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This essay explores the idea of epic in relative rather than absolute terms, with specific reference to and Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes and Pindar's Pythian 8. In both form and content, these two poetic creations contain features that may be described as epic in nature. The main argument of this essay is that such features, as refracted separately in the two distinct genres of tragedy and victory ode or "epinician," are in fact complementary in revealing a unified picture of epic as a genre in its own right.
The problem is, we cannot even begin to piece together such a picture without a clarification of the idea of epic as a genre. So I offer this premise: that the genre of epic, as well as any other genre, cannot be defined absolutely, as if it belonged to Plato's world of Forms (in the usage of Plato, the very idea of "Form" is expressed by the same word that means "genre": eidos). Rather, genre needs to be defined both historically - as it existed at a given time - and comparatively in relation to any other coexisting genres at that same given time.
This essay, then, offers preliminaries to a reconstruction of the genre of epic as it existed in the first half of the fifth century BC, roughly the era shared by Aeschylus and Pindar, with specific reference to two other genres, tragedy and epinician, as represented by Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes (originally presented in 467 BC) and Pindar's Pythian 8 (originally presented in 446 BC). I will begin by considering in the most general terms the relationship of epic to the tragedies of Aeschylus and the epinicians of Pindar. Then I will proceed to examine specific features of the Seven against Thebes and Pythian 8 that complement each other in refracting an essential feature that typifies epic. That feature is the self-image of epic as a poetic vision.
In the case of Aeschylus, I suggest that we start by adopting a comparative perspective in looking at the performances of his tragedies by professional actors (and by nonprofessional choruses) at the Athenian state festival of the City Dionysia - in light of the corresponding performances of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey by professional rhapsodes at the Athenian state festival of the Panathenaia. Granted, information about the seasonally recurring Panathenaic performances of Homeric poetry is sparse, and there are many uncertainties: we cannot even be certain about the actual form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as we would see them being performed during the first half of fifth century in Athens, let alone elsewhere. Still, among the few surviving certainties we do find one that turns out to be vital for understanding the overall history of the Homeric tradition: as epic poetry, only the Iliad and the Odyssey were performed by rhapsodes at the Panathenaia, that most important of all Athenian festivals. Other epic creations, under the general heading of the "Cycle," were decidedly not part of the official rhapsodic repertoire of the Panathenaia. Two of the most outstanding examples of such epics are the Thebaid (PEG pp. 20-28, EGF pp. 21-26) and the Epigonoi (PEG pp. 29-31, EGF pp. 26-27). The alternative epic poetry of the "Cycle," as we can see clearly even from the fragmentary evidence concerning performance traditions sanctioned by the Athenian State in the first half of the fifth century BC, was transformed into the tragic poetry of the City Dionysia, as in the case of the Seven against Thebes of Aeschylus, which is evidently a tragic version of the epic Thebaid. To that extent, we may say that tragedy became a kind of neo-epic.
In the case of Pindar, we may continue to take a comparative perspective as we look at the explicit references in his epinicians to epic as a genre, combined with explicit self-references to the praise poetry of the epinician as a realization or "actualization" of a prototypical function of epic - to make kleos 'fame'. These references imply that the genre of the epinician, as inherited by Pindar, is not only older than the genre of epic: more than that, the praise poetry of the epinician is pictured as the compressed origin of epic, which by contrast is pictured as an expanded derivation of praise poetry. In Pindar Nemean 8.51-52 - to cite the most relevant example - the athletic ordeals of the Seven against Thebes, as virtually celebrated by the genre of the epinician, are privileged as older than their wartime ordeals as actually celebrated by epic (and as attested by the surviving fragments of the epic Thebaid). In other words, the victory ode of Pindar claims that its "praise poetry was praising heroes even before the events recorded by epic." Let me stress again: such self-references imply an even more important claim: that the compressed poetry of praise actually generated the expanded poetry of epic. Such claims, built into the epinician tradition, have a historical validity in the sense that the epinician is in some ways older than the epic in form (for example, in its metrical repertoire) while praise poetry is in general older than epic poetry in function (for example, in its conventions of reference to the present as well as the heroic past). For the moment, however, questions of historical derivation are irrelevant: the one point of relevance is simply the functional relationship of epinician and epic, as claimed by epinician. To that extent, we may say that the epinician is a kind of micro-epic.
