Thursday, April 28, 2011

Labyrinth of prattle

As one becomes more familiar with the gossips of Metamorphoses 2 -- the Raven (corvus), the Crow (cornix), and the subjects of their tales, Coronis and the daughter of King Coroneus -- the pile-up of stories -- the Raven interrupted by the Crow, the doubling of birds and names, the curiously similar tales nested within tales -- all these effects tend to foreground the phenomenon of doubling, iteration. The roots of the names -- Corvus/Cornix/Coronis/Coroneus -- begin to sound like the caw-caw of crows chattering. At Bk. 2.531, we have a white raven who's about to be black gossiping to a black crow who used to be white. He's dishing the lover's secret that he's about to tell Apollo.

Crow interrupts to tell his own cautionary story of how he was turned black for snitching on Aglauros, who looked into something she was forbidden to look into (the casket of Erichthonius).

Crow foretells that Raven's words will not gain him any benefits from his master, Apollo. His prophecy becomes true when Apollo banishes Raven from white birds forever.

What's going on here? Here's how Raven's story is introduced:

He was once a bird with silver-white plumage, equal to the spotless doves, not inferior to the geese, those saviours of the Capitol with their watchful cries, or the swan, the lover of rivers. His speech condemned him. Because of his ready speech he, who was once snow white, was now white’s opposite.
The raven once was white and now is, not "black," but contrarius albo - "the opposite of white," which can only mean black, but Ovid chooses the periphrasis.

How did the bird go from white to the opposite of white?

Lingua fuit damno, says the narrator. His tongue got him in trouble, and the word is repeated, a doubling that we can add to all the other doubles in the text: lingua faciente loquaci

This chattering, prattling tongue is placed in clear contrast with the silvery snowy geese who saved Rome, thanks to their vigili voce, their "watchful voice."

The Capitoline geese, which the Romans, though besieged, had not eaten because they were sacred, saved the Capitol by crying out as the Gauls mounted a midnight attack, awakening Manlius and the other guards. Clearly the geese used their tongues properly -- they cackled to indicate a threat. This is a legitimate, lawful use of language to name a clear and present danger. The referential, indicative linguistic mode succeeds, Rome was saved.

When the tongue is not properly used - when the speech is in excess of what is warranted, or slides away from what is intended, unanticipated consequences ensue. In the case of the Raven, he turned the complete opposite of what he had been. As did the Crow. What these chatterers are demonstrating is that certain kinds of saying, uses of the tongue, can set in motion unintended consequences -- turn black into white, or a prophetess (Ocyroe) into a horse, or a hayseed (Battus) to stone.

Ovid's birds are not telling us or his contemporaries something unheard of -- indeed, the power of rhetoric, of the art of speaking and persuading, was the potent art of the sophists whom Socrates kept dueling with in the Agora. The seductive capabilities of the tongue -- which we saw Mercury use to overpower Argos in Book 1 -- lie in its power to lie, charm, delude, transform, i.e., to produce metamorphoses.

Why does this theme emerge so prominently in Book 2? I want to briefly sketch one possible line of interpretation.

Book 1 of Metamorphoses gave us the beginnings of things - the faceless chaos, a falling into an order of elements, the mixing of elements to produce finite things, properties, and life. The life we see emerging, at least for the gods, is a play of amor and pudor, desire and shame, urgent motive, calculated restraint, and imaginative subterfuge. Apollo used all his power only to end in changing a fleeting girl, daughter of a flowing river, into a living tree. Jove tried to hide his own escapade with Io, only to come to a sober reckoning with Juno.

Book 2 opens with the derangement of the sun - an event triggered, once again, by an act of speech, the rash promise of Helios, backed by the oath upon the Styx. If the sun can go awry, anything can, and, Ovid suggests, will go astray.

Let's experimentally take the series of tales beginning with the two black birds, and look at causation.

If the Raven had not blabbed what he'd seen to the crow, perhaps he'd not have been turned black by Apollo. But his tale of Coronis' infidelity (which we have only the Raven's word for) leads directly to the Raven turning black, to Apollo's killing Coronis, to Aesclepius being untimely ripped from her womb and handed over to Chiron. The sight of Aesclepius triggers the vatic fury of Ocyroe, who for her prophecies is turned into a horse, vividly silencing her voice. We might note that Ocyroe's prophetic utterances revealed how her father, Chiron, and Aesclepius would die. Like the birth of Aesclepius, and unlike the Capitoline geese, her speech is premature, and indeed it is triggered by the appearance of the premature demi-god.

