Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mycenae: Perseids and Atreids

Perseus, grandson of Acrisius, is the legendary founder of Mycenae, and root of the Perseid Dynasty.

The Perseids were followed by the Atreids. Click for a powerpoint look at Mycenae and the curse of the House of Atreus.

Much of the Mycenaean religion survived into classical Greece in their pantheon of Greek deities, but it is not known to what extent Greek religious belief is Mycenean, nor how much is a product of the Greek Dark Ages or later.

There are several reasonable guesses that can be made, however. Mycenean religion was almost certainly polytheistic, and the Myceneans were actively syncretistic, adding foreign deities to their pantheon of deities with considerable ease. The Myceneans probably entered Greece with a pantheon of deities headed by some ruling sky-deity which linguists speculate might have been called *Dyeus in early Indo-European. In Greek, this deity would become Zeus (pronounced zdeus in ancient Greek). Among theHindus, this sky-deity becomes "Dyaus Pita". In Latin he becomes "deus pater" or Jupiter; we still encounter this word in the etymologies of the words "deity" and "divine."

At some point in their cultural history, the Myceneans adopted the Minoan goddesses and associated these goddesses with their sky-god. These goddesses, however, are Minoan in origin. In general, later Greek religion distinguishes between two types of deities: the Olympian, or sky, deities (including Zeus), which are now commonly known in some form or another; and, the chthonic deities, or deities of the earth, which are almost all female. The latter were believed by the Greeks to predate the former.

Perseus and Andromeda by Rubens

Roman Fresco

More representations of Perseus and Andromeda here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The missing necklace

Attic red-figure oinochoe, ca. 450–440 BC. Found in Italy.

Something we didn't mention in talking about the curse of the House of Cadmus is the Necklace of Harmonia. It seems that everyone who ever wore that ornament ended rather badly. Here's the back story:
Hephaestus, blacksmith of the Olympian gods, discovered his wife, Aphrodite, goddess of love, having a sexual affair with Ares, the god of war. He became enraged and vowed to avenge himself for Aphrodite's infidelity by cursing any lineage of children resulting from the affair. Aphrodite bore a daughter, Harmonia, from Ares' seed. Harmonia grew up and was later betrothed to Cadmus of Thebes. Upon hearing of the royal engagement, Hephaestus presented Harmonia with an exquisite necklace and robe as a wedding gift. In some versions of the myth, only the necklace is given. In either case, the necklace was wrought by Hephaestus' own hand and was cursed to bring disaster to any who wore it.
So we have another God who's not happy with the House of Cadmus - Hephaestus. But how odd is it that Ovid never mentions the necklace, given that one of the daughters of Minyas actually tells the tale of the enlacement of Mars and Venus by the enraged husband.

Plus, it's got magical properties that would surely enhance a tale:
The magical necklace, referred to simply as the Necklace of Harmonia, allowed any woman wearing it to remain eternally young and beautiful. It thus became a much-coveted object amongst women of the House of Thebes in Greek myths. Although no solid description of the Necklace exists, it is usually described in ancient Greek passages as being of beautifully wrought gold, in the shape of two serpents whose open mouths formed a clasp, and inlaid with various jewels.
It's even stranger if you follow the necklace's history:
The Necklace then went to Harmonia's daughter Semele. She wore it the very day that Hera visited her and insinuated that her husband was not really Zeus. This led to Semele's destruction when she foolishly demanded that Zeus prove his identity by displaying himself in all his glory as the lord of heaven.

Several generations later, Queen Jocasta wore the legendary Necklace. It allowed her to retain her youth and beauty. Thus, after the death of her husband King Laius, she was able to marry her own son, Oedipus. When the truth about Oedipus was discovered, Jocasta committed suicide, and Oedipus tore out his own eyes. The descendants and relations of Oedipus all suffered various personal tragedies, as described in Sophocles' "Three Theban Plays": Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.
The necklace was a basic part of the Harmonia legend -- surely Ovid's readers knew the story. What could it mean that he chose not to avail himself of a ready-to-hand device that would have strung together elements of the House of Cadmus story like pearls? Like the "figure in the carpet" of Henry James, the necklace is made more present by its absence.

Drakon sacer

A few threads from yesterday's discussion. Here's a late Classical image (340 BC or so) of Cadmus confronting the serpent. The hero has a water pitcher in one hand, and a stone in the other. Behind Cadmus is Harmonia; to the right is Ismene, the nymph of the Ismenian spring which was guarded by the dragon:

As we have seen, Cadmus and Harmonia end their days as benign serpents -- their final transformation arriving like a teletyped confirmation from -- the gods? Nature? Fate? -- that his revised view of the serpent, i.e. that it was "sacer" - was correct. His metamorphosis gives his reading a sudden legitimacy that otherwise would still be open to question -- almost like an official stamp, or notarization.

As in a dream, his wish is fulfilled:
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.’
What's curious is that Cadmus is not wishing to become a serpent, but rather to know the truth -- "if" this is the case, "then" let this follow from it. In the world of Ovid, knowing the truth can be literally transformative, but unlike in, say, Plato, it's not necessarily a liberating experience.

Cadmus points up the engima that has haunted his house from the start - the imponderable relation of man, or woman, to "sacer"* - from Actaeon to Semele and even perhaps Narcissus and Echo, the encounter with what is "sacer" has proven to be destructive. It need not always end badly, as Acoetes' tale suggests, but for Pentheus, failure to apprehend Bacchus leads to a terrible transformation.