Proceeding now from the general to the specific, let us explore the wording of Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes, as a "neo-epic," and of Pindar's Pythian 8, as a "micro-epic," concerning the overall epic narrative about the Seven against Thebes and their sons, the Epigonoi. In parallel ways, both of these poetic creations picture this narrative as a vision.
In the Seven of Aeschylus, each of the seven heroes arrayed against the polis of Thebes is visualized directly, by way of direct speech as delivered by the messenger (to Eteocles as the chief defender of the polis); further, the identity of each hero is visualized indirectly, by way of a blazon on his shield, the word for which is sêma 'sign, signal' (lines 387, 404, 432, 491, 518, 591, 643); even further, the sêma of each hero is interpreted directly by way of the same direct speech delivered by the messenger.
Similarly in Pindar's Pythian 8, the hero Alcmaeon is visualized directly by way of direct speech as delivered by his father Amphiaraus from the realm of the dead and as "quoted" by the epinician (lines 44-55); further, the hero is visualized indirectly by way of the blazon on his shield, the image of a drakôn 'snake' (line 46); even further, this blazon is interpreted directly by way of the same direct speech delivered by the hero's dead father (lines 44-45). This parallelism of Pindar's Pythian 8 with Aeschylus' Seven is particularly remarkable in view of the epic identity of the hero Amphiaraus: he is one of the original Seven against Thebes and his son Alcmaeon is one of the Epigonoi. The parallel visualizations of Pindar and Aeschylus are conjuring parallel visions emanating from the epic tradition of the Thebaid and the Epigonoi.
In both form and content, Pindar's poetic words "quoting" a dead hero's vision of a living hero are the words of a mantis 'seer', as we can see clearly from the wording of the hero Amphiaraus, who is imagined as speaking from the dead when he envisions the blazon on the shield of his son, the hero Alcmaeon:
ya°omai saf°w | drãkonta poik¤lon aÞyçw ÉAlkmçn' §p' ésp¤dow | nvm´nta pr´ton §n Kãdmou pÊlaiw.
I can see [thaeomai] clearly [saphes] Alcmaeon, wielding the patterned [poikilos] snake [drakôn] on his blazing shield, in the forefront of the gates of Kadmos.
Pindar Pythian 8.45-47
Immediately preceding the "quotation" of the actual vision, the interpretation of the dead father's mantic vision is likewise "quoted" by Pindar's song:
fuò tÚ gennaðon §pipr°pei | §k pat°rvn paisÐ l°ma
The will [lêma], noble in its nature, of the fathers [pateres] shines through from them in their sons.
Pindar Pythian 8.44-45
It is relevant that Pindar's song claims to have received as a gift the manteumata 'mantic crafts' (8.60) of the seer Amphiaraus, who had appeared to the poet in an epiphany (8.56-60). Thus becoming mantic in its own right, Pindar's song describes itself as a humnos (8.57) that can now duly reciprocate the mantic gift of Amphiaraus by celebrating Alcmaeon (again, 8.56-60). Earlier, when the words of Pindar introduce the words of Amphiaraus by quoting them directly, the seer is said to speak in ainigmata 'riddles' (ainissomai 8.40: aÞn¤jato).
For the moment, let us focus our attention on the collocation of theaomai (Doric thaeomai) with saphes 'clearly' in Pindar Pythian 8.45, where the sense of the word saphês 'clear' conveys the visual clarity of mantic clairvoyance. The same clairvoyant sense is conveyed in the three occurrences of the same word saphês in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes:
Line 40, at the very beginning (second verse) of the messenger's initial speech: ¥kv saf° tékeðyen §k stratoË f°rvn 'I have come bringing things that are clear from the army back there'; the messenger describes himself as a 'viewer', katoptês, of the things happening there (line 41).
Line 67, at the second-to-last verse of that speech: the messenger refers to the visions that he brings to Eteocles as safhne¤& lÒgou 'clarification [dative] of speech'.
Line 82, in the initial part of the chorus' initial song: ênaudow safØw ¶tumow êggelow 'the clear and genuine messenger' (with reference to their actual vision of the dust rising toward the aether, as a sign of the oncoming doom).
