Monday, October 29, 2012

Rings within rings: an instance of chiastic structure

(Edited to clarify and added the Rubens)

At the end of Metamorphoses 12, Achilles falls to the arrow of Paris, guided and prompted by Apollo, who was stirred to action by Poseidon.

Ovid writes:
Now Achilles, grandson of Aeacus, the terror of the Phrygians, the glory and defence of the Pelasgian name, the invincible captain in battle, was burned: one god, Vulcan, armed him, and that same god consumed him. Now he is ash, and little if anything remains of Achilles, once so mighty, hardly enough to fill an urn. But his fame lives, enough to fill a world. That equals the measure of the man, and, in that, the son of Peleus is truly himself, and does not know the void of Tartarus. (Kline).

Of course the word "fame" is actually gloria:
Iam timor ille Phrygum, decus et tutela Pelasgi
nominis, Aeacides, caput insuperabile bello,
arserat: armarat deus idem idemque cremarat;
iam cinis est, et de tam magno restat Achille                       615
nescio quid parvum, quod non bene conpleat urnam,
at vivit totum quae gloria conpleat orbem.
haec illi mensura viro respondet, et hac est
par sibi Pelides nec inania Tartara sentit. 

In addition to the distinction between the mortal remains of Achilles - barely enough to fill an urn - and his glory, which lives to fill the entire world (orbem, the realm of Fama), we note a favorite construction of classical authors, the chiasmus:
 armarat deus idem idemque cremarat;
armed by a god, the same god consumed him.
Rubens: Vulcan Presents Arms of Achilles to Thetis

The chiastic structure of the line: A - B : B - A plays out the mystery of the relation of human and divine in a demigod like Achilles -- he is both protected from injury and incinerated by the same god, in this case Hephaestus, or Vulcan. The sounds replicate the sense -- idem means "the same," and the same word is twice used. Armarat . . . cremarat reflect each other in syntax, meter, and sound.

The concentric shape of the line is not unlike the shape of the west pediment of the Parthenon, which tells the contest of Athena and Poseidon for the city of Athens, which forms a major feature of Metamorphoses 6 (click to enlarge the image:)

The pediment's balanced, formal symmetry places the chief figures in the center, with each half reflecting the other in geometric structure and sense.

It never hurts to look for chiastic structure, also known as ring structure, in classical works. The savage wedding of book 12 appears to reflect the brutal wedding feast of Perseus in Books 4 and 5. Achilles' glory fills the orbem at the end of book 12, reminding us of the world (orbem) of Fama at the book's beginning.

We might look at the death of Achilles in some detail, and ask: in this book that pays its strange Ovidian homage to Homer, to the epic, and to the Trojan War, why is there so little focus on the actual work of war between human actors who fight and one dies at the hands of the other?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Otus and Ephialtes

Mt. Ossa

In Metamorphoses 12, Ovid sets the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in Thessaly near Mounts Pelion (named for Achilles' father, Peleus) and Ossa. As is often the case, the setting is resonant with stories. One relevant here is the tale of Otus and Ephialtes, two giant fellows who decided one day to go after Artemis and Hera (not unlike Ixion). They were known as the Aloadae. According to the story:

