Thursday, December 29, 2011

Of wolf-bane and other poisonous substances

Ovid seems never to miss an opportunity to interweave some odd factoid, or bit of legend, into his narrative, introducing these elements seemingly at random. We recall in Book 4, after Perseus had put the head of Medusa on the ground, we are offered a fine description of how it turned living plants into coral, living rock.

In Metamorphoses 7, Ovid takes pains to describe organic modes of development at moments that don't seem to call for them. Here's Jason sowing the dragon's teeth, repeating Cadmus's famous act in Book 3, prior to the founding of Thebes. While Cadmus's warriors rose immediately from his toothy seeds, Ovid gives Jason's a more gradual, organic development:
 Then he took the dragon’s teeth from the bronze helmet, and scattered them over the turned earth. The soil softened the seeds that had been steeped in virulent poison, and they sprouted, and the teeth, freshly sown, produced new bodies. As an embryo takes on human form in the mother’s womb, and is fully developed there in every aspect, not emerging to the living air until it is complete, so when those shapes of men had been made in the bowels of the pregnant earth, they surged from the teeming soil, and, what is even more wonderful, clashed weapons, created with them. 7.123 ff
Later, as Medea arrives in Corinth, we learn in passing that the people of that city derived from rain-soaked mushrooms:
At last, the dragon’s wings brought her to Corinth, the ancient Ephyre, and its Pirenian spring. Here, tradition says, that in earliest times, human bodies sprang from fungi, swollen by rain. 7.391 ff
And when Medea is preparing to poison Theseus to secure the Athenian succession for her own son, we learn the origin of wolf-bane, from the slobber of the hound of hell:
Medea, seeking his destruction, prepared a mixture of poisonous aconite, she had brought with her from the coast of Scythia. This poison is said to have dripped from the teeth of Cerberus, the Echidnean dog. There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays. Cerberus, provoked to a rabid frenzy, filled all the air with his simultaneous three-headed howling, and spattered the green fields with white flecks of foam. These are supposed to have congealed and found food to multiply, gaining harmful strength from the rich soil. Because they are long-lived, springing from the hard rock, the country people call these shoots, of wolf-bane, ‘soil-less’ aconites. 7.405 ff
 These brief, gratuitous-seeming bits of lore and detail support the very Ovidian notion that underlying all appearances is change, and you neither know what something might turn into, nor can necessarily be sure what it came from. It certainly might come as news to some Corinthians that their ancestors were wet mushrooms. (Mycenae is also said to derive from  "μύκης" (mycēs) = mushroom.)

We might press further, and suggest that these three miniature tales of generation all share asexuality. Mushrooms grow from spores, which are more like bacteria than like seeds, and depend on the richness of surrounding soil to grow. They also do not need light. We might speculate that the same holds true for dragon's teeth and Cerberus' saliva (the description of which sounds awfully bacteriological) -- neither stores food nor needs the sun. Yet things emerge from them.

Are there further nuances? Are we, for example, to think to compare Jason's feat with that of Cadmus? Cadmus's tale is largely a denial of the womb -- after he fails to find his sister Europa, his city springs from males who instantly rise up, without the benefit of slow development (and his tale ends with Pentheus being killed by his mother). Jason's quest for the fleece succeeds in large part due to the mediation of Medea. It's worth noting that Cadmus founded a doomed city, while Jason, after returning with the fleece, went on to found nothing, and to lose his children to the very woman who "made" him what he was. Jason even receives his best-known epitaph from Euripides' witch:

 you, a coward, you will die a coward's death as you deserve,
struck on your head by a remnant of the wreck of the Argo
seeing a bitter end to your marriage to me.
Is there a further contrast between the slow generation of the warriors sown by Jason, and the inorganic use of natural materials drawn from all over the world, in Medea's magic, to do the most unnatural thing of all, to make the aged Aeson again young?

