May 23, 2008


Orestes at Delphi, courtesy of wikipedia.

It's an interesting fact that great literature and social science seem to agree about the nature of violence: it usually doesn't just come out of nowhere.

While I'm not interesting in excusing any violent behavior, numerous studies show that perpetrators of violence tend to have been its victims in the past (and often in the future) and that today's victim may be tomorrow's perpetrator.

In the great tragedies of literature, the violence that occurs or is alluded to onstage is usually only the latest link in a chain of events. The bloody scene that Fortinbras stumbles upon at the end of Hamlet was preceded by murders and betrayals.

This is also true of group violence such as armed conflict. Wars, too, have their family trees.

The ancient Greeks had a word for the dangerous pollution that could be unleashed by violence: miasma. It was almost like a toxic substance that could infect people who had nothing to do with the original acts and could play out over the generations.

One strand of Greek mythology that shows how the miasma of violence can play out over time is that of the terrible house of Atreus, which figures in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Oresteia of Aeschylus and elsewhere.

Atreus, king of Mycenae, committed an act of sacrilege against the gods and the sacred nature of food and family when he killed the children of his brother and rival Thyeses and fed them to their unknowing father. His son, Agamemnon, was fated to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to gain favorable winds to invade Troy, where bloody warfare raged for ten years.

His wife, Clytemnestra, was outraged by this murder and takes Aegisthus, son of Thyeses as lover. When Agamemnon returns from the bloody sack of Troy, they kill him. Agamemnon's son Orestes is driven to kill his mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father. He is then pursued by the Furies, the dark goddesses who personify vengeance.

So it went. So it goes.

In the end, it took divine intervention by Apollo and Athena to end the cycle of violence and placate the Furies. What will it take to end ours--or even slow it down a little?

SPEAKING OF WHICH, here's an AP article that shows how neighbors can intervene to help dispell the miasma of domestic violence.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE SOME RICE? Here's more on the global food crisis.

THE G.I. BILL helped create the American middle class. The latest Economic Policy Institute snapshot highlights the value of the proposed 21st Century G.I. Bill.

URGENT ANCIENT AMPHIBIAN UPDATE. This critter, found in Texas, was a little bit frog and a little bit salamander.


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