Ephialtes 2 and Otus 1, two giants called the ALOADS tried to unseat Zeus from his throne. The ALOADS grew every year a cubit in breadth and a fathom in height; and when they were nine years old, being nine cubits broad and nine fathoms high, they resolved to fight against the gods. They then set Ossa on Olympus, and having set Pelion on Ossa they threatened by means of these mountains to ascend up to heaven. 
They also declared that by filling up the sea with the mountains they would make it dry land, and the land they would make sea. Ephialtes 2 wooed Hera, and Otus 1 wooed Artemis; and they put Ares in bonds. But when they wished to assault Artemis and she could not resist their strength, Apollo sent a deer between them. So driven mad by anger in trying to kill it with javelins, they killed each other. 
But others assert that Artemis caused their death; that she changed herself into a deer and leaped between them, and in their eagerness to hit the quarry they threw their darts at each other. In the Underworld they are punished thus: they are bound by serpents to a column, back to back. Between them is a screech-owl, sitting on the column to which they are bound.
In Greek mythology, the Aloadae (or Aloadai; Ancient Greek: Ἀλωάδαι) were Otus (Ὦτος) and Ephialtes (Ἐφιάλτης), sons of Iphimedia, wife of Aloeus, by Poseidon,[1] whom she induced to make her pregnant by going to the seashore and disporting herself in the surf or scooping seawater into her bosom.[2] From Aloeus they received their patronymic, the Aloadai. They were strong and aggressive giants, growing by nine fingers every month[3] nine fathoms tall at age nine, and only outshone in beauty by Orion.[4][5] 
The brothers wanted to storm Mt. Olympus and gain Artemis for Otus and Hera for Ephialtes. Their plan, or construction, of a pile of mountains atop which they would confront the gods is described differently according to the author (including Homer, Vergil, and Ovid), and occasionally changed by translators. Mount Olympus is usually said to be on the bottom mountain, with Mounts Ossa and Pelion upon Ossa as second and third, either respectively or vice versa. 

A few more Parthenon images of the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs are in this album of photos from a visit we made to the British Museum a few years ago.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Contextual notes for Metamorphoses 12

A few notes on the context for Metamorphoses book 12:

Ixion, notorious fellow and begetter, one way or another, of the Centaurs:
Ixion married Dia, daughter of Eioneus 5; but since the groom would not hand over the gifts of wooing to his wife, Eioneus 5 took his mares as security for these. Ixion then summoned his father-in-law to his home, promising him to comply in every respect; but when Eioneus 5 arrived, he cast him into a pit which he had filled with fire, thus killing him. By Dia, Ixion became father of Pirithous and Phisadie, a woman who was given in servitude to Helen by the DIOSCURI (see also CONSTELLATIONS). But, having committed an enormous crime against a relative (for some have said that Ixion was the first to stain mortal men with kindred blood), there was no one in the world willing to purify him, except Zeus himself, who out of pity, cleansed him at last.
The Cloud 
But then, ungrateful Ixion fell in love with Hera, and made advances to her. And Zeus, having heard Hera's report on this matter, made a Cloud Resembling Hera (Nephele 1) so as to confirm his wife's words by deluding the man's temerity. This is how Ixion lay with a cloud; and believing that he had enjoyed Hera's love, he went around boasting that he had slept with the goddess. From the union of Ixion with the Cloud, some say, the CENTAURS were born; but others say instead that Centaurus was born
"without the blessing of the Graces" (Pindar, Pythian Odes 2.46). 
... and that this monstrous offspring later mated with mares, from whom the CENTAURS were born.

How Pelops won Hippodamia 3

Pirithous defending his bride, Hippodamia 4, from Centaurs

The suitors of Helen - busloads of them.

The oath of Tyndareus. Tyndareus was the husband of Leda. After the Swan visited her and Helen had become a beautiful young woman, he took advice from Odysseus on how to handle the question of her myriad suitors. Note how the fate of Odysseus (via his marriage to Penelope, daughter of Icarius, brother of Tyndareus) is intertwined with his scheme to protect the integrity of Helen's marriage:

War threatened again when SUITORS came from many kingdoms of Hellas to compete for the hand of Helen. And Tyndareus, seeing such a multitude, feared that choosing one of them might provoke the others to start quarrelling. Noticing his plight, Odysseus (who was among the SUITORS) promised that if Tyndareus would help him to win the hand of his niece Penelope (daughter of Icarius 1), he in return would reveal a way by which any trouble could be prevented. Tyndareus accepted the bargain, and Odysseus told him to exact an oath from the SUITORS that they should defend and protect the one chosen as Helen's husband against any wrong done against him in regard to his marriage. This is how the curse known as "The Oath of Tyndareus" came about—the SUITORS being sworn by the king, and Odysseus receiving Penelope from a reluctant Icarius 1. 
[For it is told that Icarius 1 tried to make the couple settle in Lacedaemon. And when he could not persuade them, and they set forth to Ithaca, he followed their chariot begging her daughter to stay. Finally, as Odysseus could no longer endure so much fatherly love and devotion, he bade Penelope either to come with him willingly, or else go back with her father to Lacedaemon, if she so preferred. She did not reply but indicated, by covering her face with a veil, that she wished to depart with her husband. The Oath of Tyndareus proved to be a curse also for its inventor. Odysseus remained bound to the oath he himself had conceived, and when time came he was forced to go to war. Furthermore, an oracle had declared that if he sailed to Troy he would be away twenty years, and he would lose everything. So, being reluctant to join the alliance, Odysseus feigned madness, but Palamedes, seeing through the deception, forced him to desist and join.]
The ceremony of the oath was performed in a place later called "The Tomb of the Horse," on the road from Sparta to Arcadia. For before administrating the oath to the SUITORS, Tyndareus sacrificed a horse, and after they had been sworn standing upon the pieces of the horse, the animal was buried in the same place. The Oath of Tyndareus had the value of a defence pact, for later, when the seducer Paris came to Sparta and abducted Helen taking her to Troy, the oath was invoked by her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon in order to force the kings of Hellas to join the coalition that sailed against Troy in order to demand the restoration of both wife and treasures.

Short version of the Oath story:
Odysseus promised to solve the problem in a satisfactory manner if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, the daughter of Icarius. Tyndareus readily agreed and Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with the chosen one. This stratagem succeeded and Helen and Menelaus were married.

Monday, October 15, 2012

First blood: Protesilaus

Rumour has it you’re held at Aulis by delaying winds:
ah! when you left me, where were those winds then?

-- Laodamia to Protesilaus

The first Greek to be killed at Troy was Protesilaus. It never hurts to fill oneself in on such characters. It seems he was one of Helen's myriad suitors. He also knew that the first man to touch Trojan soil would die -- there was an oracle to that effect. He later became a cult figure. After his death, he was allowed to return to life for three hours, to be with his wife, Laodamia, because they were newly married when he had to leave for Troy. That post-mortem tryst didn't end happily, as her story bears witness.

Homer manages to get much of this back-story into his brief mention in the Catalog of Ships:
And they that held Phylace and flowery Pyrasus, the sanctuary of Demeter, and Iton, mother of flocks, and Antron, hard by the sea, and Pteleos, couched in grass, these again had as leader warlike Protesilaus, while yet he lived; howbeit ere now the black earth held him fast. [700] His wife, her two cheeks torn in wailing, was left in Phylace and his house but half established, while, for himself, a Dardanian warrior slew him as he leapt forth from his ship by far the first of the Achaeans.

In the Heroides, Laodamia laments the absence of Protesilaus in terms reminiscent of the description of Ceyx's bark receding from Alcyone on the shore:
The North Wind leaned down, and filled your departing sails,
and soon my Protesilaus was far away.
While I could still see my husband, I delighted in watching
and your eyes were followed, all the way, by mine:
when I could no longer see you, I could see your sail,
your sail held my gaze for a long time.
But once I could not see you, or your vanishing sail,
and I could look at nothing except the waves,
the light went with you too, and suffocating darkness rising,
they say that, my knees failed, and I sank to the ground.
Ovid has her wishing him the very thing that would have deprived him of his glory:

I wish the gods might not make you over-eager!
Among the thousand ships let yours be the thousandth,
and the last to be wrecked by the tormenting waters!
This also I forewarn you of: be the last to leave the vessel!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ignorance at Aulis

Metamorphoses 12 opens with the word nescius - "not knowing," "ignorant." The situation is that Priam is unaware that his son, Aesacus, is not dead, but caught in a constant repetitive plunge to a desired death that is defeated, as he's transformed into a diving bird, perhaps a kingfisher. Hektor and other brothers mourn at an empty tomb.

