The Tragedy of Herakles

Alas! alas! lament, O city; the son of Zeus, thy fairest bloom, is being cut down. Woe is thee, Hellas! that wilt cast from thee thy benefactor, and destroy him as he madly, wildly dances where no pipe is heard.

She is mounted on her car, the queen of sorrow and sighing, and is goading on her steeds, as if for outrage, the Gorgon child of Night, with hundred hissing serpent-heads, Madness of the flashing eyes. Soon hath the god changed his good fortune; soon will his children breathe their last, slain by a father’s hand. (Euripides – Herakles)

In Part I of this series on Herakles, we looked at his triumphs, the Twelve Labours that set him down on the papyrus pages of ancient history as the greatest hero. He was a man of great strength, appetites, perseverance, and emotion. He traveled the world achieving feats that would have defeated any other man of his time.

The tales of Herakles’ heroics have inspired for centuries.

But, as with all tales from ancient Greece, triumph and tragedy go arm in arm in the hero’s life.

The tragedy of Herakles’ life actually began, as mentioned in Part I, before his twelve labours, when he was driven mad by Hera and ended up killing his wife, Megara, and their children.

Ah me! why do I spare my own life when I have taken that of my dear children? Shall I not hasten to leap from some sheer rock, or aim the sword against my heart and avenge my children’s blood, or burn my body in the fire and so avert from my life the infamy which now awaits me? (Euripides – Herakles)

Metopes of the 12 Labours adorning the Temple of Zeus at ancient Olympia

The twelve labours were a part of his atonement for this horrifying crime.

One would have thought that with the Labours he had paid the price, but that would be too easy. As we shall see in this brief post, Herakles would be made to suffer and live a life of rage and pain till the end of his days. There would be no sitting on his laurels.

As the following passage shows, even in the fiery realm of Hades, Herakles’ shade is dark and menacing, someone even the dead are afraid of:

Next after him I observed the mighty Herakles – his wraith, that is to say… From the dead around him there arose a clamour like the noise of wild fowl taking off in alarm. He looked like black night, and with his naked bow in hand and an arrow on the string he glanced ferociously this way and that as though about to shoot… (Homer – The Odyssey)

Herakles is often known as ‘Alexikakos’, the ‘averter of evil’, but this proved impossible when it came to himself.

Apollo and Herakles fighting over the Delphic Tripod

He was often helping others, such as when in Hades, he found Theseus, another hero, in his punishment, and raised him up to be free back on Earth.

But did others often help Herakles?

Sometimes. During his labours, he did receive aid from Athena, Atlas, Helios, and from his cousin, Iolaus, but most of the time, he had to go it alone.

After the Twelve Labours, Herakles seems to have become a sort of fallen hero.

When he kills Iphitus, the son of Eurytus who had refused to give the hero the hand of his daughter, Iole, he becomes diseased because of the murder; this is a punishment from the Gods.

Herakles goes to the Oracle at Delphi, but the Oracle refuses to answer him this time. In a rage, Herakles attempts to steel the sacred tripod which Apollo tries to take back.

Herakles and Omphale

Zeus steps in to stop the quarrel between his two sons, and the Oracle complies in giving Herakles an answer; he must sell himself into slavery for three years.

He is ‘bought’ by Omphale, a Queen of Lydia. It is during this time of servitude that Herakles joins the Argonauts, one of the most famous crews in history, in their search for the Golden Fleece. Even here, the hero is not allowed to be a part of the Argonauts’ success as he is left behind in Mysia to search for his friend, Hylas, who was abducted by water Nymphs.

The Argonauts

Once his service to Omphale was settled, Herakles seems to have set out on a fit of vengeance to settle some old debts.

He raised an army with Telamon and sailed to Troy where he captured the city and killed King Laomedon. He also killed all the Trojan princes too, except Priam.

Herakles about to kill Laomedon

Other acts of revenge included killing King Augeas of Ellis, and his sons, who had refused to pay up for the cleaning of his stables.

Herakles then marched to Pylos to face Neleus who had refused to purify him of the murder of Iphitus who was a guest of Herakles’ in Tyrins at the time. Herakles slew Neleus and all twelve of his sons except Nestor who was away at the time, and who would be a part of the later Trojan War.

On top of all this, Hera did not relent in her persecution of Herakles. She sent storms to pursue the hero, but it is at this point that Zeus finally says enough is enough. The king of the gods suspends Hera from Mt. Olympus with anvils tied to her feet.

