Friday, December 2, 2022

Orpheus and Eurydice

 Recently, I went to see Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice at the War Memorial Opera House. I deliberately did not read the program and therefore was surprised at how different from other conceptions of the Orpheus myth this performance was. Although program notes are often useful, particularly for stories with which I am less familiar, I believed that the Orpheus myth was familiar enough to not require extra reading. 

The first conspicuous element was the balletic component. Out of opera, symphony, and ballet, ballet is easily my least favorite, but here the ballet was well integrated into the music. This brings me to the second element - the repetition. Opera, by its nature, involves much repetition of themes and phrases, but this opera seemed to almost have a surfeit of repetition worthy of a Jesuit education. The first and second elements, however, worked together to create an effective impression of something as ineffable as the singing of the greatest singer who ever lived, whose song entranced implacable chthonic beings; such hyperbole is far easier to write than to render visually, 

The third element was the excellent use of color. Orpheus' vived red contrasted with the blacks and greys of the infernal denizens and the yelloe of Love. The shifting colors of the area currently spotlighted enhanced the music and the movement of the performers. I found it a great aid to my deficit of knowledge of reading ballet.

The fourth element was the change in the Orpheus myth from the "canon" (although any casual dive into Orphic texts suggests "anti-canon" might be a better term). The absence of Hades and Persephone was initially jarring/ The inclusion of Love as the divine character marked this as a version more focused on the internal components of the myth than the external. It also provided Orpheus with an ally and advisor, something which was lacking from the more "traditional" version, which I suppose is therefore an externalization of the usually internal components. The potentially successful rescue of Eurydice reminded me of Alcestis, but Eurydice's reluctance to return from the Shadowlands was reminiscent of Izanami and Izanagi; the tale of a bereft husband seeking his departed wife is as least as old as a migration into the Americas. Thus the reduction of the myth to a man, a woman, and their love might be more faithful than a more numerous cast.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Sorrow, son of Unrejoicing: Euripides' Bacchae and Linguistic Archaeology

 In approaching the end of Euripides' Bacchae, a parallelism that has struck me is the mother-son pairs on either side of the conflict of the play. Dionysus is the son of Semele, daughter of Cadmus; Pentheus is the son of Agaue (sic), daughter of Cadmus. Pentheus' name means "the one who sorrows," a connection explicitly made within the text of the play. The context and conflict of the play is the arrival of the Bacchic rite to Thebes and its hostile reception, so names which have meaning are conspicuous and may be names of roles assumed in the rites. Within the Bacchic rites, whoever assumes the role of Bacchus becomes Bacchus in a sense, so it is reasonable to assume that the principal opponent would have a similarly dual role. On the maternal side, Semele is associated with a number of earth goddesses such as Rhea and Doso (Demeter) and happens to match the name of the Thracian Earth Goddess Zmele (because Thracian was a satem language, whereas Greek was a centum language - see Russian 'zemlya' 'land' for a more familiar cognate), so Agaue's name and role should also be significant.  Agaue murders her son Pentheus under the influence of the god, but her name also has meaning. Agaue may well be derived from the root 'gawe-', 'rejoicing', which lies at the sourche of Latin 'gaudium', 'joy'. The Greek verb 'gauroomai' occurs in the text in the discussion of Agaue's behavior. 'Gauroomai' can be broken down as follows: '-omai' is the first person singular present middle ending and can be safely excised. This leaves 'gauro-', which is an adjective. If the component which makes it an adjective is removed, i.e. -ro-, all that is left is 'gau', the part shared with the name Agaue. The -e of Agaue is just the feminine ending, so the important part for analysis is Agau-, which is -gau- with a negative prefix A-. The name Agaue, therefore, means 'The Woman Who Does Not Rejoice', which is a thematically (and dramatically?) appropriate name of the mother of The Man Who Sorrows, Agaue changes from rejoicing when she is entranced to not rejoicing when she recognizes what she has done.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Heracles, Hercules, Why So Many Names

 The mightiest son of Zeus has many names, but the two most frequently used in modern media are Hercules and Heracles. The simple explanation for this is that the Romans used Hercules, while the Greeks used Heracles (or Herakles). That suffices, but it would not be a Wednesday Classics post if there were not greater depths to explore.

The original name of Herakles was Alkaios, the name of his paternal grandfather, Alkaios, son of Perseus. This genealogical connection is why Herakles is sometimes referred to as Alcides, “descendant of Alkaios.” Herakles’ mortal parents were Amphitryon, son of Alkaios, son of Perseus, and Alkmena, daughter of Elektryon, son of Perseus. Alkmena’s name shares a root with Alkaios which indicates strength, because names in myth and legend are often extremely on the nose. Alkaios, son of Amphitryon, was a target for Hera, the wife of Zeus. After baby Alkaios strangled the two serpents sent to kill him in the first days of his infancy, he was renamed Herakles, “glory of Hera,” in a futile attempt to appease the wrath of Hera by dedicating the baby to her. That is the mythological background for the name.