Ovid quickly cuts away from the Trojan royals to the scene at Aulis, where Calchas the seer has made it known that Artemis is angry, and a virgin, Iphigenia, must be sacrificed before the winds will allow the Greeks to depart for Troy. During the sacrifice, a snake appears:
when the ancient altar was alive with the kindled flames, The Greeks saw a dark-green snake sliding into a plane tree that stood near to where they had begun the sacrifice. There was a nest with eight young birds in the crown of the tree, and these the serpent seized and swallowed in its eager jaws, together with the mother bird, who circled her doomed fledglings.
Calchas reads this as a sign - it foretells that the Greeks will defeat Troy, but the labor will be long. At that, the serpent hardens into stone:
ille, ut erat virides amplexus in arbore ramos,
fit lapis et signat serpentis imagine saxum.
In a beautiful, pared phrase, Ovid says an initially reluctant Agamemnon was won over to sacrificing his beloved daughter:
postquam pietatem publica causa
rexque patrem vicit
The king's public cause conquered the father's love.
But during the sacrifice, there seems to be a switch:
as Iphigenia stood, among her weeping attendants, before the altar, to surrender her innocent blood, the goddess was vanquished, and veiled their eyes in mist, and, in the midst of the rites and confusion of the sacrifice, and the cries of the suppliants, they say she substituted a hind for the Mycenean girl.
Sacrifice of Iphigenia

The tale is told in terms of conquests: The father is conquered (vicit) by the king; the goddess is vanquished (victa) by the innocent blood of the girl. Artemis takes advantage of the confusion, the disorder (turba) of the scene, substituting hind for girl. Or so "they say."

Two things to note: This opening of book 12 begins and ends with a parent in a state of ignorance regarding the survival of a child. Aesacus and Iphigenia live on, but outside of the possible awareness of their fathers.

Within this ring structure of ignorance, a prophet reads a sign that seems to contain future knowledge. His reading is followed by a hardening of the sign. The serpent becomes an image of a serpent, much as Medusa's head had turned coral and Atlas and quite a few other entities into self-images. Meanwhile, the hubbub of the sacrifice leaves Agamemnon in the dark regarding the sacrifice he had just ordered, and we're left with a rumor about Iphigenia and a placated goddess.

The confusion leads neatly into the next scene, the house of Rumor, where confusion, murmur, and ignorance abound.


Your brain on close reading

A professor studying Jane Austen is breaking new ground in our understanding of the differences between casual and close reading. The differences, neuroscientific experiments are showing, can be large and multidimensional:
Neuroscientists warned Phillips she wouldn't see many brain differences between the casual reading and intense reading. 
"Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects," she said. "Because everyone was going to be doing the same thing. Right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways."
Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading. 
But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: "What's been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading." 
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it. 
Phillips' research fits into an interdisciplinary new field sometimes dubbed "literary neuroscience." Other researchers are examining poetry and rhythm in the brain, how metaphors excite sensory regions of the brain, and the neurological shifts between reading a complex text like Marcel Proust compared to reading the newspaper — all in hopes of giving a more complete picture of human cognition. More at NPR.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The unheralded visitor: Somnus and Morpheus

There are three major scenes in Metamorphoses 11: the death of Orpheus, the tempest that destroys Ceyx's ship, and the house of Somnus. It is a measure of Ovid's confidence as a storyteller that he feels perfectly comfortable threading narratives so completely different in tone, in affect, in subject and style, even as he's sketching in the background of the Trojan War. (For some preliminary interpretive thoughts on what Ovid is up to, see the preceding post entitled History and Theater in Metamorphoses 11.)