Moreover, the messenger's mantic visions had been preceded, as the words of Eteocles make clear at Seven 24-29, by the words of a professional seer, a mantis (24: nËn dÉ w ¹ mãntiw fhs¤n; 27: manteumãtvn), who had already interpreted for Eteocles the omens of birds that prophesied the coming of the Seven against Thebes (24: oÞvn´n botÆr; 26: xrhsthr¤ouw rniyaw).
The poetics of mantic visualization mark not only Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes in particular but also the genre of tragedy in general, the vehicle of which is theatron (y°atron) 'theater': this noun is derived from the verb theaomai, meaning 'see, visualize', with a suffix -tron that actually designates the vehicle for the action of that verb. The mantic aspect of theatron is recapitulated in the compressed wording of Pindar Pythian 8.45, ya°omai saf°w 'I can see clearly', featuring the same verb theaomai (Doric thaeomai), where the subject is the hero Amphiaraus, speaking from the dead as he visualizes the image of the snake on the shield of his son, the hero Alcmaeon.
Not only is the word for 'theater' mantic. There is a word for the professional 'actor' of theater that is mantic as well: it is hupokritês, derived from hupokrinomai 'respond' in the specific mantic sense of respond to a vision, where the vision is an omen that occurs in "real life" or in a dream. Of particular interest are idioms referring to the mantic practice of dream-interpretation or Traumdeutung, such as opsin krinô 'interpret a vision' (Herodotus 1.20.1) and en-hupnion krinô 'interpret a dream' (ibid.: the opsis 'vision' here is equated with the en-hupnion 'dream'; cf. 7.19.1).
To sum up what we have seen so far: both the tragedy of Aeschylus and the epinician of Pindar define themselves as mantic. The explicit theatricality of Aeschylean "neo-epic" and the implicit theatricality of Pindaric "micro-epic" - as compressed in the expression ya°omai saf°w 'I can see clearly' - can be explained in terms of this inherent mantic quality.
Now we turn to the epic of Homeric poetry. We are about to see that epic narrative is not only pervaded by mantic visions: it is actually driven by them. Further, the poetics of mantic visualization can help clarify the theatricality of epic in its own right.
Let us begin with a Homeric example of hupokrinomai. It will be clear from this example that any given mantic vision has to be performed as a question - either by a character in the narration or simply by the narration itself - so that the interpretation of its "real" meaning may be performed as a response. The passage in question is Iliad II 228, where hupokrinomai refers to a hypothetical situation: the verb, meaning 'he would respond' (Ípokr¤naito), has as its subject theopropos 'seer'. The speaker in this context describes the generic theopropos as one who knows sapha 'clearly' the omens [teras plural] (XII 228-229: yeoprÒpow ùw sãfa yum" | eÞde¤h terãvn).
The speaker who is being "quoted" here by the Homeric narrative happens to be the hero Polydamas, a comrade of Hector. Polydamas has just interpreted a teras 'omen' in his own right (XII 209): it is the vision of a drakôn 'snake' (XII 202, 220), who stings an eagle carrying it, in midflight; once stung, the bird drops the snake amidst the ranks of the Trojans and flies off (XII 200-209). This omen is quoted directly by the words of Homeric narrative (again, XII 200-209). Then the meaning of these poetic words is interpreted by the likewise poetic words of the hero Polydamas, which are also quoted directly (XII 210-229). It is clear, according to Polydamas, that the Trojans in general and Hector in particular could potentially equate themselves with the snake - and thereby equate the Achaeans with the eagle - if only Hector would heed the omen (again, XII 210-229). The hero Polydamas is "quoted" as saying, at the conclusion of his words, that these same words of interpretation would be matched by the words of interpretation spoken by a hypothetical seer: the seer 'would respond', as expressed by the verb hupokrinomai in the optative (Ípokr¤naito), the same way as Polydamas has in fact just responded (XII 228-229).
In other words, what the hero here performs in epic corresponds to what a theopropos 'seer' could potentially perform if he responded to the same vision as narrated by epic. Thus epic poetry is declaring its control of mantic poetry. The question remains, though, whether the visions of mantic poetry can control epic.