Greek is an Indo-European language with a pitch whose placement is not automatic and a distinction between long and short vowels. The pitch on the name Heracles appears on the final syllable of the name; the length pattern of the name was long-short-long, a cretic according to Greek metrical naming conventions. This name did not fit well into the dactylic pattern of epic poetry, so alternate names were often used for Heracles in poetry. The Greeks used the Greek alphabet, which did not have the letter C; Heracles in Greek is spelled with a K (kappa).

 The Greeks travelled and colonized much of the Mediterranean, including what is now Italy. In Italy the Greek colonists met the Etruscans, the dominant ethnic power of northern and mid-Italy. The Latin peoples, the speakers of Old Latin, were under the power of the Etruscans. The Etruscans borrowed and adapted the Greek alphabet to write their previously unwritten language.

The Etruscan language was quite different from the Greek language. The variety of the Greek alphabet which the Etruscans adopted had three velar sounds: kappa, qoppa, and gamma. Kappa and qoppa were like a hard C sound in English, although the Etruscans could hear a difference. Gamma was like a hard G sound in English. The difference between hard C and hard G in Greek is called voicing; it was something which the Etruscan language lacked. The result of this lack was that Etruscan heard G as C. At this point, with three letters for the same or similar sounds, many language adopters would have chosen one; Etruscan retained all three and distributed them in front of specific vowels. Qoppa (Q) appeared before U. Kappa (K) appeared before A. C, the gamma which was now identical in sound to K but had one less stroke, appeared before E. Due to its slightly easier writing, C gradually annexed the vocalic territories of K, including before I, the fourth vowel of the Etruscan language.

The speakers of Old Latin learned to write from the Etruscans. They therefore adopted the three varieties of hard C. Q was useful because QU was a frequent combination of consonants in Old Latin. Old Latin did not need both K and C and opted for the simpler of the two – except in the important time word Kalends and some names. Since C was always an English hard C, any Greek words with K could be spelled with C.

An alphabet was not all Etruscan and Old Latin shared. The languages were in a Sprachbund, a kind of linguistic marriage in which certain features are shared between unrelated languages. One of the features in the Etruscan-Old Latin Sprachbund was consistent stress (not pitch) on the first syllable of a word. Herakles, therefore, became Heracle in Etruscan, with initial syllable stress. A frequent result of initial syllable stress is a decrease in stress on non-initial syllables to the point that the vowels in those syllables disappear; thus Heracle became Hercle. This form lasted in Etruscan until its eventual extinction.

Old Latin, however, did not like this consonant cluster. Old Latin, unlike Etruscan, was also a member of the Indo-European language family. Old Latin had long and short vowel lengths, which underwent different changes in initial and non-initial position. This distinction is why the Latin verb ‘facio’ has the perfect passive participle ‘factus’, but the same root with the prefix ‘infacio’ has the perfect passive participle ‘infectus.’ In Old Latin as well as Etruscan, Heracle became Hercle, but Old Latin broke the cluster by inserting a vowel to produce Hercules – Old Latin shared many declensions with Greek and therefore requires the case ending -s to use the name Hercules. The name Hercules had the same metric value as Heracles; thus this difficulty remained unresolved.

Latin, the descendent of Old Latin, had a different set of stress rules, but these happen not to affect the name Hercules. Although the native name Hercules was preferred, the Greek borrowing Heracles (with Latin C rather than Greek kappa) was available. Poets were still stuck with an awkward name – especially because Latin, due to the initial stress period and the loss of non-initial syllables, had even less short syllables.

When the Western portion of the Empire fell, most knowledge of Greek was lost, while Latin retained its position as the language of the church and of administration. The name by which the son of Jupiter, “Jovis filius,” was known for millennia in the West was Hercules, in accordance with the use of Latin names for the Greco-Roman gods. This can be confirmed in the English poetic tradition, which favors initial stress. The Greek names were not unknown, but not preferred.

