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Sacrilege: Myth as a Moral Paradigm
1. Imitatio Dei: Xerxes and the Wife and Daughter of Masistes (9.108–113)
- Blank promise of the male lover
- Demand of the female lover to gain a position equal to the wife (with the robe as a symbol of marriage or power)
- Fruitless attempt of the male lover to avert peril
- Jealousy of the wife
- Intrigue of the wife against the (presumed) female lover
- Forced participation of the male lover in the wife’s intrigue
- Death of the (presumed) female lover
‘te solet amplecti, Veneris cum foedus initis,
da mihi te talem.’
is used to your embrace, when you enter into the pact of Venus,
give yourself to me!’
Jupiter tries to avert peril (‘the god would have stopped her lips as she spoke’, 295–296) and, when this proves to be unsuccessful, to use a ‘lighter dart’, thereby being forced to participate in the intrigue (function 6)—but this is still too much for Semele who burns to death (function 7).
There are suggestive details in the story of Masistes’ wife and daughter as well: Xerxes grants his wife’s wish by nodding, and Herodotus uses the Homeric verb κατανεύειν that is exclusively reserved for the gods. The incestuous flavour of Xerxes’ relationship with his niece and daughter-in-law, too, hints at Zeus’ general amorous conduct.
2. Desecration of Waters
2.1 The Persian Kings:
- Implied personification of the water as a personal opponent
- Verbal desecration of the water
- Conceit (verbally expressed by the characters or stated by the narrator)
- Change of natural environment or crossing of a natural border
The vainglorious terminology of the δεσπότης obviously demonstrates his conceit (function 3). As for his calling the sea a ‘river’, this may be both mistake or aggressive downgrading on Xerxes’ side, but it also calls to mind Herodotus’ statement that the Persians usually worship rivers greatly (1.138.2), which makes Xerxes’ action outrageous even in the case that he should believe the Hellepont to be a river.
Xerxes’ putting himself in the place of the Trojan heroes at this most symbolic location of the history of the European-Asian conflict is surely suggestive. The unexplained detail about the panic befalling the soldiers seems metaphysical, as if induced by a god or hero. In any case, the Persian identification also reminds the recipient—if not the frightened characters themselves—of the most famous Greek victory over barbarians.
2.2 Mythical Parallels:
πατρὸς δ’ εἴμ’ ἀγαθοῖο, θεὰ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ·
and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?
Even though Achilleus talks about his own mortality in the ensuing verses, the conceit of the Herodotean figures is prefigured here. Having said that, it is significant that this function is more emphasised in the Histories, as we shall see in a moment.
ἔσσεται ἢ ἠὼς ἢ δείλη ἢ μέσον ἦμαρ
ὁππότε τις καὶ ἐμεῖο Ἄρῃ ἐκ θυμὸν ἕληται
ἢ ὅ γε δουρὶ βαλὼν ἢ ἀπὸ νευρῆφιν ὀϊστῷ.
and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime
when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also
either with a spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring.
Consequently, the scene of Achilleus and Scamander constitutes not just a parallel, but also a contrast to the Persian desecrations of waters. A mortal must not be conceited when confronted with a natural phenomenon that is the object of cultic reverence, especially not out of seeming / believing to be ‘something more than mortal’—if even the demi-god Achilleus is conscious of his mortality at the moment of battle. The mortal kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes enter a geographic and moral space where their existence loses all justification.
2.3 Croesus the Waverer (1.75):
- Croesus has crossed the river on existing bridges; his ‘transgression’ therefore consists of the crossing of a natural boundary, but not in its removal.
- Croesus has had the river diverted, making it shallow and walkable. This exacerbates his sacrilege to the extent of Cyrus’ diverting the Gyndes.
- Croesus has entirely diverted the river, emptying the old river-bed, and has thus committed the sacrilegious act of changing Nature.