The Significance Of Animal Symbolism And Its

Effect On Gender Role Essay, Research Paper

Throughout many ancient Greek texts, there are aspects of nature playing important roles in the main plot. Sometimes they assist the thesis through a metaphor or simile which better visualizes the author’s true meaning. Lions have many different personality traits which make them extremely diverse creatures. This also promotes various applications to characters in literary works. In two works, the Oresteia by Aeschylus and Euripides’ Bacchae, we see a continuing line of examples of lion imagery. Alongside this literary aspect, the analysis of characters’ gender roles is possible. When observing these two concepts both individually and in conjunction with each other, the reader is better able to grasp the true meaning of the authors’ intended point.

The lion can be seen as a powerful animal, as well as be noted for its slyness and deceitful tendencies. This “king of beasts” is regarded as blood-thirsty creatures who is ruthless and threatening. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus makes known the similarities between many of the main characters and this beast through their common lion-like qualities. In Peter Meineck’s translation of the Oresteia, a description of the “true nature” of the lion is explained. In this example, an orphan lion cub is taken in by a caring family, and, in turn, grows up to be the predator of the family’s livestock and therefore, an enemy (lines 717-735). “The lion reared in a home, at first gentle and tame, but finally betraying its inherent cruel nature is used allegorically for the career of Helen”(Keith 124). Helen, the wife of Paris, and former wife of Menelaus, is the initial cause for the Trojan War into which the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus led the Greek army. This depicts the initially personality of Helen as warm and caring, and, after her seizure by Paris, developed into a catalyst for the bloody and lengthy war. She is correctly associated with death. Arthur Keith correctly states that:

The coming of gentle Helen to Troy and her change to Erinys, wreaking ruin upon the city, are represented by a long allegory of the young lion reared in a shepherd’s home which in time shows its innate savage nature (Keith 108).

Helen also carries meaning in her name when observing the ‘nomen/omen’ aspect of Greek literature. Her name is associated with the death of ships; she brings on destruction.

Not only is Helen portrayed by this illustration of oncoming deceit, but also Agamemnon. He describes himself as the “blood-thirsty lion” who “leapt over the walls and feasted on the blood of kings” when speaking about the wooden horse in the Trojan War (lines 828-829). The soldiers hid within the horse and until it was inside Troy’s city walls, then they ransacked the numerous homes of their enemies. “The images of Argive beast and ravening lion represent the soldiery concealed within the wooden horse” (Keith 124). The mentioned act of cannibalism, or feeding on the blood of one’s own people, is a common theme in association with Agamemnon’s family. His uncle, Thyestes, is known for eating his own children, and therefore bringing the unbreakable curse upon him and his family. Here, the meaning of Agamemnon’s words involves eating the flesh of his enemies.

Clytemnestra is compared to a lioness through the work of Aeschylus as well. “Clytemnestra is likened to many of the most cruel animals. She is a lioness” (Keith 109). She is described as a cunning, treacherous she-lion, planning the death of the man she supposedly loves. When he arrives, she presents herself as the happy wife, overjoyed by her husband’s long-awaited return. Cassandra spoke of Clytemnestra as being two-faced, and warns others of her approaching plans. She is described as a

cringing lion, lounging on the man’s marriage bed, roaming his halls, watching for the master’s return…this detestable bitch licks him with lengthy praise and whines her welcome, only to work her evil like a treacherous spirit of ruin (lines 1224-1230).

Hidden beneath her mask of love and care was a devil who plans an evil death to her mate so that she may rule with his cousin, Aegisthus. In lines 1258-1259, the audience learns that “Clytemnestra is a two-footed lioness consorting with the wolf, Aegisthus, in the absence of the lion, Agamemnon” (Keith 124).

Clytemnestra also portrays the characteristics of a natural mother lion. In nature, female lions help other females to protect their cubs from a new male lion, for he will kill the young ones of former ruling males to assure his status as the dominant male. Before leaving for Troy, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to guarantee the safety of his soldiers from hardships sent by the gods. This mimics the killing of the young to assure the adult male’s own protection. The irony in this sacrifice is that in order to obey divine laws, he must commit a crime against divine law. It is a crime to kill a member of one’s own kin, but Agamemnon is faced with the need to protect his men. Iphigenia is an understandable choice of sacrifice because she supplicates the god of hospitality—Zeus—and therefore pleases him. During the war, Clytemnestra sends her son, Orestes, away in order that he would be protected from the dangers brought on by the war. When observing lions in the wild, this choice of Clytemnestra is parallel to the lionesses hiding their cubs from a possible early death.

The action Clytemnestra plans and carries out changes her gender role, as murder and killing is typically a man’s occupation. Women in ancient times most often played subordinate roles, tending the house and meals, etc. According to Thomas Martin, a woman’s “excellence consists of preserving her household and its property by relying on her intelligence, beauty, social status, and intense fidelity to her husband.” Clytemnestra boasts that Agamemnon will return home to a chaste wife:

Let him find a faithful wife in his house, just as he left her, the watchdog of his house, loyal only to him, an enemy to his enemies. I have not changed. In all this time I have not broken our seal. There has been no scandal, I know as much about the pleasures of another man as I do of steeping metal. This is my boast and it is true… (lines 606-613).

Though she swears this, the audience gathers an early clue that Agamemnon’s queen is not exactly what she claims to be. The men in ancient Greece were more focused on fulfilling their heroic deeds to gain the respect of their peers, as well as providing food in the form of freshly-hunted meat for their families, than being concerned with the happenings of the household.

When analyzing the actions of the characters in the Bacchae, gender role is more clearly noted. Pentheus, being the young ruler of Thebes, was faced with a dilemma as he had to choose between dressing up as a woman in order to retrieve his mother from the group of frenzied female worshippers of Dionysus, or be killed before he has a chance to act out his purpose for going to the hill. The idea that ‘if one represses something, it will most likely come back to haunt them’ proved to be true for Pentheus. He represses both the male and female sides of himself. This is made evident after the Stranger tells him to dress in a costume before approaching the mountain on which the women chant, to which Pentheus replies, “In what kind of costume? A woman’s? But I would be ashamed… I couldn’t bear to put on female costume” (line 828, 836). Naturally, when he first began to clothe himself, he did not feel comfortable with his apparel.

Once Pentheus was fully dressed in Bacchant gear, the transformation was made complete. “Euripides creates a Pentheus who is transformed visually into a symbol of Dionysus” (Kalke 410). His acceptance of the change is made known when he asked the Stranger to lead him to the mount. Christine Kalke agrees: “No longer ashamed of being dressed as a woman, he asks the Stranger to guide him through the center of the city” (414). He feels courageous and unique among his fellow Thebans, for he claims he is “the only man of all the Thebans to dare this” (Esposito 71). The humor in this situation is identified: “Ironically, it is in female dress that Pentheus boasts of his male bravery” (Seaford 226).

When Pentheus is discovered by the Bacchae, a call from Dionysus to kill him is heard by the female worshippers of the god. Agave, Pentheus’ mother and leader of the women, organizes the rest of the group to tear the tree from the earth upon which Pentheus sits. The seating Pentheus had taken is representative of a grand thyrsus of Dionysus, with the young king as the crown. “He has been totally transformed, not just into a Bacchant but into a symbol of the god’s power; no longer an individual, he is now merely the crown on an enlarged thyrsus” (Kalke 417). They all attacked him, while Agave took the leading role in the killing, seeing him as a lion through the delusions of their vision. The Bacchae proceed to carry out the process of sparagmos, or the ripping apart of an animal.

In this, Agave transforms herself to a male role, as she is hunting the prey. This is ironic when taking note that Pentheus is currently acting in a female role; they have switched gender roles. Agave tears the head from the body of her son and, and while thinking it is the head of a lion, places it upon her thyrsus. Here,

Pentheus becomes the thyrsus of the god: first he is crowned with long hair and a mitra, then he himself crowns the tip of a fir tree raised by the maenads on the mountain, and finally be becomes the literal crown of the thyrsus carried by his mother” (Kalke 410).

Clytemnestra and Agamemnon also switch roles when examining the human sides of their characters. Typically, the woman would not be carrying out the hunting role. She does, however, when planning the death of her husband. The mighty king Agamemnon becomes the hunted beast. Conversely, in nature, a the female lions are mainly responsible for the gathering of food for the pride. When noting this aspect, Clytemnestra is indeed fulfilling her gender role.

During the bloody killing of the son of Agave, a transformation took place where Pentheus was changed into a lion through the point of view of the delusional Bacchae. This directly corresponds to the lion imagery in the Oresteia. He was hunted by his mother, just as Agamemnon was hunted by his wife. Both men are characterized as lions—proud, courageous, kings—their final undoing was performed by a loved one for the purpose of revenge. Agave and her sisters were revenging the mockery of the holy rites of Dionysus, and Clytemnestra was taking revenge for the sacrificial killing of her daughter. Throughout Euripides’ work, the audience is able to notice changes taking place on many levels.

The motif of transformation is important in the Bacchae and has been viewed variously as transformation from man to beast, from hunter to hunted, from powerful pursuer to powerless victim, from repressed to expressed sexuality, from reality to illusion or illusion to reality, and from spectator to spectacle (Kalke 410).

In both works, a deceitful character plans the evil end to a victim’s life. They both present themselves as loyal and trustworthy allies, but over time come to show their true nature. Clytemnestra not only fools her husband, but also the rest of the cast, and resultantly, the audience as well. Though Dionysus presents his true intentions early, he acts as a friend above all others to Pentheus, and eventually conducts his followers to kill the fooled king in pure vengeance.

When noting the importance of nature in ancient Greek literature, it is also crucial to gain a knowledge of the overall meaning the author is attempting to convey. By making use of lions throughout his work, Aeschylus means to draw out the significance of the hunt and hunted. “Aeschylus’ imagery impresses a quality upon his style that marks it as distinctive” (Keith 104). His unique usage of metaphors does not resemble the writers before him. Both he and Euripides exemplify the usage of imagery through gender role reversal and the meaning of various characteristics of animals.

Esposito, Stephen. Euripides: Bacchae. Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 1998.

Kalke, Christine M. “The Making of a Thyrsus: the Transformation of Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae.” American Journal of Philology. (106), 409-26.

Keith, Arthur Leslie. Simile and Metaphor in Greek Poetry from Homer to Aeschylus. Pub Menasha: George Banta Publishing, 1994.

Martin, Thomas. Overview of Archaic and Classical Greek History. Accessed on 19 December, 1999. URL: bin/text?lookup=trm+ov+4.8&vers=english

Meineck, Peter. Aeschylus: Oresteia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

Seaford, R. Euripides’ Bacchae with an Introduction, Translation, Commentary, 1996.


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