Battle of the Gods and Giants – Siphnian Treasury at Delphi)

Then the Gods themselves need Herakles’ help at Phlegrae, in Thrace. The Battle of the Gods and Giants is one of the most widely depicted events in ancient Greek art. It is here that Herakles played a key role in aiding the Gods to victory.

But, exhaustingly, sadly, that is not the end for Herakles. It is not time to rest. He continues with his acts of vengeance, among them the sacking of Sparta, and the killing of Hippocoon and all his sons.

Our fallen hero has much blood on his hands at this point, but finally, after so much turmoil, he finds a measure of happiness in Calydon where he marries Deianeira, the daughter of King Oeneus. She is also the sister of Meleager, whom Herakles had spoken with in Hades on his twelfth labour.

Herakles and Deianeira

While in Calydon, Herakles helps his father-in-law to defeat his enemies. He and Deianeira have several children together. She is beautiful, virtuous, and loves her husband dearly.

But the idyllic time is short-lived. At one point, Herakles accidentally kills King Oeneus’ cup bearer, and so he, Deianeira, and their children are forced to leave Calydon. They settle in Trachis.

On one part of their journey, they must cross the river Evenus. While he is crossing the river, it seems that Herakles entrusts his wife to the centaur, Nessus, who tries to rape her.

Herakles’ rage takes over and he kills Nessus with one of his arrows dipped in the blood of the Hydra.

As Nessus lays dying, he whispers to Deianeira that his own blood is a powerful love charm, and that she should take some and keep it hidden if ever she needed it.

Deianeira saves some of the centaur’s blood.

While in Trachis, Herakles helps his host King Ceyx, to defeat his enemies. It seems that kings were happy to host Herakles if he helped them to defeat their foes. Herakles then helped Aegiaius to fight and defeat the Lapiths, and in that conflict, he killed Cycnus, the son of Ares, in single combat, as well as wounding Ares himself.

Iole

Bent on vengeance once more, Herakles raises an army and marches against Eurytus who had refused him the hand of Iole. Herakles takes the young girl as his concubine and, along with many prisoners, brings her back to Trachis.

The springs of sorrow are unbound,

And such an agony disclose,

As never from the hands of foes

To afflict the life of Heracles was found.

O dark with battle-stains, world-champion spear,

That from Oechalia’s highland leddest then

This bride that followed swiftly in thy train,

How fatally overshadowing was thy fear!

But these wild sorrows all too clearly come

From Love’s dread minister, disguised and dumb.

(Sophocles – The Women of Trachis)

Deianeira mourning

Deianeira realizes that her husband loves the quiet, beautiful Iole, and decides to use the supposed ‘love-charm’ of the centaur’s blood.

At this time, Herakles was in Euboea sacrificing to Zeus for his many triumphs over his enemies. He sent to Deianeira for his finest robe for the ceremonies. With this act of piety, Herakles seals his doom, for Deianeira smears the blood of Nessus on the robe thinking that it will make Herakles love her again.

The blood begins to eat into Herakles’ flesh like acid, killing him slowly.

When Deianeira hears from their son, Hyllus, what she has done, she kills herself in despair. The nurse to the Chorus:

When all alone she had gone within the gate,

And passing through the court beheld her boy

Spreading the couch that should receive his sire,

Ere he returned to meet him,—out of sight

She hid herself, and fell at the altar’s foot,

And loudly cried that she was left forlorn;

And, taking in her touch each household thing

That formerly she used, poor lady, wept

O’er all; and then went ranging through the rooms,

Where, if there caught her eye the well-loved form

Of any of her household, she would gaze

And weep aloud, accusing her own fate

And her abandoned lot, childless henceforth!

When this was ended, suddenly I see her

Fly to the hero’s room of genial rest.

With unsuspected gaze o’ershadowed near,

I watched, and saw her casting on the bed

The finest sheets of all. When that was done,

She leapt upon the couch where they had lain

And sat there in the midst. And the hot flood

Burst from her eyes before she spake:—‘Farewell,

My bridal bed, for never more shalt thou

Give me the comfort I have known thee give.’

Then with tight fingers she undid her robe,

Where the brooch lay before the breast, and bared

All her left arm and side. I, with what speed

Strength ministered, ran forth to tell her son

The act she was preparing. But meanwhile,

Ere we could come again, the fatal blow

Fell, and we saw the wound. And he, her boy,

Seeing, wept aloud.

(Sophocles – The Women of Trachis)

Back on Euboea, Herakles, in great pain, knows it is his time and has a pyre built for himself on Mount Oeta. He climbs up onto the pyre and asks for help lighting it.

But no one will help the hero.

