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Anthropologie des mondes

grecs anciens

Tragedy and Ritual [" Cry 'Woe, woe' but may the good prevail !"]
" Cry 'Woe, woe' but may the good prevail !"
Patricia E. Easterling

Tragedy and Ritual (pp. 87-109)
Ce travail envisage la possibilité que l'action scénique impliquée par les textes tragiques grecs fournisse des indices importants
sur les relations entre tragédie et rituel. On examine de façon assez détaillée des exemples pris dans trois pièces (Ajax,
LesEuménides, l'Electre d'Euripide); ils suggèrent que, par l'évocation de l'action rituelle, ce qui est dit et montré sur scène
reçoit un sens plus profond. L'idée couramment partagée que l'usage tragique d'un rituel est toujours de quelque façon anormal
ou subversif est beaucoup trop restrictive; on envisage ensuite quelques perspectives plus larges de recherche.

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

Easterling Patricia E. Tragedy and Ritual [" Cry 'Woe, woe' but may the good prevail !"]. In: Mètis. Anthropologie des mondes
grecs anciens, vol. 3, n°1-2, 1988. pp. 87-109;

doi :

Fichier pdf généré le 26/04/2018

«Cry 'Woe, woe', but may the good prevail!»

Récent work on ritual has had a stimulating effect on the interprétation of

Greek tragedy. Critics hâve at last felt free to set aside the old question of
origins and the search for archetypal patterns, and to focus attention in-
stead on the ritual language used in tragic texts. The impetus has corne
from outside -from structuralist anthropology and the work of such writers
as Karl Meuli, René Girard and Victor Turner- but the application of
thèse théories to ancient drama has only been possible because the
groundwork had been laid by générations of scholars active in the field of
Greek religion, with their studies of sacrifice, mysteries, festivals, cuit
songs, funerary practices and the rest1. Yet despite ail this interest and ac-
tivity, reflected in the publications of the last twenty years in particular,
there has been a curious lack of attention to one potentially fruitful sub-
ject, the connexion between ritual action and action in the théâtre (Walter
Burkert's récent study «Opferritual bei Sophokles. Pragmatik-Symbolik-
Theater» is an important exception)2. Hère, it seems, is a gênerai area

1. Extensively documentée! in Walter Burkert, Greek Religion , trans. J. Raffan,

Oxford 1985. See also Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek
Religion, Oxford 1983.
2. Altsprachliche Unterricht, 28, 2, 1985, pp. 5-20. Cf. also Peter Burian,
«Supplication and Hero Cuit in Sophocles Ajax» , Greek, Rom. &Byz, Studies, 13, 1972, pp. 151-
6; Hélène Foley, «The Masque of Dionysus», Trans. & Proceed. Amer. Philol. Assoc,
110, 1980, pp. 107-33; Richard Seaford, «Dionysiac drama and the Dionysiac
mysteries», Classical Quarterly, 31, 1981, pp. 252-75; J.-P. Vernant, «Le Dionysos masqué
des Bacchantes d' Euripide», in J.-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, Mythe et tragédie
, Paris, 1986, pp. 237-70.

which deserves to be more fully investigated3; this paper attempts to

sketch some Unes of approach.
The first thing that strikes one is the sheer extent of the évidence offered
by our surviving plays, which is not adequately explained by the fact that
tragedy mimicked the patterns of Greek social life and was therefore
bound to écho some of its ritual activities. Much has been written recently4
about the rite of sacrifice and its central importance in tragedy -Agamem-
non, Women ofTrachis, Héraclès, the Iphigenia plays, are obvious
examples- but we should not overlook ail the other rituals that are performed or
described or referred to in tragedy; those surrounding birth as in
Euripides' Electra, marriage as in Alcestis or LA. , death, as in the funerals
at the end of Seven against Thebes, or Aj'ax; rites that establish contact
with the dead, such as the necromancy of the Persae or the offerings given
to the dead Agamemnon in plays on the Electra story; purification rituals
as in the water-and-honey libations to be offered to the Eumenides in
Oedipus Coloneus; oath-taking as in Medea; supplication, as in a wide
range of plays from Aeschylus' Suppliants and Eumenides onwards5.
Some of thèse rituals are enacted on stage, like supplication, évocation of
the dead and oath-taking; some are prepared for, as when processions

3. Particularly in the light of the interest shown in ritual by modem dramatists and di-
rectors; cf. Christopher Innés, Holy Théâtre, Cambridge, 1981; Richard Schechner,
Between Théâtre and Anthropology , Philadelphia, 1985.
4. See especially Froma I. Zeitlin, «The Motif of the Corrupted Sacrifice in
Aeschylus' Oresteia», Trans. & Proceed Amer. Philol. Assoc. , 96, 1965, pp. 463-508; Walter
Burkert, «Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual», Greek, Rom. &Byz. Studies, 7, 1966,
pp. 87-121 and Homo necans, Berlin and New York, 1972; Pierre Vidal-Naquet,
«Chasse et sacrifice dans YOrestie d' Eschyle», Mythe et tragédie en Grèce ancienne,
Paris, 1977, pp. 135-58; Bernd Seidensticker, «Sacrificial Ritual in the Bacchae», in
G.W. Bowersock et alledd. , Arktouros, Berlin and New York, 1979, pp. 181-90; Hélène
Foley, Ritual Irony, Ithaca and London, 1985.
5. On Electra, see Michael J. O' Brien, «Orestes and the Gorgon: Euripides'
Electra», Amer. Journal of Philol., 85, 1964, pp. 13-39 and Froma I. Zeitlin, «The Ar-
give Festival of Hera and Euripides' Electra», Trans. & Proceed. Amer. Philol. Assoc. ,
101, 1970, pp. 645-69; on Alcestis, Richard Buxton, «Euripides' Alkestis: Five Aspects
of an Interprétation» , in Lyn Rodley (ed . ) , Papers Given at a Colloquium in Honour of
R.P. Winnington -Ingram — Journal ofHell. Studies, Supplementary Papers, 15, 1987,
pp. 17-29; on Iphigenia in Aulide Foley, supra (n. 4), ch. 2; on Septem, G.O. Hutchin-
son's édition (Oxford, 1985) on 822-1004, and in gênerai Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual
Lamentin Greek Tradition, Cambridge, 1974; on Oedipus Coloneus, W. Burkert, supra
(n. 2); on suppliant plays P. Burian, supra (n. 2) and «Suppliant and Saviour: Oedipus at
Colonus», Phoenix, 28, 1974, pp. 408-29.

leave the stage accompanying corpses for burial; some are narrated and
their after-effects displayed, as in Bacchae, when the remains of Pentheus,
torn apart in the sparagmos, are brought on stage.
The range of possibilities is enormously widened by the fact that the
chorus is always there, and it is never simply a group of sympathetic by-
standers or witnesses -elders, local women, attendants- whose function is
to offer reaction and commentary. It is always also a choros ready to per-
form lyrics patterned on ritual song and dance and accompanied by ap-
propriate music: a paean giving thanks for victory, as in the parodos of An-
tigone, or asking for deliverance from plague as in Oedipus Tyrannus, a
funeral lament, a maenadic cuit song, and so on. There is hardly any choral
lyric that is entirely without such associations.
Many of the ritual moments are also high points in the dramatic action,
like the summoning up of Darius in the Persae, the great «Panathenaic»
procession at the end of Eumenides, Oedipus pronouncing his solemn
curse on the unknown murderer of Laius, or Creusa taking refuge at the
altar in the Ion6. Related to this is the fact that the ritual forms and ritual
language are very fully integrated and used with great intensity in our sur-
viving plays. The familiar form of the threnos, for example, could hâve
been used merely to create an émotive but relatively empty atmosphère of
grief as a backing to the utterances of the leading characters, but the
threnoi that we actually find are adapted in more subtle ways to their
dramatic contexts. So in the Persae the final lament picks up and
élaborâtes thèmes that were important earlier in the play. Whereas in the
parodos the setting out of the Persian army and Xerxes' yoking of the Hel-
lespont were described in comparatively neutral terms, now the connexion
between the king's actions and the disasters suffered by his troops is finally
understood and expounded, and the ritual context seems to add power to
this tragic illumination7.
Any attempt to account for this very rich and varied use of ritual
éléments must take note of the gênerai truth that ritual and drama hâve a
great deal in common. To begin with the most obvious point, they work
through similar forms, as Hélène Foley notes: «Ritual, like tragic theater,
involves staging, symbolic gestures, dressing up, and role-playing. Both

