Thursday, June 30, 2011

Odyssey 8: Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus

Homer's version of the tale of Mars and Venus that Ovid tells in Meta. 4 begins this way:

Aphrodite and Ares

They levelled a place for the dance, and marked out a fair wide ring, and the herald came near, bearing the clear-toned lyre for Demodocus. He then moved into the midst, and around him stood boys in the first bloom of youth, well skilled in the dance, and they smote the goodly dancing floor with their feet. And Odysseus [265] gazed at the twinklings of their feet and marvelled in spirit.

But the minstrel struck the chords in prelude to his sweet lay and sang of the love of Ares and Aphrodite of the fair crown, how first they lay together in the house of Hephaestus secretly; and Ares gave her many gifts, and shamed the bed [270] of the lord Hephaestus. But straightway one came to him with tidings, even Helius, who had marked them as they lay together in love.

Helios at the Forge of Hephaestus, Velazquez

And when Hephaestus heard the grievous tale, he went his way to his smithy, pondering evil in the deep of his heart, and set on the anvil block the great anvil and forged bonds [275] which might not be broken or loosed, that the lovers1 might bide fast where they were. But when he had fashioned the snare in his wrath against Ares, he went to his chamber where lay his bed, and everywhere round about the bed-posts he spread the bonds, and many too were hung from above, from the roof-beams, [280] fine as spiders' webs, so that no one even of the blessed gods could see them, so exceeding craftily were they fashioned.

But when he had spread all his snare about the couch, he made as though he would go to Lemnos, that well-built citadel, which is in his eyes far the dearest of all lands. [285] And no blind watch did Ares of the golden rein keep, when he saw Hephaestus, famed for his handicraft, departing, but he went his way to the house of famous Hephaestus, eager for the love of Cytherea of the fair crown. Now she had but newly come from the presence of her father, the mighty son of Cronos, [290] and had sat her down. And Ares came into the house and clasped her hand and spoke and addressed her: “Come, love, let us to bed and take our joy, couched together. For Hephaestus is no longer here in the land, but has now gone, I ween, to Lemnos, to visit the Sintians of savage speech.” Odyssey 8.260 ff

In this Tintoretto, the husband returns home, and Mars hides under the bed. It looks like the dog might betray him...

Monday, June 27, 2011

The teller and the tale

Something to think about when looking at the tale of the Sun and Leucothoe in Book 4, told by the daughters of Minyas. Is this Sun the same as the magisterial charioteer we met in Book 2? Or does the teller have much to do with the substance and form of the tale? If with every teller, we receive a different "world view," a different version of what's real, what is Ovid saying about what we can reliably say we know?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The serpent's titanic curse

That there is something profoundly foreign, obscure and disquieting in Greek art which no longer allows one to speak simply of "griechische Heiterkeit", "Greek serenity", according to the classical formula, this is exactly what Nietzsche undertook to show since The Birth of Tragedy, by making apparent, under the beautiful appearance and the measure characterising apollinian civilisation, the barbaric and titanic nature of its dionysiac foundation, and thus bestowing a fundamental importance to this oriental god that is Dionysus for the definition of what constitutes what is proper to the Hellenic [le grec]. -- Francoise Dastur, "Holderlin and the Orientalisation of Greece"

Contemporary scholarship is still wrestling with Dionysus and his enigmatic place in the otherwise stately, ordered pantheon of the Olympians. Masks of Dionysus (Myth and Poetics) collected essays addressing not only the interpretive challenges of the mythical god, but also his place in Greek tragedy, in art, and in ancient cultic rites. Entire books have focused on "the Dionysian" in modern thought, whether Nietzsche's or those influenced by his thinking. One example: The Dionysian Self: C.G. Jung's Reception of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Paul Bishop. Not only is the Dionysian still hot, it's also pricey -- each of these works of scholarship retails new for over $200.

