Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Monkey mimes and other tales of "Campania felix"

Heracles and the Cercopes

One of the many pleasures of the Metamorphoses comes in using the book as a travelogue - a sort of Rough Guide to the Lands of Myth and Fable.

In the speedy summary of Aeneas's wanderings in book 14 we move from Sicily to Cumae, via islands off the coast of Naples. One of them, Pithecusae, we now call Ischia, and Ovid is pleased to tell us in a philological note how it was populated by deceitful humans who were turned into monkey mimics:
Pithecusae, on its barren hill, named after its inhabitants, from pithecium, a little ape. For the father of the gods, Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, and the crimes of that treacherous people, changed them into disgraceful creatures, so that, though unlike men, they should seem like them. He contracted their limbs, turned up and blunted their noses, and furrowed their faces with the wrinkles of old age. Their bodies completely covered by yellow hair, he sent them, as monkeys, to this place, but not before he had robbed them of the power of speech, and those tongues born for dreadful deceit, leaving them only the power to complain in raucous shrieks. (Kline)
The Cercopes are the stuff of various stories, including the fine tale of how they annoyed Heracles, and what he did to them, and how, hanging upside down on his shoulder pole and beholding the far side of the hero's posterior, their captivity ended in a liberating explosion of laughter. The above image is of that tale, and is a metope found at Paestum, one of the ancient cities of Magna Graecia, dating back to the 7th century BC.

The tale reminds us that much of what is now southern Italy was essentially an extension of the Greek world for quite a bit longer than the US has been a nation.  As his poem passes through the region of Campania -- the Romans called it campania felix, "fertile (fortunate, happy) countryside," Ovid is doubtless mindful of its history, dutifully composed by Livy, including the Samnite Wars that led to eventual Roman rule.

Whether or not the Romans came from Troy, it is the case that southern Italy was Italian before it was Greek, and the eventual hegemony of Rome over Italy was a reversal and a return. We might bear this in mind as we look at the relationship of Aeneas's journey to that of Odysseus which brought both of them into touch with Polyphemus, Scylla, Aeolus, Sirens, and Circe.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Romance, autobiography and history in Metamorphoses 13

Glaucus and Scylla - J.M.W. Turner

It's intriguing to find the artist of water and light offering this meditation on the tale of Glaucus and Scylla, the final tale of Metamorphoses 13.

According to at least one analysis, the tale's entire love triangle is depicted here -- Circe, daughter of Helios, is imaged in the sun seeing and lighting the scene from just above the horizon. She's staring at Glaucus, who's staring at Scylla, who's turning away from this strange new sea creature.

Ovid says,
she ran, and, with the swiftness of fear, came to the top of a mountain standing near the shore. It faced the wide sea, rising to a single peak, its wooded summit leaning far out over the water. Here she stopped, and from a place of safety, marvelled at his colour; the hair that hid his shoulders and covered his back; and his groin below that merged into a winding fish’s tail; she not knowing whether he was god or monster. (monstrumne deusne ille sitignorans)
Glaucus and Scylla gaze at each other, as the sun gazes on them. The eyes of the girl and the sea-god are locked -- what Ovid calls admiror -- 'to regard with wonder' -- but they are experiencing symmetrically opposed erotic reactions.

Glaucus will try telling her his autobiography to assuage her fears and attract her love, hardly an original ploy. Is there any woman alive who has not had to listen to too many hubristic males rehearsing their resumes and life stories?

This turn to autobiography is a prominent feature of book 13, so let's have a look at it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Glaucus and Scylla: From the depths

The final scene of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" involves a sea monster and a young girl:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Under the Volcano: Calliope's Trinacria

We might remember that back in Metamorphoses 5 there was a brief account of Sicily.
‘“Trinacris, the vast isle of Sicily, had been heaped over the giant’s limbs, and with its great mass oppressed buried Typhoeus, he who had dared to aspire to a place in heaven. He struggles it’s true and often tries to rise, but his right hand is held by the promontory of Ausonian Pelorus, and his left hand by you, Pachynus. Lilybaeum presses on his legs, Etna weighs down his head, supine beneath it, Typhoeus throws ash from his mouth, and spits out flame. Often, a wrestler, he throws back the weight of earth, and tries to roll the high mountains and the cities from his body, and then the ground trembles, and even the lord of the silent kingdom is afraid lest he be exposed, and the soil split open in wide fissures, and the light admitted to scare the anxious dead.' "
The double quotations mark that this lore is being sung by Calliope, but the song in turn is being remembered and retold by another of the Muses -- the poem never specifies which one.

Calliope "pre-echoes" Ovid's own description in book 13 of the triangular shape of the island, with its three promontories: Pelorus, Pachynus, and Lilybaeum. Only in her account, the entire island is a mass that had intentionally been placed over the monster Typhoeus's arms and legs, with Etna as a mountainous channel to his mouth.
Typhon was described in pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, as the largest and most fearsome of all creatures. His human upper half reached as high as the stars. His hands reached east and west and, instead of a human head, he had a hundred dragon heads; some however depict him as having a human head and the dragon heads being attached to his hands instead of fingers. He was feared even by the mighty gods. His bottom half was gigantic viper coils that could reach the top of his head when stretched out and made a hissing noise. His whole body was covered in wings, and fire flashed from his eyes. 

