Thursday, May 31, 2012

"Would God that namelesse I myght pleade"

In Book 9, as Prof. Anderson notes, Ovid introduces the act of writing into the scene of Byblis in love with her twin brother. It is an opportunity for Ovid once again to capitalize on a mirroring effect -- just as the girl loves an image of herself, so the depiction in writing of a writer writing offers a reflection upon its own production.

As the girl moves from discovery to confession to excuse to a vow to "conquer" her brother's love, she dramatizes the full gamut of rhetorical arts and strategies. It's a portrait, or meta-portrait, of the author as one who both seeks to find a way to name (nomine) the secrets of the heart and to conquer (vincere) the reader.

Writing is naming, re-writing and seduction, Ovid seems to say. Writers may seem to be impassioned Rousseaus nakedly revealing the insupportable wounds of the heart, but what author is not at the same time concerned to succeed with his/her public? Writing can both say and do, and these do not necessarily always coincide. The intricate interplay of passion, desire, deletion, search for the mot juste, plot, strategy, pathos and calculation is fully exhibited in the scene where Byblis writes on her wax tablet:
in latus erigitur cubitoque innixa sinistro'viderit: insanos' inquit 'fateamur amores!ei mihi, quo labor? quem mens mea concipit ignem?' et meditata manu componit verba trementi.dextra tenet ferrum, vacuam tenet altera ceram.incipit et dubitat, scribit damnatque tabellas,et notat et delet, mutat culpatque probatqueinque vicem sumptas ponit positasque resumit. quid velit ignorat; quicquid factura videtur,displicet. in vultu est audacia mixta pudori.scripta 'soror' fuerat; visum est delere sororemverbaque correctis incidere talia ceris:'quam, nisi tu dederis, non est habitura salutem, hanc tibi mittit amans: pudet, a, pudet edere nomen,et si quid cupiam quaeris, sine nomine vellemposset agi mea causa meo, nec cognita Byblisante forem, quam spes votorum certa fuisset.

So raysing up herself uppon her leftsyde shee enclynd,  And leaning on her elbow sayd: Let him advyse him whatTo doo, for I my franticke love will utter playne and flat. Alas to what ungraciousnesse intend I for to fall?What furie raging in my hart my senses dooth appall?
In thinking so, with trembling hand shee framed her to wryght The matter that her troubled mynd in musing did indyght. Her ryght hand holdes the pen, her left dooth hold the empty wax. She ginnes. Shee doutes, shee wryghtes: shee in the tables findeth lacks. She notes, she blurres, dislikes, and likes: and chaungeth this for that.
Shee layes away the booke, and takes it up. Shee wotes not what  She would herself. What ever thing shee myndeth for to doo Misliketh her. A shamefastnesse with boldenesse mixt theretoWas in her countnance. Shee had once writ Suster: Out agen The name of Suster for to raze shee thought it best. And then
She snatcht the tables up, and did theis following woords ingrave: The health which if thou give her not shee is not like to have Thy lover wisheth unto thee. I dare not ah for shame I dare not tell thee who I am, nor let thee heare my name. And if thou doo demaund of mee what thing I doo desyre,
Would God that namelesse I myght pleade the matter I requyre, And that I were unknowen to thee by name of Byblis, till Assurance of my sute were wrought according to my will.   
Metamorphoses Book 9, Golding translation

The image of the wax tablet comes from an interesting page on the history of writing.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Byblos and Adonis

Port of Byblos


bĭbˈləs, ancient city, Phoenicia, a port 17 mi (27 km) NNE of modern Beirut, Lebanon. The principal city of Phoenicia during the 2d millennium b.c., it long retained importance as an active port under the Persians. Byblos was the chief center of the worship of Adonis. Because of its papyruses, it was also the source of the Greek word for book and, hence, of the name of the Bible. Excavations of Byblos, especially since 1922, have shown that trade existed between Byblos and Egypt as early as c.2800 b.c. A syllabic script found at Byblos dates from the 18th to the 15th cent. b.c.


