Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wanderings of Aeneas

The last we see of Troy is the weeping of those who witness Hecuba turned into a feral dog, and the tears of Aurora for Memnon, which return each day as dew. 

The very next scene has Aeneas, who apparently was present at the transformation of Hecuba, setting out on his own odyssey:
Yet the fates did not allow Troy’s destiny, also, to be overthrown with her walls. Aeneas, Venus’s heroic son, carried away on his shoulders her sacred icons, and bore his father, another sacred and venerable burden. He dutifully chose that prize from all his riches, and his son Ascanius, and carried over the sea in his exiled fleet, he left Antandros’s harbour, and the sinful thresholds of Thrace, and the soil drenched in Polydorus’s blood, and riding the favourable winds and tides, he came with his company of friends, to the city of Apollo on Delos. Book 13 623-39.
Ovid doesn't treat the journey directly, but we glimpse Aeneas (and Ulysses) from time to time, between the stories of Scylla, Acis and Galatea, Circe, Glaucus Polyphemus et al that take up the foreground.

Here's a map of Aeneas' journey which might be useful:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Myth vs. story: A monster who inhabits both modes

In his celebrated essay entitled The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin tells us that one of the functions of fairy tales was to enable us to deal with myth:
The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was the need created by the myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest.
Decamps: Polyphemus attacking sailors in their boat

If myth concerns the unspeakable, the monstrous, then the character that can outwit its forces or see through its fearsome exterior can be said to be "liberated" from myth. Benjamin elaborates this idea:
In the figure of the fool it shows us how mankind ”acts dumb” toward the myth; in the figure of the youngest brother it shows us how one’s chances increase as the mythical primitive times are left behind; in the figure of the man who sets out to learn what fear is it shows us that the things we are afraid of can be seen through; in the figure of the wiseacre it shows us that the questions posed by the myth are simple-minded, like the riddle of the Sphinx; in the shape of the animals which come to the aid of the child in the fairy tale it shows that nature not only is subservient to the myth, but much prefers to be aligned with man. The wisest thing—so the fairy tale taught mankind in olden times, and teaches children to this day—is to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and with high spirits. (This is how the fairy tale polarizes Mut, courage, dividing it dialectically into Untermut, that is, cunning, and Ubermut, high spirits.) The liberating which the fairy tale has at its disposal does not bring nature into play in a mythical way, but points to its complicity with liberated man. A mature man feels this complicity only occasionally, that is, when he is happy; but the child first meets it in fairy tales, and it makes him happy.
The contrast is between a mythic power stronger than nature and a mode of story that gives us tools to deal with mythic horror. No time to get into all that here, but for our purposes, Benjamin's thought might suggest another way to view Ulysses in Metamorphoses 13-14. The Greek hero  finds the wits to escape myth's dominion, making his way back to the domestic world after having encountered and eluded a fair sampling of mythic beings, powers, and forces.

One example of those fearsome mythic beings is, of course, the cyclops Polyphemus. Ovid manages to give him two very different appearances in these books -- one as Homeric monster, the other as the violently disappointed lover of Galatea. What is Ovid up to?

Poussin: Landscape with Polyphemus

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bringing back Philoctetes

Sophocles' Philoctotes offers the confrontation of two modes of getting things done - (via Parada's entry on Neoptolemus):

Neoptolemus: It is not in my nature to achieve anything by means of evil cunning ... But I am ready to take the man by force and without treachery.

Odysseus: I, too, in my youth once had a slow tongue and an active hand. But now I see that the tongue, not action, is what masters everything among men... I command you to take Philoctetes by deceit.

Neoptolemus: Then you think it brings no shame to speak what is false?

Odysseus: No, not if the falsehood yields deliverance.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ovid Reading Ulysses

It's difficult to get past Ulysses in Metamorphoses 13 -- for Ovid as for us, he's the consummate Greek -- wily, a man of multiple guises, and one determined to prevail no matter what. His role here seems pivotal -- he's the last major Greek character we have in the poem, which will now move westward. He is the man whose nostos takes 10 years, but he does make it home. Ovid will play off this journey of return against Aeneas's voyage to a new land, and a new life.

This is not an insignificant difference. It plays out in the differences between the two shields -- that of Achilles as described by Homer, and that of Aeneas as envisioned by Virgil. In the former, we see a generic image of the world as it is, with the implication, in its commonplace scenes of civic and martial life, that these recurrent cycles are how things ever are. On the shield of Aeneas, on the contrary, the images all figure forth the destiny of the Roman people. It tells a story, a history, not of the world, but of the Roman world, moving, changing through a linear vector in time.
There the lord with the power of fire, not unversed
in prophecy, and knowledge of the centuries to come,
had fashioned the history of Italy, and Rome’s triumphs: (Aeneid 8.626 ff)
However we interpret Ovid's relation to Ulysses and to the Greek world with which his poem is concerned, we should give some weight to the idea that for him, as much as the myths, the gods, the heroes and epics of Greece were the rich and magnificent matrix from which Rome emerged, Rome is not merely a replica of that world -- Rome carries something new. This might give a new thematic importance to the opening of the Metamorphoses:
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
My mind bears word of transformations to bodies strange and new . . . 
Compare Lattimore's translation of Achilles' shield with that of Aeneas -- both wrought by the same god, but different in important ways. An interesting commentary on aspects of Homer's shield can be found here, in the third part of the essay.