6. Persae, 598-680; Eumenides, 1003-47 (discussed below); Oedipus Tyrannus, 222-

75; /on, 1250-1319.
7. Gerald F. Else, «Ritual and Drama in Aischyleian Tragedy», Illinois Class.
Studies, 2, 1977, pp. 70-87; cf. J.A. Haldane, «Musical Thèmes and Imagery in Aes-
chylus», Journal ofHell. Studies, 85, 1965, pp. 35-6.

ritual and drama may offer an expérience of liminality that establishes or

confirms links between past and présent, individual and society, as well as
among man, god and nature»8.
Secondly , both ritual and drama deal in displacement and pretence. Ad-
mittedly the Greeks practised blood sacrifice, but the killing of the animal
victim, large or small, was always symbolic of some other act of violence.
Much has been written about the «comedy of innocence», in Greek sacrifi-
cal ritual: the hiding of the knife, the supposed willingness of the victim,
and so on9. Similarly it is the crucial élément of make-believe in drama that
makes possible that vital paradox tragicpleasure. It is surely of enormous
importance that tragedy should observe very careful limits: the extrême
horror of the situations imagined -murder, incest, cannibalism- is ba-
lanced by extrême stylisation, or avoidance altogether, of the violence and
bloodshed evoked by the language10.
Thirdly , time as experienced in ritual is similar to time as experienced in
drama: the events of the Agamemnon when performed exist in the same
temporal relation to their audience as the singing of the paean or the
dithyramb or the cérémonies of the Panathenaea (or the célébration of the
Mass, for that matter), détachable from the «real time» -the minutes or
hours— taken by the performance or procession11. And in the same way
each is infinitely repeatable12.
Thèse are important common features, and it is no accident that modem
Avant-garde dramatists, in their attempts to revive the power of the
théâtre in an «alienated» society, hâve looked to ritual forms for
inspiration13. But it is one thing to recognise in gênerai terms that drama and
ritual hâve close interconnexions ; it is quite another to read the meaning of
this relationship in any particular Greek play . At least thèse gênerai points
should remind us to pay close attention to the form and structure of the
events as presented on stage, to the connexion between what is said and

8. Supra, (n. 4), p. 63.

9. See especially W. Burkert (n. 4) and H. Foley (n. 4), ch. 1.
10. Cf. Nicole Loraux, Façons tragiques de tuer une femme, Paris 1985, pp. 63, 83.
1 1 . On the comparability of theatrical and liturgical time see the case history («The
lost mariner») described in Oliver Sacks, The Man who mistook his Wife fora Hat, Lon-
dôn, 1985, ch. 2.
12. This point bears on the distinction, sometimes too readily drawn by critics,
between the uniqueness of drama and the repetitiveness of ritual. See e.g. Brian Vickers,
Towards Greek Tragedy, London, 1973, pp. 33, 41-2 and Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy
in Action, London, 1978, pp. 161-2.
13. Cf. supra, n. 3.

what is shown, in so far as the text allows us to grasp it.

We need to look closely at some examples, and Sophocles'/iy&Ymakes a
good starting point, as this is a play whose possible links with ritual hâve
long been of interest to scholars. The closing anapaests (vv. 1402-20) con-
sist of Teucer's instructions to his unnamed helpers, chorus or super-
numeraries, perhaps both, to prépare his brother's funeral, and the play
thus ends with a procession which demonstrates that due and public hon-
our is to be paid to Ajax, despite the hostility of Menelaus and Agamem-
non. Taken by itself this might seem like a rather perfunctory, or at least
straightforward, use of ritual to provide a suitable departure scène at the
end of the play. But the scène is not to be taken by itself: it represents the
culmination of most of the play's important thèmes and illustrâtes the way
in which ritual action can powerfully intensify verbal meaning.
From the start the play asks the question «What will become of Ajax and
how can he escape disgrâce?». In the earlier scènes the emphasis is on the
likelihood of his death and its implications for Ajax himself, Tecmessa and
the sailors, not explicitly yet on what will happen to his corpse; but at vv.
574-7 Ajax himself introduces the idea, and it eventually cornes to domi-
nate the play. In bequeathing his shield to his son, Ajax envisages that ail
the rest of his armour will be buried with him, which is presumably to be
seen as an honorific treatment of his corpse on the analogy of e.g. Iliad,
VI, 418, where Achilles as a mark of respect to Eetion burns his body with
ail his armour (cf. Odyssey, XI, 74)14. Later Ajax makes clear that he rec-
ognises the threat of exposure, the ultimate offence that an enemy can in-
flict15, but he mentions it only to reject it, when he prays that news of his
death will reach Teucer, who will raise his corpse and save it from being
thrown to the dogs and birds (vv. 827-30). After his suicide the corpse is
visible in the théâtre16 as a reminder for the audience of the ever more
urgent question «What will become of Ajax?»
The corpse's présence is emphasised in the références to stage business
which punctuate the lamentations of Tecmessa, the Chorus, and Teucer.

14. On the distinction betweenburningandburialseebelowp. 10. Ajax himself speci-

fically envisages burial (v. 577).
15. SeeR. Parker(n. 1), pp. 41-8. The thème hasstrong associations with the Iliad; cf.
in gênerai Charles Segal, The Thème of the Mutilation ofthe Corpse in the Iliad, Leiden,
1971 = Mnemosyne, suppl. 17; J.-P. Vernant, «La belle mort et le cadavre outragé» in
G. Gnoli and J.-P. Vernant (edd.), La mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes,
Cambridge, 1982, pp. 121-31.
16. Ajax dies at v. 865; the corpse is found by Tecmessa at v. 891. On the problems of
staging see David Seale, Vision and Stagecraft in Sophocles, London, 1982, pp. 165-67.

Tecmessa respectfully covers the body with a cloak as soon as she finds it
(vv. 915 sqq.), and at once she begins to think of the funeral: whatphiJos is
there -who from among Ajax's family and friends- to raise the corpse? (τίς
σε βαστάσει φίλων; ω. 920). The only Teucer would corne and «lay it out»
(συγκαθαρμόσαι, ω. 922). When Teucer does arrive he asks for the body to
be uncovered (v. 1003)'; the sight of it prompts his speech of despair, but he
is the responsible philos whose task (as he acknowledges) is to remove the
sword from the body (v. 1024) and (as the Chorus pressingly remind him)
to bury Ajax, resisting the mockery of his enemies (vv. 1040-43). The
anxiety is justified: Menelaus cornes not only to mock, but also to
forbid the burial of one who is so plainly a traitor to the Greek cause, a
shocking outrage to the corpse of a former comrade (vv. 1047 sqq., vv.
1062-5: the corpse is to be thrown out on the yellow sand, as prey for the
sea birds, vv. 1089, 1092). Teucer's response is that he will «rightly and
duly» bury his brother (v. 1109), but Menelaus challenges his view of
divine law by counting Ajax as a public enemy who has forfeited his claim to
burial (vv. 1129-34). The unresolved issue is epigrammatically summed up
at vv. 1140 sqq.:
ME. εν σοι φράσω* τόνδ' εστίν ούχι θαπτέον.
ΤΕΥ. αλλ' άντακούσει τοϋτον ώς τεθάψεται.
Menelaus: Hear my last word - that man must not be buried.
Teucer: And hear my answer - he shall be buried forthwith.
(Jebb's translation)
The Chorus's comment on this scène is interesting: they recognise that
nothing is y et settled, since there is a further trial of strength to corne
(εσται μεγάλης έριδος τις άγων, ν. 1163), but they urge Teucer to go and
look for a hollow grave ( κοίλη ν κάπετον) for Ajax, «where he shall hâve
his mouldering tomb, forever remembered by men», ένθα βροτοις τον
άεΐμνηστον / τάφον εύρώεντα καθέξει (νν. 1167 sqq.). For the modem
reader the Homeric echoes hère in rhythm and diction are reminders of the
traditional importance of posthumous honour, but for an audience to
whom hero cuit was a vivid reality, and Ajax a major local hero, the lan-
guage would surely also suggest the exceptional significance attached to
this burial17. The whole design of the latter part of the play certainly makes

