Saturday, November 6, 2010

Dr. Norman Austin “Myth and Fifth-century Athenian Society in Sophocles’ Philoctetes”


Florida Atlantic University

“Myth and Fifth-century Athenian Society in Sophocles’ Philoctetes”


Sophocles Philoctetes is an excellent paradigm of the nexus of language, myth, and society in 5th century Athens. To introduce the topic, I would like to begin with two topics that might seem digressions though in my view both are relevant to my paper and the themes of this conference. First, the definition of myth: I have been struck by the modern consensus in studies of myth that myths are always other people’s stories. The Bible stories, of both Testaments, are for some reason to be excluded from our discussions as being sacred stories of a quite different nature. My second introduction is an allusion to Freud’s essay on the disturbance he felt when he stood for the first time on the Acropolis in Athens. Freud uses that disturbance to delve deeper into the feeling of the Uncanny, to which he devoted considerable attention. Putting together his analysis of that moment and Plato’s concern for the dangers of tragedy as mimesis, I would hazard a theory that myth makes the ephemeral more real. With these ideas in the background, I would now like to turn to Sophocles’ play, the Philoctetes.

Sophocles has taken the myth from Homer and the epic tradition but two dramatists, Aeschylus and Euripides, had already staged the myth as tragedy, The production of tragedies in Athens involved a vigorous competition. Sophocles had three competitors in his sights: his two fellows dramatists and behind them Homer. He had to prove himself both traditional and original. Two questions arise: why this necessity for the tragic poets to find their characters and plot in the Homeric tradition? And why would Sophocles re-work a plot that had already been used by his two great contemporaries?

The first answer is religion, specifically the religion of the hero cults. The three human characters in the play were all worshipped in cult, as was also Heracles, who appears at the end, and also Achilles, who is not a character but a presence throughout the play. These characters were both embedded in the epic tradition and enshrined in the immortalizing cults that were integral to the panhellenic religion. The paradox of myth (religion) is that while it engenders fantasy, it also makes its persons or stories more real. The real depends as much on imagination and belief as on any proofs of a person’s physical existence. The three human characters in the play are, under close analysis, quite unlike their namesakes in the Homeric poems. Sophocles might as well given them names off the streets of 5th century Athens but such characters would have lacked substance and credibility.

But Sophocles was not a copyist. He had to prove himself Homer’s true interpreter. The myth might come from Homer but to resonate it had to be cast into thoroughly modern terms. The epic tradition gave him one muthos, which served him for his characters and the plot. But fifth-century Athens gave him a second muthos, which he laid like a template over the first. The play is as much a drama of language as of persons and character. The play brings onto the stage several terms that were important in the intellectual debates of the fifth century: sophos, muthos, logos, psyche, daimon, physis, techne. Under its antique dress, the play is actively engaged in the issues of its own time, especially as related to the soul and the seductive power of words. The Odysseus of this play is a 5th century sophist, and Neoptolemus his prize pupil (until he falls away).

Athens was in a state of great anxiety at when this play was produced (409 BCE). Several documents, including this play, testify to this anxiety. Ten years later the Athenians had Socrates put to death on charges of atheism and corruption of the young. In the Apology, when Socrates states the real charges against him, they are exactly those as brought by Sophocles against Odysseus in this play and Neoptolemus could be one those young men whom he was alleged to have corrupted. The Philoctetes reflects the turmoil of its time but it may also have significantly shaped the public opinion that would soon condemn Socrates to death.

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