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:

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