Saturday, December 28, 2013

A poet reads Ovid

Reading the Metamorphoses on a Transatlantic Flight

In Ovid, where the birds are manifestations of our grief,
we watch the tyrant Tereus who has just supped on the flesh
of his own son, transformed by loss and desire for revenge
into a stiff-crested hoopoe with a pronged beak to replace his sword. 
We watch Ino's distraught servant girls assume the shapes
of shearwaters as they follow their mistress over Juno's cliffs,
and poor Cycnus, his love forever undeclared, turned
to a swan as he laments the sudden death of Phaeton. 
We watch, thinking past the allegory, knowing no heron
springs up from our empathy when we see, through
the windscreen, a car pushed to the side of the highway
where shattered glass shines like a recent shower of rain 
and a state trooper stoops to lay down his orange flames
as the traffic slows and weaves its way round him.
Or at least that's what I've come to think up here,
winged with so many others in this approximate manner 
somewhere between Saint Johns and the Blaskets, spine
of this book open across my knees, now, that our son's asleep,
now that Icarus has flapped his homemade wings,
begun to rise away from the earth, his father's terse warning. 
How can we keep him from the harm this world can be,
our rose-cheeked boy, named for your uncle who drove a truck
through Queens, delivering cheesecakes and key lime pies
to the diners of Flushing and Kew Gardens? 
Ginger head resting across your arm, he knows nothing
of how he's borne aloft on jet fuel and aluminum, his first flight
marked by the thin yellow line we track across the screen
as we bear him, like an offering, towards the place I still call home, 
the roads corkscrewing into the mountains, a broken rosary
of tidy towns where, driving once, I saw a man stripped
to the waist, chained to a sign, on what must have been the morning
after his stag night. Body smeared with treacle and feathers, 
skin red and dry, it was as if he were a sunburned boy
just fallen from the sky; aware suddenly of his own limits,
the lack of anything like ichor in his veins. And even in the body
of this plane we're grounded things, doing our best 
to ignore the turbulence, channel surfing or pacing to pass
the time while the wine trembles in our plastic cups
and the seatbelt signs flash on and off and on.
It will be hours before we see dry land again, cats' eyes 
on the runway leading us towards the gate, the baggage claim,
the sudden weight of sleeplessness and cups of strong coffee.
Meantime, the clouds are like something from a cartoon,
and the birds go on mocking what Ovid makes of them, 
picking the eyes out of the dead as if they were baubles or beads,
the shrike driving its beak through the field mouse
at great speed, marsh hawks amok among the winter trees.
If they could they would laugh at Icarus as he falls 
face first towards the waves that will take possession of his limbs,
they'd laugh at Scylla in that instant before she becomes
one of them, as she loses her grip on the keel of that Cretan ship
and, for a split second, is simply falling.
via Poetry Daily via a friend.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Slavery, freedom, and the body

In the latest NYRB, there's a fascinating review of a book with a provocative thesis about sexuality, slavery, and freedom in ancient Rome and the early era of Christianity.

The book is From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper. The reviewer is historian Peter Brown. It begins:
One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years. [More]
 One question is to what extent that silence can be ever so slightly lifted by listening carefully.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Aristotle on Pythagoras

Given the prominence offered Pythagoras in Metamorphoses 15, it might be worth noting that Aristotle's early work in the dialogue form, entitled Protrepticus, was preoccupied with the work of that early school of philosophy. The link goes to a new reconstruction of Aristotle's piece, apparently composed while he was still a student at Plato's Academy.

In this snippet from the dialogue, a character named Heraclides is speaking of Pythagoras:
He took a philosophical view of many of the truths of mathematics, and made them part and parcel of his own projects, even the ones handed down to him by others, and made them fit in a suitable arrangement, he conducted the appropriate investigations about them, and produced the same agreement always in all respects, so that it never violates its logical consequence.
And he fashioned them into a starting point for his instruction, which was capable of guiding his listeners, if any of them by sufficient experience could understand the terms sufficiently. Indeed, in the purity, subtlety, and precision of his demonstrations, surpassing every similar type of theoretical observation of other things, he both employs great clarity and sets out from evident facts; and the most beautiful thing in it turns out to be its being high-minded and aspiring to the primary causes, and it both fashions its teachings for the sake of practical affairs and also lays hold of the things in a pure way, the mathematical theorems at times even combining with the theological ones. [68.2]

via rogueclassicism

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On to Hippolytus

More to say about Ovid, but for now, we're over here reading Euripides' Hippolytus.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Blog for latest project: Hippolytus

As our group has turned to Euripides' Hippolytus, blogging about that text will occur on the somewhat spiffed-up old Sarasota Classics Blog. So far, it has two posts:
Some words in Euripides' Hippolytus 

Troezen, Argos and the Peloponnese

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The eyes of Argus: Three illustrations

Mercury, Argus, and Io - Rubens

Hera decorating peacock with Argus's eyes - 17th c.

Io, Argus and Hermes - Velazquez

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A colorful Kinyras

A retelling of the tale of Kinyras, whom we know as Cinyras - we met this king of Cyprus in Metamorphoses 10; it's one of the tales sung by Orpheus. Cinyras was tricked into having sex with his daughter Myrrha, from which union comes Adonis.