Poor Herakles…

Finally, a passing shepherd by the name of Poeas, who is looking for his sheep, decides to help Herakles. As a gift, Herakles gives Poeas his great bow and arrows.

Now my end is near, the last cessation of my woe. (Sophocles – The Women of Trachis)

As the pyre burned, thunder raged in the sky, and Herakles is taken to Mt. Olympus to join the ranks of the Immortals.

Apotheosis of Herakles (Francois Lemoyne)

After all the pain and hatred, he and Hera are finally reconciled, and he is married to Hebe, the Goddess of Youth.

As an eternal monument to his long-suffering son, Zeus sets Herakles in the stars where he kneels to this day.

Herakles Constellation

Before I had written these posts, I had never looked at the triumph and tragedy of Herakles as a whole. I had grabbed at bits and pieces of his life for inspiration, for short story, for entertainment, like a literary carrion crow.

But the epic life and journey of Herakles, as a single life lived, leaves me breathless and shaking with emotion.

After his initial madness and the slaying of Megara and his children, death and the burning halls of Hades might have been an easier path than the one he took.

I don’t think immortality was ever Herakles’ goal.

How might Herakles have felt, remembered as he is after his apotheosis?

To have travelled so far, to have lived, and loved, and fought, and conquered, and suffered enough for many lifetimes…is a thing unimaginable to this mere mortal as he types these words.

Herakles’ life is not only the stuff of legend, it is the essence of art, and poetry, of lesson, and of inspiration.

As Theseus, in Euripides’ play, says to Herakles when he finds his friend mourning his dead wife and children:

Yea, even the strong are o’erthrown by misfortunes.

Thank you for reading.

If you would like to read more, follow the links below to get free downloads of the following works:

The Women of Traches and Philoctetes by Sophocles

Alcestis and Heracles by Euripides

For coherent histories of Herakles’ life you can view the works of both Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus on theoi.com

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The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus

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It’s been a couple of months now since my trip to Greece, and I have finally managed to get through all (almost all) 4000+ pictures and videos from the trip. All I can say is, thank the gods for digital photography!

I promised to give you a tour of some of the sites that I visited on this trip, and so I thought I would start with ancient Epidaurus. If you missed the earlier post on the wonderful ceramic workshop in ancient Epidaurus, CLICK HERE.

This is the first in a two-part blog series on Epidaurus. Today we are going to take a brief look at the ancient theatre.

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Cruising over the mountains to Epidaurus

I’ve been to this site several times in the past, but I never tire of it. Some places are like that, I suppose. You can visit them again and again, and each time you do you get a different perspective that adds to your overall impression of the site.

The theatre of Epidaurus is like that.

For the history-lover in me, going there is like visiting a wise old friend. We greet each other, sit back in the sunshine, reminisce and contemplate the world before us.

There is something comforting about going back to familiar places.

It had been almost ten years since my last visit to the theatre, and so I was looking forward to seeing it again. As we drove up and over the mountain range that separates the southern Argolid from Epidaurus, hot wind blowing through our open windows as the car whined up steep slopes and around precipitous hairpins, I wondered how much the site might have changed.

Plan of the Theatre of Epidaurus

Plan of the Theatre of Epidaurus

It was the middle of the day as we drove up to the main entrance, the temperature knocking on 42 degrees Celsius (about 107 Farenheit). Needless to say, the lot was near empty but for a few rental cars and a tour bus.

I guess I’m one of the few who would drag their friends and family out to an archaeological site at the hottest time of day.

I parked our car in the shade of one of the many pine trees at the fringes of the lot and we got out, loaded with water, a snack, and the camera equipment.

As it turned out, there had been some major changes at the site. As we left the parking lot, we passed a massive snack bar with an outdoor café where exhausted, sweaty tourists sat beneath parasols slurping ices and bitter-sweet frappés.

We walked down the familiar path to main entrance, followed by the usual stray dogs who ignored the lounging cats amongst the flower beds of bitter laurels. We pressed on past the empty restaurants, dodging the waiters’ friendly ‘Yes Pleases’ until we reached the new ticket booth.

Tickets in hand, we marched through the new, automated admittance gates that scanned our stubs, and we were in.

Side entrance to the orchestra

Side entrance to the orchestra

I was glad to see that there were not many tourists, as on previous visits you could barely move.

When you enter the archaeological site from the ticket booths, you find the museum on your right, its wall lined with marble blocks covered in votive inscriptions from the sanctuary of Askeplios (more on that in Part II).

