Monday, May 30, 2011

A few Dionysian strands

In Metamorphoses 3, Acoetes tells Pentheus of his first sight of Dionysus:
he led a boy, with the beauty of a virgin girl, along the shore, a prize, or so he thought, that he had found in a deserted field. The boy seemed to stumble, heavy with wine and sleep, and could scarcely follow. I examined his clothing, appearance and rank, and I saw nothing that made me think him mortal. And I felt this and said it to my companions ‘I do not know what god is in that body, but there is a god within!

Et sensi et dixi sociis: "Quod numen in isto
corpore sit, dubito; sed corpore numen in isto est."

3rd Century AD Greco-Buddhist image of Dionysian revelry from Gandhara.

The above image testifies to the power of the Dionysian, carried by the armies of Alexander the Great from Greece to the Ganges. (Ariadne is sitting on the god's lap.) For Ovid, the god is critical to the destiny of Thebes and, as his tale of Pentheus suggests, this fate involves the terrible consequences attendant upon the repression, or negation, of Dionysus.

We have seen the importance Nietzsche assigned to the Dionysian in his Birth of Tragedy:
Even under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness. In the German Middle Ages, too, singing and dancing crowds, ever increasing in number, whirled themselves from place to place under this same Dionysian impulse. . .. There are some who, from obtuseness or lack of experience, turn away from such phenomena as from "folk-diseases," with contempt or pity born of consciousness of their own "healthy-mindedness." But of course such poor wretches have no idea how corpselike and ghostly their so-called "healthy-mindedness" looks when the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers roars past them. (Walter Kaufman translation)
For Nietzsche, a key constituent of the Dionysian was the confounding of the individual -- a total loss of Apollonian clarity and distinction -- in the drunkenly immersive abandon of Bacchic revelry:
If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication.
It may reward attention to look at how Ovid handles this polarity. Certainly there is an opposition of the proud, solitary Pentheus to the fury of the many worshippers of all ages and classes, who are so possessed that they do not even recognize the individual king whom they tear apart.

Carl Jung took a very different approach to Dionysus. At least this is suggested by his description in a 1910 letter to Freud of how he envisioned the mission of psychoanalysis:
I imagine a far finer and more comprehensive task for [psychoanalysis] than alliance with an ethical fraternity. I think we must give it time to infiltrate into people from many centers, to revivify among intellectuals a feeling for symbol and myth, ever so gently to transform Christ back into the soothsaying God of the vine, which he was, and in this way absorb those ecstatic instinctual forces of Christianity for the one purpose of making the cult and the sacred myth what they once were—a drunken feast of joy where man regained the ethos and holiness of an animal. That was the beauty and purpose of classical religion.
(Quoted in Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, 71.)
Where Nietzsche writes of the terrifying bliss of Dionysus, Jung speaks of the promise of pagan myth to "ever so gently transform Christ."

Then there's Titian's extraordinary evocation of Dionysus discovering Ariadne, the painting that apparently inspired Keats's vision of "Bacchus and his pards" (click to enlarge):

The painting has inspired various interpretations. It portrays the moment that Dionysus, leading his revelers, some of whom are carrying parts of a body, finds and falls in love with Ariadne, abandoned on the shores of Naxos by Theseus. Theseus (in the ship at left) is heading back to Athens after having threaded the labyrinth and destroyed the Minotaur with her help. Dionysus discovers Ariadne and eventually crowns her with a constellation. Some have suggested that a memory of the strong womanly world of Crete lives in this story in which the daughter of Minos is taken as bride by the god whom Pentheus finds effeminate. Ariadne is believed by some (e.g., Kerenyi) to have been the "great goddess of Crete."

Incidentally, some versions of the story say Theseus was not trying to abandon her. Ovid doesn't tell this tale in Metamorphoses [add: he alludes to it in Meta. 8.169 ff] , but in his Heroides, Ariadne clearly believes she has been thrown aside by this Athenian hero who has used her and now has new adventures on his mind:

you, the victor who retraced your steps, would have died

in the winding labyrinth, unless guided by the thread I gave you,

Then, you said to me: ‘I swear by the dangers overcome,

that you’ll be mine while we both shall live.’

