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The Semantics of ἔγχος and βέλος in Tragedy and the Date of Sophocles' Ajax

Bob Corthals

This paper discusses a well-known, but as yet unexplained semantic peculiarity confined to Attic (para)tragedy, namely the recurrent use of ἔγχος in the sense of 'sword' and other weapons, and βέλος of non-missile weapons (cf. LSJ s.vv.). The tentative explanation offered here for their origin and application suggests that Sophocles' Ajax antedates Aeschylus' Oresteia, itself datable to 458 BC.

Part 1 will first argue that the above-mentioned terminological transfers must have specific referential value. The validity of this contention is evidenced by Cassandra's opaque reference to Clytemnestra's murder weapon in Ag. 1149: ἀμφήκει δορί, where δόρυ is uniquely used analogous to ἔγχος in extended meaning. The fact that the chorus continue Cassandra's obscure register in 1496 (ἀμφιτόμωι βελέμνωι ~ βέλος in extended meaning) suggests that even they are now coming to grips with the point of her riddle. Yet the ironic force of the entire exchange between the two parties relies on the fact that throughout the external audience should understand Cassandra's words better than the chorus. It follows that the playwright expects us to be able to beat the chorus to it. In sum, δόρυ in 1149 must already carry external referential weight.

Next, in Part 2 it will be demonstrated by way of example that the bulk of the terminological transfers of ἔγχος and βέλος in Sophocles (e.g. Ant. 1231-7; Tr. 1013-6) and Euripides (e.g. El. 688-92; 695-8; HF 1098-1100) seem to be intended as markers of thematic engagement with Telamonian Ajax' downfall, madness and suicide. In line with this observation, it will be suggested that they originate in a dialectic of metaphor between Aeschylus' and Sophocles' versions of Ajax' demise. In Sophocles' Ajax, ἔγχος (4 times) can be understood as establishing a merger of spear and sword. This will likely have been a response to Aeschylus' Thracian Women, where a nearly invulnerable Ajax in his death struggle symbolically becomes a contender in the Odyssean bow contest (see fr. 83 Radt: τὸ ξίφος ἐκάμπτετο, τόξον ὥς τις ἐντείνων). It is plausible that this piece of imagery in elaborated form included an alignment of blows of the blade with those of arrows. The bow is the crucial connector: in Odyssey 21.31-5 Odysseus obtained this gift from Iphitus in exchange for a spear and sword. It can now be observed why Sophocles constructed his merger: the imagery links Athena (whose signature weapon is the spear), Ajax himself (cf. Iliad 7.289), and Odysseus and Hector (gift exchangers). Sophocles thus seems to have turned Ajax' ἔγχος into a focal point of muddled lines of causation and agency.

Part 3 will return to the Agamemnon's δόρυ and βέλεμνον, and suggest that these references form part of a sophisticated metaphorical strand that connects Clytemnestra's murder and the manner of Agamemnon's death with Ajax' earlier failed attempt to kill Agamemnon and the fact that Ajax was uniquely buried in a coffin on account of the king's anger (cf. Little Iliad, arg. 1 West). This incidentally explains Aeschylus' notable deviations from the representation of Agamemnon's death on the famous Boston Krater (MFA 63.1246; c. 470-465 BC): the axe-wielding Clytemnestra and sword-handling Aegisthus of the Dokimasia Painter become merged, while Agamemnon dies not after taking a bath, but in one – called a coffin in Ag. 1540. In addition, if we postulate familiarity with Sophocles' Ajax on the audience's part, we can now account for the well-known collocations of Ag. 943 ~ Aj. 1353 and Ag. 1292-4 ~ Aj. 833: they have obvious significance in solidifying the imagery. But most importantly, we can now explain Cassandra's riddling δόρυ as setting in motion a merger of axe and sword analogous to Sophocles’ merger, which is not completed until Ch. 1011 when Orestes identifies the murder weapon as Αἰγίσθου ξίφος, thereby matching the identification of Ajax' ἔγχος as Hector's gift in Aj. 662.

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