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À mon chevet: 'Electra' (Olympics Edition)

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
[Orestes] went to the glorious gathering that Greece holds
in honor of the Delphic Games, and when
he heard the herald's shrill proclamation
for the first contest — it was a running race —
he entered glorious, all men's eyes upon him.
His running was as good as his appearance.
He won the race and came out covered with honor.
There is much I could tell you, but I must tell it briefly.
I do not know a man of such achievement
or prowess. Know this one thing. In all the contests
the marshals announced, he won the prize, was cheered,
proclaimed the victor as "Argive by birth,
by name Orestes, son of the general
Agamemnon who once gathered the great Greek host."
So much for that. But when a God sends mischief,
not even the strong man may escape.
when, the next day, at sunset, there was a race
for chariot teams, entered with many contestants.
There was one Achaean, one from Sparta, two
Libyans, masters in driving racing teams.
Orestes was the fifth among them. He
had as his team Thessalian mares. The sixth
was an Aetolian with young sorrel horses.
The seventh was a Magnesian, and the eighth
an Aenean, by race, with a white team.
The ninth competitor came from God-built Athens,
and then a Boeotian, ten chariots in all.
They stood in their allotted stations where
the appointed judges placed them. At the signal,
a brazen trumpet, there were off. The drivers
cheered their horses on, their hands vibrating the reins,
all together. All the course was filled
with the noise of rattling chariots. Clouds of dust
rose up. The mass of drivers, huddled together,
did not spare the goad as each one struggled
to put the nave of his wheel or the snorting mouths
of his horses past his rival, wheels and backs
of the foremost drivers all beslobbered with foam,
as the breath of the teams behind beat on them.
So far all chariots were uninjured. Then
the Aenean's hard-mouthed colts got out of hand
and bolted as they finished the sixth lap
and turned into the seventh. There they crashed
head on with the Barcaean. After that,
from this one accident, team crashed team
and overset each other. All the plain
of Crisa was full of wrecks. But the man from Athens,
a clever driver, saw what was happening, pulled
his horses out of the way and held them in check,
letting past the disordered mass of teams in the middle.
Orestes had been driving last and holding
his horses back, putting his trust in the finish.
But when he saw the Athenian left alone,
he sent a shrill cry through his good horses' ears
and set to catch him. The two drove level,
the poles were even. First one, now the other,
would push his horses' heads in front.
Orestes always drove tight at the corners
barely grazing the edge of the post with his wheel,
loosing his hold of the trace horse on his right
while he checked the near horse. In his other laps
the poor young man and his horses had come through safe.
But this time he let go of the left rein
as the horse was turning. Unaware, he struck the edge
of the pillar and broke his axle in the center.
He was himself thrown from the rails of the chariot
and tangled in the reins. As he fell, the horses
bolted wildly to the middle of the course.
When the crowd saw him fallen from his car,
they shuddered. "How young he was," "How gallant his deeds,"
and "How sadly he has ended," as they saw him
thrown earthward now, and then, tossing his legs
to the sky — until at last the grooms
with difficulty stopped the runaway team
and freed him, but so covered with blood that no one
of his friends could recognize the unhappy corpse.
They burned him on the pyre. Then men of Phocis
chosen for the task have brought here in a small urn
the lamentable ashes — all that is left
of this great frame, that he may have his grave
here in his father's country.

-- Sophocles, Electra (trans. David Grene), lines 681-761
(in Greek Tragedies, vol. 2, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore)
It is time for the Olympics again. I tweeted recently that "in 2020 the Olympics should include a revival of the Dionysia (competition for tragedy) and the Delphic competitions for music and poetry." The Panathenaic Games, held every four years in Athens included competitions for the recitation of Homeric poetry, and for instrumental performance on the aulos and kithara, as well as for singing with those instruments. The Pythian Games, held at Apollo's sanctuary at Delphi, were one of the four most important games held in Greece, which included competitions in the singing of hymns, the playing of the aulos and kithara, acting, dance, and painting. Second in importance to the Panathenaia in Athens was the Dionysia, in honor of Dionysus, at which almost all of the important surviving Greek tragedies were premiered.

In Electra, one of the later tragedies of Sophocles, Orestes returns to the royal palace of Mycenae in secret. The Paedagogus, the old tutor who took Orestes away after the murder of his father, concocts a story about the death of Orestes at the Pythian Games. As made clear in the section quoted here, there were no silver or bronze medals given at the Panhellenic Festivals in ancient Greece. Winning was all that mattered, and in this fake story Orestes wins big, taking the prize in every competition he enters. Tragically, he is killed in the chariot race and has returned to Mycenae as ashes in an urn. The basic thrill of watching an Olympic race, related in the play-by-play narration of the Paedagogus, has not changed much since the 7th century B.C. Orestes' mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, let down their guard when they hear the news of Orestes' death, and Orestes slays them both through even more deception.

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