I don’t know why, but every time we visit this site we are always drawn to the theatre first. Perhaps it is more familiar, simpler than the archaeological site of the sanctuary opposite? You walk up the steep stone steps beneath scented pine trees and then, there it is!

What a view!

What a view!

The theatre lies in the blinding sunlight all limestone and marble, rising up in perfect symmetry before you with the mountains beyond.

It’s always a shock to stand there and see it for the first time, this perfect titan, an ancient stage beneath a clear blue sky where the works of Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles and so many more have entertained the masses and provoked thought in the minds of ancients for well over two thousand years.

In ancient times, one’s view from this vantage would have been blocked by the stage building, or scaena, but as it is today, you have a perfect view over the ruins of that building’s foundations.

The theatre of Epidaurus is considered the best-constructed and most elegant theatre of the ancient world. It was built in the 4th century B.C by the sculptor and architect, Polykleitos the Younger, who also designed the Tholos in the sanctuary.

The theatre sat 14,000 spectators, and every one of them could see the stage and hear every momentous word that was spoken.

You don't want to tumble down this aisle!

You don’t want to tumble down this aisle!

What I enjoyed about this particular visit to the theatre was the fact that, because there were no crowds, I was able to stand at the centre of the stage (the orchestra), and drop a coin so that my family and friends could hear it where they sat at the top row.

Then I spoke…

My voice was so loud in my ears, I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was on a microphone, my voice amplified like I had never heard it before. But there were no electronics, just an ancient perfection of design that has set the standard for ages.

After that, I climbed up the long central isle to the top row to join everyone and sit down. It’s a long way up, but the top provides the perfect vantage point of the sanctuary and landscape surrounding Epidaurus.

We sat there, listening to the cicadas, taking in the view, and enjoying the dry, pine-scented air.

Looking north from the theatre to the sanctuary

Looking north from the theatre to the sanctuary

I thought back to the performances I’ve seen there in years past. Over ten years ago, I saw Gerard Dépardieu perform in Oedipus Rex, and Isabella Rossellini in Persephone, both adaptations of the ancient tales by Igor Stravinsky. It was amazing to watch such wonderful actors giving a performance there, and it was obvious too that they were enjoying the space, the tradition they were taking part in.

The last play I saw at Epidaurus was a performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy in which the women of Greece withhold sex from all the men in order to put an end to the Peloponnesian War. One thing is for sure, the National Theatre of Athens, which has been putting on these performances since 1954, puts on a great production.

Isabella Rossellini in 'Persephone'

Isabella Rossellini in ‘Persephone’

When you see a play at Epidaurus, the audience is also participating in an ancient tradition. How many people have gone before us, sat in those seats, laughed and wept at the drama being played out before them?

It’s difficult not to think about that when you sit in the seats of Epidaurus. Whether you are basking in the hot rays of the Mediterranean sun, or waiting for a play to begin as the sun goes down and the stars appear, Perseus and Gemini twinkling in the sky above, one thing is certain – you will never forget the moments that you spend there.

Next week, in Part II of this blog series, we’ll venture away from the theatre for a brief visit to the museum, and then on into the peace and quiet of the Sanctuary of Asklepios, a place of miracles and ancient healing.

Thank you for reading!

If you want to see a bit more of the theatre of Epidaurus, below is a short video:

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Ode to the Bardo Museum

Statue

Last week the international news was awash with the horrible events that occurred in Tunis, at the Bardo Museum.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who have been affected by this terrible crime, and to the people of Tunisia.

Having been to the Bardo Museum for my research, it is hard to imagine the sound of gunfire and screams in such a lovely house of the Muses.

I suspect that many would-be tourists will be scared away from the Bardo now, and that is truly a shame. I spent some hours there, immersed in the ancient world, listening to its many voices. It was a place of serenity, and of beauty.

So, rather than focussing on the violence that has so recently tainted this wonderful place, I thought I would focus on the beauty of the Bardo Museum.

This is a post I originally wrote in June 2013 entitled, Mosaic Masterpieces – Treasures of Roman North Africa. I hope you enjoy it…

 Ulysses - Bardo museum Tunis

For a writer of historical fiction, and for an historian, the museum is the place to go for research.

Not only can you learn a lot about people and places, you can also come face to face with the possessions of the people and places about which you are writing. You can interact with the items that decorated and served long-ago worlds – Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Carthage and Rome etc. etc.

In a museum, culture is frozen in time as a sort of gift to future generations, a window to peer through and better understand those who went before us.

I’ve been to a lot of museums in my travels, large and small, great and not-so-great. But there was always something to be learned, something to take away with me that I could use in my writing.