17. The famé of Ajax's tomb on the shore of the Hellespont should also be taken into
account. See Jebb's Introduction, pp. xxx-xxxii. One can recognise the importance of
thèse implications without having to accept Jebb's argument that the unity of the play
dépends on the idea that Ajax will become a cuit hero.
Tragedy And ritual 93

it the focus of attention, nowhere more intensely than in the scène which
now follows.
At v. 1168 Tecmessa and Eurysaces arrive to «tend the burial» (τάφον
περιστελοϋντε). As Jebb notes, in life off-stage this would entail the wash-
ing and dressing of the corpse and the pouring of liquid offerings to the
dead. But what is enacted on stage is a remarkable scène of supplication:
Teucer, on his way to prépare the grave, instructs the child to take a
suppliant position beside his father's corpse, holding three locks of hair in
his hand, Teucer's, Tecmessa's and his own. As he cuts a lock from his own
head Teucer pronounces a curse on anyone who tries to force the child
away from his place of sanctuary, his father's body to which he must cling
(vv. 1175-81):
ει δε τις στρατοΰ
βία σ' άποσπάσειε τοϋδε του νεκροΰ,
κακός κακώς αθαπτος έκπέσοι χθονός,
γένους άπαντος ρίζαν έξημημένος,
αϋτως δπωσπερ
εχ' αυτόν, ώ παϊ,τόνδ'
και φύλασσε,
εγώ τέμνωμηδέ
κινησάτω τις, άλλα προσπεσών εχου.
«But if anyone from the army should forcibly drag you from this
corpse, then may he suffer evil for evil and be cast out of the land un-
buried, and may his race be eut off, root and branch, even as I eut
this lock ...».
The scène has been perceptively analysed by Peter Burian18, who notes
that three separate ritual acts are interwoven hère, supplication, an offer-
ing to the dead and a solemn curse. He continues (pp. 152-53):
«The vocabulary of supplication runs throughout the passage.
Eurysaces is to be ικέτης and προστρόπαιος, the usual désignations
of the suppliant in tragedy. He is to sit or kneel (θακεΐ, προσπεσών)
at his father's corpse like a suppliant at the altar. He faces the threat
of forcible removal from his place of refuge (βία σ' άποσπάσειε). Yet
thèse suppliant commonplaces take on a new meaning in the context
of the scène.
Eurysaces lays his hand upon the body not merely as a suppliant,
but also as its guardian in Teucer's absence. Thus, his own safety is
absorbed into the immédiate necessity of protecting the dead Ajax

18. Supra n. 2.

from his foes. To drag the suppliant from his refuge would not only
violate suppliant rights but also call down upon the enemy Teucer's
terrible curse. The curse, in turn, is directed specifically against the
violator of suppliant rights, against the man who would break the
sacred bond between Eurysaces and the body of Ajax.
That the traditional threat to the suppliant's safety hère becomes
part of Teucer's curse is but one example of the subtle linking of
ritual motifs in this passage. Eurysaces holds in his hands not the
suppliant's olive branch but locks of hair, a traditional offering to the
spirits of the dead (εν χεροΐν έχων κόμας); but this offering is also his
«suppliant treasure» (ίκτήριον θησαυρόν). Teucer extends this al-
ready complex constellation of rituals by making the shearing of his
hair the seal upon his curse (αυτως όπωσπερ τόνδ' εγώ τέμνω πλό-
κον), a gesture of sympathetic magie designed to ensure its efficacy».
Comparing this scène with «typical» instances of supplication in
tragedy, P. Burian points out that it is anomalous, since the supplication
takes place not within a sacred precinct, at an altar or a tomb, but over a
corpse: «Eurysaces becomes a suppliant as much to protect the corpse as to
protect himself ... The child, by seeking protection from the seemingly
helpîess warrior, reveals that Ajax is not helpless after ail. Indeed, the
body becomes in effect a hallowed place, for it is recognised to hâve the
power of a hero's tomb even before the question of his burial is settled» (p.
154). Burian
that «through
its hisvery
as ritual,
into a sacred hero» (p. 155). We shall need to return to the question of
anomaly, but this does not reduce the value of Burian's reading of the scène.
The stage action is indeed extraordinary, and its significance can be more
fully understood if we go on to consider the rest of the play.
The ritual actions themselves do not contribute to Agamemnon's
change of mind; this dépends on Odysseus, who obtains permission for
Ajax to be buried as a favour to himself as Agamemnon's valued friend
(vv. 1370-73, cf. vv. 1330-31). But Odysseus also offers arguments of prin-
ciple, which seem designed to win the approval of the audience if not of the
Atridae. He argues for the burial of Ajax in the name of justice (vv. 1335,
1342, vv. 1344-5): Ajax deserved well of the Greeks, and even if their
leaders had reason to hâte him, they had no right to deny him burial. This is in
accordanede with «the laws of the gods» (vv. 1343-44) and is what «ail the
Greeks» would think just (v. 1363); as Odysseus présents the case, it is
clinched by the thought that he too will need burial one day (ν. 1365)19. So

19. For a discussion of Odysseus' arguments, see R.P. Winnington-Ingram, Sopho-

"les, an Interprétation, Cambridge, 1980, pp. 66-72.

the ritual action with which the play closes can be seen as a démonstration
of the civilised community's shared (idéal) values, and if the burial also
confirms what was prefigured in the scène of supplication, that Ajax is to
become a sacred hero, there is a strong implication that those who share in
the ritual can also share in the benefits to corne from his power. But how
far is the burial of Ajax a public event, shared by the community? The At-
ridae, of course, hâve dissociated themselves and are explicitly excluded
by Teucer, but what of Odysseus and the army? Critics hâve often been
troubled by Teucer's refusai of Odysseus' offer to help with the funeral as a
philos ought (vv. 1376-80) , but they hâve not always given close enough
attention to exactly what he says in this speech (vv. 1381-99).
He begins with words of unqualified praise for Odysseus, admittinghis
surprise that the man who was once Ajax's deadliest enemy was the only
one to stand by him, in sharp contrast with the Atridae, who insulted his
corpse and wanted to throw it out unburied. «Therefore may the father
who rules over Olympus and the mindful Fury and Justice the fulfiller
bring the evil men to an evil end, even as they wished to insuit and expose
him undeservedly» (vv. 1389-92). Thèse Unes quite closely écho the
passage in Ajax's suicide speech where he calls on the Furies to fulfil his curse
on the Atridae (vv. 835-44) and ends with an appeal to the Furies to «glut
their wrath» on the whole army (vv. 843-4):
ϊτ' ώ ταχεΐαι ποίνιμοί τ' Ερινύες,
γεύεσθε, μή φείδεσθε πανδήμου στρατού.
Now Teucer marks the change that has taken place: the only persons to
be cursed and excluded are the Atridae, whereas Odysseus and any of the
army he chooses to bring are invited to attend the funeral, although Teucer
dares not let Odysseus hâve any close ritual contact with the dead man (vv.
σε δ', ώ γεραιοΰ σπέρμα Λαέρτου πατρός,
τάφου μεν όκνω τοΰδ' έπιψαύειν εάν
μή τω θανόντι τοϋτο δυσχερές ποώ'
τα δ' άλλα και ξύμπρασσε, κει τίνα στρατού
θέλεις κομΐζειν, ουδέν άλγος εξομεν.
εγώ δε τάλλα πάντα πορσυνώ' συ δε
άνήρ καθ' ημάς έσθλος ών έπίστασο.
«But Ι scruple, son of aged Laertes, to allow you to lend a hand20 in