We live, and I’m not yours, Theseus, if you still live,

I’m a woman buried by the fraud of a lying man.

Titian Translating Ovid

Professor Meineck ends his lectures on Roman Mythology with a long look down the ages, with special mention of Ovid as the carrier of tales to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He tells an amusing story of how in the Ovide moralisé, a French interpretive guide to Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of Apollo and Daphne is converted, literally, into an allegory of the Christian God and the Virgin Mary.

Another great translator of Ovid is, of course, Titian. Lucien Freud has called Titian's images inspired by scenes from Metamorphoses "simply the most beautiful pictures in the world."

Titian called his images from the Metamorphoses the Poesie. I came across a scholarly study of the Poesie that suggests Titian transformed Ovid's images in ways that emphasis male dominance, even in his treatment of the story of Actaeon:

Actaeon surprising Diana


The Rape of Europa

(Thanks to Arline for the images of Actaeon.)

Serpent-born Man of Sorrows

It should be said early on that Book 3 of Metamorphoses is largely about coming to terms with the Dionysian. This strange, late-born god, a descendant of the line of Cadmus, turns out to be pivotal to the fate of the House of the son of Agenor, and to his mighty city, Thebes.

So as we read the tales that follow the scene of Cadmus and the Serpent, we should be thinking about how they relate to the central antagonism of the book. This antagonism comes out in thematic form with the appearance of Pentheus (around line 510), son of Echion, strongest of the Spartoi, and of Agave, daughter of Cadmus.

Immediately before we see Pentheus in action, Tiresias has warned him that his fate hangs upon how he responds to the advent of Bacchus/Liber:
unless you think him worthy to be done honour in your sanctuaries, you will be scattered, torn, in a thousand pieces, and stain your mother, and her sisters and the woods themselves with your blood. (Kline)

The name Pentheus as Dionysus and Tiresias both point out, means "Man of Sorrows" and derives from πένθος, pénthos, sorrow or grief, especially the grief caused by the death of a loved one; even his name destines him for tragedy. Pentheus's son, Menoeceus, fathered Jocasta, making Oedipus the great-great grandson of Echion, and great-great-great grandson of Cadmus.

Pentheus takes his orientation, his vision of the sacred, from his own origins -- origins which, if one has been paying attention, have been in question ever since Cadmus rather mindlessly followed the first pretty cow that came along. Here he confronts the masses of revelers, contrasting their unwarlike, babbling, feminine energy of the masses with the savage, solitary warlike "father" of Thebes, the dragon:
Remember, I beg you, from what roots you were created, and show the spirit of the serpent, who, though one alone, killed many. He died for his spring and pool, but you should conquer for your own glory! He put brave men to death, but you should make craven men run, and maintain the honour of your country! If it is Thebe’s fate to stand for only a short time, I wish her walls might be destroyed by men and siege engines. . .. But now Thebes will be taken by an unarmed boy, who takes no pleasure in fighting, or weapons, or the use of horses, but in myrrh-drenched hair, soft wreathes of leaves, and embroidered robes woven with gold.
We can see this speech as central to Book 3 - the moment when a character, confronted with something radically new, turns back to the sacred tale of the origins of his race and city with which the book began in order to affirm his own racial identity (show the spirit of the serpent), his nature, his way of being in the world.

If we see this as the core concern of Book 3, then the tales of Actaeon, Semele, Tiresias and Narcissus can be read as variations on a theme we could call "losing the self: dangerous encounters with the Other" -- even, or especially, when the Other turns out to be oneself:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Seeing things whole: Cadmus and Serpent, once more time