Bardo Hall

This post, I wanted to touch on a particularly wonderful museum that I visited in Tunisia – The Bardo Museum in Tunis.

When I went to Tunisia to do research for Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra, visiting Punic and Roman sites on the fringes of the Sahara was one of the biggest thrills of my travels.

When our 4×4 left the desert behind, I was disappointed to be back in the city. Tunis held none of the allure of the southern desert or the fertile green hills of central Tunisia. There were no ruined temples or amphitheatres, no mosaics or ancient streets as open to the sky, unsuffocated by modernity.

We pulled up outside a rather unassuming building and were told this was the ‘famous’ Bardo Museum. I probably rolled my eyes, remembered swaying palms and Saharan sand beneath my feet. I dreaded the dark building before me after so much perceived freedom.

I was so wrong. When we entered the Bardo, my eyes fell upon some of the most magnificent artistic creations I have ever seen.

The walls and floors were absolutely covered with myriad mosaics of such colour, such intricacy – I thought the images would jump right out at me.

Floor to ceiling

Floor to ceiling mosaics in the Bardo

And they were tucked away in this little museum that, up until that point, I had never heard mentioned by anyone at university or elsewhere.

I decided this week to look back over some of the photos I took at the museum and enjoyed revisiting those moments when I locked eyes with a tesseraed Triton or the striking statue of a Roman woman.

When I looked at the website for the Bardo Museum, I found that they have moved to a completely new, more spacious building.

Click HERE to take a virtual tour of the new Bardo.

The new museum is stunning, but for me the mosaics still take centre stage.

Triton mosaic

Triton mosaic

What is amazing about these creations is that they were what decorated the homes of the people who inhabited the period about which I am writing.

The visual that these mosaics provided for me and my written world was priceless.

Suddenly, my characters’ homes no longer contained shabby dirt or terra cotta floors, or even plain marble. Triclinii, peristylii and atrii came to life with the mythological and natural scenes that decorated Roman homes.

Gladiatorial scene

Gladiatorial scene

But these mosaics at the Bardo, and elsewhere, do not only depict the religious or fanciful aspects of belief.

More importantly to our knowledge, they depict the everyday activities of people ages ago. We see people hunting, fishing, tilling, and bringing in the harvest. We see images of the food they ate, the sports they watched and the heroes they worshiped.

These mosaics tell us so much about a world that would otherwise be lost to us. Thanks to these masterpieces, we know more about the buildings they decorated and the importance placed upon particular rooms within private homes, public and religious spaces.

The Months of the Year

The Days of the Week

When I stepped out of the Bardo Museum into the setting sunlight on a Tunis street, I felt as though I had been a guest at sumptuous banquet in someone’s home, far off on the edge of the Empire. This was not some flee-infested frontier region. No.

The Roman provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia yielded not only the oil, grain and garum upon which the Empire depended, but also artistic treasures that have left a mark on time.

At the Bardo Museum, you can walk among these treasured mosaics with many silent, sentinel statues as your fellow guests.

Champion Horses

Champion Horses

If you ever get the chance to visit this place, do so. You’ll not regret it, and the memory of what you see will linger with you for years to come.

Thank you for reading.

What are your thoughts on the Bardo Museum? Given the chance, would you go? What do you think you could learn from the wealth of mosaics on display?

Tell us what you think in the comments below…

The poet, Virgil

The poet, Virgil

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Remembrance Day: Healing Wounds with Ancient Greek Tragedy

parchment helmet

Remembrance Day is here, in Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations. This is the time of year when we pin poppies on our jackets and hats to show that we remember the sacrifices of the men and women who have served their countries in war.

This is a solemn time of year; many people have known folks who have served in one conflict or another. For myself, my grandfather served in WWI as a young man, my other grandfather in the merchant navy in WWII. I have friends and relatives who have served in the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Every year, I try to write a special post around Remembrance Day because I feel it is utterly important not to forget. I often write about war and warriors. It’s something that is always at the front of my mind. I haven’t served in the military myself, but I have the utmost respect for those that have and do.

This year is the 100th anniversary of World War I, the conflict that began the wearing of poppies. Hard to believe it‘s been that long since the Battle of Liège, or since the earth shook with shelling and gunfire at Verdun and the Somme.

The Tower of London Remembers poppies in commemoration of the centenary of WWI

The Tower of London Remembers poppies in commemoration of the centenary of WWI

We remember the dead, and the ultimate sacrifices they have made, we bow our heads to them as the guns salute on November 11th.

But what about the living?