Adonis ( Earths "lord"), in Greek mythology, the god of beauty and desire, is a figure with Northwest Semitic antecedents, where he is a central figure in various mystery religions. His religion belonged to women: the dying of Adonis was fully developed in the circle of young girls around the poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos, about 600 BCE, as revealed in a fragment of Sappho's surviving poetry.[1]

Death of Adonis

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Writing oneself into difficulty

Near the conclusion of Tristia 2, Ovid laments at some length his exile at the command of Augustus. In addition to saying, essentially, "why me?" he mentions his Metamorphoses along with the Fasti as poems deserving of honor, not banishment:
And I also sang bodies changed to new forms,
though my efforts lacked the final touch.
If only you might calm your anger for a while
and order some of it read while you’re at leisure,
a few lines, where having started from the world’s
first origin, I bring the work, Caesar, to your times!
You’ll see how much you yourself have inspired my spirit,
how in song my mind favours you, and yours.  555 ff

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Miletus and children

Miletus (Ancient Greek: Μίλητος)
Miletus was son of Apollo and Areia, daughter of Cleochus, of Crete.[1] When Areia gave birth to her son she hid him at a place where the plant milax* was growing; Cleochus found the child there and named him Miletus after the plant.[2] Another tradition relates that Miletus' mother by Apollo was Akakallis, the daughter of Minos. Fearing her father's wrath she exposed the child, but Apollo commanded the she-wolves to come down and nurse the child.[3] Yet another source[4] calls his mother Deione, and himself by the matronymic Deionides. Finally, one source gives Miletus as the son of Euxantius, himself son of Minos by a Telchinian woman Dexithea.[2] 
He was loved by both Minos and Sarpedon, but showed preference for the latter, and this became the reason why Sarpedon was expelled from Crete by his brother. Following the advice of Sarpedon, Miletus also left Crete for Samos, then moved to Caria and became the mythical founder and eponym of the city of Miletus.[1][2][3] Myths further relate that the hero Miletus founded the city only after slaying a giant named Asterius, son of Anax; and that the region known as Miletus was originally called 'Anactoria'.[5] 
Miletus married either Eidothea, daughter of Eurytus, or Tragasia, daughter of Celaenus, or Cyanee, daughter of the river god Maeander, or Areia, and by her had a son Kaunos (Caunus) and a daughter Byblis, who happened to develop incestous feelings for each other.[6][3][7][8][9]
*Milax = Smilax, a nymph beloved of Crocus, who in turn was beloved of Hermes. Crocus and Smilax are briefly alluded to -- Metamorphoses 4.283.

In Greek mythology, Byblis or Bublis (Ancient Greek: Βυβλίς) was a daughter of Miletus. Her mother was either Tragasia, Cyanee, daughter of the river-god Meander, or Eidothea, daughter of King Eurytus of Caria. She fell in love with Caunus, her twin brother.

In Greek mythology, Caunus or Kaunos (Ancient Greek: Καῦνος) was a son of Miletus, grandson of Apollo and brother of Byblis.
Caunus became the object of his own sister's passionate love. From some accounts it appears that Caunus was the first to develop the affection towards her;[1][2] others describe Byblis' feelings as unrequited.[3][4][5] All sources agree, however, that Caunus chose to flee from home in order to prevent himself from actually committing incest with Byblis, and that she followed him until she was completely exhausted by grief and died (or committed suicide). 
Caunus eventually came to Lycia, where he married the Naiad Pronoe and had by her a son Aegialus. Caunus became king of the land; when he died, Aegialus gathered all the people from scattered settlements in a newly founded city which he named Caunus after his father.[1]

Miletus here and here.

Milesian Tales also here.

