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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Euripides: Hecuba (The Fall of Troy)

File:Hektor arming Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2307.jpg
Hector putting his armor on, surrounded by Priam and Hecuba. Side A of an Attic red-figure amphora, ca. 510 BC. From Vulci: photo by Bibi Saint-Pol, 13 February 2007 (Staatliche Antikensammlung)

[The chorus sing the fall of Troy:]

Ilion, o my city,
no longer will you be named among the cities
never taken: lost in the Greek stormcloud,
speared, sacked,
your wreath of towers hacked
from your head: sorry, fouled
in the smoke and the ash strain,
sad city
I shall not walk in you again.

Ruin came at midnight.
We were in our room, sleepy-eyed, happy,
tired, with the dancing over
and the songs for our won war,
everything over, my husband resting,
his weapons hung on the wall,
no Greeks to be seen any more,
the armed fleet
lost from our shores and gone.

I was just doing my hair
for the night, and the golden mirror
showed me my own face there
calm and still with delight, 
ready for love and sleep.
And then the noise broke out in the streets
and a cry never heard before:
Greeks, it is ours.' (They said.) 'Finish the war:
break kill burn:
end it, and we can go home.'

Out of our bed, half naked
like any Dorian girl
I ran for the sanctuary
of Artemis' shrine. No use, for I never made it.
I saw my husband die.
They have taken me over the sea.
I look back at my city.
ships hasten for home, taking me
with them, foredone
with sorrow and pity.

Curse Helen, curse
Paris, the fatal pair
whose love came too dear,
who married to destroy
my people my marriage and me,
whose marriage burned Troy,
May she never tread Greek ground.
I hope she never makes it over the sea.
I hope she is wrecked and drowned.
She ruined me.

Euripides (c. 485-c. 406 B.C.): Hecuba, lines 905-951, translated by Richard Lattimore in The Stride of Time: New Poems and Translations, 1966

File:Detail Menelaus Painter Louvre G424.jpg

Helen's head, detail from a scene representing Menelaus' meeting with Helen. Attic red-figured krater, ca. 450 BC–440 BC. From Gnathia (now Egnazia, Italy): Menelaus Painter (eponymous vase); image by Jastrow, 2007 (Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Musée du Louvre)

Hecuba, in mythology, chief wife of Priam, daughter of Dymas king of the Phrygians (Iliad 16.719; but later writers, as Euripides, Hecuba 3, call her father Cisseus). Who her mother was posed a problem to mythologists in Tiberius' time (Suetonius, Tiberius 70). She was the mother of Hector and eighteen others of Priam's fifty sons (Il. 24. 495-7), the most noteworthy being Paris.
In Homer she is a stately and pathetic figure, coming only occasionally into the foreground, as in the lament for Hector (Il. 24. 747 ff.) In Tragedy she is more prominent. Euripides (Hecuba) tells the following story of her last days. Her son Polydorus had been murdered by the Thracian Polymestor, to whom he had been entrusted; the discovery of his body came as a fatal blow to Hecuba after the sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena. By a desperate appeal to Agamemnon, she got permission to revenge herself and, enticing Polymestor into her tent, she and her women killed his children and blinded him. He then foretold that she should turn into a bitch before her death, the place Cynos Sema getting its name from her tomb. In Euripides Troades 969 ff., she so convincingly accuses Helen that Menelaus promises to kill her on reaching home, one of Euripides' curious departures from tradition. In several plays no longer extant, she was represented as dreaming, while carrying Paris, that she brought forth a torch, which burned all Troy (Apollodorus 3. 148). All these legends appear in numerous variants, with rationalizations, more or less fanciful additions, and so forth, as is usual with much-handled themes.
Herbert Jennings Rose, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1948

File:Trojan Women - Hecuba & Talthybios.jpg

Willow Hale as Hecuba and Sterling Wolfe as Talthybios in Brad Mays' production of Euripides' The Trojan Women, presented at the ARK Theatre Company in Los Angeles in 2003: photo by Brad Mays, April 2003

In one tradition, Hecuba went mad upon seeing the corpses of her children Polydorus and Polyxena.  Dante described this episode, which he derived from Italian sources:
E quando la fortuna volse in basso
l'altezza de' Troian che tutto ardiva,
sì che 'nsieme col regno il re fu casso,
Ecuba trista, misera e cattiva,
poscia che vide Polissena morta,
e del suo Polidoro in su la riva
del mar si fu la dolorosa accorta,
forsennata latrò sì come cane...
And when fortune overturned the pride
of the Trojans, who dared everything, so that
both the king and his kingdom were destroyed,
poor wretched captured Hecuba,
after she saw her Polyxena dead
and found her Polydorus on the beach,
was driven mad by sorrow
and began barking like a dog...
Dante, Inferno XXX: 13-20

 The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1773 (National Gallery, London)


TC said...

No more Troys to burn

Nora said...

Hecuba is the ultimate mortal -- all loss and powerlessness. I want to say that there's something inherently unknowable to her fate, becoming "all voice", or scrabbling about the ship like a dog. But I have a horrible feeling that 'unknowable' isn't the right word at all.

Nin Andrews said...

I was just doing my hair for the morning and hearing about all the cities burning and or people dying. One does get used to it after a while. One after another, going up in flames.

It seems we would all be mad . . . or maybe we are.

Hazen said...

This seems one of those days that 'barking mad' fits all too well. And I don't mean just personally.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

TC said...


Very well said, and it does seem true. Hecuba is perhaps knowable in the sense that the ultimate in extremis moments of human experience seem unknowable until you go through them, and then they become knowable. Alas and alackaday!