Troops in Afghanistan

Troops in Afghanistan

In war, the casualties are monstrous, but there are those who do manage to come home. What about them?

Those are the troops I want us to think about today.

What prompted this was an article that a colleague of mine gave to me to read, an article that has indeed struck a chord.

This article by Wyatt Mason, in Harper’s magazine, is entitled You are not alone across time – Using Sophocles to treat PTSD.

The trauma of war

The trauma of war

PTSD stands for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is, perhaps always has been, a bane on the lives of warriors for ages. It was not always acknowledged as many former troops were simply told to ‘suck-it-up’. But there is a higher level of awareness now, with a variety of treatments being sought by, or offered to, veterans.

In his article mentioned above, Wyatt Mason writes about a unique theatre group called Outside the Wire, and their program ‘Theatre of War’.

The man behind Theatre of War is Bryan Doerries. He has been studying and translating ancient Greek dramas for years.

What is Theatre of War? Using ancient Greek tragedies, particularly Ajax and Philoctetes by Sophocles, Doerries and a small group of rotating actors travel to military bases and hospitals around the world to perform readings of these plays.

There are no stages, props, or pageantry, just Doerries and about three actors sitting at a table. You might think this would be boring, and so might the troops who were ‘voluntold’ to go. But one cannot underestimate the language of Sophocles, the message, and the powerful delivery of the actors.

After attending these ‘performances’, veteran troops come forward to say that they completely relate to the pain of the warrior-characters in these plays, that they do not feel alone. These performances have been helping troops with PTSD with their healing.

Before we go further, here are a few statistics from the article to put things in perspective.

The number of U.S. soldiers who are committing suicide is at an unprecedented level with nearly one per day among those on active duty, and one per hour among veterans. The number is something like 8,000 a year at the moment.

The horrors of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The horrors of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When I read those numbers, my jaw dropped. It seems like there is no heroic return for many of our troops, no ticker-tape parade. It seems more likely that reintegration with civilian society may be more difficult and lonely than war itself.

In 2008, Doerries’ group received $3.7 million from the Pentagon to tour military installations around the world and they have staged more than 250 shows for 50,000 military personnel.

But what is it about Sophocles’ plays that modern troops relate to so much? What leaves these men and women in tears at the end of each performance?

Sophocles

Sophocles

One thing that the article highlighted for me, and of which I was not aware before, is that Sophocles himself was a warrior and commander, his father an Attic amour-maker. Sophocles had lived through the Greek victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis, and then served in the bloody years of the Peloponnesian War when the Greeks tore each other apart.

These were deeply traumatic times.

What hadn’t really clicked for me before reading this article was that with military service in Athens being compulsory among men, most of Sophocles’ audience would have been soldiers and veterans of bloody conflicts.

Sophocles spoke to his audience, he addressed the costs of war, the trauma of battle, the grief and rage that lingered long after the laurel wreaths had been handed-out, and the praise of one’s comrades had ceased.

The blood and chaos of warfare

The blood and chaos of warfare

Theatre of War mostly performs two plays for military audiences – Ajax and Philoctetes.

In Greek history/legend, Ajax was one of the greatest of the Greek warriors during the Trojan War. He was a good friend of Achilles, had won numerous battles for the Greeks, and survived one-on-one combat with the greatest of Troy’s heroes, Hector. Ajax inspired his brothers-in-arms.

But even the mighty fall, it seems. In Sophocles’ play, after nine years of fighting on foreign shores, Ajax, who carried Achilles’ body from the battlefield, has a disagreement with Odysseus about who should get Achilles’ god-made armour. Agamemnon and Menelaus decide to award the honour to Odysseus and this insult sends Ajax into a rage. He swears he will kill the sons of Atreus and Odysseus and any others who have insulted him.

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles from the battlefield

Ajax carrying the body of Achilles from the battlefield

However, the gods are not on Ajax’s side. Athena drives him mad and he ends up slaughtering a host of animals in his tent, thinking they are his perceived enemies. Tecmessa, Ajax’s slave woman and consort, relays what happened:

As captives bulls and herdsmen’s dogs and sheep,
Of which a part he strangled, others felled
And cleft in twain; others again he lashed,
Treating those beasts like human prisoners.
Then rushing out, he with some phantom talked,
Launching against the sons of Atreus now,
Now ‘gainst Ulysses, ravings void of sense,
Boasting how he had paid their insults home.
Then once more rushing back into the tent,
By slow degrees to his right mind he came.
But when he saw the tent with carnage heaped,
Crying aloud, he smote his head, and then
Flung himself down amid the gory wreck,
And with clenched fingers grasped and tore his hair.
So a long time he sat and spoke no word.
At last, with imprecations terrible
If I refused, he bade me tell him all,
What had befallen and how it came about.
And I, my friends, o’erwhelmed with terror, told
All that I knew of that which he had done.
Thereat he uttered piercing cries of grief,
Such as had never come from him before,
For in loud lamentations to indulge
He ever held a craven weakling’s part,
And, stifling outcries, moaned not loud but deep,
Like the deep roaring of a wounded bull.
But in this plight, prostrate and desperate,
Refusing food and drink, my hero lies
Amidst the mangled bodies, motionless.
That he is brooding on some fell design,
His wails and exclamations plainly show.
But, O kind friends, ’twas to this end I came,
Enter the tent and aid me if ye can;
The words of friends are desperate sorrow’s cure.

(Sophocles, Ajax)

When the clouds of madness are swept from Ajax’s eyes, he is shamed by what he has done and goes into deep depression. I’m guessing that it must be the same for modern troops who come home and are haunted by the things that they have experienced, seen and done.

Ajax in anguish

Ajax in anguish

We must remember that this is one of the greatest warriors in the army, second only to Achilles. He has Tecmessa, and he has a son, he has had honours heaped upon him, and yet he cannot deal with what he has done. The strain of 9 years of war have had their toll.

What now am I to do, since of the gods
I am abhorred, of the Hellenic host
Hated, to Troy and all this land a foe?
Shall I to their own quarrel leave the Kings,
Unmoor, and homeward cross the Aegean wave?
How can I face my father Telamon?
How can he bear to look upon the son
Who comes to him disgraced, without the prize,
When glory’s wreath has circled his own brow?

(Sophocles, Ajax)

Ajax decides he can no longer be among the living, such is his disgrace. He decides to leave his tent, despite Tecmessa’s protestations. Alone outside, on the earth surrounding Troy, he plants his sword in the ground, point upward, and kills himself…

O death, O death, come and thy office do;
Long, where I go, our fellowship will be.
O thou glad daylight, which I now behold,
O sun, that ridest in the firmament,
I greet you, and shall greet you never more.
O light, O sacred soil of my own land,
O my ancestral home, my Salamis,
Famed Athens and my old Athenian mates,
Rivers and springs and plains of Troy, farewell;
Farewell all things in which I lived my life;
‘Tis the last word of Ajax to you all,
When next I speak ’twill be to those below.

(Sophocles, Ajax)

Ajax's suicide

Ajax’s suicide

In the video trailer for Theatre of War, which I link to below, you will see various troops coming forward at the end of a performance to talk about their own demons, and how they very much identified with Ajax and the torment he was feeling.

The suicide statistics I mentioned earlier are telling and terrifying, and they align with these emotions which Sophocles expressed through the hero Ajax over 2000 years ago.

It is wondrous, the therapeutic role that culture and the arts have to play. Doerries and the Theatre of War seem to have tapped into this on a visceral level to engage an audience that has been neglected in decades past. According to the article, the purpose is to “reach communities where intense feelings have been suppressed, in hopes of bringing people closer to articulating their suffering.”

From the numbers of troops, from all ranks, who come forward after the performances, Doerries and the Theatre of War are helping.

One has to wonder what else Sophocles might have produced, and to what effect? Only seven of Sophocles’ plays have come down to us. It is reckoned that he actually produced over 100. There’s a thought! What other issues might he have tackled which involved the ancient warrior and those around him?

One of the other plays that has survived is Philoctetes.

Philoctetes, in history/legend was one of the greatest archers in the ancient world. He was also the inheritor of the bow of Herakles, which that tragic hero bequeathed to Philoctetes when he was the only one who would help Herakles to light his funeral pyre. Another great hero who committed suicide.

Philoctetes had joined the expedition to Troy, but when they first arrived on the other side of the Aegean he was bitten by a snake on his foot. The wound festered and stank and Philoctetes was always in unimaginable pain.

But his comrades did not help him. Instead, because he was so loud and disruptive to the sacrifices and morale, they abandoned him on a desolate island to be alone with his pain and torment.

Philoctetes abandoned

Philoctetes abandoned

Sophocles’ play is not about a soldier who is driven to suicide, but rather a soldier who is abandoned, whose friends are not there for him when he needs them most.

His former friends do return, however, after 10 years of war. But it is not for him that they return, but for the bow of Herakles, without which it is said the Greeks cannot win against the Trojans. Odysseus comes to Philoctetes with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to get the bow.