The all-pervasiveness of mantic visualization in Homeric poetry is evident in the foundational teras 'omen' of the Iliad as epic, which takes the form of a primal vision interpreted by the seer Calchas. The Iliad "quotes" the seer himself as saying at II 324: mðn m¢n tÒdÉ ¶fhne t°raw m°ga mht¤eta ZeÊw 'Zeus the Planner made as a vision for me this great teras'. The teras 'omen', which is framed by the narrative of Odysseus (II 284-332) - which in turn is framed by the overall Homeric narrative - is the vision of a drakôn 'snake' (II 308) that first devours eight young birds and then the mother bird (II 303-320). The vision happened in the first year of the Trojan War, during a sacrifice on the occasion of the assembling of Achaean forces at Aulis (II 303). Next, we hear that Zeus, 'the god who made the vision', yeÚw w per ¶fhne (II 318), proceeded to render this vision permanent and unchanging - by turning the snake into stone (II 319). In the words of Odysseus, the whole vision of the drakôn 'snake' (II 308) is a sêma (II 308), which we may interpret not only as a mental 'sign' but also as a concretized visualization. The petrified vision of the snake becomes a concrete work of the visual arts, a three-dimensional frozen motion picture. It is thereby a permanent monument, a landmark, of the original omen.
Just as this concretized vision of the story of Ilion - and of the Iliad itself - is imagined as unchanging and permanent, so too is the kleos or poetic 'fame' of epic that radiates from the words of the seer Calchas as directly "quoted" by Odysseus in Iliad II 323-332. In the words of the seer himself, as we already saw at II 324, mðn m¢n tÒdÉ ¶fhne t°raw m°ga mht¤eta ZeÊw 'Zeus the Planner made as a vision for me this great omen [teras]'. Then Calchas goes on to prophesy that the kleos of this omen [teras] will never perish:
cimon Ùcit°leston, ou kl°ow oÎpotÉ Ùleðtai
[... this teras], late in coming, late in coming to fulfillment [telos], and its kleos will never perish
Iliad II 325
That was then, at Aulis, in the first year of the Trojan War (Iliad II 303). Now, as Odysseus is "quoting" back those same words of the seer, it is the ninth year at Troy (II 295). Calchas was saying, back then, in the words that are now being "quoted" by Odysseus (II 323-332), that the nine birds are the nine years that the Achaeans will spend at Troy, and that the citadel will now be captured finally in the tenth year. After Odysseus "quotes" these words of the seer, he adds: tå dØ nËn pãnta teleðtai 'and they are now reaching their fulfillment [telos]' (II 330).
Here the snake is a positive sign for the Achaeans. By contrast, in the earlier example of an omen calling for an act of interpretation as expressed by the mantic word hupokrinomai, we have seen another drakôn 'snake' becoming a negative sign for the Achaeans, insofar as it becomes a potentially positive sign for the Trojans (Iliad XII 202, 220).
Similarly, the drakôn'snake' in Pindar Pythian 8.46 is a positive sign for the anti-Theban heroes who are sons of the original Seven against Thebes. In Aeschylus Seven 486-525, by contrast, the complex image of snakes and dragons on the shield of the anti-Theban hero Hippomedon is a decidedly negative sign for the pro-Theban heroes defending the seven gates of Thebes against the same original Seven. I will return to this image at a later point; for now, I simply draw attention to a relevant detail at Seven 503: the anti-Theban hero Hippomedon himself is compared to a drakôn 'snake' who menaces defenseless young birds. We may also compare the choral reference at Seven 291 to the seven anti-Theban heroes as predatory drakontes who prey on defenseless young birds. Moreover, at Seven 381, the anti-Theban hero Tydeus is said to 'roar' (boò) like a drakôn. In such contexts, the translation 'dragon' is even more appropriate than 'snake'.
