (1992) 39; Griffin (1990) 144, who draws attention to the obtuseness of Admetus; Massarachia (1993); Segal (1993a) 37–86; Assaël (1993), (1995), and (2001); Slater (2000); Syropoulos (2001) and (2003) esp. 66–70; McLeish (2003) 116; Kurczyk (2007); Kokkini (2010); Pucci (2011). For a sobering discussion of the extremely complicated moral issue, see Iakov (1985) esp. 223–239, who follows the sensible remarks by Steidle (1968) 29–32 & 132–151, Bergson (1971) and (1985), and Erbse (1972) esp. 37 and (1984) 290. At the other end of the spectrum, Burnett (1965) and (1971) 22–46 attempts to disculpate Admetus; but see Parker’s vitriolic rebuttal (2007, xlviii– xlix), which in its turn gave rise to Roisman’s vituperative, albeit completely justified, response (2008); cf. also Linforth (1946), who considers Admetus the true protagonist of the play; Prentice (1942) 131–139; Vicenzi (1960); Lesky (1960) esp. 149–150, (1964) 210–213, and (1976) 216–217; Sicking (1967), who tries to avoid the pitfalls of psychologizing readings; Rohdich (1968) 23–43; Seeck (1985) 66–67; Dyson (1988); des Bouvrie (1990) esp. 199–200; Brillante (2005). For rather idiosyncratic interpretations of the play’s characters in general and Admetus in particular, see (e.g.) van Lennep (1935) and (1949); Smith (1960). On the outrageous theories of Verrall (1895) 1–128 and (1905), which argue that Alcestis never passes away, but simply faints from physical and emotional depletion, see (e.g.) Blakeney (1900) 16–17; Rose (1964) 180, n. 8; but see Greenwood (1953) esp. 11–12, who nonetheless considers the supernatural element in the plot an integral element of the play. On the complexity of human motivation in Euripides, see (e.g.) Müffelmann (1965); Chromik (1967) . 4 Conacher (1967) 332–333 and (19932) 34–35, who draws on Bergk (1884) III.498; Ebeling (1898) esp. 65–66 and 76–77, but not without certain qualifications; Galinsky (1972) 67. 5 On Phrynichus, see (e.g.) OCD3 s.v. Phrynichus [A. L. Brown]; Lloyd-Jones (1990b) esp. 230–237; Storey & Allan (2005) 91–92. Cf. also Zimmermann (1991) 91, who argues that the significant difference between Phrynichus and Euripides was, perhaps, the fact that the latter ‘did not focus on Alcestis’s tragic decision to die for her husband’. 6 See recently Parker (2007) xv–xvi with notes.

II. Mythological Intertextuality: Alcestis and Heracles 


legend by the addition of fresh incidents and startling twists, I totally agree with Dale and Parker about the need for caution when dealing with the complexity and dynamics of mythological sources, especially considering the paucity of epic and early lyric evidence of the Alcestis tradition.7 Without wishing to rehearse at length points eloquently argued in Dale and Parker, it bears repeating that in all probability two Aeschylean passages presuppose knowledge of Phrynichus’ play.8 In particular, at Suppliants 214 (ἁγνόν τ’ Ἄπόλλω, φυγάδ’ ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ θεόν, ‘And holy Apollo, the god exiled from heaven’, transl. A. H. Sommerstein) there is an allusion to Apollo’s period of servitude on earth in the palace of Admetus; and at Eumenides 723–728 the Chorus of Furies reproach Apollo for tripping up the Fates with cunning trickery: ΧΟΡΟΣ τοιαῦτ’ ἔδρασας καὶ Φέρητος ἐν δόμοις· Μοίρας ἔπεισας ἀφθίτους θεῖναι βροτούς. ΑΠΟΛΛΩΝ οὔκουν δίκαιον τὸν σέβοντ’ εὐεργετεῖν, ἄλλως τε πάντως χὤτε δεόμενος τύχοι; ΧΟΡΟΣ σύ τοι παλαιὰς διανομὰς καταφθίσας οἴνῳ παρηπάτησας ἀρχαίας θεάς. CHORUS You did just the same sort of thing in the house of Pheres, inducing the Fates to make mortals immortal. APOLLO So was it not right to do good to one who treated me with respect, in any circumstances and especially when he was in need? CHORUS You’re the one who destroyed the old allotment of power and beguiled those ancient goddesses with wine. (transl. A. H. Sommerstein)

Aeschylus lays much stress on the outrageous aspect of the story, giving particular focus to the intoxication of the Fates, whereas in his Alcestis Euripides refrains 7 Dale (19612) xii–xiv; Parker (2007) xv–xvii. On the myth’s obscurity in early Greek art, see Paton (1900), who goes on to add that ‘[i]n the later art it is chiefly found on funeral monuments, especially sarcophagi’ (p. 151). 8 Cf. also Italie (1950).


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from revealing the scandalous deception of Apollo but for a slight hint at trickery in lines 12 and 33–34 (12, Μοίρας δολώσας and 33–34, Μοίρας δολίῳ / σφήλαντι τέχνῃ). Perhaps in Phrynichus’ play Apollo’s discourteous treatment of the Elder Goddesses was laid out in order to bring into stronger relief the clash between time-honoured divine ordinances and Olympian generosity, as well as putting a Bacchic touch into the disruption of primeval codes regulating the relationships between gods and men.9 More than this, the explicit references to Admetus’ kindness towards hosts, as well as the suspension of the rigid protocol of human mortality, may be a further proof that Phrynichus opened out many original thematic sources of his own, thereby diversifying the action with novel incidents and sudden reverses, so as to concentrate the audience’s attention on the development of character and on the moral significance of the events. One is even tempted to suggest that in order to bring into the clearest light the pathos of the situation Phrynichus greatly exaggerated Apollo’s benefaction: Admetus was promised immortality, not merely a respite from untimely death. Perhaps the prospect of eternal life would have alleviated the ethical ambiguity of Admetus’ choice, considering of course the sheer uniqueness of the gift, while at the same time bringing the conflict between Apollo and an older system of divine dispensation into prominent relief. Moreover, on these Aeschylean grounds we may assume that the strong emphasis on the inebriation of the Fates, together with the exceptionality of Apollo’s benevolence, is suggestive of the satyr-like character of Phrynichus’ lost play.10 This last point is important for the following discussion of the only actual fragment which survives from Phrynichus’ Alcestis. In particular, Hesychius cites five 9 See also Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1886) 66, who conjectures that the tricking of the Fates was Phrynichus’ innovation. Cf. also Lloyd-Jones (1990b) 231, who suggests (rather unconvincingly, in my view) that ‘Hesiod’s Catalogue may also have been Phrynichus’ source for the story of Alcestis’ (see the sobering comments in Flint 1921, 76). 10 But see Lloyd-Jones (1990b) 231, who expresses serious doubt about the play’s satyric character. As regards Euripides’ Alcestis and the hotly debated question of the play’s ‘pro-satyric’ character, see principally Jöhring (1894); Hayley (1898) xxiii–xxxiii with earlier references; Bloch (1901) II.113–118; Murray (1915) vii–ix and (1918/19653) 34; Norwood (1920) 188; Lesky (1925) in conjunction with Michelini (1987) 324–329; Rivier (1944/19752) 41ff.; Smith (1960); Kitto (19612) 311–320; Barnes (1968); Burnett (1971) 22; Sutton (1971), (1974), and (1980) 180–184; Morin (1974); Hourmouziades (1974) and (19842) 115 & 136–138; Ritoók (1977); Castellani (1979) 488; Kaufmann (1979) 15, 40, and 356, who is right to place emphasis on the experimental nature of the play; Seidensticker (1982) 129ff.; Seaford (1984) 24–25; Segal (1991); Del Fréo (1996); Mastronarde (1999–2000) esp. 34–36; Dellner (2000a) and (2000b); Marshall (2000) and (2004); [E.] Segal (2001) 125; Wright (2005) 21, n. 58; Scodel (2011a) 52. For further views, see (e.g.) Goodell (1920) 279–283; Grube (19612) 145–146; Garzya (1961) and (1962) 17; Paduano (1968); Riemer (1989). On Euripidean satyr-drama, see Pechstein (1998).

II. Mythological Intertextuality: Alcestis and Heracles 


words from the play, one of them corrupt and thereby variously emended by Toup and Bergk: σῶμα δ’ ἀθαμβὲς †γυοδόνιστον† τείρει. Most commentators assume on the basis of this tiny passage that Phrynichus not only imported Heracles into the Alcestis legend, but also described him wrestling fiercely with Thanatos.11 Moreover, if either Bergk’s γυιόδμητον (‘mastering the limbs’) or, most preferably, Toup’s γυιοδόνητον (‘exerting the limbs’ ?) is accepted, the fragment may well be taken as an anapaestic extract from a lyrical piece, in which the Chorus visualize Heracles fighting victoriously with Death (σῶμα δ’ ἀθαμβὲς γυιοδόνητον / τείρει). If so, this is one of those rare moments in Greek drama when the Chorus picture an off-stage scene in their mind’s eye at the same time as it happens.12 Though critics had polarized over whether Heracles is here described as suppressing his brawny opponent or it is in fact Thanatos who is gaining an advantage over Heracles, attempting to keep his indomitable powerfully-built adversary under control, there now seems to be a consensus that Heracles is the subject of τείρει.13 It is highly likely, therefore, that Euripides borrowed from Phrynichus the theme of Heracles struggling valiantly with plucky and muscular Thanatos in what must have been an impressive show of physical exertion and mental effort. From the preceding analysis of the available ancient evidence it becomes apparent that Phrynichus’ play must have created a considerable sensation on account of its novelty and originality in deriving much of its interest from the skilful complexity of the inventive blending of two unrelated mythical stories. More than this, the real greatness of Euripides as storyteller is to be seen, not in his more realistic (and even more so poignant) treatment of the tale, but in the remarkable ways in which he weaves extraordinarily intricate narrative networks of intertextual debts and credits, constantly encouraging the audience to reconsider the mythical stories of Alcestis and Heracles in terms of their hermeneutic possibilities and determinations. In the remainder of this chapter I shall draw attention to all these narrative intricacies, setting the Heraclean episode in the context of mythological intertextuality. Strangely enough, so far as I know, not one critic has made full use of the idea that the deployment of the myth of Heracles, originally conceived by Phrynichus, reinforces the suggestion that Euripides’ Alcestis is like a woven tissue of crisscross narrative lines where one mythical tale seems to call for another, and then another, in sequential abundance – that is, a fully dialogic transaction between legendary stories, the one battling the horror of the other. 11 Cf. Parker (2007) xvi with references. See also Kapsomenos (1963) 35–36. 12 See Markantonatos (2002) 100–101. 13 Cf. most recently Parker (2007) xvi; Olson (2010b) 506. See also Mahr (1938) 63–64, who follows Pohlenz (1930/19542) I.20.


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III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero Not unlike Phrynichus, Euripides seeks to surpass all previous treatments of the Alcestis legend in vividness of effect and in profound earnestness of moral feeling by importing the mythical story of Heracles into his work – in other words he filters the account of primary events through a second level of mythological screening powerful enough to guide the audience to assemble an infinitely larger picture of the play. As well as complicating the ethical significance of the ensuing action, the evocation of Heracles as early as the Prologue makes room for further layers of narrative implication, bringing into play familiar stories of superhuman achievement, in addition to proverbial tales of human survival in spite of catastrophe, which bond together into a series of episodes of rising emotional intensity, causally removed from the focal point of the drama but closely associated with its rule systems. It would, indeed, be unwise to assume that Euripides focuses solely on Heracles’ twelve Labours as miniature versions of the Alcestis story; as a matter of fact, the progress and the overall shape of the tragic narrative deliberately encourage far-reaching connections between the events taking place in the house of Admetus and a wide cycle of mythical tales, along with Hellas-wide, or more often Athens-centred, cult traditions, rituals, and customs concerning the remarkable accomplishments, as well as the unmerited sufferings, of Heracles. This constellation of extraordinary narratives revolving around the greatest Panhellenic hero is embedded in the primary narrative at the most appropriate points, strongly evoking mythological relationships between the principal characters of the play, together with acute tensions between various accounts of exploits of exceptional human endurance in the face of calamity. It is not too bold to argue that the introduction of Heracles into the play imparted a new moral to the Alcestis legend, embracing in a single whole a vast series of mythological, religious, and political ramifications. Heracles’ outstanding accomplishments were rightly interpreted not only as torments forced upon the hero by Hera but also as creative feats which tamed the world and brought order and civilization out of savagery.14 The snatching of Alcestis from the hands of Death can therefore now be seen as a distinctly civilizing feat of deep political moment, principally because of a new moral calculus: Asclepius brought men back from the dead regardless of their ethical integrity; Zeus, by contrast, establishes a new, ethically informed dispensation through his own son, Heracles, thereby holding out the prospect of reward to the virtuous, all the blessings which he promises being contingent 14 See Buxton (2004) 114–123; Larson (2009) esp. 33–35. Cf. also Stafford (2012) 23ff. on the monster-slaying hero and his cultural gifts.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


upon the pursuing and attainment of moral dignity. In this regard, Euripides, in his desire to convert the story of Alcestis into a picture of strong and noble fortitude in the teeth of unmitigated disaster, draws copiously from the rich stream of the Heraclean myth, making the most of all the fine complexities of this extraordinary hero-god, as well as bringing out and stressing with remarkable persistency the conflicting aspects and glaring ambivalences of his personality. The constant emphasis on Heracles’ double-sided nature as valiant warrior and boisterous glutton, courageous monster slayer and hubristic rogue calls upon the audience’s previous knowledge of the immense variegation of the hero’s life represented in numerous mythical stories, literary reformulations, and cultic traditions all over Greece.15 Indeed, the Heraclean argument is an important critical thinking tool, which allows Euripides to view the experience of Alcestis through a multiplicity of different focusing perspectives, opening up the play to a variety of mythological and cultic influences which throw numerous interpretative filters over the staged events. The passions and sufferings of humankind are everywhere painted in the highly diverse legends of Heracles, not only as they appear in their absolute violence and rawness, but also as they are revealed in relation to the mysterious workings of human destiny and the everlasting decrees of divine authority. As another Everyman Heracles becomes a visible statement of humanity’s never-ending struggle with the mutability of all terrestrial accomplishment. This is the reason why the play leaves us with the feeling of lives still in process: Alcestis is adjusting slowly to her earthly surroundings after her miraculous return from the land of the dead and Heracles goes on striving unfailingly against savage opponents on his way to immortalization, while the completion of a prolonged series of heroic attainments is still pending. Euripides will again fuse the diachronic and the synchronic axes of the Heraclean legend in his later play, Hera-

15 On the multiple functions of Heracles in Greek mythical tradition, see Moulton (1890) 199, who, discussing Euripides’ Alcestis, convincingly observes that Heracles draws together ‘the dark and bright sides’ of the play; Farnell (1921) 146–154, who offers a slightly outdated but still valuable discussion of Heracles; Papadopoulou (2005) 1–8, who highlights very well the remarkable double-sidedness of Heracles as on the one hand sensual and coarse-fibred, but on the other, sensitive and unselfish; Griffiths (2006) 15–29, who points to good reason for treating Heracles as, among others, a philosophical hero (pp. 23–24); Goldhill (2007) 199–201, who observes that Heracles ‘is both a potential savior and a dangerous threat, even to the same people’ (p. 200). On Heracles’ violence and legendary appetite, see Bruit Zaidman & Schmitt Pantel (1992) 171–172. Cf. also Ostwald (1965); Galinsky (1972); Pike (1977) and (1984); Shapiro (1983) and (1984); Silk (1985); Brommer (1986); March (1987) 47–77; Loraux (1990); Fitzgerald (1991); Kuntz (1994); Kampen (1996); Huttner (1997); Padilla (1998); Hourmouziades (1998) 81– 83; Blanshard (2005); Stafford (2005); Rawlings & Bowden (2006); Neils (2009) 116–117.


 Chapter 3 Myth

cles, most likely produced in 416 BCE, as well as perhaps in his lost plays, Auge and Peirithous.16 Apparently Alcestis is his first attempt to exploit Heracles’ contrasts and contradictions against a background of the immediate anxieties of an impossible situation. But more than anything else we first need to consider closely how the atmosphere of fear and anticipation that keeps gathering all through the Prologue of the play prepares the ground for Apollo’s striking revelation about Heracles’ important role in the story, in a way adumbrating the arrival of Heracles in the midst of a horrible situation later on in the play. However brief the prophecy, it nonetheless throbs with significance: it canvasses time and space, bringing the future and the remote to bear on a series of events which will soon be full to overflowing with prodigal disorder and moral ambiguity. Apollo’s announcement, coming as it does after the torrent of Thanatos’ doom-laden forecasts, ushers Heracles into the story of Alcestis with great aplomb. Although in the opening scene of Euripides’ Alcestis the primary narrative is entirely locked in the direct conflict of Apollo and Thanatos, while the human characters remain in the background, totally unable to influence the rapidly changing fortunes of their well-being, the hopeful prospect of a valiant champion coming to the rescue of Alcestis leads the audience to assume that there are still large areas of the narrative map that remain unclear and obscure. These secondary stories, which grow in the shadow of the Alcestis legend, fulfil the purpose of narrative propellers converting power to thrust. As the tragic narrative develops, they record with intensity and completeness a permanent element of Greek experience which unfailingly serves as a powerful motivator: mortals acquire grandeur and impressiveness through the accomplishment of tasks of prodigious danger and difficulty. With his stormy vitality and indomitable determination Heracles shrinks from nothing to prove his worth, believing with all his heart that life is all the more valuable when turned to the utmost account. This sense that mortal men can find in the reality of celebration and renown something which works against the annihilation brought about by death is deeply ingrained in his character, as well as permeating the whole play with a sort of unseen but considerable influence. It is hardly too much to say that in both the Alcestis tale and the Heraclean fables the growth of reflection and self-consciousness becomes merged with insuppressible feelings of human brotherhood and compassion; in fact, in the end the eyes of the primary charac16 On Euripides’ Heracles as an accomplished reformulation of the famous myth, see recently Papadopoulou (2005); Griffiths (2006) esp. 30–41. Cf. also Whitman (1974) esp. 141; Bond (1981) xxvi–xxx; Barlow (1996) 1–16, who places due emphasis on the importance of friendship in the play (pp. 14–16).

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


ters are opened to more deep-set principles of honesty and integrity in life and in the universe. Such a mood was perhaps inevitable in a fifth-century Athenian outlook which called insistently for the interfusion of energetic action and moral courage, unconquerable force of will and internal consistency.17 Also, it is surely above accident that at the same time fundamental ethical questions, closely connected with the day-to-day function of democracy, passed imperceptibly from social relations to religious and political conditions and covered almost every aspect of Athenian life.18 For the time being, however, I shall bring the Apolline divination into sharper focus: ἦ μὴν σὺ παύσῃ καίπερ ὠμὸς ὢν ἄγαν· τοῖος Φέρητος εἶσι πρὸς δόμους ἀνὴρ 65 Εὐρυσθέως πέμψαντος ἵππειον μετὰ ὄχημα Θρῄκης ἐκ τόπων δυσχειμέρων, ὃς δὴ ξενωθεὶς τοῖσδ’ ἐν Ἀδμήτου δόμοις βίᾳ γυναῖκα τήνδε σ’ ἐξαιρήσεται. κοὔθ’ ἡ παρ’ ἡμῶν σοι γενήσεται χάρις 70 δράσεις θ’ ὁμοίως ταῦτ’ ἀπεχθήσῃ τ’ ἐμοί. (64–71) I swear to you that, ruthless as you are, you will yet cease from your hateful ways. The man to make you do so is coming to the house of Pheres sent by Eurystheus to fetch the horses and chariot from the wintry land of Thrace. He, entertained as a guest in this house of Admetus, shall take the woman from you by force. You shall do precisely as I have asked and yet get no gratitude from me but hatred instead.

Given that the prophetic penetration of Apollo is unquestionable, at this point the essential gloom of the situation is unexpectedly relieved and lightened with some hopeful anticipation of what one would call nothing but an absolutely incredible miracle, since no man has ever struggled with Death and emerged victorious.19 Although, until this very moment, the audience have been led to feel that the nar-

17 Cf. Dover (19942) 161–170 & 288–316; Sinclair (1988) 13–23; Meier (1990) 157–185; Hansen (1991) 73–85. On the ethical vision of Euripides, see Meagher (2002) 5–150. 18 See recently (e.g.) Boedeker (2007); R. W. Wallace (2007). Cf. also Markantonatos (2007a) esp. 35–39, (2011), (2012a), (2012b), (2012c), (2012d), (2012e), and (2012f), who lays great stress upon the ways in which Greek dramatists put to their audiences the question of civic continuity and democratic morality. 19 Cf. also Mastronarde (2002b) 44–45.


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rative’s trajectory is exclusively plotted by the recurring eradication of each and every one optimistic variant, I have already argued in the previous chapter that the considerable dynamics released when Apollo turns the tables on Thanatos makes one mindful of the most important thematic thread in the narrative tapestry, namely that in spite of everything the history of Alcestis is closely entangled with the currently unfolding legendary story of Heracles. It is remarkable that Apollo refrains from naming Heracles, preferring instead to use the epic form τοῖος (65), which, without doubt, gives further oracular weight to the unexpected pronouncement.20 More generally, as well as exciting the curiosity of the audience, only to satisfy it immediately by offering plenty of corroborative evidence, Apollo puts the accent on the human side of his heroic champion: the suppression of Heracles’ name lays great stress on the as yet non-divine identity of the prospective rescuer, as ἀνήρ surfaces emphatically last in the line. This is part of a wider strategy of presenting Heracles to our view under a far more varied aspect than would have been possible in a drama which would have focused the audience’s attention solely on the glorified hero-god. Euripides deliberately plays down the Panhellenic renown of Heracles as divinized mortal, depicting the hero on his way to boundless greatness, but not quite there yet. For when reaching Pherae Heracles has by no means attained divine standing, not even heroic prominence for that matter, as he is still struggling to make the most of his exceptional gifts and thereby win undying fame through unflagging effort and unflinching risk. It is plain to see that Alcestis’ rescue from Hades is not the crowning glory of a long and distinguished career in heroic accomplishment but yet another personal exertion of physical and intellectual strength in what is destined to be a particularly long series of self-denying undertakings. In fact, Alcestis’ recovery from the nether regions is positioned almost squarely in the middle of Heracles’ twelve Labours, occupying as it does a place between the seventh Labour and the eighth Labour – that is, immediately prior to the second cycle of Heracles’ heroic accomplishments, which take him to the outer limits of human experience and far beyond his earthly surroundings. This new sequence of heroic feats begins directly after the completion of a series of exploits within the rather narrow radius of the Peloponnese but for Heracles’ capture of the bull of Minos in Crete. In this regard, the ‘Alcestis Labour’ is nothing less than a foretaste of what is yet to come, allowing Heracles to establish a useful connection with ghostly powers, 20 Similarly, Apollo refrains from introducing Admetus’ name at the outset of the play but embarks on an oblique presentation (7–8, 10). Only at line 13 do we get to know the name of his beloved friend, although, admittedly, δώματ’ Άδμήτει' (1) comes very close to an explicit naming. See also Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 170–171.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


especially underworld divinities, at the liminal site of Alcestis’ grave. In view of the second set of his Labours he is to gain for himself the reputation of the terror and controller of the netherworld.21 The telling reference to Eurystheus, ruler of the Argolid, together with the allusion to the man-eating mares of the Thracian king Diomedes (66–67), makes it clear that Heracles will restore Alcestis from the darkness of the tomb, arriving at Pherae as a guest-friend of Admetus before journeying on to the wintry land of Thrace in constant pursuance of his Labours. Apollo points out that only after being entertained as a guest Heracles will wrest Alcestis from Thanatos by force (68–69), thereby intimating that hospitality will prove an important motivational factor in the upcoming events, as indeed it did prior to the commencement of the play in relation to Apollo’s generous benefaction to his kind Thessalian host. The strong emphasis on violence, contrasting sharply with the nobility of guest-friendship, the essential aim of which is in fact to eliminate the need to use physical force, brings out Heracles’ aggressive aspect, as well as Apollo’s unshaken resolve to bend the chthonian gods to his will.22 Thanatos will take hold of Alcestis, only to let her go after being vanquished by a mortal: Apollo is certain that Thanatos will soon cease from pursuing his horrible assignment, merely earning the Olympian god’s profound hatred for not releasing Alcestis. As I have already pointed out, at a deeper level the interposition of Heracles as early as the opening stage of the play through the Apolline oracle makes the audience aware of multiple, mutually sustaining mythological, religious, and political criss-crossings hidden behind the apparent straightforward linearity of the Alcestis tale. At this juncture of the tragic narrative these meagre traces of the story of Heracles, mainly concerning his prospective journey to the distant land of Thrace far beyond his familiar Argolid, are powerful enough to leave a noticeable imprint on the primary storyline in view of the hero’s huge popularity all around Greece in general and in fifth-century Athens in particular. It can hardly be contended that Heracles is closely associated with all the principal dramatis personae of Euripides’ Alcestis in mythology and cult; what is more, with his

21 We are told that Heracles once shot Hera and Hades at Pylos, painfully wounding them both (Homer, Iliad 5.392–397). On conflicts with Hades, see Molyneux (1972). 22 On the theme of hospitality and the importance of guest-friendship (i.e. ritualized friendship) in ancient Greece, see mainly Herman (1987); Belfiore (1998) and (2000) esp. 3–20. Cf. also with regard to the Euripidean play Hewitt (1922) 335–337; Scodel (1979); Stanton (1990). On philia and charis as important structural elements in Euripides, see Flacelière (1960); Schmidt-Berger (1973) esp. 76 & 89–90; Scully (1973), who overplays the theological significance of philia and charis as purely human standards by which divine control is judged and criticized (p. 45) and (1986); Conacher (1984) and (1998) 44–47; Schein (1988); Halperin (1990); Pattoni (2007).