This "graphic article" was produced by two classic scholars, Glynnis Fawkes and John Franklin, drawing upon research for a forthcoming book.

This excerpt of the book is on The Appendix. It seems Kinyras belonged to a rich set of stories, many of which we no longer have.

Theologica tripertita

Here's something related to Ovid's Fasti that came up in some of the scholarship. Varro (116-17 BC) was a hugely productive intellectual of early Rome, and apparently was the source of the later formalization of the liberal arts into the trivium and quadrivium:
Varro . . . turned out more than 74 Latin works on a variety of topics. Among his many works, two stand out for historians; Nine Books of Disciplines and his compilation of the Varronian chronology. His "Nine Books of Disciplines" became a model for later encyclopedists, especially Pliny the Elder. The most noteworthy portion of the Nine Books of Disciplines is its use of the liberal arts as organizing principles.[1] Varro decided to focus on identifying nine of these arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, medicine, and architecture. Using Varro's list, subsequent writers defined the seven classical "liberal arts of the medieval schools".[1]
The article below discusses Varro's notion of "tripartite theology" -- cosmic, political, fabulous. From in Religions of the Ancient World, ed. by Sara Iles Johnson.

Varro was very interested in the calendar, (the structuring form of Fasti), and in working out the chronology of Roman history:

Pre-Julian Calendar

Sunday, July 14, 2013

After Metamorphoses

Ovid finished Metamorphoses before his expulsion from Rome, but reportedly burned his manuscript. The book survived because friends had copies -- imperfect, perhaps, but better than nothing. From afar he directed them to protect the poem, even as he continued working on Fasti, his effort to fill in the key days of the Roman Calendar as revised by Caesar and ordered by Augustus.

The Fasti has received more scholarly attention of late, and a new prose translation arrived in April, appropriately the month of Venus. Anne and Peter Wiseman's version of the poem, done for Oxford World Classics, is in prose and annotated with a good introduction, situating the poem and its material in context.

Scholars are divided over whether the poem is wholly invested in the Roman traditions and myth as set forth under the new imperial order, or whether Ovid, being Ovid, is least in part conducting an indirect but radical critique of that order. (Some of the more recent work on the poem is discussed herehere and here, and much more can be found with a simple search.)

The question of the poem's vision of Rome and its new order is one major issue. Another would be the relationship of the many stories and mythic tales in the Fasti to the Metamorphoses. We saw many examples of Ovid's consciousness of earlier poets in the latter poem, usually in relation to Virgil, Homer, and the Greek tragedians.  Fasti seems to bear the additional dimension of writing with his own prior masterpiece in view.

For example near the very beginning of Fasti there's a retelling of the origin of the world tale as told in Metamorphoses I. Except now the purely Roman god Janus is equated with Chaos as well as with the order that arises from it. Not only is Janus affirmed to be the first and most powerful god, but he then puts in an appearance, visiting Ovid as he's writing about Janus, and willingly answers several questions the poet puts to him. Ovid is having fun, but he's also setting his book of days in relation to the Metamorphoses, and expects us to be cognizant of their intertextual play.

I'm enjoying reading the Wiseman version of the poem, and am also looking at Tony Kline's free online version, and the older translation by Frazer used in the Loeb edition and available in Theoi.

It is worth pondering what necessitated that this poet of Amor be placed at the very edge of the Roman empire by order of Augustus. Ovid himself knew how troublesome love can be to those who rule:
Non bene conveniunt nec in una sede morantur 
maiestas et amor:
Royalty and love
do not sit well together, nor stay long in the same house
Ovid never stopped writing. Fasti ends with June -- something disrupted that project -- but Ovid kept going -- the Tristia, the Ibis, and more. It's doubtful whether, in the millennia since his residence in Tomis, real poetry has managed more than a marginal relation to the centers of power in the West.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ovid as reading teacher 2: Sequence

tu face nescio quos esto contentus amores
inritare tua, nec laudes adsere nostras!' 1.461-2

One of the very Italian things about Ovid is his sprezzatura -- his art of concealing art. Every time we blithely skate from one tale to the next as though we were changing channels on TV, we run the risk of missing some degree of pertinence arising from the relation of one tale to the next.

At least we might ask, as we run, say, from the tale of the flood in Metamorphoses 1 to that of Apollo slaying the Python to the vivid pursuit of Daphne, whether there is some connection to be made, some relation worth considering, between these tales. Are they just individual items on a chain, or could they form segments of a larger semantic structure?

Heracles & Hydra: Louvre

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ovid as reading teacher

Ovid is not just a great teller of myths, he's also a fine reader of them. To read them as he read them is to be introduced to the classical sensibility of a Roman under Augustus. He is not just presenting an anthology of myth, he's sharing his understanding of them.