Ulysses walks off with the shield of Achilles, only to give it to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. The withering scorn Ulysses displays toward Aias, in Ovid's scene, reveals the faultline between the man of pure force and the man of strategic thought -- in a sense, the debate between the two Greeks articulates the eternal rivalry, in the Greek world, between power and knowledge, action and intelligence, Sparta and Athens:

When Ulysses cruelly derides Aias for being unable to grasp the shield he would grasp, he says:
He understands nothing of the shield’s engraving, Ocean, or earth, or high starry sky; the Pleiades and the Hyades, the Bear that is always clear of the waters, and opposite, beyond the Milky Way, Orion, with his glittering sword. He demands to grasp armour that he does not comprehend!
neque enim clipei caelamina novit,
Oceanum et terras cumque alto sidera caelo
Pleiadasque hyadasque inmunemque aequoris arcton
diversosque orbes nitidumque Orionis ensem:
postulat, ut capiat, quae non intelligit, arma!
Ulysses is echoing Homer's description of Achilles' shield as made (ποιεῖν) by Hephaestus:
There were five folds composing the shield itself, and upon it
he elaborated many things in his skill and craftsmanship.
He made the earth upon it, and the sky, and the sea's water,
and the tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness,
and on it all the constellations that festoon the heavens,
the Pleiades and the Hyades and the strength of Orion
and the Bear, whom men give also the name of the Wagon,
who turns about in a fixed place and looks at Orion
and she alone is never plunged in the wash of the Ocean.
πέντε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ αὐτοῦ ἔσαν σάκεος πτύχεςαὐτὰρ ἐν αὐτῷποίει δαίδαλα πολλὰ ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν.
ἐν μὲν γαῖαν ἔτευξ᾽ἐν δ᾽ οὐρανόνἐν δὲ θάλασσαν,
ἠέλιόν τ᾽ ἀκάμαντα σελήνην τε πλήθουσαν,485ἐν δὲ τὰ τείρεα πάντα
τά τ᾽ οὐρανὸς ἐστεφάνωται,
Πληϊάδας θ᾽ Ὑάδας τε τό τε σθένος Ὠρίωνος 
Ἄρκτόν θ᾽ἣν καὶ Ἄμαξαν ἐπίκλησιν καλέουσιν,
 τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει,
οἴη δ᾽ ἄμμορός ἐστι λοετρῶν Ὠκεανοῖο. (Iliad 18)

The scene could not be more "literary": Ovid's Ulysses, a character in the Iliad, quotes the Iliad's description of Achilles' shield to argue that he deserves the shield because he, and not Aias, is able to read the text that is both the shield and the Iliad.

Ulysses is truly a man of many tropes, some of which have lethal consequences, and not just for Aias. Aeneas and his journey will be juxtaposed with that of Ulysses, and the differences should reward attention.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tales linked to Lemnos

After the debate of Ulysses and Ajax and the suicide of the latter in Book 13, Ovid moves to the story of Hecuba and Polymestor. But before he gets there, he runs quickly through a host of stories linked to Lemnos that have a lot to them in their own right. There's a curious thread running through them, having to do in part with women who kill husbands and kings -- they're certainly worth getting some familiarity with.

These include the story of Lemnos, King Thoas and  Hypsipyle; the culmination of the misfortunes of Philoctetes; the curious story of Palamedes, the only man known to outwit Odysseus, and his father, Nauplius, who incites Clytemnestra and other kings' wives to be unfaithful to their husbands:
Nauplius swore revenge against King Agamemnon and the other Greek leaders. According to Apollodorus, when the Greeks were sailing home from Troy after the close of the war, Nauplius lit beacon fires along the perilous coastline of Euboea, and many ships were shipwrecked as a result. Before this point, he also convinced many of the lonely wives of the Greek commanders to be unfaithful to their husbands, and to conspire against them - including Clytemnestra, (Agamemnon's wife) who joined with Aigisthos, and Meda, (wife of Idomeneus) who was unfaithful with Leucos. Leucos killed Meda and her daughter Cleisithyra and drove out Idomeneus out when he had returned from Troy.

Drouais: Philoctetes in Lemnos

Monday, November 26, 2012

Hand and Mind: Ajax vs. Ulysses

After Ajax has scornfully cast Ulysses as the son of Sisyphus (which was a rumor), that is, a sneaky cowardly fellow who can't be trusted, let alone rewarded with the greatest honor of the Trojan War (the arms of Achilles, the god-crafted, physical embodiment of his glory), Ulysses sums his view of why he, and not Ajax, merits the prize:
tibi dextera bello
utilis, ingenium est, quod eget moderamine nostro;
tu vires sine mente geris, mihi cura futuri;
tu pugnare potes, pugnandi tempora mecum
eligit Atrides; tu tantum corpore prodes,
nos animo; quantoque ratem qui temperat, anteit
remigis officium, quanto dux milite maior,
tantum ego te supero. nec non in corpore nostro
pectora sunt potiora manu: vigor omnis in illis. (13.361-69)
Here's a slightly modified version of Kline's translation:
Your right hand, useful in war, needs the guidance of my intellect (ingenium). You have power (vires) without mind (mente), mine is the care for the future. You can fight, but Atrides, with me, chooses the time to fight. You only display the flesh (corpora), I the spirit (animo: "mind," "soul"). By as much as he who steers the ship is superior to him who rows, by as much as the general exceeds the soldier, by that much I surpass you. No less is the head (pectora: "heart, mind") more powerful than the hand, in our body: the energy of the whole (vigor omnis) is within it.
If Ajax's speech was entirely pragmatic, Ulysses's vocabulary borders on the metaphysical. Part of the irony here is that neither the hand nor the mind is willing to acknowledge the necessity of belonging to a larger whole. Without the mind, a hand is merely an aimless instrument. Without the hand, the mind's strategic powers reside feckless in a vacuum. Execution requires both hand and mind, and the greatest honors are given to artists, athletes, surgeons, craftsmen, etc. who possess and use intelligent fingertips.

