Thursday, June 14, 2012

The imponderable lightness of weasels

Book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses presents some unusual complications even as it repeats a pattern we've seen before -- one that's occurred often in the middle books of the poem (books 6 through 10).

The pattern, which we've noted before, is that the book shifts or breaks in the middle, changing its narrative focus to pursue a new series of tales. In book 7, for example, the arrival of Theseus in Athens puts an end to the lurid history of Medea. Minos enters, and Aeacus and Cephalus then narrate their stories. In book 8, after more Minos material and the tale of Meleager and the Calydonian boar, the book takes up tales told by Achelous and others in his grotto, where the river god is feasting Theseus. And in book 9, after the death and birth of Heracles, we have the central prophecy of Themis, raising the relation of the gods to Fate. The rest of the book is taken up with the two tales of Byblis and Iphis.

Heracles and Achelous

Even as this pattern is developing, other thematic concerns emerge. For example, Book 9 provides multiple perspectives on the relation of language and time, event and narration, or even more broadly, action and reflection. It opens with Achelous (who is asked about his broken horn) telling of his wrestling match with Heracles. It's a tale told after the fact by one of its participants to Theseus and his friends. It's worth noting that we don't see Theseus doing anything heroic, but we do see him, both here and at the end of Book 8, listening to stories that recapture past events. If Heracles is a hero in the mode of pure action (and basically zero reflection), Theseus appears in the Metamorphoses as one whose heroic deeds are mediated in song, but who in this poem mainly contemplates the deeds of others.

At certain moments, the order of cause and effect, or beginning and end, are reversed. We are told of the death of Heracles, (involving a vast pyre on Oeta that burns away the hero's mortal part, leaving a pure immortal form), then of his birth -- a kind of hysteron-proteron (cart before the horse). More interesting still, the hero's very birth is owed to a trick that is attributed to Galanthis, the redhead who is turned into a weasel for it. What's of interest is the nature of the trick. Here's how Alcmene, Heracles' mother, tells it to Iole:
Tortured for seven nights and as many days, worn out with agony, stretching my arms to heaven, with a great cry, I called out to Lucina, and her companion gods of birth, the Nixi. Indeed, she came, but committed in advance (praecorrupta), determined to surrender my life to unjust Juno. She sat on the altar, in front of the door, and listened to my groans. With her right knee crossed over her left, and clasped with interlocking fingers, she held back the birth, She murmured spells (carmina), too, in a low voice, and the spells halted the birth once it began. I laboured, and, maddened, made useless outcries against ungrateful Jove. I wanted to die, and my moans would have moved the flinty rocks. The Theban women who were there, took up my prayers (vota), and gave me encouragement in my pain. 
Tawny-haired Galanthis, one of my servant-girls, was there, humbly born but faithful in carrying out orders, loved by me for the services she rendered. She sensed that unjust Juno was up to something, and, as she was often in and out of the house, she saw the goddess, Lucina, squatting on the altar, arms linked by her fingers, clasping her knees, and said ‘Whoever you are, congratulate the mistress. Alcmena of Argolis is eased (levata), and the prayers (voto) to aid childbirth have been answered.’ 
The goddess with power over the womb leapt up in consternation, releasing her clasped hands: by releasing the bonds, herself, easing (levor) the birth. (Kline trans.)
Alcmene's tale is about weightiness -- heaviness and lightness, both in the physical sense (as Alcmene says, the pondus and gravitas of Heracles in her womb indicated that his father was Zeus), and in the rhetorical sense of uplift or levity.

The quick-witted Galanthis (known in some tellings as Historis) sees the goddess (Eileithyia or Lucina) using spells to hold back the easing of Alcmene's labor, and so she, the handmaid, lies. She tells Lucina that Alcmene's prayers (vota, vows, words that are intended to bring a result) have been answered and that the mother is eased (her womb is levata of Heracles).

This is interesting because the girl is at once pretending that the prayers of the mother and the Theban women have been answered -- i.e., she claims an event has taken place because a verbal request received a response -- when, in fact, no such event has taken place. The carmina of Lucina were actually still effectual. In the contest of two sets of verbal charms, carmina and vota, Lucina's (backed by Hera) were in fact stronger, but since Lucina is outside the door of the room, she can't actually see what's the case. The moment she believes that the child is born, she opens her clenched legs and hands and ceases her spells, and it is then that Heracles is born. Amid all these magical charms, the joke here is that what actually brings about the birth of Heracles is an act of wit. Galanthis lies by saying Heracles is born when he has not been born, and the deception causes Heracles to be born. A false statement of an effect becomes the cause of itself becoming true.

Ovid underscores the fact that he's talking about the impact of words upon events, and about levity, by immediately showing us Galanthis laughing (and reminding us that this is all a tale):
They say Galanthis laughed at the duped goddess. (numine decepto risisse Galanthida fama est). As she laughed, the heaven-born one, in her anger, caught her by the hair, and dragged her down . . .
Weasel (Lat. mustela)
Galanthis's stroke of wit indeed brings about a desired result, but the moment she laughs at Lucina, she brings upon herself a different effect, her metamorphosis into a weasel. The ponderous plight of Alcmene is lightened, but the cost is precisely the loss of gravitas that often accompanies the entrance of grand personages like heroes. Nothing is less conducive to ponderous solemnity than weasels, otters, or badgers.

A few observations:

Instead of hysteron-proteron (cart before horse) we have the transformation of a lie into truth -- in delivering itself, the lie undoes itself and proves true. (This pattern is repeated with Iphis and Ianthe later in the book, as the puer fictus becomes a boy in fact.)

A story, then, need not be a subsequent re-counting, or mimesis, of an event. A clever or mendacious tale in certain situations can generate events, bring them into being, or release obstructions in shattering laughter. What is cleverness (sollertia - a word Ovid likes to use) if not a certain esprit of surprise, changing the complexion and expectation, the rules of the game, in short, that is underway?

Language has this disruptive power. This might seem an insight that was first brought to us in 1951 by the language philosopher J.L. Austin in his How To Do Things with Words. Austin is credited with a "revolutionary" exploration of "speech acts," the capability of language to do things, as when once says "I now pronounce you man and wife." It seems Ovid and the ancients were examining speech acts and the performative power of language somewhat earlier.

To underscore the point that words can do things, Ovid's Alcmene notes a "fact" about weasels:
because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she gives birth through her mouth, and frequents my house, as before.
If the notion of the speech act ever needed a mascot, what creature more perfect than the animal that "gives birth through her mouth"? This bit of lore had a long afterlife in the bestiaries of the Middle Ages.

It seems that Ovid's concern with poetics -- his metapoetics, if you will -- extends beyond a sense of poetry as mimesis (description, reflection, retelling) to poetry as action (making new, creating, disrupting). The notion of setting in motion a chain of events which is then broken, altered, set on a new course, is not unlike the pattern we have noticed in which, in the middle of a book, one motif or subject is dropped and another begins.

Book 9, which begins the second half of his poem, seems to be particularly preoccupied with the matter of linguistic power. What does it mean, for instance, that the inaugural moment of the greatest action hero of the Greek world was made possible through the quick thinking of a servant girl?
When Heracles grew up, he built a sanctuary to Galinthias and sacrificed to her; the practice of honoring Galinthias in Thebes lasted down to late times.[2] [Galanthis].
I had hoped to get further in examining the structure of Book 9 at a more macro level. I hope to look at that relatively soon.

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