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Laocoön

[ley-ok-oh-on]
Laocoön (Λαοκόων [laok'ooːn], usual English pronunciation [leɪ'ɒkəʊɒn]), the son of Acoetes was a Trojan priest of Poseidon, or of Apollo, whose rules he had defied by marrying and having sons or had committed an impiety by having sex with his wife in the presence of a cult image in a sanctuary; his minor role in the Epic Cycle narrating the Trojan War was of warning the Trojans in vain against accepting the Trojan Horse from the Greeks — "A deadly fraud is this," he said, "devised by the Achaean chiefs! — and for his subsequent divine execution by two serpents sent to Troy across the sea from the island of Tenedos, where the Greeks had temporarily camped.

Laocoön warned his fellow Trojans against the wooden horse presented to the city by the Greeks. In the Aeneid, Virgil gives Laocoön the famous line Equo ne credite, Teucri / Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes, or "Do not trust the Horse, Trojans / Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts." This line is the source of the saying: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

The most detailed description of Laocoön's grisly fate was provided by Quintus Smyrnaeus in Posthomerica, a later, literary version of events following the Iliad. Virgil employed the motif in the Aeneid; the Trojans, according to Virgil, disregarded his advice, however, and were taken in by the deceitful testimony of Sinon; in his resulting anger Laocoön threw his spear at the Horse. Minerva, who was supporting the Greeks, at this moment sent sea-serpents to strangle Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. "Laocoön, ostensibly sacrificing a bull to Neptune on behalf of the city (lines 201ff.), becomes himself the tragic victim, as the simile (lines 223-24) makes clear. In some sense, his death must be symbolic of the city as a whole," S.V. Tracy notes. According to the Hellenistic poet Euphorion of Chalcis, Laocoon is in fact punished for procreating upon holy ground sacred to Poseidon; only unlucky timing caused the Trojans to misinterpret his death as punishment for striking the Horse, which they bring into the city with disastrous consequences. The episode furnished the subject of Sophocles' lost tragedy, Laocoön.

In Aeneid Virgil describes the circumstances of Laocoön's death:

From the Aeneid

Ille simul manibus tendit divellere nodos
perfusus sanie vittas atroque veneno,
clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
qualis mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus et incertam excussit cervice securim.
Literal English translation:

At the same time he stretched forth to tear the knots with his hands
his fillets soaked with saliva and black venom
at the same time he lifted to heaven horrendous cries:
like the bellowing when a wounded bull has fled from the altar
and has shaken the ill-aimed axe from its neck.
John Dryden's translation:

With both his hands he labors at the knots;
His holy fillets the blue venom blots;
His roaring fills the flitting air around.
Thus, when an ox receives a glancing wound,
He breaks his bands, the fatal altar flies,
And with loud bellowings breaks the yielding skies.

The death of Laocoön was famously depicted in a much-admired marble Lacoön and His Sons, attributed by Pliny the Elder to the Rhodian sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus), which stands in the Vatican Museums, Rome. Copies have been executed by various artists, notably Baccio Bandinelli. These show the complete sculpture (with conjectural reconstructions of the missing pieces) and can be seen in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and in front of the Archaeological Museum, Odessa, Ukraine, amongst others.

The marble Laocoön provided the central image for Lessing's Laocoön, 1766, an aesthetic polemic directed again Winckelmann and the comte de Caylus. Daniel Albright reengages the role of the figure of Laocoön in aesthetic thought in his book Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Literature, Music, and Other Arts.

In addition to other literary references, John Barth employs a bust of Laocoön in his novella, The End of the Road. Laocoön "and her two sons" appear in the R.E.M. song, "Laughing," on "Murmur." The marble's pose is parodied in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath.

Classical sources

Arctinus, OCT Homer 5.107.23; pseudo-Apollodorus, Epitome 5.18; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1.48.2; Petronius 89; Servius on Aeneid 2.201; Hyginus, Fabula 135; Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica 12.445ff; John Tzetzes, Ad Lycophron'' 347.

Notes

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