Reflection: Social distance

Richard Hunter is Regius Professor of Greek. His most recent publication is The Measure of Homer (Cambridge, 2018).

Covid-19 has had many people reaching back to the plague which Apollo sends on the Greek army at the very beginning of Homer’s Iliad; Western literature begins with a devastating disease of unknown cause. The Greek commander, Agamemnon, had in fact wronged and abused Apollo’s priest, Chryses: disease is a hidden enemy which must have a cause in human infraction of a divine order. If it is perhaps only the religious right-wing in the USA who see the hand of God behind the corona virus, there are plenty of people who want to see some link between this disease and aspects of our social life more generally, such as unlimited travel and the damage to the climate which that brings in its jetstream.

‘Social distancing’ is an attempt to give the contagious virus as few hosts as possible in its rapacious drive for self-reproduction. Here we might think of another supremely classical text, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. The plague in that play is linked to the pollution of Oedipus, the father-killer who has married his mother, but also the would-be healer who in fact spreads the disease; the tragedy seems to be leading up to the sending away of the self-blinded king into the wilderness of self-isolation. At a rather different level, it was a familiar truth that one of the dangers of sea travel was that a fellow-passenger might be a criminal or, worse, polluted, and that the gods might choose the opportunity of that trip to strike him down, sinking everyone on board as collateral damage. The horror stories of the fate of cruise ships in the midst of the current crisis have revived very deep fears not unrelated to this ancient belief. No one knows where or in whom the enemy is lurking.

The Diamond Princess. Credit: Alpsdake licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

It is in fact another polluted being whom current social distancing most calls to my mind. The Athenian festival of the Choes (‘Pitchers’), one of the markers of the arrival of spring, commemorated and recreated the occasion when Orestes, polluted from the killing of his mother in revenge for her killing of his father Agamemnon, came to Athens. No one could have anything to do with him, but the Athenian king decreed that, in an inversion of the idea of symposium (‘drinking together’), all citizens should separately drink their own wine, each at his own table; no one would have to be dangerously close to Orestes, and thus potentially infected by his pollution, and he would receive appropriately equal and hospitable treatment. Orestes himself describes what happened in Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians 947-60:

When I came there, at first none of my guest-friends was willing to receive me, believing me to be detested by the gods. But those who felt pity for me provided guest fare for me at a table by myself, though they were under the same roof with me. They contrived for me to be addressed by no one, in silence, so that I might eat and drink apart from them. To all they gave an equal measure of wine in separate vessels and thus took their pleasure. I did not wish to take my hosts to task: I grieved silently and pretended not to notice, groaning aloud because I was a matricide. But I hear that for the Athenians my troubles have become a ritual: even now the custom remains in force that Pallas’ folk honour the three-quart pitcher. [trans. D. Kovacs, adapted]

We have here a very typical aetiological tale: a current ritual practice is described as a repetition and commemoration of a one-time event in the past, which we may or may not wish to call ‘a myth’. Aetiology is one way in which the past shapes the present and, like the ancients, we shape the past by selective memory.

Woodcut illustration of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdering Agamemnon and their subsequent deaths at the hand of Orestes. Photo: kladcat

How will the current crisis be commemorated? In her speech to the nation the Queen foreshadowed that future time in which we will indeed be looking back to the present. But how? On Corona Day will we stay locked down at home, while suited dignitaries parade slowly down Whitehall, each two measured metres apart from the next? Will the end of the ritual day be marked by emergence from homes and public clapping and beating of pots and pans to scare away the ghosts of the past and to acknowledge what we owe to those who worked in the NHS frontline and other positions of care? Actually, I rather hope so.

This article was first published in fifteen eightyfour on 19 May 2020.

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