Friday, August 31, 2012

Silenus' stammering song

The familiar figure of Silenus as a staggering drunk (Ovid's word is titubantem) surrounded by a merry band of satyrs and bacchantes is only part of the story. It is Silenus seen from one angle, but not from another. But for the purposes of this figure, we should keep in mind the peculiarities not so much of metamorphosis as of anamorphosis. He is and is not what he seems.

Alcibiades made much of Socrates as a Silenus in the Symposium, and Virgil gives us a Silenus in the sixth Eclogue who, while sleeping off his wine, is captured by two boys:

The boys Chromis and Mnasyllos
saw Silenus lying asleep in a cave,
his veins swollen as ever with yesterday’s wine:
nearby lay the garlands fallen just now from his head,
and his weighty bowl hung by its well-worn handle.
Attacking him, they tied him with bonds from his own wreaths
(for the old man had often cheated them both of a promised song).
Aegle arrived, and added an ally to the fearful pair,
Aegle, loveliest of the Naiads, and as he opens his eyes
she’s painting his face and brow, with crimson mulberries.
Laughing at the joke, he says: ‘Why fasten me with chains?
Free me, boys: it’s enough your power’s been shown.
Hear the songs you desire: she’ll have another present,
you your songs.’ And at once he begins.

Then you might have seen Fauns and wild creatures dance
to the measure, then the unbending oaks nodded their crowns:
no such delight have the cliffs of Parnassus in their Phoebus,
Rhodope and Ismarus are not so astounded by Orpheus.
For he sang how the seeds of earth and air and sea and liquid fire
were brought together through the great void: how from these first
beginnings all things, even the tender orb of earth took shape:
then began to harden as land, to shut Nereus
in the deep, to gradually take on the form of things:
and then the earth is awed by the new sun shining,
and rain falls from the clouds borne on high:
and woods first begin to rise, and here and there,
creatures roam over the unknown hills.

The shift from outside to inside, from external figure to voice (carmen), morphs into a song that speaks of origins, the source of things. The crude, Pan-like pastoral of the shepherds rises, taking on philosophic scope, numinous tone. If any Roman poem could be said to render Virgil's idea of Silenus' song, it's Metamorphoses.

The juxtaposition of Silenus, Orpheus, Bacchus and Midas in Book 11 is not accidental, nor random, nor trivial. In citing Virgil, Ovid is also "siting," situating, his own poem -- its manner, style, and aspirations. One sense of titubantem is "stammering, hesitating, faltering" -- a demi-god, awakened from his drunken dreams, fully sensual, yet he sings of something high, clothed in rude garb. Silenus may stagger, but as Alcibiades says,
. . .once I caught him when he was open like Silenus' statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike -- so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing -- that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me.


Rubens offers a memorable Silenus (thanks Arline) - more later - 

The original Silenus resembled a folklore man of the forest with the ears of a horse and sometimes also the tail and legs of a horse.[1] The later Sileni were drunken followers of Dionysus, usually bald and fat with thick lips and squat noses, and having the legs of a human. Later still, the plural "Sileni" went out of use and the only references were to one individual named Silenus, the teacher and faithful companion of the wine-god Dionysus.[2] 

A notorious consumer of wine, he was usually drunk and had to be supported by satyrs or carried by a donkey. Silenus was described as the oldest, wisest and most drunken of the followers of Dionysus, and was said in Orphic hymns to be the young god's tutor. This puts him in a company of phallic or half-animal tutors of the gods, a group that includes Priapus, Hermaphroditus, Cedalion and Chiron, but also includes Pallas, the tutor of Athena.[3] 

When intoxicated, Silenus was said to possess special knowledge and the power of prophecy. The Phrygian King Midas was eager to learn from Silenus and caught the old man by lacing a fountain from which Silenus often drank. As Silenus fell asleep, the king's servants seized and took him to their master.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Uncertain dreams: The Matter of Troy

With Book 11, Ovid turns -- if "turn" is the right word -- to Troy, the sacred mother city of Rome. As such, no detail related to it is without interest, and as is his wont, Ovid selects some of the city's more obscure, errant, seemingly arcane tales to introduce the setting that will frame the last five books of the Metamorphoses.

Ceyx and Alcyone, Richard Wilson
We don't actually realize we're headed toward Troy right away. First there's the matter of Orpheus, who just sang most of Book 10's tales of love and death, now becoming the content of Ovid's tale of Orpheus's own savage demise. Is there something for the reader to think about in making the death of the arch-poet, the artist of art about art, a prelude to the story of Troy? Then there's Peleus and Thetis, Ceyx and Alcyone, Somnus, Aesacus and Hesperia. What are they to Hecuba?