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extremely expanded individuality and wide range of functions, Heracles comes to share fundamental traits with certain leading characters of the play. This does not mean, however, that there are only close correspondences between Heracles and the human and divine players; glaring divergences from an already recognizable scheme of things, together with fascinating inversions of central scenes and crucial events, take the audience back in the Alcestis story, allowing the mind to make connections between highly diverse narrative moments, to recognize that often the essential clue of the action lay outside the time and space frame of the play. The similarities and differences are so striking that they give us all the more reason to believe that Euripides followed, to a large extent, the footsteps of Phrynichus in his deployment of the Heracles theme, mainly because the resultant combination of dramatis personae calls to mind yet other mythological and cultic combinations, as well as numerous rounds of familiar fables and traditions, and opens out new vistas of thought and understanding, while at the same time giving relief by contrast to the finer shades of certain principal characters. As regards the cultic presence of Heracles in Attica all students of Greek religion now agree that his divine and heroic cults were especially widespread.23 Much as the Panhellenic recognition of his worship is undeniable, it is true that the Athenians reserved a particular place of honour for a hero-god who was celebrated as the patron of youth par excellence.24 It is therefore perfectly understandable that Heracles is inextricably linked with ephebes and athletic contests, in addition to younger children and the gymnasia. His role as an all-powerful guardian of youth is strongly echoed in his protection of young Alcestis against untimely death; moreover, we may discover yet another glimmering of the meaning of the play’s special emphasis on the sacrificial cutting of Alcestis’ locks (74–76) in an Athenian ritual closely associated with Heracles, where the ephebes cut their hair, as well as pouring in his honour a liquid offering known by the rather technical name οἰνιστήρια.25 In the following chapter, I shall also have occasion to discuss Heracles’ intimate connection with the Eleusinian-Orphic matrix of mystical rituals and traditions in Attica, but for the time being a brief mention of Heracles’ cultic role as a protector of the household will suffice to illustrate the point about the hero’s deep compassion for humankind. It is reasonable to assume that his first mythical accomplishment in the palace of Amphitryon at Thebes is a foretoken of his 23 See recently Stafford (2012) with exhaustive bibliography. Cf. also Farnell (1921) 95–145; Parker (1996) passim and (2005) passim; Mikalson (2005) 44. 24 See Kearns (1989) 35–36. 25 See Parker (2005) 437.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


future function as indomitable defender of the house – that is, a determined averter of evil. Legend has it that two serpents, sent by Hera out of envy of Zeus’ illegitimate offspring, crept into Alcmene’s chamber, where the newborn children, Heracles and Iphicles, lay in their crib. Heracles seized the two serpents and strangled them with his bare hands: this was the first time that the son of Zeus tried himself in wrestling with monsters.26 This extraordinary encounter with horrifying adversaries is paradigmatic of an overwhelming variegation of similar instances in the life of Heracles – the Alcestis episode surely being one of them. His cultic appellation, Alexikakos (‘averter of evil’), encapsulates the positive aspect of Heracles’ personality.27 Accordingly, his enormous kindness towards mortals is enforced in the deep religious motive which runs through the whole Euripidean play: it is no wonder that the robust Panhellenic hero of high achievement, who is courageous and considerate enough to merit such an honourable cult-epithet, is called upon to offer his valuable services to the house of Admetus in the hour of utmost peril. Apart from Heracles’ cultic associations with the core of the Alcestis legend, together with his conveniently parallel religious functions, there is a web of relations between the hero-god and certain principal characters such as Apollo and Admetus. It is clear that Euripides brings these affinities and correlations, as well as tensions and dissonances, into fresh prominence by the deliberate insertion of Heracles’ heroic achievements, as well as his darker aspects, into the play. There seems no reason to doubt that the many-sided figure of Heracles offers the vital connecting principle in the play’s series of scenes and spectacles with Apollo and Admetus, in that the hero becomes the versatile alter ego of the other two leading male characters in view of the continual ebbs and flows of his destiny. In particular, the lingering consciousness of Heracles’ escapades and the resulting punishments does mould to a great extent the audience’s impression of the difficult trials that have been in store for Apollo and Admetus. In a manner similar to Apollo, alongside Ares and Cadmus, Heracles voluntarily undergoes slavery to atone for homicide; it is in fact the established Greek practice of paying the price of blood by submitting to a temporary ‘purificatory’ servitude.28 Furthermore, like Apollo Heracles is twice made subservient to those weaker than he is, as is the case with Eurystheus, ruler of the Argolid, and Omphale, queen of Lydia; but entirely unlike Apollo he never meets a hospitable and kindhearted master worthy of his benevolence and spirit of goodwill. This inversion of the recurrent Heraclean pattern of either disgraceful thralldom in the houses 26 See Kerényi (1959) 131–136; Gantz (1993) I.377; Hard (2004) 249; Graves (2011) 453. 27 Cf. also Parker (1996) 175, 186. 28 Cf. Parker (1983) 378 (on Apollo) and 392; Seaford (1994a) 103–104.


 Chapter 3 Myth

of unfriendly and ruthless masters or short-term sojourn in the palaces of hostile and vicious rulers is especially reinforced in the play through the emphatic evocation of the Thracian king Diomedes, who possessed four man-eating horses fastened with iron chains to a bronze manger and regularly fed on the flesh of unsuspicious guests.29 The same point is clearly brought forward in the legendary story of the Egyptian king Busiris, who made a habit of murdering foreigners at the altar of Zeus and devouring their flesh therewith; he was eventually slaughtered by Heracles, who is also said that he was obliged to wrestle with this brutal host upon arriving in Memphis in the same way he fought Thanatos and other Hades-like creatures.30 In addition to this common experience of temporary marginalization as slaves to mortal masters, Heracles and Apollo are involved in a violent incident that occurred at Delphi, or most likely in the immediate vicinity, and necessitated the dynamic intervention of Zeus himself. This history of animosity ending in non-violent resolution, the two rival brothers leaving the scene of the fighting physically unharmed, is the reversal of the Asclepius tale which, as becomes plain in the Euripidean play (121–129), concludes in total disaster on account of an outrageous irreverence wreaking havoc on time-honoured divine ordinances and regulations. In particular, stained by murder pollution, Heracles comes to the Delphic oracle for advice in relation to the possibility of atonement but is repulsed on the grounds that homicides are debarred from the holy sanctuary. He takes great offence at the oracle’s rejection of his request and hurries away with the Delphic tripod with the purpose of setting up his own place of prophecy; Apollo overtakes him, and there a wrestling match ensues. The quarrel between the two brothers is so fierce that Zeus hurls his invincible thunderbolt between them. It is interesting to note that Zeus refrains from eliminating the guilty party with his death-dealing lightning bolts, as he did in the case of luckless Asclepius. Apparently, Heracles enjoyed the unqualified favour of the supreme Olympian god, yet another sign of his extraordinary status among Greek heroes, and so his scandalous sacrilege was deemed not serious enough to bring about his demise. In fact, in Euripides’ Alcestis far from suffering the dire consequences of his transgression, he was chosen to serve as a morally sensitive Asclepius-like figure. More than this, as regards the analogues between the Heracles legend and the Admetus story one is tempted to suggest that again there is here a striking reversal of patterns of extremely violent behaviour which culminates in agonizing guilt and shocking catastrophe. The only difference lies in the fact that this time it is Heracles himself who is the protagonist in stories of domestic brutality and familial horror. 29 Cf. also Kurz (1975). 30 See Kerényi (1959) 167; Gantz (1993) I.418; Hard (2004) 270–271; Graves (2011) 510.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


Proverbial are the tales about Heracles’ problematic relationships with Megara, Iole, and Deianeira, all of them ending in total failure and unspeakable terror. It is plain to see that unlike Admetus Heracles is afflicted by disaster in everything related to his family life, and so it is hugely ironic that he is the one who brings about a benign resolution to Admetus’ predicament. Indeed, the story of Admetus turns out to be the complete inversion of Heracles’ familial calamities. In this regard, Heracles proves a strikingly unexpected instrument of domestic salvation in the hands of the Olympian gods. But his association with the Admetus legend is even more complex than it may appear at first sight. For, beside the fact that southern Thessaly is the place where his death and apotheosis occurred, his brief stay at Pherae as a guest-friend of the king brings to mind an analogous episode in his life, during which he failed to comply with the etiquette of the perfect guest yet again. In particular, not unlike Admetus Pholos, a Centaur, extended hospitality to Heracles during his hunt for the Erymanthian boar in Arcadia – Artemis having sent the raging animal to lay waste the farmers’ fields.31 Heracles demanded wine, and Pholos obliged accordingly, opening the common wine-store of the Centaurs and drawing large amounts of the dangerous gift of Dionysus from a great wine-vessel. The scent of the wine attracted the Centaurs from far and wide, but inexperienced as they were in drinking-bouts they became violent; in the scuffle which ranged from the forests of Pholoe to Cape Malea in the southeast of the Peloponnese Heracles pursued the Centaurs with his poisoned arrows until they were forced to seek refuge from the fighting in Cheiron’s cave. To cap it all, Heracles unintentionally shot divine Cheiron, the most virtuous of the Centaurs, with one of his lethal arrows, inflicting immeasurable pain on the immortal creature. It is obvious that the Centaur episode is yet another mythological benchmark against which the surprisingly peaceful resolution of the Admetus story can be measured. As the Admetus tale is the total reversal of Heracles’ disastrous experiences with women, the Pholos incident makes us more conscious of the fact that hospitality can always be an important motivational factor, but it is by no means a necessary condition for seeing a story through to a happy ending. Although the Alcestis episode is fed with similar thematic streams as the events at the woodland of Pholoe, the one story ends joyfully, while the other in unredeemed violence and prolonged suffering. One cannot help feeling that the matrix of numerous narrative paths, so emphatically evoked in the play through the incursion of the highly complex and ambivalent Heraclean tradition, reflects the irreconcilable co-presence of hope and fear, agony and pride in the play. The dark and mysterious presentiments 31 See Gantz (1993) I.390–392; Hard (2004) 258–259; Graves (2011) 475–476.


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of evil invade the Prologue, while the gradual intensification of the feeling of hopeful anticipation lightens the oppressiveness of the overall opening picture: the negative side of Heracles chimes in with the gloomy and ever-thickening atmosphere of doubt and foreboding, whereas simultaneously his positive side affords a refreshing contrast to the impending horrors. It will take more than a third of the play before watching Heracles arriving at Pherae; nonetheless, the Apolline proclamation has already converted a simple story into a dramatic plot, as the seemingly steady and unswerving progress of events towards the final catastrophe is surprisingly intersected by the innumerable cross-connections of the greatest Greek hero’s mythical saga. In the following two scenes with the human protagonists (136–434) the figure of Heracles remains in the background, for the tragic narrative is fully occupied with rapid vicissitudes of situations, as well as gloomy developments, exclusively concerning the house of Admetus. As I have already pointed out in the previous chapter, the supreme crisis of the action consisting of the untimely death of Alcestis, instead of being unfolded indirectly by means of secondary narratives, is exhibited before the eyes of the spectators in order to hammer home with unprecedented emphasis that Alcestis’ death is irreversible. After the heart-rending scene of her passing in the company of her family, the threnodic cries of Admetus and the children prepare the ear for the sad musings of the old men of Pherae (435–475). Against this dismal backdrop Heracles, with his typical lion-skin and club, enters the stage unannounced, his robust voice contrasting sharply with the Chorus’ mournful singing (476–477).32 His appearance could not have occurred at a more opportune moment for the human players. From this time forth, the narrational drive towards a disastrous end is matched by an ever more complex, transgressive, tension-filled resistance to this end. In the ensuing stichomythia Heracles tells the old men of his mission to bring back Diomedes’ savage horses to Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, expressing his unshaken determination to perform this arduous task without the least vestige of fear (476–506): ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ ξένοι, Φεραίας τῆσδε κωμῆται χθονός, Ἄδμητον ἐν δόμοισιν ἆρα κιγχάνω;

32 See further de Grummond (1983); Halleran (1985) 5. Cf. also Iakov (2012) ad 476–508. It is interesting to note that for certain nineteenth-century critics the character of Heracles with his distinctly comic features is not totally incongruous with the eminently pathetic emotions of the first part of the play; cf. (e.g.) Donaldson (18607) 142 & 299.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 

ΧΟΡΟΣ ἔστ᾽ ἐν δόμοισι παῖς Φέρητος, Ἡράκλεις. ἀλλ᾽ εἰπὲ χρεία τίς σε Θεσσαλῶν χθόνα πέμπει, Φεραῖον ἄστυ προσβῆναι τόδε. 480 ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ Τιρυνθίῳ πράσσω τιν᾽ Εὐρυσθεῖ πόνον. ΧΟΡΟΣ καὶ ποῖ πορεύῃ; τῷ συνέζευξαι πλάνῳ; ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ Θρῃκὸς τέτρωρον ἅρμα Διομήδους μέτα. ΧΟΡΟΣ πῶς οὖν δυνήσῃ; μῶν ἄπειρος εἶ ξένου; ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ ἄπειρος· οὔπω Βιστόνων ἦλθον χθόνα 485 ΧΟΡΟΣ οὐκ ἔστιν ἵππων δεσπόσαι σ᾽ ἄνευ μάχης. ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἀπειπεῖν μὴν πόνους οἷόν τ᾽ ἐμοί. ΧΟΡΟΣ κτανὼν ἄρ᾽ ἥξεις ἢ θανὼν αὐτοῦ μενεῖς. ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ οὐ τόνδ᾽ ἀγῶνα πρῶτον ἂν δράμοιμ᾽ ἐγώ. ΧΟΡΟΣ τί δ᾽ ἂν κρατήσας δεσπότην πλέον λάβοις; 490 ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ πώλους ἀπάξω κοιράνῳ Τιρυνθίῳ. ΧΟΡΟΣ οὐκ εὐμαρὲς χαλινὸν ἐμβαλεῖν γνάθοις.



 Chapter 3 Myth

ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ εἰ μή γε πῦρ πνέουσι μυκτήρων ἄπο. ΧΟΡΟΣ ἀλλ᾽ ἄνδρας ἀρταμοῦσι λαιψηραῖς γνάθοις. ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ θηρῶν ὀρείων χόρτον, οὐχ ἵππων, λέγεις. 495 ΧΟΡΟΣ φάτνας ἴδοις ἂν αἵμασιν πεφυρμένας. ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ τίνος δ᾽ ὁ θρέψας παῖς πατρὸς κομπάζεται; ΧΟΡΟΣ Ἄρεος, ζαχρύσου Θρῃκίας πέλτης ἄναξ. ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ καὶ τόνδε τοὐμοῦ δαίμονος πόνον λέγεις (σκληρὸς γὰρ αἰεὶ καὶ πρὸς αἶπος ἔρχεται, 500 εἰ χρή με πᾶσιν οἷς Ἄρης ἐγείνατο μάχην συνάψαι, πρῶτα μὲν Λυκάονι, αὖθις δὲ Κύκνῳ, τόνδε δ᾽ ἔρχομαι τρίτον ἀγῶνα πώλοις δεσπότῃ τε συμβαλῶν. ἀλλ᾽ οὔτις ἔστιν ὃς τὸν Ἀλκμήνης γόνον 505 τρέσαντα χεῖρα πολεμίαν ποτ᾽ ὄψεται. HERACLES Strangers, citizens of this land of Pherae, do I find Admetus at home? CHORUS-LEADER Yes, Pheres’ son is at home, Heracles. But tell us what need brings you to Thessaly and to this city of Pherae. HERACLES I am performing a certain labor for Eurystheus, king of Tiryns. CHORUS-LEADER Where are you bound? What is this journey you are forced to make?

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 

HERACLES I go in quest of the four-horse chariot of Thracian Diomedes. CHORUS-LEADER How can you do that? Do you not know what kind of host he is? HERACLES I do not. I have never yet been to Bistonia. CHORUS-LEADER You cannot possess those horses without a fight. HERACLES But all the same, I cannot decline these labors. CHORUS-LEADER Then you will either kill him and return or end your days there. HERACLES This is not the first such race I shall have run. CHORUS-LEADER If you defeat their master, what will it profit you? HERACLES I will bring the horses back to the lord of Tiryns. CHORUS-LEADER You will not find it easy to put a bit in their mouths. HERACLES Surely so, unless they breathe fire from their nostrils. CHORUS-LEADER No, but they tear men apart with their nimble jaws. HERACLES This is fodder for mountain beasts, not horses. CHORUS-LEADER You will see their feeding troughs drenched with blood. HERACLES Whose son does their master claim to be? CHORUS-LEADER Ares’ son, and shield-bearing lord of Thrace rich in gold.



 Chapter 3 Myth

HERACLES Like the others this labor you name befits my destiny (which is always hard and steep) since I am fated to do battle with all the sons of Ares: first Lycaon, then Cycnus, and now this is the third contest I enter, going off to fight horses and master alike. But no one shall ever see Alcmene’s son quake at the hand of an enemy.

Like Apollo in the Prologue, the Chorus-Leader by no means treats Heracles as an already established hero, still less an already apotheosized mortal. Though he does not fail to recognize Heracles at once, apparently from his signature traits such as the lion-skin and the club, he is cautious in his response to the hero’s assignment, conveying the enormous difficulties that lie ahead in attempting to fetch Diomedes’ man-eating mares. There can be little doubt that the Chorus-Leader tries to frighten Heracles by enumerating the horrors that await him in far-away Thrace, at this stage the admiration with which the hero was regarded by generations of Greeks being a distant speck on the horizon, let alone the extraordinary tribute paid to his memory. Much as Heracles is instantly recognizable, a character that no doubt inspires respect to the Thessalian elders, he is as yet far from being the perfect embodiment of heroic grandeur and invincible strength; there is nothing in the Chorus’ comments on his risky undertaking that makes one mindful of his later matchless supremacy in public estimation. The old men are still taking the measure of the audacious warrior, without showing openly an unfeigned appreciation of his various excellences.33 At this point in Heracles’ life his superiority is not manifest, his greatness is not undisputed; it will take the accomplishment of a long series of trials, such as the capture of the Thracian horses of death, as well as the recovery of Alcestis from the powerful grasp of Thanatos, for people to rank him with godlike beings as supreme in his own sphere of civilizing achievement, invariably citing him as the type and model of prodigious exertion and exceptional selflessness. Regarded from a wider point of view, the scene between Heracles and the Chorus sounds out at full strength the overriding theme of the making of a hero through actions of unrelenting courage. As I have already intimated, Euripides’ Alcestis takes the audience through the gradual transformation of Heracles into a hero-god by depicting the slow but sure conversion of a fearless fighter from unexpected guest into god-driven saviour. When we consider more closely how Euripides paints the character of Heracles as emerging hero, the fineness of his touch plainly visible in the subtlety and delicacy of portraiture, in the keen analy33 Cf. Parker (2007) 155.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


sis of personal motive, and in the depth of insight into vehement human passions and warm aspirations after superhuman excellence, it is difficult not to feel that Heracles is the mirror-image of Alcestis. Indeed, there is a link of connection between the freedom and enthusiasm of Heracles and the calmness and majesty of Alcestis: both of them never flinch in their purpose. It is therefore reasonable to argue that the legends of Heracles and Alcestis are not just stories of great exploits and unsurpassed inner strength; they are essentially transformation stories as well.34 Though Alcestis had no desire to be anything more than a loving wife and a doting mother, nor did she dream of becoming an incomparable paragon of wifely virtue, never having a great yearning for heroic distinction, the gods had a different plan for her life. Her story, contrary to the extraordinary life history of Heracles, is unique, in that it is a story of how the gods made an admirable paradigm of human self-denial out of an unlikely person. But the differences with the Heracles legend end here. Like the most celebrated Greek hero, Alcestis is ready to step out and do important things. Both Heracles and Alcestis come out to face the challenges of the open plains with the enemy Thanatos nearby: heroes shine in the face of adversity and perform amazing feats in difficult situations. Perhaps Alcestis did not set out to be a touchstone of willed martyrdom; no doubt she would rather have her life back, spending her time wrapped up in the welfare of her beloved family, as she suggests bitterly moments before her passing (285–289), but circumstances stirred something in her, something she could not hold back at all costs. Both her remarkable tale and the numerous fables of Heracles make plain for us to see that the mark of heroic personalities is not necessarily the result of their action, but what they are willing to do for others and for their chosen cause: in the final analysis, the glory lies not in the achievement, but in the sacrifice. The introduction of the Heracles tradition reveals hidden depths in the Alcestis tale, bringing before the audience’s mental vision scenes of unexampled force and iron endurance; in particular, the evocation of Heracles’ twelve Labours deepens all this emotion of self-abnegation, and at the same time keeps well in view the Hellas-wide scene through which Alcestis moves to her eleva34 Like Alcestis, Heracles must die to become immortal (Homer, Iliad 18.117–119). A caveat is in order here, however. Alcestis will be immortal in the social memory of Greece, whereas Heracles will be the only human hero to attain divine status. According to Burkert (1985) 211, ‘Heracles contained the potential to shatter the limits of Greek religion’; for in his case the divine element is palpable in human form. In addition to this, the themes of death and marriage, so pervasive in the play, are in themselves rites of passage – that is, transformation rituals marking a person’s progress from one status to another. See also Harrison (2000) 158–160 & 187–188; Stafford (2010). On the motifs of death and marriage as further reinforcements of the characters’ moral improvement, see Slater (2005).


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tion to heroic distinction. It is fair to say that the narrative lineaments of the Heraclean Labours, especially those that take the hero to otherworldly locations, driving him against Death-like opponents and monsters, are given in the rescue of Alcestis from the clutches of Thanatos.35 It is surely no accident, therefore, that the Alcestis episode falls between the seventh Labour (the Cretan bull) and the eighth Labour (the capture of the fearsome man-eating mares of king Diomedes in Thrace), paving the way for Heracles’ ultimate contact with implacable powers of the afterworld. Crete and Thrace could be seen as the southern and northern limits of the Greek homeland, while Pherae of Thessaly lies squarely in the middle. The next four Labours take Heracles to the ends of the earth and beyond (Amazons, the cattle of Geryon, the golden apples of the Hesperides, and Cerberus). Critics concur in the view that each of the last three labours is highly symbolic of Heracles’ march towards immortality, for the cattle of Geryon, the apples of the Hesperides, and Cerberus must all be sought in lands associated with the afterlife: the far west and the underworld realm of Hades. As regards the tenth Labour, the location of the cattle on an island that lies within the river on the edge of the earth indicates that Heracles is battling a lord of the otherworld, perhaps a god of the dead. The journey to Hades to bring back the multiheaded Cerberus may be a doublet of the Geryon myth, for Geryon too has a monstrous, two-headed watchdog, Orthos. It is noteworthy that in Apollodorus’ account of the Cerberus Labour, Hades owns a herd of cattle, one of which Heracles appropriates for a sacrifice. The herdsmen of both Geryon and Hades, whom Heracles must fight, are identically named Menoites.36 In this regard, there can be no doubt that the Heracles’ journey to Thracian Bistonia is the starting-point in a rapid climax of otherworldly encounters until this wave of intense experiences subsides, and is followed by the thrilling moment of Heracles’ heroic elevation, a stepping stone to his eventual deification through self-immolation and death. In view of these considerations it becomes apparent why in the Prologue Euripides lays strong emphasis on the wintry landscape of Thrace (67): he describes Thrace as the reverse of Elysium, a place of death and therefore hateful to mortals. In other words Thrace is the diametrically opposite of an afterworld paradise, such as the Olympian abode of the gods, where Heracles is destined to reside in the company of his divine bride Hebe. According to Hesiod’s Works and Days 117–118 and 172–173 (117–118, […] καρπὸν δ’ ἔφερε ζείδωρος ἄρουρα / αὐτομάτη πολλόν τε καὶ ἄφθονον, and 172–173, ὄλβιοι ἥρωες, τοῖσιν μελιηδέα καρπόν / τρὶς ἔτεος θάλλοντα φέρει ζείδωρος ἄρουρα, ed. M. L. West) the immortality of the Golden Age, as well as the never-ending bliss in the 35 Cf. also Buxton (2004) 120–121; Larson (2009); Pache (2009). 36 Cf. Apollodorus 2.5.10 = 2.108 and 2.5.12 = 2.125.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


Isles of the Blessed, is inextricably linked with the permanent suspension of the vegetal cycle, as the earth bears crops without interruption. More importantly for our discussion, in Odyssey 4.566–568 (οὐ νιφετός, οὔτ’ ἂρ χειμὼν πολὺς οὔτε ποτ’ ὄμβρος, / ἀλλ’ αἰεὶ ζεφύροιο λιγὺ πνείοντος ἀήτας / Ὠκεανὸς ἀνίησιν ἀναψύχειν ἀνθρώπους, ed. P. Von der Mühll, ‘for there is no snow, nor much winter there, nor is there ever / rain, but always the stream of the Ocean sends up breezes / of the West Wind blowing briskly for the refreshment of mortals’, transl. R. Lattimore) it is obvious to see that the state of immortality in Elysium rules out the possibility of any bad weather, not least winter. The stichomythia between Heracles and the Chorus makes us conscious of the special ways in which the process of Heracles’ ascendance to heroic excellence is carefully delineated in the play. The Alcestis episode finds Heracles leaving the safe bounds of the Peloponnese and setting off on a quest for superhuman merit in Hades-like places. We can see here the character traits that made Heracles what he is. Though the workings of his destiny are so far only dimly conceived as the outcome of his unfailing physical and mental strength, the beneficent operation of which becomes more and more distinctly manifest in the evolution of his heroic stature, Heracles is already capable of seeing situations clearly. And this is the reason why a man of this kind does not see circumstances as they appear to others: he gives himself over to the task as he perceives it, acting and speaking without shading or half-measures. This basic feature of his personality is brought forward in his animated discussion with the Chorus, where a single line of determined optimism is flung in response to a single line of fearful admonition. The alarming warnings and frightful descriptions persistently advanced by the Chorus-Leader do not fill Heracles with misgivings. The complications which may arise have no serious significance for the hero, and at the end of the conversation there is a feeling that the various dangers and difficulties will be surmounted, and that all will come right in the end. Heracles declares that he cannot refuse his Labours (487), pointing out that this is not the first formidable task that he has taken on in the course of his life (489, οὐ τόνδ’ ἀγῶνα πρῶτον ἂν δράμοιμ’ ἐγώ, ‘This is not the first such race I shall have run’). As well as serving as a broad hint that the Diomedes Labour is merely a part of a wider narrative pattern of extraordinary storylines and characters, the athletic metaphor prepares the ground for his good-humoured deception of Admetus in the concluding scene of the play. More importantly, the conception of Heraclean Labours as athletic competitions brings the hero’s connection with Panhellenic Games, especially the Olympic Games, into prominence; what is more, the idea of Heracles as competent athlete, pursuing victory with unswerving determination, undistracted by concern for danger, reinforces his aristocratic


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credentials, racing, together with wrestling, being a sporting contest worthy of his nobility.37 It is therefore fair to say that in the scene between Heracles and the Chorus a new kind of situation is gradually evolving, contrasting sharply with the pathetic and mournful musings of the previous scenes. Until then the human players have been accustomed to regard people mainly in relation to overpowering external forces, exhibiting men and women as victims of the unchanging divine laws of the universe, and as striving ineffectually against the weight of destiny. It is plain to see that Heracles has no more of that; there is no conflict between duty and survival in the recesses of his heart. His warmest aspirations for heroic achievement are painted by Heracles with a frankness and straightforwardness which were as yet unknown to this play but for the courageous spirit of Alcestis, who was able to bring to bear upon her calamity the searchlight of dispassionate thought. But even for mighty Heracles at this stage of his life heroic accomplishment does not form a continuous ladder of ascent. Although his proud reference to his vanquished enemies Lycaon and Cycnus (502–503), Ares’ sons and brothers of king Diomedes, hammers home the fact that his Thracian campaign, as well as the ‘Alcestis Labour’, is in fact the fulfilment of a predetermined possibility, one which has been fulfilled many times before and will be fulfilled many times again, he recognizes that there are certain limits to his heroic ability. The Chorus-Leader tries to make his blood cold by emphasizing the savagery of Diomedes’ horses of death: Heracles is forced to concede that there might be serious difficulties in the unlikely case that the Thracian mares breathe fire from their nostrils (493). Beside the heavy irony of his response, it can hardly be contended that there is here a limit imposed on the range of his heroism; but he is not far advanced in his heroic career, having no idea that in his impending Labours he will be faced with far more dangerous opponents than imaginary fire-breathing horses. From this fascinating dialogue between Heracles and the Chorus it becomes apparent that heroic ambition is completely incompatible with a faith in the perpetuation of a static presence: the gradual process of heroization always implies an impossible goal – an unprecedented achievement brought about in response to the spur of necessity without containing any heed of profit, as Heracles disarmingly admits in his dialogue with the old men of Pherae (491). Heracles is still trying to find his heroic maturity, and this is sufficient cause for these vestiges of uncertainty and hesitation: his convictions on his excellences are less fixed and abiding than those of the Heracles who will soon emerge triumphant after the 37 Cf. also Miller (2004) 160–165; Kyle (2007) 102–104. On wrestling as an important part of military training, see (e.g.) Poliakoff (1987) 23–53. On wrestling’s metaphorical meanings, see Keith (1914) 92 & 122. On Greek athletics in general, see Harris (1964); Tzachou-Alexandri (1989).

