Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"et Pegasus huius origo fontis"

As usual, Ovid has woven a thick web of interrelating tales, motifs, parallels and symmetries in Metamorphoses 5. The more we read him, the more convinced I become that one must not only attend to the particular tales, but to larger patterns, as we saw in the story of Cadmus in Books 3 and 4.

In Book 5, it's at least worth considering the pairing of two stories that at first sight don't seem to have much to do with one another -- the tale of Perseus, Medusa and Andromeda comes first (a good summary can be found here), followed by Calliope's account of how the Muses triumphed over the Pierides with their song of the rape of Persephone.

Note that the link between the two tales is Athena -- she's with Perseus until his tale ends in Seriphos, then immediately hies to Helicon to see where Pegasus scuffed the ground bringing forth Hippocrene ("Horse Fountain") the sacred spring. There she meets the Muses. Athena, bearing Medusa's head on the Aegis, is desirous to see where the "child" of Medusa, the winged horse sprung from her blood, touched the earth.
"Volui mirabile factum cernere"
          I wanted to see the wonder made there. 

Urania, muse of astronomy, points out the place saying,  
"Vera tamen fama est,
et Pegasus huius origo fontis"
          But the tale is true, Pegasus is the source of this fountain.

Ovid is linking the terror of the Gorgon's visage and death to the fountain of the Muses, thus to art, song, beauty. And he's not alone. In the 12th Pythian Ode, Pindar follows the same pattern. In this Ode, which celebrates the victory of Midas in αὐλῳδίαan artistic contest of songs with flute accompaniment, Pindar first praises Akragas (Sicilian Agrigentum) as the "splendor loving" home of Persephone. He then turns to the story of Perseus and Medusa to speak of the origin of the song of flutes:
But when the virgin goddess had released that beloved man from those labors, she created the many-voiced song of flutes so that she could imitate with musical instruments the shrill cry that reached her ears from the fast-moving jaws of Euryale
The pattern is clear: Pindar says the "many voiced" music of flutes began in the horror of Perseus's murder of Medusa, and specifically in the hideous wails of her Gorgon-sister, Euryale. In moving from the Perseus-Medusa tale to that of Athena and the Muses, Ovid is retracing Pindar's poetic steps.

What can it mean that music and Pegasus find their origins linked to the Gorgon raped by Neptune and beheaded by Perseus? If nothing else, we might be reminded of Nietzsche's insight, in his Birth of Tragedy, that the bright Apollonian gleam of appearance had its source in gazing upon the tragic realm of Dionysus.

So while reading Book 5, it might reward our time to have a look both at Pindar's Pythian 12 and also at the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which provided a great deal of poetic antecedent matter for Ovid's muse.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The properties of the world

