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?

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