By Fabian Meinel
CUP (2015) h/b 278pp £20.00 (ISBN 9781107044463)
Pollution, along with its flipside, purity and purification, is everywhere in much of ancient Greek culture, and it would be odd if tragedy—dealing as it often does with spilling of blood and the breaking of taboos—did not find itself constantly engaged with miasma. Pollution and purification are some of the ways, M. argues, in which tragedy expresses and negotiates the dilemmas and tortuous crises of life. This is the first major study in English to deal exclusively with this topic, and it is a tremendous book.
The world is a sad and painful place and people often feel ‘adrift in an absurd world’ (Geertz, quoted by M. p. 245). Greek tragedy as a genre seeks explanations for this: one such explanation for our pain is the actions of angry gods, and pollution may be used in some cases to account for their anger. Societal unease at what is perceived as ‘unclean’ is both natural and healthy, and M. is good at exploring the ways in which the divine action—Aphrodite cursing Hippolytus, say—is overlaid with more naturalistic explanations of Phaedra’s malaise involving such medical thinking as the ‘wandering womb’ (pp. 39-44). The language of medicine is borrowed in Hippolytus and in Oedipus Tyrannus to describe the physical nature of the crisis, and M. is well able to cite the relevant Hippocratic texts to show a society seeking to elide the divine and the human, surgery and sorcery, in their understanding of the world.
This is all a good corrective to the view that Hippolytus is simply a tale of avenging gods. Oedipus the King does not (after all) need a plague but simply a dead king to elicit an inquiry which will lead to the truth. So why do the plays use the language of pollution when they have all the explanation they need in a vengeful deity or a very broken home? This is central to M.’s argument, and he tackles it head on (e.g. pp. 53-4), even claiming that Sophocles may have invented the association of the plague with Oedipus’ self-discovery.
One common theme in tragedy is that of the family curse, and M. sees this is inherited pollution: Adam ate the apple and we get the stomach-ache. Phaedra, for instance, makes reference to her twisted family background (Pasiphae, Ariadne) as if in explanation of her own state of mind, and the later sections of the book (discussing Euripides’ Ion) will further allude to the parental burden of blame.
Some of M.’s theories are speculative. Theseus’ absence on his theoria in Hippolytus is dramatically convenient, and the playwright omits to explain why the king is doing it. M. suggests that Theseus was on a purificatory mission to rid himself of the pollution caused by his murder of the Pallantids. This makes his garlanded return—now free of ritual guilt—all the more poignant as his house is freshly (re)polluted by the suicide of his wife, and is a good idea; but why did Euripides fail to make this more obvious?
On the Antigone, M. is excellent, refusing to see the play as a one-sided attack on legalism (Creon) through the figure of the virtuous maiden Antigone. For him the play explores the issues of crime and punishment and the conflicting spaces of the civic and the divine. The play has pollution all the way through, from the blood-guilt of fratricide to the unburied stinking corpse to the pollution of the guilt which Creon has to take on. There is also some engaging literary use of the semantic field of pollution, with the rotting body of Polynices something of a symbol of the diseased body politic—somewhat like the plague-ridden Thebes of the Oedipus the King, and a very long way from the gleaming utopia outlined in Creon’s opening speech.
The classic exploration of blood-guilt/purification versus political discourse and legal punishment is of course the Oresteia where the ancestral Furies are ultimately trumped by the Areopagus. As in the Antigone, the play enacts a dilemma which is insoluble: the need to avenge a father conflicting with the need not to kill a mother. This sort of case makes the whole edifice of purification of blood-guilt inadequate to the task of doing justice. M. looks in some detail at the related area of civic identity and the allure of notions of ‘racial purity’ which are still alive today. M. neatly adduces evidence from the orators to show how the concept of civic identity was bound up with ritual observance and where the unclean has to be excluded for the good of the state, as suggested as long ago as Hesiod (Works and Days 240-241). The concept of ‘stranger’ is not too far from the notion of ‘outsider’ and many societies have a preoccupation with the purity of their immigrants—Aeschylus’ Suppliants makes a very good case study of this, with an even more illuminating account of Oedipus at Colonus to follow. This late play is one where we can see the conflicting notions of religious purity versus legal innocence stretched to breaking point in phrases such as Oedipus’ self-description (548) as νόμῳ δὲ καθαρός (‘pure in law’).
This leads on to a fine analysis of Euripides’ Ion with its constant play on notions of purity and the rich Euripidean irony that Apollo the god is potentially impure for his rape of Creusa. M. also sees the play in interesting political terms (Ion is after all ancestor to the Ionians) as embodying notions of race and civic identity.
Other plays could have found a place in this study – Philoctetes’ festering foot and his status as the unwelcome outcast, the way the pollution theme linked to matricide is handled in Sophocles’ Electra, the threat to withhold burial from Ajax (in relation to the discussion of the hapless Polynices in Antigone), for instance, in Sophocles alone – but M. decides to say more about less and to avoid a blanket-bombing of every play in existence, leaving welcome room for new studies to work in the same way on plays which M. has left untouched.
M. writes in a clear and often entertaining style with lots of wit and even humour—although the thesis-speak peeps through sometimes (such as p. 97: ‘For, if pollution designates something which “transcends the system”, the designation itself of something as pollution, the act of naming pollution, implies nonetheless that this pollution is drawn back into the sphere of the nameable and therefore categorisable’).
Greek is well translated in the body of the text, but the footnotes often leave quotations in Latin, Greek and modern languages untranslated. Sometimes (e.g. the quotation from Aphrodite (TrGF 3.44) on page 204 n.107) this is regrettable, as readers without Greek will want to know what the goddess is saying, but more often the gist of the quotation is embedded in the text. The book is well copy-edited, although a very few typos remain (e.g. p.25 ‘her of day’ for ‘of her day’).
For many years the standard work on the topic of pollution has been (and remains) Parker’s 1983 study Miasma. This book does not claim to supersede Parker, but M. stands happily on the shoulders of that giant, taking Parker’s insights into the corners of Greek tragedy where we need this light to shine.