The Milesian tale (Milesiaka, in Latin fabula milesiaca, or Milesiae fabula) originates in ancient Greek and Roman literature. According to most authorities, it is a short story, fable, or folktale featuring love and adventure, usually being erotic and titillating. M. C. Howatson, in The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1989), voices the traditional view that it is the source "of such medieval collections of tales as the Gesta Romanorum, the Decameron of Boccaccio, and the Heptameron of Marguerite of Navarre." 
But Gottskálk Jensson of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, offers a dissenting view or corrective, arguing that the original Milesian tale was 
a type of first-person novel, a travelogue told from memory by a narrator who every now and then would relate how he encountered other characters who told him stories which he would then incorporate into the main tale through the rhetorical technique of narrative impersonation. [1] 
This resulted in "a complicated narrative fabric: a travelogue carried by a main narrator with numerous subordinate tales carried by subordinate narrative voices." 
. . . the name Milesian tale originates from the Milesiaka[1] of Aristides of Miletus (flourished 2nd century BCE), who was a writer of shameless and amusing tales with some salacious content and unexpected plot twists. Aristides set his tales in Miletus, which had a reputation for a luxurious, easy-going lifestyle, akin to that of Sybaris in Magna Graecia; there is no reason to think that he was in any sense "of" Miletus himself.
Milesian tales gained a reputation for ribaldry: Ovid, in Tristia, contrasts the boldness of Aristides and others with his own Ars Amatoria, for which he was punished by exile.

From Tristia:
Aristides associated himself with Milesian vice,
but Aristides wasn’t driven from his city.

Miletus and Maeander

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Byblis before Ovid

First, a correction. The story of Byblis and Caunus was known prior to Ovid. A discussion of the tale is found in Parthenius of Nicaea's Erotica Pathemata (Of the Sorrows of Love), and it points to a few earlier sources where the story can be found in one form or another. 

Parthenius was brought to Rome in 72 BC, and is believed to have tutored Virgil. So while he apparently died in 14 AD, his work was probably produced much earlier.

Thanks to Theoi, the Erotica can be found here. What's striking is how devoid of literary elaboration these tales are in Parthenius' dry hands. Here, for example, is his story of Byblis and Caunus:

From Aristocritus39 History of Miletus and the Foundation of Caunus40 by Apollonius of Rhodes 
There are various forms of the story about Caunus and Byblis, the children of Miletus. Nicaenetus41 says that Caunus fell in love with his sister, and, being unable to rid himself of his passion, left his home and traveled far from his native land: he there founded a city to be inhabited by the scattered Ionian people. Nicaenetus speaks of him thus in his epic: –
Further he42 fared and there the Oecusian town founded, and took to wife Tragasia, Celaeneus’ daughter, who twain children bare: first Caunus, lover of right and law, and then fair Byblis, whom men likened to the tall junipers. Caunus was smitten, all against his will, with love for Byblis; straightway he left his home, and fled beyond Dia: Cyprus did he shun, the land of snakes, and wooded Capros too, and Caria’s holy streams: and then, his goal once reached, the built a township, first of all the Ionians. But his sister far away, poor Byblis, to an owl divinely changed still sat without Miletus’ gates, and wailed for Caunus to return, which might not be. 
However, most authors say that Byblis fell in love with Caunus, and made proposals to him, begging him not to stand by and see the sight of her utter misery. He was horrified at what she said, and crossed over to the country then inhabited by the Leleges, where the spring Echeneïs rises, and there founded the city called Caunus after himself. She, as her passion did not abate, and also because she blamed herself for Caunus’ exile, tied the fillets of her head-dress43 to an oak, and so made a noose for her neck. The following are my own lines on the subject: –
She, when she knew her brother’s cruel heart, plained louder than the nightingales in the groves who weep for ever the Sithonian44 lad; then to a rough oak tied her snood, and made a strangling noose, and laid therein her neck: for her Milesian virgins rent their robes. 
Some also say that from her tears sprang a stream called after her name, Byblis.
Ovid clearly went to town on this story, reversing the "poles" so that Byblis is the afflicted lover, introducing all the paraphenalia of writing, developing the passion and her means of relating it to her brother through several phases involving elaborate arguments, duplicities, and reversals.

So a question we might want to ask as we explore Byblis: Why does Ovid use this tale to give us, as Anderson notes, the first detailed description of a writer at work of which we have any record? Is there a reason why the art and craft of writing enter the Metamorphoses precisely at this point?

Note that the "Sithonian lad" of Parthenius is poor Itys, whom we last saw in the tale of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus in Book 6.

Letters and Lovers: Paris and Helen

With Byblis and Caunus in Metamorphoses 9, Ovid returns to the epistolary mode of his Heroides. Several of the letters are in pairs, with a lover's overture followed by a response from the beloved. The snippet below is taken from the pair which Ovid composed for Paris and Helen. Paris is visiting the palace of Menelaos at Sparta. Menelaos is away, leaving Helen to entertain his Phrygian guest.

