Sunday, March 11, 2012

Temple for two

Ovid's story of Baucis and Philemon told by Lelex in Book 8 has no known source, although it's possible the tale did exist. It has a kind of inevitability, given the code of hospitality, or Xenia, which was the superb Greek solution to dealing with strangers.

As we noted in our reading, the tale is full of warm, realistic detail, as Baucis hitches up her skirts to fix the table, or when she and old Philemon try to capture the goose, their "estate's" sole guardian.

It gets a bit eerie as they climb the steep hill -- there's no roar of wind or weather, no Achelousian sturm und drang. The old couple turn, look down, and see a wide blank of placid water where their town had been. And one house, their own.

As they mourn for their lost neighbors, the house metamorphoses into a temple. How different from the usual procedure in the ancient world! Normally you'd have a town, then a city, then the ability to finance the construction of a temple -- i.e., the economic possibility of temples was bound up with the wealth of cities, which itself depended upon agriculture, and even more, upon trade. And trade  depended for its existence upon civil relations with strangers. For the Greeks, the road to prosperity and to fine temples appears to be embedded in the code of Xenia.

Here, Philemon and Baucis's home becomes a shining temple of marble and gold at the moment the population vanishes. The logic of the story suggests that the appearance of the temple is another of these divine ratifying appearances (as with Ariadne, or Daedalus) that reveal what was already the case. From the moment the gods entered the humble home and were met with honorable hospitality, the house was, noumenally, a temple.

Ovid is not about to tell us that divinity lies within the individual's faith, hope, and love, and that the body of the pious person is a temple, as the Christians will claim. But the manifestation of a divine order of being that comes from the Xenia of one married couple is a step, and probably a reflection of the Zeitgeist of Ovid's time.

With this in mind, it might surprise us less to find an echo of this tale surfacing in the Acts of the Apostles, in Lystra, which was on the way to Phrygia, the ancient homeland of Baucis and Philemon:

14:8 And there sat a certain man at Lystra, impotent in his feet, being a cripple from his mother's womb, who never had walked: 14:9 The same heard Paul speak: who stedfastly beholding him, and perceiving that he had faith to be healed, 14:10 Said with a loud voice, Stand upright on thy feet. And he leaped and walked. 
14:11 And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. 
14:12 And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker. Acts 14

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