Ocyroe's story suggests that prescience is not for humans. It is also aberrant in that it speaks of what is not yet - the opposite of what is - a property shared with the act of lying.

Does the chain of causation end there? The next tale is of Mercury and Battus. We get to it by learning that Apollo was not around when Chiron sought his help to restore Ocyroe to human form. Apollo was not there because he was off pursuing erotic adventures in Elis, the narrator tells us. It's fair to at least ask: would Apollo have been seeking new loves in Elis if he'd not killed his beloved Coronis thanks to a chattering Raven?

So it's at least arguable that Apollo is away, and not minding his cattle, because he was heartsick, or seeking another lover. And it's because he's away that Mercury eyes the opportunity to steal his herd, a theft detected solely by one rustic, Battus. I'll take up Battus in another post -- it's a clever tale with verbal echoes that bring us back to the Raven.

Let's just note that if we accept the causal "plot" here, we have a chain of consequences. of metamorphoses, generated by acts of speech, running continuously from the Raven's twittering to the petrifying of Aglauros.

In each case, I think it can be argued that an effort to simply indicate in the proper manner of the geese goes awry. In a world of deceptive and dissimulating doubles, the power of naming can drift into dangerous waters. We try to indicate, but our prattle makes what is not there.

Lingua fuit damno.

Were Ovid here, he might say: "there's more to tweets than meet the eye."

Unsettling the dictatorial project

As Libyan author Hisham Matar speaks on the tensions between literary complexity and dictatorship, it's hard not to think of Ovid and the "dictatorial project" of Rome:

For a brief time, Gadhafi was seen as a liberator, and he inspired hope in people in all arenas — from business to art. But Matar says that quite suddenly shattered, in one terrible moment.

"In one year [Gadhafi] imprisoned a huge number of writers," Matar tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition. "The revolutionary committee set up a sort of big literary festival, if you like, and then they just captured all the writers, they tortured them, and they put them in prison and that generation of writers spent minimum 10 years in prison."

The festival was a sort of trap to round up the writers and then imprison them all at once. Matar also remembers that Gadhafi sent army trucks to bookshops, and soldiers had a list of books the regime deemed inappropriate. The books were gathered up and burned.

Writers have been problematic for the regime for a long time, Matar says, but he doesn't think that's a unique situation.

"Dictatorship by its essence is interested in one narrative, [an] intolerant narrative, and writers are interested in a multiplicity of narratives and conflicting empathies and what it would be like to be the other, to imagine what the other is thinking and feeling," Matar says. "And that sort of completely unsettles the dictatorial project."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Looking at Envy

Videt intus edentem
vipereas carnes, vitiorum alimenta suorum,
770Invidiam, visaque oculos avertit. At illa
surgit humo pigre semesarumque relinquit
corpora serpentum passuque incedit inerti;
utque deam vidit formaque armisque decoram,
ingemuit vultumque ima ad suspiria duxit.
775Pallor in ore sedet, macies in corpore toto,
nusquam recta acies, livent rubigine dentes,
pectora felle virent, lingua est suffusa veneno.
Risus abest, nisi quem visi movere dolores.
Nec fruitur somno, vigilacibus excita curis,
780sed videt ingratos intabescitque videndo
successus hominum, carpitque et carpitur una,
suppliciumque suum est.

Envy could be seen, eating vipers’ meat that fed her venom, and at the sight the goddess averted her eyes. But the other got up slowly from the ground, leaving the half-eaten snake flesh, and came forward with sluggish steps. When she saw the goddess dressed in her armour and her beauty, she moaned and frowned as she sighed. Pallor spreads over her face, and all her body shrivels.

Her sight is skewed, her teeth are livid with decay, her breast is green with bile, and her tongue is suffused with venom. She only smiles at the sight of suffering. She never sleeps, excited by watchful cares. She finds men’s successes disagreeable, and pines away at the sight. She gnaws and being gnawed is also her own punishment.

Note how this passage from Metamorphoses 2 is constructed out of words for seeing (videt), sight (visa), eyes (oculos), and culiminates in a vision of Envy wasting away through seeing (videndo).

Then further consider that Envy is Invidia, i.e., a "looking into" - the first words are in fact videt intus - and we begin to see how the narrative is acting out an act of looking, or not looking (oculos avertit), at a creature who, instead of being fed by the joy of the eye, is consumed by the act of looking. Unlike Aglauros who looked into the casket of Erichthonius, Athena averts her eyes from this snaky creature (recall, the goddess's shield bears the head of Medusa - another being who could not be looked at head-on).

