All entries for November 2017

November 15, 2017

(Un)dressing Eteocles: A performative approach to the Labdacids' Curse

This entry examines the conventions of performance and their symbolic meanings in the central scene in Aeschyus’ Seven Against Thebes. Specifically, I am interested in the physical and mental transformation of Eteocles when he dons his armour.

Until the central scene, the plot of the play revolves around the efforts of a powerful leader to save his city from his brother’s army. Suddenly, his mind changes: Eteocles decides to die in order to satisfy the conditions of his family’s Curse and equips his armour and weapons resisting the Chorus’ pleas to reconsider. Claiming that he can see the Curse giving him orders, he eventually leaves for the 7th gate where he and his brother Polyeneices find a mutual death.

Theatre of Dionysos, Athens

This sudden change of mind has been the centre of most of the academic works that look into the Seven. Indeed, scholars have been trying for years to find an explanation and they usually conclude that Eteocles is either losing his mind or he is simply realising the power of the Curse (Kirkwood 1969: 9-25, Lawrence 2007 :335-353 and Brown 1977:300-318). There is, however, one thing that most scholars seem to be overlooking: the importance of the metallic weapons and their appearance onstage. Indeed, the importance of the metallic element in the play is only fully revealed when we examine the text from a performative perspective. Specifically, this piece of research argues that metals are the materialised form of the Curse that dominates Eteocles’ body from within and leads him to his destruction.

Right after Eteocles hears that his brother is standing on the 7th gate, he requests that his greaves are brought to him (l.675). From that point onwards, the audience witnesses Eteocles’ change of mind taking place at the same time that he is equipping his weapons and putting on the pieces of armour one by one, following the fixed Iliadic arming sequence (Sommerstein: 2008:220-221, Bacon: 1964:36). What makes this action so important is the symbolical value of the costuming procedure as an onstage transformation of Eteocles into a metallic warrior.

Wherever metallic weapons had appeared previously in the play, the result had been destructive for Thebes: in the first episode, the sound of the enemies’ shields was used to infuse terror to the soul of the Chorus causing a conflict between them and Eteocles. This scene was followed by a 300-line long description of the crestsof the shields by the Messenger, where each crest served as a reflector of their owner’s personality (Zeitlin 1982:33, Chaston 2010:74-85). Thus, when in this scene the metals appear in front of the eyes of the audience and Eteocles suddenly decides that he should die next to his brother, we are led to interpret the arming as much more than mere war preparation: Eteocles is turning into a metallic warrior, a servant of the Curse.

It is during his arming that both the spectators and the Chorus witness Eteocles’ change and this change is linked to his armour more than once. “Why this mad passion child? Don’t let yourself be carried away by this spear-mad delusion”, the Chorus say in l.687-689 (All translations by Sommerstein: 2008). To their suggestion that he is being led by a harshly-stinging lust, Eteocles responds:

φίλου γὰρ ἐχθρά μοι πατρὸς †τελεῖ† Ἀρὰξηροῖς ἀκλαύτοις ὄμμασιν προσιζάνει...

"Yes, for the hateful <black[?]> Curse of the father who should have loved me sits close by me with dry, tearless eyes”.. (Sept. 695-697)

Eteocles resists the Chorus’ final attempts to bring him back to his senses claiming that he is τεθηγμένον (whetted), a word used to describe iron later in l.944. He also states that the Chorus are saying words a ‘ὁπλίτην’ (man-at-arms) should not listen to. The fact that he is using weapon terminology to describe himself reveals an inner sense of identification with the metal that has now become one with his flesh.

Indeed, after Eteocles’ death, iron will be identified as the executioner of the family’s Curse when we find out that Eteocles had had a dream about a Scythian stranger that would divide the land between him and Polyneices (Thalmann 1978:77-79):

ἄγαν δ᾿ ἀληθεῖς ἐνυπνίων φαντασμάτωνὄψεις, πατρῴων χρημάτων δατήριοι.

it was too true, what I saw in those dream-visions about the dividing of our father’s property.


πικρὸς λυτὴρ νεικέων ὁ πόντιοςξεῖνος ἐκ πυρὸς συθείς, θηκτὸς Σίδαρος· πικρὸς δὲ χρημάτων κακὸς δατητὰς Ἄρης, ἀρὰν πατρῴ-αν τιθεὶς ἀλαθῆ.

A harsh resolver of disputes is the visitor from the sea, who comes out of fire, whetted Iron, and harsh too is Ares, that evil divider of property, who has made the father’s curse come true. (Sept. 709-711 and 941-946).

Just like the dream had predicted, iron divides the land of the two brothers. The Curse Eteocles talks about is real and it makes a strong appearance onstage only to take Eteocles away with it.


Primary Sources:

SOMMERSTEIN, A.H. (2008), transl. Aeschylus; Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, Prometheus Bound, Rev. ed. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press).

Secondary Sources:

BACON, H. (1964), ‘The Shield of Eteocles’, Arion 3, pp. 27-38.

CHASTON, C. (2010), Tragic Props and Cognitive Function (Brill: Leiden).

THALMANN, W.G. (1978), Dramatic Art in Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes (Yale University Press).

ZEITLIN, F. (1982), Under the Sign of the Shield (Lexington Books).

Emmy Stavropoulou is a second year PhD student in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research looks into the ways in which imagery and metaphors of metals and metallurgy are employed in Archaic and Classical Greek literature, focusing on their connotations and significance in Greek culture and religion. At the moment, Emmy is working on the shield scene in l.375-675 of the Seven Against Thebes and the way in which the description of the shields compares to the creation of Achilles’ cosmic shield as described in Il.18.478-18.608.

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