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The Death of the King: Mythological Innovation in Euripides' "Erechtheus"

Adam Rappold

The mythology of the primordial king Erechtheus was critical to the self-definition of fifth and fourth century BCE Athenians. Its most comprehensive retelling is the Erechtheus of Euripides which, although fragmentary, is now receiving scholarly attention (Calame, Collard-Cropp, Kannicht, Sonnino). Euripides does not passively record mythology though, and, in order to understand the play, it is critical to first understand how he interacts with the competing mythological traditions of his era. In this paper, I demonstrate that Euripides innovated by moving the site of Erechtheus' death from the Acropolis to a region called Sciron (first suggested in Burkert).

The expectations of Euripides' audience regarding Erechtheus' death are first reconstructed by creating a set of mythological associations or schema (Sourvinou-Inwood). For a fifth-century spectator, Erechtheus is shown to be connected with underground burial, the chthonic sacred snake of Athena, and a set of markers on the Acropolis thought to have been caused by the anger of Zeus or Poseidon (Hurwit). These associations demonstrate that the traditional account of Erechtheus' death would have placed it on the Acropolis, where Erechtheus continued exerting influence as one of the powerful dead. Euripides engages with these traditional expectations in the Ion (ll. 260-300). This scene is analyzed to show that Euripides employs the dialogue between Ion and Creousa to acknowledge but ultimately dismiss the existing mythological schema from his audience's heads (expanding Cole). Among the issues brought up but dismissed in this dialogue are Erechtheus' claim to autochthonous origins (268), Erechtheus' continued power as a deceased hero (282), Erechtheus' death on the Acropolis (283), and Erechtheus' death at the hands of Zeus (285). The linking thread is the separation of Erechtheus from his position on the Acropolis, reflecting a narrative development first pioneered in the Erecthetus.

The fragments of the Erechtheus also provide hints that Euripides moved Erechtheus' death from the Acropolis to Sciron. The choral dialogue preceding the end of the play (F. 370 ll. 3-4 and 11 Kann.) demonstrates that the battle in which Erechtheus died and the location of the sacrifice of his daughters were both to the northwest, along the Sacred Way between Athens and Eleusis. Further, it suggests the battle was within a few miles, just out of sight from the north face of the Acropolis. This information is combined with the curious ancestry of Erechtheus' wife Praxithea. Euripides makes Praxithea the daughter of Cephissus, a detail attested nowhere else in the tradition (F. 370 l. 63 Kann. and Lyc. Leocrates ll. 98-101). Given that the Cephissus is also an important dividing line between Athens and Eleusis, this lineage provides additional geographic specificity regarding the location of the sacrifice, in addition to the dramatic implications of Praxithea's daughter being sacrificed near her divine grandfather. Finally, all of this is combined with earlier attempts to locate the Hill of the Hyacinthides, where Erechtheus’ daughter was sacrificed (Jacoby FrGH 325 F 4). All three investigations are shown to point to the same location: Sciron.

This has important implications for our reconstruction of the play and of the mythological politics of the era. When Euripides moves his focus away from the Acropolis, Erechtheus' death is similarly separated from its heroic/after-life connotations and transformed into the death of a normal mortal, increasing the pathos of his sacrifice. Through this act Euripides also separates Erechtheus from his original, nebulous, autochthonous origins in order to better accord with his fifth century conception as a democratic, tribal hero. Although this demonstrates Euripides' innovation, it also demonstrates how the Athenians manipulated their mythology in order to create a new sense of patriotic self-identity. Euripides' innovations must be placed alongside the renovations of the Erechtheion, the speeches of the orators, and the later chronologies of the Atthidographers, all of which actively worked to create a new vision of Erechtheus and, through him, of Athens itself.

Session/Panel Title:

Euripides

Session/Paper Number

30.1

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