In strict terms, the Greek word εἴδωλον (eidolon, pl. eidola) refers to an image-copy of a real being. In broader terms, it can describe phantoms, ghosts, reflections and apparitions alike. Although an eidolon may refer to any apparition of a dead person in the living world, it also describes a very specific type of image: a copy of a living being. There are a number of different ways in which eidola appear in surviving Greek tragedies, and they serve a variety of functions.
The notion of the dead appearing in the world of the living is directly rooted in Homer. The first instance of the world eidolon traces back to Book 5 of his epic poem, the Iliad. In the midst of the Trojan War, Apollo creates a phantom copy of the wounded hero Aeneas, so he has time to be healed by Leto and Artemis:
‘But the lord of the silver bow devised a phantom [εἴδωλον] -
like Aeneas to the life, wearing his very armor’
(Homer’s Iliad 5.449-50. Translated by Robert Fagles, 1990)
The other eidolon of the Iliad appears in Book 23, when Patroclus’ phantom rises to remind Achilles that he needs to be buried so he can cross the gates of Hades:
‘… the ghost of stricken Patroclus drifted up …
He was like the man to the life, every feature,
the same tall build and the fine eyes and voice
and the very robes that used to clothe his body’
(Homer’s Iliad 23.64-7. Translated by Robert Fagles, 1990)
Figure 1: Henry Fuseli, Achilles Grasping at the Shade of Patroclus. CC: British Museum website, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1853-1210-555
In Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus travels to the Ocean River and pours libations to the dead. Their eidola subsequently emerge from the underworld. The phantom seer Teiresias foretells the remaining journey of Odysseus and his crew:
‘Leave the beasts unharmed …
and you all may still reach Ithaca …
… but harm them in any way, and I can see it now:
your ship destroyed, your men destroyed as well’
(Homer’s Odyssey 11.110-4. Translated by A.T. Murray, 1919)
From these instances, we gain three main characteristics crucial to the understanding of the term eidolon, and that we will encounter in further examples from Greek tragedy:
a) An eidolon may refer either to copies of people who are alive, like Aeneas’ double, or to the images of the rising phantoms of the dead, like Patroclus and the ghosts of Odyssey 11. The key idea here is an ‘image’, for there is a different word - ψῡχή (psyche) - employed for the souls themselves. Dué, Lupack and Lamberton explain this difference well: ‘The term eidola implies that the dead are imagined more like images, possessing the shape and appearance of those who once lived, but lacking their substance.’
b) The physical appearance of eidola is significant: Homeric eidola establish the importance of the appearance of these absent images - it is emphasised, for instance, that Aeneas’ eidolon is wearing the same armour as Aeneas himself, and that no one therefore notices the difference. Bardel notes that Homeric eidola seem to be reflections of the memories possessed by the living and serve certain purposes - Aeneas’ image is in his armour because it needs to fight in his place, whereas Patroclus’ image looks like the man that Achilles remembers, rather than wearing the armor in which he died.
c) The eidola that reflect the dead are meant to help the living and advise them. Patroclus’ ghost rises to remind Achilles that he must bury him and move on from his death. Likewise the ghosts in the Odyssey place Odysseus within the many narratives that build the Trojan cycle and provide him with the knowledge to follow his homeward journey.
In Aeschylus’ Persians, Atossa, mother of king Xerxes, asks the chorus to summon the spirit of her dead husband Darius in the hope that he will know how to fix the suffering of the Persians following their defeat at Salamis:
‘Hear, King of Shades, and all you nether Powers,
Hermes, and Earth: send up this soul to light;
For he alone, Darius,
May know, beyond our wisdom,
Some cure, and teach us how to save our land’
(Aeschylus’ Persians 628-32. Translated by Philip Vellacott, 1961)
When he appears, he does so as a solemn, powerful entity, and his function in the play is to give counsel to the agonising Persians. Aguirre notes that his omniscient knowledge is characteristic of Homeric eidola - indeed, the ghosts of Odyssey 11 give Odysseus advice about what is to come on his journey. It is intriguing that Darius does not seem to know what has happened to Xerxes and the troops at Salamis, in a similar way that the ghosts of the Odyssey do not seem to remember Odysseus. His speeches and advice onwards nevertheless recall the Homeric notion of the wisdom of the dead.
