The Seven: A Digression on Sex

Greeks were not squeamish about discussing sexual matters, though their degree of frankness depended upon circumstance and genre:  What could be said in a comedy or put on a vase was not the same as the treatment of sex in tragedy or religious sculpture.  I asked Douglas Young, when I was auditing his class on Sophocles, why we did not read the Philoctetes, a play that has always interested me.  He justified his omission by complaining that as a student he had had to read the play many times.  "Why?" I asked, and he replied that it was  one of the few Greek tragedies without any sex in it, and was viewed, therefore, as suitable for boys.

As a reader of a good deal of French fiction and modern novels, I was taken aback until I started going over some of the plots in my head.  Let's see, Aeschylus' Oresteia:  In the background is the story of Thyestes, who seduces his brother  Atreus' wife as part of a plot to make himself king, and then has has his children fed to him by  Atreus.  Receiving an oracular answer that he should have intercourse with the first woman he sees, he rapes his own daughter, who bears Thyestes, who seduces the wife of Atreus' son Agamemnon, and when Agamemnon returns from Troy with his new mistress, the seer Cassandra, his wife and her lover kill him in his bath.  OK, no Oresteia.  The Suppliants?  Fifty oversexed men chasing 50 women, their cousins--scratch that.  Oedipus?  Hardly.  Ajax has a concubine by whom he has a son.  Antigone (like Eteocles and Polynices in this play) is the product of mother-son incest...  You get the point, I hope.

Far from being obsessed with sexual matters, Greek writers took them matter of factly as an important part of human life.  As Agamemnon says (in the Iliad) of the girl he is sending back, he did not sleep with her as is the rule or way of men and women.  Because of their lack of hypocrisy, Greek writers often saw deeper into erotic questions than Puritans and post-Puritan sentimentalists who write drivel like Pamela.  When Jocasta in a by the way remark tells Oedipus that many men have dreamed of sleeping with their mother, Sophocles does not make the mistake of explaining all human life in terms of this "complex."

So, in the Seven and in the tale of the house of Labdacus, sex plays a major role.  It was King Laius' decision to have a child, despite the warning he had been given at Delphi that led to the tragic misfortunes of Oedipus, Jocasta, and their children.

Why should Laius have been forbidden to have children?  In the original folk tales, there may have been no good reason or merely some symbolic offense, like Agamemnon’s sin (in the epic tradition) in killing a deer sacred to Artemis, which led to her demand that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.  But Aeschylus, probing the mystery of life, would not have been content—as he was not content in the Agamemnon--with a traditional story that does not probe the moral depths.  So in the  Oresteia, Agamemnon's "crime" is indicated by a prodigy:  Two eagles (the Atridae) kill a pregnant hare, obviously destroy Troy and the people in the city.  On one level, the story is absurd, but for Aeschylus, who has a liturgical sense of time, Agamemnon has to become the sort of man who will destroy the temples of Troy, and in the play, the killing of his innocent daughter leads him into a change of character.  As the chorus sings, the winds of his spirit shift, and he becomes the man who will offend the gods.

There was a story, perhaps--even probably?-- used by Aeschylus, that Laius had committed a sexual crime by raping Chrysippus, the son of Pelops, who was the ancestor of Agamemnon and Menelaus.  In this popular version of the story, Laius was the inventor of pederasty, and a curse on his procreation would seem to be a perfectly natural divine response.

Eteocles’ misogyny may be conventional but it is expressed in unusual language: He does not want to share his  home or dwell with women.  On the surface, this would seem to be a repudiation of marriage.  A homosexual angle might also clarify Eteocles' puzzling order that whoever disobeys—whether “woman, man, and whatever in between”--will be stoned. Commentators either express bewilderment or explain the phrase as a meaningless rhetorical attempt to make a list of three, but it is far from impossible that Aeschylus is indeed suggesting that the family of Laius recognizes an intermediate category.  I am not insisting or even suggesting that the manly Eteocles is portrayed as homoerotic, but only that misogyny could well be part of the curse.

Stoning was a public penalty of great severity, inflicted on deserters.  That is apparently the point of a fragment plausibly attributed to the Myrmidons, Aeschylus’ play about Achilles and the death of Patroclus.  The Greek commanders threaten to stone Achilles for desertion, but the hero insists on his own dignity at the expense of the army.  This is particularly interesting,  since we are told that Aeschylus is the first to have made Achilles and Patroclus into lovers. Some writers have celebrated this as an indication of Aeschylus' own sexual orientation or at least his not negative view of homoeroticism, but since Achilles is a tragic hero and not an author's spokesman or the lead in a sentimental novel, his excessive attachment to Patroclus--and thus his willingness to do harm to the army--would surely have been portrayed as a defect.

