June 05, 2009

Enemy brothers

(Goat Rope's survey of Greek tragedy continues. You'll also find links and comments about current events below.)

When men die by a kinsman's hand,
When brother is murdered by brother,
And the dust of the earth drinks in
The crimson blood that blackens and dries,
Who then can provide cleansing?
Who can wash it away?

The theme of enemy brothers shows up pretty often in myth, sacred stories and folklore--and sometimes in real life. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus are a few that come to mind.

In Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes, it's the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices. The two were supposed to alternate in power in Thebes following the...uhhh...family problems of their old man, but Eteocles refused to yield to his brother. Polyneices then roused an army led by himself and six other heroes, hence the title.

Both were cursed by their father for maltreatment after his fall. Oedipus predicted that their inheritance would be divided by a stranger, which turned out to be iron.

There's not a great deal of action in this play. Eteocles, attended by a chorus of Theban women, receives news from and gives orders to a herald, dispatching forces to guard six gates of the city from the invading army. The last enemy at the gate is his brother. Though he is warned against shedding kindred blood, he insists on facing Polyneices himself and they kill each other.

Kinship problems ran in that family...

The ending of the play, which anticipates Sophocles' Antigone, may have been tampered with by later scribes. It is of course the later Oedipus plays of Sophocles that are best known, but cursed families such as his were a favorite tragic theme of Greek dramatists.

Aeschylus was particularly concerned with the cycle and spiral of violence through the generations and how this could be brought to an end. He took up the subject at length in his Orestes trilogy, a masterpiece for the ages. More on that next week.

GETTING IT RIGHT THIS TIME. Here's Paul Krugman with warnings on health care reform.

GREENING COWS. A change of diet may reduce methane production caused by windy cows.

ALTRUISM. This item speculates on what may have been its bloody roots.

DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. Here's the link I messed up yesterday on a new report showing that West Virginians lead the nation in psychological distress.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Considering my own altruistic tendencies, I found the Altruism’s Bloody Roots article fascinating. Thanks doe the link.