In Ovid's scene in Metamorphoses 13, hand and mind are at war -- so passionate are both to claim the honor of being the sole agent of victorious warcraft that the matter of agency is itself put in question. If we can't agree on which of the executants should be credited, then we can't authoritatively say who did what. When agency is suspended, so is the glory of having acted. The very thing that makes the prize shield and helmet so valuable -- kleos, glory -- has gotten lost, unassignable, thanks to the debate that was supposed to assign it.

Detail of Achilles' shield, Kathleen A. Vail

Another part of the irony lies in what has caused this fight: bella movet clipeus - "even his shield makes war," Ovid says. If Ulysses and Ajax have blurred agency, then it's quite possible for the shield to turn into the actual agent of their conflict. Something that is normally considered a tool of war is now its cause. This kind of reversal is a recurrent phenomenon in the Metamorphoses. 

We might argue that this sort of statement -- "the shield makes war" -- is merely a shorthand way of saying that the desires of the two men for the shield and what it represents caused them to fight (and, ultimately, resulted in the suicide of one of them). But it is agency itself that's been put in question. If one cannot decide whether the mind or the hand is acting, then it's equally plausible to say that the shield moved the war as it is to say their desire for the shield was the cause. Agent and instrument can be reversed like cause and effect. When we hear someone say that "_____ made me do it" -- (if you google that expression, the results are quite interesting), they are entering into a willing suspension, not of disbelief, but of will itself, i.e., of agency.

Ulysses plays with the notion of agency in his speech. While Ajax emphasized how he stood against Hektor while Ulysses was nowhere to be found, Ulysses himself  says things like:
Why does Ulysses dare to go through the sentries and commit himself to night; to enter not only the walls of Troy but also the heights of the citadel, past the sharp swords; and to snatch the goddess from her temple, and carry her captive through the enemy ranks? If I had not done it, the son of Telamon would have carried the seven-layered bull’s-hide shield on his left arm in vain. That night the victory over Troy was established: I defeated Pergama then, when I secured the possibility of her defeat.
For Ajax, the practical, direct model of cause and effect is the only model. For Ulysses, war is like a game of chess. A move might not directly cause the end, but indirectly it can be decisive. Once he and Diomedes have stolen the Palladium, "I defeated Pergama." There are actually many more steps before the war is done -- he will, for instance, have to persuade Philoctetes to return, the wounded hero who is destined to kill Paris with the arrows of Heracles. But Ulysses can elide all those intervening causes and effects, because his strategic actions "established" the fall of Troy.

When the mind dismisses a cause that has to occur because it is only "a" cause, not THE cause, there's a contempt for the hand that's at least equal to the hand's blindness to the role of the mind. Mind and hand are mutually necessary, but also, it seems, incapable of sharing honor and responsibility. They are jealous of their own rights and agencies to the exclusion of each other (Ajax ultimately excludes himself from existing). With the obliteration of agency, instead of history we have mystery.

This framing of the problem of agency might be worth keeping "in mind" as we look at Ovid's approach to the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome, the new Troy.

"bella movet clipeus"

The shield of Achilles gets a couple of hundred lines of description from Homer, and has provoked thousands of pages of commentary.

One view of the shield is offered here, with an outline of the way this author thinks it was laid out.

And here's a blog that offers numerous images of the shield as well as the Homeric text.

Virgil also offers a shield of Aeneas, brought to the hero by his mother, Venus, who "persuaded" Vulcan to create it. An interesting comparison of the shields of Achilles and Aeneas is offered by John L. Penwill.

Veronese at the Ringling

The Ringling is about to open an exhibit of Paolo Veronese's works, among them, a few depictions of scenes from the Metamorphoses. More here.

Veronese: Actaeon (detail)

Friday, November 23, 2012

A few background sources for Roman Myth

As is his wont, Ovid spends half book 13 on Troy and the aftermath of its fall before moving on to seemingly unrelated tales. His account of the fall of Troy contains some of the darkest pages of the Metamorphoses, and we'll want to ask ourselves why the poet chose to encapsulate the final calamity of the sacred city in the maternal figures of Hecuba and Aurora.

We'll also want to ask about the relation of the two halves of book 13. What possible relevance could the love of Polyphemus for Galatea and the transformation of Glaucus, which make up the second half of the book, have to the prized armor of Achilles and the devastation of Troy?

Curiously sandwiched between the tragic Troy tale and the somewhat grotesque tales of the smitten Cyclops and the man-turned-half-fish we find the beginnings of the wanderings of Aeneas. His story will take up a good deal of Book 14 as well.

One excellent resource to look to as we move into the Roman myths of these final books is Peter Meineck's talks on Roman Mythology. The lecture entitled "Trojan Ancestors: The Myth of Aeneas," as well as two later lectures on Virgil's Aeneid will be seen to have many resonances with things we've been talking about lately, including our recent discussion of the Iliad in relation to Ovid's re-visioning of it in Book 13.

Meineck also has a 92-page pdf Roman Myths course booklet that's free for downloading. It includes brief summaries of his main points as well as additional supporting materials. It's here. A good family tree for Aeneas is here. This useful map of Aeneas's wanderings (click to enlarge) is from Parada, here.

