Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Turning the tables at the marriage of Pirithous and Hippodamia

Nestor's tale of the Lapiths and Centaurs opens with a simple description:
Duxerat Hippodamen audaci Ixione natus
nubigenasque feros positis ex ordine mensis
arboribus tecto discumbere iusserat antro.
Pirithoüs, the daring son of Ixion, married Hippodame, and invited the cloud-born centaurs to take their place at tables, set in lines, in a tree-shaded cave.
What's slightly missed in Kline's fine prose translation is the untamed connotation of ferus, which Ovid uses instead of "centaurs." The Latin word is the root of descendants such as fierce, feral, and ferocious. When juxtaposed with Ixion and his criminal trespass upon Juno, on the one hand, and with festive "tables placed in order" (ex ordine) on the other, the strangeness of the word stands out.

Let's remember: centaurs were extremely powerful, large, creatures who ate raw meat. One of Ovid's characters, Ripheus, "towered above the treetops." So what was Pirithous thinking -- carefully set the table, then invite Godzilla to discumbere, i.e., recline?

In setting the stage, Ovid is also powering up the tension of the story -- the centaurs embody feral energy literally adjoined to human order. There should be a border there -- a limen, but is there? Or does the centaur serve as an organic image of an extremely volatile mix of human and animal nature?

The horse has often symbolized the power of human energy and desire. In the Phaedrus, Socrates offers this story:
Concerning the immortality of the soul this is enough; but about its form we must speak in the following manner. To tell what it really is would be a matter for utterly superhuman and long discourse, but it is within human power to describe it briefly in a figure; let us therefore speak in that way. We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and [246b] of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome. Phaedrus
The junction of horseman and horse was commonplace enough to run throughout the epic landscape: Hektor is the "breaker of horses"; Nestor is the "Gerenian horseman." Troy's troubles began with Laomedon's horsedealing and the dismembered horse of Tyndareus' oath, and ended when a squad of Helen's former suitors flowed from the innards of the wooden horse. No wonder Maynard Mack said that to find epic, we must "follow the horses."

Plutarch has an anecdote about how the young Alexander tamed Bucephalus:

A massive creature with a massive head, Bucephalus is described as having a black coat with a large white star on his brow. He is also supposed to have had a "wall", or blue eye, and his breeding was that of the "best Thessalian strain." Plutarch tells the story of how, in 344 BC, a thirteen-year-old Alexander won the horse.[4] A horse dealer named Philonicus the Thessalian offered Bucephalus to King Philip II for the sum of 13 talents, but because no one could tame the animal, Philip was not interested. However, Philip's son Alexander was. He promised to pay for the horse himself should he fail to tame it. He was given a chance and surprised all by subduing it. He spoke soothingly to the horse and turned it towards the sun so that it could no longer see its own shadow, which had been the cause of its distress. Dropping his fluttering cloak as well, Alexander successfully tamed the horse. Plutarch says that the incident so impressed Philip that he told the boy, "O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee."[4]

The biform soul, biform human nature, capable both of rule and enslavement, is at work in these tales, and so it is in the Metamorphoses.

Why then does the tale of the Lapiths' battle with the Centaurs come up now? Think of how this tale resonates against what's come before. We spent books 10 and 11 in the company of Orpheus, the man who turned away from loving real women for the sake of art. Here we are in the company of virile creatures who can't turn away from any woman. Eurytus grabs the bride by her hair -- all order is overturned with the tables:
protinus eversae turbant convivia mensae,
The mark of this disorder is a sudden metamorphosis from decor to use: Where for Cycnus even his shield and helmet had been mere decor, because they were useless, now in this wedding feast implements of civility and decorum suddenly are weapons of war. Mixing bowls, cups, entire altars still burning with animal sacrifice, the very threshold stones of the place, the limen, are picked up and hurled. Blood and wine and brains mix in disfigurement and death.

Another reason why this tale of blood, lust and confusion happens now might be that there's a kind of intermittent plot that runs through the second half of the poem. The tale of Ceyx told of a troubled man who wanted to determine the truth of things by consulting Apollo. He sets out, only to lose his way in a vivid, uncontrollable storm. Access to truth is problematic in this age. Soon we're standing at Aulis, again governed by strong winds that lead Calchas to tell Agamemnon he must sacrifice his young daughter. In no time at all, the unimaginable is taking place as the loving father, turned ferocious king, orders Iphigeneia to be placed on the altar. Instantly, the winds are propelling the fleet towards Troy, which hears of their coming through the house of Fama.

Fama is the symmetrical antipode of the oracle -- a resonant realm where sound and sense diverge and merge, exchange roles, and let slip the reins. Fama's bronze halls are the realm of confusion in which the political -- happy election day -- and social realms operate, as anyone on Twitter knows.

As Pirithous, son of Ixion, begins to celebrate his marriage to Hippodamia, (hippodamia = tamer of horses), he is surprised by ferocity -- the centaurs, burning with lust, envy, and wine, upset the feast. In so doing they are not so distant from the grace of Paris at the court of Menelaus, nor from the audacity of Ixion at Zeus's bed, nor from Zeus's rapes of Io, Leda, Danae, Europa, or Poseidon's taking of Caenis, or Erysichthon's daughter, Mestra. Or for that matter from the later adventures of Theseus and Pirithous pursuing Persephone and Helen.

Governance at all levels is muddled as borders blur, desires kick into overdrive, and the faces of men and forms of language are ingloriously mangled beyond recognition. Ovid's anti-epic has much to tell us about epic.
‘First, Amycus, son of Ophion, did not fear to despoil the inner shrine of its offerings, and snatched, first, from the sanctuary, a chandelier, thickly hung with gleaming lamps, and raising it on high, as one wields a sacrificial axe to break the bull’s snowy neck, he dashed it against the forehead of Celadon, the Lapith, leaving him with the bones of his face crushed past recognition. His eyes leapt from their sockets, and his nose, pushed in, as the bones of his face shattered, was driven into his palate.



  1. What is the origin of the painting depicting Alexander riding Bucephalus? I've never seen it before. Who painted it?

  2. I see that I have not retained the info, and the image, which I found through a search, no longer seems to turn up (except for in this post). I apologize for not attributing the image. If and when I recover the source, I'll add it here.

  3. Thank you for your blog. The painting is beautiful and I wanted to use the work in a personal project, but I'd like to determine its copyright status first.

  4. The source of the painting is: mydelineatedlife.blogspot.com

  5. Thanks very much! Here's the specific link to the post it appears in - scroll down to find it: