Monday, October 31, 2011

The dangerous imaginings of infelix Niobe

Two words that are repeatedly used in the tale of Niobe are felix - happy, fortunate, blissful - and orba - destitute, lacking, spoiled, robbed.

Niobe says:
Sum felix: quis enim neget hoc? felixque manebo:
I am happy (fortunate): who could deny this? And I will remain fortunate.

She scorns Latona:
Fingite demi
huic aliquid populo natorum posse meorum,
non tamen ad numerum redigar spoliata duorum,
200 Latonae turbam: qua quantum distat ab orba?
Imagine that some of this host of children could be taken from me, I would still not, be stripped -- reduced to the two of Latona’s "crowd." 
In that state, how far is she from childlessness?
Kline's translation of orba as "childlessness" is reasonable here, but when one looks at the etymological roots of the words "felix" and "orba," an interesting relationship emerges:

late 14c., from O.Fr. felicite (14c.) "happiness," from L. felicitatem (nom. felicitas) "happiness, fertility," from felix (gen. felicis) "happy, fortunate, fruitful, fertile," from L. base *fe-, equivalent of PIE *dhe(i)- "to suck, suckle, produce, yield" (see fecund)
early 15c., from M.Fr. fecond, from L. fecundus "fruitful, fertile, productive," from *fe-kwondo-, suffixed form of L. base *fe-, corresponding to PIE *dhe(i)- "to suck, suckle," also "produce, yield" (cf. Skt. dhayati "sucks," dhayah "nourishing;" Gk. thele"mother's breast, nipple," thelys "female, fruitful;" O.C.S. dojiti "to suckle," dojilica "nurse," deti "child;" Lith. dele "leech;" O.Prus.dadan "milk;" Goth. daddjan "to suckle;" O.Swed. dia "suckle;" O.H.G. tila "female breast;" O.Ir. denaim "I suck," dinu "lamb"). Also from the same Latin base come felare "to suck;" femina "woman" (*fe-mna-, lit. "she who suckles"); felix "happy, auspicious, fruitful;" fetus "offspring, pregnancy;" fenum "hay" (probably lit. "produce"); and probably filia/filius "daughter/son," assimilated from *felios, originally "a suckling."
If the root of felicity is to give/receive nourishment of the maternal breast (and the words for "woman" and "child" derive from the same root), the root of "orba" is precisely the privation of that breast:

c.1300, from L.L. orphanus "parentless child" (cf. O.Fr. orfeno, It. orfano), from Gk. orphanos "orphaned," lit. "deprived," fromorphos "bereft," from PIE *orbho- "bereft of father," also "deprived of free status," from base *orbh- "to change allegiance, to pass from one status to another" (cf. Hittite harb- "change allegiance," L. orbus "bereft," Skt. arbhah "weak, child," Arm. orb "orphan," O.Ir. orbe "heir," O.C.S. rabu "slave," rabota "servitude" (cf. robot), Goth. arbja, Ger. erbe, O.E. ierfa "heir," O.H.G. arabeit, Ger.Arbeit "work," O.Fris. arbed, O.E. earfoð "hardship, suffering, trouble"). The verb is attested from 1814. Related: Orphaned;orphaning.
The roots divide around the terms of breast, nourishment, freedom, fertility, plenitude (and, interestingly, "change,") vs. privation, orphanhood, enslavement and work. One might note that in Latin, liberi, the plural of liber, i.e., free, meant "children."

One could say the tale of Niobe as Ovid tells it is the story of Niobe changing from mater felix to enslaved orphan:
Orba resedit
exanimes inter natos natasque virumque (301-2)

Childless, she sat among the [lifeless] bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband:

Early in the tale (152: multa dabant animos), we learn that it was Niobe's children that made her most animosa - which yields both "pride" and "liveliness, spiritedness." (We recall that Arachne also had a guttura animosa).