Wanderings of Aeneas

Monday, November 19, 2012

A contest of fact and interpretation

The old saying goes: "To the victor belong the spoils," but what if there are two victors? After the battle of weapons comes the war of words, wits, and rhetorical skill.

The debate between Ajax and Odysseus for the armor of Achilles is a case study in contested facts, insinuated opinions, and skillful use of emphasis, tone, and manipulative deviance from the truth.

If Nestor exemplified the motivations of a speaker of history, the contestations manifest in the debate of the two Greek heroes are a catalog of interpretive strategies the day after an event has occurred. (See, for example, the imaginative tales told by each side after the recent US presidential election.)

A detailed analysis of the speeches is beyond the scope of this entry. But given the claims made by each party as to his relative merits as the cause of the fall of Troy, just note that a while back, we talked about some of the conditions needing to be met for Troy to fall.

It turns out our list was not complete -- thanks to the comic Roman playwright Plautus, we've found more elements, and they've now added to the post. Eventually we'll get them all.

Debate of Odysseus and Ajax

After the Iliad

Metamorphoses 12 gave us a sideways glimpse of Troy through the lens of Nestor, the voice of the epic past, featuring a pre-Iliadic battle over a stolen bride.

Book 13 begins at Troy after the death of Achilles. The scene unfolds as drama as Odysseus and Ajax debate their relative merits for deserving to be awarded the armor of Achilles.


For more information about Troy, a good source is found here on -- at the top of the page are links to the various layers of Troy's archaeological remains, as well as to ancient texts that completed the Iliad's story, including the Cypria and the Little Iliad.

The general site entitled is a superb encyclopedia of illustrated, brief articles on the ancient world. I've put a link to it on the right.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"A Universe about Change": A Conversation

Excepts from an interesting conversation between author Marilynne Robinson and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser about science, myth, and the curious way in which contemporary culture and education seem at a loss to adequately cope with each. Also, some remarks about the enterprise of science, its apparent limits, and our inability to comprehend ourselves. Hoping we'll find some relevance to the Metamorphoses. From OnBeing: Links. Podcast. Complete transcript.

Dr. Gleiser: When we look at the whole universe, it is expanding, it's growing, it's changing in time. And so to me I look at things much more as a state of flux, you know, of becoming, of transformation. . . And so the notion that we as humans could come up with a final answer to the mystery of nature it's pushing things a little too far for our capabilities.

Ms. Robinson: Mm-hmm. I teach graduate students. I teach highly educated graduate students and I find that their level of understanding of science is pretty abysmal. And I wonder what it is that makes a culture that really creates its fate and its future, basically, out of science is not telling people, uh, you know, the thing about science, contemporary science, is that it is as profound in its revelation certainly as Galileo ever was, or Copernicus. You know?

Robinson: Well, you know, as far as the scale of what we're learning to know, the psalmist has better intuitions about it than Richard Dawkins. But we're pious toward science. It does in fact criticize itself and overturn itself. It deserves that reputation. But this strange little world that we're presented as being scientific isn't, you know; it's some sort of petrified conception that would have been at home in the 19th century.

Gleiser: You know, the mythic narratives and the scientific narratives, they're both asking the same question: Where did everything come from? . . . I actually wrote a book way before this last one, called The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang. And what I do there is I look at all sorts of different creation myths from cultures around the world in different times in the ways they dealt with the question of creation, you know, the question of the origin of the world, which to me is the most complicated question you can possibly ask. Right? So I call it The Question. Right? So then I go and I look at cosmology in the 20th century, before we had data. And what happened? All the models, the theories that cosmologists use to explain the universe reproduced these mythic ideas. So there was a universe that was cyclic, just like the dancing of Shiva. There were universe that, at least on paper, were created out of a moment in time, which was Friedmann came up with this model in 1922 before Hubble confirmed it. Right? And then there was an eternal universe as well.

Robinson: I think one of the things that is fascinating is that we don't know who we are. Human beings in acting out history describe themselves and every new epic is a new description of what human beings are. Every life is a new description of what human beings are. Every work of science, every object of art is new information. And it is inconceivable at this point that we could say anything final about what the human mind is, because it is demonstrating, you know, in beautiful ways and terrifying ways, that it will surprise us over and over and over again. You know?

Gleiser: Because the way we have dealt with things just won't work for the brain. So what would that be now, right? So there is this whole new notion that comes from complexity theory that the mind is an emergent phenomenon that we can't quite explain that has to do with the concatenation of many different groups of neurons at the same time. So the interesting thing about that is that, if that is true, then new laws will emerge at different levels of complexity. And you can't go from one level to the other level directly. You really need a completely different kind of explanation. And we're not there yet, but it's just an alternative way of thinking about how the brain works. And to me, given the complexity, even if we go there and we gain some level of understanding above what we know now, it's always going to be incomplete . . .

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nestor's Silence: Why Heracles attacked Pylos

[Added: related tale of Pholos]

There are myriad tales of individual Greek heroes and their mighty deeds, But if we wanted to list the greatest adventures of groups of Greek heroes, it would be a fairly short list. Those that come quickly to mind:
  • The Argonautica
  • The Calydonian Boar Hunt
  • The Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs
  • The War of Troy
Only one human being was actually present at all four moments of glory: Nestor. 

