Sunday, October 15, 2006


Footprints in the Sand

While Agamemnon was fighting at Troy, his wife Clytemnestra engaged in a dalliance with Aegisthus, and when Agamemnon finally returned from Troy, the pair of lovers murdered him.

The offspring of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes, disapproved of the crime of their mother and her paramour. Sent away as a child, Orestes returned home with his friend Pylades when he grew up. With the help of Electra, the two friends slew Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in revenge for their murder of Agamemnon.

The three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all tell this tale. In Aeschylus (Libation Bearers 205-210, tr. Herbert Weir Smyth), one way in which Electra recognizes that her brother Orestes has returned is as follows:
And lo! why here are tracks -- a second proof -- tracks of feet, matching each other -- and like unto my own! Yes, for here are two sorts of footprints, his own and some companion's. The heels and markings of the tendons agree in their proportions with mine own tracks.

καὶ μὴν στίβοι γε, δεύτερον τεκμήριον,
ποδῶν ὅμοιοι τοῖς τ᾽ ἐμοῖσιν ἐμφερεῖς—
καὶ γὰρ δύ᾽ ἐστὸν τώδε περιγραφὰ ποδοῖν,
αὐτοῦ τ᾽ ἐκείνου καὶ συνεμπόρου τινός.
πτέρναι τενόντων θ᾽ ὑπογραφαὶ μετρούμεναι
εἰς ταὐτὸ συμβαίνουσι τοῖς ἐμοῖς στίβοις.
Euripides (Electra 532-537, tr. David Kovacs) made fun of this episode from Aeschylus:
Step into his footprints and see whether the mark of his boot agrees with your foot, my child.
But how could a footprint be made on ground well-stoned? And if there is one, the feet of siblings will not be of equal size when one is male and the other female: the male will be larger.

σὺ δ' εἰς ἴχνος βᾶσ' ἀρβύλης σκέψαι βάσιν
εἰ σύμμετρος σῷ ποδὶ γενήσεται, τέκνον.
πῶς δ' ἂν γένοιτ' ἂν ἐν κραταιλέῳ πέδῳ
γαίας ποδῶν ἔκμακτρον; εἰ δ' ἔστιν τόδε,
δυοῖν ἀδελφοῖν ποὺς ἂν οὐ γένοιτ' ἴσος
ἀνδρός τε καὶ γυναικός, ἀλλ' ἅρσην κρατεῖ.
Sophocles in his Electra does not mention recognition by footprints.

A.H. Garvie in his commentary on Aeschylus' Choephori (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 86, gives a bibliography on the recognition scene. The only work on his list that I have read is Hugh Lloyd-Jones, "Some Alleged Interpolations in Aeschylus' Choephori and Euripides' Electra," Classical Quarterly n.s. 11 (1961) 171-184, reprinted in Greek Epic, Lyric, and Tragedy: The Academic Papers of Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 335-352. At 177 (343), Lloyd-Jones wrote about those who would excise the lines from Aeschylus' play as an interpolation:
In its essence the argument of Schütz and Fraenkel boils down to this: Aeschylus was a great poet: great poets do not write bad poetry: the footprint episode is bad poetry: therefore, it was not written by Aeschylus.
I have a half-baked idea that might help to rehabilitate Aeschylus. Perhaps the poet was not thinking about the size and shape of Orestes' footprints, but rather what the footprints revealed about Orestes' distinctive, recognizable gait, for example, the pressure of toe and heel, the distance between the steps, the direction of the toes, etc. Although I can't dredge up the parallels right now, there are many passages from ancient literature that refer to someone's distinctive way of walking. I vaguely recall an article on this subject (by M.L. West?) published sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. One passage I've recently encountered is a couplet by Phocylides (tr. J.M. Edmonds):
Many that are of little wit seem to be wise if their walk be orderly.

Πολλοί τοι δοκέουσι σαόφρονες ἔμμεναι ἄνδρες
σὺν κόσμῳ στείχοντες ἐλαφρόνοί περ ἐόντες.
What is really wanted is some ancient analogue to Shakespeare's "High'st queen of state / Great Juno comes; I know her by her gait." Emphasis added.

Perhaps Electra and Orestes shared a distinctive gait learned in early childhood from their father Agamemnon. I have more than once noticed the charming similarity in gait between small children (especially boys) and their fathers.

Smyth translates 209-210 as "The heels and markings of the tendons agree in their proportions with mine own tracks." Lloyd-Jones' translation is similar: "The heels and the outlines of the tendons agree in their proportions with my prints." Emphasis added. For agree in their proportions, the Greek says μετρούμεναι ... συμβαίνουσι (being measured ... they correspond). Did Electra measure with a ruler? One way to measure is to pace off, and thus μετρέω can mean traverse as well as measure. If I were staging the play, I might have Electra walk in Orestes' footprints as she utters these lines. We might also recall the root elements that make up the verb συμβαίνω (agree). Like its Latin counterpart convenio, it contains a verb of motion, βαίνω (go, walk).

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