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


snatching of Alcestis from the terrible grasp of fearsome Thanatos. This is not the only time in the play that a character sets little store by Heracles’ heroic standing: in the second part of the fourth episode (747–860) the Manservant, coming out of the palace to complain about Heracles’ boozy antics, remains blankly incredulous as well. But Heracles’ belief in his powers is by no means hedged with serious doubt.38 This pattern of constant inspection and criticism of experience and aspiration is not exclusively concerned with Heracles. Both male protagonists are put through a profound questioning in the latter part of the play, as they are treated to the radical critique of minor characters such as Pheres and the Manservant. In the following scenes Admetus’ choices and resolutions come under the microscope of severe criticism: the Chorus strongly disapprove of his indulgence in prodigious hospitality (551–552, τί δρᾷς; τοσαύτης συμφορᾶς προκειμένης, / Ἄδμητε, τολμᾷς ξενοδοκεῖν; τί μῶρος εἶ; ‘What are you doing? Faced with so great a misfortune, Admetus, do you have the stomach to entertain guests? Why are you so foolish?’), while his father furiously repudiates him for desiring length of days beyond human measure (675–705), suggesting the possibility of unfriendly gossip and malicious reproach, as well as ferocious revenge, following from the self-chosen death of Alcestis (704–705, [...] εἰ δ’ ἡμᾶς κακῶς / ἐρεῖς, ἀκούσῃ πολλὰ κοὐ ψευδῆ κακά, ‘If you continue to insult me, you shall hear reproaches many and true’ and 731, δίκας δὲ δώσεις σοῖσι κηδεσταῖς ἔτι, ‘and one day you will pay the penalty to your kin by marriage’). In particular, Pheres, fuming with indignation, tears away all Admetus’ protective screens and leaves him with his self-respect in tatters. As he uncaps his pique in icy words, guilt and horror flood Admetus in waves: soon the shock unfixes all his opinions and certainties, leading him to question even his own reputation (954–960).39 This movement of plot seems not to have been contrived merely for bringing out the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in Apollo’s plan to defraud the Fates. Looking further afield we find that Heracles’ reputation is highly devalued as well. His wild and bawdy frolics inside the palace, compounded by his excessive gorging and swilling, contrary to the pervasive grief and mourning for 38 On the significance of Heracles’ intoxication for the play’s denouement, see Norwood (1921) 130. 39 On Euripidean set debates in general and the bitter agon-scene between Pheres and Admetus (606–746) in particular, see Duchemin (19682); Harbsmeier (1968) esp. 5–9; Schwinge (1968) 34– 49; Collard (1975); Conacher (1972) and (1981) esp. 5–9; Thury (1988); Goff (1990) 37 & 69; Lloyd (1992); Iakov (1999), (2012) 281–304 & 305–318; Dubischar (2001); Papademetropoulos (2005) 45–48; Halleran (2005) 175–177. On agon in Euripides and its rhetorical aspects, cf. also Höhne (1867); Miller (1887) esp. 1–14 with helpful discussion of Euripidean rhetorical tropes; Lees (1891); Tietze (1933); Graf (1950); Epke (1951); Senoner (1960); Nuchelmans (1971); Froleyks (1973); Jouan (1984); Lévrier (1991). On the motif of bitterness and wrath in Greek tragedy, see Rentifis (1978).


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the death of Alcestis, draw stinging rebukes. Heracles indulges in revelry in the house of Admetus, as he is inebriated and inappropriately cheerful, but the servants are bursting with uncontainable feelings of resentment and bitterness, as they are totally unaware of Admetus’ well-meaning deception to hide the true cause of his mourning from Heracles. To cap it all, Heracles tries to lecture the Manservant about the human condition, trying to bring home to him the absolute need to enjoy the pleasures that life has to offer without giving a moment’s notice to what tomorrow holds for mortals. Both Heracles and Admetus are severely censured for their greediness for life, but in the course of the play they reconsider their extreme stance and come to fully appreciate the greatness of Alcestis’ willed martyrdom. It is not, therefore, too bold to argue that the scene of Pheres is the distorted mirror-scene of the Heracles episode unfolding inside the palace – that is, yet another story of an ‘Old Age’ figure terrorizing mortals. Besides, in a long and episodic career Heracles’ identity as an Everyman facilitated numerous encounters with various allegorical figures, including of course Thanatos and Old Age.40 Essentially, Pheres showcases Heracles’ boozy philosophizing about the need for absolute apathy and egotism, ardently advocating before Admetus and the Chorus these principles about the futility of life. In this regard, he exemplifies what Heracles would have become, in case he followed to its very end this track of unblushing selfishness and unreflecting hedonism – that is, this easy path of unbound lust for life without nagging ethical scruples. This is the reason why the Pheres argument precedes the scene between Heracles and the Manservant like a perverse theoretical prelude to this satyr-play-like episode of cracker-barrel philosophizing followed by moral enlightenment – that is, like a shameless hypothetical expansion or development of an abortive narrative attempt to sketch how things would have unfolded if the hero continued to rest in selfish ease and listless ignorance, completely given over to dead indifference and mere vegetative happiness.41 40 See Burnett (1971) 63, who goes so far as to compare the role of Pheres as ‘Old Age’ with that of Thanatos; Conacher (19932) ad 683–684. 41 For a more sympathetic, although unconvincing, sketch of Pheres, see principally Nielsen (1976) 98 followed by Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 198, who argue that Pheres ‘expresses a reasonable and unpretentious point of view’ despite his extreme individualism. But see de Romilly (1968) 166, who notes that Pheres’ egoism ‘is very powerfully shown and denounced’ and Thury (1988), who offers sufficient legal grounds for thinking that unlike his father Admetus would have enlisted the sympathies of the Athenian audience. Cf. also the detailed discussion of the scene between Admetus and Pheres in Iakov (2012) 67 ff. and 281–304 with further references. On old age in Euripides, see Swartz (1911) esp. 34 & 41 (on Alcestis); Falkner (1985) and (1995) 169–210.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


Regarding Heracles’ eventual moral rearmament after a bout of raucous singing and drunken abandonment it is reasonable to suggest that the play presses the point that often, from this stultification or emotional paralysis, a shaft of painful illumination and self-awareness emerges. Sometimes, like Heracles, people have an epiphanic moment. Though at times Heracles yearns for numbness, intoxication, and escape, in the end he comes to recognize the need for immediate action in view of a higher cause, in this case Admetus’ remarkable reverence for guests. Eventually his brave words in his stichomythia with the Chorus prove sincere and true. Further, the servant, who disparages Heracles for his wine-induced insouciance, marks a period before the hero’s immortalization in song and story. He is of course totally unaware of the fact that Alcestis’ rescue from Hades will be yet another episode on Heracles’ way to apotheosis. In this respect, his disapproving comments on Heracles’ drunken antics serve as a foil for the hero’s future triumphs. Though Heracles still lives in relative obscurity, having to serve a demanding master, not unlike the Manservant who frets under the burden of the unexpected guest, he appears to be conscious of his heroic grandeur. There is yet another lesson to be drawn from the play. Thoughtless mirth is incompatible with heroism. Heracles gives himself up to festivity and merriment, only to change his tune once faced with the stern reality of Alcestis’ death: this episode of his inappropriate cheerfulness turned into strenuous and unremitting exertion showcases the deeper motives behind the Labours, bringing Heracles closer to Alcestis in its emphasis on the constant need for riper judgment and clearer wisdom. Once more Heracles has to deal with an urgent necessity calling forth unused energy and demanding the expression and employment of latent powers and hidden resources; moreover, this same necessity dictates the development and exercise of a deeper insight and broader intelligence. As Alcestis’ dilemma calls for alertness, logical thought, and calm calculation, so Heracles’ position requires that he shall strongly command himself. In both cases the difficulty assumes less impregnable proportions on account of their composure and bravery. For the time being, however, all this excellence lies beyond the grasp of the enraged Manservant, who is on the receiving end of the elaborate articulation of Heracles’ controversial theory:42 ΘΕΡΑΠΩΝ πολλοὺς μὲν ἤδη κἀπὸ παντοίας χθονὸς ξένους μολόντας οἶδ’ ἐς Ἀδμήτου δόμους, οἷς δεῖπνα προύθηκ᾽· ἀλλὰ τοῦδ᾽ οὔπω ξένον 42 Cf. also Schmidt (1892) 2–3.


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κακίον᾽ ἐς τήνδ᾽ ἑστίαν ἐδεξάμην. 750 ὃς πρῶτα μὲν πενθοῦντα δεσπότην ὁρῶν ἐσῆλθε κἀτόλμησ᾽ ἀμείψασθαι πύλας. ἔπειτα δ᾽ οὔτι σωφρόνως ἐδέξατο τὰ προστυχόντα ξένια, συμφορὰν μαθών, ἀλλ᾽, εἴ τι μὴ φέροιμεν, ὤτρυνεν φέρειν. 755 ποτήριον δ' ἐν χερσὶ κίσσινον λαβὼν πίνει μελαίνης μητρὸς εὔζωρον μέθυ, ἕως ἐθέρμην᾽ αὐτὸν ἀμφιβᾶσα φλὸξ οἴνου. στέφει δὲ κρᾶτα μυρσίνης κλάδοις, ἄμουσ᾽ ὑλακτῶν· δισσὰ δ᾽ ἦν μέλη κλύειν· 760 ὁ μὲν γὰρ ᾖδε, τῶν ἐν Ἀδμήτου κακῶν οὐδὲν προτιμῶν, οἰκέται δ᾽ ἐκλαίομεν δέσποιναν, ὄμμα δ᾽ οὐκ ἐδείκνυμεν ξένῳ τέγγοντες· Ἄδμητος γὰρ ὧδ᾽ ἐφίετο. καὶ νῦν ἐγὼ μὲν ἐν δόμοισιν ἑστιῶ 765 ξένον, πανοῦργον κλῶπα καὶ λῃστήν τινα, ἡ δ᾽ ἐκ δόμων βέβηκεν, οὐδ᾽ ἐφεσπόμην οὐδ᾽ ἐξέτεινα χεῖρ᾽ ἀποιμώζων ἐμὴν δέσποιναν, ἣ ‘μοὶ πᾶσί τ᾽ οἰκέταισιν ἦν μήτηρ· κακῶν γὰρ μυρίων ἐρρύετο, 770 ὀργὰς μαλάσσουσ᾽ ἀνδρός. ἆρα τὸν ξένον στυγῶ δικαίως, ἐν κακοῖς ἀφιγμένον; ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ οὗτος, τί σεμνὸν καὶ πεφροντικὸς βλέπεις; οὐ χρὴ σκυθρωπὸν τοῖς ξένοις τὸν πρόσπολον εἶναι, δέχεσθαι δ᾽ εὐπροσηγόρῳ φρενί. 775 σὺ δ᾽ ἄνδρ᾽ ἑταῖρον δεσπότου παρόνθ᾽ ὁρῶν στυγνῷ προσώπῳ καὶ συνωφρυωμένῳ δέχῃ, θυραίου πήματος σπουδὴν ἔχων. δεῦρ᾽ ἔλθ᾽, ὅπως ἂν καὶ σοφώτερος γένῃ. τὰ θνητὰ πράγμαθ᾽ ἥντιν᾽ οἶσθ᾽ ἔχει φύσιν; 780 οἶμαι μὲν οὔ· πόθεν γάρ; ἀλλ᾽ ἄκουέ μου. βροτοῖς ἅπασι κατθανεῖν ὀφείλεται, κοὐκ ἔστι θνητῶν ὅστις ἐξεπίσταται τὴν αὔριον μέλλουσαν εἰ βιώσεται· τὸ τῆς τύχης γὰρ ἀφανὲς οἷ προβήσεται, 785 κἄστ᾽ οὐ διδακτὸν οὐδ᾽ ἁλίσκεται τέχνῃ. ταῦτ᾽ οὖν ἀκούσας καὶ μαθὼν ἐμοῦ πάρα

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


εὔφραινε σαυτόν, πῖνε, τὸν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν βίον λογίζου σόν, τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλα τῆς τύχης. τίμα δὲ καὶ τὴν πλεῖστον ἡδίστην θεῶν 790 Κύπριν βροτοῖσιν· εὐμενὴς γὰρ ἡ θεός. τὰ δ᾽ ἄλλ᾽ ἔασον πάντα καὶ πιθοῦ λόγοις ἐμοῖσιν, εἴπερ ὀρθά σοι δοκῶ λέγειν. οἶμαι μέν. οὔκουν τὴν ἄγαν λύπην ἀφεὶς πίῃ μεθ᾽ ἡμῶν [τάσδ᾽ ὑπερβαλὼν τύχας, 795 στεφάνοις πυκασθείς]; καὶ σάφ᾽ οἶδ᾽ ὁθούνεκα τοῦ νῦν σκυθρωποῦ καὶ ξυνεστῶτος φρενῶν μεθορμιεῖ σε πίτυλος ἐμπεσὼν σκύφου. ὄντας δὲ θνητοὺς θνητὰ καὶ φρονεῖν χρεών· ὡς τοῖς γε σεμνοῖς καὶ συνωφρυωμένοις 800 ἅπασίν ἐστιν, ὥς γ᾽ ἐμοὶ χρῆσθαι κριτῇ, οὐ βίος ἀληθῶς ὁ βίος ἀλλὰ συμφορά. (747–802) MANSERVANT I have known many men from all manner of lands to come as guests to Admetus’ house, and I have served them dinner. But never yet have I welcomed a worse guest to our hearth than this one. In the first place, though he saw our master was in mourning, he was shameless enough to enter our doors. Then he did not soberly accept the fare that was set before him, as he might in view of our misfortunes, but if we failed to bring anything, he ordered it brought. Then taking an ivy-wood drinking bowl in his hands and drinking unmixed wine, offspring of the dark grape, until the fire in it enveloped and warmed his heart, he garlanded his head with sprays of myrtle and howled songs out of tune. You could hear two sorts of melody. He was singing, paying no attention to the trouble in Admetus’ house, while we servants were bewailing our mistress. But we did not show our faces in tears to the stranger, for those were Admetus’ orders. And now I must feast the stranger in our house, some knavish thief or brigand, while my mistress has left the house without my following or holding out my hand in mourning for her. She was like a mother to me and to the other servants, rescuing us from countless troubles and softening her husband’s temper. Do I not have reason to hate the guest, who has arrived in our hour of misfortune? HERACLES You there, why do you look so grave and careworn? A servant ought not to scowl at the guest but welcome him with an affable air. But you, though you see an old friend of your master arrive, receive him with an unfriendly face and with your brows knit together, worrying about a grief that does not concern your house. Come here so that you may be made wiser! Do you know the nature of our mortal life? I think not. How could you? But listen to me. Death is a debt all mortals must pay, and no man knows for certain whether he will still be living on the morrow. The outcome of our fortune is hid from our eyes, and it lies beyond the scope of any teaching or craft. So now


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that you have learned this from me, cheer your heart, drink, regard this day’s life as yours but all else as Fortune’s! Honor Aphrodite, too, sweetest of the gods to mortals, for she is a kindly goddess. Forget all else and take my advice, if you think what I say is correct, as I suppose you do. Lay aside your excessive grief and have some wine with me [overcoming these misfortunes, head crowned with garlands]! I am quite sure that when the fit of drinking is upon you, it will bring you round from your clotted and gloomy state of mind. Being mortal we ought to think mortal thoughts. As for those who are solemn and knit their brows together, their life, in my judgment, is no life worthy of the name but merely a disaster.

Themes are often suggested vividly in a few strokes, but they gain their final tone and significance as much from larger scenes to which they contribute; in particular, in this episode the earlier uncertainties about Heracles’ heroic excellence are multiplied to the scale of utter devaluation and public opprobrium. The Manservant, contrary to the old men of Pherae, who are quick to recognize Heracles from the insignia of his past heroic feats, is extremely liberal with his criticism, furiously enumerating a series of blatant effronteries.43 Not only did Heracles enter the palace in a time of mourning, but also comported himself with great shamelessness, drinking unmixed wine to the point of intoxication and berating the servants for failing to serve him inordinate amounts of food. As a result of his excessive drinking Heracles, garlanded with myrtle like a true boisterous celebrant of Bacchus, is now giving out dissonant howls, whereas the servants are lamenting their mistress in secrecy. In his ignorance of the identity of the roistering guest, the Manservant goes so far as to call Heracles a knavish bandit and a mountebank (766). The criticism ranged against Heracles is so wrathful and bitter that it may well be compared to Pheres’ choleric remarks about Admetus’ cowardice. In fact, the charges levelled against Heracles by the servant put the hero on an equal footing with barbarian people: tuneless singing and unrestrained emotionalism, as well as a predilection for alcohol, are all commonplaces in Greek accounts of the serious flaws in the psychology of the barbarian Other.44 This vituperative emphasis on un-Greek behaviour, almost bordering on bestiality, is not without significance for our better understanding of Heracles’ Thracian Labour and its close connection with the rescue of Alcestis from Hades. The Manservant paints a picture of Heracles as a typical Thracian, prone to heavy drinking and great lover of loud singing and dancing; but, more importantly, it is the propensity for uncontrolled cheerfulness and shameless roistering, so unbecoming of a Greek hero, that is here purposely inflated in contrast with Heracles’ manifest heroic virtue and physical prowess. Momentarily, the pejorative 43 On the Servant’s aside, see Bain (1977) 193–194, who draws attention to the deep resentment expressed through this kind of utterance. Cf. also Battezzato (1995); Chandriotis (1996) esp. 128–129. 44 See principally Hall (1989) 125–134.

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


portrayal of Heracles equates the hero with his Thracian opponent: his moral illumination, brought about by Admetus’ phenomenal hospitality and kindness, soon awakens the faculties of his civilized being, urging him on to meet trials and difficulties as a true Greek hero. These considerations reinforce the idea that the ‘Alcestis Labour’ is an indispensable introductory event to the Diomedes Labour – an important proving ground for Heracles before he plunges into a Hades-like world filled to overflowing with terrible dangers and serious challenges. In order to survive, Heracles must retain his Greekness at all costs. It should already be clear that this scene contains an awareness of the possible distortions effected by an untroubled and selfish attitude, so vividly exemplified in the tension-filled scene between Pheres and Admetus, but at the same time there is Heracles’ theoretical disquisition on the meaning of life (773–802), contrasting sharply with Admetus’ hopeless contemplation of the unmastered, and apparently insurmountable, wall of chthonic laws and regulations.45 As I shall argue in the following chapter, this philosophy of the ‘Carpe Diem’ seems completely incongruous with the Eleusinian-Orphic matrix of the play, and more generally contradicts any sense of heroic grandeur passionately defended hitherto by Heracles himself. It is becoming increasingly clear that at this point Euripides brings Admetus’ dark pessimism directly into collision with Heracles’ self-seeking cynicism. Both theoretical stances are unacceptable and inappropriate in view of Alcestis’ self-abnegation; moreover, and more importantly, they contrast sharply with the Greek ideal of moderate hopefulness in the face of extreme difficulties. Although the satyr-play-like drunken frolics of Heracles, compounded by his cracker-barrel philosophical humbug, are indispensable in erecting a much-needed barrier to the preceding flood of doom-laden forecasts and gloomy meditations on human destiny, the situation calls for the exertion of all mental and physical energies to the solution of life’s problems. Both male protagonists will soon acquire a kind of wisdom undiluted by disillusionment and resignation, but not unmixed with massed experience. Admetus will discover that every heart-beclouding shadow presages greater spiritual gain, whereas Heracles will recognize that there can be no hiding-place of cheerful abandonment from the ceaseless whisperings of his heart’s heroic interrogatories. In particular, the latter’s sudden realization that he cannot go on carousing, while knowing that his generous host is devastated by the death of his wife (831–832, κᾆτα κωμάζω κάρα/ στεφάνοις πικασθείς;, ‘And can I now go on reveling, my head garlanded?’) is an unmistakable sign of his moral fibre and firmness 45 Cf. Albini (19943) 43–44. See also Winnington-Ingram (19972) 67, n. 4, who draws attention to the similarity between the philosophy of the Maenads in Bacchae, especially their rejection of the higher sensibilities, and the superficial philosophizing of the intoxicated Heracles.


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of purpose.46 These are the true stirrings of a heroic consciousness. Indeed, this ethical awakening forms the bedrock of his numerous Labours. It is no wonder that in fifth-century Athens the moralization of the Heraclean tradition was so pervasive, the reason being that there was then an increasing mood of compassion towards humanity and its sufferings. The notion of Heracles as labouring benefactor of the human race was particularly appealing in Athenian society, which was plagued by doubt about ethical truth and right. The scene with Heracles placing the crucial, I daresay the genuinely ‘tragic’, question to himself about what he should do now that he finally knows the truth showcases with matchless intensity the stream of emotion which every time sets the heroic action going. The satyr-play-like intertexts are too thin and shadowy to produce conviction, and purposely so, because in Greek tragedy heroic excellence is inextricably linked with solemnity, not merrymaking (Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus being perhaps the most striking example). In fact, the tragic element of the play has precedent over the satyric element: Heracles the hero, coming dangerously close to being a mere buffoon out of a typical satyr-drama, is capable of reinventing himself in response to fundamental moral dilemmas. In the scene with tippling Heracles certain unflattering qualities of the budding hero bulk very high, while in the remainder of the play they drop to insignificance. More generally, in Euripides’ Alcestis there are glimpses into the unappealing side of the Heraclean legend, but the focus is trained on the positive side. Like everyone else, Heracles holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of ἀρετή and in the kingdom of κακία; as a matter of fact, in his animated dialogue with the Chorus he described his δαίμων (499–500) as a rough and uphill road, perhaps alluding to Prodicus’ fable of the youthful Heracles standing at the crossroads and having to choose between two women, Vice with ease and Virtue with hardship. I concur with Parker in the view that there might be here a connection with this popular moralistic tale; in the subsequent scene with the aggrieved servant it is clear that Heracles chooses the virtuous path.47 Contrary to the earlier misgivings about his heroic privilege, and immediately following the exit of the infuriated servant, Heracles delivers a monologue in distinctly Homeric fashion, addressing his own heart and hand (837–860).48 The striking formality of the soliloquy, containing no colloquial expression in sharp contrast with his homespun philosophical deliberations, marks the new,

46 For similar self-addressed questions concerning the appropriateness of merrymaking, see Henrichs (1995) and (1996). 47 Parker (2007) ad 500; see also Panofsky (1930); Sansone (2004); Anderson (2009). 48 See Parker (2007) ad 837 drawing on Leo (1908) 16 and Schadewaldt (1926) 206–209.