This scene of Athena at the house of Envy, with its psychological "insight," is clearly one of the set pieces that led to a host of medieval and Renaissance imitators -- one thinks of allegories even up to Spenser's Fairie Queen as Ovidian. It also led to the commonplace that Ovid (and other classical works) contained, as the great art historian Émile Mâle put it, "a dim sort of revelation" (see a bit more from Mâle here).

And here is Giotto's vision of Invidia from the Scrovegni Chapel, complete with consuming serpent consumed, fire and moneybag:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Arrhephoria

The Athenian feast of the Arrhephoria, or "dew carriers" relates to the three daughters of Cecrops:

Arrhephoria was a feast among the Athenians, instituted in honor of Athena.
The word is derived from the Greek term Ἀρρηφόρια, which is composed of ἀρρητον, "mystery," and φέρω, "I carry". (Perhaps not, see this.) This feast was also called Hersiphoria, from Herse, the daughter of Cecrops, on whose account it was established.

Herse pursued by Hermes.

On the Athenian Acropolis two girls aged between seven and eleven were elected to live for a year at a time as arrhephoroi, tending the sacred olive tree and weaving, with the help of other women, the new robe for Athena. Proud parents commemorated their daughters' service by making dedications on the Acropolis. At the annual festival of the Arrhephoria the girls (according to Pausanias), placed on their heads what the priestess of Athena gives them to carry and neither the priestess knows what it is she is giving them, nor do the girls who carry it. In the city there is a sacred precinct not far from that of Aphrodite in the Garden and through it runs a natural underground passage. Here the virgins descend. Down below they leave behind what they have brought and take something else and carry it, veiled as it is. These two virgins are discharged forthwith and others are taken up to the Acropolis in their place.

Interpretation of the festival is difficult because of the lack of sources, but it is clear that the virginal arrhephoroi are chosen from the noblest families of the city and are deployed in a context of impregnation (dew), sexual power (Aphrodite and Eros), and birth (Erichthonios). The word "arrhephoros" etymologically probably means "dew carrier", which at first sight does not help. The arrhephoroi were charged with weaving the peplos (garments) for Athena.. . .

Archaeological evidence reveals that from near the Erechtheion a secret stairway led off the Acropolis past a small rock-cut shrine of Eros and Aphrodite, near which was the precinct to which they were going. They mythical associations of the arrhephoroi are with their starting-point the Erechtheion. Kekrops, the first king of Athens, whose tomb was in the complex, had three daughters, Aglauros, Herse, and Pandrosos. The mystery revolves around innocence, obedience, and fecundity. They were given a closed basket by Athena who forbade them to open it. One night Aglauros and Herse gave in to curiosity, opened the basket, and saw Ericthonios, the mysterious child of Hephaestus. Snakes also appeared out of the basket, and in terror the two girls jumped off the Acropolis to their deaths. The sanctuary of Aglauros lies at the foot of the cliff; it may have been the precinct to which the arrhephoroi descended. Pandrosos, who did not succumb to this fatal curiosity, has a shrine next to the sacred olive tree on the Acropolis itself. More: Wikipedia
Update (11.23.11: I recently came across this book, which goes into the subject in depth:

The Goddess and the Serpent

Apropos of our discussion of Aglauros, Herse, Erichthonius and the snake in Meta 2:

The serpents were considered the protectors of the temples and the chthonic masters of the ancient earth goddess. In Greece the old oracles were devoted to the mother goddess. According to a Greek legend Apollo came to Delphi carrying Cretan priests. There he slew the daughter of Gaia, Python, who was the earth dragon represented as a serpent and possessed the oracle. At Dodona which is probably the oldest Greek oracle Zeus displaced the mother goddess and assimilated her with Aphrodite.At the oracle of Trophonius, Demeter-Europa was the nurse of chthonian Zeus-Trophonios who possessed the oracle.[15] Wikipedia, Snake Goddess

We saw Apollo kill the python in Book I of the Metamorphoses. Many more references here.

On the figure pictured above, see this site.

For one possible historical view of Crete, see: The Chalice and the Blade

also: The Secret of Crete:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"A little hell-hole"

"The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus to a little hell-hole on the Black Sea called Tomis, but his poetry has outlasted the Roman Empire. Osip Mandelstam died in a Stalinist work camp, but his poetry has outlived the Soviet Union. Federico García Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco, but his poetry has survived that tyrannical regime."
Salman Rushdie

Saturday, April 16, 2011

All things Roman, and name lists

A few more sources of varied provenance on ancient myth:

Of course, Theoi.

Prof. Peter Meineck's lectures on Roman Myth

Societas Via Romana - A social site for enthusiasts with forums.