There's much to observe in Book 3 -- given the famous tales of Actaeon and Diana, Semele and Jove, Tiresias, Narcissus and Echo -- each one is fascinating in itself, and enriched in context with each of the others. Before we get to those tales, one more comment on Cadmus and the Serpent. When the serpent rises up, look what he can see:
Ille volubilibus squamosos nexibus orbes
torquet et inmensos saltu sinuatur in arcus,
ac media plus parte leves erectus in auras
despicit omne nemus, tantoque est corpore, quanto
45si totum spectes, geminas qui separat arctos.
Perseus text.
The snake winds his scaly coils in restless writhings, and, shooting upwards, curves into a huge arc. With half its length raised into thin air, it peers down over the whole wood, its body as great, seen in its entirety, as that Dragon that separates the twin constellations of the Bear. Kline.
The coiled serpent rises, arcs, then looks down (despicit), and takes in omne nemus - the entire grove. Then, as if seen from below by a man, we get a description of the entire serpent - if you looked upon (spectes) the total body of it (corpore...totum), it would seem as big as Hydra, the dragon constellation between the Great Bear (formerly known as Callisto) and the Little Bear (Arcas). Hydra, the longest constellation in the sky, takes more than six hours to rise completely.

So along with the other interesting elements of this tale is this sudden mirroring of gazes, each of which takes in a totality -- the serpent takes in the entire forest, the narrator, extrapolating, gives us the totality of the serpent in the form of a very large constellation.

It seems worth mentioning because at several points in the book much will hinge on how much of a thing one can see, and what happens when one has the fortune, or misfortune, to see more of certain thing than one ought, or, less.

Cadmus gets to see what it's like to see the whole after he's killed the serpent:
Dum spatium victor victi considerat hostis...
Ovid might be playing with considerat here - the word for "considering, studying, looking closely" was often parsed as con + sideris - "to observe the stars," as sidera means stars. This etymology, though disputed, was popular.

So we have Cadmus con-sidering the serpent, now dead and on the earth, bleeding. The serpent is seen, as it were, via two modes of consideration: once by an ideal viewer who sees its totality as if it were the constellation Hydra, and once by Cadmus, who sees the entire body of the serpent as inert corpse.

Nothing got past Ovid. This book will be about totalities, Gods being seen and not seen, humans making judgments about what they see and to what extent they see. Much more will be involved, but here, at the outset, the moment Cadmus can consider, take the measure of, the creature he's killed, he hears the voice of (his) Doom and it is asking him why he's looking at what he's looking at:

While the conqueror stares at the vast bulk of his conquered enemy, suddenly a voice is heard. It is not easy to imagine where it comes from, but it is heard. ‘Why gaze, son of Agenor, at the serpent you have killed? You too shall be a serpent to be gazed on.’
Quid spectas? Why do you gaze? What are you looking at? These questions haunt Book 3, as does the baleful prophecy: "that which you hunt, that which you see as your worst nightmare, and try to kill? At the end of your seemingly blessed life, that will be you."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Vagaries of transmission

We tend to think that literate women and men of Western Europe have had continuous, consistent and unimpeded access to the major, formative texts of the Greeks and Romans, but the case is far otherwise. Indeed, had Ovid not collected so many stories in his Metamorphoses, we would have fewer, less rich renderings of many great tales.

The same holds true for scientific and philosophical works of the Greeks, which for centuries (the "dark ages") virtually disappeared from the libraries and the philological skills of Western minds.

Thanks to Muslim centers of learning, those texts were never entirely lost. In today's New York Times, John Noble Wilford reviews The House of Wisdom, How Arabic Science Saved Ancient knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, by Jim al-Khalili.

As the subtitle suggests, the West owes a great deal to the enlightened Muslim world that flourished during the centuries that followed the collapse of the Roman empire.

If "tradition" means a handing down, this moment marks the survival of a vast portion of Greek philosophy, science and literature thanks to its preservation by Middle Eastern scholars in the 9th through the 11th Centuries, with particular early help from Baghdad:

bu Jafar Abdullah ­al-­Mamun, caliph of Baghdad in the early 9th century, was indispensable to this intellectual flowering. The city was only four decades old but had already become the largest in the world. In this vibrant setting, al-Mamun established an institute, the House of Wisdom, the likes of which had not been seen since the great library at Alexandria. The author compares Baghdad in those days to Renaissance Florence or Athens in the age of Pericles.

At first, the caliph followed his great-grandfather’s practice of pushing his savants for Arabic translations of Greek books in the country’s possession, a legacy of Hellenistic rule for several centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Over the next two centuries, more works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates, as well as Persian and Indian thinkers, were rendered into Arabic.. . .

