Sunday, July 29, 2012

Orpheus the ancient source

One view of Orpheus makes him out to be more than a poet or thinker, but a culture hero in the mold of Erichthonius of Athens. Here's one form such a view can take:
"...Orphefs [sic] 'by his playing and singing won over the Greeks, changed the hearts of barbarians and tamed wild beasts.' He made men give up cannibalistic feasts, an achievement which in Graeco-Roman times was attributed to many Gods without much discrimination; but for Orpheus it can be traced back to the fifth century. He taught men also the arts of agriculture and in this way inclined their natures towards peace and gentleness." (Orpheus)
I've found a few online sources for Orpheus, including translations of his hymns, rhapsodies, and a kind of Theogony like that of Hesiod. Below are some relevant links.

Here's a useful intro to the Orphic hymns, which are considered to be of great antiquity:
THE ORPHIC HYMNS (Gr. Ορφικοί Ύμνοι, ὈΡΦΙΚΟῚ ὝΜΝΟΙ) are a collection of eighty-seven hymns to the Gods which have been used in the rituals of Hellenismos. The poems are attributed to Orpheus, but the actual authorship is unclear. The date of composition of the hymns is also a matter of dispute. There are those in the Orphic tradition who believe they are 10,000 years old, based on certain clues found in the text itself. Some scholars claim a time period ranging anywhere from the sixth century BCE to the fourth century CE, most believing they were composed in the later period, but it is curious, and has been noted, that there is no evidence of any Christian influence in the poems, leaving one to suspect a more ancient date of creation. G.R.S. Mead, in his book Orpheus, argues for a date of great antiquity, citing a number of ancient authors (Diodorus Siculus and Iamblichus) and scholars (Clavier, Thomas Taylor, and J.F. Gail) who hold that opinion: "the poems of Orpheus date back to Pelasgic Greece, to the days of legend, to pre-historic times." 

Hymns of Orpheus - The Taylor Translation of 1792 is problematic, but it's the one used by Theoi. It can be downloaded from the above intro site, or accessed online here.

A recent translation (1988) that is said to be accurate and well done, but which is overpriced, is The Orphic Hymns by Apostolos N. Athanassakis.

The ancient view of Orpheus as teacher, rather than as poet, is sketched out here.

The basis for the notion of Orpheus as thinker/teacher is the fragments knows as the Sacred Logos in 24 Rhapsodies. Also some make much of the Orphic mysteries  as key to Greek religious practices.

If nothing else, the "vatic" style of this passage, found on a gold tablet (known as the Petelia Tablet) in southern Italy, suggests why Orpheus became the font of a long esoteric tradition (which we touched on here) combining religious, metaphysical, scientific and poetic lore. (If of interest, more here.)
"Thou shalt find to the left of the House of Hades a Well-spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this Well-spring approach not near.
But thou shalt find another by the Lake of Memory,
Cold water flowing forth, and there are Guardians before it.
Say: 'I am a child of Earth and of Starry Heaven;
But my race is of Ouranos. This ye know yourselves.
And lo, I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
The cold water flowing forth from the Lake of Memory.'
And of themselves they will give thee to drink from the holy Well-spring,
And thereafter among the other Heroes thou shalt have lordship..."
Gold lamella prayer tablet

Here's the Hymn to Adonis via Taylor's translation of 87 such hymns:
Much-nam'd, and best of dæmons, hear my pray'r, the desart-loving, deck'd with tender hair;
Joy to diffuse, by all desir'd is thine, much form'd, Eubouleos; aliment divine
Female and Male, all charming to the sight, Adonis ever flourishing and bright;
At stated periods doom'd to set and rise, with splendid lamp, the glory of the skies.
Two-horn'd and lovely, reverenc'd with tears, of beauteous form, adorn'd with copious hairs.
Rejoicing in the chace, all-graceful pow'r, sweet plant of Aphrodite, Eros' delightful flow'r:
Descended from the secret bed divine, of lovely-hair'd, infernal Proserpine.
'Tis thine to fink in Tartarus profound, and shine again thro' heav'ns illustrious round,
With beauteous temp'ral orb restor'd to sight; come, with earth's fruits, and in these flames delight.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Books on Ovid's Metamorphoses

I've stumbled upon two studies of Ovid that look interesting. The first, by Garth Tissol, is The Face of Nature. The blurb on Amazon describes Tissol's primary concern, which seems relevant to some of our recent discussions:
In these reflections on the mercurial qualities of style in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Garth Tissol contends that stylistic features of the ever-shifting narrative surface, such as wordplay, narrative disruption, and the self-conscious reworking of the poetic tradition, are thematically significant. It is the style that makes the process of reading the work a changing, transformative experience, as it both embodies and reflects the poem's presentation of the world as defined by instability and flux. Tissol deftly illustrates that far from being merely ornamental, style is as much a site for interpretation as any other element of Ovid's art.