In Miletus, the pre-Socratic theories of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Were these men writing their own versions of Metamorphoses?
. . . before Plato, Socrates and the Golden Age of Pericles in Athens, the center of both trade and innovative thought in the world was Miletos, situated on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey. What emerged at Miletos was truly revolutionary - civilization's first attempt to replace myths with rational thought. In Miletos, the first map of the world was likely drawn, and Hecataeus wrote the works that gave him claim as the father of both geography and history. Once jutting out into a wide bay fed by the river Menderes and surrounded by fine harbors, today the city is a gaunt ruin, isolated by the marshlands that have crept relentlessly seawards, a victim partly of changing sea levels and partly of erosion from the flanking hills left bare by overgrazing:
"From the early second millennium BC, the promontory of Miletos was the home of traders closely linked to the Minoan and, later, the Mycenaean world. Later foundation myths tell of Ionian Greeks from Athens settling there, probably as early as 1000 BC. By 700 BC a thriving Archaic city spread across the headland, soon to be adorned with temples to Dionysos, Artemis and Aphrodite, Demeter and Athena, and protected by a city wall. The prosperity of the city was based partly on a hinterland productive of wool and oil, but more on its highly favoured location as a route node linking the long overland trek from the east, via the valley of the river Menderes, to the coastal shipping lanes which embraced the east Mediterranean and extended northwards into the Black Sea and to the Pontic steppe. Through the port of Miletos goods and people flowed, and with the sailors and traders came knowledge. For those anxious to learn of the world there could hardly have been a better place to sit and listen.
"From about 600 BC, Miletos became a centre of vibrant scholarship - a place where thinkers attempted to counter the colourful mythical view of the world revolving around a pantheon of deities with a new rationalism based partly on observational science and partly on philosophy. The earliest of these remarkable men to whom we can give a name was Thales, active in the early decades of the sixth century. He is said to have visited and studied in Egypt and is credited with developing the belief that the world originated from water and would eventually return to water. His pupil Anaximander (c.610-545) further developed this idea of a primordial element. For him it was not water but apeiron, probably best interpreted as that which is spatially unlimited or boundless. The products of this matter - such as wetness, dryness, heat, cold - in paired opposites gave rise to the many worlds of the universe. Anaximander is also credited with producing the first map of the world, which he envisaged to be a disc standing on a column suspended in space in the centre of the universe. The third of this remarkable group was Anaximenes (c.6oo-526), who may have been a pupil of Anaximander. His view of cosmogony was that everything derived from air either by rarefaction, giving rise to fire, or by condensation, leading successively to wind, cloud, water, earth and stone. He was also the first philosopher to envisage a human soul, which he believed to be a component of air.
"The three Milesian philosophers brought about a profound change in thought in the early part of the sixth century - a revolution that was to set the scene for the growth of philosophy in Athens in the following centuries. While one can discern there the influences of Babylonian and Egyptian thought, what emerged at Miletos was truly revolutionary. It attempted to replace myths dependent on the machinations of the gods with rational thought.
From Europe Between the Oceans, Barry Cunliffe, via Delancey Place.

Monday, August 8, 2011

one eye like a dolphin...

Reading this piece entitled On Reverie by Raphael Enthoven, it was difficult not to be reminded of Ovid's Metamorphoses. A few snippets:

reverie is contemplation’s prehistory, the education of the gaze by the eyes of the soul.
Suddenly, the world before concepts.
Daughter of consciousness and sleep, reverie blends their realms.
The dreamer, unlike the sleepwalker whose consciousness lies fallow, has his head on his shoulders as he meanders on; he’s a daywalker who sleeps with only one eye like a dolphin, drowsy enough to see the unseeable but awake enough to mumble what he has glimpsed.


reverie strips the world of its utility. It borrows the power of narration from wakefulness and the power of divination from sleep, and keeps them vying to suspend the alternation of day and night. Reverie is how one arrives at immediacy.

The whole of the brief piece is here. I'll be curious whether you also get an Ovidian "vibe."

Sunday, August 7, 2011

. . . that faire field of Enna . . .

There's something about the Persephone myth that brings out an intense response from later poets, especially Dante, who imaged his Matilda in the garden of Eden as an eternally inviolate Proserpina, and of course Milton in Paradise Lost IV:

Not that faire field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flours
Her self a fairer Floure by gloomie Dis [ 270 ]
Was gatherd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world;

Shelley took some pains to render Dante's lines from Purgatorio 32:

A solitary woman! and she went _40
Singing and gathering flower after flower,
With which her way was painted and besprent.

'Bright lady, who, if looks had ever power
To bear true witness of the heart within,
Dost bask under the beams of love, come lower _45

Towards this bank. I prithee let me win
This much of thee, to come, that I may hear
Thy song: like Proserpine, in Enna's glen,

Thou seemest to my fancy, singing here
And gathering flowers, as that fair maiden when _50
She lost the Spring, and Ceres her, more dear.

