Ancient Athenian Drama

Sophocles and Euripides: Philoctetes and the Children of Heracles

5th century BC, Ancient Greek.

again and againEx(change) of identity

Miraculously, the old man Iolaus is in the prime of youth again!

Something about these two plays has just stuck me as being very similar, and as I sit here outside this village, seated in this lovely amphitheatre, watching these wonderfully costumed figures performing plays in homage to the god Dionysus – plays that have formerly been seen in Athens, at the City Dionysia beneath the Acropolis – I remember what I have been told: watch for the jarring moment.

I have been doing this. The company of performers has selected two plays that have never before been seen together in one performance, they tell me; but look for what links them together, I have been told.

Well, first we saw Philoctetes, who was given the bow of Heracles as that hero lay dying. He went with it to join the Greeks at Troy, but they banished him to an island when he was wounded in the foot by a snake. Now here was the first jarring moment for me: not the snake, but the island. We all know that it should be Lemnos, and that Lemnos is not deserted. But it was. Philoctetes was suffering a living death on an island that was like an Island of the Dead. And near the play's conclusion there was another jarring moment: when it seemed for all the world that Odysseus was going to force Neoptolemus to take the bow with him to Troy and leave Philoctetes to rot where he was. We know that Philoctetes is supposed to return to Troy with the bow; we know how the poets tell the story. So was the play saying that Philoctetes might leave an Island of the Dead and return to fight at Troy as Neoptolemus, son of Achilles?

In the event, the ghost of Heracles intervened and Philoctetes agreed to return to Troy. He would be healed of his gangrenous wound by Asclepius, the snake god. Destroyed by a snake and then healed by a snake.

But that has got me thinking – which I know is the intention. Because, just as Philoctetes was given the chance to take part again in a former enterprise, despite a nearness to death making it seemingly impossible for him to do so, now the same has just happened to Iolaus. I am watching a messenger speaking of the old man – and be very clear, the dialogue has left us in no doubt that he is a very old man indeed – and a most astonishing thing is being related: Iolaus has just been granted his youth again! He hobbled off a moment ago to take part with the Athenians in a battle against the warriors of Argos. I am sorry, you must understand that this is another play I am speaking of now, the one by Euripides. It is set on the plains of Marathon outside Athens. The Athenians have just fought to defend Iolaus against his old enemy who has been chasing old Iolaus, and the children of Heracles, around Greece. For a little while, just a short while ago, it was like a comody, watching Iolaus limp away, protesting that he intends to fight, despite his years and infirmity, and despite the incredulity of the messenger accompanying him off. But fight he has, and magnificently! Miraculously! In the prime of youth again, he has captured his enemy and bound him prisoner. He has been given his youth once more, if only for a day.

The thought has occurred to me now: are we supposed to place this miraculous reversal of old age beside the death of the maiden, a daughter of Heracles, who offered herself as a human sacrifice just before the battle? Her death, and then the restoration of Iolaus's youth? It has been acknowledged that the dead go to Hades forever, and that the gods live in the sky, but what we are told and what we are shown at the festival of Dionysus are often not entirely the same, I believe. And I can see that the two plays together may be saying this: that death need not signal the end of our journey on Earth, and even more, that it may not even stop one's continuing involvement in a struggle.

Story fragments retold from: Davie, John, 1996. Euripedes: Alcestis and other plays. Translated from Ancient Greek with an introduction and notes by Richard Rutherford. Penguin Books Limited. The Children of Heracles, pp 87–121; David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, 2013 (Third edition). Sophocles II: Ajax, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, Trackers. University of Chicago Press. (Translation of Philoctetes by David Grene, copyright University of Chicago Press, 1957, 2013). Philoctotes, pp 207–77.

See for yourself

Euripides – Wikipedia

Sophocles – Wikipedia

Philoctetes (Sophocles' play) – Wikipedia

Children of Heracles – Wikipedia

Sophocles: Philoctetes – English translation, Internet Classics Archive (download plain text version)

Euripides: The Heracleidae – English translation, Internet Classics Archive (download plain text version)

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