On the basis of the comparisons that we have considered so far, I offer this summary: the mantic visions of omens, deeply embedded as they are within the narrative agenda of Homeric poetry, make it clear that the genre of epic itself shares its poetics of visualization with the "neo-epic" of Aeschylus and the "micro-epic" of Pindar. But the argument can be taken further: I would even go so far as to say that the visual worlds of Aeschylus and Pindar can ultimately be described as epic in nature, and that the blazons visualized on the heroic shields of their "neo-epic" and "micro-epic" creations are in fact a shining example of epic pure and simple. After all, the most complex and spectacular of all blazons is a creation of epic: it is the Shield of Achilles in Iliad XVIII. The mantic vision of this ultimate Shield is a microcosm that interprets - and is interpreted by - the macrocosm of the epic that frames it.
The argument can be taken further: the Shield of Achilles, as an example of an epic sub-genre, is related to the epic sub-genre of the Homeric simile. Like the Shield, Homeric similes can be seen as "recastings" of mantic visions. Like the Homeric micro-narratives about the responses of theopropoi 'seers' to omens, Homeric similes become micro-narratives in their own right, deeply embedded within the macro-narratives of the Iliad and Odyssey. The mechanism of likening in the simile - that is, of saying that something from the outer frame of the narrative is "like" the inner content of the simile - is an act of interpretation just as mantic as the response given by a seer to a given vision. What gets interpreted, moreover, is not only the vision of the simile, by way of its connectedness to the outer frame of the macro-narrative, but also the macro-narrative itself, which is deepened and thus enhanced by the embedded mantic vision of the simile's micro-narrative. By extension, then, we may even say that all epic is pervasively mantic by virtue of interpreting - and being interpreted by - similes embedded within its narrative frame.
In this mantic light, let us take one last look at the vision of the shield of Alcmaeon in the "micro-epic" of Pindar's Pythian 8. The visualization of the drakôn, which I have already quoted earlier, is seen as a positive sign in the words of interpretation emanating from the dead seer, which I have also already quoted. This time, however, I will quote simultaneously the vision and the interpretation that immediately precedes it:
fuò tÚ gennaðon §pipr°pei | §k pat°rvn paisÐ l°ma. ya°omai saf°w | drãkonta poik¤lon aÞyçw ÉAlkmçn' §p' ésp¤dow | nvm´nta pr´ton §n Kãdmou pÊlaiw
The will [lêma], noble in its nature, of the fathers [pateres] shines through from them in their sons. I can see [thaeomai] clearly [saphes] Alcmaeon, wielding the patterned [poikilos] snake [drakôn] on his blazing shield, in the forefront of the gates of Kadmos.
Pindar Pythian 8.44-47
As we can see clearly from the original Greek as printed above, the switch from the interpretation of the vision to the vision itself happens within a single colon and is marked by asyndeton: |... l°ma. ya°omai saf°w | ... 'will [lêma]. I can see clearly ...'. The postponement of the word that marks subject of the clause, lêma 'will', all the way to the end of the clause accentuates the juxtaposition of this key word with the two words that signal the vision itself, thaeomai saphes 'I can see clearly'. The juxtaposition is further accentuated by the asyndeton.
Just as the sign on the shield gives a positive meaning to the drakôn 'snake' in Pindar's Pythian 8, so also the interpretation by the seer gives a positive meaning to the lêma 'will' of the fathers. This positive meaning resurfaces dramatically near the conclusion of the Pindaric ode, as the voice of the poet declares:
§pãmeroi: t¤ d° tiw t¤ dÉ oÎ tiw; skiçw nar | ênyrvpow. éllÉ tan aýgla diÒsdotow ¶lyú, | lamprÚn f°ggow ¶pestin éndr´n kaÐ me¤lixow aÞÅn
Creatures of a day. What is a someone, what is a no one? Man is the dream of a shade. But when the radiance [aiglê] given by Zeus comes, there is at hand the shining light of men, and the life-force [aiôn] gives sweet pleasure.
Pindar Pythian 8.95-97
Here is what I have already written elsewhere about this passage:
I interpret skias onar 'dream of a shade' as a recapitulation of the earlier words of the dead Amphiaraus about his living son. In Homeric usage the word skia can designate a dead person. I suggest that the shade of the dead person is literally dreaming - that is, realizing through its dreams - the living person. In other words, the occasion of victory in a mortal's day-to-day lifetime is that singular moment when the dark insubstantiality of an ancestor's shade is translated, through its dreams, into the shining life-force of the victor in full possession of victory, radiant with the brightness of Zeus. It is as if we the living were the realization of the dreams dreamt by our dead ancestors.