A few things Ovid has taught me about reading:

1. No reference is too small, too slight, to ignore. I learned this by blithely ignoring allusions only to later realize how they served as cues, pointers. For example, here's the doors of the Palace of the Sun -- a Helios-eye-view of the world. In some ways they're like the shield of Achilles:
. . . the twin doors radiated light from polished silver. The work of art was finer than the material: on the doors Mulciber had engraved the waters that surround the earth’s centre, the earthly globe, and the overarching sky. The dark blue sea contains the gods, melodious Triton, shifting Proteus, Aegaeon crushing two huge whales together, his arms across their backs, and Doris with her daughters, some seen swimming, some sitting on rocks drying their sea-green hair, some riding the backs of fish. They are neither all alike, nor all different, just as sisters should be. The land shows men and towns, woods and creatures, rivers and nymphs and other rural gods. Above them was an image of the glowing sky, with six signs of the zodiac on the right hand door and the same number on the left. (Kline trans.)
 Most of the figures are familiar, but I hadn't bothered to look up Aegaeon the whale crusher (a curious detail that might catch the eye). It turns out this fellow is either Briareos, or the father of Briareos. We're brought back to the text of the Theogony, where this 100-armed, 50-headed son of Uranus was a key helper in Zeus's overthrow of Cronos. He also appears in Homer:
"The creature of the hundred hands to tall Olympos, that creature the gods name Briareos, but all men Aigaios' (Aegaeus') son, but he is far greater in strength than his father." Iliad 1. 397 ff (trans. Lattimore).
The text offers the name among others as a mere detail of the giant door. We can choose to treat it as a bit of local color, or decoration, or we can ponder how apt that this figure, titanic in every way, is singled out at the moment we are to cross a threshold to view another of the Titans, a father viewed from the perspective of his son. Phaethon is about to challenge his dad and himself -- to see if he's up to snuff as the (alleged) offspring of Helios.

Behind the surface of the scene is a series of subtexts dealing with fathers and sons, the contention and defining power of the relationship, the questions and ambiguities of paternity, authority, origin, filiation. The theme is important, and returns over and over in Metamorphoses. We're about the read the longest story of the poem. The enriching detail brings into view vast stories that have everything to do with this scene and with a key preoccupation of the poem: the nature of Greece as the putative father, author, and guiding light of Rome.

It's easy to point to many other examples of this attention to detail in Ovid -- it tells me he wanted us to repay his with our own careful attention.

To be continued . . . part 2

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Elements of a symphony

Doubtless every reader of the Metamorphoses will come up with his/her own sampling of parts -- themes, motifs, structuring elements, poetic devices, salient features -- that work in concert to produce, if not wholes, at least larger parts.

Below are some that have captured our attention as we've threaded the labyrinth of the poem -- obviously incomplete, overlapping, ongoing:

1. Amor, quest, pursuit, chase, desire, possession, incorporation, motion, seeking. Eros and the stirring of the mind to know, to grasp. Apollo - Daphne, Pan - Syrinx, Atalanta - Hippomenes, Polyphemus - Galatea, Jupiter -> many.

2. Knowledge and Power, saying and doing, word and act, action and understanding, aiming and erring, science and magic. Minos and Daedalus, Ajax and Ulysses, Heracles and Pythagoras, Romulus and Numa, Glaucus and Circe.

3. Nature and Art, Convention and nature, speech and writing, cultivation vs. wildness, symbol and usus. Io, Orpheus, Arachne, Muses, Pierides, Pygmalion, Byblis vs. Iphis.

4. Order and Chaos, Love and War, Marriage and Alliance. Jupiter and Juno, Apollo and Coronis, Mars and Venus, Perseus and Andromeda, Pirithoos and Hippolyta, Minos and Pasiphae.

5. Dreams, visions, prophecies. Ceyx and Alcyone, Morpheus, Myscellus, Aesculapius, Tages and Cipus, Caesar's omens.

Assassination of Caesar

6. Paired tales, framed tales. Jupiter and Io, Pan and Syrinx; Philemon and Baucis, Erysichthon; Pomona and Vertumnus, Anaxarete and Iphis; Byblis and Caenis, Iphis and Ianthe.

7. Greece and Rome. Odysseus and Aeneas, Pomona and Anaxarete, Apollo and Aesculapius; Cadmus and Romulus; Phaethon and Augustus, Hippolytus.

8. Structure: Circle, Ring, Linear, Spiral, Rhizome. Cadmus, Theseus, Aeneas, Apollo and Aesculapius, Augustus.

9. Death and the new: Creation; mutation; magic; nova corpora, mutatas formas, terra nova. Persephone and Hades, Achelous and Perimele, Earth and Serpent, Orpheus, Arethusa, Quirinus, Virbius.

10. Ovid as meta-poet. Genres deformed, modes of irony, parody, tropes, modes of myth, epic, history, legend, defamiliarization, wit. The wedding of Perseus, battle of Lapiths and Centaurs, tales of Minyas, Trojan War.

11. Images of speech as system, potentially confusing, echoic world of sound. Gossip, chatter, redundancies, poetics. Fama, Morpheus, Apollo, Corvus and Coronis.

12. Eros and Polis, personal and political, desire and the human order. Io and Juno, Phaethon, Scylla and Minos, Pasiphae and Minos, Acoetes and Pentheus; Medea; Meleager, Atalanta and Althea.

13. Reading: determination and overdetermination, author and mimic; semantic drift, puns, homonyms, enigmas, wonders, and interpretive systems. Etruscan haruspicy, Cephalus and Procris, Corvus and Coronis.