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conspicuously tragic, phase of the play leading up to the benign finale.49 His strong assertion of his divine lineage, as well as his mother’s heroic ancestry, paves the way for his proud announcement that he will reciprocate Admetus’ kindness by restoring Alcestis to her family (838–839, νῦν δεῖξον οἷον παῖδα σ’ἡ Τιρυνθία / ἐγείνατ’ Ἠλεκτρύωνος Ἀλκμήνη Διί, ‘now show what kind of son Tirynthian Alcmene, daughter of Electryon, bore to Zeus’).50 Before going off to snatch Alcestis from the grip of Hades, he envisages his battle with Thanatos; he also offers an alternative course of action in case Death does not come to collect the blood offerings at the tomb. As it will turn out later in the play, Heracles will seize Alcestis from the hands of Death by violence, exactly as Apollo predicted in the Prologue, but the movement of the chain of events to their happy conclusion will be interfered with by partial revelations and misleading clues. Not unlike the scene with the onstage death of Alcestis, her offstage rescue is narratively complex, integrating as-if postulations with familiar images from the Heraclean tradition; in particular, at this point the tragic narrative commits itself to an athletic approach to offstage reportage, so appropriate for Heracles’ aristocratic viewpoint on life as a prize to be enjoyed after prodigious effort: ἐλθὼν δ’ ἄνακτα τὸν μελάμπεπλον νεκρῶν Θάνατον φυλάξω, καί νιν εὑρήσειν δοκῶ πίνοντα τύμβου πλησίον προσφαγμάτων. 845 κἄνπερ λοχαίας αὐτὸν ἐξ ἕδρας συθεὶς μάρψω, κύκλον γε περιβαλὼν χεροῖν ἐμαῖν, οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις αὐτὸν ἐξαιρήσεται μογοῦντα πλευρά, πρὶν γυναῖκ’ ἐμοὶ μεθῇ. ἢν δ’ οὖν ἁμάρτω τῆσδ’ ἄγρας καὶ μὴ μόλῃ 850 πρὸς αἱματηρὸν πελανόν, εἶμι τῶν κάτω Κόρης Ἄνακτός τ’ εἰς ἀνηλίους δόμους, αἰτήσομαί τε καὶ πέποιθ’ ἄξειν ἄνω Ἄλκηστιν, ὥστε χερσὶν ἐνθεῖναι ξένου, ὅς μ’ ἐς δόμους ἐδέξατ’ οὐδ’ ἀπήλασεν, 855 καίπερ βαρείᾳ συμφορᾷ πεπληγμένος, ἔκρυπτε δ’ ὢν γενναῖος, αἰδεσθεὶς ἐμέ. (843–857) I shall go and look out for the black-robed lord of the dead, Death himself, and I think I shall find him drinking from the offerings near the tomb. And if once I rush from ambush and catch

49 See Stevens (1976) 66. 50 On Heracles’ soliloquy, see Schadewaldt (1926) 207–209. Cf. also Hourmouziades (2008) 139.


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him in my side-crushing grip, no one shall take him from me until he releases the woman to me. But if I fail to catch this quarry and he does not come to the blood offering, I shall go down to the sunless house of Persephone and her lord in the world below and shall ask for Alcestis, and I think I shall bring her up and put her in the hands of my friend. He welcomed me into his house and did not drive me away, though he had suffered grievous misfortune. In his nobility he concealed it, out of respect for me.

At this crucial juncture, the play seems to stop and start all over again with a new hopeful narrative line: the recovery of Alcestis from the abode of the dead. While the thrust of the plot was towards permanent mourning, Heracles’ confident proclamation of heroic ambition bestows upon the whole a different duration and meaning. In view of Apollo’s prophecy and Heracles’ assertion, we should be in no doubt that in the play everything tends towards a frightful conclusion that does not occur; the concerted attempts to impose limited designs upon the human world prove totally unavailing. Euripides’ Alcestis has a double turn, the moral awakening of Heracles arrests what had seemed the consummation of the action. Instead of an irreversible movement into a horrifying future, the Heraclean resonance brings the Alcestis story closer to the audience’s sensibilities and aspirations. Our sympathies are wholly with Heracles, since his consideration for the pathetic vulnerability of men is in sharp contrast with the cold-blooded indifference of the chthonian divinities. The unbridgeable abyss separating the heroic champion from his netherworld adversaries is still more evidently true in the diametrically conflicting images of Heracles refraining from indulging in wine-drinking in this hour of mourning (cf. 757, πίνει, 788, πῖνε, 795, πίῃ, 830, ἔπινον) and Thanatos revelling in the drinking offerings at Alcestis’ tomb (845, πίνοντα). Indeed, what is abhorrent to mortals is hugely agreeable to the underworld powers. We have, therefore, more grounds for thinking that the play juggles elements of the Heracles story into a new pattern of familial misfortune turned into unexpected happiness, thereby refining and renuancing its audience’s ideas about heroism. In particular, the constant emphasis on Heracles’ impressive qualities as a strong and capable wrestler, indeed the visualization of Alcestis’ salvation as an athletic trial calling for mental alertness and corporal exertion, presses home the Greek conviction that true heroism consists of the balanced proportion and fine articulation of force and reason, thereby securing the grace of unity in complexity.51 The use of strength rather than guile is an inherent characteristic of 51 It would be particularly illuminating for my discussion to refer to a characteristic passage from Pindar’s Nemean Ode 6.1–7, in which it is strongly argued that the race of men can only bring

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the Heracles myth prefigured in the episode with Hera’s giant snakes attacking infant Heracles in his cradle. But it would be unwise to assume that this indefatigable pursuit of honour through unremitting action is completely divorced from resourceful and intelligent deliberation.52 In Euripides’ Alcestis Heracles uses both force and guile in ambushing and overcoming Thanatos in order to free Alcestis. He is a much more complex figure than the predominantly action-oriented vase-paintings and sculptures might suggest.53 It was to be expected that the ancient Greeks thought that an inordinate emphasis on his ingenuity might have detracted from his fiery vitality and unflinching risk, debasing his admirable search for glory; but his Labours are an eloquent testimony to his sophistication as a formidable warrior and gifted strategist.54 The Hydra story with Heracles and Iolaus cauterizing the stumps of the severed heads, so as to finish off the monster, as well as Heracles’ reverence to Artemis in the third Labour and his cunning in diverting the courses of the rivers Alpheius and Peneius to cleanse the dung-clogged stables of Augeias, are further proofs of his acumen. Similarly, in the sixth Labour, Heracles showed shrewdness in startling the birds of the Stymphalian Lake with some bronze castanets which he borrowed from Athena, the goddess of wisdom. After the kommos between Admetus and the Chorus (861–1005), during which Heracles’ sudden realization of the moral urgency of the events is thrown into sharp relief by Admetus’ late awareness of his situation, the Exodos puts the

themselves on a par with the immortals by means of the greatness of their mind or bodily nature. See also Iakov (2000) 27–29. 52 Some critics tend to place too much emphasis on the physical side of Heracles. For instance, Barlow (1996) 13 goes so far as to suggest that ‘he [i.e. Heracles] was in some senses a figure of the past’, given that his instinctual responses to adversaries tended to be physical rather than mental; but she fails to appreciate the widespread concept, immortalized in the twelve metopes of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, as well as in the highly prescriptive decoration of a sixth-century temple at Assos, in the Troad, of Heracles’ controlled strength and civilizing mission (cf. Spivey 1996, 96–104). His pioneering spirit is congruent with the intellectual achievements of fifthcentury Athens; his exploits serve as a powerful metaphor for the triumph of civilization over barbarism. Cf. also Boardman (1993) 109–110, who draws attention to the striking contrast, so typical of classical vase-painting, between Heracles’ taut strength and intellectual concentration and his barbarian opponents’ clumsy postures and cowardly disposition. 53 See principally Schefold (1992) 93–162. Cf. also Carpenter (1991) 41–44, 74–79, and 117–159; Castriota (1992) passim; Shapiro (1989) 159–161 and (1994) 71–78, 105–109, and 155–160; Small (2003) 68–71, who is right to insert crucial caveats against treating certain pictorial records as depictions of theatrical scenes; Woodford (2003) passim. 54 We can catch a glimpse of this concern about the debasing of Heracles on account of excessive cunning in the gradual change of his posture on vase-paintings: Heracles faces his enemies head-on instead of attacking them from behind.


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offstage story in such a form that it can become the subject of mythological reorderings and understandings in a manner similar to the earlier athletic metaphors. Like Alcestis in the first part of the play, Heracles emerges as the undisputed plotmaker having the right to reconstruct the offstage past by supplementing and recombining the already known fragments of Alcestis’ return from the land of the dead. His narrative strategy is in keeping with the play’s predilection for imaginary accounts of human survival, but this time these invented tales prove to be a playful refraction of real heroic doings through the prism of narrative gimmickry; here there is no mischief-making with utterly deceptive storytelling. Although Heracles narrates a fake story to Admetus in order to deflect his attention from the identity of the unknown woman, he merely gives a real event an atmosphere of epic grandeur and heroism. He recounts his athletic triumph in a public contest, placing strong emphasis on his bodily strength and prowess. This untrue account of athletic victory plays on the notion of Heracles as the supreme exemplum for the victorious athlete’s panegyrical return and, more importantly, as the mythical founder of the Olympic Games, in which man can elevate himself to the divine sphere through his physical ability and strength of character. This admirable combination of corporal potency and spiritual integrity is prefatory to greatness: Alcestis and Heracles excel in their iron firmness of character and rock-like stability of resolve – it is little wonder that both of them are deemed worthy of being elevated to divine status, surpassing all other men in toughness of spirit and self-denying compassion for their fellowmen. Further, in recounting his unreal athletic feat to Admetus Heracles makes our vision of the offstage events deliberately elusive, but this symbolic re-enactment of the past in athletic terms is part and parcel of the temporal enlargement and complication of the action which Euripides exercises on the Alcestis legend through the device of superimposing a much richer mythological tradition on a local story. It is worth noting that for Heracles boxing and wrestling (that is, competitions involving fighting skills) are awarded the greater trophies; what is more, here the Thessalian prizes exceed even the Homeric ones in splendour:55 πολλῷ δὲ μόχθῳ χεῖρας ἦλθεν εἰς ἐμάς· 1025 ἀγῶνα γὰρ πάνδημον εὑρίσκω τινὰς τιθέντας, ἀθληταῖσιν ἄξιον πόνον, ὅθεν κομίζω τήνδε νικητήρια λαβών. τὰ μὲν γὰρ κοῦφα τοῖς νικῶσιν ἦν ἵππους ἄγεσθαι, τοῖσι δ’ αὖ τὰ μείζονα 1030 νικῶσι, πυγμὴν καὶ πάλην, βουφόρβια· 55 See Parker (2007) ad 1029–1031. Cf. also Poliakoff (1982).

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γυνὴ δ’ ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς εἵπετ’· ἐντυχόντι δὲ αἰσχρὸν παρεῖναι κέρδος ἦν τόδ’ εὐκλεές. ἀλλ’, ὥσπερ εἶπον, σοὶ μέλειν γυναῖκα χρή· οὐ γὰρ κλοπαίαν ἀλλὰ σὺν πόνῳ λαβὼν 1035 ἥκω· χρόνῳ δὲ καὶ σύ μ’ αἰνέσεις ἴσως. (1025–1036) It was with great labor that she came into my hands. I found some people holding a public contest, an occasion worthy of an athlete’s toil. It is from there that I took this woman as a prize. Those victorious in the light events won horses as their prize, while those in the greater events, boxing and wrestling, won cattle, with a woman in addition. Since I happened to be there, it seemed a shame to let slip this chance for profit combined with glory. But as I said, you must care for the woman. For I did not steal her but won her with labor. Perhaps in time you will praise me for this.

Heracles was said to have founded the games at Olympia, so he became a patron of warriors and athletes.56 Young men competing in the Panhellenic tournaments think of themselves as undergoing trials, which they illustrate with the same Greek word, ἆθλοι, used to describe Heracles’ Labours. In this respect, the rescue of Alcestis is the inauguration of the utmost ἀγώνισμα similar to the foundation of the most glorious athletic games on earth, the Olympic Games; more than this, Pheres and his wife have failed miserably in a contest, in which physical strength has been displaced by moral integrity and force of personality. This is one of the reasons why Heracles invents a story of athletic prowess to deceive Admetus into believing that he won Alcestis in a sporting challenge. Furthermore, another reason for this unvarying athletic viewpoint is that the evocation of a public competition, coming as it does after the ekphora of Alcestis, helps to form the final scenes of the play more after the pattern of epic poems in which πάθος gives way to ἦθος as the funeral rites segue into the games. In this respect Heracles’ show of ingenuity and strength should also be seen as an extraordinary commemorative occasion honouring the dead Alcestis; in fact, Alcestis occupies a position at the boundary between life and death as being both the honorand and the prize for winning the competition. In other words, the boldness of the athletic metaphor of Alcestis’ rescue from the clutches of Thanatos not only reinforces her heroic credentials, but also allows the freest possible play to one of the most fundamental thematic motifs of the drama, namely the interlocking of life and death.57 In Homeric narrative, the funeral of a hero is 56 See Morgan (1990) 220–222 and passim. 57 Interestingly enough, Grieve (1898) 66–67 argues that Thanatos is eminently fitted for the


 Chapter 3 Myth

the only occasion for athletic contests (Iliad 23. 262–897 & 23.630–631: Patroclus and Amarynceus; Odyssey 24.85–86: Achilles himself), thereby facilitating the transition from the ominous grandeur of the funeral procession into the fervent excitement of the games.58 In classical times, local athletic contests were still motivated as funeral games for the epichoric hero (e.g. Pausanias 8.4.5). As a general principle, the agôn was connected with the cult of heroes, and even the Great Panhellenic Games were originally conceived as funeral games for heroes. The custom of mourning for Achilles at the beginning of the Olympics (Pausanias 6.23.3) is a striking instance of this heritage.59 More importantly, and more relevantly for my conception of the Alcestis story as yet another Heraclean Labour reflecting some illustration on the true nature of its archetypes, Heracles’ invented tale reveals profound sentiments about his Thessalian heroic deed. Contrary to his previous feats in the Peloponnese and elsewhere, the ‘Alcestis Labour’ is a genuine source of profit ideally combined with glory. In particular, while in the earlier scene Heracles prided himself on his accomplishments without however stating clearly that the capture of the savage Thracian horses will give him profit other than the opportunity to fulfil his highly arduous obligation to serve the king of Tiryns (491), here he admits, openly and proudly, that the restoration of Alcestis to her house is an even more honourable achievement (1033). He feels that the reciprocation of Admetus’ phenomenal hospitality, regardless of the thoughtlessness of the trickery and the untimeliness of the invitation, is vitally important for his self-esteem in a way that the Labours foisted upon him by a cruel overlord can never be. Without wishing to overstretch the point, it would be hard to deny that the Alcestis episode, more than any other Labour, collects into one focus many rays of feeling and reflection on the controversial nature of the Heracles saga; especially, in the play the Heraclean experience has not only been enlarged but deepened by the growth of moral ideas in thoughtful minds. Thus, by Alcestis’ self-chosen martyrdom and Admetus’ great sense of duty, the finer sympathies of Heracles’ soul are unlocked from their obscure recesses, compassion is expanded, and thought is drawn forth to dwell on human greatness and nobility. While it is true that the Alcestis argument is largely guided by heroic light derived from the Heraclean tradition, it is equally true that at the same time the Heracles myth is

role of Heracles’ wrestling opponent in the upper world, principally because ‘his work […] does not take him into the lower world, but, like that of his brother Hypnus, has to do with the body rather than with the soul’ (p. 66). On Thanatos, see also Vermeule (1979) 37–41. 58 See (e.g.) Richardson (1993) 164–166 & 201–203. 59 Cf. Nagy (1979) 117, 179.

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greatly enriched by the recognition that human nature is enlarged through the experience and contemplation of suffering. Much as Heracles seems to persist with the deception of Admetus, throwing more hypothetical variants to the foreground (1072–1074, εἰ γὰρ τοσαύτην δύναμιν εἶχον ὥστε σὴν/ ἐς φῶς πορεῦσαι νερτέρων ἐκ δωμάτων / γυναῖκα καί σοι τήνδε πορσῦναι χάριν , ‘I wish I had the power to convey your wife to the light from the halls below and could do you this service’), soon he unveils Alcestis for Admetus to see, recounting in brief how he brought her back to the land of the living by battling with Death, his wrestling holds being truly unbeatable.60 Once more Euripides sounds out at full strength central themes of the play such as the refinement of physical power through shrewdness and alertness, as well as the athletic ideal of unflagging effort to win a noble prize: ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ μάχην συνάψας δαιμόνων τῷ κυρίῳ. ΑΔΜΗΤΟΣ ποῦ τόνδε Θανάτῳ φῇς ἀγῶνα συμβαλεῖν; ΗΡΑΚΛΗΣ τύμβον παρ’ αὐτόν, ἐκ λόχου μάρψας χεροῖν. (1140–1142) HERACLES I fought with the divinity who controlled her. ADMETUS Where did you fight this battle with Death? HERACLES Lying in ambush hard by the tomb, I caught him in my grip.

The surprising revelation of the true identity of the veiled woman not only allows the royal couple a cloudless future, but also lays all the ominous speculations about the prospect of the human race to rest. Despite her ritually imposed silence, 60 It is remarkable that in this scene the Chorus urges Admetus to show stoic courage and patience, advocating the calm acceptance of all occurences as the unavoidable result of divine will (1071, χρὴ δ’, ἥτις ἐστί, καρτερεῖν θεοῦ δόσιν, ‘But one must endure what the god gives, whatever it is’); but Heracles has already established a new symmetry between the unconditioned immortality of the gods and the inescapable mortality of men. Cf. also Parker (1997), who argues that ‘[t]he characters of tragedy reject the mute and necessary stoicism of actual living and insist on the need for explanations’ (p. 158). Further, on the inconsistency between the repeated references to the cremation of Alcestis and the prolepses of her burial (cf. also lines 365–367, 608, 740, and 897–899), see Verrall (1891) 247–248; Parker (2007) ad 608.


 Chapter 3 Myth

the restoration of Alcestis to her family makes abundantly clear that the doomladen predictions, which are advanced in the first part of the plot and continued for almost the whole duration of the play, at this moment sink back into narrative darkness.61 A great sense of relief floods over Admetus, who resumes his self-assurance and invites Heracles and the Thessalian citizens to revelry and dancing (1151, 1153–1158).62 This invitation is an unmistakable signal that the horrendous vision of a musicless, lyreless world, so forcefully shaped in the first movement of the play, is finally torn to pieces; in fact, the distinctively un-Greek notion of eternal suffering and grief at life’s afflictions gives way to the genuinely Greek idea of moral bravery merged in the feeling of physical fortitude and vitality.63 Throughout the opening scenes, but also well into the second part of the play, Admetus was shut in the shaded chambers of bereavement, disconnected from 61 On the three-day silence of Alcestis and the interpretations of the religious, technical, and thematic problems accruing from so extraordinary a ritual prohibition, see Kynaston & Collins (1906) 44; Trammell (1941–1942); Betts (1965); Buxton (1987a) and (1987b); Hourmouziades (19912) 207–211 and (2003) 83; Wohl (1998) 174; Sussanetti (2001) ad loc.; Panoussi (2005) 418. Cf. also Iakov (2012) I.88–89, who is right to concur with Hourmouziades (2008) 146–147 in the view that the silence of Alcestis by no means here puts the sense of the secure expression of familial happiness through a profound questioning. Furthermore, it should be noted that the ‘desanctification’ of Alcestis suggests further ritual action at Pherae, since Admetus must offer purificatory and expiatory sacrifices to the infernal deities in order to release Alcestis from her religious obligation to the gods below. Cf. Woolsey (18764) ad 1146 and Jerram (18903) ad 1146, who convincingly argues that ‘[t]he dat. θεοῖσι implies that the necessary rites of “deconsecration” must be offered to those gods; else we should expect the gen. θεῶν after the ἀπό in the compound verb’. 62 Cf. Taplin (1977) 361, who draws attention to the solemnity of line 1153; Thumiger (2007) 181– 182, who is right to suggest that Admetus’ personal reflections on the future situate the outcome of the story at the intersection of several tales not yet completed. 63 On the simulation of the wedding ritual in the concluding scene of the play, departing a sense of closure to the eventful story of Admetus and Alcestis, see Halleran (1982) and (1988), who goes so far as to suggest that Admetus is taking the veiled woman as a wife, but Parker (2007) ad 1119–1120 offers sufficient arguments to the contrary; Buxton (1987) 17–19; Luschnig (1990) 36–39; Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 206–207, who press the point that Admetus is accepting the unidentified woman as his spouse in order to belittle the final reconciliation. On the hotly debated issue of the unveiling of Alcestis, see Doane (1989); Rehm (1994) 141–142; Rabinowitz (1993) 87; Wiles (1997) 159–160; Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 209–211. On the wedding ritual with special emphasis on the unveiling ceremony, see (e.g.) Redfield (1982); Garland (1990) 219–221; Oakley & Sinos (1993) 25–34, esp. 25–26 on the ἀνακαλυπτήρια. Cf. also Brindesi (1961); Thompson (1972); Bickerman (1975); Craik (1984). In a sense, Heracles acts as the νυμφεύτρια, taking off the veil from the bride’s head. On the almost cinematic depiction of the tableau of Heracles giving away the trophy woman to Admetus, see Parker (2007) ad 1119–1120, who rightly defends the authenticity of lines 1119–1120 by following Halleran (1982) and (1988) (contra Hübner 1981 and 1983).

III. Prophecy, Theory, Action: The Making of a Hero 


his parents, as the humanity in his father had been calcified by the vain pursuit of earthly enjoyment, and his self-respect had been irremediably damaged by the crushing and irresistible force of popular clamour. Now it is his turn to enjoy the remainder of his life in the company of his wife and children; nonetheless, Heracles refuses to take part in the merriment, as he is set on his next Labour (1149– 1150, […] ἐγὼ δὲ τὸν προκείμενον πόνον / Σθενέλου τυράννῳ παιδὶ πορσυνῶ μολών, ‘I shall go and perform for King Eurystheus the labor that lies at hand’). After wrestling with Thanatos, Heracles emerges all the more determined to accomplish his heroic goal: his satyric permutations could after all only be carried a little way in a play in which a minor fable is transfigured by the alchemy of tragic narration into a morally crucial trial of human endurance in the face of disaster.64 The role reversals of the play entail Heracles’ broaching the notion of abstinence while on heroic duty. In his story the most serious aspect of human destiny was typified: the slow ascent of man from moral chaos to moral cosmos. It is fair to suggest that as a result of this universality the hearts of thousands of Greeks were to be drawn forth and fixed on the supreme crises of his life-history for years to come. To sum up, two strains of legend wind about the House of Admetus: the Alcestis tale has interlaced its branches, if not its roots, with those of the famous Heracles saga. From such a point of view the play gains immeasurably in solidity and strength: the audience find themselves exactly in the focus of many narrative echoes concerning the many-sided Heraclean legend. From the first scene, Euripides prompts the spectators to recall the remarkable adventures and unmerited misfortunes of Heracles, as well as inviting them to find fairly precise analogues to well-known myth-sequences and myth-bound characters. In particular, he universalizes the action by interweaving with it the agency of Heracles as civilizing hero, indefatigable benefactor of humankind, and cultic protector of the household, and so he escapes from local boundaries by imagining a vast mythological space. The presence of some life-preserving power or some non-violent design in the background is already suggested by the Apolline oracle in the Prologue – indeed, a masterly coup de théâtre connecting the play with earlier dramatic recastings of the story. Further, this chapter argued that if we can penetrate, however dimly, to this bedrock of the dramatist’s thought we may hope to understand the play more intimately as a transformation story for both Alcestis and Heracles; in fact, the making of a hero mirrors the making of a heroine. Euripides’ Alcestis has its wide narrative horizons, but there underlies it a deeper one: the Heracles legend with all 64 It should be added that the gnomic quality of the Chorus’ closing lines (1159–1163) draw even more attention to the surprising turn of the plot. Cf. also Dunn (1996) 135–136.


 Chapter 3 Myth

its striking contradictions and ambivalences. The clustering of so many pointed insights into the greatest Panhellenic hero has a distinctly narrational function, serving to keep the story on foot and to link together the various faces of Greek heroism. The Alcestis episode is the sounding board on which discords are struck out only to be resolved; indeed, it is a solvent for social and moral disagreements. In other words, it offers a space for the symbolic resolution of proverbial mythological conflicts. In Thessaly through his supreme effort of self-recovery Heracles is given the opportunity to resolve previously insoluble problems and impossible situations for the first time in his life – no doubt an invaluable spiritual preparation for his impending conflicts with the terribly inhuman creatures lurking in his rough and uphill way to heroic exaltation, as well as a welcome reversal of his numerous afflictions and misfortunes. It is therefore fair to conclude by saying that in this case the secondary narrative is cathartically filtered through the primary narrative, while the latter becomes an ethically informed footnote, albeit a significant one, to the first. Euripides refrains from quenching the last trembling hopes and giving completeness to calamity. Much as every successive account of imminent disaster, as it is emphatically delivered by a host of narrators, whose credibility is beyond question, falls with an immediate crushing effect on Admetus and the Thessalian people, the climax of the catastrophe is never reached. In essence, a complex pattern of intersecting narrative lines redeems a world in the grip of death, thereby relieving the pressure of grief with a tinge of gentleness and compassion, while at the same time allowing Admetus and Heracles to grow in moral stature and self-awareness. For it hardly needs to be observed that the mythological element in all its narrational variety claims an interest equal to another central factor which lends a touch of milder pathos to the disaster, mystical religion. But what remains to be said on this important subject is reserved for the following chapter on the play’s Eleusinian-Orphic aspect.