The benign vision here of the aiglê 'radiance' of Zeus seems to me metonymically connected to (and mantically synchronized with) the radiant vision announced by the seer Amphiaraus when he says clairvoyantly thaeomai saphes 'I see clearly' as he looks out from the shades of the dead and sees the image of the snake on the blazing shield of Alcmaeon. By metonymy, the image of the snake now shines with the radiance of Zeus. To understand the full power of this positive image in Pythian 8, we must now contrast it with the negative image of the snake at Seven 503 and elsewhere (291, 381).
As I have noted earlier, drakôn 'snake' is applied at Seven 503 as a simile to describe the anti-Theban hero Hippomedon, who menaces the Thebans just as a snake menaces young birds; moreover, as I have also noted earlier in passing, the blazon on the shield of Hippomedon is itself replete with negative images of snakes and dragons (Seven 486-525). But now we come to a further important detail: the snake on the shield of Hippomedon spews 'black smoke' in the Seven (lignÁn m°lainan 494): this monster, in fact, is none other than the fire-breathing Typhôn (Seven 493 and 511; cf. 517). Typhon's very name derives from the root tuph-, meaning 'smoke' (tuf-). The legacy of this root tuph- tells its own story: historians of the Greek language have remarked on how far and wide its basic meaning of 'smoke' has spread, generating a spectacular variety of "words relating to obscurity, blindness, or else to the darkening of one's wits, stupidity, or even to becoming blind to one's own self, pretension, boasting, vanity." Such an etymological inventory of Greek words derived from the root tuph- can also serve as a poetic inventory of the negative characteristics of the Seven against Thebes in Aeschylus' drama by that name.
In Pindar's Pythian 8 as well, the image of the Typhon fits these same negative characteristics (lines 15-18), though here the identity of the monster is kept separate from the positive characteristics of the snake featured on the blazing shield of Alcmaeon (lines 45-48). In the Pindaric ode, Typhon is named as the premier example of the kind of personality marked by excessive bia'violence', matched by correspondingly excessive speech: such a person is megalaukhos 'one who boasts grand things' (line 15).. We may compare this word with megal' epeukhetai 'he boasts grand things' at Seven 452; such a person deserves to smitten, says the chorus at 453, by the divine thunderbolt.
In Pindar's Pythian 8, the negative image of Typhôn is an effective foil for the positive image of the drakôn 'snake" pictured on the blazing shield. The non-vision of the dark Typhon is needed to achieve the vision of the radiant snake. Similarly, the skias onar 'dream of a shade' is a foil for the ultimate aiglê 'radiance' of Zeus himself. But there is more to it: the seer sees the radiance from the shades, and in fact he is the shade. In my interpretation, the 'dream of a shade' is the actual medium of vision, of visualization, for the victorious athlete in the present to be seen by his ancestors from the past.
In order to validate this interpretation of the Pindaric expression skias onar 'dream of a shade', I still need to find some kind of formal parallel in the traditional poetic repertoire of epic themes. Such a parallel exists, I propose, in Aeschylus' Seven. In this case, however, the context is decidedly malign, not benign. In response to the mutual killings of Eteocles and Polyneices, the choral song of the Theban women speaks of 'the Lady, the shade [skia] of Oedipus, the black Erinys' (976-977 = 987-988: pÒtniã tÉ OÞd¤pou skiã, m°lainÉ ÉErinÊw). The skia 'shade' of the dead Oedipus is pictured here as the living Fury that becomes the death of the hero's two accursed sons.
The question remains: where, then, is the dream of this negative shade? At an earlier moment in the Seven, Eteocles speaks of the ara 'curse' of his father Oedipus (695), and the chorus speaks of it as an Erinys (700) that needs to be exorcised with the help of the gods (699-701); then there is talk of an unnamed force to which the chorus refers simply as daimôn 'daemon' (705), an entity that needs to be averted from acting on his lêma 'will' (706). The daemon needs to be averted because is still 'boiling' (708: zeð), says the chorus. Eteocles responds:
§j°zesen går OÞd¤pou kateÊgmata
êgan dÉ élhyeðw §nupn¤vn fantasmãtvn
ceiw, patr&emdash;vn xrhmãtvn datÆrioi
Yes, it [the daimôn] boiled over with the curses [kateugmata, from eukhomai] of Oedipus!
