Friday, April 07, 2006


Clytemnestra's Prayer

Sophocles, Electra 637-659 (tr. Richard C. Jebb):
Please, O Phoebus our defender, may you now listen to my prayer, though it is muffled; for I do not make my plea among friends, nor does it suit me to unfold it all [640] to the light while she [Electra] stands near me, lest by her malice and a cry of her clamorous tongue she sow reckless rumors through the whole city. Nevertheless, hear me thus, since in this way I will speak. That vision which I saw last night [645] in ambiguous dreams--if its appearance was to my good, grant, Lycean king, that it be fulfilled; but if to my harm, then hurl it back upon those who would harm me. And if any are plotting to eject me by treachery from my present prosperity, do not permit them. [650] Rather grant that living forever unharmed as I am I may govern the house of the sons of Atreus and their throne, sharing prosperous days with the friends who share them now, and with those of my children who feel no enmity or bitterness towards me. [655] O Lycean Apollo, hear these prayers with favor, and grant them to us all just as we ask! As for all my other prayers, though I am silent, I judge that you, a god, must know them, since it is appropriate that Zeus's children see all.
By way of background, Clytemnestra was Agamemnon's wife and mother of his children (who included Orestes and Electra). While Agamemnon was away fighting in the Trojan War, Aegisthus seduced Clytemnestra. When Agamemnon returned home, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. After the murder, Clytemnestra makes this prayer to Apollo (also called here Phoebus and Lycean king).

Two things about this prayer intrigue me. The first is the request concerning the vision Clytemnestra saw in a dream: "If its appearance was to my good, grant, Lycean king, that it be fulfilled; but if to my harm, then hurl it back upon those who would harm me." This is one of several passages from Greek and Latin literature in which petitioners beg the gods to transfer an evil from one place to another, or from one person to another. It's almost as if the amount of evil in the world is constant, and evil cannot be destroyed but can only change location. Apollo in his role as Averter of Evil (Latin averruncus, Greek alexeterios, alexikakos, aleximoros, apotropaios) is especially skilled at transferring evil in this way.

The second interesting thing about Clytemnestra's prayer is that it is muffled, or quiet (κεκρυμμένην = hidden). She keeps back some of her petitions and doesn't even utter them sotto voce. In ancient times, it was commonly thought that if you prayed silently, you must be asking for something shameful. Richard C. Jebb, in his commentary on Clytemnestra's prayer in the Electra and also on Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus 131, discusses this belief and gives some parallels. Most of those parallels are included in an earlier post on this subject, but Jebb has one I haven't seen before, from Clement of Alexandria's Stromata 4.26 (tr. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson):
What is it, then, that the Pythagoreans mean when they bid us "pray with the voice" [μετὰ φωνῆς εὔχεσθαι]? As seems to me, not that they thought the Divinity could not hear those who speak silently, but because they wished prayers to be right, which no one would be ashamed to make in the knowledge of many.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?