Tuesday, June 02, 2020


Urns and Ashes

Aeschylus, Agamemnon 432-444 (tr. Richmond Lattimore):
Many are they who are touched at the heart by these things.
Those they sent forth they knew;
now, in place of the young men
urns and ashes are carried home
to the houses of the fighters.
The god of war, money changer of dead bodies,
held the balance of his spear in the fighting,
and from the corpse-fires at Ilium
sent to their dearest the dust
heavy and bitter with tears shed
packing smooth the urns with
ashes that once were men.

πολλὰ γοῦν θιγγάνει πρὸς ἧπαρ·
οὓς μὲν γάρ <τις> ἔπεμψεν
οἶδεν, ἀντὶ δὲ φωτῶν
τεύχη καὶ σποδὸς εἰς ἑκάσ-        435
του δόμους ἀφικνεῖται.
ὁ χρυσαμοιβὸς δ' Ἄρης σωμάτων
καὶ ταλαντοῦχος ἐν μάχῃ δορὸς
πυρωθὲν ἐξ Ἰλίου        440
φίλοισι πέμπει βαρὺ
ψῆγμα δυσδάκρυτον, ἀν-
τήνορος σποδοῦ γεμί-
ζων λέβητας εὐθέτους.

432 γοῦν codd.: δ' οὖν M.L. West
433 τις suppl. Porson
441 βαρὺ codd.: βραχὺ Schütz
444 εὐθέτους Auratus: εὐθέτου codd.
"Many are they who are touched at the heart by these things" is a bit misleading — πολλὰ is the subject of θιγγάνει, i.e. "many things touch," etc.

David Raeburn and Oliver Thomas, The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: A Commentary for Students (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 116-117:
432. γοῦν: the particle introduces a piece of evidence for the claims of the preceding statement (Denniston 451). There is certainly much cause for distress: an urn containing ashes is all that comes home from the war. θιγγάνει πρὸς ἧπαρ: 'touch right to the liver', i.e. cause bitter grief.

433–4. οὓς μὲν γάρ <τις> ἔπεμψεν οἶδεν: 'For people know those whom they sent out', but cannot recognize them when they return as ashes; (ἐκείνους) οὓς ἔπεμψεν is a relative clause, not an indirect question.

434–6. τεύχη 'urn' (LSJ s.v. II) is plural for singular. The practice of returning the ashes of Athenian soldiers killed in battle after their bodies had been cremated seems to have been introduced within the decade before the Oresteia; by contrast, in the Iliad (except for 7.332–8 and 16.678–83, the latter being quite exceptional) the warriors' bones are generally burnt in a common pyre, and the ashes buried at Troy. Besides this specific contemporary reference, the whole following passage would have resonated powerfully with Athenians who had suffered heavy casualties on multiple fronts in 460–59 BC (see Intro. § 2).

437–44. In a striking image, War is presented as a 'gold-trader of bodies, who carries his weighing-scales amid a spear-battle'. The idea modifies the scales of the Iliad in which the heroes' fates are weighed in order to indicate who will die (e.g. 22.209–13). Here Ares takes a corpse and offers in exchange a weight of πυρωθὲν ψῆγμα, 'refined gold-dust' in the terms of the metaphor and 'cremated ash' in actuality. This dust is βαρύ—simultaneously 'weighty' on Ares' scales and a 'heavy' burden to the dead man's relatives. The ash is ἀντήνωρ—a fair exchange for a man according to Ares' scales, yet quite the opposite in the eyes of the bereaved. In 444, read εὐθέτους to provide a more even distribution of adjectives among the nouns: 'loading easily-stowed urns with ash' (genitive after the idea 'fill').

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