Paris writes:

Don’t think I divided the waves with my ship carrying goods –
the wealth I have the gods can keep.
Nor have I come just to visit the towns of Greece:
my kingdom’s cities are far richer.
I seek you, whom lovely Venus drives towards my bed:
I wished for you before you were known to me.
Your face was in my mind before I saw you with my eyes:
news of your fame first brought me the wound.

Paris to Helen, from Ovid, Heroides

A prose version of Paris to Helen and Helen to Paris is here.

Wax writing tablet and styluses

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ixion Room

The well-preserved Ixion room at the Casa dei Vetti:

The wheel of Ixion is partly visible here

Daedalus presents his device to Pasiphae

A page rich in mythological paintings from this Pompeian house is here.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Heracles and Cadmus: Vestem and Vestigia

Professor Anderson's attentive eye noticed more than one interesting thing about this passage in Book 9 -- it's the moment Heracles is finally separated from his maternal portion once and for all:
interea quodcumque fuit populabile flammae,
Mulciber abstulerat, nec cognoscenda remansit
Herculis effigies, nec quicquam ab imagine ductum
matris habet, tantumque Iovis vestigia servat.             265
utque novus serpens posita cum pelle senecta
luxuriare solet, squamaque nitere recenti,
sic ubi mortales Tirynthius exuit artus,
parte sui meliore viget, maiorque videri
coepit et augusta fieri gravitate verendus.
Meanwhile, Mulciber had consumed whatever the flames could destroy, and no recognisable form of Hercules remained, no semblance of what came to him from his mother: he only retained his inheritance from Jove. 
As a snake enjoys its newness, sloughing old age with its skin, gleaming with fresh scales; so, when the Tirynthian hero had shed his mortal body, he became his better part, beginning to appear greater, and more to be revered, in his high majesty. 
Anderson first notes that exuit (exuo) has the sense of "to take off," as with clothes, though what here is being removed is the body, i.e., everything that resembled the man Hercules. As the child of a god and a woman, Hercules is composed of a mortal vestem as well as the immortal vestigia Iovis; the passage is distinguishing between the phenomenal, tangible body and a noumenal, immortal part.

Doffing the body the way the body doffs clothing will remind us that it was the vestem of Nessus, the clothing, that killed the hero. What serves as metaphor here at the moment of apotheosis is cut from the same cloth as a key literal plot element of the story that preceded it.

Anderson goes on to note that while the serpens luxuriates in his new skin and gleaming scales, this is hardly a metaphor of transcendence, one that would intimate a higher mode of existence beyond the body. In fact, the reptilian image of the snake shedding its old skin and delighting in the new is but another metaphor of external covering vs. internal reality, isn't it? The new Hercules, instead of being freed from the limitations of earthly, bodily metaphorics, instead moves from clothing to skin -- where we might expect "spirit," or "numen," we get more body. We're still in the language of the phenomenal world.

But the use of serpens will remind us that Heracles has been entwined by snakes since Hera sent them into his cradle. The earthly career of Heracles, like that of Cadmus, is rounded by the serpent -- except that here, at the moment of death, the emphasis is upon not something repeated, but on novus -- the thing made new. The differences become more marked if we now look back at that earlier scene in Book 4:

Cadmus and Harmonia's serpentine metamorphosis replicates the baleful necklace given them at their wedding. Indeed, Cadmus even reaches for her colla adsueta:
His tongue flickered over his wife’s face, he slid between her beloved breasts as if known there, and clasped her, and searched about for the neck he knew so well.

