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.