In this archaic image (550 BC), Cadmus is again fighting the serpent/dragon; behind the creature stands the god, Mars.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Alecto in Aeneid vii

In setting the scene of Juno's vengeance upon the House of Cadmus, Ovid clearly had in view Virgil's great scene in Aeneid VII. The Trojan band led by Aeneas has barely landed at the shore of the Tiber, positive portents are going off everywhere, the embassy to King Latinus has an optimal outcome, so naturally Juno is nonplussed, and summons Alecto.

Before she is done, the fury has transformed Amata, the queen, wife of Latinus, and mother of Lavinia, into a raving Bacchante:

Here's Virgil's account, Kline's translation:
When she had spoken these words, fearsome, she sought the earth:
and summoned Allecto, the grief-bringer, from the house
of the Fatal Furies, from the infernal shadows: in whose
mind are sad wars, angers and deceits, and guilty crimes.
A monster, hated by her own father Pluto, hateful
to her Tartarean sisters: she assumes so many forms,
her features are so savage, she sports so many black vipers.
Juno roused her with these words, saying:
‘Grant me a favour of my own, virgin daughter of Night,
this service, so that my honour and glory are not weakened,
and give way, and the people of Aeneas cannot woo
Latinus with intermarriage, or fill the bounds of Italy.
You’ve the power to rouse brothers, who are one, to conflict,
and overturn homes with hatred: you bring the scourge
and the funeral torch into the house: you’ve a thousand names,
and a thousand noxious arts. Search your fertile breast,
shatter the peace accord, sow accusations of war:
let men in a moment need, demand and seize their weapons.’

BkVII:341-405 Allecto Maddens Queen Amata

So Allecto, steeped in the Gorgon’s poison, first searches out

Latium and the high halls of the Laurentine king,

and sits at the silent threshold of Queen Amata, whom

concerns and angers have troubled, with a woman’s passion,

concerning the Trojan’s arrival, and Turnus’s marriage.

The goddess flings a snake at her from her dark locks,

and plunges it into the breast, to her innermost heart, so that

maddened by the creature, she might trouble the whole palace.

Sliding between her clothing, and her polished breast,

it winds itself unfelt and unknown to the frenzied woman,

breathing its viperous breath: the powerful snake becomes her

twisted necklace of gold, becomes the loop of her long ribbon,

knots itself in her hair, and roves slithering down her limbs.

And while at first the sickness, sinking within as liquid venom,

pervades her senses, and clasps her bones with fire,

and before her mind has felt the flame through all its thoughts,

she speaks, softly, and in a mother’s usual manner,

weeping greatly over the marriage of her daughter to the Trojan:

‘O, have you her father no pity for your daughter or yourself?

Have you no pity for her mother, when the faithless seducer

will leave with the first north-wind, seeking the deep, with the girl

as prize? Wasn’t it so when Paris, that Phrygian shepherd,

entered Sparta, and snatched Leda’s Helen off to the Trojan cities?

What of your sacred pledge? What of your former care for your own

people, and your right hand given so often to your kinsman Turnus?

If a son-in-law from a foreign tribe is sought for the Latins,

and it’s settled, and your father Faunus’s command weighs on you,

then I myself think that every land free of our rule

that is distant, is foreign: and so the gods declare.

Note the forebears of Turnus whom she names:

And if the first origins of his house are traced, Inachus

and Acrisius are ancestors of Turnus, and Mycenae his heartland.’

When, though trying in vain with words, she sees Latinus

stand firm against her, and when the snake’s maddening venom

has seeped deep into her flesh, and permeated throughout,

then, truly, the unhappy queen, goaded by monstrous horrors,

rages madly unrestrainedly through the vast city.

As a spinning-top, sometimes, that boys intent on play thrash

in a circle round an empty courtyard, turns under the whirling lash,

- driven with the whip it moves in curving tracks: and the childish crowd

marvel over it in innocence, gazing at the twirling boxwood:

and the blows grant it life: so she is driven through the heart

of cities and proud peoples, on a course that is no less swift.

Moreover, she runs to the woods, pretending Bacchic possession,

setting out on a greater sin, and creating a wider frenzy,

and hides her daughter among the leafy mountains,

to rob the Trojans of their wedding and delay the nuptials,

shrieking ‘Euhoe’ to Bacchus, crying ‘You alone are worthy

of this virgin: it’s for you in truth she lifts the soft thyrsus,

you she circles in the dance, for you she grows her sacred hair.’

Rumour travels: and the same frenzy drives all the women,

inflamed, with madness in their hearts, to seek strange shelter.

They leave their homes, and bare their head and neck to the winds:

while others are already filling the air with vibrant howling

carrying vine-wrapped spears, and clothed in fawn-skins.

The wild Queen herself brandishes a blazing pine-branch

in their midst, turning her bloodshot gaze on them, and sings

the wedding-song for Turnus and her daughter, and, suddenly

fierce, cries out: ‘O, women of Latium, wherever you are, hear me:

if you still have regard for unhappy Amata in your pious hearts,

if you’re stung with concern for a mother’s rights,

loose the ties from your hair, join the rites with me.’

So Allecto drives the Queen with Bacchic goad, far and wide,

through the woods, among the wild creatures’ lairs.

See also Virgil's rendering of the visit of Allecto to Turnus.

Dirty Art

This image of two griffins running down a deer, from the 4th century BC, was looted from Italian ruins:

More about this in a good NPR story on the often illicit quest for ancient art: 'Chasing Aphrodite' And Other Dirty Art World Deals