The Aeschylus Epigraph in ‘Deathly Hallows’

by John on October 20, 2008

After last week’s epic post (‘epic’ in length rather than in value of subject matter, I have to think, because few readers were moved to respond!) on the William Penn epigraph, I promised myself I would tackle the Aeschylus piece from The Libation Bearers that precedes it. This will be relatively brief (!) but, I hope, thought provoking. Greek drama is a little more along my lines of thought and study than late seventeenth century aphorism and epigram collections, if not by much.

The last time I wrote about Aeschylus at HogwartsProfessor was on my private boards in 2005, believe it or not. I posted a thread about Aeschylus and Greek Drama in the belief that (a) Ms. Rowling was rather obviously modeling Harry on Orestes to some degree (there are no other ‘young man coming into his own stories’ that I know which feature a boy with scar on forehead prophesied and determined to avenge the murder of his father) and (b) that this would be of some interest to other Potter readers. There were no responses to my thread on those late lamented boards. Given that the Orestes-Harry connection was the best hope of the Harry-Hermione shippers (Orestes in one form of his legend marries Hermione, his cousin, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen) as the alchemy of the books was of the Ron-Hermione and other shipping nut-jobs (overlook that, please), the non-response was a surprise.

Here’s hoping that, working from an actual Aeschylus passage within canon about Orestes, discussion here will be a little more lively even without the spur of romantic speculation. (For those of you struggling to remember just who Aeschylus is and to keep straight all the play references, please follow the links to Wikipedia under the relevant names and titles for a quick review.)

My plan is to lay out the passage Ms. Rowling chose as her opening for Deathly Hallows as it is in the context of The Libation Bearers and the Oresteia as a whole, what it means in relation to the Penn passage she selected as a complementary epigraph, and ultimately how it was meant to work in relation to the events of Harry’s final confrontation with the Dark Lord. I think it works, but, insomuch as Harry’s victory is not tragic or as cathartic as Orestes’ is in The Libation Bearers and the Hallows epilogue is no Eumenides, it cannot be the foreshadowing bit of genius any drop of the Aeschylean card invites a reader to imagine it must be. In communicating the traditional worldview and understanding of the relationship of living and dead succinctly and mysteriously, however, which ideas are the power and point of the Potter epic methinks and of Hallows especially, the epigraph is one of Ms. Rowling’s best touches.

My first thoughts on opening Deathly Hallows were not so profound. Ms. Rowling shaped the dedication to the book in the form of a lightning bolt scar, or, given the inability to have sharply drawn lines when crafting a literal word-picture, as a serpent. I thought that was a clever bit of work — until I saw the epigraph page, the first Harry Potter book to begin this way. This page with its two passages, right after the dedication snapshot, struck me as also being in the form of a picture. Forgive me, it was very late at night, remember? Anyway, it looked to me like smoke (the Aeschylus passage) rising from a block (the Penn piece), as if it were an altar sacrifice to the Muses. Could she be challenging her readers to read this book as a series of word paintings, sensitive to the actual shapes she gives them on the page? Daunting thought.

Fortunately, as intriguing and rewarding as it is is to read Ms. Rowling’s work as a series of paintings with layered meanings, the Aeschylus translation she uses (Robert Fagles, Penguin) has this passage in the exact shape that is presented in the Hallows epigraph. Any resemblance to smoke rising from a sacrifice on a pagan altar exists only, I’m afraid, in the greater reality of this reader’s head and primary imagination. As far as I know, the dedication was the last deliberate sketch in words in the pages of Deathly Hallows.

I cannot lay out the passage as Fagles crafts it and Ms. Rowling presents it, though the left justification of the words on the ‘page’ here is as true to the original as the more suggestive arrangements (most Greek manuscripts of the period, if memory serves, read left to right then right to left at line’s end, back and forth, all in capital letters and without spaces between words). Here is the Fagles translation:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house,
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground —
answer the call, send help,
Bless the children, give them triumph now.

(emphasis on ‘them’ in original translation)

A quick look at the original Greek and a more literal translation confirms the high regard Fagles enjoys among classicists. As Michael Gilleland wrote:

Rowling quotes Robert Fagle’s translation of the end of the kommos, sung by the chorus. In A.F. Garvie’s edition of the Choephori (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), this passage is found at lines 466-478. Here is the original Greek:

ὦ πόνος ἐγγενής,
καὶ παράμουσος ἄτας
αἱματόεσσα πλαγά,
ἰὼ δύστον᾽ ἄφερτα κήδη,
ἰὼ δυσκατάπαυστον ἄλγος.

