IRINE DARCHIA # 5
FOR THE MYTHOLOGICAL AND RITUAL FUNCTION OF COLOURS
IN GREEK TRAGEDY
The colour is not only a physical and chemical, physiological and linguistic, but also a cultural phenomenon, that’s why its research needs a complex approach. While investigating the colour, literary and ethnographic, architectural, sculptural and painting material, religious and mythological, ritual aspects, symbolism and even magic, the human emotional and intellectual world, their psychology, age, and even gender, must be taken into consideration.
Both the author and the audience perceived the language of myth or the mythologized language at the juncture of intellectual soberness and emotional inspiration. The myth used by the author includes symbols more or less familiar to the audience, referring to privileged characters, families of extreme importance. Modern men sometimes fail to distinguish these “markers” because of their demythologized and deritualized lifestyle, while the understanding of the colour phenomenon in the ancient Greek tragedy helps to identify them. Colours also are among the “markers”. Today I will attempt to unveil these very “markers”.
In the Epodos of the Agamemnon, the old men of Argos recall how Agamemnon decided to sacrifice his daughter in order to sooth the weather and allow the Achaean ships to sail to Troy and launch the war for the sake of the unfaithful woman. The chorus of the old men describes Iphigenia, prepared as an offering, wearing a saffron robe, which she “threw … onto the ground” (239-240). In the fourth episodion of the same tragedy, the chorus refers to Cassandra’s oracle: “which Fury do you now invoke to listen to her laments? I am not pleased with your words. Saffron blood presses onto my heart, as if life's sunset comes, and death is near” (1119-1124).
In both episodes, saffron colour is linked to a woman doomed to death, offered as a victim – Iphigenia on the one hand, and Cassandra on the other. By applying the same colour in connection with these two characters, Aeschylus obviously highlights the links between them. They both can be regarded as sacrificial offerings, as maenads of Dionysus, and as brides. In antiquity, saffron and the corresponding colour is related to the cult of Dionysus on the one hand, and to the bridal ritual on the hand. Consequently, Iphigenia’s and Cassandra’s links to the saffron colour may have a double interpretation. Athenians used to go to the theater to warship Dionysus and be possessed by the sensation of fulfillment as if they attained the communion with the god – they took advantage of every kind of medium they could afford.
Some scholars believe that the Orestaia reflects the Dionysian cult and the corresponding ritual – but not in terms of religion; it is not rendered precisely, but is modified and adapted, almost parodied, reconstructed (restructured, rebuilt) through the tragic Aeschylean vision. They say that the Agamemnon is a wild parody – the Libation Bearers – a tragic one, while the Eumenides – sacral. According to part of scholars, the Eumenides is so effusive, that it may even remind of Eleusinian Mysteries. Sometimes, the Oresteia appeals as the ritual facilitating transition from wild life-style into the civilized one, the ritual that helps to become initiated into civilization. Aeschylus transforms it into the art – into a more individual and universal symbolic act.
By the way, Plutarch paraphrases Gorgias’ words saying that it would be righter to claim that all of Aeschylean plays are mesta; Dionuvsou – which means that they are full of Dionysus and not Ares (The Ethics, VII, 10, 715 E). Aristophanes shares this opinion – in his Frogs the chorus say that Aeschylus is bakcei`o~ a[nax, the Bacchic king (Frogs, 1259). Bearing this in mind, Iphigenia’s saffron clothes and the saffron blood of the chorus, who worries about Cassandra, can be related to the Dionysian cult and the clothes of Maenads. Anyway, one should not forget about others ways of interpretation.
The investigation of colour shows us: the deep connection between colour and myth, colour and ritual; how the mythological sub-texts, and the hidden ritual aspects, are shown by colours. According to another viewpoint, the splendidly described scene of Iphigenia’s sacrifice can be perceived as the parody of the Olympic bridal ritual. According to the legend, Iphigenia is taken to Aulis to get married. As a bride, she appears in saffron clothes, which afterwards turn into her deadly shroud. Iphigenia’s sacrifice is in fact protevleia – preliminary sacrifice –performed before the bloody marriage. This is a truly chthonic ritual which soothes storms – the souls of the dead, and resurrects the dead. Saffron colour in the case of Cassandra can imply the same.
By the way, in Greek tragedy, saffron colour can have mythological, and not ritual, implication. Namely, in the second episodion of the Persians the chorus gives prayers to Balen, the god of Sun: “Balen, oh, old Balen, come to us. Rise to top of the mound, put on saffron eumaris, show the metal decoration of the regal tiara, Come good father Darius…” (658-662). In this case, we should look for obvious mythological and religious grounds that account for the use of this colour. According to Indo-European beliefs, saffron is the plant of the sun. Consequently, the Phoenician god Balen wears saffron footwear. Although it may seem quite strange at first glance, the analysis attests that the peculiar properties of colour symbols and the prevalence of one particular colour, which marks the artistic world of a literary piece, can be explained by mythological allusion.
