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Sunday, April 01, 2012

sacrifice, slaughter and feasting - a scenario for σφάζω, αὐτοσφᾰγής

While working on Ajax’s final speech I paused to ponder John Tipton’s recent translation: “let their families feed on them” John Tipton (Ajax lines 841-842 page 58, Flood Editions 2008). There is no verb for eating in the text. Here is the context from Jebb’s translation:

[835] And I call for help to the eternal maidens who eternally attend to all sufferings among mortals, the dread, far-striding Erinyes, asking them to learn how my miserable life is destroyed by the Atreidae. [840] And may they seize those wicked men with most wicked destruction, just as they see me [fall slain by my own hand, so slain by their own kin may they perish at the hand of their best-loved offspring]. Come, you swift and punishing Erinyes, devour all the assembled army and spare nothing!
καλῶ δ᾽ ἀρωγοὺς τὰς ἀεί τε παρθένους
ἀεί θ᾽ ὁρώσας πάντα τἀν βροτοῖς πάθη,
σεμνὰς Ἐρινῦς τανύποδας, μαθεῖν ἐμὲ
πρὸς τῶν Ἀτρειδῶν ὡς διόλλυμαι τάλας,
καί σφας κακοὺς κάκιστα καὶ πανωλέθρους
ξυναρπάσειαν, ὥσπερ εἰσορῶσ᾽ ἐμὲ        
αὐτοσφαγῆ πίπτοντα, τὼς αὐτοσφαγεῖς    
πρὸς τῶν φιλίστων ἐκγόνων ὀλοίατο.
ἴτ᾽, ὦ ταχεῖαι ποίνιμοί τ᾽ Ἐρινύες,
γεύεσθε, μὴ φείδεσθε πανδήμου στρατοῦ:

The lines which have given pause to scholars are presented in Jebb between brackets which indicate that some scholars consider them not an original part of the play.

Ajax 841-842
[fall slain by my own hand, so slain by their own kin may they perish at the hand of their best-loved offspring]

αὐτοσφαγῆ πίπτοντα, τὼς αὐτοσφαγεῖς    
πρὸς τῶν φιλίστων ἐκγόνων ὀλοίατο.

The word αὐτοσφαγῆ and αὐτοσφαγεῖς is rare, the standard classical lexicon has the following entry:

LSJ — αὐτο-σφᾰγής [autosphages], ές, slain by oneself or by kinsmen, both in S.Aj.841 (prob. spurious), cf. E.Ph.1316.

The word looks like a semantically transparent compound from the verb form σφάζω  sphazo “slaughter” and αὐτο a reflexive pronoun “self.”   A similar construction ἔσφαξεν ἑαυτόν “killed himself” is found in Thuc. 2.92.3:

 [3] ἐπὶ δὲ τῆς Λευκαδίας νεώς, ἣ περὶ τὴν ὁλκάδα κατέδυ, Τιμοκράτης ὁ Λακεδαιμόνιος πλέων, ὡς ἡ ναῦς διεφθείρετο, ἔσφαξεν ἑαυτόν, καὶ ἐξέπεσεν ἐς τὸν Ναυπακτίων λιμένα.

[3] On board the Leucadian which went down off the merchantman, was the Lacedaemonian Timocrates, who killed himself when the ship was sunk, and was cast up in the harbor of Naupactus. — Richard Crawley?
The word σφάζω  sphazo “slaughter” is used of killing with a knife. In sacrifice it involved  slashing the throat of the victim and letting the blood pour out into a bowl. In Homer the verb σφάζω sphazo is used in contexts where eating the animals was a part of the scenario. In Homer’s Iliad Book 1:459 a scene is depicted where the animals are sacrificed and then the meat is roasted and eaten. The act of eating and drinking is a part of the scenario. Other places in Homer (Od. 1:92, 9:46, 23:305) the slaughter σφάζω sphazo of livestock is mentioned and the consumption, feasting on the meat with wine is assumed without any explicit mention of eating. In these contexts the slaughter σφάζω sphazo of livestock invokes the feasting scenario, there is no need to specifically spell out that eating took place.

But this alone doesn’t explain John Tipton’s  “let their families feed on them”  Ajax lines 841-842.  Tipton’s rendering is a clear allusion to the foundational myth: the curse on the house of Atreus who fed the children of Thyestes to him in a stew. So Tipton is playing on the feasting scenario invoked by the word σφάζω sphazo when livestock are involved and also conjuring up a reference to the well known (to the ancient audience) mythological framework for Ajax, Electra and others.  

Assuming we retain and translate the dubious text, one might find fault with Tipton’s move on the grounds that σφάζω sphazo when it is used for killing humans does not invoke an eating scenario. Generally speaking the Greeks didn’t eat the people they slaughtered. So when Ajax uses the term αὐτοσφᾰγής autosphages for suicide and the killing of the Atreidae it would not invoke an eating scenario.

In later greek  σφάζω sphazo is found in a warfare scenario, New Testament Revelation 6:4:

Rev. 6:4 And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. RSV

Rev. 6:4 καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ἄλλος ἵππος πυρρός, καὶ τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπ᾿ αὐτὸν ἐδόθη αὐτῷ λαβεῖν τὴν εἰρήνην ἐκ τῆς γῆς καὶ ἵνα ἀλλήλους σφάξουσιν καὶ ἐδόθη αὐτῷ μάχαιρα μεγάλη.


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