Clytemnestra’s eidolon in the Eumenides is portrayed rather differently. In the final play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, we see Orestes being relentlessly pursued by the Furies. Through Apollo’s intervention, Orestes is able to briefly escape when they fall asleep. At this point, the eidolon of Clytemnestra intervenes, waking the Furies in a state of anger.
Figure 2: John Flaxman: The Ghost of Clytemnestra Arousing the Furies, 1792-94. CC: Royal Academy
Her appearance is brief - it covers only 45 lines - but it is extremely vital to the continuity of the play. Her apparition serves to emphasise Orestes’ crime and its gravity: not only has he murdered her in revenge, but she is also being shamed by the dead.
The nature of her apparition is very different from the eidola that have seen so far: she is not there to help her family, neither is she even wanted in the world of the living. She is not a figure of wisdom and advice - she appears with a cry for vengeance. Clytemnestra’s eidolon is a precursor for a very common stock character in modern ghost stories: the vengeful ghost. Like the eidolon of Darius, Clytemnestra causes a great deal of trouble to the characters that see her:
‘The reproach that came to me in my dreams
struck me, like a charioteer
gripping his goad,
up into my vitals, up into my liver!
I can feel a painful, a very painful, icy sting,
as if from a brutal public scourger’
(Aeschylus’ Eumenides 155-61. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein, 2009)
The case of the Helen
Euripides’ play, based on Stesichorus’ version of the myth, claims that the Helen captured by Paris is just an ‘astral-image’ of the real one, who has hidden away by Hermes in Egypt until the end of the Trojan War. Unlike with Darius in the Persians and Clytemnestra in the Eumenides, the phantom of Helen does not directly appear as a character in Euripides’ Helen. However, the existence of Helen’s eidolon is the foundation for the development of the play.
In contrast to eidola which come back from the dead to serve a purpose, Helen’s eidolon is like Aeneas’ copy in Iliad 5: she was created by the gods to keep the real one safe. The existence of this eidolon is an incredibly powerful statement. The capture of Helen by Paris is the event that triggered the Trojan war, but Euripides’ version of the myth removes the participation of Helen. The war at Troy, all of a sudden, happens over a mere copy, equal in appearance to the real Helen but, ultimately, devoid of substance.
‘You and your husband had your share of troubles, you in your reputation, he in the toils of war. For all his efforts he got nothing at the time.’
(Euripides’ Helen 716-8. Translated by David Kovacs, 2002)
Ten years of war, suffering, and deaths, for nothing. Helen’s eidolon is vital to the general anti-war position of the play and its descriptions of the horrors of war become all the more powerful.
As we have seen, the term eidolon can be translated as ‘image’ or ‘likeness’. It originates in Homer and acquires various forms in Greek tragedy, particularly in the examples of Persians, Eumenides, and Helen. It is used to describe the dead who briefly come back to the world of the living, but may at the same time describe looser concepts such as false illusions and copies. The presence of eidola are vital to the plot progression and core messages of these tragic plays.
Aguirre, M. ‘Fantasmas trágicos: algunas observaciones sobre su papel, aparición en escena e iconografía’. Cuadernos de Filología Clásica. Estudios Griegos e Indoeuropeos, 16. 2006. pp. 107-20
Bardel, R. ‘Eidola in epic, tragedy and vase-painting’ in N. Keith Rutter and B. A. Sparkes (eds.) Word and Image in Ancient Greece. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2000. pp. 140-60
Dué, C., Lupack, S., & Lamberton, R. ‘Afterlife in Homer’ in C. Pache (ed.), The Cambridge Guide to Homer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2020. pp. 287-92
Eidinow, E. ‘Ghosts’, Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2016.