The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of “lost” knowledge. (More.)
If you're interested in what happened after this detour -- how the Greek works made their way back to Italy and then throughout the rest of Europe, have a look at my essay about Leonizio Pilato, Boccaccio's first Greek tutor, in Peter D'Epiro's The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet.

His countenance was hideous; his face was overshadowed with black hair; his beard long and uncombed; his deportment rustic; his temper gloomy and inconstant; nor could he grace his discourse with the ornaments or even the perspicuity of Latin elocution. But his mind was stored with a treasure of Greek learning.
A copy of the Pilato essay is available here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Footnotes re Cadmus, and Freud on Primal Words

A few follow-ups to today's discussion of Cadmus:

1. The sudden voice that speaks to Cadmus says:
Quid, Agenore nate, peremptum
serpentem spectas? et tu spectabere serpens.”
The second line is a perfect chiasmus. We might also note that spectare - to look at, gaze upon, was related to "spectator," and to speculum, the word for mirror. This book is full of mirrors, doubles, inverted reflections.

2. The line that finds Agenor, Cadmus's father, both "pius and impius" is:
facto pius et sceleratus eodem: : showing himself, by the same action, both pious and impious.
Which leads to (3), the note by Freud on words that can (must?) possess two opposite meanings:

3. Primal Words. I am surprised at how little of Freud's work is accessible online. His brief essay, based on a linguist's work on "primal words," is called "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words"(1910). Here's a very brief note on Freud's paper and on the linguist Carl Abel, whose work inspired it:

Carl Abel was a German linguist known for his research on Indo-European and Hamito-Semitic lexicology, which was published in his Einleitung in ein Aegyptischsemitisch indoeuropeanisches Wurzelwörterbuch (1886).

It was his theory of the "opposite meanings of primitive words" that interested Freud when, after alluding to the idea in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), he wrote an article on the subject ten years later, entitled "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words" (1910e). The theory appeared in Abel's article "Über den Gegensinn der Urworte," which appeared inSprachwissenschaftliche Abhandungen, published in Leipzig in 1885.

Basing his thesis on the fact that a Latin word such as sacer signified both "sacred" and "taboo," Abel proposed a theory of the way vocabulary evolves in languages. For Abel, a word in its primitive state can have opposite meanings, which are gradually distinguished through the progress of the rational intellect. "When learning to think about force, we have to separate it from weakness; to conceive of darkness, we must isolate it from light."

For Freud, primitive words mark a stage of symbolization that precedes the separation of opposites brought on by the reality principle. This cultural phenomenon is comparable to the dream process, which enables a representational content to assume a value as the expression of a desire and an antithetical desire. Consequently, the logic of the primary process is felt in a cultural formation as fully developed as language.

See also here. The paper is listed in the Freud bibliography here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Question of Cadmus

I assert that a great treasury of verity exists for mankind in Ovid and in the subject matter of Ovid's long poem, and that only in this form could it be registered.
~ Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, 299, quoted by Trypohonpoulos, The Celestial Tradition (linked here).

Pound chooses an interesting verb to say how Ovid's Metamorphoses manages to hold, or contain, "verity": it is registered, which etymologically derives from re + gerere, or, "to carry back," i.e., to record, to make a matter of public record.

But how clear, how publicly available, is this record?

In Book 3, Ovid begins the Theban Cycle which will end in Book IV with the destruction of the children of Cadmus.

One thing that strikes us right off is to what extent Ovid's narrative - let's just take the Cadmus episode as an example - provokes questions. First, the opening picks up the end of Book 2 - Jupiter's bearing off Europa - describing an act of revelation:
Iamque deus posita fallacis imagine tauri
se confessus erat Dictaeaque rura tenebat,

And now the god, dispensing with the deceptive image of the bull, confessed who he was, and made for the fields of Crete.
We are told that the father of gods and men shows himself as he truly is, and we fully expect Ovid to continue his tale of Jupiter and Europa. But in fact any apotheosis is immediately suspended (if not simply dropped); the narrative peels off and follows Cadmus's hopeless search for his sister, which leads to his exile and the founding of Thebes. Instead of seeing God Himself, which the Europa story was leading to, we get cows, serpents, a crop of armed warriors (the spartoi), and ultimately, the tale of Pentheus and Dionysus.

