Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nova Terra in Metamorphoses 8

Prof. Anderson is very helpful regarding a passage that is usually omitted from book 8 of the Metamorphoses -- it's the moment (roughly lines 600-610) when Achelous describes how, after he raped Perimele and her father threw her off a cliff, the river god intervened, praying to Neptune to try to keep her from drowning. As Anderson notes, the suppressed lines are borderline outrageous.

I've not found an English translation, but the text below comes from this French edition.

si pater Hippodamas, aut si minus impius esset,
debuit illius misereri, ignoscere nobis;}
adfer opem, mersaeque, precor, feritate paterna
da, Neptune, locum, uel sit locus ipsa licebit!"
{Hunc quoque complectar!" Mouit caput aequoreus rex
concussitque suis omnes assensibus undas.   605
Extimuit nymphe, nabat tamen. Ipse natantis
pectora tangebam trepido salientia mota
dumque ea contrecto, totum durescere sensi
corpus et inducta condi praecordia terra.}
dum loquor, amplexa est artus noua terra natantes

si son père eût été plus juste et moins barbare, il se fût laissé fléchir. Moins impie, il eût eu pitié d'elle, il eût pardonné mon amour. Protège cette infortunée, que la fureur d'un père a jetée dans les flots soumis à ta puissance. Daigne lui donner une île pour retraite; oui si tu le veux, qu'elle soit elle-même une île, et que mon onde amoureuse puisse l'embrasser dans son cours". Neptune incline sa tête, et l'humide élément tout entier s'émeut et se soulève. Périmèle frémit; elle nage pourtant; je la soutiens, je presse son sein palpitant. Soudain je sens son corps se durcir et s'étendre. Soudain la terre couvre ses membres flottants.

A rough translation from 606 ff:

The nymph was terrified, but nonetheless kept swimming. While I was holding her up and fondling her breasts, I sensed her body harden and be covered with earth. While I speak, new earth grasps her floating limbs.


"The erotic details of this line and the next," Anderson says in his note on 8.606, "surpass anything else that Ovid is known to have tried in the Metamorphoses. Achelous should hardly fondle the girls breasts in this crisis, when theoretically he is concerned only to save her. Such caresses would decidedly interfere with her swimming."

The word "theoretically" is interesting here. A river god should observe proper decorum when rescuing young nymphs. But do rivers -- natural entities -- observe such niceties? Does a river "understand" theoretical distinctions between rape and love, self-gratification and other-directed care? What grounds our readerly theories?

Nova terra

As Mussy noted the other day, the interconnections between the various tales Ovid tells are virtually innumerable. These missing lines offer, besides a necrophiliac confluence of erotic desire, death, and burial, an interesting link to a tale that will be alluded to in Book 9, from the story of the seven against Thebes.

It seems that Alcmaeon, a son of Amphiarius, one of the original Seven who died at Thebes, had to flee the Erinyes after killing his mother Eriphyle -- he was commanded to do so by his father, whom his mother had doomed, bribed by Polyneices, the son of Oedipus, who gave him the necklace of Harmonia (which we saw, or didn't see, in the tale of Cadmus and Harmonia).

After killing his mother, Alcmaeon
was pursued by the Erinyes and driven mad, fleeing first to Arcadia, where his grandfather Oicles ruled, and then to King Phegeus in Psophis, who purified him and gave him his daughter, Arsinoe in Apollodorus and Alphesiboea in Pausanias, in marriage. Alcmaeon gave her the necklace and robe of Harmonia.[5] According to Apollodorus, Alcmaeon's presence caused the land to be infertile, so he went to Delphi for assistance.[5] In Pausanias, it is his own madness which drove him to do so.[6] 
From there the two accounts generally agree with each other and with Thucydides. Alcmaeon is instructed by the oracle to find a land which did not exist at the time when he was polluted by killing his mother. Accordingly, he goes to a delta of the Achelous river, which was newly formed. There he marries Callirrhoe, the daughter of the river's god. She had heard of the famous necklace and robe of Harmonia, and asks Alcmaeon to get them for her. He complies, returning to Psophis and telling king Phegeus that he required the necklace and robe in order to be purified. Either Phegeus or his sons (Agenor and Pronous) discovers the truth from a servant, and they ambush and kill Alcmaeon.[7][8][9] In Apollodorus, Arsinoe, the daughter of Phegeus, chastises her brothers, who put her into a chest and sell her as a slave.[10] Meanwhile, Callirrhoe prays to Zeus that her sons will grow up instantaneously so that they might take revenge on her husband's murderers. Zeus grants this, and Amphoterus and Acarnan meet the sons of Phegeus at Agapenor's house, when they are on their way to Delphi to dedicate Harmonia's robe and necklace there. After killing them, Amphoterus and Acarnan continue to Psophis and killed king Phegeus and his queen, after which they are forced to flee to Tegea.[11]
The story of Perimele told by Achelous offers us the creation of new land at his delta. The prophecies of Themis at the center of Book 9 interweave several stories from the Theban cycle, including the acceleration of time that happened to the sons of Callirrhoe so that Alcmaeon's murder could be avenged. And including not only the necklace, but also the robe of Harmonia, a garment more fateful than the shirt of Nessus.

How significant is this? Perhaps not hugely so, but it's another instance in which a seemingly gratuitous tale turns out to be related, via back channels, as it were, to another tale, which is nested yet in other tales, making the reader move forward and back as connections, like roots, take hold beneath the surface layer of the narrative.

Another point: by bringing up the acceleration of the lives of Callirrhoe's sons, Themis, goddess of prophecy, underscores a recurrent feature of Book 9 -- as we'll note in more detail ahead, the temporal order is sometimes reversed, sometimes speeded up. Or, effects will occur before causes.

Just as Achelous and Neptune, gods of water, make new land, so the gods can also make new time, or cause time to slow or even disappear, even as the veil of time vanishes to one who, like Themis, sees future things.

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