Discourse and Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia.


Creusa’s Parrhesiastic Role



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Creusa’s Parrhesiastic Role

Creusa’s parrhesiastic role in the play is quite different from Ion’s; for as a woman, Creusa will not use parrhesia to speak the truth about Athenian political life to the king, but rather to publicly accuse Apollo for his misdeeds.

For when Creusa is told by the Chorus that Xuthus alone has been given a son by Apollo, she realizes that not only will she not find the son she is searching for, but also that when she returns to Athens she will have in her own home a step-son who is a foreigner to the city, yet who will nonetheless succeed Xuthus as king. And for these two reasons she is infuriated not only against her husband, but especially against Apollo. For after being raped by Apollo, and deprived by him of her son, to learn that now she will also not have her questions answered while Xuthus receives a son from the god-this proves to be too much for her to take. And her bitterness, her despair, and her anger bursts forth in an accusation made against Apollo: she decides to speak the truth. Truth thus comes to light as an emotional reaction to the god’s injustice and his lies.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, mortals do not accept Apollo’s prophetic utterances since their truth seems incredible; and yet they are led to the truth of the god’s words in spite of their efforts to escape the fate that has been, foretold by him. In Euripides’ Ion, however, mortals are led to the truth in the face of the gods lies or silence, in spite of the fact that they are deceived by Apollo. As a consequence of Apollo’s lies, Creusa believes that Ion is Xuthus’ natural son. But in her emotional reaction to what she thinks is true, she ends by disclosing the truth.

Creusa’s main parrhesiastic scene consists of two parts which differ in their poetic structure and in the type of parrhesia manifested. The first part takes the form of a beautiful long speech-a tirade against Apollo-while the second part is in the form of a stichomythia, i.e., involves a dialogue between Creusa and her servant consisting of alternate lines, one after the other.

First, the tirade. Creusa appears at this moment in front of the temple steps accompanied by an old man who is a trusted servant of the family (and who remains silent during Creusa’s speech). Creusa’s tirade against Apollo is that form of parrhesia where someone publicly accuses another of a crime, or of a fault, or of an injustice that has been committed. And this accusation is an instance of parrhesia insofar as the one who is accused is more powerful than the one who accuses. For there is the danger that because of the accusation made, the accused may retaliate in some way against his or her accuser. So Creusa’s parrhesia first takes the form of a public reproach or criticism against a being to whom she is inferior in power, and upon whom she is in a relation of dependence. It is in this vulnerable situation that Creusa decides to make her accusation:


CREUSA: 0 my heart, how be silent? Yet how can I speak of that secret love, strip myself of all shame? is one barrier left still to prevent me? Whom have I now as my rival in virtue? Has not my husband become my betrayer? I am cheated of home, cheated of children, hopes are gone which I could not achieve, the hopes of arranging things well by hiding the facts, by hiding the birth which brought sorrow. No! No! But I swear by the starry abode of Zeus, by the goddess who reigns on our peaks and by the sacred shore of the lake of Tritonis, I will no longer conceal it: when I have put away the burden, my heart will be easier. Tears fall from my eyes, and my spirit is sick, evilly plotted against by men and gods; I will expose them, ungrateful betrayers of women.

0 you who give the seven-toned lyre a voice which rings out of the lifeless, rustic horn the lovely sound of the Muses’ hymns, on you, Latona’s son, here in daylight I will lay blame. You came with hair flashing gold, as I gathered into my cloak flowers ablaze with their golden light. Clinging to my pale wrists as I cried for my mother’s help you led me to bed in a cave, a god and my lover, with no shame, submitting to the Cyprian’s will. In misery I bore you a son, whom in fear of my mother I placed in chat bed where you cruelly forced me. Ah! He is lost now, snatched as food for birds, my son and yours; 0 lost! But you play the lyre, chanting your paens.

0 hear me, son of Latona, who assign your prophesies from the golden throne and the temple at the earth’s center, I will proclaim my words in your ears: you are an evil lover; though you owed no debt to my husband, you have set a son in his house. But my son, yes and yours, hard-hearted, is lost, carried away by birds, the cloches his mother put on him abandoned. Delos hates you and the young laurel which grows by the palm with its delicate leaves, where Latona bore you, a holy child, fruit of Zeus.
Regarding this tirade, I would like to emphasize the following three points: (1) As you can see, Creusa’s accusation is a public malediction against Apollo where, for example, the references to Apollo as Latona’s (Leto’s) son is meant to convey the thought that Apollo was a bastard: the son of Latona and Zeus . (2) There is also a clear metaphorical opposition drawn between Phoebus Apollo as the god of light with his golden brightness, who, at the same time, draws a young girl into the darkness of a cave to rape her, is the son of Latona—a divinity of the night, and so on. (3) And there is a contrast drawn between the music of Apollo, with his seven-chord lyre, and the cries and shouts of Creusa (who cries for help as Apollo’s victim, and who also must, through her shouting malediction, speak the truth the god will not utter). For Creusa delivers her accusations before the Delphic temple doors—which are closed. The divine voice is silent while Creusa proclaims the truth herself.

