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Word of Art: Hamartia

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Hamartia (n.) - A tragic flaw

 

It's an old Greek word shot into English by way of that old walking philosopher Aristotle. It comes from the old Greek word “to err” or “to make a mistake.” Aristotle coined the word specifically as a tool of literary criticism to describe dramatic works, like Oedipus Rex. So what’s the deal with that play? It’s a tragic play full of tragic flaws, and that’s exactly what a hamartia is. A hamartia is that one thing about us, that, no matter how hard we try, will carry us towards a terrible fate.

 

Thanks, you ancient Greeks, for the uplifting word. Anyway, perhaps the best place to see (and to use) the word hamartia is by looking at works inspired by the ancient world. Let’s take a brief dive into the mythic.

 

Oedipus and the SphinxJean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

 

Oedipus, the classic example of hamartia. The guy who murders his father, takes over his family’s kingdom, and marries his mom while none the wiser. His fatal flaw is somewhere between never being able to make the right decision and the hubris to think that he won’t fulfill the gods's prophecy that he’d kill his dad and marry his mom. What a rough break. The guy in the back of this painting seems to be shouting “Hey, man! Come on, man! Stop this before it gets too late! Listen to the gods, man.” Oedipus’ response: “What am I without hamartia?”

 

Apollo and DaphneGian Lorenzo Bernini

 

Here’s another sad one. Apollo falls in love with Daphne, advancing on her so aggressively to the point where she is forced to plead to her father for help. The father, for some reason, turns her into a laurel bush. The fatal flaw, here, at least for Apollo, is that he was not able to control his love. Because he let it run without inhibition, it forced Daphne to seek an extreme recourse and he forever lost his beloved.

 

Other classic examples include Hamlet, Jay Gatsby, and Severus Snape. Even Elsa from Frozen could be considered to have a hamartia. If only she let others love her, and for her to love herself, she wouldn’t have suffered so much.

If you still feel confused, it is essentially the same thing as an Achilles heel: a vulnerable character defect that leads us to a severe downfall.

Be safe out there, folks.

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Matt Marcure

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