Ovid may have seen Enna and the Lake that he says opened to allow Dis's chariot, bearing Ceres' daughter, access to the Underworld. Enna had been an essentially impregnable fortress from ancient times, due to its unusual situation:
Enna is situated near the center of the island; whence the Roman writer Cicero called it Mediterranea maxime, reporting that it was within a day's journey of the nearest point on all the three coasts. The peculiar situation of Enna is described by several ancient authors, and is indeed one of the most remarkable in Sicily. The ancient city was placed on the level summit of a gigantic hill, so lofty as almost to deserve to be called a mountain, and surrounded on all sides with precipitous cliffs almost wholly inaccessible, except in a very few spots which are easily defended, abundantly supplied with water which gushes from the face of the rocks on all sides, and having a fine plain or table land of about 5 km in circumference on the summit, it forms one of the most remarkable natural fortresses in the world.

Wikipedia goes on to say of Enna:

In historical times it became renowned in Sicily and Italy for the cult of the goddess Demeter (the Roman Ceres), whose grove in the neighborhood was known as the umbilicus Siciliae ("The navel of Sicily"); the origin of the toponym Henna remains obscure.

Ovid's Lake "Pergus," where spring was forever until it wasn't, was near Enna:
The neighborhood of Enna is celebrated in mythological story as the place whence Proserpine was carried off by Pluto.[1] The exact spot assigned by local tradition as the scene of this event was a small lake surrounded by lofty and precipitous hills, about 8 km from Enna, the meadows on the banks of which abounded in flowers, while a cavern or grotto hard by was shown as that from which the infernal king suddenly emerged. This lake is called "Pergus" by Ovid [2] and Claudian,[3]

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Origin of Coral

One cannot afford to be naive in dealing with dreams. They originate in a spirit that is not quite human, but is rather a breath of nature -- a spirit of the beautiful and generous as well as of the cruel goddess. If we want to characterize this spirit, we shall certainly get closer to it in the sphere of ancient mythologies, or the fables of the primeval forest, than in the consciousness of modern man. ~ Carl G. Jung, Man and his Symbols.
More than once we've noted that Metamorphoses is more like a dream-book than a wide-awake tale hewn from legend to serve the agenda of history, such as the Aeneid. Ovid's poem seems to hover over some border between the human and, as Jung noted, something that is not quite human. Perhaps we can look more closely at a sample passage to see how this works.

The other day we noted the oddity of how the tale (in Bk. 4) of Perseus's defeat of the sea monster and rescue of the maiden concludes:

Perseus evades the eager jaws on swift wings, and strikes with his curved sword wherever the monster is exposed, now at the back encrusted with barnacles, now at the sides of the body, now where the tail is slenderest, ending fishlike. The beast vomits seawater mixed with purplish blood. The pinions grow heavy, soaked with spray. Not daring to trust his drenched wings any further, he sees a rock whose highest point stands above quiet water, hidden by rough seas. Resting there, and holding on to the topmost pinnacle with his left hand, he drives his sword in three or four times, repeatedly.

Given the nature of the story -- furious combat motivated by love for the young maiden Andromeda threatened by the sea-monster -- every expectation is that the hero will at least courteously approach the girl, the "prize and cause of his efforts" and perhaps receive a chaste kiss -- some sort of romantic moment of recognition.

Instead, the sightline of the narrator goes insensibly past all that "human interest" to fix upon certain seemingly irrelevant details pertaining to the care and tender handling of Medusa's head, leading in turn to a seemingly unrelated "cause," an explanation of the origin of coral:

The shores, and the high places of the gods, fill with the clamor of applause. Cassiope and Cepheus rejoice, and greet their son-in-law, acknowledging him as the pillar of their house, and their deliverer. Released from her chains, the girl comes forward, the prize and the cause of his efforts. He washes his hands, after the victory, in seawater drawn for him, and, so that Medusa’s head, covered with its snakes, is not bruised by the harsh sand, he makes the ground soft with leaves, and spreads out plants from below the waves, and places the head of that daughter of Phorcys on them. The fresh plants, still living inside, and absorbent, respond to the influence of the Gorgon’s head, and harden at its touch, acquiring a new rigidity in branches and fronds. And the ocean nymphs try out this wonder on more plants, and are delighted that the same thing happens at its touch, and repeat it by scattering the seeds from the plants through the waves. Even now corals have the same nature, hardening at a touch of air, and what was alive, under the water, above water is turned to stone. Kline, 4.730-52

What fascinates the nymphae and the narrator is something that is mirabile, i.e., marvellous: the virga -- plants that are soft and alive beneath the surface of the water -- turn to stone upon contact with air. Within our "human" scheme of things, air gives life, makes our organic life possible. But here is something quite otherwise. Ovid is fascinated with thresholds between realms, and what happens when, as things cross over, they metamorphose.