The second part of Creusa’s parrhesiastic scene directly follows this tirade when her old servant and guardian, who has heard all that she has said, takes up an interrogative inquiry which is exactly symmetrical to the stichomythic dialogue that occurred between Ion and Xuthus. In the same way, Creusa’s servant asks her to tell him her story while he asks her questions such as when did these events happen, where, how, and so on.

Two things are worthy of note about this exchange. First, this interrogative inquiry is the reversal of the oracular disclosure of truth. Apollo’s oracle is usually ambiguous and obscure, never answers a set of precise questions directly, and cannot proceed as an inquiry; whereas the method of question and answer brings the obscure to light. Secondly, Creusa’ s parrhesiastic discourse is now no longer an accusation directed towards Apollo, i.e., is no longer the accusation of a woman towards her rapist; but takes the form of a self-accusation where she reveals her own faults, weaknesses, misdeeds; (exposing the child), and so forth. And Creusa confesses the events that transpired in a manner similar to Phaedra’s confession of love for Hippolytus. For like Phaedra, she also manifests the same reluctance to say everything, and manages to let her servant pronounce those aspects of her story which she does not want to confess directly—employing a somewhat indirect confessional discourse which is familiar to everyone from Euripides’ Hippolytus or Racine’s Phaedra.

In any case, I think that Creusa’s truth-telling is what we could call an instance of personal (as opposed to political) parrhesia. Ion’s Parrhesia takes the form of truthful political criticism, while Creusa’s parrhesia takes the form of a truthful accusation against another more powerful than she, and as a confession of the truth about herself.

It is the combination of the parrhesiastic figures of Ion and Creusa which makes possible the full disclosure of truth at the end of the play. For following Creusa’s parrhesiastic scene, no one except the god knows that the son Creusa had with Apollo is Ion, just as Ion does not know that Creusa is his mother and that he is not Xuthus’ son. Yet to combine the two parrhesiastic discourses requires a number of other episodes which, unfortunately, we have no time now to analyze. For example, there is the very interesting episode where Creusa—still believing that Ion is Xuthus’ natural son—tries to kill Ion; and when Ion discovers this plot, he tries to kill Creusa— a peculiar reversal of the Oedipal situation.

Regarding the schema we outlined, however, we can now see that the series of truths descended from Athens (Erectheus-Creusa-Ion) is complete at the end of the play. Xuthus, also, is deceived by Apollo to the end, for he returns to Athens still believing Ion is his natural son. And Apollo never appears anywhere in the play: he continually remains silent.




  1. Orestes [408 BC]

A final occurrence of the word "parrhesia" can be found in Euripides’ Orestes—a play written, or at least performed, in 408 BC, just a few Years before Euripides’ death, and at a moment of political crisis in Athens when there were numerous debates about the democratic regime. This text is interesting because it is the only passage in Euripides where the word "parrhesia" is used in a pejorative sense. The word occurs on line 905 and is translated here as "ignorant outspokenness. " The text in the play where the word appears is in the narrative of a messenger who has come to the royal palace at Argos to tell Electra what has happened in the Pelasgian court at Orestes’ trial. For, as you know from Electra, Orestes and Electra have killed their mother, Clytemnestra, and thus are on trial for matricide.

The narrative I wish to quote reads as follows:
"MESSENGER: ... When the full roll of citizens was present, a herald stood up and said ‘Who wishes to address the court, to say whether or not Orestes ought to die for matricide?’ At this Talthybius rose, who was your father’s colleague in the victory over Troy. Always subservient to those in power, he made an ambiguous speech, with fulsome praise of Agamemnon and cold words for your brother, twisting eulogy and censure both together—laying down a law useless to parents; and with every sentence gave ingratiating glances towards Aegisthus’ friends. Heralds are like that—their whole race have learnt to jump to the winning side; their friend is anyone who has power or a government office. Prince Diomedes spoke up next. He urged them not to sentence either you or your brother to death, but satisfy piety by banishing you. Some shouted in approval; others disagreed.

Next there stood up a man with a mouth like a running spring, a giant in impudence, an enrolled citizen, yet no Argive; a mere cat’s-paw; putting his confidence in bluster and ignorant outspokenness , and still persuasive enough to lead his hearers into trouble. He said you and Orestes should be killed with stones; yet, as he argued for your death, the words he used were not his own, but all prompted by Tyndareos.

Another rose, and spoke against him—one endowed with little beauty, but a courageous man; the sort not often found mixing in street or market-place, a manual labourer —the sole backbone of the land; shrewd, when he chose, to come to grips in argument; a man of blameless principle and integrity.

