The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Ronnais Lloyd
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
That’s a very hard question to answer but recently I have found myself revisiting Sophocles’ Philoctetes as a source of comfort.
When did you first come across this source?
Quite recently! Last summer to be precise. I chose to take a university module on Greek Tragedy this year which covers Euripides’ Herakles and Medea and Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes.
Can you tell me a bit about the play and its context?
Odysseus becomes an enemy of Philoctetes after he abandoned, on the island on Lemnos, the wounded archer who was bitten by a snake as they sailed to Troy, because of his incessant screams of pain. Philoctetes has been left alone on the island for ten years, which is uncivilised and uninhabited in Sophocles’ tragedy, with only his bow for protection. After an ambiguous prophecy that Troy can only fall with the bow of Philoctetes, Odysseus takes Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to the island of Lemnos to deceive the archer to give his bow to them or if this fails to take it by force. Yet, Odysseus underestimates Neoptolemus, who defies his leader and tells Philoctetes the truth. Neoptolemus was about to take Philoctetes home but Herakles, a close friend of Philoctetes and the previous owner of his bow, appears to tell them to go to Troy instead.
The tragedy was produced in 409 BC and deviates from traditional myths surrounding Philoctetes. In the traditional chronology, Diomedes was Odysseus’ companion on this mission and Neoptolemus only went to Troy after Philoctetes but instead Sophocles changes this. Aeschylus and Euripides produced tragedies of the same subject matter based on the Epic Cycle, before Sophocles’ version. Both tragedies entailed deception, force and persuasion to gain the bow but Sophocles blocks these routes through Neoptolemus who has inherited his father’s dislike of trickery. It is inevitable Philoctetes will end up in Troy, after all Sophocles had previously produced a play called Philoctetes at Troy, but the way Philoctetes ends up at Troy is surprising.
What is it about this tragedy that appeals to you most?
What appeals to me the most in the current climate is the isolation of Philoctetes on the uninhabited island of Lemnos (which was not the case in the 5th century BC). He lives in a cave, only wears a few rags, eats dead birds to survive and has not had a glass of wine in the past 10 years! Moreover, Philoctetes describes the sound of Greek as beautiful and is eager to hear more after not hearing speech for so long. Although my experience of isolation in the pandemic is nowhere near as extreme as this I’d like to think Philoctetes would be able to empathise with the feelings of loneliness most people are experiencing at the moment.
I think something we have all learned during the pandemic, which was sometimes taken for granted before, is the importance of family and friends. Philia (friendship in the most basic translation) is at the heart of the tragedy. Neoptolemus has to choose whether his philia with Odysseus and the rest of the Greek army or Philoctetes is more significant to him.
Neoptolemus gains the trust and friendship of Philoctetes over the common ground of grief and shame. Philoctetes really bonds with Neoptolemus and takes him on as a father figure calling him “my son” repeatedly, which is extremely touching since he has lost his father. Trustingly, Philoctetes even temporarily gifts his sacred bow to Neoptolemus for him to look after, which has only ever been held by Philoctetes and Herakles before. This act is tangible, like his physical support of Philoctetes to help him to walk. The idea of touching someone after so long feels very pertinent at the moment!
Despite Neoptolemus’ betrayal they reconcile their issues once he gives his bow back. Neoptolemus genuinely cares about Philoctetes and doesn’t want to see him suffer anymore. The only way for his wound to be healed is to go to Troy but he respects Philoctetes’ wish not go, keeping his word to take him home. The friendship is not in equilibrium; Neoptolemus risks becoming an enemy of the Greek army when he offers to take Philoctetes home because it would have detrimental consequences to the outcome of the Trojan war.
Herakles resolves the issue and reinforces the importance of reciprocity in friendship. “You’ll not take Troy without his aid, nor he without your help. No, each one guard the other, like two lions prowling the bush together”.
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
My favourite way to spend my time, when I’m not absorbed in the world of Classics, is to play football which I have done ever since I can remember. I also like to go on runs and frequent dog walks with my Golden Retriever called Hector. Additionally, I enjoy listening to music (U2, Paul Weller, Inhaler and Two Door Cinema Club just to name a few) and playing on my PS4.
Ronnais is a 2nd year Classical Civilisations undergraduate at the University of Leeds, a former Student Ambassador for the Lytham St Annes Branch of the Classical Association, and the current President of the LUU Classics Society. She is particularly interested in Greek art and Greco-Roman religion. Find her on Twitter @Ronnaislloyd.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.