Nova Roma - a site for those truly dedicated to Roma.

A little while back I was asking about the name "Aglauros." Peter D'Epiro mentioned in an email that Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess, believed it means "dewfall." This is indeed how the name is defined in several places, (though one source believes it meant "dweller on tilled land."). Aglauros was also apparently an epithet for Athena, although she preceded Athena as a divinity of the polis of Athens (more here).

Anyway, googling turned up a few sources for the names and epithets of the Gods:

Moonspeaker has large lists of names with translations, listed under the major goddesses:

Artemis Hera

Athena Aphrodite

Another list of names with translations is here.

Graves's great book on myth:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Callisto's home

The Callisto story follows that of Phaethon in Metamorphoses 2.

A few language notes: First, the spelling of her name should be Kallisto (Greek for "most beautiful"). See Theoi for more about her - note that among other things, she was the daughter of Lycaon (or Lykaon). We remember him from Book One as the early king of Arcadia who tested the divinity of Zeus by serving him a dismembered child for dinner (in some versions the child is Arcas), and was turned into a wolf for his impiety.

At one point, Ovid refers to Callisto as "Parrhasis" - "one from Parrhasia" - which was a region in southern Arcadia, in the Peloponnese. Only one suggestive detail is associated with Parrhasia: it was said by some to be the place where Rhea, consort of Kronos, bore Zeus. Here's a description from the Greek poet Callimachus:
Callimachus, Hymn 1 to Zeus 10 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
"In Parrhasia [in Arkadia] it was that Rheia bare thee [Zeus], where was a hill sheltered with thickest brush. Thence is the place holy, and nor fourfooted thing that hath need of Eileithyia nor any woman approacheth thereto, but the Apidanians call it the primeval childbed of Rheia. There when thy mother had laid thee down from her mighty lap, straightway she sought a stream of water, wherewith she might purge her of the soilure of birth and wash thy body therein. But mighty Ladon flowed not yet, nor Erymanthos, clearest of rivers; waterless was all Arkadia . . . And holden in distress the lady Rheia said, `Dear Gaia (Earth), give birth thou also! Thy birthpangs are light.' So spake the goddess, and lifting her great arm she smote the mountain with her staff; and it was greatly rent in twin for her and poured forth a mighty flood. Therein, O Lord, she cleansed thy body."
Another, briefer reference:
"Woodland Parrhasia [in Arkadia], where is still to be found the place untrodden in which primeval goddess Rheia was brought to bed [and gave birth to Zeus]." - Nonnus, Dionysiaca 13.29

Here we might sense a clue as to why Ovid took care to allude to the place name Parrhasia in telling the tale of Callisto: her homeland was sacred to the Great Titan Mother of the Olympians. It was in this rocky, barren place that Rhea, having watched as Kronos devoured all of her other children, chose to bear Zeus. She gave him to nymphs to be raised in secret, handing Kronos the famous swaddled stone to eat instead. Callimachus's description gives us a scene rich in high drama and desperate measures, involving the Titan Goddess's potent maternal instincts.

Parrhasia then is the birthplace of Zeus, and the sacred place where the "father of gods and men" was saved from being devoured by his father. And as we noted, it is associated with Lykaon, who tried to get Zeus to devour a child. This is a doubly sacred place, charged with divine birth, protective maternity, and sacrilegious paternal cannibalism. And, note the absence of water, and how the Goddess solved that problem in order to cleanse baby Zeus.

All of which at least echoes Ovid's tale of Callisto, who is called "Parrhasis" at the very moment Diana suggests they all take a swim:
Ut loca laudavit, summas pede contigit undas:
his quoque laudatisprocul estaitarbiter omnis;
nuda superfusis tingamus corpora lymphis.”
460Parrhasis erubuit. Cunctae velamina ponunt:
una moras quaerit. Dubitanti vestis adempta est;
qua posita nudo patuit cum corpore crimen.
Attonitae manibusque uterum celare volenti
i procul hincdixitnec sacros pollue fontes
465Cynthia; deque suo iussit secedere coetu.
She loved the place and tested the water with her foot. Pleased with this too she said ‘Any witness is far away, let’s bathe our bodies naked in the flowing water.’ The Arcadian girl blushed: all of them took off their clothes: one of them tried to delay: hesitantly the tunic was removed and there her shame was revealed with her naked body. Terrified she tried to conceal her swollen belly. Diana cried ‘Go, far away from here: do not pollute the sacred fountain!’ and the Moon-goddess commanded her to leave her band of followers. (tr. Kline)
What is Ovid up to? For one thing he's gone from Phaethon's searing story of solar fire to a story of lunar secretiveness, aversion to sexuality and childbirth, and shame. Callisto is severely punished -- first by Diana, who exiles her (in other versions, it's Diana who turns her into a bear), and then by Hera, who is jealous of her bearing a child of Zeus. Both of her secrets are revealed (first, that she's pregnant, then, with whose offspring), and this leads to her being put, strangely, in the position of Rhea in Parrhasia. Callisto can never bathe - either in Diana's hidden pools, or, after her transformation into the Great Bear, in the vast Ocean. She's doubly cursed.

