the Curse-myths

the Curse-myths

Notes on the Curse-myths of Mycenae and Thebes. I. Stories of curses seem to be universal. The best definition of a curse is “a tendency for bad things

Notes on the Curse-myths of Mycenae and Thebes
I. Stories of curses seem to be universal

A. The best definition of a curse is “a tendency for bad things to happen to a
person or a group of people in retribution for a past pollution”

B. One helpful way to think of them is as the expression not of a single
truth-value, but of a clash, or crisis, of truth-values
1. The curse-myth expresses the problem itself of having two
conflicting truth-values

C. The most basic version is a conflict that we tend to call “fate vs. free
will”
1. Sometimes we believe that something is controlling our lives
2. Sometimes we believe we alone are in control
3. A curse-myth is a narrative way to express the conflict between
those two truth-values
a) Over and over again, the person or family or community tries
to break free, only to be claimed one more time by the curse’s control

D. There are many different ways to use a curse-myth to express a conflict of
truth-values, as we see in the myths of Mycenae and of Thebes
1. The different versions of the stories, as told especially by epic
bards and the tragedians of Athens, all express different conflicts
E. Important to note that epic (for example the Odyssey) appears not to be
interested in curse-myth

1. Whereas tragedy (for example Aeschylus and Sophocles’ versions
of the stories of Mycenae and Thebes) seems to love it
2. Probably because epic is concerned with stories that move, and
tragedy with stories that stay in one place

II. Mycenae: the House of Atreus

A. Originally about a crisis of truth-values in sacrifice
1. The value of giving your most precious possession, for example
your child (e.g. Pelops)
2. In conflict with the value of not hurting yourself by doing
something like that
3. As the crisis keeps coming back in culture, so the curse keeps
coming back in the House of Atreus

B. In its most famous version, though, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, about the
crisis of vengeance and justice
1. The value of taking vengeance on those who have wronged you
and your family
2. In conflict with the value of not having everybody in your whole
community killed in wars of vengeance
3. In the end, justice is established in Athens as a way of taking the
power of vengeance away from individuals, and keeping the peace

III. Thebes: the House of Oedipus

A. Originally about the crisis of marriage (technically, of endogamy and
exogamy)

1. The value of marrying inside your community, to keep your stuff
close
2. The value of marrying outside your community, to get new stuff
and avoid incest
3. As the crisis keeps coming back, so the problem of marrying
wrong (as Laius wasn’t supposed to have Oedipus, Oedipus wasn’t
supposed to marry Jocasta) keeps coming back

B. In its most famous version, the Theban tragedies (NOTE: they are not a
trilogy like the Oresteia, but rather three tragedies performed in different years)
of Sophocles, about the crisis of self-knowledge
1. The value of knowing yourself
2. The value of realizing that you can’t, and shouldn’t know
yourself because of all the freaky stuff you’ve got going on (mythic
example, you’re actually married to your mother)
3. As the crisis keeps coming back, so Oedipus dooms himself over
and over in Oedipus the King

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