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Presentation Text: The institution of the warrior in several Greek tragedies

I will introduce my contribution to the symposium by commenting on the title of my project, which I have called: ‘The institution of the warrior in several Greek tragedies’. This title however is an abbreviation of the proper but more complex research question I pose. An expression like ‘the warrior in tragedy’ suggests the interpretative effort of identifying characters with certain attributes and describing as well as evaluating the personal features of these individuals. This would result in the standard literary criticism of the drama.

Current literary criticism is based upon assumptions about ‘representation’ as the final aim of tragic drama, it makes a halt at describing and evaluating the tragic events and characters. This method of tracing causation and motivation is so widespread that it is difficult not to be engulfed by it.

What I am aiming at is an anthropological analysis and in that effort a proper title should have been considerably longer. An anthropological method will in addition ask how these dramatic representations are pervaded by the ‘tragic disruptions’ of the institutional order, and how these disruptions acted on the audience participating in the performance. Such a method is supported by Aristoteles’ statement that tragedy not just offers μίμησις (every art form does so) but in addition evokes tragic ἔλεος and φόβος in the audience: their reaction to the violation of institutional values in the drama.

My anthropological method differs from the standard approach in two ways.

Firstly, it is my contention that in spite of the fact that they appear as individuals, the heroes of tragic drama at the same time served as vehicles of cultural symbols or institutional values.

Secondly, I do not ask‚ ‘What image of life is represented, or what philosophical message do these dramatic events convey in terms of causation?’  Such questions presuppose a distanced relationship and an intellectual-aesthetic attitude on the part of the audience. Instead I ask the anthropological question, ‘In what way are fundamental institutional values disrupted aiming at upsetting the audience and rousing the reactions of instant tragic shock and horror?’ Not the chain of causality, but the bare fact of disruption is at stake: hamartia not as fault but as fact, that is what Aristoteles says. I emphasize, this method is presupposing the original audience of Athenian citizens imbued with the institutional values of the polis.

In his fourteenth chapter of the Poetics, Aristoteles insists on telling that the condition for rousing the tragic reactions in the audience is that the characters involved in violent attacks should be philoi, that is, relatives united in the institutional bond of philia. It is not physical violence perpetrated on individuals, but violations of this institutional value that create tragedy. Not only murder on a philos, but incest as well create such a tragic violation and release the  tragic reactions (thus Aristoteles). Plato in the Laws (837-838) underscores the same insight: in tragedy cases of incest are staged, reinforcing, he says, the audience’s reactions of abhorrence at the crime of incest, this other violation of the sacrosanct bond of philia.

Tragic drama did not only offer representation but it launched a process of  what I prefer to call ‘tragic workings’ acting dynamically on the original audience.

Seen in this light the expression ‘the warrior in tragedies’ is certainly misleading. We should lift our view and focus on ‘the warrior outside of the tragedy’  as well, and study the dynamic interaction between the warrior on the  scene and the warrior in the audience. These spectators were imbued with the sense of the symbolic value of the warrior institution. Here I refer to the anthropological notion of ‘key symbol.’ Key symbols convey a cluster of ideas charged with affective power, and they tend to mobilize the community adhering to the symbol. I refer to an investigation by the American anthropologist Sherry Ortner.[1]

What we have then to include in our analysis of tragic drama is its dynamic character working on the original audience. [2]

What my title thus suggests is that in order to get to grips with the specific nature of ‘the tragic’ in the poets’ contemporary society we have to find out:

  • firstly, what symbolic value may be said to be violated, and
  • secondly, how does the symbol run through a drama aiming at shocking the original audience, in this way mobilizing them and revitalizing this unquestionable value. By applying the term ‘unquestionable’ I refer to the study of Sally Moore and Barbara Myerhoff.[3]

These anthropologists found that communal celebrations tend to stage presentations of concrete events which however implictly convey ‘socially unquestionable truths’, the fundamental values of the community.

It is a difficult task we have set ourselves, because we will never recover the actual reactions of the 5th century audience. However, there is something objectively to be recovered in our object of study, that is, the discrepancy between the dramatic state of affairs  on the scene and the normal or ideal social order in society.

There is another aspect of the tragic genre that is neglected in our standard literary criticism: the fact that the dramatic events do not offer a static picture of a single character or a message to be culled from everywhere in the drama, but it manifests a process of changing identities and twisted balances. This shift in identity and twisting of balance is very prominent in Sophokles King Oidipous and Antigone, but I suspect it is a general feature of the dynamic nature of Sophokles’ tragic drama.  These features, along with the fundamental disruption, I likewise subsume under the notion of ‘tragic workings.’

In addition a tragedy may not only manifest a violation but also run towards a restoration of the institutional value. In Sophokles’ Antigone, in spite of all unhappy endings, it is evident that the violation of the philos’ claim to  a proper burial in the end is restored.