20. This is an inadéquate translation of έπιψαύτιν, which lays more emphasis on phys-
ical contact; cf. Jebb and Stanford adloc.

the burial rites, in case I offend the dead man by doing so; but in ail
other respects please do join in, and if you wish to bring any of the
troops we shall hâve no objection [i.e. you will be welcome]. I will
see to the rest of the préparations; you must be assured that in our
eyes you are a good man».
Odysseus accepts Teucer's refusai of help with the burial and leaves the
stage at v. 1401, but there is nothing to indicate that he and some un-
specified number of soldiers will not do as Teucer suggests and witness the
funeral when the time comes (τα δ' άλλα και ξύμπρασσε, «do co-operate in
the rest», at v. 1396 certainly implies -though in the vaguest possible
terms- that Odysseus has a part to play)21 . The actions we see at the end of
the play are the préparations for this event, préparations which are to be
performed only by the nearest and dearest of the dead man. The funeral
could hâve been presented as an exclusive, almost private ceremony, or a
hasty, makeshift one, as the Chorus seem to envisage at vv. 1040-4322, but
lines 1396-7 explicitly make it open to Odysseus and any of the army who
care to corne. It is a far cry from the scène described by the Messenger at
vv. 719-32, where Teucer is surrounded by a crowd of Greek soldiers
threatening to stone him for what Ajax has done in his madness. Now it is
the Atridae who are isolated, when Odysseus has won permission for a
burial which he characterises, perhaps unexpectedly, as «just in the eyes of ail
the Greeks» (1363).
In his final speech (vv. 1402-17) Teucer divides his helpers into three
groups. One is to dig a grave for Ajax, another is to heat a cauldron over
the fire for «holy ablutions», and a third is to bring the hero's armour from
his tent. Teucer himself and the child Eurysaces, as clos&st philoi oi Ajax,
are to lift up the corpse (with help, we might guess, from attendants). AH
that is shown to the audience is presumably a procession in which the
corpse and the armour are solemnly carried off-stage (i.e. down one of the
eisodoi), and the rest of the burial ritual is left to the audience's
imagination: the digging of the grave in the place chosen by Teucer (cf. vv. 1183-
84), the washing and final committal of the body.
The détails singled out by Teucer are interesting. The «hollow grave»,

21. See Jebb's good note. In the Odyssey (XI, 556-8) Odysseus tells Ajax that «we
Achaeans» grieved for him as much as for Achilles, and according to Philostratus
(Heroicus, XXXV, 13) the lamentations of the Greeks for the dead Ajax were so loud
that they were heard in Troy.
22. Cf. Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, Cambridge Mass., 1982, p. 144.

κοΐλην κάπετον, at ν. 1403, repeating the expression used at v. 1165, is a

quotation from IJïad, XXIV, 797, which occurs in a famous passage de-
scribing the funeral of Hector. (The word κάπετος is used by Sophocles
only hère and at v. 1165, and in the Iliad only at XXIV, 797 in the sensé
«grave»). So Ajax is once more put on a par with Hector, as often and iron-
ically in this play, Hector being the paradigm of the enemy who was also a
friend23, and the écho also offers a clue to the significance of the ritual.
This passage recalls the great funeral that is the culmination of the Iliad,
but there is a telling différence between the two scènes. In Homeric poetry
the honorific way to dispose of a dead warrior is of course to burn the
corpse on a pyre, collect the bones, place them in an urn or coffer and
cover that with a burial mound, as at Hector 's funeral, Iliad, XXIV, 790-99
(or if the warrior died abroad, like Patroclus, the bones were kept to be re-
turned home, and a cenotaph was built ο ver the pyre, Iliad, XXIII, 250-
57). In Ajax by contrast there is no mention of the crémation stage at ail.
Nor is there any référence to the story evidently told in the Little Iliad,
Sophocles' main epic source for the death of Ajax, that the hero was re-
fused the honour of crémation and had to be buried instead in a coffin, «on
account of the anger of the king»24. The distinction between honorific
crémation and shameful burial has been completely expunged: burial is what
Ajax himself and everyone else in the play regards as the proper treatment
for a dead warrior, and there is no hint of «second-best», or of subjection
to the authority of Agamemnon, in the language used by Teucer. The epic
models hâve thus been creatively adapted in such a way as to give Ajax a
funeral fit to compare with Hector's; perhaps, too, the image of the body
in the ground would be more suggestive of Ajax's coming status in hero
Next the «holy ablutions», the washing of the corpse in préparation for
burial (vv. 1404-6). This familiar élément in funerary ritual is given spécial
significance through its links with earlier parts of the play. Ajax has pol-
luted himself through the slaughter of the cattle and then goes to seek
cleansing through another violent act, his own suicide, which he describes

23. On the links between Ajax and Hector, cf. P.E. Easterling «The tragic Homer»,
Bull, ofthelnst. ofClass. Studies, 31, 1984, pp. 1-8.
24. Fr. 3 (Allen) from Eustathius 285, 34, quoting Porphyry. Cf. Apollodorus,
Epitome, V. 7: 'Αγαμέμνων δέ κωλύει το σώμα αύτοϋ καήναι και μόνος ούτος των εν
Ίλίω θανόντων έν σορφ κείται· ô δέ τάφος εστίν εν 'Ροιτείω. Philostratus (Heroicus,
XXXV, 14-15) introduces the idea that Calchas advised burial on the ground that it was
not ritually correct to cremate suicides.
98 Patricia E. Easterling

in language of purification: «I will go to the bathing places (λουτρά) and

the meadows by the sea-shore, so that in purging myself of my stains I may
escape the heavy wrath of the goddess» (vv. 654-56). As Charles Segal
points out, Ajax rejects «normal» ritual: «He will not accept the cleansing
properties of the sea's water any more than he will accept the natural alter-
nation of the seasonal cycles. Blood, not water, will wash off his stain», but
the ablutions (λουτρά) of v. 1405 will restore him to society and are to be
seen as part of a return to ritual order, though «it is only his corpse that is
washed clean»25. The emphasis in «only his corpse» perhaps undervalues
the significance of this last purification. What happens to Ajax dead is
surely at least as important as what happens to him alive26.
Finally, the bringing out of the armour (vv. 1407-8). It is described as
τον ύπασπΐδιον κόσμον «dress under the shield», i.e. body-armour, and
the phrasing recalls Ajax's directions at vv. 572-77 that ail his armour
should be buried with him, apart from his shield, which he bequeaths to his
son, the appropriately named «Broadshield». So the détail hère reinforces
the sensé, suggested by the référence to the «hollow grave», that Ajax is to
be paid full honours in his funeral (cf. p. 91 above).
He has achieved what he wanted; and the audience as well as everyone
in the play apart from the Atridae may participate imaginatively in his
funeral, while the play itself perpétuâtes his memory. This is not a
rehabilitation or justification of Ajax, rather an appeal through ritual words and
action to values that a community ideally might share. And a play may make
such an appeal at the same time as exposing -and not solving- problems
that lie at the heart of the community 's life.
So much is perhaps not seriously controversial, but we must address the
issue of anomaly, raised by Burian in his interesting discussion of the
supplication scène (above p. 93): «Through its very anomaly as ritual
Eurysaces' supplication symbolically enacts his father's transformation
into a sacred hero». The question at once arises whether we are everpre-
sented with a ritual séquence which exactly replicates «real life». It is not
always the case that because the situation is explicitly fictive what is said
and shown is always in a sensé metaphorical? What is represented in the