Chapter 4  Religion I. Introduction What here concerns me is to show sufficient cause for the assertion made in the previous chapter that in the play numerous echoes of mystical principles contribute to the relaxation of divine severity, prompting the audience to glance down again at actual life and acknowledge the meaningfulness of human existence. To be specific, in this final chapter I seek to show that in order to understand the special ways in which the fifth-century religious material has been grafted onto the tragic narrative of Euripides’ Alcestis narratologists need to extend the interpretative leverage of narrative theory to certain morally-informed cultic and ritual features of classical Athens, since mystical intertexts, especially Eleusinian and Orphic traditions and doctrines, should be brought to bear on the explanation of both the visual medium of staged action and the non-visual medium of buried memories and open-ended predictions. As I have already noted in my second chapter, the play creates a terribly inhuman future world of perennial misfortune and dispiriting failure which stands in total contrast to what appears to be at first sight a strongly-marked gradation of imaginary opportunities, untestable speculations, sanguine delusions, unactualized possibilities, hypothetical postulations, logical fallacies, and wish-fulfilment fantasies. In fact, the disnarrated, which eventually turns out to be nothing less than a series of well-established mythological and religious systems battling the notion that our earthly life is as bad as it could possibly be, forms a counter-world to an ostensibly very real world of perennial pain and tribulation awaiting Admetus and the Thessalian people, and by extension the whole human race. It is my contention therefore that in Euripides’ Alcestis an essential part of the disnarrated is the constant thread of allusion to Athenian Eleusinian-Orphic beliefs in human salvation and post mortem bliss. Though it seems that during most of the play the torrential waves of doom-laden forecasts and gloomy prognoses sweep away each and every theoretical option of human survival and netherworld felicity, inviting the audience to recognize the harsh truth that religious mottoes of deliverance from the cruel vicissitudes of destiny can never be reconciled with reality, in the concluding scene the fulfilment of the Apolline prophecy recharts a clear authoritative relationship between mystical promises and the real world, thus challenging the sense of questioning whether our particular ritual and cultic concepts are related to the human community in an appropriate way. Contrary to mystical optimism, Thanatos, likening human life to the life of other


 Chapter 4 Religion

animals, treats the reproductive cycle as indeed a cyclical process which continues pointlessly and indefinitely until it is terminated by extinction. The resultant loss of higher metaphysical values which existed in contrast with the threatening spectre of death and, more generally, the base reality of the world gives rise to the idea that all human institutions are therefore valueless and insignificant. In other words, the Eleusinian-Orphic matrix makes the audience work in novel ways to structure their experience of the tragic narrative, as well as offering a strong antidote against the despondency of existential purposelessness. Surprisingly enough, while the horror of Admetus’ fate and his fall seems fore-ordained, certain threads of an Eleusinian-Orphic patterning, elements of a hopeful mystical design, are woven together in the Exodos, reinforcing the inextricable linking between spiritual expectation and moral courage, religious strength and the need to be socially involved. In view of the miraculous return of Alcestis from the nether regions the mysteric alternatives are unearthed, brought alive again, re-established in a circuit of uninterrupted communication. Euripides’ Alcestis celebrates the very essence of the Eleusinian Mysteries. There is a gradual process from sorrow to joy, so characteristic of mystical feelings and experiences: the play combines forward movement to a hideous catastrophe with the pleasure of delaying and eventually steering clear of that catastrophe, while at the same time the human players fumble around in the dark totally disorientated until moral illumination comes to disperse the clouds of doubt. This hard-won passage into the enjoyment of a blissful existence, both in this life and the next, unfolds against the background of Thessalian Pherae, a place serving as a frontier between life and death, upperworld and underworld, as Heracles prepares himself to enter the point where an uncharted territory inhabited by Deathlike creatures lies ahead for him to conquer. We can hardly be wrong in suggesting that the Heracles cycle of fables undermines the congruity between human destiny and unrelenting suffering, while simultaneously the mystical patterns open up the uplifting possibility that life is by no means a tightly rule-bound narrative always ending in affliction and torment. In other words Euripides brings mythological and religious paradigms of human endurance into direct collision with pessimistic notions that reason and faith are mere window dressing for the real mainsprings of thought, which cannot be other than the lower instincts of the human animal. Contrary to an impersonal and inscrutable determination, which was there all along to carry forward powerfully and without check the stream of pessimistic emotions which the action of the opening scenes had set going, these faith-based claims of optimism pave the way for a sudden flickering of hope amidst despair and disillusionment, thereby strengthening the anticipations of untried possibilities, while at the same time combatting an attitude of

I. Introduction 


distrust towards ethical and social values. The final miracle belies the horrifying idea that the sole purpose of life is to end. Regarded from the Eleusinian-Orphic viewpoint, the ethical importance of Alcestis’ self-chosen death is magnified to the point of becoming the heart-thought of the play. As I have already argued in the first chapter, this was not unusual in the context of fifth-century Athenian religion, for mystical traditions were infused with a potent stream of moral consideration, which was not unmixed with social and political concerns. A mood of desperation and bleakness at an alleged pointlessness and triviality of existence which people may develop upon realizing that there are no requisite standards, regulations, or commandments, as well as incontrovertible religious axioms and assurances, is totally disagreeable to the Greek notion of the polis as the logical end of social development – in other words the focus of the people’s allegiances and accepted wisdom, the predominance of which was enhanced by time-honoured mythological, religious, and political traditions and institutions. The Athenian polis kept its hold by, among much else, the rock-solid religious advantages which it offered to its citizens and by its guarantee of an ordered social and political framework for their lives. In this regard, the feeling of distinctive patriotism became merged with that of religious beliefs and certainties. Especially, in the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries the Athenian polis contributed to enhance the main emotion of afterlife happiness with a strong tinge of moral fortitude, while at the same time enduing the local Eleusinian tradition with the fresh and intense vitality of certain Orphic features. The confirmation of the Eleusinian-Orphic vision, contrary to the vituperative denunciation of each and every theistic doctrine about the meaningful aspects of life, suggests that human existence is by no means lacking in objective importance, deeper purpose, and intrinsic value. Not unlike the mounting devaluation of Heracles’ heroic credentials, the trivialization of purely Athenian mystical systems of human consolation and comfort goes on augmenting until it suddenly drops at the close of the play. It is not too bold to argue that the ultimate crushing failure of the widely held idea that there is always a great disproportion between what humans want to value and how the world appears to operate not only helps the dramatis personae to get through life, but also validates the formidable, irrepressible Athenian spirit, characteristically typified by Heracles and a host of other brave heroes – that irresistible urge to burst beyond human frontiers and see life in all its depth and richness. This heroic outlook on life, straining against the limitations set on human endeavour, held the potential of shattering the rigid demarcation between gods and men. In the play it is duly harnessed to an honourable cause; more than this, the new interest awakened by this interplay of heroism and morality is not unconnected with fundamental institutions of Athenian religion.


 Chapter 4 Religion

And here we come again to our original point about the centrality of mystical principles to the play. The sacrifice of Alcestis reflects the deepest thoughts of an expansive and transitional time, summing up in a concentrated ideal form the sentiments awakened by the realization that in this admirable effort to break the boundaries of mortality there is a striking paradox: those men who deserve to be given a reprieve from death at the cost of someone else’s life find it morally impossible to live with that guilt, or, to say it in another way, they are exactly those people who cannot handle this new favourable divine dispensation of justice. Because of their ethical integrity, through which they gained this celestial gift, they are completely incapable of assenting to the privilege of prolonged existence. After the demise of Asclepius, who brought to life men regardless of their moral credentials, the bargain with the Fates involves only ethical people who are, nonetheless, overwhelmed by the resultant prerogatives and thereby end up desperate and forlorn. Only the morally wrong, hedonistic people can handle this new relaxation of the rules, but they are rightly excluded from this enormous benefaction. It is indeed an impossible situation: ethical people cannot continue living without paying heed to the life and death condition, while at the same time they need to be rewarded for their good behaviour in opposition to the dishonest people. The religious institutions of the Athenian polis, most notably sacrificial and mystical rituals, had the virtue that they were a safety valve for these complex emotions arising from the introduction of moral preoccupations into the age-old harmonies between gods and men. Starting from these considerations about the expansion of the entitlement to heroic status for the virtuous, one could moreover argue that Euripides draws revealing comparisons between the sacrificial ceremony and Alcestis’ self-abnegation: this feeling of ethical heroism is raised to an extraordinary pitch through the excitement induced by mystical aspirations. This is the reason why the death of Alcestis is repeatedly pictured as a sacrifice to the nether deities in the Prologue. At a deeper level sacrifice makes men immortal or at least godlike, since they have a say on the life and death of a live creature. On a higher plane, the death of human beings is nothing less than the ritual sacrifice of the human animal so that gods can enforce their immortality. In this regard, mystical religion has much in common with animal sacrifice, given that mystic promises of a much improved afterlife not only bring humans closer to the heavenly sphere, but also undermine the exclusivity of divine immortality.1 1 On Greek sacrificial ritual with reference to Greek tragedy in general and Euripides in particular, see (e.g.) Burkert (1966) and (1985) 55–118; Nancy (1981); Foley (1985) 17–64; O’Connor-Visser (1987); Jameson (1988); Tyrrell & Brown (1991) 73–98; Bowie (1995) with further references; Lloyd-Jones (1998) with important qualifications; Bremmer (2007); Rabinowitz (2008) 73–76;

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


The play, nonetheless, makes it plain that the privilege of afterlife blessedness is controlled by divine agents and accordingly granted only to those individuals who excel in virtue and piousness. It is important not to overlook that initially the Eleusinian Mysteries granted the privilege of mystical joy to all and sundry provided that they were properly initiated, but with the passage of time ethical issues came into the picture, thereby imposing serious limits on the access to this prerogative. Nevertheless, an important qualification is in order here. Both heroic distinction and mystical exaltation are preparatory to undying glory, but death is a debt all mortals must pay. Evidently, civilized human society prefers ethical mortality to unprincipled immortality, or at least Euripides might have thought so. In this respect, it is not too bold to suggest that human civilization is predicated on the notion of life and death rather than perpetual life. Paradoxically enough, the assiduous pursuit of immortal life, or in this case prolonged survival, dehumanizes people, making them not superhuman but utterly beastly. Heroic deeds are not introductory to everlasting life; indeed, even with his wide cycle of heroic feats Heracles had to experience a painful death. Therefore, far from blurring the clear demarcation lines between the divine and the human spheres, Euripides’ Alcestis opens out many original sources of earthly gratification and fulfilment. The mystical sacrifice of Alcestis establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting righteous moods and motivations in the inner and the outer audience, thereby emphasizing the mutual reinforcement between religious systems of human comfort and concepts of right and wrong conduct; but this happens always with the caveat that humans should look forward to post mortem rewards for their high moral standards and strength of character rather than nurturing high hopes of long-term survival. Heroism, as well as mystical initiation, is not the negation of death.

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage It is impossible to treat fairly or at all fully the subject of Eleusinian Orphism as a leading principle in Euripides’ Alcestis without distinguishing carefully between mystical doctrines and what has recently come to be known as the Athenian version of Orphic and Dionysiac ideas about post mortem happiness. Let me therefore begin with a brief review of some important characteristics of Orphism, especially in its contact with distinctly Eleusinian and Dionysian beliefs and

Parker (2011) 124–170; Henrichs (2012). Cf. also Markantonatos (2008b).


 Chapter 4 Religion

rites, and then return to my discussion of the mystical echoes in the play.2 The current trend in scholarship is to talk about Orphism not in terms of a movement, but rather in terms of Orphic books. Orphism is basically a very early religion of books, which involved a kind of purification for pay. Theogonical poems were attributed to Orpheus, the primeval singer and musician. In the classical period there also existed initiations into Orphic mysteries, which promised purification of sin and a vastly improved afterlife. There is also evidence that, by the end of the fifth century BCE, the Eleusinian Mysteries had taken on significant elements from Orphic religion. In the Athenian polis, religion is inextricably linked with social and political contexts.3 Not only did the worship of Demeter and Kore in the Eleusinian temenos absorb other worships, but social and political considerations and determinations laid heavy constraints on familiar mystical modes. It is therefore reasonable to argue that the most important Athenian mystery cult attempted to bring under its control popular mystical ideas, the dissemination of which was the responsibility of marginal figures such as the itinerant Orpheus-initiators. The general reputation of Orpheus as archpoet and the colourful Orphic poems must have presented a wealth of mystical motifs for the initiates to play upon.4 On the other hand, as I shall show below, the heart-thought of Orphic lore – that is, the notion of humankind as occupying a space between the divine and the beastly, while having essential elements from both upper and lower worlds merged in its very soul – became a channel through which flowed a distinctively ethical teaching. The Eleusinian-Orphic aspirations sought to give effect to the assurance that the

2 On Orphism, see Rohde (1925) 335–361; Zuntz (1971); Burkert (1972), (1985) 296–301, (1987) esp. 33–34 & 46–47, and (2006); West (1982) and (1983); Graf (1991), (1993b), and (1997); Pugliese Caratelli (1993); Bremmer (1994) 86–89; Johnston (1999) 105–107 & 137–138; Hordern (2000); Albinus (2000) 99–152; Betegh (2004) esp. 349–372; Bremmer (2002) 11–26; Cosmopoulos (2003) passim; Edmonds III (1999), (2004); Graf & Johnston (2007) with further bibliography; Kouremenos, Parássoglou & Tsantsanoglou (2006) esp. 1–59; Laks & Most (1997) with a useful bibliographical guide; Morand (1997), (2001); Parker (1995), (1996) 55, 100–101, and (2005) 358–363; Riedweg (1998), (2002), and (2004); Tzifopoulos (1998), (2002), (2010) with further notices; Bernabé (2002a), (2002b), (2008), and (2011); Parker & Stamatopoulou (2004); Bernabé & Jiménez San Cristóbal (2008); Bernabé & Casadesús (2008); cf. also Jiménez San Cristóbal (2007); Gagné (2007); Burkert (2006); Iakov (2010b); OCD3 s.v. Orpheus and Orphism [F. Graf]. 3 See principally Mikalson (1983) 83–90; Sourvinou-Inwood (1990) and (2003); Bruit Zaidman & Schmitt Pantel (1992) 92–101; Parker (1994); and most recently Henrichs (2003); Harrison (2006); Deacy (2007); Hedrick (2007); Evans (2010). Cf. also Jameson (1997). 4 See mainly Metzger (1965); Graf (1974) 79–150, (1993); Burkert (1979). Cf. also Parker (1983) 282, (1995), (1996) 100–101, (2005) 358–363; Sourvinou-Inwood (1997a) 157–159; Markantonatos (2004a) with abundant bibliography.

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


deeply righteous human being, though he might go astray and suffer misfortune, must in the end be justified.5 Further, and most relevantly to my discussion of the ethical dimension of Athenian mystical doctrines, the cardinal myth in Orphic literature is the double birth of Dionysus. According to the Orphic poets, Zeus mated with his daughter Persephone. Zagreus, which is another name for Dionysus, was the fruit of the incestuous union.6 Zeus decided to appoint Dionysus as his successor, but the Titans in their jealousy slew and ate the baby after having torn him limb from limb. Only the heart of the infant was saved from the dismembered corpse through the good offices of Athena, but this was enough for Dionysus to be reborn. In his anger Zeus destroyed the Titans with his burning thunderbolt. From the smoking remnants of the Titans mankind was born. We humans are thus blessed with a divine origin and tainted with inherited blood-guilt. Though we are born from the evil Titans, we are endowed with a pure and divine soul through our association with Dionysus. It should be noted, however, that this myth of Zagreus is told only in Neoplatonist sources, and the notion of man’s dual nature was first expounded by Olympiodorus, a sixth-century CE Neoplatonist in his commentary on Plato’s Phaedo (Olympiodorus In Phaed. 1. 3 = F 220).7 The story offers a neat explanation of man’s 5 See Parker (1995), which remains the most stimulating discussion of Athenian-Eleusinian Orphism to this day. Cf. also Fairbanks (1910) 311, who is partly right to argue that ‘[p]erhaps the strongest force in bringing religion and morals together was […] the effort of the moral consciousness to secure the highest possible sanction for its standards’. On the Eleusinian Mysteries, see (e.g.) Burkert (1983) 248–297; Clinton (1992) and (2007); Markantonatos (2002) 208, n. 81 with further references; cf. also Schuré (1926); Mylonas (1961); Nilsson (19672) 663–667; Richardson (1974). 6 The identification of Zagreus with Dionysus is first attested with some degree of certainty in a fragment from Euripides’ Cretans (fr. 472 Kannicht; cf. also Cozzolli 1993, 160–168; Collard, Cropp & Lee 1995, 69–70; Diggle 1998, 115–116). On Dionysus and the dead, see Cole (1993) and (2007) esp. 338–341; cf. also Seaford (2006) 111–118; Felton (2007). For a more sceptical approach, see principally Edmonds III (1999) 37, n. 6. Cf. also Carpenter (1997) 120, n. 1, who notes that ‘Orphic myths of Dionysos-Zagreus and the Titans do not appear in 5th-cent. Attic imagery’. 7 This interpretation of the Zagreus myth has come under severe scrutiny by Edmonds III (1999) 66 who, building on Linforth (1941), concludes that the later stories of an Orphic anthropogony and the notion of original sin should be dismissed as ‘a fabrication of the scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’. Even though Edmonds’ vigorous analysis of the Zagreus myth may strike one as extreme and, at times, unconvincing, his sceptical attack is a constant reminder of the serious problems involved in treating the myth of Dionysus as the central doctrine of Orphism. Personally, I believe that Edmonds’ survey has its merits, but, contrary to the standard (i.e. Pan-Orphic) interpretation, fails to offer sufficient evidence to account for the closely-knit pattern of mystical motifs in the Zagreus myth. See also West (1983) 166, who rejects Olympiodorus’ reading of the myth as a mere theological explanation of his


 Chapter 4 Religion

wicked nature and the need for Dionysus himself to intercede with his mother Persephone on behalf of mortals. Despite the scantiness of the evidence, it has been suggested that these elements can be detected as early as the sixth century BCE, thus placing the belief in an inherited ancestral crime back into classical times. According to a Pindaric fragment (fr. 133 S-M = Pl. Meno 81bc), Persephone allows the human souls to pass through a series of reincarnations and attain the supreme stage in metempsychosis on the condition that she accepts recompense from humans on account of her ‘ancient grief’.8 Further, Plato (Leg. 701c = F 9) and his disciple Xenocrates (fr. 20 Heinze = Damascius In Paed. 1. 2) refer to man’s Titanic nature.9 Valuable evidence for an Orphic Dionysus has come in the form of two identical gold leaves, which were recently discovered in a grave in Pelinna, Thessaly.10 The inscribed gold plates dating from the second part of the fourth century BCE and significantly shaped like leaves of ivy reveal that the initiate had to appeal to Dionysus for help before a tribunal in the underworld. The dead person, who has been released by Dionysus himself through initiation in the Bacchic mysteries, should tell this to Persephone. Apparently there is a reference here to Orphic beliefs about man’s original sin on account of the sparagmos and ômophagia of Dionysus, the son of Persephone, by the Titans.11 It is only Dionysus the Releaser who has the power to intercede with his wrathful mother on behalf of the progeny of the wicked Titans.12 own, while arguing convincingly that the soteriological aspect of Orphism, as this is displayed by the living Dionysus’ intercession with his mother Persephone to save his worshippers, is securely implied in the myth. It is reasonable to assume that the Orphic poet may have touched on issues pertaining to human nature (cf. the sensible treatment of the evidence by Parker 1995, 494–498). 8 For various views on this much-debated fragment, see Adam (1908) 92–114; Linforth (1941) 347– 350; Dodds (1951) 155–156; Alderink (1981) 65–74; West (1983) 110, n. 82; Seaford (1986) 6–7; Parker (1983) 300, (1995) 496; Edmonds III (1999) 47–49, who takes an emphatically minimalist view of Orphism. Also, on Titans and original sin in the Orphic Hymns, see Morand (2001) 216–217. 9 For later references to the Zagreus myth, see Paus. 8. 37. 5 (= T 194); Plut. De Esu Carn. 1. 996b-c (= F 210); Proclus In Plat. Republicam 2. 338 (= F 224). Cf. also RE s.v. Zagreus [W. Fauth] with detailed discussion. 10 Cf. Tsantsanoglou & Parássoglou (1987); Graf (1991), (1993). On gold tablets in general (and the related Derveni Papyrus), see Zuntz (1972) 277–393; Janko (1984), (1992) 1–7, (2002), and (2008); Pugliese Carratelli (1993); Parker (1995) 496–498; Riedweg (1998); Betz (1998); Tzifopoulos (1998), (2002), and (2010) with relevant bibliography; Albinus (2000) 141–152; Torjussen (2005); Tueller (2007); Ferrari & Prauscello (2007); Ferrari (2008). 11 A similar idea is perhaps echoed in a recent discovery at Pherae, Thessaly (SEG 45. 646). According to the tablet, ἄποινος / γὰρ ὁ μύστης (cf. also Chrysostomou 1998, 210–220, esp. 217– 218; Tzifopoulos 2002, 157–158). 12 Cf. also the depiction of Dionysus greeting Pluto in the underworld on an Apulian vase in Toledo. Apparently, the image symbolizes Dionysus’ power to intercede with the infernal deities on behalf of his votaries (cf. Johnston & McNiven 1996; Tzifopoulos 2002, 161–162).

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


The themes of mystical rebirth and netherworld felicity are sounded many times in Euripides’ Alcestis.13 Admetus and, far more strongly, the Chorus of the old men of Pherae offer familiar images of the Eleusinian-Orphic tradition, while at the same time giving several anticipatory hints of the immortal fame of Alcestis. It is only natural that the Chorus should become the main vehicle of the Eleusinian-Orphic argument; for one of its most important functions is to emphasize with vigour and intensity an assortment of non-linear thematic influences which often serve to recall to the minds of the audience central contemporary topics and issues. Further than this, the Chorus, as transmitter of mystical values, afford a refreshing contrast to the enveloping familial horrors of the play in that, as they are to some extent beyond the disorder and commotion of passing events, their age and experience enable them to view the action from a different perspective, as well as retracing in the higher emotional key of lyrical narration important events that have already happened.14 The lyric of the Chorus, that unparalleled interfusion of music, dance, and verse, gives the Attic Eleusinian-Orphic motifs a largeness of design and a depth of purpose; as a matter of fact, music and metre are essential elements of the Eleusinian-Orphic tradition, allowing full expression to the feelings and aspirations of the initiands. It is more than obvious that the play is fully occupied with the paramount theme of life and death; in fact, from the outset its general scope and purpose is abundantly described as the relentless conflict between human-loving Apollo and life-destroying Thanatos. The same sharp polarity between life and death, as well as their close intermixture, hovers over the Eleusinian-Orphic beliefs in a better afterlife inasmuch as the hopeful sequence of initiatory fictitious death and symbolic rebirth is the cornerstone of mystical tradition. For instance, a small inscribed bone plaque, discovered in Olbia, a colony founded by the Milesians on the north shores of the Black Sea, and attesting to a close association

13 See principally Foley (1985) 88, (1992) and (2001) 303–331 with slight reservations; Xenios (1992) 33–39; Assaël (2004). In Greek tragedy mystical patterns abound. Particularly interesting discussions are the following: Di Marco (1993); Cozzoli (1993); Plichon (2001); Scodel (2011b). For further similar audience-centred interpretations focusing on mystic allusions, see Bowie (1993a) esp. 228–253, (1993b), (1997), and (2000); Krummen (1993) esp. 203–208, (1998); Seaford (1994a), (1994b), (1996), and (1998); Markantonatos (2002) 197–220, (2007a) passim, (2009a), and (2009c); Mendelsohn (2002) esp. 135–223. Cf. also Campbell (1898) 245–254; Headlam (1906); Moore (1916) 74–108; Thomson (1935); Tierney (1937). On terms for (post mortem) happiness in Euripides, see McDonald (1978). For the intricate relation of tragedy to history and ritual, see also the following seminal studies: Sourvinou-Inwood (1991), (1995), (1997b), and (2003); Pelling (1997), (2000); Lada-Richards (1999), (2008). 14 See Calame (1999), who places due emphasis on the choral arguments as distinctly ritual speech acts.