In the first chapter, Tissol argues that verbal wit and wordplay are closely linked to Ovidian metamorphoses. Wit challenges the ordinary conceptual categories of Ovid's readers, disturbing and extending the meanings and references of words. Thereby it contributes on the stylistic level to the readers' apprehension of flux. On a larger scale, parallel disturbances occur in the progress of narratives. In the second and third chapters, the author examines surprise and abrupt alteration of perspective as important features of narrative style. We experience reading as a transformative process not only in the characteristic indirection and unpredictability of Ovid's narrative but also in the memory of his predecessors. In the fourth chapter, Tissol shows how Ovid subsumes Vergil's Aeneid into the Metamorphoses in an especially rich allusive exploitation, one which contrasts Vergil's aetiological themes with those of his own work.

Tissol, a Classics professor at Emory University, was a student of William S. Anderson, and edited his Festschrift. According to his vita, he's under contract to continue Anderson's commentaries on Metamorphoses 11 - 15.

The other book, by Philip Hardie, is entitled Ovid's Poetics of Illusion. Hardie is also the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Description on Amazon:
This major study of Ovid's poetry is the first overarching treatment of the importance of illusion and the conjuring presence throughout his corpus. Modern theoretical approaches accompanied by close readings examine the topic from the points of view of poetics and rhetoric, aesthetics, the psychology of desire, philosophy, religion, and politics. There are also case studies of the reception of Ovid's poetics of illusion in Renaissance and modern literature and art. The book will interest those studying Latin and later European literature. All foreign languages are accompanied by translations.
The cover of Ovid's Poetics of Illusion features, "of course," Pygmalion:


Alas, both tomes are expensive. Amazon's "Look Inside" feature allows glimpses of both books. I've managed to order a less expensive used copy of the Tissol through Amazon's affiliated booksellers. -- Never mind, they wrote back and cancelled the order - the book had already been sold.

Tissol's book is reviewed here by Joseph B. Solodow, another Ovidian and author of The World of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Songs and singers in Book 10

Jean-Léon Gérôme

Throughout Metamorphoses 10, we need to remind ourselves that all the tales of the book after the story of Eurydice are sung by Orpheus to his attendant anthology of trees and creatures. Perhaps no tale is more Orphic than that of Pygmalion and the statue.

We note that the series of tales from Pygmalion to Adonis are "all in the family," as Pygmalion and the statue are the great-grandparents of Myrrha (via Paphos and Cinyras), and great-great ancestors of Adonis.

Orpheus's stories begin with Ganymede, plucked from Earth by Zeus on Mt. Ida, and end with Adonis gored by a boar. These songs frame the tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes, sung by a second narrator, Venus.

- Ovid sings of Orpheus and Eurydice.
- Orpheus in turn sings of Ganymede, Cyparissus and Hyacinth; of Venus transforming Pygmalion's work of art into a woman, of Adonis's mother's incest with her father, of the birth of Adonis, of Venus's love for Adonis.
- Venus sings of Atalanta to her beloved Adonis.
- Orpheus sings the death of Adonis.
- Ovid sings the death of Orpheus.

Characters in stories -- depicted representations -- are turning into singers of stories.

Thanks to Arline for our recent images of Ganymede and Pygmalion.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rembrandt's Ganymede

Rilke's Orpheus

Another 20th century poet fascinated with Orpheus was, of course, Rainer Maria Rilke. Jutta sends along this poem, translated by Tony Kline, our online translator of Ovid and much else.

Here's the beginning of Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes:

That was the strange mine of souls.
As secret ores of silver they passed
like veins through its darkness. Between the roots
blood welled, flowing onwards to Mankind,
and it looked as hard as Porphyry in the darkness.
Otherwise nothing was red.

There were cliffs
and straggling woods. Bridges over voids,
and that great grey blind lake,
that hung above its distant floor
like a rain-filled sky above a landscape.
And between meadows, soft and full of patience,
one path, a pale strip, appeared,
passing by like a long bleached thing.

