Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Harry Potter and Aeschylus

At the beginning of J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I saw the following motto from Aeschylus' Libation Bearers:
Oh, the torment bred in the race, the grinding scream of death and the stroke that hits the vein, the haemorrhage none can staunch, the grief, the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house and not outside it, no, not from others but from them, their bloody strife. We sing to you, dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground - answer the call, send help. Bless the children, give them Triumph now.
Libation Bearers, or Choephori, is the second play in Aeschylus' dramatic trilogy Oresteia, and gets its name from the chorus of women who carry drink offerings to be poured on the grave of Agamemnon. Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra in the first play of the trilogy. The "children" in the quotation are Orestes and Electra, son and daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who are plotting to kill their mother in revenge for her murder of their father.

Rowling quotes Robert Fagle's translation of the end of the kommos, sung by the chorus. In A.F. Garvie's edition of the Choephori (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), this passage is found at lines 466-478. Here is the original Greek:
ὦ πόνος ἐγγενής,
καὶ παράμουσος ἄτας
αἱματόεσσα πλαγά,
ἰὼ δύστον᾽ ἄφερτα κήδη,
ἰὼ δυσκατάπαυστον ἄλγος.

δώμασιν ἔμμοτον
τῶνδ᾽ ἄκος, οὐδ᾽ ἀπ᾽ ἄλλων
ἔκτοθεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν,
δι᾽ ὠμὰν ἔριν αἱματηράν·
θεῶν <τῶν> κατὰ γᾶς ὅδ᾽ ὕμνος.

ἀλλὰ κλύοντες, μάκαρες χθόνιοι,
τῆσδε κατευχῆς πέμπετ᾽ ἀρωγὴν
παισὶν προφρόνως ἐπὶ νίκῃ.
Here is a more literal translation:
O trouble bred in the family, and discordant bloody stroke of doom, alas woeful cares not to be borne, alas pain hard to stop!

It is for the house [to apply the] absorbent remedy for these [wounds], not from others outside, but from themselves, through savage bloodstained strife. This is a hymn to the gods beneath the earth.

But paying heed, o blessed ones under ground, to this prayer, send aid to the children, graciously, for victory.
Garvie has a good note on the adjective ἔμμοτον, which I translated as "absorbent":
μοτοί are plugs of lint for dressing festering wounds, or, more precisely, for keeping them open until they suppurate and can heal from within .... This is one of the most certain cases of a borrowing by Aeschylus from medical terminology...
The English word for such a plug is tent, defined by Webster's Dictionary (1913) as
A roll of lint or linen, or a conical or cylindrical piece of sponge or other absorbent, used chiefly to dilate a natural canal, to keep open the orifice of a wound, or to absorb discharges.
A synonym for tent in this sense is pledget.

J.K. Rowling studied classics for two years at the University of Exeter, before switching to French. Some think that the Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore was modelled on one of her classics professors, Peter Wiseman.

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