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.

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