And down this path they came.     ...more...

For comparison, here's the same poem translated by Stephen Mitchell.

 Rilke also wrote 55 Sonnets to Orpheus, found here in a translation by Howard A. Landman.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Discombobulous history and its other

Now and then it's probably a good idea to step back from close attention to specific words, lines, passages and take a look at larger patterns and motifs in the Metamorphoses.

At the macro level, the title of the poem sets a reader to wonder: What sort of changes? Why "changes"? What is change? What's the end, the result, or outcome of mere change? The alleged topic of Ovid's poem seems to be more of the nature of a verb than of a noun. Some person, place or thing undergoes change, and becomes some other person, place or thing. The interest, the game, the poetry is usually in the act of changing -- the sudden arrest or surprise:
While she was still speaking, the soil covered her shins; roots, breaking from her toes, spread sideways, supporting a tall trunk; her bones strengthened, and in the midst of the remaining marrow, the blood became sap; her arms became long branches; her fingers, twigs; her skin, solid bark. And now the growing tree had drawn together over her ponderous belly, buried her breasts, and was beginning to encase her neck: she could not bear the wait, and she sank down against the wood, to meet it, and plunged her face into the bark. (Myrrha)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Poetry at the Olympics, ancient and modern

Herb points us to a piece in the New York Times by Tony Perrottet about poetry and the Olympics, ancient and modern. A few snippets:
. . .the relationship between poetry and the Olympics goes back to the very origins of the Games. In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil. Spectators packing the sanctuary of Zeus sought perfection in both body and mind. Champion athletes commissioned great poets like Pindar to compose their victory odes, which were sung at lavish banquets by choruses of boys. ...
Criticism could be meted out brutally: when the Sicilian dictator Dionysius presented subpar poems in 384 B.C., disgusted sports fans beat him up and trashed his tent. At other Greek athletic festivals, like those at Delphi, dedicated to Apollo, the god of poetry and music, verse recital was featured as a competitive event, along with contests for the lyre and choral dancing... 
. . . the gold for literature in the 1924 Paris Olympics . . . went not to T. S. Eliot or Jean Cocteau but to one Géo-Charles, nom de plume of Charles Louis Prosper Guyot, for “Jeux Olympiques,” an evocation of the hammer-throwing and foot races?

(“The runners bend, tense flowers, . . . /A shot: A violent word! / And suddenly / Necks extended, forward / like stalks / faces like pale snatched / apples, / teeth and jaws rushing into / space.”)
Interesting that the article ends with a short poem by Emily Dickinson:
Fame is a bee. It has a song — It has a sting — Ah, too, it has a wing.
Pindar offered a complex fusion of athletic contest, myth, ethics and sheer joy in the beauty of the word that is unequaled. On the subject of fame and the sting of envy, intertwining an Olympian runner with his poetic challenge, he says this in the 8th Nemean (I came across it while researching Cinyras):
After all, men's longest-living happiness
is that which deity has sown for them:
happiness like that which gave vast wealth
 to Cinyras on sea-set Cyprus.
At the starting line I lightly stand and draw my breath
before my race of words; for verbal novelties
            are rife: experiments
in poetry are full of risk. Words whet envy's appetite, and
envy always nibbles at good men and never tries to trim the bad.
-- from Pindar's Odes, a translation by Roy Arthur Swanson.

More on the Olympics here.

[Update:] NPR has a related story here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Orpheus: the poet as unnatural auctor

The more time one spends with the Metamorphoses, the more intriguing it becomes. Unlike books that move with linear, consequential momentum from beginning to middle to end, Ovid's poem, if it moves, does so in a way that seems to call for analogies with mirrors, or perhaps fractals.

It becomes difficult to find a "way in" to the heart of this labyrinthine poem because there seem a nearly unlimited number of entrances, each opening onto a limitless series of paths that open onto -- you get the idea -- a Borgesian library, a book, liber, that's also a maze. But where does it begin? Does it have a center? an end? Where's Ariadne when we need her?

In book 10 we're noticing that Orpheus, who once had sung of "heavy" matters such as the gigantomachy, changes his tune after losing his bride to Hades, twice. The comparisons of the defeated poet to a nameless fellow frightened by Cerberus, and to Olenus, a man who refused to live without his beloved, proud Lethaea, suggest that Ovid might not entirely dissent from the judgment of Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium that Orpheus proved a coward frightened by both death and love.