Other questions naturally will arise as we follow Ovid's peculiar concatenations. Both Apollo and Dionysus do things as a result of Orpheus's death -- Apollo turns to stone the snake that's about to attack Orpheus's briny head; Bacchus turns the Maenads to oaks. Bacchus leads into the story of Midas, twice foolish. The second tale of Midas then follows Apollo, who gave the king his his ass's ears, as he hies to the country of Laomedon, the Troad. (Good zoomable map of ancient Greece and Troy here, and a large pdf map here.)

Greece and Troad

The first ten books of Ovid's poem glancingly touched on the fates of several cities and kingdoms -- Thebes, Crete, Aegina, Sicily, Colchis (home of Medea), Athens, Mycenae,  Miletus, Smyrna (Myrrha),Trachis (Ceyx's kingdom). Now we're amid the earliest tales of Troy, and they'll lead to Carthage, Latium and Rome. This itinerary of course moves in a way that is more dreamlike than "historical."

So it's fitting that along with a rip-roaring storm and shipwreck, Book 11 offers a fairly close-up view of the house of Sleep (Somnus):
There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.
With the uncertain dreams, this book also features highly competent shape-shifters -- there's Thetis and Proteus along with Morpheus (along with Icelos and Phobetor). As Ovid approaches the beginning of what we might call the "linear" history of Troy that leads to the Roman Empire, the path is filled with winds and amorphous dreams, grand liars (Laomedon) and gods who have a far greater repertoire of shapes than Achelous had. We'll want to think about why.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Orpheus in Hades: Myth of death, death of myth

As Metamorphoses 10 begins, Ovid makes clear that Orpheus is putting aside all the wiles of rhetoric when he makes his plea to Hades:
‘O gods of this world, placed below the earth, to which, all, who are created mortal, descend; if you allow me, and it is lawful, to set aside the fictions of idle tongues, and speak the truth."
Speaking plainly, he makes these assertions:

  • Death will claim all, including Eurydice.
  • Love overcame me -- I can't accept her death.
  • Did Love not overcame Hades when he carried off Proserpina? 
  • I won't return to life without her.

Even as he claims to be speaking without embellishment, the singer is accompanying himself on the lyre, and casts a deep spell. The land of death seems to experience a second death, a stasis new to that realm:
Talia dicentem nervosque ad verba moventem
exsangues flebant animae; nec Tantalus undam
captavit refugam, stupuitque Ixionis orbis,
nec carpsere iecur volucres, urnisque vacarunt
Belides, inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo.
The bloodless spirits wept as he spoke, accompanying his words with the music. Tantalus did not reach for the ever-retreating water: Ixion’s wheel was stilled: the vultures did not pluck at Tityus’s liver: the Belides, the daughters of Danaüs, left their water jars: and you, Sisyphus, perched there, on your rock. 
The stillness that comes over, the immobilizing hush, is the contemplative moment, the timeless mode of the lyric. Ovid is situating lyric poetry in a close relationship with amor and mors.  For as long as Orpheus sings of love, the hard line between life and death, time itself, seems to be suspended. Myrrha will later ask to be situated in such a state. "Deny me both life and death," she begs.

. . . mihi vitamque necemque negate  (10.486)

Orpheus says he's just speaking the truth:
All things are destined to be yours, and though we delay a while, sooner or later, we hasten home. Here we are all bound, this is our final abode, and you hold the longest reign over the human race.
Yet the very story he alludes to, sung by Calliope in Book 5, concerns a negotiation in which Hades submits to an arrangement whereby Proserpina will never finally be his. Is Orpheus simply stating a fact, as he claims, or is this an example of what rhetoricians call captatio benevolentiae -- the "buttering up" that turns the ear of an audience (or judge) into a receptive, well-disposed receptacle? Fact? Or "captivating" flattery?

Why does Orpheus, while he's pretending to dispense with lies, readily concede the finality of death from the moment he opens his mouth, even as he denies that same finality when he says he is suspended upon an "if"?
if the story of that rape in ancient times is not a lie, you also were wedded by Amor.
Book 10, then, in which Ovid and Orpheus and Venus will have much to say about love, death, and art, finds the poet/lover in direct confrontation with death. Orpheus' claim to be speaking mere truth is complicated first by the question, unanswered, of whether Calliope's story is a lie. We really can't say we possess truth if we remain in suspense about whether something is a lie. When a Muse remembers, does she remember whether her story took place, or is she just remembering the story?

And even as he states the "fact" that death is that country from whose bourne no traveler returns, the poet is uttering a song of such charm that it halts the business of death in its tracks. Whatever else Orpheus's lyrics do, they move. They move trees, beasts, hearts. The quest of Orpheus is to find out whether the boundary between life and death can be set in motion, mis en jeu. The challenge turns out to be less determining that it moves than resisting the impulse to verify its motion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An anemone for Adonis


[Parts of this have been edited for readability with a bit added.]

