Thursday, January 19, 2012

True Love, Cretan Lies, and Monsters

The tale of Cephalus and Procris ends the seventh book of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is rich in strange and magical elements, speaking of love, mistrust, coincidence, necessity, inescapable devices and fatal paradoxes. It has a long afterlife, extending to Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, as E.H. Gombrich and other scholars have noted.

The story seems simple, but has enigmatic elements - we'll look at a few of them here, but this is by no means exhaustive.


Eos (Latin: Aurora), along with Helios (sun) and Selene (moon) is the child of the Titans Hyperion and Thea (Sight). She is the predatory lover of a series of mortals. In Book 7 of the Metamorphoses, we meet one of those lovers, Cephalus. Other lovers included Orion, Phaethon (or Kleitos) and Tithonos. Here is Hyginus's version of the story of Cephalus, Eos and Procris:
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 189:
"When Cephalus, who was fond of hunting, had gone to the mountain in the early morning, Aurora [Eos], wife of Tithonus, fell passionately in love with him, and begged for his embrace. He refused, since he had given his promise to Procris. Then Aurora said: `I don’t want you to break faith, unless she has done so before you.’ And so she changed his form into that of a stranger, and gave him beautiful gifts to give to Procris. When Cephalus had come in his changed form, he gave the gifts to Procris and lay with her. Then Aurora took away his new appearance. When Procris saw Cephalus, she knew she had been deceived by Aurora, and fled to the island of Crete . . .
[Procris was eventually reunited with Cephalus] nevertheless out of fear of Aurora she followed him to watch him in the early morning, and hid among the bushes. When Cephalus saw the bushes stir, he hurled the unavoidable javelin, and killed his wife."


Procris is the daughter of Erechtheus II, the just king of Athens. Recall that her sister, Oreithyia, was carried off by Boreas at the end of Metamorphoses 6. Ovid says that Cephalus is the son of Deioneos of Phocis, and grandson of Aeolus, the king in charge of the winds. Another tradition makes him the son of Hermes and Herse. Cephalus loves Procris, and she loves him, but the course of this true love runs anything but smooth.

Poussin: Cephalus and Eos (ca. 1630)

The story offers a series of bizarre permutations upon the love triangle. First, Dawn, Eos/Aurora, sees Cephalus and carries him far off, after he's been married to Procris for only two months. In Ovid's telling, Cephalus so strongly protests his love and faithful devotion to Procris that Eos sends him back to her, but only after implanting seeds of doubt about Procris's fidelity to him. Either he disguises himself, or his appearance is changed by Eos, so that he can pretend to be a new admirer of his wife. Ovid underscores the poignant signs of Procris's fidelity to her husband:
When I saw her I was rooted to the spot, and almost relinquished my thoughts of testing her loyalty. Indeed I could hardly keep from confessing the truth, and hardly keep from kissing her, as I ought. She was sad (but no one could be more lovely than her in her sadness). She grieved with longing for the husband who had been snatched away. Phocus, she was Beauty, whom Grief itself so befits! Why should I tell how many times her chaste nature repelled my advances? All those many times she said “I hold myself, in trust, for one man only: wherever he is, I keep what I can give, in trust, for that one man.” For whom, in his senses, was that not a great enough trial of loyalty? But I was not satisfied . . . (Kline)
At the moment his heated efforts to seduce her are apparently going to succeed, he is revealed as Cephalus, to the shame of his wife, who flees.

Procris flees to Crete, where she could be a not-quite-virginal devotee (but not companion) of Artemis -- and/or where she has a role in the peculiar marriage of Minos and Pasiphae (see below). Yet Procris still loves Cephalus. Cephalus and Procris are a perfectly stable couple in love, except that on one side Eos/Aurora is kidnapping Cephalus, while on the other, Artemis or Minos is arming Procis with deadly weapons - Laelaps and the spear that is free from chance. Who ever said love was simple?

Palimpsest: MINOS and PASIPHAE

Ovid sets the tale of Cephalus within the frame of Minos's war on Athens, so the Minos / Crete dimension of this story, with its nightmarish sexuality, cannot be ignored. Parada usefully brings together several threads of the story of Minos and Pasiphae here.
[Procris] fled to Crete where the rule was held by King Minos 2, a man notorious for his love affairs, and for having many women. Queen Pasiphae of Crete, however, disliking her husband's habits, had bewitched him, so that whenever Minos 2 made love to another woman, he ejaculated serpents, scorpions, and millipeds. This circumstance did not affect the queen herself, for she, being daughter of Helius, was immortal, but all other women who had intercourse with Minos 2 perished. However, on account of this enchantment, Minos 2 was unable to procreate. And that is why Procris could make a place for herself in Crete, for she promised the king to cure him, so that he could have children. (Parada on Procris)
Minos's seed is lethal to any woman except Pasiphae. The toxicity is Pasiphae's means of limiting his seed (and thus his dynasty) to her womb. But one can't think of Pasiphae's womb without recalling how this daughter of Helios (and hence niece of Eos), sister of Circe, and aunt of Medea commanded Daedalus to fabricate a mechanism enabling her to consummate her passion for the bull.