These might seem idle thoughts, but the second half of book 7, which approaches the center of the poem, concerns the marvelous generation of an entire people, thanks to the holy Aeacus (or Aeakos), son of Zeus and Aegina, and grandfather of Achilles. As we have observed, Ovid links his tales in strange ways.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A meditation upon catachresis

Parts Is Parts

Corn has ears
but cannot hear.
Spuds have eyes
but cannot see.
Cups have lips
but cannot kiss.
Chairs have legs
but can't run free.

Combs have teeth
but cannot bite.
Bread has heels
but cannot walk.
Clocks have hands
but cannot clap.
Streams have mouths
but cannot talk.

I wonder why
some things
have names
that people's parts
have too,
when their parts can't
do any
of the things
that ours can do.

Thanks to my son, Sawyer, for introducing me to this poem.

The metamorphosis of Costanza

Jutta shared this story about the great Italian sculptor, his mistress, his rage, and her transformation into the Gorgon, as per the story Perseus tells at the end of Book 4 of the Metamorphoses.

In the 1630s, Bernini began a tempestuous affair with Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of an assistant. Around 1636-38, working for the Borghese family, he portrayed her in a tender, lifelike rendering now in the collection of the Bargello Museum in Florence. 
But their idyll was ruined when Bernini caught his brother Luigi sneaking away from her quarters and exploded with rage. The artist sent his servant to her with orders to slash her face. Thus when Bernini carved "Medusa," he viewed her as the mythical creature, a Gorgon, who had been caught having an affair with Neptune. Medusa is being punished—with her hair transformed into writhing snakes and crying out with anguish.

When I pointed out the story to Peter D'Epiro, he quickly shared an image of Costanza Bonarelli made before the provocation (this copy is from this interesting blog):

Here is the more famous After:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Allusion, Magic and Catachresis in the flight of Medea

(Note: This post is solely for the confirmed Ovidophile, and even he or she might hesitate. I keep finding Ovid to resonate with curious relationships of words and things, of poetry and poetics, the making and interweaving of sound and meaning. He does so in ways that draw many of his choices of character, theme, motif and story together in powerfully suggestive configurations. At least that is the argument here. It is long. You have been warned.)
allude Look up allude at Dictionary.com1530s, "mock," from M.Fr. alluder or directly from L. alludere "to play, sport, joke, jest," from ad- "to" (see ad-) + ludere "to play" (see ludicrous). Meaning "make an indirect reference, point in passing" is from 1570s. Related: Alludedalluding.

After Medea dupes the daughters of Pelias into carving up their father, she absconds. We then get a 53-line passage that has her flying zigzaggedly among places where metamorphoses are said to have occurred. William S. Anderson suggests that Ovid did not wish to compete with Euripides in telling what next transpired in Corinth (the confrontation with Jason and the murders there), so he invents this mini-tour that allows his erudition to be displayed. It's Book 7, 350-403.

So the tour is a tissue of more than a dozen allusions, mostly to very obscure tales. (Riley's edition of Metamorphoses is helpful with some of the more obscure references in the passage.) Medea's dragons are wandering amid vague, or entirely unknown, poetic territory here. Let's look at some of these references.

Medea begins her flight near Pelion, home of Chiron, and Mt. Othrys, the Thessalian mountain from which the Titans staged their ten-year Titanomachy with the Olympians.

The mention of Othrys brings up Cerambus, a famed poet credited with inventing the sherpherd's pipes, the lyre, and great songs. Thanks only to Ovid, we know him to have survived Deucalion's flood. Honored by the nymphs of Mt. Othrys, Cerambus became arrogant, singing unflattering tales about them. Yet, says Ovid:
By the Nymphae's aid wings bore him through the air, and when the earth's great mass was whelmed beneath Deucalion’s flood, he escaped unflooded by the sweeping sea.
We'll come back to this special poet.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rich Gifts: The Shape of Metamorphoses 7

Book 7 of the Metamorphoses offers recurrent patterns -- there's sorcery, a prophetic dream, rejuvenation, a fulfilled wish, dangerous gifts, and an enchanted spear. As usual, Ovid does not offer to spell out their relationships for us.