What happens is that after encountering death, Orpheus's poetry changes:
‘Begin my song with Jupiter, Calliope, O Muse, my mother (all things bow to Jupiter’s might)! I have often sung the power of Jove before: I have sung of the Giants, in an epic strain, and the victorious lightning bolts, hurled at the Phlegraean field. Now there is gentler work for the lyre, and I sing of boys loved by the gods, and girls stricken with forbidden fires, deserving punishment for their lust. (Kline)
For "epic strain," the Latin text has plectro graviore; for "gentler work for the lyre," Ovid has leviore lyra. This is the poet as Orphic musician, the tools of his trade standing for the genre, the kind of song, he will sing. The image picks up the continuous play of lightness and heaviness that we've noted on several occasions.

What's interesting here is that, Orpheus, the famed "father of songs" (ἀοιδᾶν πατὴρ, Pindar calls him), goes backwards, reversing the Virgilian progression that moved inexorably from slender piping pastorals to laborious Georgics to the epic founding of empire.

Is it possible that Ovid is offering, via allegory, some autobiographical datum? Some suggestion that his own poetic career will be different from his mighty predecessor's? Hard to tell.

In turning away from the war of gods, Orpheus also turns away from heterosexual love and marriage, the stable union upon which the web of human life and fortune is built. There will be no children from these aberrant affairs, (unless we consider Paphos and Adonis, and we will have to do just that).

Somehow latent in this turning away, Orpheus also becomes, not a father, but the Thracian auctor of the male love of young boys. Is literary authorship somehow a strange begetting? Does the literary mode in which Ovid works -- this very poem we are reading -- somehow involve the "unnatural"? Is it purely by chance that the term genre derives from the root of gender?
gender (n.) c.1300, "kind, sort, class," from O.Fr. gendre (12c., Mod.Fr. genre), from stem of L. genus (gen. generis) "race, stock, family; kind, rank, order; species," also (male or female) "sex" (see genus) and used to translate Aristotle's Greek grammatical term genos.
Nietzsche famously noted that unnatural acts often accompanied the Greek sense of prophetic wisdom:
This is the recognition I find expressed in the terrible triad of Oedipean fates: the same man who solved the riddle of nature (the ambiguous Sphinx) must also, as murderer of his father and husband of his mother, break the consecrated tables of the natural order. It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysian wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature's disintegration. "The edge of wisdom is turned against the wise man; wisdom is a crime committed on nature" [see Sophocles' Oedipus the King, 316–17]: such are the terrible words addressed to us by myth. (Birth of Tragedy 9)
In considering Ovid's thinking about authorship and artistic creation, some of this might be worth keeping in mind. Let me offer one quick speculative example of how Ovid's view of the lighter side of literariness might have developed.

Before he wrote Metamorphoses, Ovid's great work was the Heroides, which we've glanced at more than once. These are letters written by literary characters such as Paris to Helen, Deianeira to Heracles, or Ariadne to Theseus. These letters carry arguments of love and passion, and are filled with psychological insight. They offer the verisimilitude of actual lovers in actual situations, and Ovid could certainly have felt pride of authorship in having produced such superb works of art. But Ovid makes these literary figures themselves into authors. Could he call himself their creator? How could he, given that every one of his epistolary "authors" is in fact a character in a poem created by an author other than Ovid? He did not "originate" these characters, yet in bringing them to life, often in greater psychological depth and circumstantial detail than can be found in their original settings, Ovid seems to be mirroring, detailing, or engendering the artistic beings he found in other people's books. (Same often said of Shakespeare).

I defy you to read Paris to Helen and then read Homer's Iliad without finding Paris infused with the character discovered in Paris's letter. It is as if Ovid begets a Paris of his own upon Homer's Paris -- an unnatural birth in which a character sort of begets itself (self-similarity) through the fertile womb of two poets' imaginations. Pygmalion and Myrrha are not far away.

When we think of how often characters in the Metamorphoses -- and in Greek myth in general -- are seeking their true fathers (Phaethon), or act under false assumptions about who bore them (Oedipus), we become more mindful of a key enigma underlying Ovid's world -- the ambiguity of origin. If we don't know where we came from, can we know where we'll end? If the genetic link of father-child, artist-work, cause-effect is missing or undone, then beginnings, endings, and middles are fraught with new difficulties. Where for Yeats "the center cannot hold," for Ovid a more basic question is whether one could ever have held there to have been a center.

Self-similar image