Earlier we noted the motif of things either turning into stone or rising into the air coming into play in the transition from the Cadmus legend to that of Perseus. In Book 5, Perseus is about to turn a few hundred enemies, supporters of Phineus, his rival for Andromeda, into stone. The narrator is fascinated with this transformation. Here's Eryx, one of them, turning:

Eryx rebuked them, saying, ‘Lack of courage, not the power of the Gorgon, freezes you. Rush in with me and knock this youth and his magic weapon to the ground!’ He had started his rush, but the floor held his feet fast, and there he stayed, unmoving stone, a fully-armed statue. ##
Ovid's word which most translate as "statue" here is imago -- image. In other places, those hastening to kill Perseus are frozen into simulacra. Whatever else Metamorphoses is about, it is about things and images of things, and the metamorphic powers in between.

Perseus and the Graiai

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sea-foam and stars

Ovid's Graiai, daughters of Phorkys, are part of a cluster of entities linked to the sea. Indeed, according to sources, Phorkys was
an ancient sea-god who presided over the hidden dangers of the deep. He and his wife Keto were also the gods of all the large creatures which inhabited the depths of the sea. Keto's name means the "whale" or "sea-monster" ... Their children were dangerous sea-monsters : Skylla (the crab) a monster who devoured passing sailors, Thoosa (the swift) mother of the rock-tossing cyclops Polyphemos, Ladon (strong flowing) a hundred-headed sea-serpent, Ekhidna (viper) a she-dragon, the Graiai (grey ones) spirits of the sea-foam, and the Gorgones (terrifying ones) whose petrifying gaze probably created the dangerous rocks and reefs of the sea.

We noted the other day that the story of Medusa begins with the tale Perseus tells at the end of Book 4, the story of a beautiful girl raped by Neptune in the temple of Athena. We have no idea what she was doing there, but the upshot is Medusa is transformed into the hideous Gorgon, and all of this seems to have something to do with the oceanic world.

This might be why book 4 comes to be dominated by the imagery of the rocky cliffs overhanging the sea - which is where Perseus first sees Andromeda, who, bound to the rock, seems like a marble statue, and where he fights and kills the belua, the sea monster.

Perseus recounts how he got to Medusa - via her sisters, the Graiai:

THE GRAIAI (or Graeae) were two, or some say three, ancient sea-daimones (spirits) who personified the white foam of the sea. They were grey from birth, and shared among themselves a single detatchable eye and tooth. Perseus stole these and compelled the sisters to reveal the hidden location of their sister Gorgones. Three of their names suggest rather dire monsters--Deino "the terrible." Enyo "the warlike" and Persis "the destroyer." Another name, Pemphredo, "she who guides the way," simply refers to their role in the Perseus story.
Here's something to ponder: why do the Graiai become the ones who "guide" Perseus to Medusa? Medusa is she who cannot be looked upon without petrifaction. He finds his way by stealing their eye, disrupting the continuity of their vision.

Leaving that aside for now, there are several interrelated motifs (leitmotifs, as it were) going on here at the point where the Cadmus story ends and the Perseus story begins, and we might as well note them now. First, if the Graiai are the white foam of the sea, then they are somehow linked to Venus, who in Book 4, precisely at the moment of transition, at the rocky cliff overhanging the sea, reminded everyone of her birth from the foam, the spuma:

“O Neptune, ruler of the deep, to whom,
next to the Power in Heaven, was given sway,
consider my request! Open thy heart
to my descendants, which thine eyes behold,
tossed on the wild Ionian Sea! I do implore thee,
remember they are thy true Deities—
are thine as well as mine—for it is known
my birth was from the white foam of thy sea;—
a truth made certain by my Grecian name.”