 Chapter 4 Religion

between Orphic lore and Dionysus in an eschatological context, underlines the same notion of the interfusion of life and death, or more likely the introductory function of death to a new life, by bringing together in a continuous chain the nouns ‘life’ and ‘death’: βίος – θάνατος – βίος (‘life – death – life’). Furthermore, two ivy-shaped gold tablets from a woman’s grave in a sarcophagus in Pelinna, Thessaly, proclaim triumphantly the rebirth of the Orphic-Bacchic initiand in a happy existence after death: Νῦν ἔθανες | καὶ νῦν ἐγ|ένου, τρισόλβ|ιε, ἄματι τῶιδε (‘Now you have died and now you have come into being, O thrice happy one, on this same day’, transl. S. I. Johnston).15 This antithesis between life and death, being and not being, pervades the play; at certain points Euripides places particularly strong emphasis on the ambiguity between living and not living, highlighting the liminal status of Alcestis as being caught in the throes of untimely death. Upon entering the stage the elders of Pherae ponder whether Alcestis has already died, for the house of Admetus is enveloped in silence, and there is no clear indication of recent death (76–83, esp. 80–82, πότερον φθιμένην / χρὴ βασίλειαν πενθεῖν ἦ ζῶσ’ / ἔτι φῶς λεύσσει Πελίου τόδε παῖς, ‘whether one should mourn her or whether Pelias’ daughter still lives and looks on the light’). They continue to wonder whether the queen is alive or dead (86–140, esp. 139–140, […] εἰ δ’ ἔτ’ ἐστὶν ἔμψυχος γυνὴ / εἴτ’ οὖν ὄλωλεν εἰδέναι βουλοίμεθ’ ἄν, ‘but I would like to know whether the queen yet lives or has died’) until the Maidservant enters from the palace to satisfy their curiosity. At first she is, nonetheless, ambiguous as to the exact state of Alcestis, calling her both living and dead now that she is on the brink of death (141, καὶ ζῶσαν εἰπεῖν καὶ θανοῦσαν ἔστι σοι, ‘You might call her both living and dead’; cf. 142). A similar play on the indistinctness between life and death occurs in the scene between Admetus and Alcestis, during which Admetus sinks to the depths of despair as he realizes that life without his wife amounts to a living death; in fact, shaken by her vivid descriptions of frightening otherworldly visions, he declares that he is so dependent upon her that it is in her power whether he exists or ceases to exist (278, ἐν σοὶ δ’ ἐσμὲν καὶ ζῆν καὶ μή, ‘Whether we live or not is in your power’). Furthermore, the scene between Admetus and Heracles adds a new twist to the theme of the ambiguity between life and death; in fact, Heracles refutes Admetus’ argument that the person who is going to die is already dead, by asserting firmly that there is indeed an undeniable distinction between being and not being (527–528). Despite the slightly sophistic tone of Heracles’ counter-argument, his attempt to suggest that life and death should be considered as two completely dissimilar things is a foretoken of his heroic efforts to redraw the demarcation line separating the living from the dead by snatching Alcestis from the 15 See West (1983) 17–18; Parker (1995) 485; Graf & Johnston (2007) 64–65 and 185–186

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


terrible clutches of Thanatos. This particular ambiguity is not the easiest thing to eliminate, and the play ends with yet another assertion of the eternal intermingling of life and death; in particular, in the concluding scene Alcestis finds herself again enmeshed in a paradox of being and not being, pending ritual purification on account of her contact with netherworld powers (1144–1146). Beside the evident connection of the play with fundamental aspects of mystical lore, such as the intricate relationship of life and death, the leading characters, especially Apollo, Heracles, and most importantly, Alcestis, share common features with principal figures of Eleusinian-Orphic cult, as well as calling to mind well-known Eleusinian and Orphic traditions and fables concerning afterlife sacredness and, more generally, eschatological concerns and anxieties.16 In particular, Apollo, Demeter, and Orpheus, together with Persephone, are devoutly worshipped for offering prosperity to mortals. In the play Apollo is presented as a figure resembling both Demeter and Orpheus not only in his deeply resented marginalization in the service of a mortal master and his abundant generosity towards humans but also in his mythological and cultic associations with legendary poets and musicians. Apollo’s spell of menial servitude in the palace of Admetus brings to mind Demeter’s stay at the palace of Keleus: Demeter is giver of rich gifts to the hospitable household; she rears the son of Keleus, Demophoon, and, not unlike Apollo, tries to make him immortal to compensate for the king’s kindness and hospitality. Like Apollo, who is grieving for the loss of his son Asclepius, Demeter is mournful and enraged at the loss of her daughter Persephone. Furthermore, Apollo is closely associated with Orpheus, the mythical author of Orphic literature, which contains, among much else, theogonical, eschatological, and ritualistic texts. In Pythian 4.176 Pindar acknowledges Apollo as the father of Orpheus, the celebrated lyre player: ἐξ Ἀπόλλωνος δὲ φορμιγκτὰς ἀοιδᾶν πατήρ / ἔμολεν, εὐαίνητος Ὀρφεύς (‘And from Apollo came the father of songs, / the widely praised minstrel Orpheus’, transl. W. H. Race). In an Attic red-figure cup of ca 430 Apollo supervises Orpheus’ head singing oracles, while a youth, perhaps his son Musaeus, an important proponent of Attic and Eleusinian Orphism, is busy taking notes in a folding tablet.17 As regards Orphic textual tradition, in the play Apollo is depicted as dappling in theogonical versification; in fact, in the 16 This is certainly not to say that Admetus lacks a connection with the Eleusinian-Orphic tradition; in fact, his piety (10), strongly echoed in Bacchylides’ Ode 3 (83, ὅσια δρῶν εὔφραινε θυμόν, ed. Maehler), an epinician ode particularly concerned with eschatological issues (cf. Currie 2005, 366–368), may have mystical overtones. The piety of the initiates bulks large in the construction of the ethical sense of the Eleusinian Mysteries; for εὐσέβεια is a key element in the fifth-century conceptualization of the Mysteries as a model for social cohesion and political stability (see also Currie 2005, 386–387, drawing on Krummen 1990, 258). 17 See Graf (2009) 45–47. Cf. also Bicknell (1921) with plate XII.


 Chapter 4 Religion

Prologue his enumeration of the successive killings of Asclepius and the Cyclopes (3–9), as well as his punishment for slaughtering Zeus’ sons, reminds one of an Orphic theogony laced with vengeful carnage and divine rage preceding severe punishment and final atonement.18 Especially, the new dispensation of divine justice arising from the clash between Zeus and Apollo harks back to the opening scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, a play full to overflowing with undertows of mystical sentiments, in which Pythia, the oracular mouthpiece of Apollo, prays to the gods of Delphi, enumerating the successive divine owners of the temple (1–33). In this play the violent clash between the Elder Goddesses and Apollo paves the way for the inauguration of an important Athenian institution, the Areopagus, which marks a new phase in the complex relationships between gods and men; in fact, this novel approach to moral innocence is deeply interfused with mystical doctrines of salvation. It is important not to overlook that in this theogony-like account of divine conflicts some of the terms used to describe Apollo have mystical connotations, perhaps forming an Athenian Eleusinian-Orphic matrix as early as the beginning of the play. In particular, apart from the presence of mighty Zeus, whose name is given pride of place in the Olbia bone plates, the image of Apollo as βουκόλος (8), an appellation often employed as a cult-title of an Orphic priest or a Dionysiac worshipper, together with the emphatic reference to his wrath following from the violent death of his son (5), the word χολωθείς being used as trademark of divine power in a similar vein to analogous cult-appellations in the Orphic Hymns, prompts one to interpret the striking repetition of the significant term ὅσιος (10) as distinctively mystical inasmuch as mystical initiands are made ὅσιοι (fr. 472.15, Ar. Frogs 327, 336, Plut. fr. 178, H. Orph. 84.3, Lucian Lex. 10), as well as ἄποιν’ (7) as reminiscent of the ἄποινος μύστης of the gold plates, although the latter points to the purity of the initiand, while lacking in overtones of violence and attonement. Regarded from a wider point of view, Apollo’s servitude at the palace of Admetus strikes one as the divine archetype of prolonged survival through serfdom, highly praised by Achilles himself in Odyssey 11.489–491, where during his katabasis to the netherworld Odysseus hears the greatest Iliadic hero saying in a ruminative mood that he would rather serve a man without property as a low-paid assistant than be lord of the land of the dead (489–491, βουλοίμην κ’ ἐπάρουρος ἐὼν 18 Perhaps Apollo’s cynical suggestion that if Alcestis is allowed to die an old woman, her death will benefit Thanatos with a rich burial (line 56) would have brought to mind a rather mundane aspect of Orphic/Bacchic initiation ritual: the demand for handsome payment for services rendered. See Bremmer (1994), who, commenting on Plato’s Republic 2.364d–e, argues that Plato’s denigrating remarks about greedy Orphic initiators ‘indicate that the clientele was rich, which is confirmed by the discovery of tablets in graves of wealthy women' (p. 88).

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


θητευέμεν ἄλλῳ, / ἀνδρὶ παρ’ ἀκλήρῳ, ᾧ μὴ βίοτος πολὺς εἴη, / ἢ πᾶσιν νεκύεσσι καταφθιμένοισιν ἀνάσσειν, ‘I would rather follow the plow as thrall to another / man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on, / than be a king over all the perished dead’, transl. R. Lattimore).19 Further, the story of the deception of the Fates (12) reinforces this thread of allusion to Orphic terminology and mythology, since in the Derveni Papyrus Moira is mentioned as an important agent in the life of men, representing the executive aspect of Zeus and, by extension, identified with the father of the Olympian gods. In this respect, Apollo gravely offended his father Zeus by cheating his honourable avatars, the Fates.20 The same applies to the allusion to Zeus’ death-dealing fire bolts, for the thunderbolt, simulated by a specially designed device appropriately called ἠχεῖον or βροντεῖον, is used to frighten the initiates during the initiatory ceremony; moreover, the thunderbolt has blasted the mystical initiand of the gold leaves, and, as noted before, in the Orphic myth par excellence which clearly reflects mystical initiation the Titans are struck by a blazing thunderbolt for killing Dionysus. More generally, the fire of the thunderbolt, which is powerful enough to confer immortality on humans, symbolizes the boundaries separating gods from men.21 Therefore, one is tempted to argue that Apollo’s story of his ill-fated son Asclepius is yet another Thessalian version of the Orpheus tale, since Betegh provides sufficient evidence to support the claim that ‘Asclepius is a Thessalian hero just like Orpheus’.22 In particular, Asclepius is connected with chthonic powers, serving as a mediator between this world and the next; moreover, his affiliation to Apollo as god of healing, together with his miracle-cures and incubation oracles, all of these contributing to his reputation as a human healer of preternormal power, offer strong grounds for thinking that Asclepius comes close to being an Orphic initiator-priest.23 The theme of immortalization through fire brings to mind the deification of Heracles, another character in the play who is closely associated with Eleusinian 19 Perhaps there is another echo of the Nekyia in the image of Thanatos coming to Alcestis’ tomb to drink the blood-offering (850–851); but the funerary rite is of a totally different order. Dale (19612) ad 844 rightly advises caution against treating Thanatos’ blood-drinking as equivalent to the blood-drinking of the dead in Odyssey 11. On the other hand, Parker (2007) ad 845 remains unconvinced. 20 See Betegh (2004) 200–202. 21 See Seaford (1996) 195–197; Iakov (2000b); Betegh (2004) 332–348; Currie (2005) 385. On the widespread belief that death by lightning can lead to apotheosis, see Currie (2005) 360–363, who highlights very well the idea of Asclepius’ incineration by the thunderbolt as prefatory to divine greatness in Pindar’s Pythian 3. 22 Betegh (2004) 338. 23 See also Betegh (2004) 338.


 Chapter 4 Religion

Orphism and, more widely, with Eleusinian mythology. There is every reason for thinking that his initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries as part of his spiritual defence against the dangers of his descent to the underworld is closely linked to the widespread idea of his twelve Labours as stimulative of the moral virtue of determined courage.24 Moreover, his widespread reputation as healer, following from his functions as a warder-off of evil influences and terror of the ghost-world, brings him close to Apollo and Asclepius, the three of them forming a pattern of powerful human-loving divinities who ply their thaumaturgy all over Greece; as a matter of fact, the play chronicles how Asclepius is replaced by Heracles as an Athenian-Eleusinian man-god offering his culture-benefits to humankind, a divine and invincible helper in the needs of life. Only this time the progress from darkness to light is predicated upon moral concerns. Indeed, the suffering (μόχθος and πόνος) undergone before the final joy by the initiand is echoed in the physical strain undergone by Heracles before the final joy at the end of the play.25 Not unlike Heracles, Alcestis is inextricably linked with chthonic cult, her miraculous return from the death marking her sacramental communion with the souls of the departed; in point of fact, she has to remain speechless for three days to become purified in the sight of the underworld deities (1145–1146).26 In the play she is depicted as yet another Persephone-figure, as well as an antitype of Orpheus’ bride, Eurydice.27 In particular, her katabasis voyage to the nether regions, as well as a certain variant of her myth, in which Persephone takes pity in her and sends her back to light, is a further proof of her intimate connection with the bride of Hades. The alternative version of her story, in which the force 24 On Heracles as an Eleusinian figure, see Diodorus 4.25.1 and Apollodorus 2.5.12. Cf. also Lloyd-Jones (1990a); Johnston (1999) 132–136. 25 Perhaps the feast of Heracles carries eschatological connotations as it may echo the funeral banquet (νεκρόδειπνον or περίδειπνον) after the interment of the corpse. On these communal post-funerary meals, see Garland (20012) 39. Cf. also Kurtz & Boardman (1971). 26 It is noteworthy that Alcestis’ return from the dead by no means produces a acme of horror rising far beyond that of her untimely passing, whereas in Greek tragedy the living and the dead are often seen in a deadlock of contention gradually transfusing human life with a doctrine of despair. Cf. also Martin (2011). 27 For a tentative identification of Alcestis with the bride of Hades, see principally Müller (1825) 300–306. Given that there may have been a happily concluded version of the tale, in which Eurydice returns to the world of the living, it is reasonable to suggest that Alcestis may be a close parallel of Eurydice, or even a mythological derivative of the wider Orpheus saga. On this alternative version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, see Bowra (1952) and Segal (1989) 17–19 and (1991) 218 & 227–228, but Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 189, n. 13 cast serious doubt on its existence on the grounds that the evidence is flimsy. Furthermore, for Alcestis as a comic analogue of Aeschylus returning from the world of the dead in Aristophanes’ Frogs, a play laced with Eleusinian overtones, see Lada-Richards (1999) 256–257.

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


of Heracles is replaced by Persephone’s forgiveness and kindness to mortals, is echoed in the scene between Heracles and the Manservant. As Heracles weights his options as to what he is to do to bring Alcestis back to the world of the living, he ponders the possibility of having to descend to the underworld and plead with Hades and Persephone to release Alcestis in case Thanatos does not come to his blood feast (850–854).28 In the following pages I shall have the opportunity to discuss this significant mythological alternative in more detail, since it is mentioned in the first part of the play but under a purely Orphic guise. Further than this, and more widely, the story of Alcestis is the complete reversal of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The latter tale has it that, devastated by the untimely death of his bride, Orpheus descended to the halls of the dead in order to bring her back to the world of the living. His unmatched musical talent gained him easy access to the kingdom of Hades and Persephone, who as they were enchanted by his perfect art returned Eurydice to him under the condition that he would not look back to her during their ascent to the light. But, driven by his passionate love for his wife, Orpheus broke his promise, and so Eurydice was doomed forever.29 It is important to note that the play’s scenery is associated with religious sites in general and Attic and Eleusinian Orphism in particular, for Thessaly is a distinctively Orphic place, where many gold lamellae have been discovered, not to mention of course the burial-place of Alcestis (835–836, ὀρθὴν παρ’ οἶμον ἣ ’πὶ Λάρισαν φέρει / τύμβον κατόψῃ ξεστὸν ἐκ προαστίου, ‘You will see from the outskirts of the city, next to the straight road that leads to Larisa, a sculpted tomb’) which most probably alludes to the northern cemetery of Pherae, an important Thessalian cult-centre.30 The same applies to Thrace, so emphatically evoked in the play as the far-away destination of Heracles’ journey and wintry kingdom of blood-hungry Diomedes, inasmuch as it is famed as the land of mythical musicians, among whom Orpheus is its most celebrated son, eventually meeting a violent death in the wilderness of Thracian landscape, either by the enraged wives of the Thracians, or by the Maenads who felt nothing but hatred for the faithful 28 The variant story is found in Apollodorus 1.9.15 and Plato’s Symposium 179b5 ff. Cf. also Parker (2007) ad 851–854. More adventurously, one could detect a hint of this alternative mythical tradition in the play’s Prologue, in which Apollo tries to persuade Thanatos to set Alcestis free rather than bending Thanatos to his will by force. It is only when reason and wise words fail that Apollo falls back on Heracles to break the deadlock. 29 See Bowra (1952). 30 See Parker (2007) ad 835–6, who draws on Doulgeri-Intzessiloglou (1994) II.71–72 and Taplin (1999) 45; but she is hesitant to accept a link between Alcestis’ mythical tomb and the northern cemetery of ancient Pherae, suggesting that the connection could be unintentional given the Greek preference for building tombs beside main roads (cf. also Buckley 1900, 38, n. 46). On the cults of Pherae, see Clement (1932). On Thessaly, cf. also Westlake (1935); Archibald (2000).


 Chapter 4 Religion

follower of Apollo.31 Against this distinctly mystical background, Alcestis, like an Orphic bride, only this time destined for perennial glory, faces the ultimate challenge with iron determination and thoughtful courage. The profuse praise for her immense sacrifice foreshadows her elevation to heroic-divine status. 32 Not unlike a mystical initiand looking forward to afterworld bliss, Alcestis is emphatically depicted as a heroine-goddess, her tomb being the focus of reverence and blessedness.33 Her afterlife reputation is thrown into sharp relief by the poor reputation of Admetus and Pheres; in fact, the latter appears to be totally unconcerned about his post mortem status (290–294, 469–470), treating a dishonourable exit from this life with apathy, provided of course he obtains length of days, while the first is abashed at the prospect of public obloquy (954–959). In the play there are certain themes and images closely associated with Alcestis which makes it easier for us to believe that the mystical matrix acquires a remarkable depth of moral significance in the hands of Euripides, thereby heightening the feelings of suspense and hopefulness with which the coming crisis is anticipated, while at the same time buttressing the idea that Alcestis is destined to attain a glorified existence after death. In particular, the narrative picture of Alcestis moving round the palace in utter grief at the looming misfortune includes certain mystical traits. The myrtle-garlanded altars contribute to the Eleusinian-Orphic atmosphere, for the mystae appear crowned with myrtle in Aristophanes’ Frogs 330; moreover, the myrtle was sacred to Demeter (apud Σ Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 681), and it was also favoured for festive celebration, as line 759 makes plain, describing the inebriated Heracles garlanded with sprays of myrtle (στέφει δὲ κρᾶτα μυρσίνης κλάδοις, ‘he garlanded his head with sprays of myrtle’).34 More importantly, myrtle is particularly appropriate to the post mortem paradise flowery meadow of mystical cult because of its fragrance and its association with joyful sacrifices (cf. Wasps 861, Peace 1154, Birds 43, Thesmophoriazusae 37, 447ff.) and especially with the Eleusinian cult inasmuch as officiating priests at the Mysteries wore crowns of myrtle (Istros FGrHist 334 F 29). In addition to her ritual gestures, Alcestis is described as preparing herself for her imminent death, bathing her fair skin in fresh water and dressing herself in the appropriate fine apparel (158–161). These purifications and adornments,

31 Cf. Stronk (1995) 39–58 with an exhaustive list of ancient sources. On the popularity of Thracian Orpheus throughout the Greek world, see recently Theodossiev (1996), (2000), and (2002); Archibald (1998). Cf. also Isaac (1986); Fol, Lichardus & Nikolov (2004). 32 Cf. also Larson (1995) 147. 33 On the close association of Alcestis with male epic heroes, see Garner (1988); Bassi (1989) 25–26; O’Higgins (1993) 91; Lyons (1997); Lange (2002) 223–231; Kyriakou (2008) 265–266. 34 See Dale (19612) ad 172; Parker (2007) ad 172.

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


typically reserved for a corpse and by no means a living woman, have a mystical significance, for the initiate puts on a funerary dress to attend the initiation ceremony; in fact, initiatory rites are interpreted as a kind of ritual death leading up to a new life. This reversal of the funerary ritual is not unusual in Greek tragedy, especially when dramatic characters prepare themselves for their impending doom in a mystical context, Oedipus’ mortuary garments in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus 1597–1603 being a case in point.35 The care with which Alcestis selects her death raiment reminds one of the lasting significance linen garments acquired for the initiands, who often dedicated them in temples in order to commemorate their renewed existence, or were even buried in them. Furthermore, when Alcestis enters for the first time from the palace door supported by servants, she calls upon the Sun, the light of day, and the clouds in the sky to witness her ordeal (244–245, Ἅλιε καὶ φάος ἁμέρας / οὐράνιαί τε δῖναι νεφέλας δρομαίου, ‘O sun god, light of day, eddies of whirling clouds in the sky!’).36 Her invocation of the sun light and the scudding clouds, perhaps together with the earlier reference to the ray and orb of the sun (208, ἀκτῖνα κύκλον θ’ ἡλίου προσόψεται, ‘she will look upon the ray and orb of the sun’), are suggestive of mystical cosmology.37 In particular, at Frogs 454–455 the Chorus of initiates sing of the light in the underworld. Moreover, Dale convincingly suggests that the eddies of racing clouds ‘can hardly have failed to convey to the intelligent listener an allusion to the up-to-date cosmologies of Anaxagoras (cf. the περιχώρησις), Empedocles (οὐρανία φορά) and Leucippus (δῖνος), the views later expounded by the Socrates of the Clouds’, while Parker elaborates on this observation, arguing that ‘δίνη is the “cosmic vortex” of Empedocles, and, in the later fifth century, the initial whirl of atoms of Leucippus and Democritus’.38 The scene of Alcestis’ visionary psychic experience, especially lines 252–271, is an unmistakable reflection of the first phase of initiation during which the initiate is disorientated, frightened, and sees apparitions and divine epiphanies or hears the voice of god. One is tempted to see a recasting of this scene in Sopho35 See Markantonatos (2002) 213 with further bibliography. Cf. also Swift (2010) 351 and (2012). 36 Cf. also Schmitt (1921) 48; Parisinou (2000) 60–72; Rehm (2002) 257, who underlines the constrast between the sunlight and the gloomy halls of the dead. On δῖναι, see Egli (2003) 46. 37 Lines 207–208 are problematic, in that they resurface at Euripides’ Hecuba 411–412, where they make much more sense; Lachmann deleted line 208, while Valckenaer went so far as to delete both lines. See Parker (2007) ad 207–208, who offers a detailed discussion of the problem. Cf. also Gigante (1951), who defends the manuscript tradition. 38 See Dale (1954) ad 245 and Parker (2007) ad 245. It should be noted that Socrates at Clouds 380 explains that it is the αἰθέριος δῖνος that drives the clouds round, while in the avian cosmogony at Birds 697, Eros (again recalling Empedocles) is said to be εἰκώς ἀνεμώκεσι δίναις. Cf. also Anemogiannis-Sinanidis (1978) 49–75.


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cles’ Oedipus at Colonus 1626–1628, where the god impatiently summons Oedipus to follow him to the underworld; again here the commanding voice of god intensifies the mystical atmosphere of Oedipus’ heroization in a manner similar to the Bacchic god in Euripides’ Bacchae. Further than this, the phantoms frequenting Alcestis’ horrifying visions reinforce the mystical thread that runs throughout the scene, placing special emphasis on the elevated status of Alcestis. The presence of Charon, Hades, and Death denote an honourable passing. As regards the presence of Charon (252–257), Sourvinou-Inwood points out that ‘Charon almost entirely lacks genealogical connections and he is only associated with one myth, told in a katabasis ascribed to Orpheus [i.e. Servius ad Vergil Aeneid 6.392]; Charon, out of fear, had ferried Heracles into Hades when the hero had come to fetch Cerberus, and was punished for this dereliction of duty by spending a year in fetters’.39 Moreover, Charon and Hermes were protective figures of reassurance. In Pindar fr. 143 the image ‘escaping Acheron’s ferry’ expresses immortality and divinity. The concept of a journey of Hades (not unlike the journey of the initiand) creates a different reality, in which death can be invoked and propitiated in the person of Charon, who was indeed perceived as a supportive figure. Alcestis makes mention of a terrible ὁδός and divine beings leading her to the underworld (259–263). Leading suggests the mystagogue of the initiate, and the route trodden by the initiands is mentioned in the Hipponion gold tablet found in the cist-grave of a woman and dated to around 400 BCE (καὶ δὲ καὶ σὺ πιὸν ὁδὸν ἔρχεα, ‘And you, too, having drunk, will go along the sacred road’, transl. S. I. Johnston), while the concept of the passageway to the abode of the dead is reminiscent of Heracles’ rough and uphill path to heroization and deification (cf. lines 489 and 500).40 Similarly, in line 279 (and line 1060) the verb σέβομαι is a strong word, typically used in connection with the divine (‘to worship’). Admetus feels that Alcestis deserves to be honoured for her sacrifice; he goes so far as to declare that her death has taken away his joy in life, and so he will be content with lying in bed with a painted statue of Alcestis fashioned by capable craftsmen (348–356). It has been suggested that ‘here perhaps Admetus is really promising to establish a cult of Alcestis in his house to do the greater honour to her memory’.41 Moreover, Admetus’ peculiar idea of reviving the memory of his wife brings to mind the tale of Protesilaus, another Thessalian story, in which Laodameia in her grief made an image in her husband’s likeness.42 In this case Hermes played 39 Sourvinou-Inwood (1995) 308. 40 On the Hipponion gold tablet, see Graf & Johnston (2007) 4–5. 41 See Harsh (1944) 169, who follows Wilamowitz (1899–1923) III.91, n.1. 42 For opposing views on the painted statue of Alcestis, see (e.g.) on the one hand Rose (1927) 58 and Grube (19612) 136, who place emphasis on Admetus’ uncontrollable grief, as well as on

II. Death is Death is Life: Eleusinian Orphism and Moral Courage 


the role of the enforcer of the proper division between the two worlds in Euripides’ Protesilaus, accompanying Protesilaus on his anabasis and ensuring his return to Hades. In both tales the union of husband and wife in the netherworld can be interpreted as a mystical wedding (hieros gamos) bringing together votaries and infernal powers, life and death; in fact, it has been argued that during the Eleusinian ceremony the high priest of the Mysteries was united in a symbolic marriage to Persephone. Similarly, in an extremely emotional declaration Admetus asks his dying wife to wait for him in the underworld, where they will live together in their own dwelling (363–364, ἀλλ’ οὖν ἐκεῖσε προσδόκα μ’, ὅταν θάνω / καὶ δῶμ’ ἑτοίμαζ’, ὡς συνοικήσουσά μοι, ‘But now wait for me to arrive there when I die / and prepare a home where you may dwell with me’).43 The theme of Alcestis’ apotheosis as a mystical elevation to the afterlife brilliance of higher being reaches its climax in lines 995–1005: μηδὲ νεκρῶν ὡς φθιμένων χῶμα νομιζέσθω 995 τύμβος σᾶς ἀλόχου, θεοῖσι δ’ ὁμοίως τιμάσθω, σέβας ἐμπόρων. καί τις δοχμίαν κέλευθον 1000 έμβαίνων τόδ’ ἐρεῖ· αὕτα ποτὲ προύθαν’ ἀνδρός, νῦν δ’ ἔστι μάκαιρα δαίμων· χαῖρ’, ὦ πότνι’, εὖ δὲ δοίης. τοίᾳ νιν προσεροῦσι φήμᾳ. 1005 (995–1005) the excessiveness of his mournful protestations, and on the other hand Drew (1931), Beye (1959) 114, n. 10, Barnes (1968) 28, Ahl (1997) 12, and Luschnig & Roisman (2003) 188–189, who consider the idea of the statue completely ludicrous and inappropriate. Cf. also Vernant (1980) 310–311; Franco (1984); Ketterer (1990); Pedraza (2001); Wright (2005) 316–317. Despite the fact that the image of Admetus lying in bed with a painted simulacrum of his late wife holds the potential of the horrifyingly derisory, not to say the sexually deviant, it would be unwise to read too much into the comic aspect of the idea, given that it chimes in with the preceding score of his hyperbolic proclamations that he will lead a perennially miserable life inside the palace without friendly company and merriment. It should be admitted that Admetus’ expression of profound devotion to Alcestis has a touch of strangeness which helps to bring home the inward intensity and energy of his earnest thoughts, but also can be made a ground for doubting his sincerity. Cf. also Scully (1986) 14–142, who argues that Admetus’ extreme declarations can only be understood in the context of the Greek system of reciprocity; Stieber (1998) and (2011), who places emphasis on the erotic nature of Admetus’ promise; Padilla (2000); Pedraza (2001); Gounaridou (1998) 27–37, who offers an interesting reading of Admetus’ morbid plan along the lines of Plato’s representational theories; Hall (2010) 241. 43 On this funerary motif, see Valgiglio (1966) 51–52.


