Monday, January 23, 2012

Aeacus: omen and nomen

...the king of Oenone, the best in hands and mind... Pindar, Nemean 8

According to Apollodorus, Aeacus king of Aegina was the most pious of men. When Greece was devastated by evils, Aeacus's prayers restored fruitfulness to Hellas. Ovid transforms that story in Metamorphoses 7. It's another rich, important tale, briefly noted here.

First, the long detailed description of the devastating plague on the isle of Aegina makes it clear that it had no natural cause. The cause was divine, and came from Hera's wrath at Zeus. Not only was she angry at him for straying from the marital alliance (foedus) and loving the daughter of Asopus, Aegina, but also for allowing the isle where that love was consummated, and where their child Aeacus was king, to be named in honor of her rival. (Its original name was Oinone, or Oinopia). The divine cause had no more to do with the moral rectitude of the people of Aegina than with their physical hygiene. They were not being punished for anything they did or did not do (as, for example, Oeneus will be punished by Diana for forgetting to worship her in Book 8). They suffered horribly, to the point of losing every trace of moral, physical, and social humanity, because they lived in a place named Aegina. Gods do not like being reminded of certain things.

Zeus and Aegina
In a sense, Hera does to the people of Aegina what Medea does to Jason's children. It's another holocaust of innocents:
All the gates were crowded with processions of the dead. Unburied, they might lie upon the ground, or else, deserted, on their lofty pyres with no one to lament their dismal end, dissolve in their dishonored ashes. 
Anthropologists have long noted that observing rites for the dead is one of the constitutive features of human civilization, and Ovid makes clear that on this island, the plague dissolved all memory of humanity.
All restraint forgotten, a mad rabble fought and took possession of the burning pyres, and even the dead were ravished of their rest... Bk 7
Indeed, it wipes away all memory, cultural and instinctual:
The spirited horse, once famous on the track, loses his glory, and forgetting past honour, whinnies in his stall, dying a slow death. The wild boar no longer remembers his fury;
What differentiates Aeacus from Jason is that he is able to regenerate his people. He doesn't resurrect those who were dead, but asks his father for help, not necessarily imagining he will receive it.
‘Stunned by such a storm of dark events, I said “O Jupiter, if they do not lie when they say that you were held in Aegina’s embrace, she, the daughter of Asopus, and if you are not ashamed, mighty father, to have fathered me, give me back my people or bury me too in their tomb.” ...
‘There happened to be an oak-tree nearby, with open spreading branches, seeded from Dodona, and sacred to Jove. I noticed a long train of food-gathering ants, carrying vast loads in their tiny mouths, and forging their own way over its corrugated bark. Admiring their numbers, I said “Best of fathers, give me as many citizens as this and fill the city’s empty walls.” The tall oak-tree quivered, and its branches filled with sound, without a wind. I shivered, my limbs quaking with fear, and my hair stood on end.
The hair-raising encounter with the numinous might remind us of another patriarch, Abraham, prostrate at the burning bush. But it's important to note the differences. Aeacus is not prostrate. And, this encounter is ambiguous. There's simply a notam -- a sign, which Aeacus "spells out":
He gave me a flash of lightning as a sign, and thunder followed. I said “I interpret this to be an omen (pigneror omen) and that you give me it as a pledge, and may these accordingly be auspicious tokens (felicia signa) of your purpose.” 
Though I kissed the oak-tree and the earth, not acknowledging my hopes, yet I did hope, and cherished my longings in my heart. Night fell, and sleep claimed my care-worn body. Kline
The dreaming king receives no words from the god, but the dream proves prophetic. Aeacus had asked Jupiter to either kill him or, if he's not ashamed of his son, to restore his people. Aeacus is an offspring of whom Jupiter is not ashamed (pudor).

Aeacus kisses the tree (as Apollo had kissed Daphne's bark in Book 1), and in his dream sees the ants grow into men:
Suddenly they seemed to grow larger and larger, and raise themselves from the soil, and stand erect, they lost their leanness, many feet, and their black coloration, and their limbs took on human form.
We might be reminded of the dragon-teeth warriors of Cadmus and Jason springing from the earth. As he awakens, his son runs in to tell him the news.
"speque fideque, pater," dixit "maiora videbis" 
"more than you believed or hoped, father," he said, "will you see" 
A sacred transaction has occurred: the dream was the preview, the reality its wish fulfillment. It's a restoration that doesn't involve Aeacus flying around the Mediterranean after goats' livers and horrid herbs, yet the magic, more potent than that of Medea, restores a civilization.

What doesn't happen is also significant: The god does not lay out a plan or covenant, a future and a direction for Aeacus and his people. There is no promise, no commitment to head toward some future goal. (In fact, many of their descendants will perish at Troy.) They are just there, an entire people, intact and reverent and orderly, awaiting the king's command.

They arrive with the same dreamlike rapidity as their predecessors perished. By virtue, apparently, of an equally arbitrary divine power. The appearance of the men conceals their origin, but the logic of this tale has its anthropology. Just as his naming of the isle led to the death of his people, their regeneration incites Aeacus to give them a name:
Myrmidonasque voco nec origine nomina fraudo 
I called them Myrmidons, nor did I cheat the name of its origin
The omen of the ants is remembered in the nomen. Aeacus's act of naming remembers the root of the human condition in this world. There is no divine plan for mankind, no Jerusalem. With good auspices we increase and multiply and become a mighty people pleasing to the gods, but amid the giant passions of these gods, a mighty people enjoys the ontological heft of a collection of well-organized ants.

Aeacus and the ants (Vergilius Solis)

1 comment:

  1. O'Laughlin would have been pleased.