Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.03.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.03.15

Fabian Meinel, Pollution and Crisis in Greek Tragedy.   Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 278.  ISBN 9781107044463.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Marcel Andrew Widzisz, Kingwood, Texas (


In Pollution and Crisis in Greek Tragedy, Fabian Meinel comments on issues pertaining to miasma, purification, and other questions important to the community from a largely literary perspective in parts of Euripides’ Hippolytus, Iphigeneia among the Taurians, and Ion; Sophocles’ Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Oedipus at Colonus; and Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Suppliants. While questions of pollution in Greek tragedy certainly deserve more attention than Parker’s fundamental study of miasma could devote to them (as Meinel notes), this study focuses not so much upon pollution itself as on crises more broadly understood, such as those between individuals and communities.

Before I proceed to an evaluation of the contents of the book, something must be said about the perspective from which many of its readings are formulated. I quote the following from an excursus on Hippolytus: “In a loose associative reading we might suggest that Phaedra’s suicide is a purification of sorts: of her pollution of the mind in the first place, but in a sense perhaps also of her reputation” (32). A little later on the same page we read, “[t]hese two concerns [the spread of pollution and ‘excessive’ mental states] may to some extent be considered in conjunction as feeding into another causation model complementary to, or even potentially in (ironic) tension with, the play’s divine frame.” Still later certain ideas are “arguably toyed with” (p. 35 twice; p. 42 twice), or “arguably . . . to some extent connected” (p. 37). These and many other such formulations demonstrate the more adventurous type of reading Meinel has in store for his readers.

For Meinel, pollution in Greek tragedy is “a kind of murmuring undercurrent.” The author warns his readers not to expect any essentialist understanding of miasma; instead, pollution is analyzed on a case-by-case basis alongside issues of purity, identity, and community affiliation. As with pollution, so too with questions of genre: the “wise and circumspect will be relieved to learn that no claim is made here to the discovery of ‘essence’” (7). Crisis, the second part of the title, will mean “the conflict of characters at the point where this conflict comes to a head.” After these initial comments on his working assumptions, Meinel proceeds to comment upon various aspects of religious and/or metaphorical instances of pollution and related matters, but this only after often extended reviews of well-established lines of interpretation of the plays in question.

In the first chapter, pollution is considered in Hippolytus and Oedipus Tyrannus. For Meinel the former portrays the difficulties humans have in determining causation; miasma here has broad associations with medical language, inherited guilt, mental states, emotional predispositions, and “excessive” characters. Meinel largely follows key indications from Barrett, Goff, Mitchell-Boyask, Schlesier, Zeitlin, and others to suggest that there is much irony in the “causation models.” On a more original level, Meinel concludes by suggesting that Phaedra may be suffering from a sort of Hippocratic hysteria due her sexual abstinence; there is thus a “polyphony of different causation models” wherein no one perspective is incontestable.

Meinel connects Hippolytus to Oedipus Tyrannus by way of the search for causality in a nearly contemporaneous play. Herein pollution and purification fall short as categories with which to judge the enormity of Oedipus; Meinel suggests that miasma is tied to the very being of Oedipus and that his self-blinding may be taken as a sort of self-purification. Ultimately, however, it is a corrupt type of purification since Oedipus is beyond the reach of ritual remedy; miasma itself is eclipsed to the degree that the play focuses upon Oedipus himself.

In a chapter on Antigone, Meinel argues that laws make civic space stable and that pollution threatens this stability. Creon attempts but fails to impose inflexible boundaries upon civic space; the resultant pollution ironically highlights his failure. Meinel declares that we ought to abandon the facile distinction of “Antigone is just; Creon a tyrant” (p. 87 n. 59); later, however, the play is deemed “Creon’s tragedy” (p. 95) due to how his obsession with boundaries has led to their transgression. Miasma challenges boundaries; Creon, however, attempts to define how miasma works just as he also “blunts” the concept. More speculatively, Meinel finds in the famous description of Haemon’s blood spurting upon Antigone’s white cheek (Ant. 1238–9) an oblique hint of fratricidal slaughter through an allusion to Agamemnon where Clytemnestra describes being struck by the blood of her husband (Ag. 1389–90). Meinel suggests that we might understand Euryidice’s death as a sort of purificatory sacrifice in Creon’s view of the matter. For some readers, this will be hard to square with Creon’s affirmation that he is “less than a non-being” because of what he has done.

Chapter 3 takes up the Oresteia and Iphigeneia in Tauris. Here Meinel promises to discuss how pollution is related to categorization. Before treating miasma, Meinel proceeds first, however, to affirm Goldhill’s arguments1 about the ambiguities of justice as both the lex talionis and the eventual civic/legal aspects of the same. The inherent instability of the former shows that the overriding concern is with achieving stability in the polis. With the progress of the trilogy towards a wider concept of justice, pollution evaporates since it was associated with “revenge-justice.”2 Eventually, not just the right kind of justice is needed, but also the right kind of stability.

