Sophocles’ Women of Trachis: Man vs. Beast

By Owen Fereday

Sophocles’ Women of Trachis is a tragedy that has never reached, in modern society, the level of exposure or acclaim as many other extant tragedies such as Sophocles’ own Oedipus the King or Antigone, or Euripides’ Medea. Where these have permeated popular culture to such an extent that they are widely known and have seen a plethora of adaptations over the years (for instance, between 1980 and 2019, according to the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, only 13 high- profile productions of Women of Trachis have been performed, as opposed to 367 of Antigone).[1]Part of the reason for this is because of its critical reception, which has historically been fairly mixed. In recent years, however, it has seen more critical acclaim among scholars because, as Charles Paul Segal argues, critics were once keen to “wax eloquent praise of Deianeira” and her story, “and take delight in heaping persiflage on the brutality” of the far more sparcely characterised Heracles (these two being the main characters of the play), without realising that the play’s emphasis is not on character but rather, as scholars are beginning to realise, on “the interdependence and complementarity of the two figures” being, as they are, vessels for thematic discussion much more than simply tragic figures.[2]

In this post I shall discuss why, if you are a fan of Greek Tragedy or any classical literature, you should definitely check out this highly underrated play and why its discussion of philosophical themes is what makes it such an interesting piece. To that end, I will briefly explore both how the play discusses the themes at hand as well as some of the differences between how such themes would be viewed and discussed in 5th century BCE Greece and how we might view them in a modern, western society.

The main themes being discussed in the play, and the ones that I shall focus on primarily here, are those of ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarity’ and, specifically, the manner in which the two are interrelated. First, I should define what I mean by ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarity’. It would be anachronistic to attribute only those meanings that we commonly hold in present- day, western society to such terms. Rather, these terms represent much more in Greek society and Greek tragedy than simply ‘the elegant, intelligent and morally upstanding’ and ‘the uncultured, unrefined and amoral’ respectively, as we may currently take these terms to mean (loosely). Rather, as Segal argues, the polarity between civilisation and barbarity is more analogous to “the conflict between… nature and culture (physis and nomos)”.[3] In other words, to conceive of the polarity as being merely between ‘civilised and uncivilised’ would be a gross oversimplification, since it seems more to do with the ideas of physis and nomos, concepts which contain within them a variety of interconnected relations and more basic concepts. For physis, it may be helpful to think of it as ‘the natural sphere’, which contains within it the ideas of nature (including the outdoor space, agros); of savagery and beast-like behaviours; of the titanic or natural (pre-Olympian or cthonic) deities (including monsters of myth) and natural law; and, crucially, of wildness or untamability (agrios, meaning wild, being derived from agros).[4] Conversely, nomos may be best thought of as the ‘sphere of human convention’: a combination of the ideas of the polis (the state, the political realm of the civilised human); of mildness and ‘decency’; of the new, ‘civilised’ Olympian cult; of order, principle and the man- made laws of the polis; and of familial relations (oikos): the family representing a unit of civilisation, all of which distinguish human from beast.[5]

However, the exploration of such themes should not be taken as a mere statement of a dichotomy: Segal states that such a “disjunction between man and the rest of nature… does not remain absolute”.[6] Rather, as Wouter Oudemans explains, the Greeks viewed such things as nomos and physis in the context of a wider “cosmology”: “In Greek eyes the cosmos is not only the order of sharply distinguished entities, it is a battlefield of conflicting forces”, with each entity eternally in a struggle with other entities and with its own limits.[7] Segal frames this struggle as a mapping of “spatial configurations”: in the case of the struggle between man and beast, man is threatened by the beast world pushing up from below, but he is also illuminated by the radiance of the Olympian gods above”, whose form is essentially the ideal of humanity.[8] For Segal, then, the issue at hand when we talk about the polarity between civilisation and barbarity is a confrontation between man and his limits, as well as between man and beast. In order to demonstrate that man and beast may be more similar than first expected and to expose where man lies in the “spatial relation” of Greek cosmology as a creature that toes the line between beast and the divine.

This appears rather different from how one might consider such a relation between ‘man and beast’ today: rather than seeing such a dichotomy as part of a wider cosmology or set of ‘spatial relations’, we tend to think of the two as being of separate categories, and may wonder where we draw the line between the two or if there is a difference at all. The distinction that I am attempting to highlight is, then, a rather subtle one. For the 5th Century Greeks, man and beast were merely points on a ‘map’ (and whose position was never clearly defined on said map) and on this map axes were constantly intersecting and points changing positions. For the modern, western person such a notion may seem ridiculous, since we think more in terms of categories. For instance, the 5th century Greek may think of ‘Man’ and ‘Beast’ as intersecting with ‘city’ and ‘field’, with Olympian Deities and cthonic deities, etc., and as constantly being subject to moving around on that scale. By contrast, we now tend to think of the dichotomy between man and beast as an issue of identifying what can be successfully categorised as either, and not as sliding points on a map or as being interconnected with other dichotomies present in the world.