Harmonia in turn is drawn to the neck of the serpent:
she stroked the gleaming neck of the crested serpent, (lubrica permulcet cristati colla draconis)
And as Harmonia looks desperately for some sign of the former Cadmus, the human one, she says:
‘Cadmus, wait, unhappy one, tear away this monstrous thing! Cadmus, what is it? Where are your feet? Where are your hands, shoulders, face, colour, everything – while I speak? Why do you not change me as well, you gods, into this same snake’s form?
She asks where the form, the phenomenal appearance, of her husband is:
Cadme, mane, teque, infelix, his exue monstris!
Cadme, quid hoc? ubi pes, ubi sunt umerique manusque 
 et color et facies et, dum loquor, omnia
cur nonme quoque, caelestes, in eandem vertitis anguem?”
Indeed, she uses exuo, the same verb used at 9.268 (quoted above) to describe Heracles shedding his body. But here instead of a metamorphosis in which one thing is distinguished and torn from something ontologically other (Heracles' form from his substance), Harmonia discovers that she can no longer tell where her husband ends and the serpent begins. Her response is to pray to become the same snake (eandem anguem).
Why do you not change me as well, you gods, into this same snake’s form?
Where Heracles' skin-shedding snake metaphor stresses renewal -- a fundamental distinguishing break with the old and a new beginning, the metamorphosis of Cadmus and Harmonia stresses the merging of the couple so completely in the form of serpents as to lose virtually all humanity, their house (Thebes) doomed over and over to cycle through the curse of Hephaestus.

For Heracles the emphasis is on the advent of a difference, the presence of the novus, something that might break the fate of Thebes.

So, a provisional interpretative thought: the speech of Themis brought into focus a comparative look at two great mythic cycles, Thebes and Heracles, and seemed to underscore how the two respective stories end up mirroring each other like two sides of a serpentine necklace. Here the apotheosis of Heracles suggests a further twist -- that perhaps one of the two heroes is not entirely entrapped in endless repetition. While on Earth, for all his violent temper and madness, Heracles was on the way to becoming a hero with transformative powers. By solving every task he was ever given, he signaled a potential to expand the human. No longer a static creature residing within fixed limits, this son of Jove scorned every limitation, every fearsome challenge, even death.

If Cadmus is the tragic figure whose descendents, like Oedipus, discover that they cannot escape the antics of Fate, Heracles is inaugurating the thought of a dynamism suspending all bounds. Ultimately he bows to Fate, as all mortals do. But his scorn in the face of all challenges, including the realm of Hades, signals a power that works to transform the world it is given -- one whose labors resonate with unearthly terror and laughter.

Apotheosis of Hercules, Versailles

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The clasp of time

Heracles and Iolaus battle the Lernaean Hydra

At the exact center of Metamorphoses 9, the sudden appearance of a rejuvenated Iolaus startles Alcmene, the mother of Hercules, and Iole, the daughter of Eurytus.
nam limine constitit alto
paene puer dubiaque tegens lanugine malas,
ora reformatus primos Iolaus in annos.

There, on the steep threshold, stood IolaüsHercules’s nephew and companion, alive again, with the look of his early years, a hint of down on his cheeks, almost, again, a child.
The marvel on the threshold gives rise to the abrupt speech of Themis, which manages in one mouthful to pull together several threads of the tale of Theban cycle and link them with the usually unrelated story of Heracles:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Priapus and Lotis

But crimson Priapus, guardian and glory of gardens,
Of them all, was captivated by Lotis:
He desires, and prays, and sighs for her alone,
He signals to her, by nodding, woos her with signs.
But the lovely are disdainful, pride waits on beauty:
She laughed at him, and scorned him with a look.
It was night, and drowsy from the wine,
They lay here and there, overcome by sleep.
Tired from play, Lotis rested on the grassy earth,
Furthest away, under the maple branches.
Her lover stood, and holding his breath, stole
Furtively and silently towards her on tiptoe. . .  Fasti I Jan. 9 A.S. Kline
In Ovid's Fasti,[19] the nymph Lotis fell into a drunken slumber at a feast, and Priapus seized this opportunity to advance upon her. With stealth he approached, and just before he could embrace her, Silenus's donkey alerted the party with "raucous braying". Lotis awoke and pushed Priapus away, but her only true escape was to be transformed into the lotus tree. To punish the donkey for spoiling his opportunity, Priapus bludgeoned it to death with his gargantuan phallus.

