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Francis Dunn

Sophocles’ Electra, in trying to persuade Chrysothemis to join her cause, reminds her sister that their dead father “was arm-pitted” by Clytemnestra (ἐμασχαλίσθη El. 445).  The term is rare and its meaning problematic; outside the scholiastic tradition the verb recurs only in A. Cho. (ἐμασχαλίσθη 439), likewise describing the treatment of Agamemnon’s corpse, and the corresponding noun occurs only in Sophocles’ lost Troilus (πλήρη μασχαλισμάτων 623 TrGF, cf. 528; adesp. 593a TrGF may refer to this); the practice is glossed in the scholia with the verb ἀκρωτηριάζειν (445a1 Xenis), i.e. cutting off the extremities, with the further explanations 1) that the name came from stringing the extremities under the victim’s armpits, and 2) that the purpose was either to prevent the dead person from taking revenge or as expiation by the killer (Xenis Scholia 2010: 172-4).  Despite widespread acceptance by scholars (Kittredge AJP 1885, Rohde Psyche 1925: 582-6, Bardel “Eunuchizing Agamemnon” 2002, Aigner “Zum Maschalismos” 2011) and all recent commentators (esp. Jebb on El. 455 with App., Garvie on Cho. 439), both further explanations must be rejected.

A.  no independent evidence supports these explanations, our only sources being scholiasts and lexicographers who follow Aristophanes of Byzantium (E. below).

B.  the explanations are incompatible with the term’s context; in Aeschylus the chorus is trying to arouse Agamemnon’s spirit, so he cannot have been hobbled, and in both plays the speaker exhorts others to take revenge, which would be less effective if Clytemnestra has atoned for her crime.

C.  the practice of removing extremities as mutilation of an enemy’s corpse, by contrast, is widely attested, described in the treatment of Melanthius (Hom. Od. 22.474-7, cf. 18.86-7, 21.300-1) and mentioned in prose sources from Demosthenes onward (D. 18.296, Plb. 5.54.10, D.S. 17.69.3, Philo 31.135, Strabo 16.2.31).

D.  the attested practice is fully compatible with the term’s context in Aeschylus and Sophocles, where the speaker expects to arouse a strong response by recalling Agamemnon’s mutilation.

E.  the unattested practice has been accepted largely because of the authority of Aristophanes of Byzantium (so esp. Rohde, Jebb).  Photius, Suidas and Hesychius all report that, according to Aristophanes, the term in Sophocles indicates a practice (τὴν λέξιν ἔθος σημαίνουσαν) of stringing extremities around the neck and armpits (fr. 412 Furley = Photius s.v. μασχαλίσματα), but it does not follow that the scholar correctly describes what Clytemnestra did.  Aristophanes was a learned man who could report on plagues of mice in Egypt (Epit. 359) and circumcision among the Troglodytes (Epit. 60), and we should not doubt that in his wide reading he found an account that explained to his satisfaction why mutilation was in drama called “arm-pitting,” but there is no reason to suppose that this is what Sophocles (or Aeschylus) had in mind.  In fact there is every reason to suppose the opposite, since the practice of cutting off the extremities was so familiar that Demosthenes could describe a host of evil-doers as ἄνθρωποι μιαροὶ καὶ κόλακες καὶ ἀλάστορες, ἠκρωτηριασμένοι τὰς ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστοι πατρίδας (18.296), whereas there is nothing to suggest that spectators were familiar with a ritual in which these extremities were strung together under the armpits.

F.  how then did the term “arm-pitting” arise?  We can only speculate, but given the equivalence of μασχαλίζειν and ἀκρωτηριάζειν, the former and less common term would seem to be a variant of the latter, taking the removal of forearms (i.e. up to the arm-pit) as a metonymy for the wholesale removal of all the extremities (cf. Kaibel on El. 445, who otherwise accepts much of the scholiastic account).

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Greek Language and Linguistics

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