The overall narrative can be broken into three major parts and one introductory vignette, as outlined below. Challenging!

Vignette: The sons of Boreas save Phineus the Seer

-- Zetes and Calais rescue Phineus from the Harpies
    (Note: Phineus was married to their sister, Cleopatra.)

I. Medea - Sorcery

-- Jason and Medea - dramatic monologue, plighted troth, Medea as auctor of Jason's feat.
-- Rejuvenation of Aeson - making the old young
-- Medea and Pelias - children kill their father
-- Medea, Aegeus and Theseus - father recognizes son - rejuvenation of Athens

II. Aeacus, Minos and the Myrmidons - Dream

-- Plague, Dream, and Rejuvenation of the kingdom

III. Cephalus and Procris - Gifts of the Gods

-- Gifts of Diana: Laelaps the magical dog and the Teumessian vixen.
-- Love, Mistrust, L'Aura, and an Enchanted Javelin
    (Procris was a daughter of Erechtheus and sister to Orithyia, who was ravished by Boreas)

Eos carries off Cephalus

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Medea: A Pre-Code Hollywood Woman

One of the finest examples of ambitious women can be found in Baby Face, the pre-code Warner Bros. film that starred Barbara Stanwyck. This clip provides a sense of it, and a clue as to why the trailer for the film boldly assured us that "it was fatal to offer her love."

Stanwyck was one of several actresses that took on strong and provocative roles before the Hayes Code clamped down on Hollywood moviemaking in 1934. Others included Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert and Joan Blondell. One could argue that the strong female leads and narratives were one of the major provocations that led to the imposition of the code.

A scene with Blondell from Footlight Parade (1933):

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ovid reads the New York Tomis

The idea that “truth” is situational and changing, always best described in quote marks, has emerged in many areas of contemporary thought. Ideas of situationalism, disorder as a natural state, and perpetual change (emphasis mine) are implicit in the thinking of Darwin, Marx and Freud. Quantum physics further undermined the idea that we can know everything with observations like the Uncertainty Principle. Postmodern philosophy and literary theory also questions [sic] the idea of objective reality, in favor of knowledge based on things like political background or sexual orientation. Put another way, when William Butler Yeats wrote “the center cannot hold,” he also stated the anxiety of our age. That was in 1919.
The words in bold highlight certain aspects of Ovid's metamorphic world that our readings have found it necessary to grapple with. We exclaim how "modern" Ovid's work seems. Yet think of him getting the New York Times delivered to him inTomis. As he reads the passage above, what does he make of this stunted fragment of human imagination dropped from 2000 years into the future?

   Delacroix: Ovid among the Scythians

(Thanks to Peter D'Epiro for pointing us to this great painting.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Queen of Night

If your grandfather was the Sun (Helios), and your aunts were Pasiphae and Circe, you might be curious about magic. Such was the immediate family of Medea of Colchis, daughter of Aeetes, whose mother, Eidyia, was identified by some as the goddess of Knowledge.

Behind Medea is the power and tradition of Hecate, who seems once again to be associated with the East, with Anatolia, rather than being an indigenous Greek deity.

In his Theogony, Hesiod had much to say about Hecate, one of the Titans whom Zeus, instead of destroying, honored and revered. Curiously while ascribing to her great powers, the poet doesn't specifically link her to magic, potions or drugs.

Yet she is clearly associated with them, as Parada notes in his entry on Hecate:
A divinity of the Underworld and companion of Persephone, [Hecate] is called the queen of night and goddess of the cross-roads. Her three faces are turned towards as many directions, and her name was shrieked at night at the cross-roads of cities. She is often seen bearing torches, and it is with them that she killed Clytius 6 in the course of the Gigantomachy. Hecate is regarded as supreme, both in Heaven and in the Underworld, and it is said that Zeus calls upon her whenever any man on earth offers sacrifices, and prays for favor.