Priapus and Lotis

Priapus was described as the son of Aphrodite by Dionysus, or the son of Dionysus and Chione,[1] perhaps as the father or son of Hermes,[2] and the son of Zeus or Pan, depending on the source.[3] According to legend, Hera cursed him with impotence, ugliness and foul-mindedness while he was still in Aphrodite's womb, in revenge for the hero Paris having the temerity to judge Aphrodite more beautiful than Hera.[4] The other gods refused to allow him to live on Mount Olympus and threw him down to Earth, leaving him on a hillside. He was eventually found by shepherds and was brought up by them. 
Priapus joined Pan and the satyrs as a spirit of fertility and growth, though he was perennially frustrated by his impotence. In a ribald anecdote told by Ovid,[5] he attempted to rape the nymph Lotis but was thwarted by an ass, whose braying caused him to lose his erection at the critical moment and woke Lotis. He pursued the nymph until the gods took pity on her and turned her into a lotus plant. The episode gave him a lasting hatred of asses and a willingness to see them destroyed in his honour.[6]
Priapus: Wikipedia; Theoi; Parada.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The launch of Lichas

In Metamorphoses 9, Ovid pauses in his account of the death of Heracles to tell the fate of Lichas, the messenger who bore the shirt of Nessus from Deianeira:
Ecce Lichan trepidum latitantem rupe cavata
aspicit, utque dolor rabiem conlegerat omnem,
'tune, Licha,' dixit 'feralia dona dedisti?
tune meae necis auctor eris?' tremit ille, pavetque
pallidus, et timide verba excusantia dicit.                       215
dicentem genibusque manus adhibere parantem
corripit Alcides, et terque quaterque rotatum
mittit in Euboicas tormento fortius undas.
ille per aerias pendens induruit auras:
utque ferunt imbres gelidis concrescere ventis,                220
inde nives fieri, nivibus quoque molle rotatis
astringi et spissa glomerari grandine corpus,
sic illum validis iactum per inane lacertis
exsanguemque metu nec quicquam umoris habentem
in rigidos versum silices prior edidit aetas.                      225
nunc quoque in Euboico scopulus brevis eminet alto
gurgite et humanae servat vestigia formae,
quem, quasi sensurum, nautae calcare verentur,
appellantque Lichan.
Then he caught sight of the terrified Lichas, cowering in a hollow of the cliff, and pain concentrated all his fury. ‘Was it not you, Lichas,’ he said, ‘who gave me this fatal gift? Are you not the agent of my death?’ The man trembled, grew pale with fear, and, timidly, made excuses. While he was speaking, and trying to clasp the hero’s knees, Alcides seized him, and, swinging him round three or four times, hurled him, more violently than a catapult bolt, into the Euboean waters. 
Hanging in the air, he hardened with the wind. As rain freezes in the icy blasts and becomes snow; whirling snowflakes bind together in a soft mass; and they, in turn, accumulate as a body of solid hailstones: so he, the ancient tradition says, flung by strong arms through the void, bloodless with fright, and devoid of moisture, turned to hard flint. Now, in the Euboean Gulf, a low rock rises out of the depths, and keeps the semblance of a human shape. This sailors are afraid to set foot on, as though it could sense them, and they call it, Lichas. (Kline)
This passage comes after the onset of Heracles' awareness of the Hydra's poison and before his final agonies. As Prof. Anderson suggests, it offers a bit of "relief" before the apotheosis.

But what sort of relief is this?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Heracles and women

The adventures of Heracles (Hercules) as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses 9 break up what another writer might offer as a chronological narrative of his life into several "slices," each of which tells a key moment in his story. Briefly, they follow this order:
1. Contest with Achelous for the hand of Deianeira
2. Nessus' attempted rape of Deianeira and death by the arrow dipped in the Hydra's blood
3. Rumor (Fama) causes Deianeira to send Nessus' poisoned tunic to Heracles
4. Death and apotheosis of Heracles
5. Protracted birth of the hero.
The famed 12 labors of Heracles occur between parts 2 and 3, and are summarily listed by the hero in his death agony in 4. That is to say, as usual, Ovid pointedly swerves around the epic material (as he did with Jason and Theseus), or distorts it into something grotesque rather than grand (Perseus). For Heracles, who gets more space than these other heroes, the poet spends most of his time on moments that involve certamina (contests that prove something), eros, ambiguous language or gossip (Fama), and vividly agonistic liminal moments.