The enigmatic aspects of the god are in full view in Ovid's treatment of the House of Cadmus and Thebes in Metamorphoses 3-4. Here is Cadmus, at the end of his human life, turning back to reflect on all the tragedies, the patterns, the portents and the horrors of his family tree:
Driven to wandering, at length his [Cadmus'] journey carried him and his wife to the borders of Illyria. Now, weighed down by age and sadness, they thought of the original destiny of their house, and in talk reviewed their sufferings. Cadmus said ‘Surely that snake, my spear pierced, must have been sacred, when, fresh from Sidon, I scattered the serpent’s teeth, a strange seed, over the earth? If that is what the gods have been avenging with such sure anger, may I myself stretch out as a long-bellied snake.’ Metamorphoses 4.563ff
Cadmus is looking back upon his experiences at the origin of Thebes, and is thinking he might need to revise his understanding. No longer was this a natural serpent that he had to overcome. Rather, it was sacred -- like Diana, whom Actaeon stumbled upon -- and he recalls the voice that came from nowhere after he'd killed it:
Quid, Agenore nate, peremptum
serpentem spectas? et tu spectabere serpens.” Meta. 3.97-98
Cadmus is testing a new hypothesis -- that he was not a valiant hero, a bringer of civilization, a warrior whom the gods loved:
And, so speaking, he did extend into a long-bellied snake, and felt his skin hardening as scales grew there, while dark green patches checkered his black body. He lay prone on his breast, and gradually his legs fused together thinning out towards a smooth point. Still his arms were left to him, and what was left of his arms he stretched out, and, with tears running down his still human cheeks, he said ‘Come here, wife, come here, most unfortunate one, and while there is still something left of me, touch me, and take my hand, while it is still a hand, while the snake does not yet have all of me.’ (Kline trans.)
His metamorphosis signals confirmation: instead of founding of a city beloved of the gods, Cadmus had set in motion a series of catastrophic events that were saying, if anyone other than Tiresias (separator of knotted serpents) had the wit to hear it, that Thebes and the line of Cadmus were doomed to divine vengeance because they were accursed. His city would perish. This might help us understand why in this story of the founding of Thebes, we never see the city, only the wild mountain that stands between it and Athens.

The exact elements of the transgression are overdetermined. Was it that he forgot about Europa? Or followed the wrong sow? Or killed Mars's serpent? Was it that he misread the oracle? Or sowed the teeth, bringing new beings into the world without going through natural sexual processes? The absence of sex and natural birth (Juno's domain) marks the stories of the spartoi, of Actaeon, Semele, and Narcissus. (Tiresias on the other hand knows more about sex than Zeus).

And Pentheus -- did martial rigor blind him to the story of Acoetes, and to the child-god of the thyrsus and the dance rave? In resisting the new rites of the god, his own half-cousin, was he perpetuating the curse when he harked back to the origin of his people as children of the serpent father, ignoring the fact that these toothy seeds were sown in Earth? Did he forget the lesson of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who regenerated the human race by interpreting the oracle to say that Earth was our general mother?

Pentheus's repression of the Earth and the mother comes back with cruel vengeance when he is pulled to pieces by the Maenads. Did the unnatural "birth" of Thebes have to come to fruition in this unnatural end to its young King, taken for a wild beast by his own mother? And does the brutal dismemberment crown the mortal king's end with an ironic grimace by uncannily mirroring the dismemberment of Dionysus Zagreus, whose birth overcame his own and his mother Semele's total destruction?

Nor do the relevant questions end there. What does Book 3 say about Ovid, who -- instead of singing the epic tale of the founding of Rome or some other saga that would have celebrated the manly imperial triumphs of the Caesars -- chooses this unnatural tale to present as his first epic narrative? He'll follow up in Books 4 and 5 with the story of Perseus as told by Perseus, which, as Prof. William S. Anderson will show in his careful reading, provokes glaring questions for anyone who expects an epic tale of martial triumph. Is Metamorphoses in some sense Ovid's "barbaric and titanic" anti-epic?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Follow up Links: Dolphins, Zagreus, Thebes, Mycenae

Bell Idol (Thebes)

The dolphin story we were all trying to think of was the tale of Arion, from Herodotus:

. . . the Greek writer Herodotus tells the story of Arion, a lyre-player from Methymna employed by Periander, King of Corinth. Arion is a talented and innovative musician whose performances around the Mediterranean have made him extremely rich. Sailing home from a lucrative tour of Italy to his native Corinth, his crew turn on him, threatening to throw him overboard and take his money. Arion tries to bargain for his life but the crew will have none of it and give him a choice: either lie kills himself or they throw him over the side. Arion, for reasons that Herodotus doesn't really explain, asks if he might sing one last song. The crew agree - after all, why turn down a free farewell concert from the best singer in the known world? As the last note dies away, Arion leaps into the sea.

The ship sails on, but instead of drowning, Arion is rescued by a school of dolphins that have been beguiled by the beauty of his music and carry him to shore. He makes his way back to Corinth and tells his story to King Periander, who cannot believe it. The plot is eventually uncovered when the ship arrives and the crew swear that they left Arion alive and well in Italy.