14. Minding the gap: Unspoken relations between seemingly incongruous tales; discontinuity, allegory, irony.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The chase

It was in February of 2011 that our small group began reading Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the time since then, we've encountered more than 200 characters in some 250 mythic tales rendered by a variety of translators, tales told told by a poet who knew a good story when he heard one. It's a natural human impulse to want to sum it up, put it all together, master the whole ball of wax with pith and brevity.

Yet as Stephen Michael Wheeler says in his Narrative Dynamics in Ovid's Metamorphoses, "from hindsight, the vastness of the Metamorphoses is difficult to grasp in overview." Reading a bit of Wheeler suggests that we are far from alone in finding the text rich in intricate pattern and elusive in unifying structure:

In our final meeting, we'll explore some of the recurrent themes, motifs, structures, and gestures of Ovid's work. It would not surprise to find that our poet foretells this very problem of mastery. As with Apollo's straining for Daphne, as with Augustus' grappling with the synthesis of empire, grasping the poem as a totality in which form embodies meaning, and meaning is produced and rendered intelligible through richly integrated form, is no easy pursuit.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Living after life: Aesculapius and other remnants

With the tale of Aesculapius and his relocation to Rome from Epidaurus in Metamorphoses 15, it might help to bear in mind that after nearly being killed by his father Apollo, in some versions of his life he was "killed" by Zeus:
According to Roman era mythography,[14] the figure represents the healer Asclepius, who learned the secrets of keeping death at bay after observing one serpent bringing another healing herbs. To prevent the entire human race from becoming immortal under Asclepius' care, Zeus killed him with a bolt of lightning, but later placed his image in the heavens to honor his good works.
In Metamorphoses 2, Ovid has Ocyrhoe, the daughter of Chiron, blurt out the end of Aesculapius, changing into a horse as she speaks:
‘Grow and thrive, child, healer of all the world! Human beings will often be in your debt, and you will have the right to restore the dead. But if ever it is done regardless of the god’s displeasure you will be stopped, by the flame of your grandfather’s lightning bolt, from doing so again. From a god you will turn to a bloodless corpse, and then to a god who was a corpse, and so twice renew your fate.'
The act of healing that brought death and godhead to Aesculapius is usually considered to be his restoration of Hippolytus.

Rome's welcome of Aesculapius clearly echoes the paean of Athenians upon recognizing their strange visitor to be Aegeus's long-hidden son and the city's future king, Theseus. In the Olympian mode, Theseus occasioned the end of both his father and his son.

The juxtaposition of the death of Hippolytus with the transfer of Aesculapius to Rome suggests, once again, that the turn of the poem, and of the world, from Greece to Rome is linked both to an alteration of identity and to something like a metamorphosis of death. Italy emerges in book 15 as an after-living -- a wooded land in which the Trojan people, Pythagorean thought, the son of Theseus, and the son of Apollo do not die. Rather, having suffered a Glaucus-like sea-change, they appear new and strange. The power is there, but estranged from itself. The welcoming throngs don't re-cognize Aesculapius, he's new.

This life after life seems less an overcoming Hades and the Olympians than a distancing, a flowing away from them, an attenuation and a concealment. As forecast by Saturn's flight to Italy, who too lives on, in Latium.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A brief break

The blog is taking a break this week as we are on a brief trip.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wonders and signs in Metamorphoses 15

The three short tales inserted between Hippolytus and the voyage of Aesculapius in Metamorphoses 15 pose interpretive challenges that have scholars such as Raymond Marks working to unlock their riddles. Here we just have time for a few comments.

The three tales -- two of them in anecdotal form -- form a cascade of similes having to do with wonder.

This strange event [the transformation of the mourning Egeria into aeternas undas] amazed the nymphs, and the Amazon’s son was no less astounded, than the Tyrrhenian ploughman when he saw a fateful clod of earth in the middle of his fields, first move by itself with no one touching it, then assume the form of a man, losing its earthy nature, and open its newly acquired mouth, to utter things to come. The native people called him Tages, he who first taught the Etruscan race to reveal future events.  No less astounded than Romulus, when he saw his spear, that had once grown on the Palatine Hill, suddenly put out leaves, and stand there, not with its point driven in, but with fresh roots: now not a weapon but a tough willow-tree, giving unexpected shade to those who wondered at it.
    No less astounded than Cipus, the praetor, when he saw his horns in the river’s water . .  .

The story of Tages packs a wondrous occurrence into a few lines -- a clod of earth autonomously gains a mouth and teaches the Etruscans how to read future events in signs. Barely is that noted than the spear of Romulus returns to its "roots" as well as sprouting leaves and branches. Then horns appear on the temples of Cipus, and an Etruscan priest finds huge import in them for both him and the Romans -- but Cipus deflects it through an alternate "interpretation" that frees both him and the city from the burden of kingship.

All three tales are concerned with self-instantiating signs that initiate, rather than reflect, an event. Instead of being the bearers of some definite meaning that precedes them, they suddenly put themselves there. If they seem to demand that meaning come, it only comes after they posit themselves. Their very status as "sign" depends on their working as wonders. Ovid, the poet of the new and strange, is thinking about the link between signs and wonders.

In the case of Tages, the notion of an autochthonous language -- arising from a ploughed field -- is at least consistent with what little we know of Etruscan today -- apparently an "isolate," it's unrelated to Indo-European, not part of our common linguistic ground. How does a unique language of signs occur? When a language self-originates how does anyone understand it? How does language, a shared thing, come to be?