Here Ovid subtly underscores what is happening to the mother by his use of exanimes for the children ("lifeless" -- curiously omitted in Kline's version): a kind of self-orphaning, leading, unless this is too fanciful, to a robotic condition. One must take care before saying something is too fanciful for a poet.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Variations upon Fate in Book 6

In Book 6, Ovid takes up not simply art per se, but art in relation to wisdom -- as we have seen in the tale of Arachne and Athena. And while the enigmatic end of that tale is still being mulled, we should note that Ovid now seems to break with the theme of "art" in the narrow sense, as he turns to Niobe.

After reading that tale, we might be in a better position to say whether Ovid has dropped his exploration of art and wisdom, or has in fact broadened it. The vast system of Greek myth gave Ovid great latitude -- by moving from the poor country girl (who could equal Athena in spinning) to the daughter of Tantalos, the most powerful queen of her day and sister of Pelops, Ovid seems to be asking us to expand our sense of what the theme, the substance of Book 6, really is.

We move, on one level, from a humble artificer to a noblewoman at the peak of her fortune, from the girl who, like a human parody of Clotho, spun her own fate, to the queen who, presuming to be absolutely in possession of her great good fortune, lived to watch the sudden severance of those lives she thought she had the measure of -- clipped by the shears of Atropos.

Tantalos, Niobe's progenitor, foreshadows her tragic end: As his daughter, she's heir to the strange fortune of her father, who was the most favored of mortals before becoming the most accursed of them.

It would take us farther afield than is reasonable, but the grouping of Tantalos, Sisyphus, Ixion and Tityos is worth exploring when we can, and not only because of their egregious eternal punishments. Tantalos, Sisyphus and Ixion were all unusually favored and gifted. They just went too far (not unlike Prometheus) -- Sisyphus got the better of Hades, Ixion tried to outwit Zeus, and Tantalos has a most peculiar story vis a vis the entire dynasty of the Olympians.

As Pindar says:

If indeed the watchers of Olympus ever honored a mortal man,
that man was Tantalus.

I hope to explore some of the features of the Tantalos figure in another post (I'll link to it here when it's up). It's enough now to note that Ovid, in moving from Arachne to Niobe to Marsyas, is touching on the making of images, of self image, and of voiced music -- before he turns to the tale of Procne and Philomela. The first three tales concern mortals vying with immortals -- as Tantalos and Co. had done. The next tale -- that of Tereus, Procne and Philomela -- concerns mortals alone. Yet as we'll see, the making of image, of self-image, and of voice return in that tale, horrifically.

My point is simply to remember that the tales of Book 6, mostly set in Asia Minor, take place in the land of one of the most enigmatic ancient characters, the son of Zeus and Pluto. Pindar's 1st Olympian continues:

If indeed the watchers of Olympus ever honored a mortal man,
that man was Tantalus.
But he was not able to digest his bliss,
and for his greed he gained overpowering ruin,
which the Father hung over him: a mighty stone.
Always longing to cast it away from his head,
he wanders far from the joy of festivity.
He has this helpless life of never-ending labor,
a fourth toil after three others,
because he stole from the gods nectar and ambrosia,
with which they had made him immortal,
and gave them to his drinking companions.
If any man expects that what he does escapes the notice of a god,
he is wrong.

The sceptre of Agamemnon

The descendents of Tantalos via Pelops lead directly to Homeric epic and Greek tragedy.

Here's how Homer traces the line of Pelops through the sceptre of Agamemnon, (Iliad 2. 100 ff trans. Lattimore):
Powerful Agamemnon stood up holding the sceptre Hephaistos had wrought him carefully. Hephaistos gave it to Zeus the king, the son of Kronos, and Zeus in turn gave it to the courier Argeiphontes, and lord Hermes gave it to Pelops, driver of horses, and Pelops again gave it to Atreus, the shepherd of the people. Atreus dying left it to Thyetes of the rich flocks, and Thyestes left it in turn to Agamemnon to carry and to be lord of many islands and over all Argos.
According to Theoi, the sceptre was the ancient Greek equivalent of the crown, symbol of kingship. Atreus and Thyestes are here understood to be the sons of Pelops, as in later accounts.
According to Pausanias, the sceptre was the only work of Hephaistos considered authentic in the ancient world:
Poets have sung, and the tradition of men has followed them, that Hephaistos made many works of art, but none is authentic except only the scepter of Agamemnon. Description of Greece 9. 41. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C 2nd A.D.)
Agamemnon holding his sceptre, 400 B.C.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Houses of Pelops and Atreus

The area in red is the Lydian area of Tantalos's Manisa, where Mt. Sipylus, where Niobe weeps, is found.

