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Laughter and Blood: A Homeric Echo in Euripides’ Trojan Women

Emily Allen-Hornblower

In Euripides’ Trojan Women, the Greeks hurl the body of Hector and Andromache’s young son Astyanax from the walls of Troy to his death. Critics have noted the great pathos of Hecuba’s ensuing speech over her grandson’s corpse, as she focuses the audience’s attention on his mangled body parts. One particularly striking metaphor she uses to describe the horror of the sight before her stands out: the “extremely bold” (Barlow 1986) image of Astyanax’s blood as it “bursts out laughing” (ἐκγελᾶι 1176) from the broken bones of his shattered skull. No doubt the power of the metaphor resides in part in its visual nature, evoking as it does the gaping of the wound and perhaps likening it to open, ruby lips with white teeth shining through (Paley 1872). To grasp the full significance of the metaphor’s grotesque combination of laughter with the blood of a dead child, however, we must take into account a heretofore overlooked connection between the present scene and the passage from Iliad 6 in which Hector and Andromache see each other for the last time, where Astyanax features prominently. In teasing out the significance of the Iliadic echo in the Euripidean passage, we can better understand how the metaphor offers a typical example of the aesthetics of the unnatural embraced by Euripides throughout the play.

In using the verb ἐκγελᾶι to describe how the blood “bursts out laughing” — a rare compound that occurs only here in all of extant Greek tragedy, and only three times in Homeric epic — Euripides harks back to Iliad 6.471-475, where Hector and Andromache “burst out laughing” as their infant son draws back in fear at the sight of his father’s helmet: ἐκ δ’ ἐγέλασσε πατήρ τε φίλος καὶ πότνια μήτηρ. Such laughter marks the scene as one of great affection and momentary happiness, by evoking the parents’ love for their child (Kirk 1990). The temporary release from tension that the laughter brings with it leads Hector to express renewed hope for Astyanax’s future: in the lines that follow, he prays to Zeus that the child may prove to fare better than his father, and some day bring joy to his mother by returning victorious from war with bloody spoils (6.476-481). The shared parental affection at the heart of the Iliadic scene is evoked by Euripides in Hecuba’s speech as well: the queen recalls how Andromache lovingly used to kiss the very head from which the blood now streams, and likens the sweetness of the child’s hands to Hector’s (1178-9). In the Iliad, the pathos of the scene is heightened by the contrast between the family’s ephemeral happiness in the present moment and the respective fates that await the three of them in the near future. By weeping as she laughs (δακρυόεν γελάσασα) in response to Hector’s wishes for his son, Andromache offers a bittersweet reaction that reintroduces a note of justified foreboding into the encounter (6.484). Euripides’ imagery also uses laughter to evoke the familial affection and joys of the past, and the hopes for the future that these gave birth to (1170, μακάριος ἦσθ’ ἄν, “you would have been happy,” Hecuba says wistfully, in a direct address to Astyanax), but violently juxtaposes them with the horror of the present (Dué 2006), made palpable by the boy’s blood gushing forth. This unexpected blending of mirth with the gory death of an innocent child points up the unraveling of the natural order that accompanies Troy’s downfall — an unnaturalness that is repeatedly foregrounded by the poetics of the play. A case in point is Cassandra’s joyful wedding song, in which she, too, laughs an eerie laugh (406, ὡς ἡδέως κακοῖσιν οἰκείοις γελᾶις) in gleeful anticipation of the deaths that await her “groom,” Agamemnon, and herself (353-461).

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy: Rhetoric, Cartography, and the Death of Astyanax

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