Etruscan figures

Tages' power of speech is immediately reduced to a system of signs (the Etruscans were said to have recorded his teachings in secret books) that must be interpreted, as they speak not of the past or the present, but of the future. Meaning is to come, but the sign is here, and to make it speak, one must be versed in the sign system and in the methods of its decoding:
Observatio was the interpretation of signs according to the tradition of the "Etruscan discipline," or as preserved in books such as the libri augurales. A haruspex interpreted fulgura (thunder and lightning) and exta (entrails) by observatio. The word has three closely related meanings in augury: the observing of signs by an augur or other diviner; the process of observing, recording, and establishing the meaning of signs over time; and the codified body of knowledge accumulated by systematic observation, that is, "unbending rules" regarded as objective, or external to an individual's observation on a given occasion. Impetrative signs, or those sought by standard augural procedure, were interpreted according to observatio; the observer had little or no latitude in how they might be interpreted. Observatio might also be applicable to many oblative or unexpected signs. Observatio was considered a kind of scientia, or "scientific" knowledge, in contrast to coniectura, a more speculative "art" or "method" (ars) as required by novel signs.[356]
Even this brief glimpse of ostenta gives us a sense that the field of semiotics, the study of signs, did not begin with Pierce or de Saussure. The Etruscans were semioticians avant la lettre. Priests, poets, and seers have made the nuanced description, tabulation, and interpretation a matter of study and practice for millennia, much as the Greeks analyzed the large and various tropes and devices of rhetoric, and their role in cognition and persuasion, with keen and supple attention.

Cipus engages in an elaborate interpretive duel with the priest and his people to ward off the potential doom -- again, the question of kingship and succession -- hatched upon the dilemma of his horns. Karl Popper wrote two long volumes to work out a theory of knowledge whose political dimension is a not dissimilar struggle to oppose absolutism. Where signs demand elucidation, expect a contest of readings -- not just readings, but theories of reading. In the end, Cipus's Roman reading takes on the trappings of demagoguery to overcome the Etruscan seer's interpretation. The dilemma turns out to revolve around the portas, the gates of the city -- whether they shall be open and he shall enter like a victorious general, or closed to him, and implicitly, all future generals. Caesar and Ianus are not far off.

After Pythagoras's musings and the transformation of Hippolytus, which frame and wind around the life and death of King Numa, Ovid chooses to put the riddle of language -- of the sign -- before us. For the poet, signs are the materials of his craft -- for the vates, the seer, they carry the future, but only if they can be read:
Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.
As we near the final tales of the Metamorphoses, stories of gods and Caesar, the succession of Augustus and the fate of Rome, it is small wonder to find Ovid foregrounding the interplay of signs, power, and the act of reading.

Monday, June 3, 2013

New Heroines

As one of our schemes is to work Ovid's Heroides into our upcoming reading of Euripides, we could say Fate has intervened to offer a new translation of the work by British poet Clare Pollard:

From the Amazon blurb:
For a long time it was Ovid's most influential work, loved by Chaucer, Dante, Marlowe, Shakespeare and Donne, and translated by Dryden and Pope. Clare Pollard's new translation rediscovers Ovid's Heroines for the 21st century, with a cast of women who are brave, bitchy, sexy, suicidal, horrifying, heartbreaking and surprisingly modern.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A few more Etruscan motifs


Liver of Piacenza

The Etruscans were well known for the practice of divining by the entrails of sheep. A bronze sculpture of a liver known as the "Liver of Piacenza", dating to around 100 BC, was discovered in 1877 near the town of Piacenza in northern Italy. It is marked with the name of regions assigned to various deities of Etruscan religion
The art of haruspicy was taught in the Libri Tagetici, a collection of texts attributed to Tages, a childlike being who figures in Etruscan mythology, and who was discovered in an open field by Tarchon; the Libri Tagetici were translated into Latin and employed in reading omens.
* * *

The Etruscans believed their religion had been revealed to them by seers,[4] the two main ones being Tages, a childlike figure born from tilled land who was immediately gifted with prescience, and Vegoia, a female figure. 
The Etruscans believed in intimate contact with divinity.[5] They did nothing without proper consultation with the gods and signs from them.[6] These practices were taken over in total by the Romans.
Tages is also described as a boy with the wisdom of an old man.

Vegoia authoress
The revelations of the prophetess Vegoia are designated as the Libri Vegoici, which included the Libri Fulgurales and part of the Libri Rituales, especially the Libri Fatales.
She is barely designated as a “nymph”, as the actual writer of the Libri Fulgurales,[4] which give the keys to interpreting the meaning of lightning strokes sent by the deities (using a cartography of the sky, which, as a sort of property division, was attributed to Vegoia;[5] this assignment of sectors of the horizon to various deities is paralleled in the microcosm that is the liver of a sacrificed animal. The sacred divisions seem also to have a correspondence in the measurement and division of land, which since the very dawn of Etruscan history obeyed religious rules[6]), as teaching the correct methods of measuring space [7] in the Libri Rituales, and as lording over their observation under threat of some dire woe or malediction,[8] thus establishing her as a power presiding over land property and land property rights, laws and contracts (as distinct of commercial contracts laws). 
She is also indicated as having revealed the laws relative to hydraulic works,[9] thus having a special relationship to "tamed" water.

