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.

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