From Aeschylus: The Oresteia (Landmarks of World Literature).
Simon Goldhill is Professor of Greek, University of Cambridge, and Fellow of King’s College.
Cf. Aeschylus Works at Elpenor.

The intensity of lyric prophecy

The first passage I have chosen is from the first choral ode of the Agamemnon, and it is the last two lines of Calchas’ prophecy. It is lyric poetry, to be sung with musical accompaniment by the chorus, and I will offer first a transcription:

mimnei gar phobera palinortos oikonomos dolia mnamo¯n me¯nis teknopoinos.

[Ellopos’ note: the text in the original Greek characters (ed. Murray):
μίμνει γὰρ φοβερὰ παλίνορτος οἰκονόμος δολία μνάμων μῆνις τεκνόποινος

Lloyd-Jones translates as follows:

For there abides, terrible, ever again arising, a keeper of the house guileful, unforgetting, Wrath child-avenging.

Fagles, however, translates:

Here she waits the terror raging back and back in the future the stealth, the law of the hearth, the mother – Memory womb of Fury child-avenging Fury!

The situation will be recalled: the omen of the eagles has led Calchas to worry that another terrible sacrifice will be required. These lines express the reason why he has such a fear. It is a passage central to the idea of the household’s curse, to the narrative of revenge and to the themes of terror, intrafamilial violence and the effects of the past on the present.

Its complexity – that allows two such different translations! – stems from its syntax, its vocabulary and the way its imagery is linked into the whole narrative of the trilogy. Let me gloss the passage: mimnei gar, ‘for there remains’: emphatically placed first word, the verb ‘there remains’ indicates a constancy within the pattern of events that have already been described. This verb will also be used, for example, for the inevitable pattern of reversal and revenge that is Zeus’s law (Aga. 1563–4): mimnei de mimnontos en throno¯i Dios, pathein ton erxanta, ‘It remains a sign of Zeus who remains on his throne, that the doer suffers.’ So, it occurs throughout the trilogy as characters search for stability amid the shifting determination of events. Here, then, the reason offered why another sacrifice might be required is because of what remains constant.

The subject of this verb is all the remaining words of the passage. What remains is, first, phobera, ‘fearsome’. We have seen how terror is a pervasive mood haunting the Oresteia. Here, what remains is immediately frightening – this passage looks forward to all those future fears for which the omen and the curse play such a part. What remains is also palinortos. Unlike the first three words of the line, this is an extremely uncommon poetic adjective (that, in fact, occurs only here in surviving Greek texts). It suggests ‘rising up back again’.

Palin, the first part of what is a compound adjective, implies precisely the logic of reversal and repetition (‘back again’) central to revenge; and the verb stem from which -ortos comes suggests ‘rising’, ‘rushing’, ‘incited’ – that is, what remains is also active and activated, hence Fagles’ ‘back and back in the future’, a bold attempt to capture the force of the adjective.

What remains is also oikonomos. Here is the first noun of the sentence. Oikonomos means ‘household manager’ (the term from which ‘economics’ is derived). The noun directs attention to the oikos as the focus of the narrative. Although Agamemnon is with the army, the sacrifice is caused by something that directs the household. It is this term, primarily, that provides the sense of a specifically familial horror. It is also a surprising term that suggests both the household manager Clytemnestra (whom we have heard of ordering – managing – the watchman) and the idea of a more general force directing the household members (the overlap suggests how Clytemnestra fulfils a role in the family history and how the family history finds an instrument in Clytemnestra).