The Etruscans accepted the inscrutability of their gods' wills. They did not attempt to rationalize or explain divine actions or formulate any doctrines of the gods' intentions. As answer to the problem of ascertaining the divine will, they developed an elaborate system of divination; that is, they believed the gods offer a perpetual stream of signs in the phenomena of daily life, which if read rightly can direct man's affairs. These revelations may not be otherwise understandable and may not be pleasant or easy, but are perilous to doubt.

The Etruscan state government was essentially a theocracy. The government was viewed as being a central authority, over all tribal and clan organizations. It retained the power of life and death; in fact, the gorgon, an ancient symbol of that power, appears as a motif in Etruscan decoration. The adherents to this state power were united by a common religion. Political unity in Etruscan society was the city-state, which was probably the referent of methlum, “district”. Etruscan texts name quite a number of magistrates, without much of a hint as to their function: the camthi, the parnich, the purth, thetamera, the macstrev, and so on. The people were the mech. The chief ruler of a methlum was perhaps a zilach.

Etruscan Necropolises
Some 6,000 tombs, 200 of which include wall paintings. The main site is the Necropolis of Monterozzi, with a large number of tumulus tombs with chambers carved in the rock. The scenes painted include erotic and magic depictions, landscapes, dances and music. There are also carved sarcophagi, some dating to the Hellenistic period. Main tombs included the Tomba della Fustigazione and the Tomb of the Leopards.

Tomb of the Leopards

Meaning and Being 
Long after the assimilation of the Etruscans, Seneca the Younger said[1] that the difference between the Romans and the Etruscans was:
Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for as they attribute all to deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.

Civita di Bagnoregio

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hippolytus at the Isthmus

Even then, the horses’ madness would not have exhausted my strength, if a wheel had not broken, and been wrenched off, as the axle hub, round which it revolves, struck a tree. Meta. 15.

The story Hippolytus tells of his own death has to be one of the more semantically charged moments in the Metamorphoses. It would go far beyond the bounds of a blog post to develop a full reading of his character and acts in book 15 and in the poem as a whole. Suffice it to say Hippolytus speaks, as we've noted, without preparation or introduction, and immediately strikes an odd note.

He's not very sympathetic to mourning Egeria, and goes on to recount his chariot crash scene, as if it somehow trumps the nymph's tale of loss. Coming as it does after the long song of Pythagoras, the physicality of the description of his crash, the uncanny appearance of the mountainous wave and the bull, all this narrative energy inserts a strange shock between the reflections and prescriptions of the philosopher and the serene journey of serpentine Aesculapius that follows.

The disfiguring death of Hippolytus is enigmatic at all points: he's one of the greatest horsemen in the world, yet he dies neither in a war nor in an Olympic race, but in an accident involving no other "drivers." He is the son of Theseus, one of the most just, beloved, and balanced heroes of Greece, but he dies cursed by his father for an alleged crime of Venus, though he's a follower of Artemis. He is of the line of Pelops, who was the lover of Poseidon. The god is also his grandfather, yet it's Poseidon's gift that visits Theseus's curse upon Hippolytus.

To unravel this knot, we need to follow threads leading back to violent kings, acts of treachery, and an abandoned princess.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Dantean moment

There might be no more "Dantean" moment in the Metamorphoses than the sudden sound of Hippolytus's voice in book 15. For a comparison, consider the scene in Inferno 10 when, as Dante and Virgil are walking amid the open tombs in the City of Dis, they're suddenly interrupted by a deep voice from within a tomb:

O Tosco che per la città del foco
vivo ten vai cosù parlando onesto,
piacciati di restare in questo loco.

O Tuscan, thou who through the city of fire
Goest alive, thus speaking modestly,
Be pleased to stay thy footsteps in this place.

Farinata rises from his burning grave because he hears his native Florentine speech, and seizes the opportunity to hear of the living world. 

Ovid's Egeria is disconsolate at the death of her consort, Numa, when she is suddenly interrupted:
How often HippolytusTheseus’s heroic son, said, to the weeping nymph: ‘Make an end to this, since yours is not the only fate to be lamented: think of others’ like misfortunes: you will endure your own more calmly.'
The appearance of Hippolytus is doubly unexpected -- nothing prepares us for the fact that he did not die in his chariot accident, or that he's in Aricia. Being addressed by a dead person who speaks of how he perished puts the sacred grove of Aricia on a path to the afterworld of Dante. Except here, Hippolytus has returned to life, albeit in disguise so that, as he says, his gift of life would neither be a cause of envy, nor enable him to be found by Dis. He speaks to comfort Egeria, though his speech seems to use an odd calculus to measure his disaster against her loss.

Hippolytus is one of very few figures in Greek mythology who return to live on Earth after total disfiguration and death. With Hippolytus, Ovid is exploring the limits of mortality, as Dante is doing in a quite different way with Farinata in the circle of heretics who deny immortal life.