I do not want to push this too far, but it is not impossible that Laius, a sexual predator, has bequeathed a curse on his family that involves both sex and violence.  Indeed, the women fear that if the city is conquered they will be forced to serve the enemy as concubines.  There is nothing unusual in such a fear, but it is a significant point in this play [363-68].

The curse plays an active role in the play.  Eteocles has the temerity to invoke it as a god right after Zeus, Earth, and the gods who protect the city: “Curse, the powerful vengeance spirit of my father..”  This seems an unusual invocation, but Eteocles takes a pragmatic, even impious approach to religion.  Worship and prayer are all very well, but success is what counts, and too much public hysteria might undermine morale, he tells the frightened women. 


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    The bits of trivia about homosexuality or incest in the plays, which one picks up through osmosis, was often extremely off-putting to an average conservative American. This created a hurdle for the unlearned in benefiting from knowledge of Hellenism. Certain figures from the “Age of Enlightenment” praised, it seems, the Greeks because of their pre-Christian qualities. May there also be a problem with others referencing Greek tragedy to excuse their own personal behavior? I remember seeing a paper which said that T.S . Eliot said that Bertrand Russell suffered from a lack of a classical education but he was wrong about that because Bertie referenced a play once or twice and therefore he did have a classical education. With this sort of epistemology in mind, it seems as if the opportunity presents itself for somebody to pick and choose what they want in presentation to an uneducated public.

  2. Dom says:

    Just working off the play itself I would have a hard time describing Eteocles as a misogynist, but I am not in a position to put his dialogue with the (female) chorus into a broader context.
    Perhaps this episode illustrates a major difference between male and female genius. He really just seems like a king who is under extreme pressure at the prospect of his city’s destruction. It would be natural for him to and take the position that “I understand perfectly well that if this city is sacked you will all be raped and pillaged. I really do not want that to happen and the best way to make sure it doesn’t is to keep the men who are on the walls locked-and-cocked and convinced of their own invincibility. If they are, they just might wring a miracle! If not, then even the gods will not prevent disaster.”
    I don’t think such a position would be blasphemous in a Christian context. After all, our God knows what kind of yield he farmer will enjoy this year. However, the farmer still needs to run a farm, which at the very least means putting seeds in the ground.
    Perhaps this exchange illustrates the tension between fatalism and the idea of free will? Is there any reason to think the Aeschylus would have considered it in such terms?

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Eteocles’ declaration that he would not live with a woman should strike an Athenian as bizarre. Aeschylus and other Greek writers are, it is true, fond of contrasting the characters of men and women, but it was Aeschylus who created the manly wife Clytaemnestra. No, there is something out of joint in this demon-haunted character, and whether I have hit the solution or not, the problem exists.

    Now, should the sexual frankness of the Greeks put off conservative Americans. I cannot answer that one. We live in a world that takes freakish games of sex and gender as a matter of course, while the Greeks were horrified. Now, they were not pseudo-Victorian sissies, that much is true, and far more like our British ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries–and much later. One has only to read Swift, a conservative Christian but whose direct language for natural necessities annoyed 19th century readers. The worst thing about prudishness is the inevitable counter-swing of the pendulum into obscenity and pornography.

    Finally, fatalism versus free will is the sort of dichotomy that is more common among second-rate theologians than among Greek poets. Chesterton once hit the nail on the head, when he observed that characters in Greek tragedy were always talking about fate or destiny or necessity and then go cheerfully forward on the assumption that they have the power to make decisions. For Aeschylus especially, but even for Homer, the Greek “individual”–they did not have such a word–is an interface between divine forces above him and organic forces inside him, and yet human persons like Eteocles and Agamemnon, although doomed from birth, freely make the decisions by which they are trapped. I think this is actually closer to the true Christian understanding of man’s place in the universe. Is God supreme–omniscient and omnicompetent? Yes. Is man free to choose? Yes.

  4. Dom says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    Thank you. I will try to keep biases of time and space out of mind as I finish the play, which, unfortunately, I temporarily had to set aside.

    Regarding fatalism I did not mean to set up a dichotomy, although it sounds like that is a common sort of thing. Really, it is not something I have spent much thought on. What I have spent is mostly due to Chesterton’s lines in Lepanto. I now note that while he suggests the Christian mindset precludes fatalism he never actually mentions “free will”:

    It is he that saith not ‘Kismet’; it is he that knows not Fate ;
    It is Richard, it is Raymond, it is Godfrey in the gate!
    It is he whose loss is laughter when he counts the wager worth,
    Put down your feet upon him, that our peace be on the earth.