Nestor and Hecamede

Great counselor and historian Nestor is a living link between the greatest names of ancient legend. Which makes it all the more interesting that in Metamorphoses 12 we learn of Nestor's determination to suppress the glory of one of those heroes. As a sort of coda to Nestor's tale of Lapiths and Centaurs, Ovid tells of how Tlepolemus, Heracles' son, was angered by the absence of his father's name:
As the hero from Pylos told of this battle between the Lapiths and the half-human Centaurs, Tlepolemus, son of Hercules, leader of the Rhodians, could not keep his mouth silent in his indignation at Hercules, the descendant of Alceus, being overlooked. He said ‘Old man, it is amazing that your recital forgot to praise Hercules: certainly my father often used to tell me of the cloud-born centaurs he defeated.’ Nestor answered him, sternly. ‘Why do you force me to remember wrongs, to re-open wounds healed by the years, and to reveal hatred for your father and the injuries he did me?
The question came up as to what lay behind Heracles war upon Pylos. A few hints from Parada:
On one occasion, Heracles 1 came to Neleus in Pylos in order to receive purification for having killed Iphitus 1, the man who gave Odysseus his famous bow. However, Neleus refused on account of his friendship with Iphitus 1's father Eurytus 4, the prince of Oechalia who had received the mentioned bow from Apollo. Others say, however, that Heracles 1 wished purification for having murdered his own wife Megara. In any case, later, during his military campaigns in the Peloponnesus, Heracles 1 invaded Messenia (after the conquest of Elis, but before he attacked Lacedaemon) on the ground of Neleus' refusal to purify him. He took Pylos, and killed all the sons of Neleus, except Nestor, who had taken refuge in Gerenia, or just happened to be there receiving education. [Neleus]
The back story of Iphitus 1:
after Heracles 1 finished his LABOURS, he came to Oechalia to compete in archery for the hand of Iole; he won and yet he was refused the bride by Eurytus 4 and his sons (except Iphitus 1 who said that Iole should be given to Heracles 1), on the ground that he could once more kill his offspring as he had done to his children by Megara. Shortly after some cattle were stolen by the notorious thief Autolycus 1, and Heracles 1 was held responsible; but Iphitus 1 did not believe it and, having gone to meet him, he invited him to seek the cattle with him. Heracles 1 promised to do so but suddenly he went mad again and he threw Iphitus 1 from the walls of Tiryns killing him. He later offered compensation for this death but Eurytus 4 rejected it. [Eurytus 4.]
While we might think Nestor need not have mentioned Heracles, who as far as we know wasn't at the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs, Heracles did in fact have his own encounter with the Centaurs who survived this battle:

PHOLOS (or Pholus) was one of the Peloponnesian kentauroi (centaurs) who dwelt in a cave on Mount Pholoe. He once had cause to entertain the hero Herakles who was passing by in search of the Erymanthian boar. But when Pholos opened his wine-skin to serve the hero, the other kentauroi were thrown into a frenzy by the aroma and attacked. Herakles managed to kill most of them with his arrows, with the few survivors fleeing to far off parts.
With the tale of Pholos (who also accidentally meets his end), Heracles earns the right to be considered the exterminator of the Centaurs -- the very thing Tlopolemus was asserting to Nestor.

Nestor makes clear that as far as he's concerned, Heracles' name (which means "fame of Hera") will not have fame. After describing how Heracles killed his 11 brothers, including Periclymenos in the form of Zeus' eagle, he says:
I look for no other revenge for my brothers
than to be silent about his mighty deeds:
Nec tamen ulterius, quam fortia facta silendo ulciscor fratres
Nestor's determined silence with regard to the name of the most famous Greek hero seems a historian's revenge. He'll strive to erase Heracles just as Heracles tried to erase his world.

The silence might also seems an interesting counterweight to the resonance of Fama's echoing palace, where every name is murmured incessantly.

This might be a good place to explain why Nestor was granted such a long life:
Neleus married Chloris 1, daughter of King Amphion 1 of Thebes, and one of the few NIOBIDS who escaped the wrath of the sweet children of Leto, Apollo and Artemis. It is told that Apollo and Artemis paid back for this slaughter, because they granted Nestor, son of Neleus and Chloris 1, life for three generations, thus compensating for the lives they had shortened when they killed Chloris 1's sisters and brothers.
Nestor is then the sole survivor of his siblings, and his mother seems to have been one "one of the few" who escaped the massacre of her mother Niobe's children which Ovid depicts so powerfully in Book 6. Book 12 begins with a possible survivor, Iphigeneia, and is marked by solitary survivors including Caeneus, Cycnus, Nestor and his mother. It's also preceded by an unwilling survivor bird, Aesacus, and ends with Nestor's memory of his brother Periclymenos who, though emulating the eagle of Zeus, in fact did not survive. Book 13 will also be about lone remnants, one of which is Aeneas.

Aeneas, Anchises, Ascanius

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Turning the tables at the marriage of Pirithous and Hippodamia

Nestor's tale of the Lapiths and Centaurs opens with a simple description:
Duxerat Hippodamen audaci Ixione natus
nubigenasque feros positis ex ordine mensis
arboribus tecto discumbere iusserat antro.
Pirithoüs, the daring son of Ixion, married Hippodame, and invited the cloud-born centaurs to take their place at tables, set in lines, in a tree-shaded cave.
What's slightly missed in Kline's fine prose translation is the untamed connotation of ferus, which Ovid uses instead of "centaurs." The Latin word is the root of descendants such as fierce, feral, and ferocious. When juxtaposed with Ixion and his criminal trespass upon Juno, on the one hand, and with festive "tables placed in order" (ex ordine) on the other, the strangeness of the word stands out.