The next post will continue with Hippolytus in Metamorphoses 15.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Wondrous conjecture: Marvels in Metamorphoses 15

What returns more than once in Metamorphoses 15 is the theme of wonder, of things that stupify or capture our attention because of their power to shock, surprise, amaze. In a lovely passage, Pythagoras finds in what we normally conceive of as the natural process of birth an instance of how Natura uses her powers as artifex, Daedalian artificer, to escape the trap, the womb, that holds the seed and the hope therein:

There was a time when we were hidden in our first mother’s womb, only the seed and promise of a human being: nature applied her artificer's hands, and, unwilling for our bodies to be buried, cramped in our mother’s swollen belly, expelled us from our home, into the empty air. 

Born into the light, the infant lay there, powerless: but soon it scrambled on all fours like a wild creature, then, gradually, helped by a supporting harness, it stood, uncertainly, on shaky legs. From that point, it grew strong and swift, and passed through its span of youth.
The wonder of Pythagoras will be re-instantiated in the sudden appearance of Hippolytus, in the transformation of Egeria, which is in turn likened to a series of wonders involving Etruscan Tages, Romulus' spear, and the strange reflection of Cipus, before the text turns to Epidaurus for yet another wonder, the translation of Aesculapius.

The tales of Metamorphoses 15 push at the bounds of nature and of art, even as they situate the future momentum of Italy and Rome vis a vis the past of Greece, Phrygia, Crete, Assyria and Egypt. The possibility of a future different from the past -- the promise and seed of something new -- is bound to this motif of wonder, which itself, according to at least one thoughtful mind, is at the root of the love of wisdom:
Human beings philosophize, according to Aristotle, because they find aspects of their experience puzzling. The sorts of puzzles we encounter in thinking about the universe and our place within it—aporiai, in Aristotle's terminology—tax our understanding and induce us to philosophize.

“Human beings began to do philosophy,” he says, “even as they do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered about the strange things right in front of them, and then later, advancing little by little, because they came to find greater things puzzling” (Met. 982b12). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy
Aristotle's term aporia (ἀπορɛία) signifies "lack of resources; puzzlement; doubt; confusion," but its root sense is from a + poros: without passage: impasse.

The mind, confronting its own puzzlement at something it encounters and doesn't understand, is induced to philosophize -- understanding comes when an obstruction is overcome, the mind is no longer trapped. The root is thauma: wonder -- the labors of the mind's native desire to overcome the impasse of ignorance.

We are not far from Pythagoras's understanding of birth. Nature produces the seed, the hope, and the womb, and reaches an impasse. Nature uses her artifices manus to extricate seed and hope from her own trap, hurling them into the "empty air." At the root of "conjecture" is iacere, the word Ovid uses to describe Nature's expulsion of the infant from its hiding place. The poem offers a performative dimension, if you wish, enacting the birth of philosophy in Pythagoras's description of the act of birth.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Milton's favorites, Pythagoras on weapons

According to Samuel Johnson, John Milton in his latter years had three favorite authors:
The books in which his daughter, who used to read to him, represented him as most delighting, after Homer, which he could almost repeat, were Ovid's Metamorphoses and Euripides.

Pythagoras on "weapon control":

“Let the laws rule alone. When weapons rule, they kill the law.”

Friday, May 10, 2013

Oikoi in the Arician Grove

By now we're used to the fact that anything can happen in the Metamorphoses. This "fact" shouldn't inure us to the singularly strange transitions and juxtapositions woven into the text, because we are probably meant to be perplexed by them. The rapid reader will find sheer arbitrariness in a segue that moves swiftly from the end of a 400+ line speech by an ancient Greek philosopher to a telegraphic note on the death of Numa, to the transformation of his consort Egeria, to the sudden intrusion of the voice of a figure who claims to be the dead Hippolytus, now restored and assisting Diana in Aricia under the new identity of Virbius. And that fast reader's reaction would be understandable. But perhaps there's more to it.

For purposes of making some headway here, note that Ovid has turned from the voice of Pythagoras to the texts of several of Euripides' tragedies -- the Orestes, Iphigeneia at Tauris and Hippolytus. These plays deal with the fates of two of the great Greek houses (oikoi) -- of Atreus and of Theseus. (Of course the Oresteia of Aeschylus is involved as well.)

Orestes and Pylades kill Aegisthus
These two tales couldn't be more different, and their differences are worth pondering. For example, Agamemnon's son Orestes (who was sent to live in Phocis after his mother, Clytemnestra, begins her involvement with Aegisthus) is ordered by the gods to kill his mother. Pursued by the Erinyes, he goes insane before being restored, judged not guilty, cleansed (by nine men at Troezen), and elevated to succeed his father as ruler of Mycenae. He also recovers Hermione, daughter of Helen and Paris, who was betrothed to him by Tyndareus, but who, after he went insane, was given by Menelaos to Neoptolemus.

In a nutshell, the concern with Orestes is with intra-familial murder, revenge, justice, and the recovering of kingly succession. The kingdom passes from Agamemnon to his son, but not in quite the ceremonial and orderly fashion most states would prefer.

