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

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