25. Supra (n. 22), pp. 140 and 142.

26. Both Segal (n. 22) and Martin Sicherl, «The Tragic Issue in Sophocles' Ajax»,
Yale Class. Studies, 25, 1977, pp. 67-98, stress the connexions between Ajax's suicide
and the language of sacrifice, but there is no need to accept Sicherl's view (96) that the
suicide is to be «understood as a ritual sacrifice by which he atones for his offenses against

théâtre is both like and unlike the life it purports to imitate, like in that it
offers images of the «real world», unlike in that by définition it is make-be-
lieve. This makes «anomaly» a very difficult criterion to apply. The end of
Eumenides can perhaps be used to illustrate this gênerai point. This is the
scène in which the Furies, taking their eue from Athena, wish her citizens
increase of crops, animais and children, and freedom from civil strife. Its
ritual character is strongly marked, both in language and in stage action.
The song the Furies sing is identified as an «incantation» (έφυμνήσαι, ν.
902) and «prayer» (κατεύχομαι, ν. 921, cf. ν. 1021, έπεύχομαι ν. 979), and
its content, form and syntax make it recognisable as such27; Athena indi-
cates that the Furies are to be accompanied to their new homes by escorts,
προπομποί28 in a torch-lit procession (vv. 1005, 1022, 1029, 1041 sqq.) and
that sacrifices are to be performed (v. 1007)29. The citizens who hâve acted
as jurors (vv. 1010 sqq.), and the women who tend Athena's own statue,
will accompany the Furies (vv. 102-7), who are to be dressed in crimson
garments (ν. 1028)30, and as they go the προπομποί ask for ritual silence
(vv. 1035, 1038) and the singing of the όλολυγή (vv. 1043, 1047). As Head-
lam pointed out31, thèse détails suggest the festival of the Panathenaea,
with its procession to the statue of Athena in which both Athenians and
metics took part, the metics wearing red cloaks, as a mark, presumably, of

27. Cf. Supplices, 630-709 with the commentary of Friis-Johansen and Whittle. J. A.
Haldane (n. 7), p. 34, n. 10, notes the balance between prayer and deprecation.
28. On the identity of the Escort, see G. Thomson on Eumenides, 1027-31; C.W. Mac-
leod, «Clothing in the Oresteia» , Maia , n.s. 27, 1975, pp. 201-3 (= Collected Essays ,
Oxford, 1983, pp. 41-3), with bibliography; Oliver Taplin, The Stagecraft ofAeschylus,
Oxford, 1977, pp. 410-11.
29. Professor Henrichs points out to me that the term σφάγυια always désignâtes vic-
tims in process of being sacrified; so vv. 1007 sqq. must refer to a sacrifice imagined as
taking place while the procession makes its way.
30. This is the currently favoured interprétation of ν . 1028, but if there isalacunaim-
mediately before this line, as many scholars believe, there is no certainty as to the object
of τιμάτε at v. 1029, though the Furies remain the likeliest candidates. See Macleod and
Taplin, supra (n. 28).
31 . «The Last Scène of the Eumenides» , Journal ofHell. Studies, 26, 1906, pp. 268-77
(August Mommsen had previously made a similar suggestion); cf. G. Thomson on
Eumenides, 221-3. Not ail scholars accept the association with the Panathenaea. C.W.
Macleod, for example, interprets the red robes as an indication that the Furies are being
«received into the community with the honours due to its gods», supra (n. 28), pp. 201-2,
and P. Vidal-Naquet, supra (n. 4), p. 157 remarks «Divinités de la nuit, elles font l'object
de la fête nocturne qui termine la trilogie». On this reading the sacrificial victims at v.
1006 are for the Furies.

the good relations between citizens and résident foreigners in their wor-
ship of the city goddess32. The play ends with the Furies (described as «me-
tics» at v. 1101, cf. v. 1019) not, as they had threatened, bringing damage
to the city, but leaving in solemn procession and calling down benefits and
blessings on Athens as they go to their new home near the Acropolis, the
sacred place where they will receive cuit and be established as a safeguard
for the city. The stage action shows the audience first the performance of
the Furies' incantation and then the beginning of the festal procession,
which leads out of the play and into the «future», linking the remote past of
the myth with the présent time of the spectators33.
The gênerai trend of what is said and shown seems clear. The words of
the Furies, Athena and the Escorts evoke right relation in nature and in
the civic order: as critics hâve often pointed out, the imagery of fecundity
and growth, good songs, and cures, contrasts with ail the language of
blight, violence, ill-omened songs, and disease of the earlier parts of the
trilogy , and the wishes and hopes for the prosperity of Athens are ones that
the spectators are invited to share. But the ritual séquences enacted hère
are not literal représentations of anything in «real life». The Furies' prayer
is not the same as a prayer made by human beings to gods, because the
Furies are divine and in actual cuit practice, as Semnai Theai or
Eumenides, are themselves the récipients of prayer. It is true that at one
point they address their requests to the gods who hâve the power over the
lives of human beings, including the Fates, their own sisters (vv. 959-67),
but on the other hand Athena describes what they are doing as «fulfilling»
(έπικραΐνειν, vv. 949, 969), which is far beyond what mortals could do,
and she expressly emphasises their power (μέγα γαρ δύναται / πότνΓ
Έρινύς, ν. 950). Again, the «Panathenaea» as represented hère is
différent from the festival as it was experienced by the audience of the Oresteia:
the time is the remote past, the place an imaginary Athens, a «région of the
mind», Athena herself is represented as taking part in the procession, the
Furies take the place of human metics, and there are divergences from cus-
tomary procédure in the ceremony itself34. But it does not seem to be ano-

32. Erika Simon, Festivals of Attica, Madison Wisconsin, 1983, p. 70 with n. 74,
suggests that the σκάφη φόροι, «the young metics in purple gowns who carry elaborate
métal troughs filled with honeycombs and cakes», carry honeycombs for Ge Kouro-
trophos and cakes perhaps for Athena's chthonic companion the snake. Honey was a
well-known propitiatory offering to chthonic gods.
33. On ritual as a means of making links between past and présent cf. H. Foley, supra
(n. 4), pp. 62-3.
34. Torches, for example, seem to hâve been confined to the torch race held the night
tragedy and ritual 101