Cadmus can't find his sister and can't return home. He consults the oracle at Delphi, and is told to follow a cow that shows no sign of servile labor. Almost immediately seeing such a cow, he follows it to a place where no cities exist, no farming occurs. He sends his men for water so he can sacrifice to Jupiter, and they encounter the giant serpent of Mars.

Let's pause there. Cadmus is on a mission to find his sister, but can't succeed ("for who can snatch the robberies of Jove?"). He is advised by Apollo to follow a free cow, and such a cow presents itself almost right off -- how does Cadmus know it's the right cow, we might ask? Wasn't his sister seduced and carried off by a ringer bull? Cadmus doesn't ask. The cow leads to virgin land, and his men find the spring and cave of the serpent, which rises up and kills them. Cadmus discovers the slaughter and kills the serpent. Athena advises him to sow the teeth in the virgin soil, and up rise armed warriors who tell him to stay out of their civil war (civilibus bellis), and who then proceed to kill each other until only five remain. At which Cadmus and they found the city of Thebes.

Can Thebes say the gods had a hand in its origin? It would seem so -- Apollo provides a clue, Mars's serpent is slain, Athena offers her advice, Cadmus succeeds in building a strong and powerful city. And yet we should not forget that Thebes is doomed. Why would the gods conspire to help this man found a doomed city?

Perhaps we should ask: Are we sure that all here happens with the gods' full OK? Let's tick off a few questions:
  • Did Cadmus choose the right cow, or just the first one that looked right?
  • Why does Cadmus, arriving at what he believes is his destination, proceed to sacrifice to Jupiter? (Jupiter stole his sister, didn't he? Apollo helped him get here.)
  • When Cadmus sees the serpent, why does he kill it, instead of considering that perhaps it belonged there, might be a sacred creature, and ought not be harmed or disturbed?
  • Whose voice asks Cadmus quid spectas (why do you gaze)? and foretells that he too will become a serpent?
  • Athena counsels Cadmus to sow the dragon's teeth, but did she tell him to found Thebes with the survivors? What if the "curtain" of warriors that arise is actually art -- a performance, a "show," for his benefit?
  • If it is a "show," is he supposed to immediately take and use what's left of its materials? Or, as Deucalion and Pyrrha discovered when told to throw their mother's bones behind them, is he supposed to at least wonder whether the oracle was capable of a deeper interpretation?
Whatever conclusions a reader might come to, it seems worth noting that the way Ovid "registers" his treasure of verity, he doesn't spell everything out. The narrative promises then withholds (as with the face of Jupiter, although we'll see the results of viewing him undisguised with Semele shortly); it tells of a world of divine utterances that are not always obvious or easy to read; it gives us charged images -- unyoked cows, warriors who are compared to crops of corn -- but doesn't always tell us what we should "do" with them.

And, it combines vastly heterogeneous stories into an intricate composition where they echo, reflect, invert, and connect with one another - as we'll see with Aktaeon, Narcissus, Semele Tiresias and Pentheus. (Hint: look for thematically relevant motifs of seeing, of the eye, of blindness, and of foreseeing.)

So long as we're asking questions, what has all this -- the founding of Thebes, the curse on the house of Cadmus - to do with Dionysus? Why does a story that begins by diverging from the unmasking of Jupiter culminate in a tragic tale that turns on a blindness to Dionysus?

The registry of Ovid is a treasure indeed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Pindar's Third Pythian (updated)

By chance I happened to look at Pindar's Third Pythian Ode the other day, and realized it offers the opportunity to see how a Greek poet -- indeed, their greatest lyric poet -- handled some of the same material Ovid has been weaving together in books 2 and 3 of the Metamorphoses.