True are the visions [opsis plural] of apparitions-in-dreams [en-hupnia],
- visions of dividing the father's property.
Aeschylus Seven 709-711
We may note too the choral description of the same Erinys at Seven 720-726: here the Fury, as the realization of the katarai 'curses' (725) of Oedipus, is described as 'a malign mantis who is absolutely true, the father's prayed-for [euktaia, from eukhomai] Erinys' (722-723: panalay° kakÒmantin | patrÚw eÈkta¤an ÉErinÊn). The malign mantis may be contrasted with the benign mantis of Pythian 8. Likewise, the malign lêma of the malign daemon at Seven 706 may be contrasted with the benign lêma of the benign ancestors in Pythian 8.45. The Fury of Oedipus is all-black (977 = 988: m°lainÉ ÉErinÊw). In her absolute darkness, this Fury signals the total eclipse of radiance, which may be contrasted with the shining image of the radiant snake envisioned by Amphiaraus on the blazing shield of Alcmaeon in Pythian 8 (46).
The system of complementarity in the deployment of negative and positive images for snakes in Pindar's Pythian 8 and Aeschylus' Seven brings us back, one last time, to the corresponding epic system of complementarity in Homeric poetry. As we have seen, the vision of the snake that menaced and then devoured the defenseless birds in Iliad II was ultimately positive for the Achaeans - that is, after Calchas the seer interpreted it for them. As for the vision of the snake that stung the eagle in Iliad XII, it was positive for the Trojans - that is, it was potentially positive, after Polydamas interpreted it for Hector. But the point is, this same image of snake and bird could ultimately become negative for the Trojans if they failed to heed its mantic interpretation. From the macro-narrative of the Iliad, we do in fact know that Hector fails to heed that interpretation: he consistently refuses to stay on the defensive, unlike the snake that stung the eagle. Instead, Hector consistently goes on the offensive, despite the repeated warnings of the clairvoyant Polydamas.
At Iliad XV 690, a climactic moment in the course of Hector's playing the part of attacker instead of defender, he is actually given a simile that likens him to an eagle instead of a snake, and the epithet of this eagle is aithôn 'blazing'. We may compare the epithet of the shield that pictures the snake in Pindar Pythian 8.46: aithâ 'blazing'. I see at work here a metonymy: the blazing of the shield is coextensive with the blazing of the snake. We may compare also the expression aithôn ... lêma 'blazing in will' in Aeschylus Seven 448, describing the Theban hero Polyphontes when he faces his Argive opponent, the hero Kapaneus; as the words of Eteocles prophesy, the fire-bearing thunderbolt of the gods awaits Kapaneus (Seven 444-445). Again I see a metonymy: the blazing will of Polyphontes is coextensive with the blazing force of the divine thunderbolt, which will smite Kapaneus. Clearly, the epithet aithôn ... lêma 'blazing in will' works for Polyphontes.
Will the simile of the eagle envisioned as aithôn 'blazing' at Iliad XV 690 similarly work for Hector? The simile is applied at a climactic point of the narrative: Hector is on the attack, moving toward the Achaeans as they stand guard over their ships on the shores of the Hellespont, and at this very moment the hero of the Trojans is compared to an eagle swooping down on flocks of defenseless geese, cranes, and swans as they feed on vegetation growing on the banks of a river (XV 690-691). The problem is, the Achaeans cannot be visualized as defenseless birds except in such a moment of testing, glimpsed by the micro-narrative, and that fleeting moment will ultimately be overwhelmed by the macro-narrative. The other problem is that the image of an attacking eagle suits Hector's epic identity not nearly as well as a defending snake. Ultimately, Hector would have been better off if he had imagined himself as a snake caught in the claws of an eagle: the omen of the bird stung by the snake had made that clear. Even if the epithet aithôn works for the eagle, the image of the eagle in this simile fails to work for Hector. This image is intended to fail in the macro-narrative of epic.