Metamorphoses 10 closes with the pathos of the immortal goddess Venus losing her beloved Adonis. Thus end the tales of Orpheus, with the death of Venus's young lover mirroring the singer's loss of Eurydice at the beginning of this book.

Orpheus's Venus creates the anemone from Adonis's blood with nectar - from the Greek, nektar, said to derive from "overcoming death." The mention of the pomegranate - punica granatum - recalls the seeds eaten by Proserpina, whose tale, sung by Calliope, closed the first five books of the poem.

The linking of Orpheus, Venus, Adonis, and Proserpina is probably quite intentional.
The myth of Proserpina, the most extensive Latin version of which is by Claudian (4th century AD), is closely connected with that of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Virgil's writings; it is Proserpina, as Queen of Hades, who allows Orpheus to enter and bring back to life his wife Eurydice after she is killed by a venomous snake.[5] Proserpina played her cetra to quiet Cerberus,[6] but Orpheus did not respect her order never to look back, and Eurydice was lost. (WP: Proserpina)
See also the Orphic Hymn to Adonis:
Rejoicing in the chace, all-graceful pow'r,
Sweet plant of Venus, Love's delightful flow'r:
Descended from the secret bed divine,
Of lovely-hair'd, infernal Proserpine.
Here's the ending of Book 10:

Add caption
When, from the heights, she saw the lifeless body lying in its own blood, she leapt down, tearing her clothes, and tearing at her hair as well, and beat at her breasts with fierce hands, complaining to the fates. “And yet not everything is in your power” she said. “Adonis, there shall be an everlasting token of my grief, and every year an imitation of your death will complete a re-enactment of my mourning. But your blood will be changed into a flower. Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, to fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyras, be grudged to me?” So saying, she sprinkled the blood with odorous nectar: and, at the touch, it swelled up, as bubbles emerge in yellow mud. In less than an hour, a flower, of the colour of blood, was created such as pomegranates carry, that hide their seeds under a tough rind. But enjoyment of it is brief; for, lightly clinging, and too easily fallen, the winds deflower it, which are likewise responsible for its name, windflower: anemone.’

punica granatum

questaque cum fatis "at non tamen omnia vestri
iuris erunt" dixit. "luctus monimenta manebunt          
semper, Adoni, mei, repetitaque mortis imago
annua plangoris peraget simulamina nostri;
at cruor in florem mutabitur. an tibi quondam
femineos artus in olentes vertere mentas,
Persephone, licuit: nobis Cinyreius heros        
invidiae mutatus erit?" sic fata cruorem
nectare odorato sparsit, qui tinctus ab illo
intumuit sic, ut fulvo perlucida caeno
surgere bulla solet, nec plena longior hora
facta mora est, cum flos de sanguine concolor ortus,              
qualem, quae lento celant sub cortice granum,
punica ferre solent; brevis est tamen usus in illo;
namque male haerentem et nimia levitate caducum
excutiunt idem, qui praestant nomina, venti.'

Monday, August 13, 2012

Myrrha and co. in Inferno 30

If you look for Myrrha in Dante's Commedia, you might be surprised where she can be found. In the 10th bolgia, or sac, of the eighth circle, (in Canto 30) she enters as one of a pair of violent spirits racing around the pit, tearing other shades to pieces with their teeth. She and Gianni Schicchi are compared to beasts:

... two shades I saw, both pale and naked,
who, biting, ran berserk in just the way 
a hog does when it's let loose from its sty.

The canto is rich in imagery and suggestive power, perhaps in part because it's the canto of falsifiers, liars. For Dante, who defined poetry as una bella menzogna -- a beautiful lie -- the proximity of the poetic enterprise to the vicious worlds of impersonators, counterfeiters, and famous liars (including Sinon, the Greek who talked the Trojans into opening their city to the wooden horse, and Potiphar's wife, false accuser of Joseph in Genesis) -- seems to provoke a stunning burst of vivid narrative fragments.

Most of these are from Ovid. I'll just note them here -- a reading of the entire canto is a task for another day. The books of Metamorphoses where each appears are in parens:
  1. The canto begins with Juno's rage against Semele (Book 3);
  2. Which leads to the madness of Athamas, who hurls his own son Learchus to his death (Books 3-4).
  3. And to Hecuba, turned into a barking lunatic at the sight of her children, Polyxena and Polydorus, dead in ruined Troy (7 & 13).
  4. Then "accursed Myrrah": "she who loved her father past the limits of just love" (Book 10).
  5. The vile exchange of japes between Maestro Adamo the Florentine counterfeiter and Sinon the lying Greek (Sinon is not in Ovid, but from the Aeneid) leads to a final Ovidian reference when Adamo says to Sinon:
                       "You have both dryness and a head that aches;
                        few words would be sufficient invitation
                       to have you lick the mirror of Narcissus."
(Book 3)
Clearly Dante not only read Ovid with care, but with acute attention to the interplay of illusion and the likenesses of truth that we have come to appreciate as "Ovidian."