Here's a site that offers some help with the genealogies of the various Greek houses. Below are two trees that go back ultimately to Tantalos: one of the brood of Pelops, the other going into more detail on the house of Atreus. (The images are much easier to read if enlarged by clicking on them.)

Children of Pelops

House of Atreus

It's worth noting that the sons of Pelops married daughters of Perseus, merging the two great houses of the day.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Verisimilitude and Origination in Metamorphoses VI

One theory of art that Ovid would certainly have known is found in Aristotle's view of art as mimesis, or imitation. In relation to the competition of Athena and Arachne, it seems necessary to distinguish between art as imitation and another kind of art.

The first kind -- Arachne's -- offers us imitation as fidelity to appearance -- making a careful copy of something. If you are a very good imitator, your copy can be said to rival Nature. Trompe l'oeil art is, in a sense, the ultimate in imitative success, since it actually fools us into thinking something is real, when it's an artistic illusion. Arachne's art is of this kind -- not only do her images rival those of nature, but there is a double rivalry, because what she's imitating is the power of the gods to imitate natural things - bulls, golden showers, horses, etc. Just as Zeus successfully impersonated a bull and seduced Europa, so Arachne's tapestry seduces the viewer into believing one is actually seeing Zeus as bull seducing Europa.

Of course this imitation of divine imitation is also a distinct echo of Ovid's tale of Zeus and Europa which ended Book 2 of the Metamorphoses, so there is a mirroring of imitative reflection that verges on a mise en abyme. The endless mirroring suspends the viewer in an undecidable predicament, which nonetheless requires a decision. Think of the final scene of Orson Welle's The Lady from Shanghai, where the characters shooting the guns have to tell, but can't tell, if they're aiming at the actual person, or at a reflection:

The labyrinth of Arachne's tapestry leads one into a world where all is imitation, cheat, illusion, and virgins are forever being seduced by clever divine rapists.

Despite the undeniable similarity of Arachne's subject matter to that of the very book in which she appears, we should at least look at Athena's image before deciding that the theory of art as mimesis in Arachne's sense of it is Ovid's own.

Clearly Ovid is setting up an opposition between Athena and Arachne to at least offer an alternative theory of art; so what can Athena's tapestry tell us?

At first glance, her image seems very much in the same vein of imitation. Athena has presented the story of how she won a contest with Poseidon at Athens. We see Poseidon striking water from the Acropolis, and then Athena striking the rock and giving the Athenians the precious olive tree, a living source of health and wealth, of culture and strength.

One thing about the goddess's image should be clear: the excellence of the work does not lie solely in its verisimilitude. Doubtless the Athena in the tapestry resembled the goddess who wove her, but that's not what really matters here. What matters is the act that that this is an image of -- the act of making, creation, poesis. Athena didn't merely put a copy of an olive tree in Athens, as if the city could have found another one elsewhere. She is putting something brand new into the world. The gift of the goddess is not something anyone else could have given the city, it is a novum, a thing so extraordinary that even the gods marvel at it.

The story Athena tells in her tapestry culminates in the people choosing her as their patron, an act that is marked by naming the city, and themselves, after Athena. Not only is there a new kind of tree, but a new word. Athena's image is about this non-mimetic creative power, the poetic power of naming.

There's another difference between Arachne's mode of art and that of Athena, and it has to do with how, or to what, each directs our attention. Arachne's art is essentially about itself. It says, "look at how well I have feigned this story of a god feigning to be a bull." Athena's image is not very interested in making a faithful copy of something, because it's concerned with something that is fundamentally other than copying. It's interested in the powers of imagination. As an image, it points beyond itself, it tells us not to look at how well it's copied some event, but instead to think about an act of origination, the origin of "Athens."