More convincing and ultimately more original is the excursus on Iphigeneia in Tauris. Euripides’ own playful approach to the reality or unreality of pollution and purification seems particularly well suited to Meinel’s approach. Here the externalization or “fictionality” of pollution informs a play that makes much of the tensions between reality and appearance in how Iphigeneia and Orestes manipulate the hapless Thoas with the ruse of “purifying” the statue of Artemis from contact with the “polluted” Orestes. In this section, Meinel references extensively the work of Matthew Wright and his engagement with the question of genre in Greek tragedy. While not taking a firm stand on the “tragic” as such, Meinel argues that the play is not melodramatic but rather “pessimistic” in tone to the extent that Euripides is rewriting the Oresteian theme of “release from toils” with more open-ended questions than answers. In the end, the case for Orestes’s eventual release from the Erinyes’ power is seen to be highly ambivalent: other Euripidean plays invite speculation about whether divine predictions always come true; here Athena and Apollo, the very gods who promised release earlier in the story, come up short. Moreover, Meinel proposes that pollution becomes so illusory in this play as to be “entirely emptied of meaning” (p. 159) and possibly presenting a “sophistic view of pollution” (p. 160); Orestes’ purification is then “an illusion of an illusion.” The performative aspect of the play leads Meinel to consider questions of metatheater from which he concurs with others that Euripides is commenting upon poetic creativity within poetic tradition. One of his observations is that the play is as aware of its own status as a construct as it is aware of previous versions of the same material. By way of conclusion, Meinel adopts and furthers Matthew Wright’s concept of “metamythology”3 for the dynamics of IT: in particular, terms for pollution and purification cluster around the ruse of purification within the play, all of which makes the case that Euripides is self-consciously playing with the material in a “clever engagement.”

The fourth chapter groups Aeschylus’ Suppliants, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, and Euripides’s Ion together against the backdrop of civic identity. Purification and pollution are connected to the status of marginal figures who seek to join a civic entity. Meinel presents the now standard view that sacred and secular were more or less mixed in Athens (e.g. in the agora by virtue of the lustral basins in it); by analogy, crossing into civic space will require a purification/purity of sorts. Pollution is “un-civic” (p. 177) as is the case with homicides who are excluded from the group; boundaries both physical and social define citizenship. These preliminaries lead to a reconsideration of Suppliants in which Meinel connects the purity of the sanctuary, the Argive territory, and of women’s bodies. Here again a problem seems to arise when this more associative mode of reading—the attempt to suggest that these three categories are somehow parallel—falters in various ways (Meinel himself admits that there are no close verbal parallels between the three estates [p. 202]). First, Meinel makes much of the activities of Apis, who was credited with purifying Argos in the distant past. But, we may ask, does Argos continue to cultivate such a state of purity as an essential feature of its self-understanding? Meinel assumes this without proof. Later, Meinel suggests that sacred space is the common denominator and pollution ought to be excluded from these places (but one may well ask if pollution was ever not ideally excluded from physical or personal space). Meinel, developing a suggestion of Zeitlin, also associates the persistence of the Danaids at the shrine as a “virtual” maintenance of their state of virginity; later, however, their removal from the shrine is “somehow tantamount” to the loss of their hagneia (both claims on p. 197). The virgins are next linked with the monsters that Apis dispatched: they are the “monstrous” others once again threatening Argos in a sort of mythological déjà vu. It is unclear whether the Danaids are preserving purity by their supplication at the shrine or whether they are polluting creatures necessitating a re-founding of the territory. And yet they seem only to be a threat of pollution if they are not protected: the possibility of their suicide at the shrine seems to be the truly polluting eventuality Argos wishes to avoid. Meinel suggests that the play offers an “inverse parallelism between past and present”: where once Apis cleansed the land of pollution, now purity will be maintained by inclusion of the other. Meinel concludes by speculating whether purity might need to be viewed more flexibly, perhaps in accord with current Athenian reality.

In a shorter section on the Oedipus at Colonus Meinel argues that notions of pure/impure more or less fall short in the face of the enormity that is Oedipus. He is perhaps beyond ritual categories; ultimately his status relative to the city of Athens is as indeterminate as his ritual status. Vague too is the force of pollution in the instance of his contact with Theseus. Meinel suggests that Oedipus is truly “liminal” in the sense that he occupies a threshold between different spheres of reality: pure and polluted, the sacred space and the profane ground.

The last play discussed in the book is Ion, in which Meinel once again considers together the purities of ritual and ethnic statuses. Given Apollo’s “absent presence” and problematic dealings with Creusa in the past, Ion seems to suggest that the god’s vaunted purity is to be seen a superficial construct. As with Iphigeneia in Tauris, this is an interesting suggestion.

In sum, Meinel manages to extend some rather well established lines of argument in a number of interconnected ways. The book is at its best when focused upon Iphigeneia in Tauris, where pollution is manifestly a much- manipulated construct (at least in part); less convincing and less thorough are its attempts to make ontological equivalences in other areas (e.g. ethnic and ritual purity; sacred and secular; mortal and divine causation).


1.   Goldhill, Simon, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) is cited over a dozen times in the first section of the chapter.
2.   For the opposite view of the matter, see Widzisz, Marcel, Chronos on the Threshold: Time, Ritual, and Agency in the Oresteia (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), pp. 192–7.
3.  Wright, Matthew, Euripides’ Escape Tragedies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 156: “a type of discourse which arises when mythical characters . . . are made to talk about themselves and their own myths . . . in a self-conscious manner; . . . it is a discourse designed to emphasize the fictionality of myth.”

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