Friday, January 13, 2012

Exit Medea, Enter Theseus

The mini-recognition scene in which Theseus and Aegeus discover they are father and son is also the moment when the ever-industrious Medea disappears from the Metamorphoses. She invokes a dark cloud via an incantation (carmen) and vanishes.

Immediately we are present at a communal celebration, marked by a public song, a festive carmen that recalls several of the heroic feats of Theseus, the elimination of hideous thugs and monsters from the roadways of central Greece.

That song begins:

‘Great Theseus, admired in Marathon,
for the blood of the Cretan bull,
your act and gift made Cromyon’s fields
safe for the farmers plough.
Epidaurus’s land saw you defeat
Vulcan’s club-wielding son,
and the banks of the River Cephisus
saw evil Procrustes brought down.

Theseus has made the fields safe for farmers, and the roads secure for travelers -- exactly what the Muses told Athena they need for art and culture to flourish.

The song of the Athenians contrasts sharply with Medea's incantation that invoked the moon:

‘Night, most faithful keeper of our secret rites;
Stars, that, with the golden moon, succeed the fires of light;
Triple Hecate, you who know all our undertakings,
and come, to aid the witches’ art, and all our incantations:
You, Earth, who yield the sorceress herbs of magic force:
You, airs and breezes, pools and hills, and every watercourse;
Be here; all you Gods of Night, and Gods of Groves endorse. (7.192 ff)

Where Medea's song speaks of silence, night, secrecy and Hekatean arts -- all perfectly consistent with what we have seen of this witch's dramatized introspective consciousness -- the song to Theseus is sung by the polis in broad day:
It is said no day ever dawned for the Athenians more glad than that.
and it's helped along with the natural magic of wine: carmina vino ingenium faciente canunt.

Interestingly, the paean to Theseus begins in the middle of line 433, the dead center of Book 7.

        te, maxime Theseu, 

It might just be coincidence, and certainly there are vagaries of textual integrity -- a line lost here, or interpolated there -- that would offset the structural precision. But let's note that the figure of the greatest Athenian hero enters here, and returns in books 8 and 9 as well. So he's present in the three central books of the poem. While he's given less space than Medea or Cephalus, we have to remember that sometimes, in Ovid, the most important figures can be fleetingly, allusively present.

So consider the possibility that Ovid chose to insert Theseus at this point in Book 7 to mark a golden moment of Athenian balance, harmony, and centrality. In this bright day of his arrival, we are poised between the disappearing eastern witchery of Medea and Hecate, and the ships of Minos that soon appear over the horizon from the south, seeking vengeance upon Athens.

If Medea, the solitary secretive spellbinder, dominated the tale of feckless Jason and the first half of book 7, Minos dominates the latter. He is the king of 100 cities, son of Zeus and Europa, husband to the daughter of the sun who has cursed his sexuality, and caretaker of the land that gave baby Zeus a place hidden from his devouring father, Cronos. As we'll see, the realm of Minos is woven through the latter half of Book 7 and the first half of Book 8.

Dore: Minos in the Inferno 

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