Our questioning in the anthropological method has to consider: How do the ‘tragic workings’ interfere with the dramatic level, that is, the mimetic events, setting in motion the mimetico-tragic process?

Applying this anthropological method to Sophokles’ Aias, we will find that the ‘tragic workings’ transform the dramatic representation, carrying the audience from a disruption through a restoration of essential elements of the ‘warrior institution,’ hereby transforming identities and twisting balances.

Sophokles’ Aias presents a warrior camp and a protagonist who was traditionally next to Akhilleus only. Early in the drama however the audience is presented with a mad warrior, who intended to attack his own comrades in arms. As such he operates as an enemy of his community, and one who does deserve to be dishonored. In addition, in a brief passage (vss 756-779) Aias is said to have insulted the goddess Athena, and so he is on several accounts represented as a negative character.

As an enemy of his camp, his comrades, as well as of the goddess, Aias is driven to his doom, and the punishment of being left unburied is hanging over him. I will identify this development as the vital violation of the ‘warrior institution’.

In the course of the dramatic events, however, Aias’ identity is gradually transformed, the audience being induced into revising their initial judgment, in a tragic process, we should assume, set in motion under pressure from the drama’s  implied truth and ‘institutional value’. The climactic scene, a tug of war between the Atrid brothers denying burial, and Teukros demanding funeral rites, turns around this value: the violation of the honor due to a noble warrior as well as a philos, and in the end the transformation of the madman has taken place. There is no doubt that the tragic disruption has given way to a tragic restoration, tilting the balance into a positive outcome: Aias emerging as the great warrior and philos of his community is to be honored with a proper burial. In the exodos, Athena is heard no more. Instead Zeus the Olympian, as well as  ever-mindful Erinys and all-powerful Dike are invoked. sounding the final chord. Aias is here denoted as an ‘ἀνὴρ ἀγαθός’, the qualification of the supreme warrior.

While the dramatic events develop in causal links of motivation, the tragic workings subtly transform characters and twist negative balances: the negatively charged warrior is transformed into the positive standard embodying the ‘unquestionable truth’ of obligation to the fallen warrior, our philos. The audience, while initially identifying with the negative response to the outrageous madman is subtly guided into viewing Aias in a positive light. The intimate scenes with Aias’ concubine Tekmessa and his young son Eurysakes, as well as with his loyal half-brother Teukros, are a driving force in the ‘tragic workings’ of the drama. This tragic process does not allow for  static conclusions on the character of the protagonist. While the audience undoubtedly was fascinated with the personality and morals of the individual characters, imperceptibly they were carried away on the stream of the mimetico-tragic process, and drawn by the tragic workings into the ‘unquestionable truth,’ sanctioned by divine powers that ordain the burial of the fallen warrior.[4]

In Sophokles Philoktetes, and Aiskhylos’ Seven against Thebes similar processes seem to be going on.


[1] Sherry Ortner, 1973. ‘On key symbols,’ American Journal of Anthropology  75, 1338-46, reprinted in William A. Lessa, Evon Z. Vogt, John M. Watanabe (eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An anthropological approach (New York) 1979, 92-98.

[2] With the term ‘working’ i refer to the dynamic nature of symbolic action within the social process, as has been emphasized by Victor W. Turner, see e.g. Victor W. Turner, ‘Social Dramas and Ritual metaphors,’ in V.W. Turner, Dramas, fields and metaphors. Symbolic action in human society (Ithaca and London) 1975, 23-59 (p. 55).

[3] Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, ‘Introduction,’  in S.F. Moore and B. Myerhoff (eds.), Secular Ritual (Assen, Amsterdam) 1977, 3-24.

[4] For various aspects of the tragic performance cf.

Synnøve des Bouvrie, ‘Myth as a mobilizing force in Attic warrior society,’ Papers at The Celtic conference in Classics, Rennes, 1-4 Sept. 2004, Kernos. Revue internationale et pluridisciplinaire de religion grecque antique 18, 2005, 185-201;

Synnøve des Bouvrie, ‘Euripides’ Hiketides: Why is this drama a tragedy?’ in Dieter Metzler (ed.),  Mazzo di fiori. Festschrift Herbert Hoffmann (Ruhpolding and Mainz)  2010, 114-138.

Synnøve des Bouvrie, ‘Continuity and change without agency. The Attic ritual theatre and the “socially unquestionable” in the tragic genre,’ in Angelos Chaniotis (ed.), Ritual Dynamics in the Ancient Mediterranean: Agency, Emotion, Gender, Representation. (Stuttgart) 2011, 139-178.

Synnøve des Bouvrie, ‘Greek festivals and the ritual process,’ International conference, Rosendal, 19.-22. May 2006, in Rasmus Brandt and Jon Iddeng (eds.), Greek and Roman Festivals. Content, Meaning, and Practice (Oxford) forthcoming 2012.

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