I conclude this essay by asking a similar question about the images on the shields pictured in the "micro-epic" of Pindar's Pythian 8 and in the "neo-epic" of Aeschylus' Seven: do they work for the heroes they signify? In other words, is epic signification intentional?
In the case of Pindar, the response is simple: yes. As I contemplate the blazon on the shield of Alcmaeon in Pythian 8, I see no contradiction of the art of epic imagery as idealized in that ultimate blazon, the shield of Achilles in Iliad XVIII. Pindar's poetics are intentionally true to the Homeric ideal writ large, and I think it cannot be an accident that the last word of his Pythian 8 is "Achilles." The "micro-epic" lêma 'will' of the ancestors in Pindar's Pythian 8 seems to me coextensive with the "macro-epic" boulê 'will' of Zeus in Iliad I 5. In the case of Aeschylus, by contrast, the response has to be far more complex: here we have to reckon with the "theatrocracy" of tragedy as a genre, which keeps testing the limits of epic as a genre. The poetics of Aeschylus' "neo-epic" verge on becoming the "non-epic" or even the "anti-epic."
To bring up the topic of non-epic imagery in the Seven goes far beyond the limits of this essay - especially at this point, nearing the very end. Still, I need examples to show that the "neo-epic" of tragedy as genre is in fact openended. Here, then, are three such examples, confined to the smallest possible space for contemplating them.
First, there is the shield of the anti-Theban hero Eteoclus, bearing the image of an unnamed man attacking an unnamed city (Seven 456-471). Eteoclus will fight the Theban hero Megareus, a descendant of the Spartoi (474). If Megareus wins, says Eteocles, then he will have captured two men and a city (477-479). This vision is a mirror image of what would happen if Megareus and Thebes were captured: instead, Megareus will capture the named man and, in addition, the unnamed man and the unnamed city in the picture, since the picture is on the captured shield. To be sure, anonymity can be used in epic too for the shifting of signifiers, as we can see from the two unnamed cities on the Shield of Achilles in Iliad XVIII. But the difference is, we do not expect epic to split the signifier from its signified, as we see in the doubling of the captured men imagined by Eteocles.
Second, there is the shield of Polyneices, with its climactic diploun sêma 'double sign' (Seven 643). Here we see the image of an anonymous gunê 'woman' (646) who leads by the hand an anonymous man toward a citadel. Polyneices interprets the gunê as the goddess of justice, Dikê: she will install him, he boasts, as the rightful ruler of the polis (646-648). In the Seven, the word gunê applies generically to everyday 'woman', as at 197, 200, 256, 645, 712. In the last of these verses, the chorus of women tries to dissuade Eteocles from fighting the mutually fatal fight with Polyneices: they say peithou gunaixi 'obey the women'. We may contrast 225, where Eteocles speaks of the goddess Peitharkhia, who is the very idea of 'obeying authority', as the wife of the Sôtêr 'savior'. Finally, there is Antigone as generic gunê at 1038. The question is, then: whom to obey, the authority of the state or the women? If the chorus of women is right and Eteocles (along with Polyneices) is wrong in not 'obeying the women', then perhaps the anonymous woman pictured on the shield of Polyneices may remain simply that, a generic woman. Or at least she may become Antigone in her role as generic woman. As for the anonymous man whom she leads by the hand, he too may remain simply that, a generic man. Or at least he may become the citizen of a new polis that transcends the old citadel. Such doubling of what is human, by keeping the generic separate from the heroic, seems antithetical to epic.
Third, there is the shield of the seer Amphiaraus. It has no sêma on it (591), since he wants to be the best, not just to seem the best (592). Such splitting between hero and heroic image seems antithetical to epic. The mantic words of Amphiaraus, "quoted" at 580-589, can now take the place of an epic vision that cannot be there because it cannot be real. The new dramatic imagination is seeking to differentiate itself from an older epic vision. We may contrast the old-fashioned "quotation" of Amphiaraus' mantic words in Pindar Pythian 8. 44-55, picturing the shield of Alcmaeon. The image on this shield, that radiant snake, is seen as real simply because it is told by epic, and thus the vision of its reality may keep shining through from far away, far off in the realms of the insubstantial shade that dreamed it.