This image of dolphins rescuing sailors or carrying humans recurs again and again in myth and folklore.

The full excerpt from Dolphins by Chris Catton, is quite rich, with much more about dolphins both in relation to Apollo and to Dionysus.

Here's a bit on Dionysian Mysteries, and another on Dionysus Zagreus.
The Greek Bacchoi claimed that, like wine, Dionysus had a different flavour in different regions; reflecting their mythical and cultural soil, he appeared under different names and appearances in different regions.
And since Metamorphoses Book IV relocates the setting, here's a locator map:

Ovid begins his tale of human cities in Book III with Cadmean Thebes, but in Book IV, after the "batty" daughters of Minyas, as we begin the the saga of Perseus, we're moving toward Mycenae.

Monday, June 13, 2011

To Bacchus

This ode by Horace, composed before Ovid's text, offers another Roman view of the figure of Dionysus. The translation is by A.S. Kline.

Horace Odes Book II:XIX (Latin Text and notes here)

To Bacchus

I saw Bacchus on distant cliffs - believe me,
O posterity - he was teaching songs there,
and the Nymphs were learning them, and all
the goat-footed Satyrs with pointed ears.

Evoe! My mind fills with fresh fear, my heart
filled with Bacchus, is troubled, and violently
rejoices. Evoe! Spare me, Liber,
dreaded for your mighty thyrsus, spare me.

It’s right to sing of the wilful Bacchantes,
the fountain of wine, and the rivers of milk,
to sing of the honey that’s welling,
and sliding down from the hollow tree-trunks:

It’s right to sing of your bride turned goddess, your
Ariadne, crowned among stars: the palace
of Pentheus, shattered in ruins,*
and the ending of Thracian Lycurgus.

You direct the streams, and the barbarous sea,
and on distant summits, you drunkenly tie
the hair of the Bistonian women,
with harmless knots made of venomous snakes.

When the impious army of Giants tried
to climb through the sky to Jupiter’s kingdom,
you hurled back Rhoetus, with the claws
and teeth of the terrifying lion.

Though you’re said to be more suited to dancing,
laughter, and games, and not equipped to suffer
the fighting, nevertheless you shared
the thick of battle as well as the peace.

Cerberus saw you, unharmed, and adorned
with your golden horn, and, stroking you gently,
with his tail, as you departed, licked
your ankles and feet with his triple tongue.

*In Euripides Bacchae, Pentheus' palace is shattered by an earthquake.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Cithaeron, fateful mountain of Book 3

When we were reading the Cadmus episode, a lot of questions were provoked by this curious tale, told with great economy, leaving many things open, undecided - such as, can we say with certitude that Cadmus was doing the will of the gods every step of the way? Was that will so clear and unambiguous, both in its expression, and in the means of its execution? For example, when Cadmus was told to follow an unyoked cow, how do we know he followed the right cow? Such questions linger, and without some clairvoyant Tiresias to help us out, appear to remain unanswerable.

Interpretive issues are not quite so dire with Echion's descendent, the young King Pentheus. We see him roughly shove blind old Tiresias aside; there's nothing ambiguous in his rejecting the new god, or in pouring his wrath upon Acoetes. There's nothing undecided whatsoever in his views, though what these views are based on is far from obvious.

A few things to ponder: Before he's even heard Acoetes' tale, Pentheus is already adamantly opposed to Dionysus. He harks back to the founding of Thebes - to the paternal, martial heritage of the Serpent and of Cadmus, saying "this is where we came from, this is who we Thebans are."
Note: This is what leaders do. They interpret the nation's past to bring clarity to the present. But this turning tends to collapse origin and end -- "this is where we came from, this determines our character, and our character determines how we shall act." In our beginning is our end. Except in this particular case, the origins are peculiar to say the least - combining the act of sowing with the violence of armed soldiers, and lacking, among other things, a standard sexual conception, a human mother, and the normal course of childrearing.
This turn to the historical roots of the city of course takes us right back to Cadmus's journey, his battle with Mars' serpent, and the dragon teeth -- a riddling tale, far from easy to read. (Why does Pentheus so strongly emphasize the Serpent as the Father of the people? We have noted that his father Echion, one of the spartoi, had no mother.)