This power resembles that of sorcery. For Medea, who was a priestess of Hecate, used witchcraft, apparently under the guidance of the goddess, in order to handle magic herbs and poisons with skill, and to be able to stay the course of rivers, or check the paths of the stars and the moon. 
The Caucasian witch also relied on the goddess' help, when she was about to commit a crime in Hellas: "By the goddess I worship most of all, my chosen helper Hecate, who dwells in the inner chamber of my house, none of them shall pain my heart and smile at it! Bitter will I make their marriage, bitter Creon's marriage-alliance, and bitter my banishment from the land!" (Euripides, Medea 400). For Hecate had not left her, although Medea sailed away from Colchis. 
But when the goddess noticed that Medea, by a trick of Hera, would fell in love with Jason and leave the country, she lamented: "Alas! you'll leave our woodland and your maiden bands, unhappy girl, to wander in your own despite to the cities of the Greeks. Yet not unbidden you go, nor, my dear one, will I forsake you. A signal record of your flight shall you leave behind, nor though a captive shall you ever be despised by your false lord, nay, he shall know me for your teacher, and that I grieved with shame that he robbed me of my handmaid." (Hecate. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 6.497. Note: there are two Argonauticas, this one, and the earlier one by Apollonius Rhodius. Links to both are on the right -->). 
Nevertheless, she helped Medea in Colchis, as did both Hera and Aphrodite; and the reason why the witch succeeded in helping Jason against her own father and brother is that she was supported by these three goddesses, and particularly by Hecate. It was the latter who gave Medea the Caucasian herb of great potency, sprung from the gore that dropped from the liver of Prometheus 1; with it Medea anointed Jason's body and arms, making him practically invulnerable.
One subtext of the tale of Jason and Medea, then, is a contest between Hecate and Athena.

For Ovid, the realm of Amor was ineluctably bound up with the realm of illusion, tricks, sorcery, and cosmetics. One of his earliest works is known as the "Art of Beauty," but the actual title, Medicamina Faciei Femineae, literally means "Drugs for the Female Face," i.e., beauty aids. Scholars have seen that poem as a playful pedagogical Georgic in the line of Hesiod's Works and Days and Virgil's Georgics. In any event, it would not be un-Ovidian to sense a bleeding of the magic of cosmetics into those of kosmos, i.e., order.

"I saved your skin"

I will lighten my grief by reviling you
and you will feel the sting in hearing it.
I will begin at the beginning.

I saved your skin, as all the Greeks know
who boarded the Argo with you,
when you were sent to master the fire-breathing bulls
with yokes and to sow the deadly field;
and the dragon which guarded the golden fleece
and, never sleeping, protected it with its many coils,
I killed it and held up the light of safety for you.

As for me, after betraying my father and my home
I came to Iolcus near Pelion
with you, eager but not prudent.
Then I killed Pelias, in the way that he would die most tragically
at the hands of his own children and I confounded their entire house.

And you, after receiving this from me, you, the vilest man alive,
you have betrayed me, and you have made a new marriage,
though you already have children. If you were still childless
you could be excused for craving another marriage bed.
Gone is the faith of oaths. I cannot understand
whether you believe the old gods are no longer in power
or that new covenants are established for men today,
since you must know that you have not kept your oath to me...

~ Medea to Jason (Medea 472-494)

Medea, the curse of Pelias 1, is the princess, priestess, and witch, whom Jason brought to Hellas on his return from Colchis. Medea has been called daughter of Hecate since she served this goddess as her priestess, but otherwise her mother is said to have been Idyia, one of the OCEANIDS. Her father Aeetes, [son of Helios] who had been king of Ephyraea (Corinth) before he emigrated to Colchis, was brother of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos 2 of Crete, and of the witch Circe. And whereas the latter lived in the island of Aeaea in the Mediterranean, Aeetes ruled in the city of Aea in Colchis.