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.

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