Annotation on Genre, Occasion, and Choral Mimesis Revisited—with special reference to the “newest Sappho”

At line 910 of Euripides’ Electra, in the presence of Orestes, the titular protagonist can finally revile the body of Aegisthus (907-956); her prosopopoeia to the dead enemy follows the other long nocturnal prosopopoeias of hatred and grievance she had addressed to Aegisthus in his absence, which are clearly evoked as dress-rehearsals of her present speech at 909-912. She uses the verb θρυλεῖν to designate the speech act through which she ceaselessly expresses the grumbles she could not convey to him face to face, as she was oppressed by fears, differently from now (909-912);

καὶ μὴν δι᾽ ὄρθρων γ᾽ οὔποτ᾽ ἐξελίμπανον
θρυλοῦσ᾽ ἅ γ’ εἰπεῖν ἤθελον κατ᾽ ὄμμα σόν,
εἰ δὴ γενοίμην δειμάτων ἐλευθέρα
τῶν πρόσθε. νῦν οὖν ἔσμεν· ᾽σποδώσω δε σοι ….
To be sure, though, in the twilight hours I never left off grumbling what I wanted to say to your face if I should become free from those former fears. So now I am free and I shall pay you back …
(trans. by M.J. Cropp, with a modification)

θρυλεῖν is a verb designating a mumbling or babbling communication, or the intimation of what is not new and ends up sounding too often repeated – a kind of speech act involving flaws or anomalies in one way or another. As such, it seems incongruous if it implies only dead Aegisthus as its addressee. Just at the beginning of a defiant speech brimming with aggressive hatred by humiliated Electra, a confession to Aegisthus about past ineffective communication with him does not adequately become furious and contemptuous Electra.

Rather, the verb was more pregnantly deployed for the ears of her affectionate brother Orestes, who was thus also conveniently briefed about her operation in the past long periods of separation. For his sake Electra’s θρυλεῖν will oppose the ineffectiveness of the past prosopopoeias to absent Aegisthus, on the one hand, and the present one to dead Aegisthus, on the other, which is certifiably definitive and well-articulated (really the “last words” between them). For the same implied addressee, Orestes, the verb will also connote, in a similar wavelength, an opposition between the ineffective grumbles at absent Aegisthus in the twilight preceding dawn (909) and the strategy of public lament, described in detail at 102-166, that Electra was used to performing with her fellow citizens (cf. in particular 112-113 σύντειν᾽ (ὥρα) ποδὸς ὁρμάν· ὤ, / ἔμβα ἔμβα κατακλαίουσα “Press on – this is the hour – your urgent step; O, go forward, forward, sorrowing”, where ὥρα anticipates and contrasts δι’ ὄρθρων of 909).