Let us recall Aeschylus’ Persians once again. In the Parodus of the play, the elders, the Persian council, say that when the embattled troops of Persia marched over the fields of Greece, they were guarding faithfully ‘their rich and gold-abounding seats’ (1-4). Afterwards, the chorus enumerates the peoples and countries under the Persian domination. The highly impressive picture of the powerful empire is presented. The chieftains are mentioned who lead the Persian army. They include royal chiefs, Metragathes and brave Arceus. Gold-abounding Sardis sends many a whirling chariot drawn by four or six generous steeds – glorious and dreadful spectacle (43-48). Apart from Sardis, gold-abounding Babylon (golden Babylon), sends to war unceasingly, by sea and by land, the caravan of warriors of different nationalities, skilled and reliable archers (53-55).
And again, according to the chorus, the ferocious ruler of populous Asia, with the help of unbeatable and ominous chiefs, leads the divine army by sea and by land. The lord of the Persians, the offspring of the golden ancestry, is the brave hero who resembles the god (74-80).
In the first episodion, Queen Atossa, the spouse of Darius and mother of Xerxes, enters saying that she has left her house adorned with gold, her bed which she used to share with Darius’ (159-161). So, gold and consequently, golden colour, is mentioned 5 times in the Persians. The houses of Persian old men, Sardis and Babylon are gold-abounding, Atossa’s palace is decorated with gold, and the Persian king is the offspring of the golden ancestry.
Such an abundance of gold can be explained in several ways: In the above-mentioned episode, it may indicate the riches and luxury of Persians, the royal reverence and glory, the divinity of the Persian king’s family (Cf.: Persians, 156-157). But what does it mean to be the offspring of the Gold ancestry? And why are gold and the golden color so frequently used in the Persians?
In my opinion, an answer to this question lies in this very tragedy. In particular, a key to this problem is the golden linage of the king, which should be interpreted in terms of Greek mythology. We should examine the mythological grounds of the colour system of the Persians (with regard to colours, such mythological pursuits is obviously quite characteristic of Aeschylus. This becomes clear upon the analysis of other Aeschylean tragedies as well). According to the tradition, Acrisius, son of Abas and king of Argos, being frightened with the prophecy that his grandson would cause his death, imprisoned his daughter Danae in a high bronze tower. Zeus, being in love with the lady, descended onto her in the form of a shower of golden rain, and Danae bore a son Perseus. The latter begot a son, Perses, by Andromeda, which Persian kings proclaimed to be their ancestor. All Persians were also regarded as Perses’ descendants and therefore, they were sometimes referred to as the golden progeny.
Hence, in my opinion, the central and leading place of the golden color in the Persians can be attributed to the mythological genealogy of Persians – the golden rain that begot Perses. I believe that the prevalence of the golden colour in the Persians corresponds to the plot and the artistic concept of the play. It is likewise remarkable that, according to scholars, Aeschylus endows the historical event described in the Persians with mythological spirit. The play is distinguished for the so-called “skillful actualization of mythological symbols”, which is vividly attested by the prophetic dream of Atossa. By the way, the same mythological allusion is also used by Sophocles. In the fourth stassimon of the Antigone, when guards take away Antigone, the chorus recalls her noble origin and bearing in mind the power and relentlessness of the destiny, says the following words: “You are noble by your breed, my child, the gold-streaming seed of Zeus, but no one can escape the terrific force of the fate – neither Ares, nor a fortress, nor black ships, which bump against the waves of the sea” (949-954).
Here Sophocles draws a parallel between Antigone and Danae, who, according to the myth, was loved by Zeus turned into golden rain. Both Antigone and Danae were shut up beneath the earth. The chorus attempts to accentuate the force of the fate – no mortal can escape it, no matter how strong he or she is. The mythological-ritual meaning of the colour is shown effectively in Euripides’ Ion. After Creusa found out that her husband, Xuthus, decided to bring home his illegitimate son, the women cries about her unhappy life and says to Apollo: “You came to me with shining golden hair when I was gathering saffron flowers that were glittering like gold. With white palms I leant against the cradle of the cave and cried out: “ay, me”. You, God made me taste the grace of Aphrodite” (887-896).
This is one of the most colourful passages in the works of the most colourful dramaturge. Golden, saffron and white are combined as a symbol of the Sun, a ritual attribute and the sign of nudity. Their entity creates an impressive, shining erotical-ritual picture full of light and sun.
Sh. Barlow is absolutely right in saying that in this passage the emphatic concentration of words referring to the light, luminosity and glory, refers to the presence of Apollo. And the white palms of Creusa are maybe not just an ornamental epithet, but the adjective showing the weakness of woman.
Thus, the colour simultaneously and in the same context functions as symbol and as an attribute of personage and ritual. In the Greek tragedy, the colour, on one side is an attribute of mythological personages and plots, and on the other side, the element of ritual practice, such as: wine sacrifice to the dead husband and gods in funeral or cleansing rituals, blood sacrifice before the battle, the ritual of supplication or wedding, or the ritual of soothing the winds, that is, the souls of the dead etc.
The study of colour function in Greek Tragedy attests to close links between colour and myth, colour and ritual; it reveals the subtle, “furtive” function of color that helps to build and on the other hand, detect and interpret mythological implications and veiled ritual aspects, which as a unity make up the unparalleled artistic world of Greek tragedy.