δώμασιν ἔμμοτον
τῶνδ᾽ ἄκος, οὐδ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ἄλλων
ἔκτοθεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν,
δι᾽ ὠμὰν ἔριν αἱματηράν·
θεῶν <τῶν> κατὰ γᾶς ὅδ᾽ ὕμνος.

ἀλλὰ κλύοντες, μάκαρες χθόνιοι,
τῆσδε κατευχῆς πέμπετ᾽ ἀρωγὴν
παισὶν προφρόνως ἐπὶ νίκῃ.

Here is a more literal translation:

O trouble bred in the family, and discordant bloody stroke of doom, alas woeful cares not to be borne, alas pain hard to stop!

It is for the house [to apply the] absorbent remedy for these [wounds], not from others outside, but from themselves, through savage bloodstained strife. This is a hymn to the gods beneath the earth.

But paying heed, o blessed ones under ground, to this prayer, send aid to the children, graciously, for victory.

Another translation available online, that of Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, communicates the literal sense more clearly, if not quite with Fagles’ poetic elevation:

I hear these prayers and shudder. 580
This doom’s been long delayed,
but it does come for those who pray.

Oh, family bred for torments,
for the bloody strokes
of harsh discordant ruin,
for pains beyond enduring,
grief that can’t be staunched. [470]

For all this evil there’s a remedy,
not from some stranger,
someone outside the house, 590
but from within, the cure
that blood strife brings,
their savage bloody fight.
To gods beneath the ground
we sing this hymn.

Hear us, you blessed gods of earth,
hear this supplication, and assist
with your good will these children.
Give them the victory!

Philip Vellacott, whose translation for Penguin of the Oresteia was supplanted by Fagles,’ takes a different approach to the passage entirely. He reads it as a dialogue between Orestes and Electra:

Orestes: O the curse of our house! Spirit of Murder!
Discordant Strokes, and blood unnatural!
Electra: Hideous pain, sorrow intolerable!
All: Oh, when shall suffering end?
Orestes: This is no way but this to staunch the wound
That bleeds our race.
None from outside can help; we must ourselves
Cure our own case —
Electra: Since blood must match with blood, and wrong with wrong.
ALL: We have done. May the powers below accept our song.
Chorus: Gods of the earthy shade,
Grant all we pray for; aid
The weak against the strong;
Smile on our hopes and bless
Our deed with full success.
(Penguin, 1956, pp 120-121)

For all this translation’s failings, and, frankly, short of rhyme scheme requirements or being based on a different manuscript tradition, I find them inexplicable, it does convey something Fagles’ and the others do not, namely, the context of the passage. Electra has been sent by Clytemnestra to Agamemnon’s tomb to pour a libation because she has had a dream about being murdered by a serpent she has birthed and fed at her breast. At the tomb, Electra prays with the Chorus of slavewomen for her brother Orestes to return from exile and avenge their father’s murder and her disgrace.

But Orestes is already there, and, through a series of signs — locks of hair he has left at the tomb, foot prints she recognizes — his presence is revealed to her. The remaining part of the first act in this two act play is a series of invocations to father and mother by Orestes, Electra, and Chorus at the tomb to prepare and inspire Orestes for the vengeance he is to exact in the next act at his mother’s hearth. The Chorus passage that is an epigraph, short of their song between acts, is the most important of this lengthy peroration to the murder of Clytemnestra.

In the context of the Oresteia as a whole, this choral song is the middle point of the middle play (a fourth play, something of a masque not introducing new story points per se or reordering the facts of the drama — think of it as an epilogue? — has been lost). In Agamemnon, the father is murdered by the mother. In The Libation Bearers, the father’s murder is avenged by his children. In the Eumenides, the Furies attack Orestes for his matricide and he seeks relief in court (!). The Hallows epigraph, literally and figuratively, is the turning point or pivot of the Oresteian Trilogy in which the drama of the first play reaches its end, the cause of the end play has its beginning, and the action of the center piece crystallizes.

So what?

Well, three things come to mind.

First, the passage is an invocation of “the dark gods beneath the earth” to “bless the children” and “bring them victory now.” The Chorus believes only the players on stage, most notably Orestes and Electra but also Pylades, Prince of Phocis and Orestes’ de facto brother in spirit, can avenge Agamemnon and restore something like justice and order to the world. It falls on them, like it or not, and they will need all the otherworldly help and inspiration they can get. Hold that thought for a second.

