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

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