How are we to understand what Ovid is telling us about art? It seems that there are certainly two kinds, or theories, of what art can be, but which is to be preferred? Would it not seem that the similarity of Arachne's images to events described in his poem would tilt the balance toward the imitative art of the girl? Or is this yet another twist of Ovidian irony, in which he's suggesting that if we read his poem as an imitative work of fancy, we are getting it all wrong? Is Ovid perhaps giving us a hint about how his poem is to be read? Or is he just offering a kind of sampler of aesthetics, saying, "here are two kinds of art"?

Given that these two modes of art seem in some sense to be opposed -- in one, the image is about its own intrinsic "imageness," in the other the image points to something beyond mere imitation -- perhaps a decision is important, and not simply for aesthetic reasons. Note the relation of each artist here to the theological, for example. And then there's the relation of all of this to hubris.

The violent climax of Ovid's story might make us suspect that the two modes of "art" -- in the larger sense to which we have been led -- are not simply opposite, but fundamentally incompatible. At this point we have to ask whether the brutal conclusion to the contest resolves the enigma posed by the conflicting webs of Athena and Arachne, or destroys any hope of doing so.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Niobe and the poets

This pensive tomb within no dead contains,
This pensive corpse without untomb'd remains;
For, by a strange result of fate's decree,
At once th'unburied dead and tomb you see.


The gods to stone transform'd me; but, again,
I from Praxiteles new life obtain.

Greek epigrams found in The first twenty-eight Odes of Anacreon: in Greek and in English, John B. Roche, 1827, p. 155

O Niobe, con che occhi dolenti
vedea io te segnata in su la strada,
tra sette e sette tuoi figiuoli spenti!

O Niobe, what tears afflicted me
when, on that path, I saw your effigy
among your slaughtered children, seven and seven!

Mandelbaum translation of Dante, Purgatorio XII.17-19

Dying Niobid, Horti Sallustiani
Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month; or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears;—why she, even she,—
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer,—married with mine uncle,
My father’s brother; but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules:
Hamlet I.2

By children's births, and death, I am become
So dry, that I am now mine own sad tomb.

Thanks to Jutta for this addition:

Oh Rome! my Country! City of the Soul!
The Orphans of the Heart must turn to thee, 695
Lone Mother of dead Empires! and controul
In their shut breasts their petty misery.
What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The Cypress, Hear the Owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples – Ye! 700
Whose agonies are evils of a day –
A World is at our feet as fragile as our Clay.
The Niobe of Nations! there She stands,
Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe;
An empty Urn within her withered hands, 705
Whose holy dust was scattered long ago;
The Scipios’ tomb contains no ashes now;
The very Sepulchres lie tenantless
Of their heroic dwellers: dost thou flow,
Old Tiber! through a marble wilderness? 710
Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress.
Lord Byron Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Canto IV.78-79

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Leto in exile

It's interesting to see what details of a background myth Ovid chooses to highlight. This can be seen more clearly than usual in his handling of the tale of Leto (Latona), since her story is one of the simpler tales told of the Olympians.

Wikpedia's article on Leto notes that she apparently had been an early mother goddess of Lycian origin. Both before she gave birth to Artemis and Apollo, and after -- in the tale of her encounter with the Lycian peasants that Ovid tells -- she is a goddess that is under banishment, an exile from stable land (i.e., earth rooted in earth, rather than floating on the sea) by order of Hera, and in Lycia barred by the peasants from drinking water.

Above, Breughel's image of that scene offers us a peasant undergoing metamorphosis into a frog.

One recurrent motif in Book 6 of the Metamorphoses seems to be the distancing/diminishing effect that results from a god or goddess's tranformative anger. The humans who incur the god's wrath are scaled down: Arachne becomes a tiny spider; Niobe a remote rock; Lycian peasants frogs; Tereus, Procne and Philomela, small birds. Is Marsyas an exception?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A few notes for Niobe

Niobe would have been spoken of as the most fortunate of mothers,
if she had not seemed so to herself.