Speaking of Thebes, why is it that Ovid carefully leaves out any scene-setting that evokes the city? In all of book 3, purportedly the book about the founding of that mighty city, there is not a single detail that says "city." All the action takes place in remote places, at secret pools (Cadmus-Actaeon-Narcissus) or secret rendezvous with Zeus (Semele). Once Pentheus enters, he too is not situated by any word or descriptive item as being in a city. And we know where he'll end his life -- in an open field on Cithaeron, the mountain that marks the border between Boeotia and Attica. Which happens to be the mountain where Actaeon was dismembered, where Echo was heard, and where the baby Oedipus will be exposed. Some say that the cave where Dionysus was born was on Cithaeron. Book 3 is not a book of the city, but of a fateful mountain in the wilderness, where even certain mortals were said to be nympholeptoi -- possessed by the Sphragitides, nymphs who lived in a grotto on Cithaeron (these nympholeptoi were said to possess oracular power).

One might also ask: Why does Ovid give so much space to Acoetes? We learn much of his life, all of it well worth attending to, given that he's the first ordinary mortal - or common man - in the Metamorphoses. Does it seem like a tale that one would easily make up? Or, that a hearer might easily ignore?

Finally, what about Dionysus, whom we never "see" except through the words of Acoetes? What to make of his first appearance as a tipsy youth, and of how he changes even as he's changing those who thought to possess him? What is it about him that might account for, on one hand, the maenads' madness, and on the other, the fury of Pentheus?

Does the dismemberment of Pentheus by his mother seem a fit end to this tale of a royal house born from no maternal womb?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Acoetes in The Cantos

We've noted that Ezra Pound held Metamorphoses in high regard. In Canto II of The Cantos, he channels the tale of Acoetes:

The ship landed in Scios,
men wanting spring-water,
And by the rock-pool a young boy loggy with vine-must,
"To Naxos? Yes, we'll take you to Naxos,
Cum' along lad." "Not that way!"
"Aye, that way is Naxos."
And I said: "It's a straight ship."

And an ex-convict out of Italy
knocked me into the fore-stays,
(He was wanted for manslaughter in Tuscany)
And the whole twenty against me,
Mad for a little slave money.

And they took her out of Scios
And off her course...
And the boy came to, again, with the racket,
And looked out over the bows,
and to eastward, and to the Naxos passage.

God-sleight then, god-sleight:
Ship stock fast in sea-swirl,
Ivy upon the oars, King Pentheus,
grapes with no seed but sea-foam,
Ivy in scupper-hole.

Aye, I, Acœtes, stood there,
and the god stood by me,
Water cutting under the keel,
Sea-break from stern forrards,
wake running off from the bow,
And where was gunwale, there now was vine-trunk,
And tenthril where cordage had been,
grape-leaves on the rowlocks,
Heavy vine on the oarshafts,
And, out of nothing, a breathing,
hot breath on my ankles,
Beasts like shadows in glass,
a furred tail upon nothingness.

For more, though still only a part of Canto II, see here.

(Thanks to Peter D'Epiro)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Some genealogical help

The chart below might be useful in sorting out the relations among various tales Ovid tells in the first five books of Metamorphoses. Clicking the image will offer a more readable view.

Note the name "Agenor" Greek: Ἀγήνωρ, gen.: Ἀγήνορος) is said to mean "heroic, manly."("Belus" is linked to Baal.)

We see the line of Harmonia and Cadmus, son of Agenor, which seemed at first so promising, coming to a dead halt -- the critical moment was the rape of Europa -- not only was she lost to Agenor, but so were all his sons, thanks to his ultimatum ("find her or go into exile"). Interesting to note that Epaphus, son of Io, whom we last saw taunting Phaethon into doubting his paternity, became (with Memphis) the father of Libya, who with Poseidon came to be the mother of Agenor and Belus. Agenor and Beluw thus are genealogically linked to both Zeus and Poseidon.

Belus, the brother of Agenor, married Achiroe. Their line, via Danaus and Aegyptus, culminates in Perseus
, hero of Book 5.

Perseus frees Andromeda (detail) by Piero di Cosimo

Afterthought: In this chart are the eponymous forebears of Ocean, Nile, Egypt, Ionia, Libya, Phoenicia, and Memphis, and the founders of Crete, Argos, Phocis, Thebes and Mycenae.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

To Dionysus

Three Homeric Hymns are dedicated to Dionysus, the longest of which served as a source for Ovid's tale of Acoetes and his crew, who are sometimes labeled Etruscan pirates. Here are the three, only the third intact, as translated by H.G. Evelyn-White:

I. TO DIONYSUS 1 (Greek text)

[1] ((lacuna)) . . . For some say, at Dracanum; and some, on windy Icarus; and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn; and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheus that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover. And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes; but all these lie. The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoenice, near the streams of Aegyptus. ((lacuna)) . . .

