Monday, January 2, 2012

Euripides and Honor

Yesterday, I started year 6 of The Plan with Euripides’ Hecuba and Virgil’s Aeneid, a perfect pair since they both deal with events following the fall of Troy. In Virgil’s epic, the noble Trojan Aeneas sails westward with the promise of founding Rome as a new Troy. In Euripides’ tragedy, Hecuba, captured queen of the fallen city, mourns as she sees her children killed in the aftermath of the war.

The play focuses on honor, both honor in life and honor in death. Hecuba pleads at one point for permission to die along with her daughter, Polyxena, offering the reasoning that dying on one’s own terms is better than living as a slave. Polyxena herself must die for honor – the honor of Achilles, whose spirit appears to the Greek chiefs and demands her blood in return for all he did for them. Agamemnon asks the pleading Hecuba simply, Do you think it right that I should dishonor a friend and a hero?

As I returned to ancient Greece yesterday, the culture struck my twenty-first century suburban sensibilities as barbaric and heartless: after all, why assume that honoring Achilles means killing a girl? But the play doesn’t just accept the bloodlust; the whole idea of the story is that what sounds good to the Greeks in theory brings terror to the life of the sympathetic main character. Euripides seems to be challenging his culture’s brutal assumptions, although not necessarily with anything satisfactory to offer in its place.

I wonder how much Euripides shaped his contemporary’s doubts and how much he reflected them. Both Hecuba and Agamemnon believe in the gods; it’s hard not to when the spirit of a demigod shows up demanding a sacrifice. The character Talthybius, on the other hand, questions the existence of the gods when he sees the once-glorious queen debased to dishonorable servitude. But then what was an ancient Greek to do, with a mythology that gave him whimsical gods? The chorus tells Hecuba to pray but admits that the outcome is a coin toss: “Either thy prayers will prevent thy being deprived of thy wretched daughter, or thou must behold the virgin falling before the tomb, dyed in blood gushing forth in a dark stream from her neck adorned with gold.”

Reading Hecuba makes me grateful for God’s revealed teachings (1) that God is not whimsical and works even pain and evil for good, (2) that he does not require the blood sacrifice of children, and (3) that, though we are all slaves to something, being a slave of God is the greatest honor a human could receive. But I can’t say that even these doctrines solve all the conundrums or make it easy to accept war and the death of children. So I’m grateful, too, that Euripides wrestled with these great questions and that his searching words survive.

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