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Michalopoulos, Ch. Abstract Herakles in modern-Greek poetry

Charilaos N. Michalopoulos

‘And maybe in your case there wouldn’t be a Herakles…’: Herakles in C.P. Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos 

Despite the hero’s popularity in classical poetry, Herakles in Modern Greek poetry has attracted so far relatively little scholarly attention. This chapter maps the presence of Herakles and investigates his role in Modern Greek poetry by focusing on the poetry of Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) and Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990), two world- renowned Modern Greek poets, whose work coincides with major political and social events of the troubled twentieth century.

In the case of C.P. Cavafy my exploration revolves around the identity of the mysterious god in the poem The God Abandons Antony (πολείπειν ὁ θεὸς Ἀντώνιον). By combining George Seferis’ critical prose work (Dokimes) with the surviving historical and archaeological evidence for Mark Antony’s close associations with Herakles I contend that Herakles makes a more suitable candidate than Dionysus (as it has been argued by most scholars). In this light, Antony’s abandonment by the god becomes a telling metaphor not only for his personal shortcomings, but more importantly for the loss of his Roman identity.

My examination of the Heraklean presence in the work of Yannis Ritsos is restricted to his poem collections entitled Repetitions A, B and C, which were written in exile during the Colonels’ Junta (1967-74). Despite the anti-heroic tenor of the poetry in question Herakles receives surprisingly numerous references. Ritsos embarks on a systematic degradation of the great Greek hero. His aim is rather to humanize everything that is inherently alien and remote in the Heraklean myth and bring the hero once again down to the level of mortals. Herakles appears as an ordinary, suffering man, a ‘comrade’ with equal share in the communal fate. Detached from his glorious mythical past he ultimately becomes an embodiment of a now-lost heroism, a symbol of the vanity of heroic glory within the wider context of the vanity of human life.