Naturally, Philoctetes is bitter and might have killed his comrades had not Neoptolemus stolen the bow at Odysseus’ insistence. Philoctetes is distraught at losing his one great possession, the thing which has kept him alive.

O pest, O bane, O of all villainy
Vile masterpiece, what hast thou done to me?
How am I duped? Wretch, hast thou no regard
For the unfortunate, the suppliant?
Thou tak’st my life when thou dost take my bow.
Give it me back, good youth, I do entreat.
O by thy gods, rob me not of my life.
Alas! he answers not, but as resolved
Upon denial, turns away his face.
O havens, headlands, lairs of mountain beasts,
That my companions here have been, O cliffs
Steep-faced, since other audience have I none,
In your familiar presence I complain
Of the wrong done me by Achilles’ son.
Home he did swear to take me, not to Troy.
Against his plighted faith the sacred bow
Of Heracles, the son of Zeus, he steals,
And means to show it to the Argive host.
He fancies that he over strength prevails,
Not seeing that I am a corpse, a shade,
A ghost. Were I myself, he had not gained
The day, nor would now save by treachery…

… I return
To thee disarmed, bereft of sustenance.
Deserted, I shall wither in that cell,
No longer slaying bird or sylvan beast
With yonder bow. Myself shall with my flesh
Now feed the creatures upon which I fed,
And be by my own quarry hunted down.
Thus shall I sadly render blood for blood,
And all through one that seemed to know no wrong.
Curse thee I will not till all hope is fled
Of thy repentance; then accursed die.

(Sophocles, Philoctetes)

Philoctetes has experienced not only pain and torment, but extreme isolation for an extended period of time. If he had been able, he likely would have taken out his anger and rage on his former comrades who had come to get him, those who had abandoned him, mainly Odysseus.

Neoptolemus and Odysseus take the bow of Herakles from Philoctetes

Neoptolemus and Odysseus take the bow of Herakles from Philoctetes

But the Gods decide to favour Philoctetes, and in the legend Herakles himself appears and urges his old friend to return to the war with his bow. This Philoctetes does, and he is one of the men who hides in the Trojan Horse. Sophocles’ play does not go into this, but focusses more on the pain of abandonment and isolation.

How many modern troops, or troops through the ages for that matter, would also have experienced such deep pain in isolation, real and figurative?

How many troops come home to family and friends who, despite the very best of intentions, just don’t understand what they have been through? They can’t understand unless they have been there themselves.

Trenches

The Theatre of War and its performances of Ajax and Philoctetes seems to provide just what is needed for troops who are alone, and depressed, and dealing with PTSD and all the horrors that that entails – a forum of common understanding.

As I said before, I have not served in the military, so I can only imagine what our troops must be going through. However, there is a level on which I can understand some of this that is perhaps related.

It has to do with the study of history in general. Over the years, when I have felt isolated, out-of-place, depressed, or felt difficult emotion to some extreme, I’ve always found comfort in history, the people, the events.

Medieval battle

Medieval battle

Somehow, studying and trying to understand history, whatever the period, has always helped me to feel more attuned to the world about me, less lonely. No matter how bad I might have thought things were, how little I might have been understood, history, the past, has always shown me that similar things, more difficult things, have happened to others. I think the knowledge of the challenges people in the past have overcome has always given me strength.

I can’t imagine my life without having studied the past. From those difficult teenage years to the present day, the past has always been my comfort and compass, and helped me to move forward however small my steps.

Perhaps that is what our troops, those veterans of extreme emotion, get from listening to their fellow warriors’ voices out of the past?

Bryan Doerries says it at the end of each of his group’s performances:

“Most importantly, if we had one message to deliver to you, two thousand four hundred years later, it’s simply this: You are not alone across time.”

So, this November 11th, and all through the year, I will ever spare a thought or prayer for warriors past and present. It shouldn’t matter what you think of the kings or politicians who sent them to battle for whatever ends.

If history has taught me anything, it is that warriors through the ages have faced incredible challenges and horrors, and for that they deserve our compassion.

Lest we forget…

Thank you for reading.

 Poppy field

If you would like to learn a bit more about the Theatre of War, be sure to visit the website and spread the word. You can also watch the video trailer which shows some of the work they do and includes troops expressing their feelings post-performance. Powerful stuff!

I would also recommend watching some of their performances. Below are clips of both Ajax and Philoctetes being performed by Theatre of War.

Click HERE to watch a performance of Ajax by Theatre of War.

 

 

Click HERE to watch a performance of Philoctetes by Theatre of War. 

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