Women of Trachis is perhaps the ideal theatrical exploration of such a spatial relation. Segal sees the story as being one of “Deianeira’s domestic tragedy”, a tragedy whose nature is tied inextricably with the oikos and with the theme of civilisation, coming into conflict with Heracles, who “never emerges entirely from the remote and mythical past and from the ancient powers that he vanquishes”.[9] As such, it “places us at the intersection between man and beast, between civilization” and barbarity.[10] Within the text itself one can readily see examples of this, such as the repeated reference and comparison of Heracles to beasts and to mythical creatures like the Hydra or Nessus, the Centaur. However perhaps the clearest and most interesting example of such a polarity between civilisation and barbarity being present in the play is in Hyllus’ description to Deianeira of Heracles’ supposed death in lines 745-771:

Hyllus:

If you must hear the story, I must tell you all. When he returned

from sacking the city of Eurytus, bringing the trophies of victory

 and the first fruits—there is a sea-swept cape in Euboea, Mount

 Cenaeum, where he was marking off altars and a sacred grove for

 Zeus his father. That is where I first saw him, much relieved, for I

 had missed him. And as he was about to slaughter the many beasts

 for sacrifice, there came from home his own herald, Lichas,

 bringing your gift, the robe of death. He put it on, as you had

 instructed, and slew twelve bulls without a blemish, as the first

 fruits of the spoils; but in all he was bringing up a hundred cattle of

 all kinds. At first, poor man, he spoke the prayer cheerfully,

 rejoicing in the fine attire. But when the bloodshot flame from the

 sacred offerings and from the resinous pine blazed up, the sweat

 came up upon his body,

 and the thing clung closely to his sides, as a carpenter’s tunic might,

 at every joint; and a biting pain came, tearing at his bones;

 then a bloody poison like that of a hateful serpent fed upon him.” [11]

Here we can see repeated contrast being drawn between the realms of nomos and physis. Given the context of a homecoming- a return to the oikos or civilisation from the wild; the repeated mention sacrifice and ritual action, which resided squarely within the civilised sphere; the gift of the cloak from Deianeira- from family- evoking the bond of oikos; and the reference to “fine attire” which might be associated with humanity and civilisation; we might be tempted to think this scene attempts to portray Heracles in a civilised manner. However, the imagery of Heracles wrestling with and slaughtering wild animals; the setting of the scene being in agros, before he could even return fully to his home- to oikos and the polis; the evocation of savagery arising from the description of violence and gore; and the reference to the cloak acting like some wild animal which finally brings down Heracles like no other monster had before; all lead one to conclude that the polarity between civilisation and barbarity are of the utmost importance to an accurate interpretation of the play. These themes seem to be at the heart of the drama of this scene, since their simultaneous presence both creates an irony in Heracles’ death when it eventually happens (at the hands of his own family, brought about by a gift of a civilised nature) and creates the sense that Heracles somehow resides within both realms at once: he treads the line between beast and man, but ultimately dies more beast than man at the hands of his ties to the civilised, to oikos and to humanity (similarly calling into question the strength of Deianeira’s ties to such things in the process).

To conclude, I have only briefly discussed how it is that the play explores the themes I have chosen to focus on. There are many more examples within the text itself and, as mentioned above, many themes which one may interpret as being discussed within the text. This, to me, is one of the greatest values of a tragedy such as Women of Trachis: its ability to explore such themes not only through the lens of a compelling story, but also through the unique lens of the 5th century Greek playwright, whose views on (and, indeed, ways of thinking about) such matters wildly differ from our own. As such, the play provides an interesting experience for those interested in classical literature or drama and those looking for a bit of philosophy in their fiction alike.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

Sophocles, The Women of Trachis. Trans: H. Lloyd-Jones (Ed.).  Antigone. The Women of Trachis. Philoctetes. Oedipus at Colonus. Loeb Classical Library 21. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1994). Available at: https://0-www-loebclassics-com.pugwash.lib.warwick.ac.uk/view/LCL146/2009/volume.xml

Secondary Sources:

Apgrd.ox.ac.uk. (2019). Productions database | APGRD. [online] Available at: http://www.apgrd.ox.ac.uk/research-collections/performance-database/productions [Accessed 20th Feb. 2019].

Mason, P. G. (1983) ‘An Interpretation of Sophocles’, The Classical Review, 33, pp. 5-7.

Oudemans Th. & Lardinois A. (1987) Tragic Ambiguities: Anthropology, Philosophy and Sophocles’ Antigone1st ed. Leiden, E.J Brill.

Segal, C.P. (1983) Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press.

Segal, C.P. (1995) Sophocles’ tragic world: Divinity, nature, society. [e-book] Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.


[1] Apgrd.ox.ac.uk, Productions database

[2] Segal, Sophocles’ Tragic World, pp. 27

[3] Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, pp.1

[4] Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, pp. 1-3

[5] Mason, P.G., An Interpretation of Sophocles,

[6] Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, pp. 5

[7] Oudemans, Tragic Ambiguities, pp.86

[8] Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, pp. 3

[9] Segal, Sophocles’ Tragic World, pp.26-27

[10] Segal, Sophocles’ Tragic World, pp.27

[11] Sophocles, Women of Trachis, 745-771

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