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.


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