I know we're not quite "done" with Athena vs. Arachne - the startling conclusion of their certamen remains to be read. But looking ahead:

- William S. Anderson is quite helpful in drawing some of the parallels between Niobe and Pentheus (of book 3) - both are warned by prophets (Pentheus by Tiresias, Niobe by Manto), both confront citizens of their state who are worshipping a deity other than their leaders, i.e., Pentheus as King of Thebes and Niobe now as wife of the king of Thebes, and both cry out: "Quis furor?"
What madness, to prefer the gods you are told about to the ones you see? Why is Latona worshipped at the altars, while as yet my godhead is without its incense? Tantalus is my father, who is the only man to eat the food of the gods. My mother is one of the seven sisters, the Pleiades. Great Atlas, who carries the axis of the heavens on his shoulders, is one of my grandfathers. Jupiter is the other, and I glory in having him as my father-in-law as well. The peoples of Phrygia fear me. Cadmus’s royal house is under my rule: and the walls, built to my husband’s lyre, and Thebes’s people, will be ruled by his power and mine. (Kline)
caelestes? aut cur colitur Latona per aras, numen adhuc sine ture meum est? mihi Tantalus auctor, cui licuit soli superorum tangere mensas, Pleiadum soror est genetrix mea, maximus Atlas 175est avus, aetherium qui fert cervicibus axem; Iuppiter alter avus socero quoque glorior illo. Me gentes metuunt Phrygiae, me regia Cadmi sub domina est, fidibusque mei commissa mariti moenia cum populis a meque viroque reguntur.
- Anderson is also helpful in noting the meaningful resonances of Niobe's family tree: daughter of Tantalos, sister of Pelops (whom Tantalos chopped up and served to the gods, only to be miraculously re-constituted, minus a shoulder) and Broteas (another strange fate), mother of 14 healthy children, wife of Amphion, daughter-in-law of Antiope. (Left: Jupiter and Antiope by Franz Anton Maulbertsch.)

- If you have a chance, have a look at where Niobe appears in Homer, Iliad 24 - the moment within the scene between Achilles and Priam - what role does the tale of Niobe (around line 602 ff.) and the description of her eating, play there? Achilles says to Priam:
"Thy son, old sire, is given back according to thy wish, and lieth upon a bier; and at break of day thou shalt thyself behold him, as thou bearest him hence; but for this present let us bethink us of supper. For even the fair-haired Niobe bethought her of meat, albeit twelve children perished in her halls, six daughters and six lusty sons. The sons Apollo slew with shafts from his silver bow, being wroth against Niobe, and the daughters the archer Artemis, for that Niobe had matched her with fair-cheeked Leto, saying that the goddess had borne but twain, while herself was mother to many; wherefore they, for all they were but twain, destroyed them all. For nine days' space they lay in their blood, nor was there any to bury them, for the son of Cronos turned the folk to stones; howbeit on the tenth day the gods of heaven buried them; and Niobe bethought her of meat, for she was wearied with the shedding of tears. And now somewhere amid the rocks, on the lonely mountains, on Sipylus, where, men say, are the couching-places of goddesses, even of the nymphs that range swiftly in the dance about Achelous, there, albeit a stone, she broodeth over her woes sent by the gods. But come, let us twain likewise, noble old sire, bethink us of meat; and thereafter shalt thou make lament over thy dear son, when thou hast borne him into Ilios; mourned shall he be of thee many tears."
- As Niobe proudly notes, she's also the granddaughter, via her mother Dione, of Atlas.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Turkey 11,600 years ago

Since with Ovid we're in the ancient lands of Turkey, the cover story of this month's National Geographic may take on additional significance. They are excavating what appears to be the oldest temple in the world.