 Chapter 4 Religion

Let not the grave of your wife be regarded as the funeral mound of the dead departed but let her be honored as are the gods, an object of reverence to the wayfarer. Someone walking a winding path past her tomb shall say, “This woman died in the stead of her husband, and now she is a blessed divinity. Hail, Lady, and grant us your blessing!” With such words will they address her.

Sourvinou-Inwood rightly argues that this passage serves as a deification acclamation; in fact, μάκαιρα δαίμων (1003) leaves no room for doubt as to the godlike status awaiting Alcestis after death.44 The extraordinary commendation defines the divine role of Alcestis as blessed daemon: she will become an object of reverence for wayfarers, σέβας (999), just like Hermes is κηρύκων σέβας in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon 515. The use of χαῖρε strengthens the idea that Alcestis will attain (semi-)divine status or at least a higher rank after death (cf. also lines 626–627, 743; and Alcestis’ χαῖρε in lines 389 and 391).45 This kind of salutation, combined with the ritual greeting ὦ πότνια (1004), which is frequently employed in connection with Olympian goddesses and, more generally, female divine beings, was until the early fourth century BCE associated on the one hand with the living and on the other with dead people of special standing in sharp contrast to the ordinary dead.46 Seaford is adamant that the makarismos of Alcestis is mystical on account of the telling references to permanent happiness and blessing.47 It is worth noting that the traveller treading the sloping path reminds one of doleful Demeter wandering in search of her daughter, as well as the mystical initiand toiling his way to the Eleusinian sanctuary, while the public praise of Alcestis, emphatically cast in direct speech, is thrown into sharp relief by the severe censure in store for Admetus, presented in direct speech as well (954–960).48 44 Sourvinou-Inwood (1995) 197; cf. also Pulleyn (1997) 119, who is right to suggest that Alcestis will become ‘an object of worship for anybody, not just her immediate kin’. 45 See Sourvinou-Inwood (1995) 180–200, 210–216 & 368–369, (2003) 319; but Parker (2007) ad 626–627 remains highly sceptical of Sourvinou-Inwood’s claim that before the fourth century BCE χαῖρε was addressed only to the exceptional dead. On Greek forms of address, see Dickey (1996). 46 See Parker (2007) ad 1004. 47 Seaford (1996) 221. 48 It should be noted that Admetus’ painful moment of realization (940, ἄρτι μανθάνω), couched in distinctly fifth-century language but echoing broader Homeric exemplars, intensifies the mystic tone of the scene, given that the Eleusinian-Orphic soteriological feeling emanates from the hopeful prospect of final revelation through instruction, as the mystical truth bursts on the initiand’s mental pictures and understanding at the close of the initiation ceremony. Cf. Bruit Zaidman & Schmitt Pantel (1992) 139, who are right to suggest that ‘[i]nitiation in the Mysteries […] did not involve instruction of a dogmatic nature, but was rather a process of internal

III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation 


III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation In addition to the preceding Eleusinian-Orphic themes which justify the speculation about contemporary religious correlatives to the characters’ case, while simultaneously bringing heroic subjects into the political present of fifth-century democratic Athens, there are points in the play at which the mystical motif is laid on with a much heavier hand, the result being that this religious machinery of soteriological pledges becomes a focal point of civic experience for the original audience. For it should be said that, while scene after scene darkens into the sinister through a skilful manipulation of embedded narrative modes, Alcestis flings her unconquered conscience in the face of death, thereby ungluing herself from the vanities which imperil the moral fabric of her existence. But all throughout the play strong remains the emphasis on the futility of metaphysical values, especially mystical advantages in the afterlife, as Admetus and the Chorus are adamant that there is no escape from all-mighty Death. It is made abundantly clear that for Alcestis’ heroic triumph to be complete, as well as for Heracles’ moral determination to be widely acknowledged, religious systems of soteriological consolation need to prove their claims. These carriers embodying the comforting conceptions of next world blessedness for the virtuous are closely interwoven with the discourse regime of Athenian democracy, which promotes heroism by battling the all-too-human tendency to mow away all value in a world caught in the grip of death. Not unlike the funeral laudations for the war dead, which aim to buttress the dignity and self-respect of the Athenian people, the Attic Eleusinian-Orphic tradition serves as an inexhaustible source of valuating the world. Both funeral oratory and mystical doctrine form an elaborate system of explanations about the worth of sacrifice against disproving evidence.49 They fight against a mood of despair over the emptiness or triviality of human existence by advancing a vision of truth and right that reaches beyond our earthly life. This is the reason why Euripides is concerned not only with the colossal act of Alcestis’ self-denial but also with her miraculous return to the world of the living, the latter being an transformation’. There is also here an important Bacchic connection with Euripidean Agave, who not unlike Admetus enters on a new and deeper vein of contemplation after recognizing the destructive hand of Dionysus in the ruination of the Theban royal family (Bacchae 1296, Διόνυσος ἡμᾶς ὤλεσ’, ἄρτι μανθάνω, ‘Dionysos destroyed us, now I realize’ [transl. R. Seaford]), Cf. also Dodds (19602) ad 1296–1298; Segal (1982) 316–318, who lays undue emphasis on the ineffectiveness of human knowledge; Gould (1983) 41; Nussbaum (1986) 45; Seaford (1996) ad 1296; Markantonatos (2002) 210–211; Parker (2007) ad 939–940. 49 See principally Markantonatos (2012c) esp. 27–32.


 Chapter 4 Religion

incontrovertible proof that mystical anticipations and motivations are uniquely realistic despite the dominant narrative vision of permanent future unhappiness. When religious belief is disturbed and the spell of tradition is broken, pessimistic fatalism takes over and in this aspect the old dark belief in divine malignity commends itself afresh. The double turn of the play, upending a narrative world of perennial suffering, assures the audience of the factuality of mystical conceptions, and other social and political safeguards for group cohesion and survival. Otherwise, human beings could not endure that their struggle to survive had no meaning. In the following passages, in which the legitimacy of the metaphysical argument becomes questionable, it will be apparent, I venture to hope, that the narrational perspective of the play opens up to admit flashes of genuinely contemporary Eleusinian-Orphic ideas and traditions of deep political moment through direct reference to Orpheus, the primeval healer, and a pattern of underworld divinities intimately associated with Orphic lore. To be specific, in the play the Attic Eleusinian-Orphic promise of deliverance from death is consistently challenged, while Alcestis’ undying reputation is unanimously recognized.50 Although Alcestis’ profound and self-sacrificing love is to be rewarded with the heroic privilege of an honoured tomb, the Eleusinian-Orphic pledge of salvation is not given a grand heightening in view of the incontrovertibility of the disaster at Pherae. In particular, faced with his wife’s imminent passing, Admetus drifts into poetic fantasy, only to admit, in the most poignant of ways, his inability to rescue Alcestis from death. He invokes the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Hades; the story is, however, nothing more than another relentless play on his enormous loss and absolute hopelessness. It appears that the uplifting message of Orphic-Dionysiac bliss is seriously undermined by the immediate anxieties of the following scenes, where cross-currents of desperation and conflict offset the validity of any promising prospect of mystical release: εἰ δ’ Ὀρφέως μοι γλῶσσα καὶ μέλος παρῆν, ὥστ’ ἢ κόρην Δήμητρος ἢ κείνης πόσιν ὕμνοισι κηλήσαντά σ’ ἐξ Ἅιδου λαβεῖν, κατῆλθον ἄν, καὶ μ’ οὔθ’ ὁ Πλούτωνος κύων 360 οὔθ’ οὑπὶ κώπῃ ψυχοπομπὸς ἂν Χάρων ἔσχ’ ἄν, πρίν ἐς φῶς σὸν καταστῆσαι βίον. (357–362)

50 For some preliminary thoughts, see Markantonatos (2009a). For a general discussion of Orphic echoes in Greek tragedy, see Markantonatos (2009c).

III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation 


If I had the voice and music of Orpheus so that I could charm Demeter’s daughter or her husband with song and fetch you from Hades, I would have gone down to the Underworld, and neither Pluto’s hound nor Charon the ferryman of souls standing at the oar would have kept me from bringing you back to the light alive.

The theme of Alcestis’ immortal honour is given more reinforcement in the second stasimon; the same applies to Orphic-like images of divine grandeur in the third stasimon, in which Apollo is presented as another Orpheus through his charming of wild beasts with music.51 It is worth remarking that from this time forth in the play the Chorus becomes the poet’s main vehicle for the Eleusinian-Orphic motifs, adding layer upon layer of mystical connotations, which are more or less suggestive depending on the spectator’s breadth and responsiveness of interpretation and experience in mystery cults:52 πολλά σε μουσοπόλοι 445 μέλψουσι καθ’ ἑπτάτονόν τ’ ὀρείαν χέλυν ἔν τ’ ἀλύροις κλέοντες ὕμνοις, Σπάρτᾳ κυκλὰς ἁνίκα Καρνείου περινίσεται ὥρα μηνός, ἀειρομένας 450 παννύχου σελάνας, λιπαραῖσί τ’ ἐν ὀλβίαις Ἀθάναις, τοίαν ἔλιπες θανοῦσα μολπὰν μελέων ἀοιδοῖς. (445–454) Poets shall sing often in your praise both on the seven-stringed mountain tortoise shell and in songs unaccompanied by the lyre when at Sparta the month of Carnea comes circling round and the moon is aloft the whole night long, and also in rich, gleaming Athens. Such is the theme for song that you have left for poets by your death.

The imminent transformation of Alcestis into the radiance of privileged being, duly celebrated at the Carnean festival of Apollo at Sparta and the dramatic festivals of Athens, introduces with particular emphasis the hopeful expectation of heroic merit into the play.53 51 See also Thorburn (2000). 52 Cf. also Sourvinou-Inwood (2003) 318. 53 See di Benedetto (1971) 241–242; Conacher (19932) ad 448–9; Parker (2007) ad 448–9. See also Rabinowitz (1999) 102, who argues that despite the all-male character of the festival, Alcestis


 Chapter 4 Religion

Against a background of gloomy sadness, the uplifting forecast of Alcestis’ immortal renown prepares the ear for another laudation – this time the Chorus chant a short farewell to Alcestis, in which they refer to the prospect of afterlife rewards for the morally impeccable (741–746; cf. 463).54 It is significant that the Eleusinian-Orphic matrix of this emotional apostrophe is given continuity and tension through the climactic mention of Persephone. At the end of the choral address, Alcestis is deemed worthy of becoming the attendant and counsellor of the bride of Hades. This is strongly reminiscent of Orphic lore, in which Persephone consistently shows her motherly care for the initiates. According to the Chorus, Alcestis is to enjoy the goodwill of Persephone, who not unlike Minos or Rhadamanthys acts as judge of the dead, thereby granting preferential treatment to the virtuous in the infernal regions: ἰὼ ἰώ. σχετλία τόλμης, ὦ γενναία καὶ μέγ’ ἀρίστη, χαῖρε· πρόφρων σε χθόνιός θ’ Ἑρμῆς Ἅιδης τε δέχοιτ’. εἰ δέ τι κἀκεῖ πλέον ἔστ’ ἀγαθοῖς, τούτων μετέχουσ’ Ἅιδου νύμφῃ παρεδρεύοις. (741–746) Alas, alas! O resolute in courage, heart noble and generous, farewell! May Hermes of the Underworld and Hades receive you kindly! And if in that place the good have any advantage, may you have a share in it and sit as attendant beside Hades’ bride!

As we have already mentioned, in this play we find significant close parallels to certain aspects of the Orpheus myth, but always with a sign of cancellation and ambivalence. Not until the concluding scene with the impressive regaining of the queen from the underworld do we fully grasp the further purposes of the Orphic

might have had a heroic celebration. Cf. also Pettersson (1992) ch. 3. Similarly, Rutherford (2001) 32, discussing the reference to the παιάν-singing at the Spartan Carnea, suggests that ‘Alcestis is worthy of being honoured as a man in death, unlike her feckless husband’. One wonders whether κυκλὰς (448), meaning ‘the circling month of Carnea’, hints at the performance of kuklioi khoroi at the Carnea festival in honour of Alcestis (cf. also Fearn 2007, 230, n. 9, who does not exclude the possibility that ‘kuklioi khoroi were a feature of the Karneia too’). Moreover, Rehm (2003) 125 notes that ‘Alcestis’ singular act of dying for her husband will last forever by returning annually, much like a Christian saint’s day, when martyrdom and miracle come around each year and are celebrated in the liturgy’. 54 On heroic reputation, see Ekroth (2007) and (2009). Cf. also Ehnmark (1948).

III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation 


implications. It is, nonetheless, worth noting that in one particular case the recall of Orphic tales obviously means us to see the pronounced streak of hopefulness and glory running through the mystical promises. The familiar image of Orpheus charming the beasts with his music is echoed in the choral description of Apollo, a divinity that through his association with Asclepius and his life-saving offer to Admetus is pictured as a most compassionate figure in the play; in fact, with the conceptualization of Apollo as the doublet of Orpheus in his wondrous singing Euripides can infix and drive home the impression, so widespread and so culturally embedded in ancient Greece, that musical festivity holds a singularly life-fostering power. His depiction as a shepherd playing the lyre while the wild animals dance round him is not in any way purposely emphasized only to be frustrated: ὦ πολύξεινος καὶ ἐλευθέρου ἀνδρὸς ἀεί ποτ’ οἶκος, σέ τοι καὶ ὁ Πύθιος εὐλύρας Ἀπόλλων 570 ἠξίωσε ναίειν, ἔτλα δὲ σοῖσι μηλονόμας ἐν νομοῖς γενέσθαι, δοχμιᾶν διὰ κλειτύων 575 βοσκήμασι σοῖσι συρίζων ποιμνίτας ὑμεναίους. σὺν δ’ ἐποιμαίνοντο χαρᾷ μελέων βαλιαί τε λύγκες, ἔβα δὲ λιποῦσ’ Ὄθρυος νάπαν λεόντων 580 ἁ δαφοινὸς ἴλα· χόρευσε δ’ ἀμφὶ σὰν κιθάραν, Φοῖβε, ποικιλόθριξ νεβρὸς ὑψικόμων πέραν 585 βαίνουσ’ ἐλατᾶν σφυρῷ κούφῳ χαίρουσ’ εὔφρονι μολπᾷ. (569–587) O house of an ever hospitable and generous man, even Pythian Apollo of the lovely lyre deigned to dwell in you and submitted to become a shepherd in your pastures, playing on his pipe mating songs for your herds on the slanting hillsides. Under his shepherd care, in joy at his songs, were also spotted lynxes, and there came, leaving the vale of Othrys, a pride of tawny lions, and the dappled fawn stepping beyond the tall fir trees with its light foot danced to your lyre-playing, Apollo, rejoicing in its joyful melody.


 Chapter 4 Religion

The audience would be hard-pressed not to make connections between the representation of Apollo as supernatural shepherd and the well-known tale of Orpheus as charmer of beasts.55 There is, moreover, some likelihood in the suggestion that the references to the Thessalian meadows and hillsides, where Apollo rejoices in music-making, are evocative of the holy grove of Eleusinian-Orphic lore, a prominent component of infernal topography and an essential symbol of agrarian fecundity, so congruous with the cult of Demeter as goddess of the harvest who presides over grains and the fertility of the earth. In the following passage, however, the force of Eleusinian-Orphic redemption comes with a sense of painful obscurity, highlighting the difficulty of understanding the mystical assurances in the face of the inescapability of death and the unpredictability of human fortunes:56 ἐγὼ καὶ διὰ μούσας καὶ μετάρσιος ᾖξα, καὶ πλείστων ἁψάμενος λόγων κρεῖσσον οὐδὲν Ἀνάγκας 965 ηὗρον οὐδέ τι φάρμακον Θρῄσσαις ἐν σανίσιν, τὰς Ὀρφεία κατέγραψεν γῆρυς, οὐδ’ ὅσα Φοῖβος Ἀσκληπιάδαις ἔδωκε 970 φάρμακα πολυπόνοις ἀντιτεμὼν βροτοῖσιν. (962–972) I have soared aloft with poetry and with high thought, and though I have laid my hand to many a reflection, I have found nothing stronger than Necessity, nor is there any cure for it in the Thracian tablets set down by the voice of Orpheus nor in all the simples which Phoebus harvested in aid of trouble-ridden mortals and gave to the sons of Asclepius.

The reference to Orphic writings, not at all unique in Euripides in view of Hippolytus 952–954 (ἤδη νυν αὔχει καὶ δι’ ἀψύχου βορᾶς / σίτοις καπήλευ’ Ὀρφέα τ’ 55 Cf. Segal (1982) 74–75, who places special emphasis on Orpheus’ music as ‘a potentially ordering, peace-bringing, and therefore civilizing force’ (p. 75). On the accumulation of visual detail, see Fairclough (1897) 51; Barlow (1971) 18–19. 56 The Chorus accept their defeat with resignation, hence their attempt to offer a ‘consolation’ example of far greater familial disaster in lines 903–906; see Hodler (1956) 161–162 on the Chorus’ striking diction; Hultin (1965); Johann (1968); Parker (2007) ad 903–906.

III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation 


ἄνακτ’ ἔχων / βάκχευε πολλῶν γραμμάτων τιμῶν καπνούς, ‘Continue then your confident boasting, adopt a meatless diet and play the showman with your food, make Orpheus your lord and engage in mystical rites, holding the vaporings of many books in honor’, transl. D. Kovacs), where Theseus compares Hippolytus to a hypocritical Orphic eating a vegetarian diet, presses the point that Orphism is closely associated with Orphic literature; in fact, there can be little doubt that Orphic tenets gained widespread reputation by being recorded in writing.57 More importantly, it has been rightly argued that the ‘voice of Orpheus’ is a peculiar turn of phrase, perhaps evoking the image of the torn head of Orpheus singing oracles.58 This allusion to the oracle-mongering head of Orpheus, together with the reference to the concept of ἀνάγκη, which emerges three times in the Derveni Papyrus (8.13, 13.6, 25.7) and is here conveniently assimilated with Thanatos himself as a stern deity without cult (973–975), totally impervious to human requests for mercy, not to mention of course the miracle-cures of Apollo and Asclepius, encapsulates with unprecedented emphasis the pervading conflict between metaphysical values and harsh reality, the condition of acute tension, as the stillness of death conquers individuality.59 Soon enough Heracles will re-establish a system of powerful mystical symbols, inseparable from and determined by the Athenian political context, which will distinguish ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’; in fact, with the sheer force of his preternatural courage he will disperse all lingering doubts about non-rationalized and non-proven mystical assertions of human consolation. There is, therefore, in my opinion, enough evidence to substantiate the idea that in the last movement of the play Euripides wishes to probe the obscurities and difficulties of mystical salvation. The old men’s aggravated distress over Alcestis’ untimely passing gives rise to gloomy thoughts about mortality. The audience are free to speculate about the validity of the Chorus’ brooding reflections on human limitations and the invincibility of death. Although it is possible to exaggerate the significance of the sceptical statements, it should be emphasized that the extraordinary resurrection of Alcestis attempts to prove the truths of the Eleusinian-Orphic pledges. No one can deny that the gigantic mystery of Alcestis’ return from the lowlands of the departed, coming as it does in the wake

57 Cf. Egli (2003) 15–20. On hieroi logoi, see recently Baumgarten (1998). 58 See Parker (2007) ad 966–969. Cf. also Hall (1999) 114. 59 On the concept of ἀνάγκη in Euripides, see Jessen (1843) 8–12; Thomson (1898) 23; Jones (1906) esp. 28–29; Beers (1914) 65–67; Shelley (1919) 15; Busch (1937). Cf. also Otto (1955) 261– 286; Schreckenberg (1964) 73–75; Parry (1978) 156–157; Riemer (1989) 107–109; Hose (1991) 208; Mikalson (1991) 26–28; Pucci (1994) and (2005); Furley (1999–2000) 193; Susanetti (2001) 258– 261; Seaford (2004) 239; Bezantakos (2004) 33–37; Wallace (2007) 137–145.


 Chapter 4 Religion

of Heracles’ moral rearmament and Admetus’ emotional collapse, introduces a perspective above and beyond the personal or merely human.60 It reveals coherence and closure in impossibly complex events; most unexpectedly, the confirmation of the Eleusinian-Orphic vision comes as a terminal structuring moment of revelation in a morally insoluble situation.61 We may even suggest that to the audience it is also clear that the high merit of self-sacrificing Alcestis, with all its mystical reverberations, has an enormous impact on the ethical illumination of Heracles and Admetus. As we have already noted in the previous chapters, compared with Alcestis’ vast altruism, the self-gratifying observations of Heracles and the lamentable weakness of Admetus attract severe criticism. Further reflection, however, shows that, regardless of such contrasting sentiments as cheerful Epicureanism and unalleviated gloom, both Heracles and Admetus are ready to espouse profound ideas about the compassionate understanding of human transience and frailty through a hope-frustrating but soul-perfecting process.62 In the scene of Heracles’ drunken caterwauling, the disapproving remarks of the Servant have a sobering effect on the hero (747–772, 803–804). Similarly, the final movement of the play with all its references to the impending tidal wave of social censure (954–961) stretches Admetus’ sufferings to their fullest possible pitch in his painful recognition that Alcestis in death is happier than he in life (935–936). Despite the long series of ominous prolepses foreshadowing a world without meaning, Heracles’ amazing feat allows Admetus to resume his life in a happier mood. Evidently Admetus can endure the capriciously varying course of human fortune, especially now that he knows all too well that his struggle has some meaning. More generally, Religion and Poetry share the same potential: they enable humans to cross the boundaries of their existence, defy the finality of death, and imagine themselves as supernatural beings. In both the play and Attic Eleusinian-Orphism death is finally defeated. It is surely no accident that Heracles, the ultimate human being, destined to ascend the heroic scale into Olympian grandeur, overpowers Thanatos; as a matter of fact, as he does not have to descend to the underworld to plead with Persephone for the release of Alcestis, his victory is mostly physical, without however being thoughtlessly forceful and intellectually

60 See also Segal (1992a) and (1992b). 61 On the play’s big complex of moral issues, see above in chapter 3 and relevant footnotes, in addition to (e.g.) Burnett (1965); Lloyd (1985); Gregory (1991) 19–49; Goldfarb (1992), who draws on Arrowsmith (1963); Rabinowitz (1993), 66–99; Rehm (1994) 84–96; Ferrari (2004) 258–260. 62 See also Ehrenberg (19732) 253, who rightly points out that knowledge comes to Admetus rather late though not too late that ‘to be alive in unhappiness may not be preferable to death’ (esp. line 940, ἄρτι μανθάνω).

III. Death is Death is Life: Alcestis, Athens, and Mystical Salvation 


unexamined. But this does not by any means detract from the mystical significance of the play; nor does it force the miraculous events at Pherae to lose some of their metaphysical fire. In fact, the moral ramifications of the play’s double turn are so widespread that the abiding consciousness of the overhanging doom gives way to the optimistic realization that the predominant misery of human life is less impregnable, the absoluteness of Necessity is less unconquerable, and the unpredictably shifting moods of the gods are less unfathomable. One does not need to look far for the political relevance of the play to an Athenian audience; for Euripides put on stage certain figures in an Eleusinian-Orphic mode in order to drive home with emphatic force the fact that the unfailing celebration of lives devoted to self-denying labours, as well as the perpetuation of death-defeating mystical traditions, promotes the essence of the heroic outlook, so important for the survival of the Athenian polis, namely that indefatigable pursuit of honour through ingenious endeavour and unwavering courage. Attic tragedy and religion were important safeguards against ethical dissolution, glorifying projections of civic power and duty in the face of death, dissipating every scruple and doubt about the Greek fundamental moral certainty that reputation and high merit are of more account than life itself. In particular, mystical legend enhanced a set of values and axioms one subscribed to as a citizen of Athens, in that the Eleusinian-Orphic soteriology, so much praised in the play in spite of myth-destroying cynicism and hope-frustrating realism, integrated human suffering into the civic universe of the polis.