Ovid seems to be playing with the consequences of losing balance, of overshooting one or another temperate zone. This is externalized and literalized in the story of Phaethon. It's internalized and emotionalized in the culmination of Callisto's story -- the hysteria of Hera's lament:
‘You ask me why I, the queen of the gods, have left my home in the heavens to be here? Another has taken my place in the sky! I tell a lie, if you do not see, when night falls and the world darkens, newly exalted stars to wound me, set in the sky, where the remotest and shortest orbit circles the uttermost pole. Why should anyone wish to avoid wounding Juno or dread my enmity if I only benefit those I harm? Oh what a great achievement! Oh what marvellous powers I have! I stopped her being human and she becomes a goddess! This is the punishment I inflict on the guilty! This is my wonderful sovereignty! (tr. Kline)
From the paternal, solar myth in which Helios mourns the failure of his overly daring son to succeed him, Ovid's narrative has swung to the plight of a woman suffering the wrath of two goddesses: Diana, the lunar goddess of virginity and the hunt, and Hera, goddess of childbirth, who fears her own usurpation.

It little matters that Callisto neither meant to be pregnant nor to have her impregnator be Zeus. Her exile into the polar sky leaves her, like Io, seduced, transformed, and hounded by Diana and Hera into the restless night.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ovid in America

From my good friend Peter D'Epiro, author of The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet, comes this fascinating "first":

The first literary work composed in English in what became the US was a translation of the Metamorphoses by George Sandys (1578-1644): Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures. He was treasurer of the Virginia Company for its settlement at Jamestown from 1621 to 1624.

Cover of George Sandys's 1632 edition of Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

Treacherous tongues: Aglauros and the Crow

The tale of the three daughters of Cecrops -- Aglauros, Herse and Pandrosos -- appears twice in Book 2. We first learn, from the crow (Cornix), how Minerva gave a casket to the sisters, admonishing them not to look inside. Aglauros nonetheless opened it, and found an infant (Erisichthon or Erichthonius) and a serpent lying side by side. When Cornix told Minerva that Aglauros had flouted her command, she was angered, and even though the bird had been Minerva's favorite, the goddess turned it forever black.

Curiously, the father, King Cecrops, was half-man, half-serpent (or half-fish), and a key figure of legend, since he not only founded Athens, but invented marriage, instituted the worship of Zeus, and brought reading, writing, and ceremonial burial among other basic cultural elements to his people.

The three daughters re-appear a bit later, in the story about Hermes coming to pay court to Herse, only to be extorted by, you guessed it, Aglauros, who demands a large sum of gold in return for acquiescing to the god's desire for her sister. This leads to Ovid's portrait of Envy, or Invidia, which became the reference and touchstone for authors ever after:

There saw she Envie sit within fast gnawing on the flesh
Of Snakes and Todes, the filthie foode that keepes hir vices fresh.
It lothde hir to beholde the sight. Anon the Elfe arose
And left the gnawed Adders flesh, and slouthfully she goes
With lumpish laysure like a Snayle, and when she saw the face
Of Pallas and hir faire attire adournde with heavenly grace,
She gave a sigh, a sorie sigh, from bottome of hir heart.
Hir lippes were pale, hir cheekes were wan, and all hir face was swart:
Hir bodie leane as any Rake. She looked eke askew.
Hir teeth were furde with filth and drosse, hir gums were waryish blew.
The working of hir festered gall had made hir stomacke greene.
And all bevenimde was hir tongue. No sleepe hir eyes had seene.
Continuall Carke and cankred care did keepe hir waking still:
Of laughter (save at others harmes) the Helhound can no skill.
It is against hir will that men have any good successe,
And if they have, she frettes and fumes within hir minde no lesse
Than if hir selfe had taken harme. (Golding)

We last encountered Aglauros and her life blighted by Envy in Purgatorio 14. By the way, both her sisters' names mean "dew," but I can't find a convincing meaning for "Aglauros" - suggestions gratefully accepted.

There's a splendid meditation upon Envy by A.S. Byatt here, and here's another by Joseph Epstein.