In more recent times, however, there was a movement to use the Greek names, or at least the Latin spelling of the Greek names, of mythological figures. Heracles became a more common sight than it had been previously, but it did not displace Hercules in the popular consciousness. The next step was the restoration of the kappa in the name Herakles. This is most common in relatively historical or realistic accounts. While Hercules and Heracles have co-existed for a long time, the use of the name Hercules in the scripture of the Mouse is an indicator of which name remains preeminent in English-speaking, and particularly American, popular culture.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

War and Peace: Hypermetric Verse and Its Contrasting Uses in Aeneid Book One

Hypermetric verse is a phenomenon where the last syllable of the dactylic hexameter is potentially extrametrical because the dactylic hexameter must end in a dactyl and spondee; this error is resolved by elision of the extrametrical syllable by the initial vowel of the first syllable of the next line. Hypermetric verse, therefore, places a restriction on the following line, much as a mistake in game can limit the conditions by which one corrects their strategy. Hypermetric verse implies enjambment, but enjambment is not dependent on hypermetric verse, avoiding it altogether. Two examples of hypermetric verse are Aeneid 1.332-3 and 1.448-9; the intended effect of the hypermetric verse, however, is antithetical.

The first example (1.332-3) occurs in a speech in which Aeneas petitions his mother Venus, thinly disguised as an impossibly beautiful huntress.


iactemurdoceasIgnari hominumque locorumque
erramusvento huc vastis et fluctibus acti:


The -que is self-consciously hypermetric, as indicated by erramus, the first word of the second line. The use of hypermetric verse also augments the theme of lack of control and involuntary mobility, which is shown in the bracketing of the hypermetric verse by ‘ignari’ and ‘vento … acti’.


The second example (1.448-9) occurs in the context of Aeneas’ jealousy of the state of Dido’s Carthage, which is not complete but well-built enough to have a finished temple whereas Aeneas has yet to reach his destination.


aerea cui gradibus surgebant liminanexaeque
aere trabesforibus cardo stridebat aenis.



This completed temple is heavily composed of bronze, a metal associated with war. This metal is mentioned three times (aerea, aere, and aenis), creating an impression of unity. This unity is reinforced by reference to architectural features which connect and support (gradibus, trabes, cardo, limina, foribus). The word which hypermetricizes the verse, ‘nexaeque’, is a verb of joining. This example, in contrast to the preceding, uses hypermetric verse to emphasize control and stability. Both lines have identical metrics for the dactylic hexameter except for the hypermetric elision!  


One might be tempted to consider this unity and conformity a wholly good thing, but there are elements which suggest otherwise. The use of bronze, a martial metal, is a reminder of past and future conflicts. The metrical identity of the two lines could suggest an army on the march or a crippling lack of flexibility, on the part of peoples and kings. This temple gate, which creaks (stridebant) like the Trojan fleet under assault, is reminiscent of the Gate of the Temple of Janus, which was open during war and closed in peacetime. The man who is still wandering and the woman who has settled bodes ill for any romance (of which there must be one, since Venus is involved).

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Dionysus, Semele, Bromius

 The anapest is a metrical foot that not only reflects its own nature of two shorts and a long, but also matches the initial syllables of the names of the Bacchic cult. Both Dionysus and Semele form anapests, as does Bromius, the most common appellation of Dionysus, under common metric conditions. Admittedly, Bacchius does not form an anapest. The question then arises: does meter dictate the names or do the names guide the meter, or is it a matter of reciprocity? Are there instrumental factors of which we are no longer aware? 

Monday, September 5, 2022

Superman Space Age

 Superman Space Age, by Mark Russell and Mike and Laura Allred, is an illustration that a limited scope is not an impediment to telling a good story. The art is reminiscent of X-Statix, an unusual look for a Superman story, but this is a particular Superman on an Earth which does not have the privilege of being one which survives the Crisis on Infinite Earths. This is not a true spoiler: the first pages are set in 1985. This Superman's floruit is in the 1960s; the inciting incident, therefore, is the assassination of President Kennedy. This Earth's Clark Kent has a relation with his Earth father which is closer to that of the Man of Steel movie than any television adaptation. The assassination spurs Clark, Lois, Luthor, Bruce, and Hal into action which will lead to the conclusion. Despite the decade, Pariah, the multiverse-hopping herald of cosmic oblivion, arrives and the world does not immediately end in a wave of white blankness. Some may view this as breaking canon. This premature arrival prompts Superman to value the time left and rally the proto-league of this Earth. 

This version of the Superman story is geared for a generation who knows that disaster is coming within their lifetime and must decide how to manage both the catastrophe and their emotions. It is worth reading, and the development within the limited framework will be intriguing.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Paper Girls (Show and Comic)

The primary difference between watching Paper Girls and reading Paper Girls is not the '80s vibe - that is consistent - but rather that the show is structured as a season and the comic is structured like a very long '80s kid gang movie, despite its distribution over several volumes. A literal adaptation, even if costs allowed, would have felt disjointed, failing to introduce all relevant concepts and failing to conclude in a way suitable for the season format. The reworking of the plot, therefore, as well as the expansion of the cast's background, was a wise decision. The necessity for an ending, however, does create the risk of further time shenanigans that are less well-written than the original comic - note the deterioration of Game of Thrones. Appropriately, time will be the judge.