Pindar was claimed by Thebes, and Books 3 and 4 of the Metamorphoses are concerned with the Theban cycle. So admired was he that when Alexander the Great reduced Thebes to rubble, he made an exception of Pindar's house. Perhaps the conqueror was hoping that Pindar's spirit would return to sing of his conquests - after all, according to legend, that spirit did return after his death to share some verses about Persephone with a relative.

Horace defined the way admirers of the Greek poet have seen him ever since:

Julus, whoever tries to rival Pindar,
Flutters on wings of wax, a rude contriver
Doomed like the son of Daedalus to christen
Somewhere a shining sea.

A river bursts its banks and rushes down a
Mountain with uncontrollable momentum,
Rain-saturated, churning, chanting thunder –
There you have Pindar's style...

Anyway, in the Third Pythian, Pindar interweaves the tale of Apollo and Coronis with those of Cadmus and Harmonia, Chiron and Aesclepius, Semele and Dionysus, and even Achilles' parents, Peleus and Thetis:
But she made light of Apollo, in the error of her mind, and consented to another marriage without her father's knowledge, although she had before lain with Phoebus of the unshorn hair, [15] and was bearing within her the pure seed of the god. She did not wait for the marriage-feast to come, nor for the full-voiced cry of the hymenaeal chorus, such things as unmarried girls her own age love to murmur in evening songs to their companion. Instead, [20] she was in love with what was distant; many others have felt that passion. There is a worthless tribe among men which dishonors what is at home and looks far away, hunting down empty air with hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Such was the strong infatuation [25] that the spirit of lovely-robed Coronis had caught. For she lay in the bed of a stranger who came from Arcadia; but she did not elude the watcher. Even in Pytho where sheep are sacrificed, the king of the temple happened to perceive it, Loxias, persuading his thoughts with his unerring counsellor: his mind, which knows all things. He does not grasp falsehood, and he is deceived [30] by neither god nor man, neither in deeds nor in thoughts. Knowing even then of her sleeping with Ischys, son of Elatus, and of her lawless deceit, he sent his sister, raging with irresistible force, to Lacereia, since the girl lived by the banks of Lake Boebias. [35] A contrary fortune turned her to evil and overcame her. And many neighbors shared her fate and perished with her; fire leaps from a single spark on a mountain, and destroys a great forest. But when her kinsmen had placed the girl in the wooden walls of the pyre, and [40] the ravening flame of Hephaestus ran around it, then Apollo spoke: “I can no longer endure in my soul to destroy my own child by a most pitiful death, together with his mother's grievous suffering.” So he spoke. In one step he reached the child and snatched it from the corpse; the burning fire divided its blaze for him, [45] and he bore the child away and gave him to the Magnesian Centaur to teach him to heal many painful diseases for men. 
The doomed house of Thebes, from Cadmus to Pentheus to Laius to Oedipus, hangs over the poet's ruminations:
But a secure life was not granted either to Peleus son of Aeacus or to godlike Cadmus; yet they are said to have attained the highest prosperity of all mortal men, since [90] they heard the Muses of the golden headbands singing on the mountain and in seven-gatedThebes, when Cadmus married ox-eyed Harmonia, and Peleus married the famous daughter of wise Nereus.
Like lightning, Pindar's words to the tyrant Hieron of Syracuse illuminate the torrent of myth:
Do not crave immortal life, my soul, but use to the full the resources of what is possible.

A few updates:

More from Pindar on this story can be found here:

See also:

And also the expression "nail the eyes of crows," which according to Sententiae Antiquae, was "a proverbial expression, which meant in effect that you could beat someone at their own game."

Birth of Asclepius death of Coronis

Monday, May 9, 2011

Philyreius in Ovid and Milton

Here's a poem composed by John Milton when he was in his teens. His deep acquaintance with Ovid among other ancients is apparent in the use of "Philyreius," which means "son of Philyra." One would learn from the Metamorphoses (Book 2.676) that Chiron was sometimes called Philyreius.

