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Poisoned chalice etc.

Posted by Bob on April 27, 2008 at 22:20:

In Reply to: Poisoned chalice etc. posted by Bruce Kahl on April 27, 2008 at 12:11:

: : : : What are the meanings of these? A poisoned chalice, rara avis, deus ex machina.

: : : The last one -- machine of the gods -- is here:

: : (b.) The easiest is probably "rara avis," rare bird. It can refer to a rare bird, ornithologically speaking, but you usually hear it used to refer to a person, one who is exceptional, that is, with exceptional properties, rarely found. Although it is neutral in terms of desirability, a "rare bird" is more often good than bad.

: : The expression has been used in English since the 17th century, but descends from a use by Juvenal in his "Satires."

: : (c.) Deus ex machina. The discussion in our archive says that it was used as a theatrical device by the ancient Greeks. Does anyone know if that is actually true? The little I know of the Greek theater does not have much room for cranes dropping gods down from above. Theatrical designers in the 17th century, however, delighted in stage machinery, and the deus ex machina was a real attention-getter, probably coming into its own in the 18th century. In terms of actual theaters (as opposed to movies or television), it may have reached its apogee in the stage designs of Richard Wagner, for his extravagant re-creations of the world of the old Germanic gods.

: : (a.) Poisoned chalice. Literally, one in which the wine (especially of Communion) has been laced with poison. Used figuratively, it is something that appears to be a gift or reward, and seems to be good, but in fact is dangerous or disadvantageous to the recipient.

: : The first example cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Shakespeare: "a1616 SHAKESPEARE Macbeth I. vii. 11 This euen-handed Iustice Commends th' Ingredience of our *poyson'd Challice To our owne lips."

: : The expression is still in use. A more transparent example is perhaps this one, also cited by the OED: "2000 Observer 18 June (Sport section) 12/5 The growing feeling [is] that pole position has become something of a poisoned chalice, the winner during the past 12 races having come from elsewhere on the starting grid." The pole position, the starting position which is innermost or closest to the center of the oval, is supposed to be advantageous, but obviously does not always confer any benefit.
: : SS

: The device used in Greek theatre was a crane. Made of wooden beams and pulley systems, the device was used to lift an actor into the air, usually representing flight. This stage machine was particularly used to bring gods onto the stage from above. Euripides' use of the mechane in Medea (431 BC) is a notable use of the machine for a non-divine character. It was also often used by Aeschylus. So yes it is true that the Greeks used these devices.

We should point out that deus ex machina is now used most often as a metaphor: a writer's weak plot device to suddenly clear up a predicament, a convenient miracle or plot-saving coicidence. It's usually an unsatisfying way to tell a story. It's not just crappy TV scripts either: popular movies often resort to one. (ET tries to escape by bicycles, and when the bad guys get close ... ooh, we fly away. Hey. Why didn't we fly earlier?