Let's take a quick look at the third of these narratives, in which Iris visits the cave of Sleep:

Iris at the cave of Somnus

When the nymph entered and, with her hands, brushed aside the dreams in her way, the sacred place shone with the light of her robes. The god, hardly able to lift his eyes heavy with sleep, again and again, falling back, striking his nodding chin on his chest, at last shook himself free of his own influence and resting on an elbow asked her (for he knew her) why she had come, and she replied: 
Sleep, all things’ rest: Sleep, gentlest of the gods, the spirit’s peace, care flies from: who soothes the body wearied with toil, and readies it for fresh labours: Sleep, order a likeness, that mirrors his true form, and let it go, the image of King Ceyx, to Alcyone, in Trachin of Hercules, and depict a phantasm of the wreck. This, Juno commands.’ . . . (Kline)
Sleep does not wish to be disturbed; to wake is to undo sleep. Yet Iris's presence does that:
excussit tandem sibi se;
nevertheless he shook himself from himself
Excussit (<excutio) means to shake off, cast off, drive off, or to banish. To be Somnus is to be the negation of consciousness, to be most present when most absent. The moment he wakes, he vanishes, or becomes a kind of meta-somnus.

To this reader, the dependency of Somnus upon the condition of being Somnus is not unlike Alcyone's predicament, her all-consuming love for Ceyx. For Alcyone, the absence of Ceyx (dramatized through the gradual distancing of his ship) is a negation of her proper self. Alone, her untethered imagination is overrun by anxious and fearful images. When she learns, via the performance of Morpheus in her dream, of her husband's death, she at once says, 'nulla est Alcyone, nulla est':
‘Alcyone is nothing, is nothing: she has died together with her Ceyx.
Like Somnus awakening, she is bereft of what made her herself. She is nothing, and yet, like him, comments upon her own undoing.

Somnus returns to himself after waking (excitat: call out, summon forth, wake, arouse) Morpheus to act out the part of Ceyx informing Alcyone that he's actually dead. Morpheus goes beyond that simple role, though, as he strives to assure Alcyone that he really, really is Ceyx:
Non haec tibi nuntiat auctor  
ambiguus, non ista vagis rumoribus audis:
ipse ego fata tibi praesens mea naufragus edo.
No dubious author announces this news to you, nor do you hear it as a vague report: I myself, drowned, as you see me before you, tell my fate.
Attentive readers will note that in describing Ceyx's death, Morpheus copies the death of Orpheus:
My lips, calling helplessly on your name, drank the waves.
And in denying that his words are but vagis rumoribus, he's pretending to be a reliable author, not a murmur from the House of Rumor (Fama), which we'll visit in Book 12.

As often, Ovid's digressive fables turn back upon the poem they form part of. Like the waking Somnus, the fable of Morpheus theatrically performing the role of the veritable Ceyx telling the true story of his own death brings us once again to the questions of authorship and authority, true and false images, dream perceptions and waking visions that Ovid believes are germane to the status of any story, mythological or historical.

Going on the hypothesis that Ovid is concerned with the question "what does history look like?" at least allows us to see why a poem that seems so rich in narrative styles might raise the epistemological complications that come with suspending the border between perception and apperception, dreams and waking visions, unreliable rumors and ambiguous speech. As he notes, no clear boundary can be found between the realm of Somnus and the waking world of brilliant light -- no doors, no watchdogs, no geese, no grating hinges. The threshold can only be crossed when one cannot detect the crossing. One arrives at the couch of Somnus unheralded.
                                There is no noyse at all
Of waking dogge, nor gagling goose more waker than the hound
To hinder sleepe. Of beast ne wyld ne tame there is no sound.
No bowghes are stird with blastes of wynd, no noyse of tatling toong
Of man or woman ever yit within that bower roong.
Dumb quiet dwelleth there. Yit from the Roches foote dooth go
The ryver of forgetfulnesse, which ronneth trickling so
Uppon the little pebble stones which in the channell lye,
That unto sleepe a great deale more it dooth provoke thereby.
Before the entry of the Cave, there growes of Poppye store,
With seeded heades, and other weedes innumerable more,
Out of the milkye jewce of which the night dooth gather sleepes,
And over all the shadowed earth with dankish deawe them dreepes.
Bycause the craking hindges of the doore no noyse should make,
There is no doore in all the house, nor porter at the gate. (
Golding trans.)

John Waterhouse: Sleep and his Half-Brother Death