Let's remember: centaurs were extremely powerful, large, creatures who ate raw meat. One of Ovid's characters, Ripheus, "towered above the treetops." So what was Pirithous thinking -- carefully set the table, then invite Godzilla to discumbere, i.e., recline?

In setting the stage, Ovid is also powering up the tension of the story -- the centaurs embody feral energy literally adjoined to human order. There should be a border there -- a limen, but is there? Or does the centaur serve as an organic image of an extremely volatile mix of human and animal nature?

The horse has often symbolized the power of human energy and desire. In the Phaedrus, Socrates offers this story:
Concerning the immortality of the soul this is enough; but about its form we must speak in the following manner. To tell what it really is would be a matter for utterly superhuman and long discourse, but it is within human power to describe it briefly in a figure; let us therefore speak in that way. We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and [246b] of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome. Phaedrus
The junction of horseman and horse was commonplace enough to run throughout the epic landscape: Hektor is the "breaker of horses"; Nestor is the "Gerenian horseman." Troy's troubles began with Laomedon's horsedealing and the dismembered horse of Tyndareus' oath, and ended when a squad of Helen's former suitors flowed from the innards of the wooden horse. No wonder Maynard Mack said that to find epic, we must "follow the horses."

Plutarch has an anecdote about how the young Alexander tamed Bucephalus:

A massive creature with a massive head, Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had a "wall", or blue eye, and his breeding was that of the "best Thessalian strain." Plutarch tells the story of how, in 344 BC, a thirteen-year-old Alexander won the horse.[4] A horse dealer named Philonicus the Thessalian offered Bucephalus to King Philip II for the sum of 13 talents, but because no one could tame the animal, Philip was not interested. However, Philip's son Alexander was. He promised to pay for the horse himself should he fail to tame it. He was given a chance and surprised all by subduing it. He spoke soothingly to the horse and turned it towards the sun so that it could no longer see its own shadow, which had been the cause of its distress. Dropping his fluttering cloak as well, Alexander successfully tamed the horse. Plutarch says that the incident so impressed Philip that he told the boy, "O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee."[4]

The biform soul, biform human nature, capable both of rule and enslavement, is at work in these tales, and so it is in the Metamorphoses.

Why then does the tale of the Lapiths' battle with the Centaurs come up now? Think of how this tale resonates against what's come before. We spent books 10 and 11 in the company of Orpheus, the man who turned away from loving real women for the sake of art. Here we are in the company of virile creatures who can't turn away from any woman. Eurytus grabs the bride by her hair -- all order is overturned with the tables:
protinus eversae turbant convivia mensae,
The mark of this disorder is a sudden metamorphosis from decor to use: Where for Cycnus even his shield and helmet had been mere decor, because they were useless, now in this wedding feast implements of civility and decorum suddenly are weapons of war. Mixing bowls, cups, entire altars still burning with animal sacrifice, the very threshold stones of the place, the limen, are picked up and hurled. Blood and wine and brains mix in disfigurement and death.

Another reason why this tale of blood, lust and confusion happens now might be that there's a kind of intermittent plot that runs through the second half of the poem. The tale of Ceyx told of a troubled man who wanted to determine the truth of things by consulting Apollo. He sets out, only to lose his way in a vivid, uncontrollable storm. Access to truth is problematic in this age. Soon we're standing at Aulis, again governed by strong winds that lead Calchas to tell Agamemnon he must sacrifice his young daughter. In no time at all, the unimaginable is taking place as the loving father, turned ferocious king, orders Iphigeneia to be placed on the altar. Instantly, the winds are propelling the fleet towards Troy, which hears of their coming through the house of Fama.

Fama is the symmetrical antipode of the oracle -- a resonant realm where sound and sense diverge and merge, exchange roles, and let slip the reins. Fama's bronze halls are the realm of confusion in which the political -- happy election day -- and social realms operate, as anyone on Twitter knows.

As Pirithous, son of Ixion, begins to celebrate his marriage to Hippodamia, (hippodamia = tamer of horses), he is surprised by ferocity -- the centaurs, burning with lust, envy, and wine, upset the feast. In so doing they are not so distant from the grace of Paris at the court of Menelaus, nor from the audacity of Ixion at Zeus's bed, nor from Zeus's rapes of Io, Leda, Danae, Europa, or Poseidon's taking of Caenis, or Erysichthon's daughter, Mestra. Or for that matter from the later adventures of Theseus and Pirithous pursuing Persephone and Helen.

Governance at all levels is muddled as borders blur, desires kick into overdrive, and the faces of men and forms of language are ingloriously mangled beyond recognition. Ovid's anti-epic has much to tell us about epic.
‘First, Amycus, son of Ophion, did not fear to despoil the inner shrine of its offerings, and snatched, first, from the sanctuary, a chandelier, thickly hung with gleaming lamps, and raising it on high, as one wields a sacrificial axe to break the bull’s snowy neck, he dashed it against the forehead of Celadon, the Lapith, leaving him with the bones of his face crushed past recognition. His eyes leapt from their sockets, and his nose, pushed in, as the bones of his face shattered, was driven into his palate.


Friday, November 2, 2012

An anthropological conundrum

Ovid's account of the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs in Metamorphoses 12 is engaged in exploring what it means to be human. Theseus and his Lapith friends are not expecting the chaos that explodes at the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia.

In looking at the centaurs through the eyes of the Greek heroes, we're seeing creatures that are biform, clearly not like us, yet just as clearly containing, somehow, fully the upper half of an entity that's uncannily, undeniably, us. They provoke urgent anthropological inquiry.