It seemed to me (semi conscious at the time, but still, that's probably the best state for taking in certain things) (the Super Bowl say?) that the middle-of-the-night atmosphere in the triage unit of the Alameda County Trauma Center (Highland Hospital) resembled a battlefield hospital in many respects. Though of course at Troy there were no battlefield hospitals. Just the battlefields.

According to statistics, Hector would have had a 20-25% better chance of making it through the night had he been rushed to a Level I or Level II Trauma Center.

But Hecuba would have been nonetheless distraught, and the outcome might well have been pretty much the same.

It gives pause to consider that her final decisive retributive actions were enabled by her "female wiles" (erotic attractions), though by that time she had already fathered 18 of Priam's fifty sons.

One wonders how things went for Priam's other wives.

The sense given by the bereft and desolate chorus in the utterly and profoundly poetic passage from the most intensely emotive and psychologically perceptive of all dramatic poets is that of souls consigned to final loss, completely aware of the facts of the consignment, and yet not giving in to some concessive resignation, but still spitting furiously into the wind. That's incredibly moving when you think of it.

Yay Hecuba and her women!! May their hairdos attain perfection and retain it, in the Elsyian Fields!!

Nora, you remain my favourite classicist.

Tied for first that is with Nin.


The choice of the passage was affected by thoughts of your particularly privileged form of home schooling and it did seem the Lattimore had a bit of the strength and grit of the Heyward women in it.

What the Greeks did at Troy had a bit of the primordial fracking impulse in it, mayhap.

Hazen, what's scariest is the oneiric form of canine barking which we encounter in nightmares (the dogs appear to be barking, but there is only silence) and while watching political debates with the sound off.

Though e'er since being badly bit on the street in 2012 (two cafe patrons too engrossed in chat to control their unleashed killer hound), I've given up tuning in on political debate altogether.


Back to the crimescene, then, with

Cavafy: Trojans.

Chris said...

Apropos oneiric barking, don't forget the sentinel who lies "dogwise" on the roof of the house of Atreus at the beginning of the Agamememnon, full of well-justified fear now that the Greeks are finally coming home.

Because the war always comes home with them.



"And then the noise broke out in the streets and a cry never heard before
. . .

Out of our bed, half naked
like any Dorian girl I ran for the sanctuary of Artemis' shrine. No use, for I never made it. I saw my husband die."

Or as the Player in Hamlet tells it,

"Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'ersized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks. . . .

But as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still, The bold winds speechless, and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region, so after Pyrrhus' pause,
Aroused vengeance sets him new awork,
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars' armor, forged for proof eterne,
With less remorses then Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam."

(The Player of whom Hamlet asks, "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?" The player who perhaps didn't know that "She was the mother of Hector and eighteen others of Priam's fifty sons.")


light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, song sparrow calling from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

or standing in front of sun,
brightness of the sky

outside moving toward place,
between us, the eye’s

silver edge of sun rising above ridge,
white circle of moon in pale blue sky

TC said...

What a great opening scene that is. He's been lying there silent like a dog (kunos diken) for an entire year, too, that watchman. And a nice reception the woman of the house has in store for her husband the conquering hero, home from the wars. The watchman of course could tip off the proleptic victim, but no such luck. An ox has stepped on his tongue.

By then all the sympathy in the long bloody story has anyway belonged with the Trojans. Expeditionary armies are hard to love. Hector is admirable in a way Achilles is not. Hecuba earns her way into even the numbest heart. Whereas, back at the ranch, Clytemnestra...

TC said...

Steve, Well, you know those players. There's always so much that we know that they don't. Unless they've been hiding offstage, eavesdropping. But they do do that, don't they?

Poor Hecuba, her reputation dragged through the theatrical sawdust, all these centuries, all for a laugh and a bit of a tickle in the wings.

(Though ticklish wings can bring all sorts of problems upon themselves, too, one supposes.)

TC said...

A small party of worker trolls from the Office and Facts & Figures has informed that the above sparkling chat contains a few significant departures from consistency on my part, which is always a pity if perhaps not the first time.

Having quoted my expert classicist and mythographer as saying of Hecuba, "She was the mother of Hector and eighteen others of Priam's fifty sons...", I have in the subsequent delirium of repartee said, ahem, "though by that time she had already fathered 18 of Priam's fifty sons..."

Which would have been a wonderful Ripley's Believe It Or Not trick on the part of Hecuba.

Furthermore the number of sons she had produced one way or tother, by that "point in time", was obviously nineteen not eighteen.

The best that can be said for the latter error is that it tends to support an implication which was already holding itself up well enough, i.e. that having done all that fathering/mothering, it would have taken a lot of pluck on Hecuba's part to pursue the program of exacting revenge through sexual lures.

That idea is rather silly and makes me think for some odd reason of the ancient Jan & Dean ditty about the Little Old Lady of Pasadena. Normally I would provide an exit link to that immortal classic. Instead however I believe I shall choose for myself a more suitable punishment. Sleep, perhaps.


Ah Tom,

Hope your sleep wasn't too punishing -- maybe there'll come a time to find the LIttle Old Lady riding again, around here.

TC said...

Thanks, Steve. Sleep is of course heaven. The punishment is the pain that destroys heaven.

The solace that palliates pain is laughter.

Who'd have thought a post about the tragedy of Hecuba would elicit palliative laughter?

But it has!!

Gratitude to the brilliant John Tranter for giving us a rare glimpse of the previously-unseen Side C of the Attic red-figure amphora at the top of this post:

Hector putting his armour on, with dialogue .