Philyra incidentally has her own tale of transformation, told by Apollodorus among others:
PHILYRE (or Philyra) was an Okeanid nymph of Mount Pelion in Thessalia loved by the Titan Kronos. When his wife Rhea came upon their rendevous, he quickly transformed himself into a horse to escape detection. As a result, Philyre birthed a half-horse, half-man hybrid, the kentauros (centaur) Kheiron. To ease her shame, Kronos transformed the girl into a linden tree (philyra in Greek.)
Here's Milton's poem:
Learn to submit to the laws of destiny, and lift your suppliant hands to the Fate, O children of Iapetus who inhabit the pendulous orb of the earth. If Death, the doleful wanderer fromTaenarus, shall but once call you, alas! vain is it to attempt wiles and delay, for all must pass through the shades of Styx. Were the right hand strong to repel destined death, fierce Hercules had not lain dead on Aemathian Oeta, poisoned by the blood of Nessus; nor had Ilium seen Hector slain by the base guile of envious Pallas; nor Sarpedon whom the phantom Achilles slew with Locrian sword, whilst Jove wept. If Hecatean words could put to flight sad fate, the infamous mother of Telegonus had yet lived, and the sister of Aegialeus, who used the powerful wand. If mysterious herbs and the art of the physicians could thwart the triple goddesses, Machaonwith his skill in simples had not fallen by the spear of Eurypylus; and the arrow smeared with the serpent's blood had done you no injury, O Philyreius; nor had the arms and bolts of your grandsire harmed you, O son, who were cut from your mother's womb. And you, too, Gostlin, greater than your tutor, Apollo, you to whom was given the rule of the gowned flock, had not died, whom now leafy Cyrrha mourns, and Helicon amid its springs. You would still live, happy and honored to have shepherded the flock of Pallas. You would not have gone in Charon's skiff to the horrible recesses of the abyss. But Persephone broke the thread of life, angered when she saw how many souls you snatched from the black jaws of Death by your arts and your potent juices. Revered Chancellor, I pray that your body may rest in peace beneath the soft turf, and that from your grave may spring roses, and marigolds, and the hyacinth with blushing face. May the judgment of Aeacus rest mildly on you, and may Sicilian Proserpina grant you a smile, and in the Elysian fields among the blest may you walk for ever.

Latin text here, notes here.

Cross-posted @ the Classics Blog.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


The book that explains ancient stages is A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities by Sir William Smith and Charles Anthon, which, dating from 1857, is a free-to-download Google Book.

Click here for the part where is explained how a curtain apparently covered the painted scene on the back wall that closed the stage from behind. The curtain was let down and rolled up on a roller beneath the stage, thus discovering the scene from the top down.

However, the translators all seem to agree that Ovid is describing a painted curtain being raised to display figures depicted on it, in which case we are to imagine how the heads would appear first, followed by the bodies, then the feet. Anderson says the curtain would rise at the end of an act or of an entire play - in which case, Ovid might be playing with the idea that Cadmus, being pointedly excluded from the warriors' fight, is like a spectator at a play. But unlike that spectator, for whom the curtain rises at the end, this "curtain" of warriors rises at the beginning of his life's drama.

Here's More's version:

as he plowed the land,
took care to scatter in the furrowed soil
the dragon's teeth; a seed to raise up man.
'Tis marvelous but true, when this was done
the clods began to move. A spear-point first
appeared above the furrows, followed next
by helmet-covered heads, nodding their cones;
their shoulders, breasts and arms weighted with spears;
and largely grew the shielded crop of men.—
so is it in the joyful theaters
when the gay curtains, rolling from the floor,
are upward drawn until the scene is shown,—
it seems as if the figures rise to view:
first we behold their faces, then we see
their bodies, and their forms by slow degrees
appear before us on the painted cloth.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book 3:


1. Cadmus & the Dragon
2. Actaeon
3. Semele & Jupiter
4. Tiresias
5. Narcissus & Echo
6. Pentheus & Bacchus
7. Tyrrhenian Pirates & Bacchus

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A recent scholarly edition of the Metamorphoses

Here's a recent annotated edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses by William Scovil Anderson in two volumes. The text is just Latin, with no translation. But the introduction is richly detailed -- much of it can be read on the Amazon site. And the notes are so detailed as to constitute a commentary on the text. The text can also be found - parts of it anyway -- in Google Books.

Books 1-5:

Books 6-10: