Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Setting and background in Metamorphoses 7

In the latter half of Metamorphoses 7, Ovid pointedly stage manages meetings between Aeacus and Minos, and then Aeacus and Cephalus. These latter happen to be ancestors, respectively, of Achilles and Odysseus -- the chief heroes of the Homeric epics.

Aeacus, son of Zeus and father of Peleus, was the king of Aegina - an island to the west of Athens - and grandfather of Achilles. Cephalus, grandson of Aeolus, was the great-grandfather of Odysseus through Clymene, the woman he married after the death of Procris. The line (known as "the line of only sons") is Cephalus -> Arcesius -> Laertes -> Odysseus -> Telemachus.
Aeacus while he reigned in Aegina was renowned in all Greece for his justice and piety, and was frequently called upon to settle disputes not only among men, but even among the gods themselves.[12][13] He was such a favourite with the latter, that, when Greece was visited by a drought in consequence of a murder which had been committed, the oracle of Delphi declared that the calamity would not cease unless Aeacus prayed to the gods that it might.[2][14] Aeacus prayed, and it ceased in consequence. (Aeacus)

Aeacus meets Cephalus soon after Minos had come to Aegina seeking the island's aid in his effort to conquer and punish Athens. The Cretan king was angered that his son, Androgeos, had been killed by Aegeus, king of Athens, after winning all the prizes at Athenian games; he was going around the Mediterranean seeking support to avenge his son's death. Given that this entire scene appears to have been invented by Ovid, we might find ironies here worth noting:

Warrior, Temple of Aphaia
First, Aegina is the island to which Aphaia, known as the "invisible goddess," fled to escape the lust of Minos. Here she was made a goddess by Artemis. Aegina boasts a magnificent temple in her honor, and she is considered a precursor of Athena (many fine images of the temple here).

Second, Minos's effort to gather a large attacking army might remind us of Agamemnon's effort to gather all of Greece behind his war on Troy.

Third, Aeacus will later banish two of his sons, Telemon and Peleus, for having killed Phocus, his third and youngest son, who excelled in athletics, according to some versions of the story.

Finally, when Aeacus meets Minos, he's speaking to one of the two men (Rhadamanthus being the third - both he and Minos are sons of Zeus and Europa) who, along with Aeacus himself, will become the three great judges of the dead:
After his death, Aeacus became (along with the Cretan brothers Rhadamanthus and Minos) one of the three judges in Hades,[20][21] and according to Plato especially for the shades of Europeans.[22][23] In works of art he was represented bearing a sceptre and the keys of Hades.[2][24] Aeacus had sanctuaries both at Athens and in Aegina,[16][25][26] and the Aeginetans regarded him as the tutelary deity of their island.[27]

Pindar's 8th Isthmean Ode contains a tribute to Aeacus, addressed to Aegina (who was mother both to Aeacus (by Zeus) and to Menoetius (by Aktor) - the grandfathers respectively of Achilles and Patroklos):

Zeus and Aegina
he carried you to the island Oenopia and slept with you there, where you bore Aeacus, the dearest of all men on earth to the loud-thundering father. Aeacus settled disputes even for the gods. His god-like sons and their sons, devoted to war, were the best in manliness, engaged in the brazen battle-throng that causes groans, and they were wise and prudent in spirit.

We have some justification, then, for noting that Ovid invests this scene with the aura of a holy man, on an island steeped in myth where is worshiped an ancient invisible goddess nearly ravished by Minos. (One variant in Aeacus's story is that he is actually another son of Zeus and Europa, which would make him Minos's brother.) And the holy man is refusing to help Minos in favor of the ambassadors just arriving from Athens.

Rhadamanthus, Minos, Aeacus

In turning down Minos's request, Aeacus cites his kingdom's long relations and treaties with Athens. Minos' departing ships are still visible when Cephalus is announced. Aeacus will warmly pledge support for Athens. Then he tells Cephalus of the ravages of Hera's plague, and of his prophetic dream of his people's regeneration. Cephalus in turn will tell Phocus the sad tale of the gifts of Artemis: Laelaps -- the dog no beast could evade -- and the javelin that could not miss its aim.

These stories are not new with Ovid, but juxtaposing their narration here, on Aegina, within the context of Minos' warmongering and the threat to Athens, is apparently his invention. Like Aphaia, and later Theseus, Aeacus of Aegina works to defeat the Cretan son of Europa. Whether or not this context yields insight into the fairly long and divinely driven tales of metamorphoses in the latter half of book 7 will be seen in the result. The somewhat intricate interlacing of threads suggests that Ovid is choosing his tales, characters and sequences with his usual inscrutable care.

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