With a simile that could have come from the poet of Metamorphoses himself, Dante conveys the burden of being caught in the entrancingly duplicitous world of appearances:

Even as one who dreams that he is harmed 
and, dreaming, wishes he were dreaming, thus
desiring that which is, as if it were not, 

so I became within my speechlessness.

Dore: Myrrha, Virgil, Dante

Monday, August 6, 2012

Roman Revival?

NPR has a story about the current revival of popular histories of ancient Rome, featuring a new history by Anthony Everitt of Nottingham Trent University.

"...the thing about the ancient world, it is crammed, it is packed with [the] most interesting and eccentric and brave and villainous characters of all kinds," says Everitt.

According to NPR, The Rise of Rome "traces the rise of Rome as an unlikely evolution from a market village to the world's most powerful empire, offering insight into its political clashes, military strategies, leading figures and internal corruptions."

What might be of particular interest to us is how Everitt's book opens with a full-scale mythological tale:
The origin of Rome can be traced back to a giant of a wooden horse. 
For ten years a coalition of Greek rulers besieged Troy, a mighty city-state at the foot of the Dardanelles, on the coast of what is now northwest Turkey. The expeditionary force was there largely thanks to the machinations of three deities: Juno, the wife of the king of the gods, Jupiter; Minerva, whose specialty was wisdom; and the goddess of sexual passion, Venus. They were competing for a golden apple inscribed with the words "A prize for the most beautiful." 
A good-sized excerpt here. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Ovid's successful ape"

Mussy points us to a nice online version of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. The epithet of the poem might be of interest:
vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua,
The lines appear in one of Ovid's Amores (1.15) -- the whole poem, concerned with poetic immortality and the ephemeral effect of envy, is here. The lines Shakespeare chose are in bold in their immediate context below:
So although the boulders with the tooth of the patient plough
Perish with time, poetry is absent from death:
Let kings and the triumphs of kings yield to poetry,
Let the bountiful banks of gold-bearing Tagus yield.
Let the common people admire common things; to me may golden-haired Apollo
Serve cups filled with Castalian water,

And may I wear myrtle on my hair that fears the frost
And be much read by anxious lovers.
Envy feasts on the living; after death it is silent,
When each man’s fame protects him as he deserves:
So, even when the final flame has consumed me,
I shall live, and a considerable part of me will survive.
In tracking down the epithet, I came across a brief but thoughtful talk about Shakespeare and Ovid by Jeremy McNamara entitled "OVIDIUS NASO WAS THE MAN." Here's one snippet:
Shakespeare certainly had a love affair with the classics, particularly Ovid. The connection between the two writers has been noticed from almost the beginning of Shakespeare's career. In 1598 Francis Meres in Palladis Tamiawrote: "the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred sonnets among his private friends, etc." The early 20th century delineator of classical mythology, R. K. Root, says that the whole character of Shakespeare's mythology is essentially Ovidian and that "Shakespeare himself has shown that he was proud to be Ovid's successful ape."

Apollo and Hyacinthus 

Words interspersed with kisses

In Metamorphoses 10, Orpheus sets the enframed tale of Atalanta and Hippomenes as told by Venus to Adonis:
opportuna sua blanditur populus umbra,
datque torum caespes: libet hac requiescere tecum"
(et requievit) "humo" pressitque et gramen et ipsum
inque sinu iuvenis posita cervice reclinis
sic ait ac mediis interserit oscula verbis:  (Meta. 10.554ff)

"...look, a poplar tree entices us with its welcome shade, and the turf yields a bed. I should like to rest here on the ground,” (and she rested) “with you.” She hugged the grass, and him, and leaning her head against the breast of the reclining youth, she spoke these words, interspersing them with kisses: (Kline)
Poussin obviously read his Ovid with care:

Venus and Adonis

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Art and Nature: The Winter's Tale

Perdita. For I have heard it said,
There is an art, which, in their piedness, shares
With great creating nature.

 Polixenes.                         Say, there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean,
But nature makes that mean: so, o'er that art,
Which, you say, adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes. You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock;
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race; This is an art
Which does mend nature, -- change it rather: but
The art itself is nature.

The Winter's Tale IV.3


"But Constantinus," said Silenus, "are you not offering us mere gardens of Adonis as exploits?"
"What do you mean," he asked, "by gardens of Adonis"?
"I mean", said Silenus, "those that women plant in pots, in honour of the lover of Aphrodite, by scraping together a little earth for a garden bed. They bloom for a little space and fade forthwith." At this Constantinus blushed, for he realised that this was exactly his own performance.

Emperor Julian (the Apostate)