Friday, June 29, 2012

Hymen, Orpheus, and deviation

Metamorphoses 10 begins with the figure of Hymen, who leaves the surprisingly successful wedding of Iphis and Ianthe to attend the unfortunate marriage of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Hymen and Eros
His hair is flaxen, his torch is sputtering, and his journey to Thrace is described by the verb digreditur -- to depart, but also to deviate, digress. He has come because he was called by Orpheus, whose call can move trees and beasts. All goes wrong.

There's very little in the available sources about Hymen, who is usually cited not as part of a story, but in close connection with the hymenios, the song sung at the procession of the bride to the house of the groom (as in Catullus's famous Hymn to Hymen). I.e., the god and the hymn calling upon the god are in some sense intermingled.

The god and his song were to accompany the bride to the house of the groom -- a rite of passage, a moving across a threshold from daughter/virgin to wife/mother. Eurydice doesn't make it.

While it might be over-reading to attach too much importance to this failure of Hymen, there are some interesting elements in his mythological background.

In some versions, he is the son of Apollo and a Muse, either Calliope, Urania, or Terpsichore. This would make him at least Orpheus's half-brother, since Orpheus is sometimes believed to be the son of Calliope and Apollo.

At least one story links Hymen not to marriage -- the achievement of an intentional union -- but to a homoerotic state of distraction:
Hesiod tells the story in the Great Eoiae . . . Magnes was the son of Argus, the son of Phrixus and Perimele, Admetus' daughter, and lived in the region of Thessaly, in the land which men called after him Magnesia. He had a son of remarkable beauty, Hymenaeus. And when Apollo saw the boy, he was seized with love for him, and would not leave the house of Magnes. Then Hermes made designs on Apollo's herd of cattle which were grazing in the same place as the cattle of Admetus. First he cast upon the dogs which were guarding them a stupor and strangles, so that the dogs forgot the cows and lost the power of barking. Then he drove away twelve heifers and a hundred cows never yoked, and the bull who mounted the cows, fastening to the tail of each one brushwood to wipe out the footmarks of the cows. He drove them through the country of the Pelasgi, and Achaea in the land of Phthia, and through Locris, and Boeotia and Megaris, and thence into Peloponnesus by way of Corinth and Larissa, until he brought them to Tegea. From there he went on by the Lycaean mountains, and past Maenalus and what are called the watch-posts of Battus. (Antoninus Liberalis.)
We met Battus in Metamorphoses 2 - he's turned to stone for trying to outwit Hermes. Battus is a pointer, an index, who promises to point to the truth, and in so doing, proves himself a liar, and so, via divine wit, becomes a literal touchstone. Orpheus will soon speak of how he is not interested in fictions, but only in speaking truth. Nothing is quite what it seems in Ovid.

Hymen, the deliverer of brides to grooms, here seems to be yet another of Apollo's loves, which sets in motion the digression of what is proper to the god, his cattle stolen by the new-born Hermes. That subject is elaborated beautifully in the Hymn to Apollo.

Are there any successful marriages in Metamorphoses 10?

For further digressive pleasure, consider Monteverdi's Orfeo with Jordi Savall:

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