Harrowing ambiguities

Imitation, or mimesis, is inherently ambiguous -- if not, it wouldn't be imitation. But the relation of copy to original can be difficult to decide, and the legendary tales of trompe l'oeil works of the Greek painters dramatize the element of cheat, of trickery:
Zeuxis and his contemporary Parrhasius (of Ephesus and later Athens) are reported in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder to have staged a contest to determine which of the two was the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so luscious and inviting that birds flew down from the sky to peck at them. Zeuxis then asked Parrhasius to pull aside the curtain from his painting, only for Parrhasius to reveal the curtain itself was a painting, and Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat. Zeuxis is rumoured to have said: 'I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis.'
Interesting that much of Zeuxis' work ended up in Rome, where Ovid certainly would have seen it - and also noteworthy that one famous subject of the artist was Marsyas.

Our lively discussion of Athena vs. Arachne today was, in a very real sense, provoked by the way Ovid designs his tale, his argumentum. Ovid calls the stories depicted in the webs of his contestants the vetus argumentum for a reason -- not only will they be submitted to be judged in the contest (certamen <- cerno), they are also arguments about the nature of art and its relation to nature, to inspiration, and to the divine.

To judge an argument critically, it must be sifted, discerned, tested. The root of argument is arguo, which means prove, or assert, but that sense quickly slides into "reprove, accuse, blame, censure, denounce." The root rests uneasily on the creaky fence that divides the certitude of rational and evidentiary processes such as science and logic on the one hand from the vitriol-charged rhetoric of prosecutorial denunciation on the other.

The discussion surrounding Athena and Arachne has many elements, ambiguities, and angles, because Ovid refuses to let the contest remain simply within what we normally think of as "aesthetics" -- i.e., whether something is beautiful, and if we compare two works, which is moreso. The contest here is between Wisdom's ars and that of a mortal girl. The harrowing ambiguities in the way it plays out -- the ire of Athena and disfiguration of Arachne -- are not easily "settled" by some neat allocation of good vs. evil.

What is clear from the tale, as well as others in Book 6, is that ambiguities can be harrowing, and Wisdom is not always tolerant. The book begins with Athena being reminded by the tale of the Muses in Book 5 of iustam iram - "rightful wrath" (Golding's translation). We certainly witness her iram towards Arachne. The question that the violence in the tale compels us to decide is whether we are dealing with a wise intolerance, or a most intolerant Wisdom.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Art, violence, hubris

A few questions implicit in Book 6 (Standard disclaimer: I don't know the answers, though I have some suspicions).

- What is Arachne's main offense - her art, or her attitude toward Athena?
- Does Arachne's image somehow reflect her attitude?

Perhaps a better question:
- When we compare the images woven by Athena and Arachne, how do they differ? Are we able to see different models of art?

Three kinds of certamen (that is, contest - from cerno, to separate, discern) make up the early stories of Book 6: "Athena vs. Arachne;" "Leto, Apollo, Diana vs. Niobe," and "Apollo vs. Marsyas."
- Does the story of Tantalos, king of Lydia, and Pelops, his son, relate to these tales? (Tantalos is the father of Niobe, and Pelops mourns her).

With respect to Phrygia:
The earliest traditions of Greek music derived from Phrygia, transmitted through the Greek colonies in Anatolia, and included the Phrygian mode, which was considered to be the warlike mode in ancient Greek music. Phrygian Midas, the king of the "golden touch", was tutored in music by Orpheus himself, according to the myth. Another musical invention that came from Phrygia was the aulos, a reed instrument with two pipes. Marsyas, the satyr who first formed the instrument using the hollowed antler of a stag, was a Phrygian follower of Cybele. He unwisely competed in music with the Olympian Apollo and inevitably lost, whereupon Apollo flayed Marsyas alive and provocatively hung his skin on Cybele's own sacred tree, a pine.
Marsyas, Amphion (husband of Niobe), Orpheus and Midas are all associated with Phrygia, and are linked via the power of music.
- What do we make of the brutal fate of Marsyas? And his metamorphosis - with the tears of his mourners - into a river?
- Do the differences between cithara and flute say something about what's at issue between Apollo and Marsyas?

- How does the story of Tereus, Procne and Philomela fit into the theme of art as established and anticipated in Book 5 with the story of Athena, Medusa, Pegasus and the Muses?

- What is Ovid saying in this book about the nature of art, of "creation and imitation, god and man, master and pupil," and the powers of image and of music?