[10] [Zeus speaking:] " . . . and men will lay up for her many offerings in her shrines. And as these things are three, so shall mortals ever sacrifice perfect hecatombs to you at your feasts each three years."

The Son of Cronos spoke and nodded with his dark brows. And the divine locks of the king flowed forward from his immortal head, and he made great Olympus reel. So spake wise Zeus and ordained it with a nod.

[17] Be favourable, O Insewn, Inspirer of frenzied women! we singers sing of you as we begin and as we end a strain, and none forgetting you may call holy song to mind. And so, farewell, Dionysus, Insewn, with your mother Semele whom men call Thyone.


[1] I will tell of Dionysus, the son of glorious Semele, how he appeared on a jutting headland by the shore of the fruitless sea, seeming like a stripling in the first flush of manhood: his rich, dark hair was waving about him, and on his strong shoulders he wore a purple robe. Presently there came swiftly over the sparkling sea Tyrsenian pirates on a well-decked ship -- a miserable doom led them on. When they saw him they made signs to one another and sprang out quickly, and seizing him straightway, put him on board their ship exultingly; for they thought him the son of heaven-nurtured kings. They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet: and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes.

[15] Then the helmsman understood all and cried out at once to his fellows and said: "Madmen! What god is this whom you have taken and bind, strong that he is? Not even the well-built ship can carry him. Surely this is either Zeus or Apollo who has the silver bow, or Poseidon, for he looks not like mortal men but like the gods who dwell on Olympus. Come, then, let us set him free upon the dark shore at once: do not lay hands on him, lest he grow angry and stir up dangerous winds and heavy squalls."

[25] So said he: but the master chid him with taunting words: "Madman, mark the wind and help hoist sail on the ship: catch all the sheets. As for this fellow we men will see to him: I reckon he is bound for Egypt or for Cyprus or to the Hyperboreans or further still. But in the end he will speak out and tell us his friends and all his wealth and his brothers, now that providence has thrown him in our way."

[32] When he had said this, he had mast and sail hoisted on the ship, and the wind filled the sail and the crew hauled taut the sheets on either side. But soon strange things were seen among them. First of all sweet, fragrant wine ran streaming throughout all the black ship and a heavenly smell arose, so that all the seamen were seized with amazement when they saw it. And all at once a vine spread out both ways along the top of the sail with many clusters hanging down from it, and a dark ivy-plant twined about the mast, blossoming with flowers, and with rich berries growing on it; and all the thole-pins were covered with garlands. When the pirates saw all this, then at last they bade the helmsman to put the ship to land. But the god changed into a dreadful lion there on the ship, in the bows, and roared loudly: amidships also he showed his wonders and created a shaggy bear which stood up ravening, while on the forepeak was the lion glaring fiercely with scowling brows. And so the sailors fled into the stern and crowded bemused about the right-minded helmsman, until suddenly the lion sprang upon the master and seized him; and when the sailors saw it they leapt out overboard one and all into the bright sea, escaping from a miserable fate, and were changed into dolphins. But on the helmsman Dionysus had mercy and held him back and made him altogether happy, saying to him: "Take courage, good...; you have found favour with my heart. I am loud-crying Dionysus whom Cadmus' daughter Semele bare of union with Zeus."

[58] Hail, child of fair-faced Semele! He who forgets you can in no wise order sweet song.

χαῖρε, τέκος Σεμέλης εὐώπιδος: οὐδέ πη ἔστι
σεῖό γε ληθόμενον γλυκερὴν κοσμῆσαι ἀοιδήν.


[1] I begin to sing of ivy-crowned Dionysus, the loud-crying god, splendid son of Zeus and glorious Semele. The rich-haired Nymphs received him in their bosoms from the lord his father and fostered and nurtured him carefully in the dells of Nysa, where by the will of his father he grew up in a sweet-smelling cave, being reckoned among the immortals. But when the goddesses had brought him up, a god oft hymned, then began he to wander continually through the woody coombes, thickly wreathed with ivy and laurel. And the Nymphs followed in his train with him for their leader; and the boundless forest was filled with their outcry. And so hail to you, Dionysus, god of abundant clusters! Grant that we may come again rejoicing to this season, and from that season onwards for many a year.