"Pindar recounts how the Centaurs from their very origins were associated with the negation of marriage," says Page duBois in Centaurs and Amazons.

Pindar, Pythian 2:
 Unnatural lust throws men into dense trouble; it befell even him [Ixion], since the man in his ignorance chased a sweet fake and lay with a cloud, for its form was like the supreme celestial goddess, the daughter of Cronus. The hands of Zeus set it as a trap for him, a beautiful misery. Ixion brought upon himself the four-spoked fetter, his own ruin. He fell into inescapable bonds, and received the message that warns the whole world. She bore to him, without the blessing of the Graces, a monstrous offspring—there was never a mother or a son like this—honored neither by men nor by the laws of the gods. She raised him and named him Centaurus, [45] and he mated with the Magnesian mares in the foothills of Pelion, and from them was born a marvelous horde, which resembled both its parents: like the mother below, the father above. 

"As liminal creatures, the Centaurs may be understood most fully if their sexual nature is taken into account. They are not simply nature spirits, or river creatures, but also hybrid monsters whose existence in myth permitted speculation about boundaries and kinds."  
"As liminal beings . . . they tested the the boundaries between man and beast, between nature and culture." Centaurs and Amazons.

We might do well to remember that the Parthenon's metopes depicted four battles: the battle of the giants against the Olympians; the battle of the Amazons and Athenians; the battle of Lapiths (with Theseus) vs. Centaurs, and the war of Troy. The war rages around borderlines between what the Greeks understood to be their own kind, and the other, in various guises.

More from the duBois book:


Monday, October 29, 2012

Rings within rings: an instance of chiastic structure

(Edited to clarify and added the Rubens)

At the end of Metamorphoses 12, Achilles falls to the arrow of Paris, guided and prompted by Apollo, who was stirred to action by Poseidon.

Ovid writes:
Now Achilles, grandson of Aeacus, the terror of the Phrygians, the glory and defence of the Pelasgian name, the invincible captain in battle, was burned: one god, Vulcan, armed him, and that same god consumed him. Now he is ash, and little if anything remains of Achilles, once so mighty, hardly enough to fill an urn. But his fame lives, enough to fill a world. That equals the measure of the man, and, in that, the son of Peleus is truly himself, and does not know the void of Tartarus. (Kline).

Of course the word "fame" is actually gloria:
Iam timor ille Phrygum, decus et tutela Pelasgi
nominis, Aeacides, caput insuperabile bello,
arserat: armarat deus idem idemque cremarat;
iam cinis est, et de tam magno restat Achille                       615
nescio quid parvum, quod non bene conpleat urnam,
at vivit totum quae gloria conpleat orbem.
haec illi mensura viro respondet, et hac est
par sibi Pelides nec inania Tartara sentit. 

In addition to the distinction between the mortal remains of Achilles - barely enough to fill an urn - and his glory, which lives to fill the entire world (orbem, the realm of Fama), we note a favorite construction of classical authors, the chiasmus:
 armarat deus idem idemque cremarat;
armed by a god, the same god consumed him.
Rubens: Vulcan Presents Arms of Achilles to Thetis

The chiastic structure of the line: A - B : B - A plays out the mystery of the relation of human and divine in a demigod like Achilles -- he is both protected from injury and incinerated by the same god, in this case Hephaestus, or Vulcan. The sounds replicate the sense -- idem means "the same," and the same word is twice used. Armarat . . . cremarat reflect each other in syntax, meter, and sound.

The concentric shape of the line is not unlike the shape of the west pediment of the Parthenon, which tells the contest of Athena and Poseidon for the city of Athens, which forms a major feature of Metamorphoses 6 (click to enlarge the image:)

The pediment's balanced, formal symmetry places the chief figures in the center, with each half reflecting the other in geometric structure and sense.

It never hurts to look for chiastic structure, also known as ring structure, in classical works. The savage wedding of book 12 appears to reflect the brutal wedding feast of Perseus in Books 4 and 5. Achilles' glory fills the orbem at the end of book 12, reminding us of the world (orbem) of Fama at the book's beginning.

We might look at the death of Achilles in some detail, and ask: in this book that pays its strange Ovidian homage to Homer, to the epic, and to the Trojan War, why is there so little focus on the actual work of war between human actors who fight and one dies at the hands of the other?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Otus and Ephialtes

Mt. Ossa

In Metamorphoses 12, Ovid sets the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in Thessaly near Mounts Pelion (named for Achilles' father, Peleus) and Ossa. As is often the case, the setting is resonant with stories. One relevant here is the tale of Otus and Ephialtes, two giant fellows who decided one day to go after Artemis and Hera (not unlike Ixion). They were known as the Aloadae. According to the story:

Ephialtes 2 and Otus 1, two giants called the ALOADS tried to unseat Zeus from his throne. The ALOADS grew every year a cubit in breadth and a fathom in height; and when they were nine years old, being nine cubits broad and nine fathoms high, they resolved to fight against the gods. They then set Ossa on Olympus, and having set Pelion on Ossa they threatened by means of these mountains to ascend up to heaven. 
They also declared that by filling up the sea with the mountains they would make it dry land, and the land they would make sea. Ephialtes 2 wooed Hera, and Otus 1 wooed Artemis; and they put Ares in bonds. But when they wished to assault Artemis and she could not resist their strength, Apollo sent a deer between them. So driven mad by anger in trying to kill it with javelins, they killed each other. 
But others assert that Artemis caused their death; that she changed herself into a deer and leaped between them, and in their eagerness to hit the quarry they threw their darts at each other. In the Underworld they are punished thus: they are bound by serpents to a column, back to back. Between them is a screech-owl, sitting on the column to which they are bound.
In Greek mythology, the Aloadae (or Aloadai; Ancient Greek: Ἀλωάδαι) were Otus (Ὦτος) and Ephialtes (Ἐφιάλτης), sons of Iphimedia, wife of Aloeus, by Poseidon,[1] whom she induced to make her pregnant by going to the seashore and disporting herself in the surf or scooping seawater into her bosom.[2] From Aloeus they received their patronymic, the Aloadai. They were strong and aggressive giants, growing by nine fingers every month[3] nine fathoms tall at age nine, and only outshone in beauty by Orion.[4][5] 
The brothers wanted to storm Mt. Olympus and gain Artemis for Otus and Hera for Ephialtes. Their plan, or construction, of a pile of mountains atop which they would confront the gods is described differently according to the author (including Homer, Vergil, and Ovid), and occasionally changed by translators. Mount Olympus is usually said to be on the bottom mountain, with Mounts Ossa and Pelion upon Ossa as second and third, either respectively or vice versa. 

A few more Parthenon images of the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs are in this album of photos from a visit we made to the British Museum a few years ago.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Contextual notes for Metamorphoses 12

A few notes on the context for Metamorphoses book 12:

Ixion, notorious fellow and begetter, one way or another, of the Centaurs:
Ixion married Dia, daughter of Eioneus 5; but since the groom would not hand over the gifts of wooing to his wife, Eioneus 5 took his mares as security for these. Ixion then summoned his father-in-law to his home, promising him to comply in every respect; but when Eioneus 5 arrived, he cast him into a pit which he had filled with fire, thus killing him. By Dia, Ixion became father of Pirithous and Phisadie, a woman who was given in servitude to Helen by the DIOSCURI (see also CONSTELLATIONS). But, having committed an enormous crime against a relative (for some have said that Ixion was the first to stain mortal men with kindred blood), there was no one in the world willing to purify him, except Zeus himself, who out of pity, cleansed him at last.
The Cloud 
But then, ungrateful Ixion fell in love with Hera, and made advances to her. And Zeus, having heard Hera's report on this matter, made a Cloud Resembling Hera (Nephele 1) so as to confirm his wife's words by deluding the man's temerity. This is how Ixion lay with a cloud; and believing that he had enjoyed Hera's love, he went around boasting that he had slept with the goddess. From the union of Ixion with the Cloud, some say, the CENTAURS were born; but others say instead that Centaurus was born
"without the blessing of the Graces" (Pindar, Pythian Odes 2.46). 
... and that this monstrous offspring later mated with mares, from whom the CENTAURS were born.

How Pelops won Hippodamia 3

Pirithous defending his bride, Hippodamia 4, from Centaurs

The suitors of Helen - busloads of them.

The oath of Tyndareus. Tyndareus was the husband of Leda. After the Swan visited her and Helen had become a beautiful young woman, he took advice from Odysseus on how to handle the question of her myriad suitors. Note how the fate of Odysseus (via his marriage to Penelope, daughter of Icarius, brother of Tyndareus) is intertwined with his scheme to protect the integrity of Helen's marriage:

War threatened again when SUITORS came from many kingdoms of Hellas to compete for the hand of Helen. And Tyndareus, seeing such a multitude, feared that choosing one of them might provoke the others to start quarrelling. Noticing his plight, Odysseus (who was among the SUITORS) promised that if Tyndareus would help him to win the hand of his niece Penelope (daughter of Icarius 1), he in return would reveal a way by which any trouble could be prevented. Tyndareus accepted the bargain, and Odysseus told him to exact an oath from the SUITORS that they should defend and protect the one chosen as Helen's husband against any wrong done against him in regard to his marriage. This is how the curse known as "The Oath of Tyndareus" came about—the SUITORS being sworn by the king, and Odysseus receiving Penelope from a reluctant Icarius 1. 
[For it is told that Icarius 1 tried to make the couple settle in Lacedaemon. And when he could not persuade them, and they set forth to Ithaca, he followed their chariot begging her daughter to stay. Finally, as Odysseus could no longer endure so much fatherly love and devotion, he bade Penelope either to come with him willingly, or else go back with her father to Lacedaemon, if she so preferred. She did not reply but indicated, by covering her face with a veil, that she wished to depart with her husband. The Oath of Tyndareus proved to be a curse also for its inventor. Odysseus remained bound to the oath he himself had conceived, and when time came he was forced to go to war. Furthermore, an oracle had declared that if he sailed to Troy he would be away twenty years, and he would lose everything. So, being reluctant to join the alliance, Odysseus feigned madness, but Palamedes, seeing through the deception, forced him to desist and join.]
The ceremony of the oath was performed in a place later called "The Tomb of the Horse," on the road from Sparta to Arcadia. For before administrating the oath to the SUITORS, Tyndareus sacrificed a horse, and after they had been sworn standing upon the pieces of the horse, the animal was buried in the same place. The Oath of Tyndareus had the value of a defence pact, for later, when the seducer Paris came to Sparta and abducted Helen taking her to Troy, the oath was invoked by her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon in order to force the kings of Hellas to join the coalition that sailed against Troy in order to demand the restoration of both wife and treasures.

Short version of the Oath story:
Odysseus promised to solve the problem in a satisfactory manner if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with the chosen one. This stratagem succeeded and Helen and Menelaus were married.