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I am reading James Scully's translation of Philoktetes (also known as Philoctetes), in The Complete Plays of Sophocles, translated by Robert Bagg & James Scully. There was a stage direction which I found confusing (all orthography original):

PHILOKTETES
You, you're the worst of the worst.
Them? Force ME!?

ODYSSEUS
If ... you don't come quietly.

Burst of light, fading. Distant rumbling.

PHILOKTETES
O Lemnos—and you, O shooting flame
worked up by Hephestos—must I stand for this?
Let that man drag me off?

ODYSSEUS
Look here!
        it's ZEUS!
ZEUS rules here!
ZEUS decrees what happens!
I carry out his orders.
1111-1121

I think that the dialogue after "Burst of light, fading. Distant rumbling." refers back to it, especially the "O shooting flame" bit. But I'm not sure what the stage direction is supposed to be indicating. I suppose there are two sub-questions:

  1. What, in-story, is the "Burst of light, fading. Distant rumbling." supposed to be? What causes it within the world of the play?
  2. Why does the "Burst of light, fading. Distant rumbling." matter? What significance can be taken from it, by the audience and by the characters?

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Scully’s interpretation of this passage is that Philoktetes and Odysseus are offering competing interpretations of some kind of omen, and Scully gives us a “burst of light” and “distant rumbling” as a plausible candidate for an omen that might support these interpretations. So the uncertainty over exactly what it might represent is deliberate.

Philoktetes interprets the omen as the “shooting flame worked up by Hephestos”, meaning an eruption of the volcano Mosychlus on Lemnos, which was sacred to Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths and metal-workers, and said to have been the location of his forge. In the Iliad, Hephaestus reminds his mother Hera that when Zeus hurled him out of Olympus he had landed on Lemnos:

“Be patient, my mother, and endure for all your grief, lest, dear as you are to me, my eyes see you stricken, and then I shall in no way be able to succour you for all my sorrow; for a hard foe is the Olympian to meet in strife. On a time before this, when I was striving to save you, he caught me by the foot and hurled me from the heavenly threshold; the whole day long I was carried headlong, and at sunset I fell in Lemnos, and but little life was in me. There the Sintian folk quickly tended me for my fall.”

Homer. The Iliad, I.585–593. Translated by Samuel Butler (1924). London: Heinemann.

The volcano has already been referred to in the play, when Philoktetes called on Neoptolemus to cast him into it to end his sufferings:

Philoktetes O son, noble youth, seize me, burn me up, true friend, in that fire famed as Lemnian.

Sophocles. Philoktetes, lines 799–800. Translated by Richard C. Jebb (1898). Cambridge University Press.

Jebb adds a note on these lines:

The volcanic mountain called Μόσυχλοσς appears to have been on the east coast of Lemnos, south of the rocky promontory to which the cave of Philoctetes was adjacent. No volcanic crater can now be traced in Lemnos; and it is probable that the ancient Mosychlus has been submerged.

Richard C. Jebb (1885). Philoctetes, p. 130. Cambridge University Press.

By constrast, Odysseus interprets the omen as a bolt of lightning hurled by Zeus. Odysseus says that he “carries out his [Zeus’s] orders” because it was Zeus who ordained that Philoktetes must be taken to Troy to be healed and win the war for the Achaeans. Probably this was a familiar part of the myth as far as Sophocles and his audience were concerned, but it must come as a surprise to Philoktetes, who has only been told only that Helenus has so prophesied:

Neoptolemus How I know these things are so ordained, I will tell you. We have a Trojan prisoner, Helenus, foremost among seers, who says plainly that all this must come to pass, and further, that this very summer must see the complete capture of Troy. Otherwise he willingly gives himself over for execution, if these prophecies of his prove false.

Sophocles. Philoktetes, lines 1336–1342. Translated by Richard C. Jebb (1898). Cambridge University Press.

The role of Zeus is confirmed, however, by Herakles when he appears at the end of the play:

Herakles For your sake I have left my divine seat and come to reveal to you the purposes of Zeus, and to halt the journey on which you are departing. Hearken to my words.

Sophocles. Philoktetes, lines 1413–1417. Translated by Richard C. Jebb (1898). Cambridge University Press.

This idea, that Philoktetes and Odysseus are offering competing explanations of an omen, is quite ingenious. Jebb says that, in respect of Philoktetes’ line at least, this idea goes back to a scholium (a marginal comment in a manuscript), but adds:

We need not suppose, with the schol[iast],† that the epithet‡ refers directly to Hephaestus working at his forge within the mountain. […] Philoctetes has appealed to the local deities of Lemnos. Odysseus retorts that Zeus is above them all, and that Zeus (by his oracle) has given the behest which is now being executed.

Richard C. Jebb (1885). Philoctetes, p. 159. Cambridge University Press.

† See Richard Brunck (1810), Scholia Graeca in Sophoclem, p. 322 for the scholium. ‡ Ἡφαιστότευκτον (Hephaistoteukton) meaning “wrought by Hephaestus”.

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Quick non-scholarly take based on what I feel, not what I know (as of 24.02.2022).

Signs of natural disaster occur in Antigone as well (Creon decrees vindictive measures - gods impose sanctions – strange birds and desecrated altars follow, and tyrannical guy decides that maybe he made some miscalculations). It creates a feeling that these actions violate some natural law. A catastrophe, not disagreement.

Philoktetes in his little world with established rules is shocked when society that abandoned him long time ago now violently reappears and forces him to obey. His world is crumbling. Odysseus explains that in broader scheme of things it’s all right. Maybe doing so is good for society – but why it feels so wrong then?

For a dramatist it is always good to create more tension and raise the stakes. The play isn’t just about two guys having problem with the third one, or how they should win the war – it’s about moral conflict, and this conflict is reflected in the nature of things as well.

So the scheme in my estimation goes like this: conflict about actions transformed by the mention of natural disaster into conflict of relations to gods - which is higher conflict, which is better for a drama.

It also makes it easier to understand why Neoptolemus decides to do the moral thing later.

Russian critic Veresaev once mentioned a short story about poor life of postal workers. The story had clear message: we should raise salaries for postal workers! Good story. And now, continues the critic, here’s The Living Corpse by Leo Tolstoy. The lives of decent people are irredeemably broken because there is a law against divorce. Does it follow from the play that the law should be repealed?

No.

What happens is a little window opens into vast horizons, and we are horrified how human’s life can be crippled by artificial schemes and dogmas. It feels that translator’s choice creates a theatrical effect that opens that window into more timeless and natural. And we can contemplate how people continue to create their pet theories on why they feel compelled to kidnap people and justify violence…

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    This feels more like political commentary than an answer to the question. While there's a place for political commentary, this isn't it; could you please expand on how this is relevant to the stage direction in the play?
    – Mithical
    Feb 24, 2022 at 20:58
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    I think this is an interesting answer — the competing interpretations of Philoktetes and Odysseus suggesting (if only briefly) a more realistic view of omens & prophecies, that is, as excuses or justifications for actions that people wanted to take anyway. (Perhaps not an interpretation that would have appealed to Sophocles and his audience, or at least not in this particular case, but Scully was translating for a modern audience.) Feb 24, 2022 at 21:09
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    OK, edited out contoversial claims, I think that my interpretaion explains how natural disaster from the stage direction relates to the conflict and values. Note that the first answer only explains how characters are arguing about omen, but not how it works for the conflict or the direction of the play. And natural law theme in Antigone is non-controversial, it's even in Wiki
    – b4rtr
    Feb 24, 2022 at 21:15

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