Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Homeric Hymn 20 - To Hephaistos

Sweet voiced Muse
Celebrate with song
Hephaistos, famous
For his cunning devices.

Along with flashing
Grey eyed Athena
He taught the groundlings
Glorious labour.

They dwelt
The hollows,
Of mountains.
Like fabulous monsters.

And now:
Thanks to Hephaistos;
Renown for his arts,
They learnt
The many skills that allow
An easy life. Maturing
The cycles of the year
With their own families.

Be gracious Hephaistos.
Deliver prosperity and wealth.

Hephaistos was the Greek god of (for lack of a better word) technology, artisans, smiths etc. Technology being from a Greek word techne. As a noun it means art, skill, method of doing things, including soothsaying. It also has to 'bad' meaning of cunning. As a verb the meaning is pretty much the same, to make by art, to execute skilfully, also to contrive cunningly. Hephaistos is described as being KLUTOTECHNES - famed for his skill.

As a nod to the reality of the type of work, Hephaistos was lame, walking with golden leg braces he made for himself. Robert Graves says that smithies were often made lame to keep them from running away, I do not know enough to comment on this, however I do know enough about the harsh reality of hard manual work to see the obvious link. It made be hard for us to understand, but metal working would have been seen as something much like magic for the ancients, agreeing with Arthur Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Some say that Hephaistos was the child of Hera and Zeus, while other tales have him born parthenogenetically from Hera alone. Either way the child was ugly, and in embarrassment Hera threw him from Olympus. He lived under the sea in the grotto of Thetis (later the mother of Achilles) for nine years. Later Hera was reconciled with him, and he returned to Olympus, and given Aphrodite as his bride, who later cockculed him with Ares. In revenge Hephaistos made a strong net of golden thread capturing the illicit lovers, and causing much laughter among the other gods.

Hephaistos sided with Hera in opposition to Zeus, and he was again cast out of Olympus, falling for nine days, landing on the island of Lemnos, which in antiquity was the site of volcanic activity. (Later the island was used as a base for the ill fated Gallipoli campaign in 1915.) After Zeus relented in his anger Dionysus was sent to retrieve him, and getting him drunk her brought him back to Olympus on a donkey, this being a popular scene in Athenian vase paintings.

Hephaistos shared a temple with Athena, as she was the goddess of cunning in warfare. Some suggest that the name Hephaistos means he who shines in the day time, while Athena was a moon goddess, with the owl as her symbol. Every year, on the last day of the Pyanopsion (in November), there was a joint festival, where the Arrephoroi, young girls (aged 7 to 11) set up the loom that would be used to make a peplos for the statue of Athena. The festival was also in honour of artisans.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Old Men of Argos Huddle in Terror

From Aeschylus tragedy Agamemnon, Line 1020.

Over the weekend there were two football grand finals on television. On the Saturday Geelong and Collingwood struggled in a close run thing for three quarters until the Cats skipped away and won the game. On the Sunday Manly defeated the Warriors. On the Sunday night, for reasons which had nothing to do with football, I was unable to sleep. Having not much else to do, I read the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. More exciting than football, the creative spark forced me from my bed. I am not fluent in my translations, one could compare my technique to a person attempting to solve a cryptic crossword. My lack of skill or fluency does not stop me, for my main goal is to learn and to gain fluency. In this instance the only way to learn is to read.

This piece is from Agamemnon, the first part of the Oresteia. A wonderful, brutal, strange and powerful work. Agamemnon has just returned home from the long war against Troy. Home to Argos and to his wife Klutaimnestra, who has set herself on killing him. She feels she is in the right, as he sacrificed (murdered) their daughter Iphigeneia. She was sacrificed to allow the Greeks to launch their campaign against Troy. For ten years the war dragged on, and for ten years Klutaimnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigeneia, nurtured her hatred and desire for vengeance. Who could blame her? Even the old men of Argos agree 'blame is present against blame, difficult it is to judge. He endures who is enduring, the killer has to pay.'

Using flattering words, a warm bath, and a krater of drugged wine, wielding her sword and a net, Klutaimnestra rolled out the wine dark carpet for the returning hero. She stabbed him twice and killed him. Splattered with blood she plunged the sword a third thrust to convince herself that the deed had been done.

This passage is from one of the songs of the Chorus of Old Men. The old men sense that something is amiss, but unlike the audience they do not know what is to come to pass. They are fearful for Agamemnon as he strides across the barbaric carpets. He seems to be taking on the manners of the East, of the Trojan king Priam. Klutaimnestra appeals to his vanity by telling him that the feet of a hero should not touch the dirt. The old men see this an affront. The red carpets flow from the palace doors and across the stage. The Phoenician carpets call to mind the wine dark blood which has flowed across generations of the House of Atreus and which will soon flow again. The old men are scared and they sing a long passage, of which I cut out a bit to make a (hopefully) nice little poem. In ripping fifteen or so lines out of a much larger poem I can only do violence to the original, but I have endeavoured to minimise the harm.

Robert Browning is not much spoken abut these days, but he was insightful in many ways. I agree with him in the spellings that he uses, for instance I much prefer Klutaimnestra to Clytaemnestra, Kassandra to Cassandra. He did some very literal translations from the Greek. He did this in opposition to current ideas about the beauty of the Greek language. In this he showed ancient Greek to be a highly flexible, and at the same time sparse language. This sparseness, which is increased by the heightened language of the tragic form, is a peg that allows the translator to hang any garment desired, be it gaudy or plain. I think this was the point that Browning tried to make in his, even to this day, despised translation of Agamemnon.

As a example let us look at the last line of this passage (line 1034), in Greek it reads, Zopuroumenas frenos. From the dictionary we find out that Zopuroumenas means kindle into flame and frenos meaning midriff, or breast and by extension heart, mind, sense etc. (As an aside Zopuroumenas can also mean kindle into life, as in the quickening of the embryo.) In Browning we get 'the enkindling mind.' From E. D. A. Morshead we get 'my soul is prophecy and flame' which Robert Fagles in turn translates as '...and the brain is swarming, burning.' Which is best? Which is most correct? Which is nearest to the mind of Aeschylus?

The Old Men of Argos Huddle in Terror.

Once upon the earth
One's life blood black.
Can anyone with charms
Sing it back?

Once there was one who rightly knew
How to call back the dead.
Fearful Zeus struck him
Thunderbolt dead.

Had not the deathless
Arrayed our portion
Against another,
Bright laughter
Would burst forth.
My heart.

The lower gloom
Beneath the darkness.
Sick at heart,
I murmur and grumble.
Unable to hope
For that opportune day
To unravel, and so
Bring to an end.

Kindled my heart leaps into flame!

The pic is from