maly as such that gives the scène its undoubted power. A broader term like
«metaphor» is perhaps more appropriate, though this too is no more than a
Granted that the world of the drama is elusive in this way, we should
however note that the texts themselves often draw explicit attention to
divergence from «normal» ritual patterns, as in Agamemnon, when Calchas
calls the sacrifice of Iphigenia «another sacrifice, one without précèdent
and law, without a feast» (θυσΐαν έτέραν, ανομόν τιν', άδαιτον, ν. 151) or
in the Trojan Women, when Hecuba tells Cassandra that she is doing the
wrong thing in carrying a torch for her «marriage» to Agamemnon (vv.
343-52)35. Not surprisingly , the use -or misuse- of ritual language and
action to intensify a sensé of moral and social disorder is extremly common in
tragedy. Hère too we need to attend closely to the interplay between what
is said and what is shown; a rather complex but not untypical example from
Euripides' Electra will serve as illustration.
Hère the killing of the usurper and adultérer Aegisthus, which could
hâve been presented as a legitimate act of punishment36, is made deeply
problematic through the shocking outrage to ritual order that it entails.
When Orestes and Electra hâve been reunited and the Old Man is advising
them on a plan for the killing of Aegisthus, he explains that the best time to
carry out the murder is forthwith, while Aegisthus is out of the country,
where he has just been seen preparing to make a sacrifice (vv. 625-7):
Old Man: I believe he was making a célébration for the Nymphs.
Orestes: As a thanksgiving for the rearing of a child, or in aid of a com-
ing birth?
Old Man: Ail I know is that he was getting ready to sacrifice.
The circumstantial détail given hère is typical of the strong emphasis on

before the procession. For comparable problems of interprétation in art cf. E. Simon,
supra (n. 32); Susan I. Rotroff, «The Parthenon Frieze and the Sacrifice to Athena»,
Amer. Journal ofArchaeol. , 81, 1977, pp. 379-82.
35. ανομον at Agamemnon , 151 might alternatively mean 'unaccompanied by the
flûte': cf. H. Lloyd-Jones, Class. Quarterly, n.s. 3, 1953, p. 96. See J. A. Haldane, supra
(n. 1), p. 39, for further examples, and William C. Scott, Musical Design in Aeschylean
Theater, Hanover and London, 1984, pp. 16-19. On wedding ritual, see now Richard
Seaford, «The Tragic Wedding», Journal ofHell. Studies, 107, 1987, pp. 106-130, espe-
ciallyp. 128.
36. There is no word of blâme for Orestes in the Odyssey; cf. Aeschylus, Choephori,
989-90 with Garvie's note.

ri tuai in this play37, and the particularity of the language may be a pointer
to the importance of the ritual setting: the form εροτις, which is used at v.
625 for εορτή, «festival», is found nowhere else in tragedy, but occurs in
inscriptions38. It is significant, too, that the deities to whom the sacrifice is
made are the Nymphs, bringers of fertility, who were associated with the
birth and rearing of children39. As critics hâve pointed out40, the killing of
Aegisthus is thus linked with the killing -at the hands of her own children-
of Clytemnestra, who is lured to her death by a bogus invitation to perform
the rite of purification after Electra has supposedly given birth to a son.
The Old Man goes on to describe the rural spot where he saw Aegisthus
making his préparations; Orestes, he says, must pass close by, so that
Aegisthus will invite him to join the feast. «A bitter sharer in the meal he
will find me» is Orestes' grim reply (πικρόν γε συνθοινάτορ', ν. 638), a
phrase which foreshadows the distortion of ritual that is to corne. The en-
counter is not shown on stage (Aegisthus, indeed, is never seen alive), but
it is lavishly described by the Messenger in his long speech at vv. 774-858.
Aegisthus is out in the orchard gathering myrtle for a garland (v. 778); he
invites the «strangers» (Orestes and Pylades, pretending to be Thessalians
on their way to sacrifice at Olympia) to join in the sacrificial feast that he is
making for the Nymphs, and asks his servants to bring water for them to
wash in so that they may participate in the ceremony (vv. 784-92)41.
Orestes' sinister refusai to take part in the washing, on the ground that he
and Pylades hâve just purified themselves in running water (vv. 793 sqq.),
is evidently an offence against ritual propriety, whether we are to see it as
an évasion of full participation, which would involve them in sacrilège (Den-
niston ad Joe), or as participation under false pretences (H. Foley, pp. 43
sqq.). The next line adds a further ironie détail («If it is right for strangers
and citizens to sacrifice together», v. 795) Orestes is no «stranger», and
this sacrifice may indeed not be «right».
At vv. 800-14 the Messenger gives a detailed account of the sacrifice: the

37. Cf. F. Zeitlin (n. 5), pp. 651-9.

38. See Liddel-Scott-Jones, Greek-English Lexj'con, s. v.
39. Cf. F.G. Ballantine, «Some Phases in the Cuit of the Nymphs», Harvard Studies
in Class. Phi/o/., 15, 1904, pp. 97-106.
40. M. O' Brien (n. 5), pp. 26-7; F. Zeitlin (n. 5), pp. 651-9; H. Foley (n. 4), pp. 43-5.
Perhaps the germ of Euripides' play is to be found in Choephori, 386-9 (see Garvie's note
on the sacrificial language).
41. The vocabulary at vv. 791-2 has strong ritual overtones: λουτρά, βωμόν, στώσι,

bowl for catching the victim's blood is brought, along with baskets for the
sacrificial barley, the fire is kindled and the cooking pots are placed on the
hearth. Aegisthus scatters the barley meal on the altar, offering a prayer to
the Nymphs of the rocks , while Orestes silently prays for the opposite , can-
celling Aegisthus' wish for harm to corne to his «enemies» (the children of
Clytemnestra). Aegisthus takes the sacrificial knife out of the basket, cuts
off some of the victim's hair and throws it into the fire , then kills the calf as
his attendants hold it on their shoulders. Ail this, apart from the conflicting
prayers, seems to follow correct ritual procédure42, but the context makes
it horrifying, since we know that Orestes and Pylades are not the harmless
strangers they purport to be, and the atmosphère of menace is intensified
when Orestes, courteously invited to take part in the cutting up of the vic-
tim, gets a weapon into his hands. He flays the beast in a highly expert
manner, and there is an abundance of verbs of violent action, culminating
in the killing of Aegisthus himself; as H. Foley points out43, the «gross
specificity» of the description brings out not just the physical horror but the
shocking transformation of sacrificial butchery into murder.
The détail recalls normal procédure: the skinning of the victim followed
by the extraction of the σπλάγχνα -heart, lungs, liver and kidneys- which
were the organs to be cooked and tasted first44. In this case the σπλάγχνα
are «read» as omens, and the omens are ail bad: the liver has no lobe, the
portai vein and gall bladder look sinister, and Aegisthus correctly inter-
prets their evil significance, a plot against him from outside. Orestes asks
for a heavier cleaver to break the breast-bone and extract the σπλάγχνα
«so that we can dine on the eatable organs» (vv. 835 sqq.); as Aegisthus
stoops to sort and inspect them Orestes stands over him on tiptoe and
brings the cleaver down on his spine. It is a hideous and disgusting death
(vv. 842-3):
παν δέ σώμ' άνω κάτω
ήσπαιρεν ήλάλαζε δυσθνήσκων φόνω.
«With ail his body, from tip to toe, he shuddered
and shrieked, dying a horrible death».

42. Cf. Denniston ad. loc. , summarising the account in P. Stengel, Opfergebràuche
derGriechen, Leipzig, 1910; W. Burkert (n. 1), pp. 55-9.
43. Supra (n. 4), p. 44.
44. P. Stengel (n. 42), pp. 73-8; W. Burkert (n. 1), p. 57.