Next, Electra’s first invocation for help, her prayer for Orestes to return, had already been answered unknown to her as she speaks. She was sent to offer libations to sooth the spirit of Agamemnon but prays instead for an Avenger; Orestes and Electra and Chorus then pray together with the Chorus for Agamemnon’s spirit to rise and bless them. Orestes, who will announce his death in a bit of ironic play-acting before his mother in the next act, essentially dies to himself here and becomes the serpent of his mother’s dream as well as the vehicle of justice and of his father’s spirit. To avenge the regicide and murder of his father, he must become a matricide himself and someone as accursed and haunted by the Furies. Hold on to that thought, too.

Last, the event around which the first act of The Libation Bearers turns is Electra’s prayer and recognition of her brother Orestes. Euripides makes a point of mocking Aeschylus’ unlikely story points (locks of hair? foot prints recognized from child hood runs in the sand? right…) in his retelling of the Oresteia; that playwright gives Orestes a forehead scar instead in an allusion to Odysseus meant to be demeaning to Orestes and Aeschylus. However silly (or meaningful) the Aeschylean references to head and feet as Electra’s points of recognition, however, the central event of this pivotal act is prayer and a revelation that is cast as a recognizing. That’s the third thing to remember.

The first point you’re holding on to is the surface reading of the epigraph from Aeschylus. Orestes, Electra, and Pylades are Harry, Hermione, and Ron story parallels about to undertake a sacrificial mission to avenge the murder of a parent (or two), fulfill the destiny prophesied for the boy who lived, who knowingly embraces his almost certain death. For the action of Deathly Hallows, this scene and prayer is a great lead in. The defeat of the Dark Lord and restoration of order and justice all come down to the Terrible Trio and their acting their parts. And we get a boost from the shades of Harry’s parents in the Forbidden Forest.

The second point is the moral reading of the epigraph which points to the alchemical drama and resolutions at hand. To avenge a murder, Orestes/Harry must die to themselves and commit a murder on top of this death-to-persona. In order to slay the Heir of Slytherin, Harry must acknowledge that soul part in himself that is serpentine and Voldemort’s, if only to die with it. It is this acknowledgment and death to self in which he transcends death and the murder he will commit. Just as Harry’s soul is not rent by the death of Voldemort in the Great Hall, a death for which he is, of course, responsible even if Voldemort essentially self-destructs in his inability to feel remorse, Orestes is ultimately freed from the Furies pursuing him after Clytemnestra’s murder. An Avenger’s destiny involves contradictions — murdering murderers because of the evil of murder being only the most obvious — but contradictions that can be lived with or transcended if the Avenger acts impersonally or dispassionately. [Note, too, Orestes’ identification with the serpent of Clytemnestra’s dream and the story parallel of Harry’s learning he is a Horcrux.]

The last point, Electra’s prayer followed by revelation as recognition all of which precedes and substantiates the Chorus passage used as epigraph, brings us to Penn and the ideas of spiritual vision in both More Fruits of Solitude and Deathly Hallows. The “light of the body is the eye”, and this light is the logos of the mind and conscience, the inner principles of created things, and the unity of existence. It is this logos or Word in everyman (John 1:9) that prays, that speaks to us as conscience, and that understands and knows through recognition of itself and its absence in other people, things, and ideas. Penn speaks to the bond of this “inward light” being the eternal life together of Friends, meaning those who know themselves as vehicles of the Light of the World (John 8:12); Rowling represents this noetic faculty of soul and its purification symbolically through Harry Potter and his seven adventures. Harry as Logos is the “inside of the head” that is more real than the outside, i.e., the logos mind of Electra’s conscience, prayer, recognition, and, ultimately, her vengeance.

Simple as 1, 2, 3, right? In the Aeschylus epigraph we get pointers to the surface story points of Deathly Hallows, its more challenging moral and allegorical meanings, and, for those willing to do the meditative slow mining Ruskin urges the serious reader to, the iconographic or anagogical depths of Harry Potter. The series finale is relatively comic compared to any part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia — remember Peeves’ song capturing the “scope and tragedy of the thing” (page 746) — but Hallows does communicate a large part of the archetypal freight in the Oresteia, not in spite of but because of our assimilation into the story and identification with the Trio. Considering how few readers even know who Orestes is, Aeschylus fans should be cheering Ms. Rowling’s up front pointers to The Libation Bearers and the Greek ‘Boy Who Lived’ with forehead scar rather than looking down their nose at her work.

If you want to read more about Deathly Hallows‘ four layers of meaning and the iconographic tradition of literary criticism, not to mention our “suspension of disbelief” in the story that makes possible our imaginative experience of its meaning, please purchase The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor Explains Harry Potter’s Last Adventure. And write to tell me what you think of it!

About Aeschylus’ epigraph, though, I ask you for your comments and corrections right away. Especially if you think my “smoke from the altar” first impression is as likely an interpretation as the other three connections with Penn and Hallows!

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