We might note that the existence of the rocky cliffs themselves was credited by some to the petrifying powers of Medusa:

The poet Hesiod seems to have imagined the Gorgones as reef-creating sea-daemones, personifications of the deadly submerged reefs which posed such a danger to ancient mariners. As such he names the three petrifyers daughters of dangerous sea-gods. One also bears a distincty marine name, Euryale, "she of the wide briny sea". Later writers continue this tradition when they speak of reefs being created where Perseus had set the Gorgon's head and where he had turned a sea monster to stone. ##

At this point Ino, bearing her son, has leapt from a cliff into the foaming sea, and everyone thinks they have perished. Instead, at foam-born Venus's behest, Neptune transforms Ino into Leucothoe ("white goddess") and Melicertes into Palaemon, a guardian of ports. We will recall how Ino's servants turn either into stone statues, or into birds. This bifurcation of living beings into either rock (gravitas) or creatures of air (levitas) becomes structurally important in Book 5. But for now, let's note that several key players in the Perseus story eventually turn into constellations, including Keto or Cetus, the monster from deepest Ocean (vide supra).

A few images from Urania's Mirror, a deck of cards from 1825 depicting the constellations:

Root: πέρθειν

Never underestimate Ovid's wordplay. Here's an etymology of Perseus - note that, as in Book 5, Perseus leads to Persephone:

Because of the obscurity of the name Perseus and the legendary character of its bearer, most etymologists pass it by, on the presumption that it might be pre-Greek. However, the name of Perseus’s native city was Greek and so were the names of his wife and relatives. There is some prospect that it descended into Greek from the Proto-Indo-European language. In that regard Robert Graves has espoused the only Greek derivation available. Perseus might be from the ancient Greek verb, "πέρθειν" (perthein), “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”, some form of which appears in Homeric epithets. According to Carl Darling Buck (Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin), the –eus suffix is typically used to form an agent noun, in this case from the aorist stem, pers-. Pers-eus therefore is a sacker of cities; that is, a soldier by occupation, a fitting name for the first Mycenaean warrior.

The origin of perth- is more obscure. J. B. Hofmann[1] lists the possible root as *bher-, from which Latin ferio, "strike". This corresponds to Julius Pokorny’s *bher-(3), “scrape, cut.” Ordinarily *bh- descends to Greek as ph-. This difficulty can be overcome by presuming a dissimilation from the –th– in perthein; that is, the Greeks preferred not to say *pherthein. Graves carries the meaning still further, to the perse- in Persephone, goddess of death.

Persephone opening the liknon of the Mysteries (pinax from Locri, Magna Graecia

Perseus ancestor of Homer's characters

Tracing the lineage of Perseus helps clarify how intertwined he is with the Homeric stories. Like the heroes of the epics, he is favored by the gods:
From the Hesperides he received a knapsack (kibisis) to safely contain Medusa's head. Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and Hades' helm of darkness to hide. Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, while Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus then proceeded to the Gorgons' cave.
He and Andromeda settled at Tiryns:

Andromeda followed her husband to Tiryns in Argos, and together they became the ancestors of the family of the Perseidae through the line of their son Perses. Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons: Perseides, Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, and Electryon, and two daughters, Autochthoe and Gorgophone. Their descendants ruled Mycenae from Electryon down to Eurystheus, after whom Atreusattained the kingdom, and would also include the great hero Heracles.

Looking at just one of their children, we find numerous links to key Homeric figures:

In Greek mythology, Gorgophone (Greek: Γοργοφόνη) was a daughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Her name means "Gorgon Slayer", a tribute to her father who killed Medusa, the mortal Gorgon.

Gorgophone is a central figure in the history of Sparta, having been married to two kings, Oebalus of Laconia and Perieres of Messenia, and being considered the first woman to have married twice.. . . One of the sons of Oibalos and Gorgophone was Tyndareus, stepfather of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux, and another was Icarius, father of Odysseus's wife, Penelope. Thus, Perseus's descendants played a central role in the Homeric epics and the pre-history of Greece.