The tale of Minos and Pasiphae intersects with Procris at this point. Minos is helped by a device invented by Procris:
And this is what Procris conceived: she introduced a goat's bladder into the genitals of a woman, so that Minos 2, after having discharged the beasts into the bladder, made love to Pasiphae. This is how Minos 2 succeeded in having descendants, and feeling grateful he gave Procris two wonderful gifts: a Swift Dog, named Laelaps, which was fated to catch whatever prey it pursued and that had been given by Zeus to Minos 2 as a guardian for Europa (see also Amphitryon), and a Dart-That-Flew-Straight.
Minos and Pasiphae each use mimetic, prosthetic technology (or if you prefer, magic) to further their sexual range.

Procris, by a clever device, makes Minos able to avoid poisoning mortal women -- essentially freeing him from the marital "bond" even as he is able to inseminate Pasiphae and have heirs. For this gift, according to some versions, Minos gives Procris both Laelaps and the spear (iaculum) that allows nothing to escape. The spear is not subject to the whims of fortune:
Consequitur quodcumque petit, fortunaque missum non regit, 
its flight is always certain to the mark,
nor is it subject to the shift of chance;
Both gifts had originally been given to Europa, mother of Minos, by Zeus. Armed with these, any mortal would be the most powerful hunter in the world.

In another version of the story, Procris received Laelaps and the spear from Artemis, to whom she fled when shamed by Cephalus-in-disguise. Artemis, it is said, could not accept a married woman as a follower, but pitied her and gave her gifts worthy of a divine huntress.

Denouement: CEPHALUS and PROCRIS

Denouement: untying, from noue, knot.

With the dog and spear, whether from Artemis or Minos, Procris returns to Cephalus. Here too there's a complication. She returns disguised as a man, and tempts Cephalus with the gifts. Cephalus is so taken with the dog and spear that he agrees to make love to this "man" who, in the event, turns out to be his wife.

As Cephalus says:
laesum prius ulta pudorem 
"after she had taken revenge for her wounded honor." 
The couple have now managed mutual shame. They reconcile, live happily for a time. Then one day he is overheard, while hunting, murmuring "aura" to the breezes he loved. Eventually, thanks to the purely fortuitous similarity of aura and Aurora, and to a snitch, Procris conceives a jealous fear that her husband is still, or again, in love with Aurora. Hearing "aura" she makes a noise where she's hiding behind a bush, and dies by the spear that "fortune" never allowed to miss its mark. Her exposure of his alleged deviance itself proves deviant. His truth, exposed as truth, kills the error that called it a lie.

Very Ovidian: the totally arbitrary coincidence of phonemes in Aurora / aura triggers the doubt which in turn provokes the throw of the un-fortunate spear, whose aim is never arbitrary. Yet the aim of that aim, the intended target of its throw, appears completely random -- something moving in the bush.

Palimpsest and Paradox

Ovid loves to nest tales within tales. So here he manages to remind us of the dark Cretan background to the Cephalus-Procris story, creating a kind of palimpsest, a double-text.

Indeed, it's a double text about doubles:
  • Just as Daedalus's mechanical bull enabled Pasiphae to be herself and yet not herself, and thus to achieve unnatural union and conceive a monster, so Procris' apparent change in sexual identity proved Cephalus willing to unnaturally possess his wife.
  • And as Procris's prophylactic goat's bladder enabled Minos both to safely have all women and to procreate with his true wife, so Eos's transformation of Cephalus enabled him to suspect Procris of being available to any man and false to her true husband. 
Teumessian Fox & Laelaps
Yet these deviancies only make more imponderable the denouement in which a fatefully random coincidence of sound leads one whose love is true to kill his one true love. Enough paradoxes for one story?

One way of seeing the story of Cephalus and Procris is as an intricate Ovidian set of variations upon Epimenides' paradox of the liar -- the Cretan liar:

"All Cretans always lie"
"I am a Cretan"

 The pursuit of the rest of that statement, like Laelaps chasing the Teumessian Fox, cannot end.

Ovid doesn't introduce riddling paradoxes lightly. He's thinking about the labyrinthine contours of knowledge. How well do we ever know the other, or even, like Oedipus, ourselves? Can we ever know, beyond the shadow of a doubt that the one we love is true, or are we left, like Cephalus (aka Head), endlessly trying to prove them false because we can't forego ocular proof for mere faith? In the matter of faith -- fides, the root of foedera -- paradox abounds, and the grounds of knowledge are abyssal.

Amor and Arma

The Cretan background brings us to the reason why Minos was warring upon Athens -- Aegeus had killed his son and heir, Androgeos. What's more, Minos' need for an heir mirrors the tale of Aegeus, who married Medea because he didn't know he had fathered Theseus.

The tales in Metamorphoses 7 -- Jason and Medea, Aeacus, Minos, Theseus, and Cephalus and Procris -- offer interlocking symmetries that are both formal and thematic. Love and War, amor and arma, intertwine. The latter half of Book 7 sets up parallels between Athens and Crete, the two Aegean civilizations on the brink of war. Minos will win that war, and impose his famous doom, requiring young Athenian men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur every nine years. Once again, a strong non-Greek power is attempting to subjugate Athens to the monstrous. This in turn will spur Theseus to thread the labyrinth, slay the "infamy of Crete" and carry off Minos' beloved daughter, Ariadne. That, as they say, is another story; yet in the palimpsestic world of the Metamorphoses, it's part of this one as well.

Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne

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