But the horror is not only at the physical level. If ήλάλαζε can mean
«shrieked» hère, the sensé of ritual outrage persists, in the fact of Aegis-
crying out as he is killed. At «normal» sacrifices it was most
important that the victims should not cry, since they were supposed to be going
willingly to the sacrifice, and cries were considered to be ill-omened: the
paradigm case is the gagging of Iphigenia in the Parodos of the Agamem-
non (vv. 236 sqq.). Moreover, in the Messenger's account of Aegisthus'
sacrifice of the calf there is no mention of the climactic cry, the όλολυγή,
sent up at the moment of killing45. Is this a significant omission? If so, one
might possibly see Aegisthus' cry hère as ironically substituted for the
proper cry at the ritually correct moment. Άλαλάζειν (= «cry άλαλαΐ»)
normally, though not always, means «send up a cry of victory» or «respond
to the victory paean»46; this is its sensé at v. 855, when the household sev-
ants joyfully recognise Orestes. In this Une the asyndeton χαίροντες
άλαλάζοντες seems to écho the similar pattern ήσπαιρεν ήλάλαζε at ν.
843, another seemingly ironie touch. Perhaps we should see a sort of fulfil-
ment hère of Electra's prophecy at v. 691, that if good news cornes of
Orestes' exploits the «whole house will sing the όλολυγή» (όλολύξεται
παν δώμα).
There is also a more gênerai point to be made. The whole situation de-
scribed by the Messenger is one in which the rules of hospitality are grossly
violated, and it is hard to think of anything more shocking -ritually as well
as morally- than for a guest to kill his host at the shared feast47.
As a violent contrast to the scène of the killing there follows the
célébration of Orestes' «victory», with the ritual of crowning the victor as its focus.

45. If the text is correct. The MSS hâve δυσθνήσκον, but it looks as though σώμα
ought to be accusative of respect, not nominative, and the two verbs ήσπαιρεν and
ήλάλαζε, which clearly belong together, would more naturally hâve a person rather than
a «body» as their subject. So we need Paley's δυσθνήσκων, but editors are unhappy with
άλαλάζειν used of death cries (not, however, L. Deubner, «Ololyge und Verwandtes»,
Abh. Preuss. Akad. Wiss. phil. hist. kl., 1941, p. 9) and some (e.g. Denniston, Diggle)
adopt Schenkl's ήλέλιζε. The difficulty hère is that έλελίζειν (A) is normally transitive
in the active, and if we are to take it as having the meaning normally attached to the mid-
dle or passive («quiver») how do we distinguish it from έλελίζειν (Β) «cry έλελεϋ»?
46. Cf. J.A. Haldane (n. 7), nn. 5 and 17; L. Deubner (n. 45); Richard Seaford, «The
Eleventh Ode of Bacchylides», Journal ofHell. Studies, 108, 1988, p. 134.
47. F. Zeitlin (n. 5), p. 660; W.G. Arnott, «Double the Vision; A Reading of
Euripides' Electra», Greece & Rome, 28, 1981 , p. 183. For a différent view of the whole
narrative, see Michael Lloyd, «Realism and Character in Euripides' Electra», Phoenix,
40, 1986, pp. 15-16.
tragedy And Ritual 105

The thème has been présent since the opening of the scène in which the
Old Man gives advice to Orestes and Electra48: at v. 614 Orestes calls the
killing of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra the «victory crown» (or garland)
that he has corne to win (ήκω 'πι τόνδε στέφανον άλλα πώς λάβω;) and the
Messenger has reintroduced it at the beginning of his long narrative of
Aegisthus' death, greeting the Chorus as «blessed in victory» and an-
nouncing Orestes as «victor» (ώ καλλίνικοι παρθένοι Μυκηνίδες, /
'Ορέστη ν πασιν άγγέλλω φΐλοις, νν. 761 sqq.). In his account of
the sacrifice which turns into a murder there are two passages which
suggest the image of Orestes as athlète: Orestes' claim (vv. 781 sqq.) that
he and Pylades are on their way to sacrifice to Olympian Zeus by the River
Alpheus, which presumably implies competing in the Olympic Games49,
and the simile at vv. 824 sqq. which compares the speed of Orestes' expert
flaying of the beast with the time taken for a runner in the «horsy» race ( =
four stades, 800 m.) to go twice round the track50. Now at the end of his
speech the Messenger tells how the household servants, recognising their
legitimate king with a joyous shout of victory (χαίροντες άλαλάζοντες)
hâve garlanded his head (vv. 852-5). Orestes' arrivai is imminent, and he is
coming to display his trophy to Electra — the dead Aegisthus. So Orestes is
more than an athlète: his prowess has been displayed in a deed of blood.
The ambiguity of this action -triumphant punishment of evil doing, or sac-
rilegious murder?- is brought out through the ambiguity of the «victory»
imagery, which could suggest an athlète, but also a heroic warrior, and in
the context may be wrong to suggest either. The language at vv. 855-7
implies a comparison with Perseus and the head of Médusa, but this is at once
rejected: «he is coming to display to you a head, not the Gorgon's51, but
Aegisthus, whom you hâte»52.

48. M. O' Brien (n. 5), p. 23, n. 40; F. Zeitlin (n. 5), pp. 655-7; W.G. Arnott (n. 47),
pp. 187-9; H. Foley (n. 4), p. 43, n. 47.
49. Members of sacred embassies might also go to «sacrifice at Olympia», but two
young men travelling on their own would be more likely to be athlètes.
50. See Denniston ad Joe.
51. M. O' Brien, supra (n. 5), discusses the significance of this motif.
52. On the stage arrangements see M. O' Brien (n. 5), n. 16 and David Kovacs,
«Where is Aegisthus' Head?», Classical Philology, 82, 1987, pp. 139-41. The Mes-
senger's words at vv. 856-8 hâve been taken to imply that Aegisthus' head has been se-
vered and will be carried as a trophy by Orestes, as Agave carries Pentheus' head in Bac-
chae. But the entire corpse is certainly brought on stage; at vv. 959-61 instructions are
given for its removal. When Orestes enters, offering the dead Aegisthus to Electra to
insuit, the MSS give him the mysterious words ώς δέ τω σάφ' εΐδέναι τάδε / προσθώμεν,

In the build-up to the arrivai of Orestes and Pylades with the corpse of
Aegisthus there is insistent emphasis on the idea of Orestes as victorious
athlète who is to be crowned. The Chorus greet his achievement as a «win-
ning of garlands» better than that on the banks of the Alpheus, and urge
Electra to sing a victory song (καλλΐνικον φδάν)53 in accompaniment to
their dance (vv. 859-65). She says she will go and bring adornments for her
victorious brother's head, and the Chorus encourage her to fetch them
while they dance in célébration (vv. 870-9). Electra soon returns, as
Orestes and Pylades arrive, and the stage action is quite explicitly indi-
cated (vv. 880-9):
ώ καλλίνικε, πατρός εκ νικηφόρου
γεγώς, Όρέστα, της ύπ' Ίλίω μάχης,
δέξαι κόμης σης βοστρύχων άνδήματα.
ήκεις γαρ ουκ άχρεΐον εκπλεθρον δραμών
άγων' ες οίκους, άλλα πολέμιον κτανών
Αϊγισθον, ος σον πατέρα κάμόν ώλεσεν.
σύ τ', ώ παρασπίστ', ανδρός ευσεβέστατου
παίδευμα, Πυλάδη, στέφανον εξ έμής χερός
δέχου" φέρη
αγώνος· αιει γαρ
δ' ευτυχείς
και σύ τφδ'
ϊσον μέρος

«Orestes, blessed in victory, son of a victorious father who con-

quered Troy, let me give you a triumphal crown for your head. For
you hâve run your race home, and it is no useless one but carries with
it the killing of your enemy Aegisthus, who destroyed your father
and mine. You too, Pylades, his comrade-in-arms, son of a most
righteous man, take this garland from my hands: you hâve had an
equal share with him in the contest. May I see both of you ever pros-
On any literal interprétation this act of crowning with garlands is not
easy to account for. Orestes has already been crowned by the household
servants, after ail (v. 854), and nothing follows from what Electra does.
But this action, and the subséquent display and dishonouring of the dead

αυτόν τόν θανόντα σοι φέρω, which critics hâve tried to interpret as «I am carrying the
dead man himself so that I may add this ocular proof (viz. the head) to your sure know-
ledge [that I hâve killed him]». See Denniston adloc. , and for a critique, James Diggle,
«Notes on theEIectra of Euripides», Illinois Class. Studies, 2, 1977, pp. 117-8, who
proposes the deletion of ως... προσθώμεν.
53. Cf. J.A. Haldane (n. 7), p. 38.
Tragedy And Ritual 107