He said, Orestes son of Agamemnon should be honored with crowns for daring to avenge his father by taking a depraved and godless woman’s life—one who corrupted custom; since no man would leave his home, and arm himself, -and march to war, if wives left there in trust could be seduced by stay-at-homes, and brave men cuckolded. His words seemed sensible to honest judges; and there were no more speeches."
As you can see, the narrative starts with a reference to the Athenian procedure for criminal trials: when all the citizens are present, a herald rises and cries: "who wishes to speak?" For that is the Athenian right of equal speech (isegoria) .Two orators then speak, both of whom are borrowed from Greek mythology, from the Homeric world. The first speaker is Talthybius, who was one of Agamemnon’s companions during the war against the Trojans; specifically, his herald. Talthybius is followed by Diomedes --one of the most famous Greek heroes, known for his unmatched courage, bravery, skill in battle, physical strength, and eloquence.

The messenger characterizes Talthybius as someone who is not completely free, but dependent upon those more powerful than he is. The Greek text states that he is "under the power of the powerful" ("subservient to those in power’) . There are two other plays where Euripides criticizes this type of human being, the herald. In The Women of Troy, the very same Talthybius appears after the city of Troy has been captured by the Greek army to tell Cassandra that she is to be the concubine of Agamemnon. Cassandra gives her reply to the herald’s news by predicting that she will bring ruin to her enemies. And, as you know, Cassandra’s prophecies are always true. Talthybius, however, does not believe her predictions. Since, as a herald, he does not know what is true (he is unable to recognize the truth of Cassandra’s utterances), but merely repeats what his master—Agamemnon—tells him to say, he thinks that Cassandra is simply mad; for he tells her: "your mind is not in the right place" ("you’re not in your right mind"). And to this Cassandra answers:


CASSANDRA: ‘Servant’! You hear this servant? He’s a herald. What are heralds, then, but creatures universally loathed—lackeys and menials to governments and kings? You say my mother is destined for Odysseus’ home: what then of Apollo’s oracles, spelt out to me, that she shall die here ?
And in fact, Cassandra’s mother, Hecuba, dies in Troy.

In Euripides’ The Suppliant Women, there is also a discussion between an unnamed herald (who comes from Thebes) and Theseus (who is not exactly the king, but the First Citizen of Athens). When the herald enters he asks, ‘Who is the King in Athens?’ And Theseus tells him that he will not be able to find the Athenian king since there is no tyrannos in the city:


THESEUS: ... This state is not subject to one man’s will, but is a free city. The king here is the people, who by yearly office govern in turn. We give no special power to wealth; the poor man’s voice commands equal authority.
This sets off an argumentative discussion about which form of government is best: monarchy or democracy ? The herald praises the monarchic regime, and criticizes democracy as subject to the whims of the rabble. Theseus’ reply is in praise of the Athenian democracy where, because the laws are written down, the poor and rich have equal rights, and where everyone is free to speak in the ekklēsia:
THESEUS: ... Freedom lives in this formula: ‘Who has good counsel which he would offer to the city?’ He who desires to speak wins fame; he who does not is silent. Where could greater equality be found ?
The freedom to speak is thus synonymous with democratic equality in Theseus’ eyes, which he cites in opposition to the herald-the representative of tyrannical power.

Since freedom resides in the freedom to speak the truth, Talthybius cannot speak directly and frankly at Orestes’ trial since he is not free, but dependent upon those who are more powerful than he is. Consequently, he "speaks ambiguously" , utilizing a discourse which means two opposite things at the same time. So we see him praising Agamemnon (for he was Agamemnon’s herald), but also condemning Agamemnon’s son Orestes (since he does not approve of his actions) . Fearful of the power of both factions, and therefore wishing to please everybody, he speaks two-facedly; but since Aegisthus’ friends have come to power, and are calling for Orestes’ death (Aegisthus, you remember from Electra, was also killed by Orestes), in the end Talthybius condemns Orestes.

Following this negative mythological character is a positive one: Diomedes. Diomedes was famous as a Greek warrior both for his courageous exploits and for his noble eloquence: his skill in speaking, and his wisdom. Unlike Talthybius, Diomedes is independent; he says what he thinks, and proposes a moderate solution which has no political motivation: it is not a revengeful retaliation. On religious grounds, "to satisfy piety", he urges that Orestes and Electra be exiled to purify the country of Clytemnestra’s and Aegisthus’ deaths according to the traditional religious punishment for murder. But despite Diomedes’ moderate and reasonable verdict, his opinion divides the assembly: same agree, others disagree.

We then have two other speakers who present themselves. Their names are not given, they do not belong to the mythological world of Homer, they are not heroes; but from the precise description which the reporting messenger gives of them, we can see that they are two "social types". The first one (who is symmetrical to Talthybius, the bad orator) is the sort of orator who is so harmful for a democracy. And I think we should determine carefully his specific characteristics.

His first trait is that he has "a mouth like a running spring"—which translates the Greek word "athuroglossos" . "Athuroglossos" literally refers to someone who has a tongue but not a door. Hence it implies someone who cannot shut his or her mouth.

The metaphor of the mouth, teeth, and lips as a door that is closed when one is silent is a frequent one in ancient Greek literature. It occurs in the Sixth Century BC, in Theognis’ Elegies who writes that there are too many garrulous people:




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