Conclusion So ends my exploration of what a narratological study of Euripides’ Alcestis can tell us not only about the interpretation of the play and its complex network of themes and images but also about the explicatory potency of narrative theory per se. My aim was by no means to attempt a summation of scholarly opinion on Euripides’ earliest surviving tragedy; nor did I try to offer a detailed taxonomy of the play’s narrative techniques and devices. Commencing from the widely-held view, so lamentably ignored within the domain of Classics, that a narratology of drama should be predicated upon the notion of narrative as verbal, as well as visual, rendition of a story, I have contextualized the play in terms of its reception by the audience, locating the intricate narrative tropes of the plot in the dynamics of fifth-century Athenian mythology and religion. For there is no reason to doubt that Euripides could surely rely upon his audiences to respond to his mythological and religious clues, enlivening the whole fabric of topical intertexts with a masterly management of subordinate narrative lines recounting and reassessing the meaning of the past, present, and future of the staged action. Euripides’ Alcestis partly owes its uniqueness to the injection of intense and sustained mythological and mystical interest into a narratologically composite story haunted by conflicting passions, and evolving under oracular dooms and aspirations. The hopeful conclusion of the play is, nonetheless, proof enough that the element of mythological accomplishment and mystical salvation is not of itself belittled, but it is brought into relation with the actual failings, and yet the unmistakable qualities, of Admetus and Heracles. The play implies a constant inspection and criticism of mythological paradigms and mystical experiences, but it also contains an awareness of the possible distortions effected by unreflective pessimism and mindless pleasure-seeking, gloomy dejection and senseless self-satisfaction. It is no accident that when the time comes the vehement criticism of society, accentuated by the tormenting knowledge of Alcestis’ immense sacrifice, helps to bring about the moral awakening and intellectual recovery of Admetus and Heracles. Both characters – principally Admetus who undergoes a most unexpected transition from unimaginable sorrow to indescribable joy – have been profoundly altered by their experience; there is no doubt that their transformation brings to mind similar spiritual alterations accomplished by mystical initiation. It is therefore apparent to me that the happy ending of the play with its hopeful prospect of domestic bliss and communal enjoyment relieves the mass and weight of this crisis, especially coming as it does after a series of unfortunate and distressing events that left the principal characters surrounded with sorrows, overwhelmed with miseries, and entirely swallowed up with terror and dismay.



More importantly, it reinforces the mystical promise of Orpheus, as well as the Heraclean example of human endurance in the face of adversity – both of them being genuinely Greek ideals of civilized living – and with that all similar promises of upperworld endurance and netherworld bliss, which were disturbed at critical moments by forebodings and misgivings, while at the same time it brings out with vivid force the moral issues deeply rooted in this extraordinary kind of heroic and religious pledge. It is my view that in the mythical person of Alcestis Euripides found a welcome paradigm of mystical heroism in the face of necessity and, what is more, he found a memorable mythological example of ethical living that cuts across a wide variety of mystical values, mostly Eleusinian, Bacchic, and Orphic, as those were merged into one another in fifth-century Athens. And it would be therefore hard to deny that through the inculcation of deep moral ideas Euripides had shown himself to be a teacher of men, a true ‘stage philosopher’. For the heart-thought of his play comes out as the result of the wide intermixture of heroic aspirations, mysteric feelings, and moral reflections. In plain prose, according to this combination of prima facie irreconcilable elements (that is, the irresistible yearning for some sort of post mortem continuity and the thoughtful recognition of life’s impermanence) the terror that death unfailingly strikes into the heart of poor mortals need not force them to either succumb to total desperation and boundless despondency or settle back into convenient complacency and inappropriate cheerfulness – Alcestis’ ethical bravery introduces a third way to a dignified existence above and below the earth by investing the notion of human survival with a particular ethical charge. Her way is emotional and instinctive, as well as rational and insightful, and it leads to her death; yet, in the end the forces of moral decision in the play speak for her: Heracles with his heroic aspiration and endeavour, Admetus with his contrition and suffering, and then the resurrection itself, constructed as it is to highlight her moral courageousness. Finally, and consequently, there should be present in our minds the undeniable fact that all the narrative energies of the play gather towards the incomparable heroism of Alcestis in the teeth of the loosening inrush of death. Her generous display of unrestrained, uncompromised love and kindness tells us that the living should not bend under the weight of inexplicable and destructive forces. To be sure, in Euripides’ Alcestis the bending force of mortality upon human lives is closely observed. At first Admetus and Heracles accept the short odds the universe gives the aspirations of our species, degraded as it finds itself by time’s remorseless toll and fortune’s unforeseen vicissitudes; but as the action strides forward, there are attempts to throw the light of wise gallantry, soft-hearted selflessness, and compassionate courage into the shadow-world that surrounds humankind. Refining the mysterious solaces through flashes of the higher con-



sciousness, and then bringing into the repertoire of imagination a new vision of the death-mastering power of love and compassion, Euripides means to give them a set of defences adequate to their value. Notwithstanding the motto of this book’s second Chapter, namely Death’s abusive choler in Ted Hughes’ brilliant adaptation of Euripidean Alcestis, it appears after all that death is not unavoidably death ad infinitum: death could be ‘life’ under certain conditions, in this case distinctly mystical, which in fifth-century Athens had gradually become transfused with some serious ethically-relevant considerations. It is fair to say that with this play Euripides had struck upon a central truth: the fear of death can drive out humane reason. Repressed sadness and despair in the recoil may eventually wreak havoc on the world without the sparkle of hopeful anticipation. Men often find themselves embedded in the astringent, mind-clouding matter of existential agony; in point of fact, this irreducible core of inhumanity encloses them in the blindness of affected self-righteousness or the illusion of pitiful resignation. Mystical beliefs, as well as mythological paradigms, perform a purely ethical function in a civilized community insofar as they mollify those uncomfortable feelings of scarcity and dread. With the decline of hope the sense of life is itself shadowed by bitterness and depression; strength and heroism are swept away in the tide of cynicism and despondency. At no time, nonetheless, do Alcestis, the tender-hearted queen, Admetus, the xenophile king, and Heracles, the true civilizing hero, lose their humanity, indeed their genuine Greekness. They are ever ready to forge unbreakable bonds of friendship with their fellowmen, thereby transfusing the central thought of the play with that wiser optimism which intrepidly confronts a louring atmosphere of pessimism in the faith that heroic achievement is set off in greater brilliance by the shadow of calamity. Their immortality is, therefore, secured in song and story. Given that their extraordinary tales have never ceased to fascinate audiences the world over, it is not too bold to suggest that they are still living their lives after death. Therefore, Euripides should be given credit for fully unravelling the contours of a tightly woven plot, piling mythical tale on mythical tale, mystical intertext on mystical intertext in a way that not only generates multiple versions of the remarkable events at Pherae, but also provides the audience with a solid contemporary ground on the basis of which they can read the play as an impressive narrative experiment of putting together scattered stories of human survival and consolation to spell out a profound message of moral courage in the presence of a horrifying concourse of unanticipated events. In both heroic lore and mystic ritual what is called forth in the fullest volume is that people tried to the uttermost are accepted into the divine sphere. It should be noted, however, that premature death is not a desirable option for humans, while gods do not endorse it either, for it would bring the end of religion – that is, the end of their privileges



and prerogatives, as these are strongly solidified by reciprocative cult and ceremonial worship. Fundamentally, Euripides delivers a piercing truth, persistently promulgated by Greek mythological and mystical traditions, as well as zealously sustained by Athenian political institutions: suffering is an unmistakable proof of life. The desire to prolong our existence provides the impulsion for our stress feelings and crisis sentiments; in fact, our survival thought must be touched with extreme emotion. Paradoxically enough, pain is essential for our protection from death. To sum up, I have been maintaining the view that it is the combination of modern narrative theory and critical interpretation that brings into sharper focus the affiliation link between the here and now of staged action and numerous mythological and religious subplots and intertexts. It is indeed the close co-operation of a broader conception of narrational analysis and explicatory approaches to literature that reveals in the most emphatic way possible numerous hitherto unremarked levels of thematic complexity, as well as bringing forth manifold narrative forms which are instinct with inward social, political, and religious principles. Narratology may now, I venture to hope, be at last free from accusations of vicious abstractionism and interpretative parochialism, while the narrativity of Greek tragedy may appear to be less contestable and unnatural. Εἴρηκα, ἀκηκόατε, ἔχετε, κρίνατε.

Bibliography The abbreviations follow the conventions of L’Année Philologique and the OCD3 or are made clear.

I. Abbreviations CAH

D. M. Lewis, J. Boardman, J. K. Davies & M. Ostwald (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History, 14 vols (Cambridge, 1970–2001). Diggle J. Diggle (ed.), Euripides Fabulae, vols I–III (Oxford, 1981–1994). FGrHist F. Jacoby (ed.), Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (Berlin & Leiden, 1923–1958). IG Inscriptiones Graecae (Berlin, 1873–). LIMC H. Ackermann & J.-R. Gisler (eds), Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich & Munich, 1981–1999). LSJ H. G. Liddell, R. Scott & H. S. Jones et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, 19409 with Revised Supplement 1996). OCD3 S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth (eds), The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford & New York, 19963). RE A. Pauly & G. Wissowa (eds), Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 83 vols (Stuttgart & Munich, 1894–1980). SEG Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (Leiden, 1923–). S-M B. Snell & H. Maehler (eds), Pindarus, vols I–II (Stuttgart & Leipzig, 1987–1989, 1997–2001). TrGF B. Snell, R. Kannicht & S. Radt (eds), Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Göttingen, 1971–2004). West M. L. West (ed.), Homerus Ilias, vols I–II (Stuttgart & Leipzig, 1998–2000).

II. Editions & Translations For those Greekless readers who wish to follow the arguments of the book with the aid of a freer rendition of the ancient text, as well as a reliably commented edition of the play, I offer the following, far from exhaustive, list of English translations and scholarly commentaries. Needless to say, the electronic bibliography compiled by C. A. E. Lusching and H. M. Roisman is singularly helpful: . Anthon, C. (1877), An English Commentary on The Rhesus, Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis, Heraclidae, Supplices, and Troades (New York). Arrowsmith, W. (transl.) (1974/19902), Euripides: Alcestis (Greek Tragedy in New Translations) (Oxford). Bayfield, M. A. (18942), The Alcestis of Euripides with Introduction, Notes, Appendices, and Vocabulary (London & New York). Beye, C. R. (1974), Alcestis by Euripides: A Translation with Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ).



Blakeney, E. H. (1900), The Alcestis of Euripides with Introduction, Notes, Appendices, Vocabulary and Illustrations (London). Buckley, T. A. (1900), Euripides’ Alcestis and Electra. Literally Translated with Critical and Explanatory Notes. With an Introduction by Edward Brooks, Jr. (Philadelphia). Conacher, D. J. (1988/19932), Euripides Alcestis [edition with translation and commentary] (Warminster). Dale, A. M. (1954), Euripides: Alcestis [edition with commentary] (Oxford). Earle, M. L. (1894), Euripides’ Alcestis (London & New York) (repr. 1896). Hadley, W. S. (1896), Euripides: The Alcestis (Cambridge) (repr. 1912). Hayley, H. W. (1898), The Alcestis of Euripides [PhD, Harvard University] (Boston). Hamilton, R. & M. W. Haslam (1980), Euripides, Alcestis, Bryn Mawr Commentaries (Bryn Mawr). Jerram, C. S. (18903), Euripides Alcestis with Introduction and Notes (Oxford). Kynaston, H. (transl.) & J. C. Collins (intro. & notes) (1906), Euripides’ Alcestis (Oxford). Lattimore, R. (1955), Alcestis, in D. Grene & R. Lattimore (eds) (1955), Euripides I, The Complete Greek Tragedies (Chicago). Luschnig, C. A. E. (transl.) (1999), Alcestis, DIOTIMA: . Luschnig, C. A. E. & H. M. Roisman (2003), Euripides’ Alcestis: With Notes and Commentary (Norman, OK). Monk, I. H. (18232), Euripides: Alcestis (Cambridge). Murray, G. (1915), The Alcestis of Euripides (London). Paley, F. A. (1857), Euripides. With an English Commentary, vol. I (London). Parker, L. P. E. (2007), Euripides Alcestis [edition with commentary] (Oxford). Rabinowitz, N. S. (transl.) (1999), ‘Alcestis’, in R. Blondell, M.-K. Gamel, N. S. Rabinowitz & B. Zweig (eds) (1999), Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides (New York & London). Roche, P. (transl.) (2010), Three Plays of Euripides: Alcestis, Medea, The Bacchae (New York). Sidgwick, A. (1874), Scenes from Euripides: The Alcestis (London, Oxford & Cambridge). Svarlien, D. A. (transl.) (2007), Euripides: Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus (Indianapolis). Thornburn, J. E. (2002), The Alcestis of Euripides, with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Lewiston, NY). Vellacott, P. (1953), Euripides: Three Plays Alcestis, Hippolytus, Iphigenia in Tauris (London) (repr. 1995). Woolsey, T. D. (18764; first ed. 1833), The Alcestis of Euripides with Notes, for the Use of Colleges in the United States (Hartford, CT).

III. List of Works Cited Abbott (1880)

Abbott (20082) Adam (1908)

Abbott, E. (1880), ‘The Theology and Ethics of Sophocles’, in E. Abbott (ed.) (1880), Hellenica: A Collection of Essays on Greek Poetry, Philosophy, History, and Religion (London) 33–66. Abbott, H. P. (20082), The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge). Adam, J. (1908), The Religious Teachers of Greece: Being Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Aberdeen (Edinburgh).



Adrados (1985)

Aélion (1983) Ahl (1997) Albini (1961) Albini (19943) Albinus (2000) Alderink (1981) Alexiou (1974/20012) Allan (2000) Alsina (1958)

Ambrose (2005)

Anderson (2009)

Anderson (1994) Andriotis (1976)

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General Index Acherousia 60 n. 56 Achilles 11, 126, 142 Admetus 18ff., 38ff., 51ff., 68ff., 75ff., 103-104, 113ff., 128-129, 146ff., 158 Aeschylus 5, 91, 144 n. 27 Agamemnon 61 n. 58, 150 Choephori 60 Eumenides 61 n. 58, 142 Agave 151 n. 48 agon 113 n. 39 Ajax 61 n. 58 Alcestis As intrascenic character 29-30 As rational being 66ff. As sacrificial beast 24, 31 anabasis 149 analepsis 6, 22, 26, 27, 49, 50, 52, 58 Anaxagoras 147 Andromache 74, 79 angeliae, tragic 3-4 Anthropology 3 Antigone 57 n. 54, 61 n. 58 Apollo 23ff., 40, 70, 77, 91f., 96, 98f., 101f., 141, 153, 155f. Apollodorus 110, 144 n. 24, 145 n. 28 Apollonius Rhodius 3 n. 6 Arcadia 103 Areopagus 142 Ares 101 Argolid 99, 101 Aristophanes Birds 42 n. 33 Frogs 144 n. 27, 146 Aristotle 2 Poetics 12 n. 26 Rhetoric 12 n. 26 Asclepius 26-27, 29, 41-42, 84, 94, 102, 134, 141ff., 155, 157 Astyanax 74 Athena 123, 137 Athenian democratic ideology 14ff. Athens 7ff., 83, 94, 99, 120, 131, 151ff. Augeias 123 Bacchic mysteries, the 138ff.

Bacchylides 141 n. 16 Boxing 124 Busiris 102 Cadmus 101 Carnea, the 153 Centaurs 103 Cerberus 86, 110, 148 charis 99 n. 22 Charon 47, 59-64, 148 Chorus, the 5, 11 n. 25, 27, 37ff., 43ff., 83, 104ff., 123, 129 n. 64, 139, 151, 153-154, 156 n. 56 Conacher, D. J. 90 Constance School, the 8 Crete 98, 110 Cyclopes 27, 142 Cycnus 112 Dale, A. M. 91, 147 De Jong, I. J. F. 3-4 Deianeira 103 Delphi 42 n. 33, 102, 142 Demeter 136, 141, 146, 150, 156 Democritus 147 Demophoon 141 Derveni Papyrus, the 138 n. 10, 143, 157 Diomedes 86, 99, 102, 104, 108, 110-112, 119, 145 Dionysus 60, 103, 137-138, 140, 143, 151 n. 48 Direct speech (oratio recta) 40 n. 30, 47, 48, 53, 54, 61, 62, 150 Ebeling, H. L. 90 ekkyklêma 6, 58 ekphora 125 Eleusinian Mysteries, the 132ff., 144 Eleusinian-Orphic Mysteries, the 17, 78, 85, 100, 119, 130ff. Eleusis 16 Elysium 110 Empedocles 147 Erinyes 60 Eteocles 57 n. 54 Eumenides 46 n. 38 & n. 40, 61 n. 58, 62


 General Index

Euripides 16ff., 22-23, 28, 34-35, 40 n. 30, 43, 57, 64-65, 68, 73, 75, 82, 85, 88, 89 n. 2, 90ff., 94-95, 98, 100, 108, 110, 119, 124, 127, 129, 130, 132, 134-135, 140, 146, 151, 155, 157, 159 Andromache 79 Auge 96 Bacchae 60, 119 n. 45, 148 Cretans 137 n. 6 Hecuba 147 n. 37 Heracles 96 n. 16 Hippolytus 156-157 Peirithous 96 Protesilaus 149 Eurystheus 99, 101, 104 extra drama events 54

Hughes, T. 162 Hydra 123 Hymenaeus 77 Hypnus 126 n. 57

Fictionality 8 Focalization 64, 68 n. 68 Focalizer 64 Folkloric material, the 89 n. 2 Funeral Speech 82

Lamentation 18, 40 n. 30, 50, 79, 82 Lapiths 87 Leucippus 147 Linus 77 literary anthropology 8 Lycaon 112 Lydia 101

Galinsky, G. K. 90 Geryon 110 Gold tablets 138 n. 10, 140 Hades 24, 42, 59ff., 67, 77f., 83, 85f., 90, 98, 99 n. 21, 102, 110, 111, 115, 118, 121, 144, 145, 148, 149, 152, 154 Hector 74 Hera 94 Heracles 11, 17ff., 34f., 58, 64, 67, 81 n. 89, 86ff. As Alexikakos 101 As civilizer 108, 123 n. 52, 129 As divinized mortal 98ff. As Eleusinian figure 143-144 His double-sided nature 95 Hermes 63, 148, 150 Hesiod 10, 92 n. 9, 110 Hesperides, the 110 Homer 3, 6, 10, 11 n. 25, 120, 124, 125, 150 n. 48 Iliad 3, 99 n. 21, 109 n. 34 Hospitality 20, 75, 77, 90, 99, 103, 113, 119, 126, 141

Ialemus 77 Indirect speech (oratio obliqua) 53-55 Intertextuality 88ff. Intoxication 91, 113 n. 38, 115, 118 Iolaus 123 Iole 103 Iphigenia 61 n. 58 Iser, W. 8 katabasis 142, 144, 148 Keleus 141 kleos 17

Macedonia 82 Maenads, the 119 n. 45 makarismos 150 Megara 103 Memphis 102 Menoeceus 57 n. 54 Menoites 110 Messenger, the tragic 3-4, 43, 46 Minos 98, 154 Monody 56ff. Musaeus 141 Muses, the 77 Music (‘song-dance’ culture) 76f. Myrtle 146 Myth 86ff. Mythology, Greek 5, 13, 24 n. 3, 88 n. 1, 99, 143f. Narrative 4ff. Narratology 1ff. Narrator, external 4 Necessity 22, 33, 38, 84, 159 New Historicism 3

Oedipus 46 n. 40, 57 n. 54, 61 n. 58, 62, 83 n. 94, 147-148 Olbia bone plates, the 139, 142 Old Historicism 3 Olympia 123 n. 52, 125 Olympic Games, the 111, 124ff. Olympiodorus 137 Omphale 101 Orestes 57 n. 54, 60 Orpheus 77-78, 136, 141ff., 152ff. Orpheus-initiators, the 136 Orphism 136ff. Orthos 110 paean 83-85 Parker, L. P. E. 91, 120 Patroclus 126 Pausanias 126 Peirithous 87 Peloponnese, the 98, 103, 111, 126 Pentheus 60 Pericles 82 Persephone (Kore) 137ff. Pherae 38, 48, 62, 88, 98, 103, 110, 145, 152, 159 Pheres 113ff. philanthrôpon 12 n. 26 philia 99 n. 22 Pholoe 103 Pholos 103 Phrynichus 90ff. Pindar 122 n. 51, 138, 141, 143 n. 21, 148 Plato 137, 138, 142 n. 18, 145 n. 28, 149 n. 42 Plutarch 82 Possible-Worlds Theory 8 n. 19 prolepsis 24, 38, 56, 68, 70, 83 Prometheus 26, 57 n. 54

General Index 


Protesilaus 148 Pylos 99 n. 21 Pythia 142 Reception Aesthetics 3 Repetition 7, 28, 50, 52, 61 rhesis 66 n. 64, 67, 68, 81 n. 89 Sacrifice 24, 29, 60, 109, 134 Satyr-drama 92 n. 10, 120 Scruton, R. 39 Socrates 147 Sophocles 5 Ajax 61 n. 58 Antigone 61 n. 58 Oedipus at Colonus 12 n. 27, 46 n. 38, 61 n. 58, 62, 77, 83 n. 94, 120, 146, 147 Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 148, 150 Sparta 83, 153 Storytelling theory 1ff. Stymphalian Lake, the 123 Tartarus 23, 43 n. 34, 59 Thanatos (Death) 23ff., 51, 59, 60ff., 125 n. 57, 143 n. 19, 157 Theseus 86 Thessaly 103, 110, 130, 138, 140, 145 Thrace 99, 108, 110, 145 Tiryns 104, 126 Titans 137-138 triakostia 82 n. 90 Wedding ritual, the 128 n. 63 Wrestling 93, 101-102, 112 n. 37 Xenocrates 138 Zagreus (Dionysus) 137, 138 n. 9 Zeus 26-27, 41, 56, 94, 101f., 123 n. 52, 137, 142f.

Index of Greek Words ἆθλοι 125 ἀνάγκη 157 & n. 59 ἀνήρ 98 ἀποσπασθεῖσα 70 ἀσπόνδῳ 83 n. 94 βαστάζω 29 n. 17 βούλεται 55 βροντεῖον 143 γέρας 33 γυιοδόνητον 93 δίνη 147 εἶεν 73 ἔκλαιον 50-51 ἐπεί 46 εὐσέβεια 141 n. 16 ἤθελεν 32 ἠχεῖον 143 κατηύξατο 48 κλαίει 55 κτείνω 27 λέγει 48

λίσσεται 55 μετακοίμιος 41 n. 32 μετακύμιος 40 n. 32 μόχθος 144 ὁρῶ 62 ὅσιος 28 & n. 12, 77, 142 παύσῃ 34 n. 24 πείσῃ 34 n. 24 πίνω 122 πλοῦτος 33 πόνος 144 πότνια 150 προνωπής 54 σέβας 150 τίκτω 29 n. 15 τοῖος 98 ὑπέστη 32 χαῖρε 150 & n. 45 χολωθείς 142 ᾤχετο 51

Index of Alcestis Passages 1-27: 26 1-63: 24, 1-76: 23ff. 2: 28 3-7: 26 5: 27 6: 27 7: 28 8: 142 10: 28 & n. 12, 142 11-12: 28 12-14: 28-29 16: 29 n. 15 17: 32 19-20: 29, 54 20-27: 30 21: 30 n. 17 28-37: 32 30-31: 32 33-34: 92 36: 32 47: 33 49: 33 50: 29 n. 15 55: 33 56: 33 57: 33 63: 36 64: 34 n. 24 64-71: 34 66-67: 99 67: 110 68-69: 99 72-76: 24, 33, 36 74-76: 100 76-83: 140 77-135: 37ff. 80-82: 140 83-85: 40 86-140: 140 87-89: 40 91-92: 40 109-111: 40 112-115: 56

112-130: 41 121-129: 102 121-130: 27 131-135: 42 n. 34 136-212: 43ff. 136-434: 104 139-140: 140 141: 140 142: 140 143: 54 149: 47 150-151: 44 152-198: 43, 45 157: 46 158: 46 158-161: 146 161: 47 162: 48 163-169: 47 170: 48 173-174: 48 176: 48 177-182: 48 180-181: 54 181: 49 182: 50 183-184: 51 183-188: 50 183-195: 50 186: 54 189-191: 50 190: 50-51 192: 50-51 192-195: 50 196-198: 51 197: 51 199-200: 53 201-202: 55 201-208: 53ff. 201-212: 43 202: 54 203: 55 204: 55 205a: 55


 Index of Alcestis Passages

205b: 55 206: 55 208: 147 213-237: 43ff. 228-229: 56 244-245: 147 244-279: 56ff. 252: 62 252-257: 148 252-271: 147ff. 258-259: 62 259-263: 63 269-270: 65 278: 65 279: 148 280-325: 66 280-434: 56ff. 282-286: 70 282-298: 69ff. 285-289: 109 287: 70 290-294: 146 293: 70 295-297: 70 299: 73 299-319: 71ff. 328-331: 75 328-368: 66, 68 336-337: 75 338-339: 75 343-356: 76ff. 348-356: 148 357-362: 152f. 363-364: 149 371-393: 68 389: 150 391: 150 394-403: 68. 80 406-415: 68 415: 80 423-424: 83 425-434: 81ff. 435-475: 104 445-454: 84f. 455-462: 85 469-470: 146 476-477: 104

476-506: 104ff. 487: 111 489: 111 491: 112 493: 112 499-500: 120 500: 148 502-503: 112 527-528: 140 551-552: 113 569-587: 155f. 626-627: 150 675-705: 113 704-705: 113 731: 113 741-746: 154 743: 150 747-772: 158 747-802: 117ff. 747-860: 113 757: 122 759: 146 788: 122 795: 122 803-804: 158 830: 122 831-832: 119f. 835-836: 145 837-860: 120f. 838-839: 121 843-857: 121f. 845: 122 850-854: 145 861-1005: 123 935-936: 158 954-959: 146 954-960: 150 954-961: 158 962-972: 156f. 973-975: 157 995-1005: 149f. 999: 150 1003: 150 1004: 150 1025-1036: 125f. 1033: 126 1060: 148

1072-1074: 127 1140-1142: 127f. 1144-1146: 141 1145-1146: 144

Index of Alcestis Passages 

1149-1150: 129 1151: 128 1153-1158: 128