Aegisthus, are the only parts of the story actually shown to the audience,
and their symbolic power must not be underestimated.
The triumph of «victory», hysterical and disturbing, is at once followed
by the présentation of Aegisthus' corpse (or severed head: see n. 52
above), a visible emblem of the death we hâve heard narrated, and there-
fore a reminder of the scène of spoiled sacrifice (we may recall that as a sac-
rificer he too had been wearing a garland, v. 778); but a further thème is
now introduced, again with ritual implications. Orestes encourages his sis-
ter to treat the dead man with outrage, to expose him as carrion, or even
impale him on a pôle (a «barbarian» horror)54. Electra at first hésitâtes to
give public expression to her hatred of Aegisthus by exulting over his
corpse, but Orestes urges her on, saying that their enmity with him is «on
terms that admit of no treaty» (άσπόνδοισι... νόμοισιν, νν. 905-6), and
Electra launches into her speech of denunciation. The brutality of this
exchange (vv. 890-906) is surely designed to shock, based as it is on the idea
that the dead Aegisthus is to be denied any sort of ritual respect. As the
story of his punishment is told in the Odyssey it is true that there is some
flirtation with the idea of exposing him to the dogs and birds, but this is
stated only as an unfulfilled condition, a spéculative référence to what
would hâve happened if Menelaus had arrived to find Aegisthus still alive
(III, 258-61); at III, 309 sqq. it is made clear that Orestes himself gave bu-
rial to Aegisthus55. At the end of this play we learn from Castor that the
citizens will see to the burial (vv. 1276 sqq.). Hère, though, there is visible
outrage to ritual order: the contradictory and deeply disturbing nature of
what Orestes has done and plans to do is shown in the stage action, which
echoes the discordant language of the Messenger's speech and looks for-
ward to further horror.
The use of ritual language and action is resumed in the scène with
Clytemnestra. She is persuaded to enter the house as a sacrificer in the
purification rite for Electra, who has allegedly given birth to a child (vv.
1124-38), but as she walks in to officiate at the ceremony Electra identifies
her as the sacrificial victim, who will succumb to the weapon that killed the
«bull» Aegisthus (vv. 1141-4):

54. Cf. Denniston on vv. 894-5 and 898.

55. ή τοι ό τον κτείνας δαίνυ τάφον Άργείοισι
μητρός τε στυγερής καϊ άνάλκιδος Αίγίσθοιο.
Cf. Pausanias, II, 16, 7, who mentions the graves of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon at
Mycenae at a little distance outside the city wall.

θύσεις γαρ οία χρή σε δαΐμοσιν θύη.

κάνουν δ' ένήρκται και τεθηγμένη σφαγι'ς,
ήπερ καθειλε ταϋρον, ού πέλας πεση

«For y ou will offer the gods the sacrifices you must offer. The basket
is ready and the knife is sharpened, the knife that killed the bull by
whose side you will fall when you too are struck down»56.
The connection between the two deaths could not be more clearly ar-
ticulated, particularly as Clytemnestra's last words before entering the
house had expressed her intention to go and join Aegisthus at his sacrifice
to the Nymphs as soon as she had finished making this sacrifice for Electra
(vv. 1133-8). The link is strengthened by the stage action: at v. 961 the
corpse of Aegisthus had been taken into the house so that Clytemnestra
«should not see it before the killing», and now, as Denniston remarks on
1143, «the first thing she will see on entering the cottage will be Aegisthus'
corpse, by the side of which she will be killed». When the children corne
out, stricken by the appalling réalisation of what they hâve done in killing
their mother, the climax has been prepared by this elaborate séquence in
which perversion of ritual, physical horror, and the significance of the
birth of children hâve ail been exploited with intense irony. We under-
stand Orestes too well when he asks «What stranger, what pious man will
look at me (he says «my head»), now that I hâve killed my mother? (τις
ξένος, τις ευσεβής / έμόν κάρα προσόψεται / μητέρα κτανόντος; νν. 1195-
7). He will be a polluted exile, προστρόπαιος, and the head crowned with
the victor's garland will now be shunned as unclean57.
As our three examples hâve shown, the interrelation of tragedy and
ritual is too complex a phenomenon to be reduced to a single neat formula.
Provisionally we might conclude that (in the Greek context at any rate)
ritual was able to provide tragedy with a range of particularly potent
metaphors -which tragedy likewise expressed in words, music and action-
because it was intimately concerned with ail the most important percep-

56. The language is technical: κάνουν, ένήρκται, σφαγΐς. Cf. M. Ο' Brien (n. 5), p.
57. Cf. M. O' Brien (n. 5), pp. 23-4, «Ail eyes are on his head and hair». In the im-
aginative economy of the play the Gorgon is the complément of the victor's garland.
Later Orestes has himself become an object of horror. Electra's language, too, has ritual
associations, recalling other thèmes explored in the play (τίν' ες χορόν, τίνα γάμον είμι;
νν. 1198-9); cf. F. Zeitlin (n. 5), pp. 658-9, 669; R. Seaford (n. 46), pp. 135-6.

tions and expériences of the community. In the end there seems to be more
to be gained from stressing the likeness between tragedy and ritual58, and
in particular their capacity to mean différent things to différent people59,
than from insisting on the distinctions to be drawn between them. Perhaps
we should take our eue from Dan Sperber's work on symbolism60, and in
both cases ask howit works rather than what itmeans. In this perspective
the relation of what is said to what is shown is obviously of great
To end with a paradox: despite what I hâve said about the metaphorical
status of the ritual éléments in tragedy, I do not think we can rule out the
possibility that some séquences of words, music and actions could be felt to
hâve exceptional power, something that went beyond the fictive world of
the drama and was able to affect the world of the audience for good or ill.
In so far as tragedy betrays a concern for euphemia, the avoidance of any
utterance that might bring harm on the participants -actors and audience-
and (particularly) on the city in which the performance is taking place, a
séquence like that at the end of the Eumenides could hâve been perceived
as actually «working» to propitious ends. When the Furies threaten to
blight and poison the land, Athena always has a well-omened answer to
their words; when they bless, she reinforces their bénédictions61. This is
not at ail the same thing as suggesting that the ritual patterns offer
«resolution» or any certain assurance that order will be restored: their characteris-
tic modes are those of the lament and the prayer: αϊλινον αϊλινον είπε το δ'
εϋ νικάτων, «Cry 'Woe, woe', but may bthe good prevail»62.

(University Collège London) Patricia E. EASTERLING

58. Ch. Segal, who has many fine observations on the ritual éléments in Sophocles,
seems to overstress the distinction: «Ritual tends to be conservative and affirmative of
the cosmic and social order. Tragedy is innovative, polysemous and deeply questioning
of that order. The myths embodied or reflected in ritual are basically unitary in their
meaning. Those of tragedy are complex and problematical, open to new intepretations,
focal points of conflicted points of view and divided values», supra (n. 22), p. 46.
59. L.M. Danforth, The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Princeton, 1982, interest-
ingly illustrâtes différent interprétations (by actual participants) of modem Greek death
60. Rethinking Symbolism , trans. A.L. Morton, Cambridge, 1975, pp. 50-2.
61 . Vv. 780-7 ( =810-17) answered by vv. 794-807 and vv. 824-36, v. 840 ( =873) by vv.
848-69 and vv. 881-91. Cf. especially vv. 927-9 and ail the rest of Athena's speeches.
62. I am indebted to Simon Goldhill, Albert Henrichs, Richard Seaford and Konstan-
tinos Valakas for helpful discussions.