Athena, Orestes, Priestesses at Delphi

The house of Theseus is not so much of a house. Through his human father Aegeus (who shares paternity with Poseidon), Theseus can trace his line to Erichthonius, the allegedly autochthonous early king of Athens. Theseus had a somewhat peculiar marriage with the Amazon Hippolyta (the only Amazon ever to wed any man), and Hippolytus was their child. After the death of Hippolyta, Hippolytus was sent to live in Troezen with his great-grandfather, Pittheus, while Theseus married Minos's daughter Phaedra, Ariadne's sister. Phaedra's unquenchable desire for Hippolytus leads to his brutal death. She lies to Theseus, claiming Hippolytus had assaulted her, and Theseus uses one of three wishes granted him by Poseidon to cause the death of his son.

The figure of a bull appears in a giant wave, frightening Hippolytus's horses, and fulfilling the apparent meaning of his name, which can mean "unleasher of horses," or, "destroyed by horses."

So, two stories of royal houses, fathers and sons, things going awry. In one, a son kills his natural mother; in the other, a stepmother brings about the death of the king's son. In one, order is restored, in the other, the house ends, but the son has a curious afterlife.

What brings these tales together in the Arician grove of "Oresteian Diana"? Why, after listening for quite some time to the voice of Pythagoras, do we suddenly out of the blue hear Hippolytus speaking to Egeria? What is at stake in this strange juxtaposition, and in the admittedly in-credible tale of how this tragic figure became Virbius? (Virgil's version of that tale is told in Aeneid 7).

To get a sense of the background, it might be useful to look at two of Ovid's Heroides in connection with this part of Metamorphoses 15: The letter of Hermione to Orestes, and the letter of Phaedra to Hippolytus.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Figuring Pythagoras

Pythagoras turned geometrical philosophy into a form of liberal education by seeking its first principles in a higher realm of reality. Proclus.

In The Presocratic Philosophers, Kirk and Raven are clear that a teacher named Pythagoras did exist, flourishing around 530 BC:

"There can be no doubt that Pythagoras founded in Croton a sort of religious fraternity or order," they write, adding that Aristotle wrote about his circle as one of the "Italian schools" of philosophy.

Very little is known for certain about his teachings, or those of his successors, but the recurrent note is the unusual tension in his work, which appears to have interwoven three strands: (1) a highly abstract contemplative approach to theory, (2) a sense of the cosmos as a stable, orderly universe, and (3) a concern with catharsis, purification, which was especially linked with music. Kirk and Raven cite an ancient text:
 The Pythagoreans, according to Aristoxenus, practised the purification of the body by medicine, that of the soul by music.
The tension within what is considered characteristic of Pythagorean thought has to do with an effort to synthesize cold, rational, changeless mathematical clarity (space) with passionate and intense interest in things developing, moving, changing -- the marvel of the new (time).
         . . . nihil est toto, quod perstet, in orbe.  (177)
         Cuncta fluuntomnisque vagans formatur imago;
        there is nothing in the whole universe that persists. Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image.
If all we can possess are wandering (vagans) images, then, in truth, we can't hold on to truth. The philosopher here seems to be envisioning the world itself as something that can only be an image, and not a stable one -- the critique of knowledge as being ever contingent, limited, and mutable is no longer a critique of knowledge, but rather is in "fact" the world that we can know. The cave of Morpheus is less distant than we thought.

Adding up all this that can never be known yields a sum that is known never to change:
     summa tamen omnia constant. (250)
     the total sum is constant. 

Ancient sources attribute the term Kosmos to Pythagoras -- the idea that there is order in the universe. Given such order, it seemed inevitable to the Greeks that there would be harmony. Pythagoras is believed to have originated the thought of "the music of the spheres." And according to other ancient sources, he was the first to use the term "philosopher."

The figure of Pythagoras brings together the difficult polarities of art and music, the realm of theory and the power of voice, Apollo and Dionysus. According to ancient comment, Pythagoras' initial effort to yoke these contraries broke apart after his death into two separate schools -- one tending toward the mystical, one toward the mathematical. It is this complication, this callida iunctura within Pythagoras, that would have appealed to Ovid. Here was a philosopher who sang the world as if the play of poetic making were not something said about the world, but rather something in and of the world about which philosophers attempt to speak.
If one were to believe the Pythagoreans, with the result that the same individual things will recur, then I shall be talking to you again sitting as you are now, with this pointer in my hand, and everything else will be just as it is now, and it is reasonable to suppose that the time then is the same as now. Porphyrius, Vita Pythagorae. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Some Etruscan images

We have little awareness of their epics, songs, or modes of speech, but the Etruscans left something of their world behind.

Etruscan sculptures did not attempt to glorify or enhance the human subjects, but portrayed physical appearance, age, and infirmity with a careful, objective eye. Some of the earliest examples of realistic Etruscan artwork are small, three-dimensional terra cotta figurines from the Early Iron Age (circa 1000-750 B.C.E.). Etruscan Influences

The Etruscan thread in Metamorphoses 15 is slender but significant. It's interwoven along with figures from the Sabines, Oscans, Greeks, and others whose individual cultural identities were elided in the complex fusion of the Roman state. Linguistic evidence suggests that Etruscan concepts and values were built into the early phases of the Roman monarchy.

The Etruscans were enjoying a highly sophisticated world of delicate art and architecture, ceremony, ritual and trade with Greece at the time Rome was just beginning. Below are a few samples -- more in the next post.

Musician - Triclinium

Warrior - Viterbo

Gold writing