Typhoeus is the source of a song sung by the magpie Pierides, who challenged the Muses in book 5, singing of the defeat of the Olympians by the monster:
How Typhoeus, issued forth from his abode in the depths of the earth, filling the heavenly gods with fear, and how they all turned their backs in flight, until Egypt received them, and the Nile with its seven mouths.
Theoi summarizes:
The later poets frequently connect Typhoeus with Egypt, and the gods, it is said, when unable to hold out against him, fled to Egypt, where, from fear, they metamorphosed themselves into animals, with the exception of Zeus and Athena. (Anton. Lib. 28 ; Hygin. Poet. Astr. ii. 28; Ov. Met. v. 321, &c. ; comp. Apollod. i. 6. § 3; Ov. Fast. ii. 461; Horat. Carm. iii. 4. 53.)
When Calliope proceeds to sing of the rape of Persephone, she begins with the situation on the ground. Trinacria is a shaken fortress:
‘“Fearing this disaster, the king of the dark (Hades) had left his shadowy realm, and, drawn in his chariot by black horses, carefully circled the foundations of the Sicilian land. When he had checked and was satisfied that nothing was collapsing, he relinquished his fears. Then Venus, at Eryx, saw him moving, . . .'"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Angles of vision

Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea from the Medici Fountain at the Jardin du Luxembourg (click for larger image):

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sicilian transformations

Aeneas's arrival in Trinacria is barely mentioned when Metamorphoses 13 launches a series of rich and strange tales involving love triangles, aversion, monsters, transformations from mortals to gods, or from modalities of earth to those of the deep sea.

Acis and Faunus

Acis, the beloved of Galatea, is the child of Faunus, an indigenous Italian deity -- he was blended with Pan, or another Greek figure back-formed from the Italian god. Acis is transformed, at his murder, into the river Acis, which flows by Mt. Aetna. Faunus was also believed to be the son of Picus, the original king of Latium, who was both the root of the Latin kings, and, after his transformation into a woodpecker, the leader of children expelled from the community in a practice known as the sacred spring (Ver sacrum).

Phorkys, Polyphemus and Scylla

The genealogies of both Polyphemus and Scylla lead back to the ancient Phorkys and Keto (aka Phorcys and Ceto). According to Theoi, Phorkys was depicted in ancient mosaic as a grey-haired, fish-tailed god, with spiky crab-like skin and crab-claw forelegs. His attribute was a torch:

Phorkys and Dynamene
Their children were dangerous sea-monsters: Skylla (the crab) a monster who devoured passing sailors, Thoosa (the swift) mother of the rock-tossing cyclops Polyphemos, Ladon (strong flowing) a hundred-headed sea-serpent, Ekhidna (viper) a she-dragon, the Graiai (grey ones) spirits of the sea-foam, and the Gorgones (terrifying ones) whose petrifying gaze probably created the dangerous rocks and reefs of the sea.
We met some of these creatures earlier in the tales of Perseus in Metamorphoses 4, particularly the Graiai and Medusa, both of whom were overcome by the Greek hero.

Now we're encountering Polyphemus and Scylla, who were successfully evaded by Odysseus, and are now encountered, indirectly, by Aeneas. He will hear of them in Book 14, and avoid them. But their stories rise up here, front and center, displacing the Roman hero nearly to the point of vanishing altogether.

We'll want to consider this suggestive coincidence of Trinacria, the triangular island, with these fatal love triangles, and novel transformations that mix the human, the god, and the monstrous.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Polyphemus' Song: Handel and Theocritus

   ‘Galatea, whiter than the snowy privet petals,
    taller than slim alder, more flowery than the meadows,
    friskier than a tender kid, more radiant than crystal,
    smoother than shells, polished, by the endless tides;
    more welcome than the summer shade, or the sun in winter,
    showier than the tall plane-tree, fleeter than the hind;  
    more than ice sparkling, sweeter than grapes ripening,
    softer than the swan’s-down, or the milk when curdled,
    lovelier, if you did not flee, than a watered garden.
   Galatea, likewise, wilder than an untamed heifer,
   harder than an ancient oak, trickier than the sea;
   tougher than the willow-twigs, or the white vine branches,
   firmer than these cliffs, more turbulent than a river,
   vainer than the vaunted peacock, fiercer than the fire;
   more truculent than a pregnant bear, pricklier than thistles,
   deafer than the waters, crueller than a trodden snake;
   and, what I wish I could alter in you, most of all, is this:
   that you are swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking,
   swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze.’

Here is G.F. Handel's setting of Polyphemus's song to Galatea, which we are now looking at in Metamorphoses 13.

Another version of this scene from Handel's Acis and Galatea can be found a bit after the 45-minute mark in this production of the complete opera.

Ovid had a model for his song of Polyphemus: He based his version on that of Theocritus's 11th Idyll - a very nice translation by D.A. Svarlien is here. It makes perfect sense that in the Metamorphoses, a poem so aware of prior poetry, the moment of Aeneas's setting foot on Sicilian soil becomes the occasion for a pastoral love scene from Ovid's Syracusan predecessor.

It will reward attention to compare the Greek pastoral with Ovid's scene. For one thing, Theocritus's Cyclops, who is quite young, speaks in a fanciful way of his infatuation. The reader alone tingles with the future horror innocently traced in his lyric:
But if I am too shaggy, look: I have
Oak logs, and, unquenched by covering ash,
The spark of never-wearying fire within my cave.
I could endure being singed to the quick by you
My only eye, the sweetest thing to me,
I'd let you burn it.
We see what Theocritus is doing -- but is Ovid's version doing the same thing? Does his setting of Polyphemus's love song seem tonally similar, or quite different, from that of Theocritus?

Also, while Theocritus' Idyll does have a slender narrative frame, Ovid's frame is more elaborate. In the Metamorphoses, the song is actually sung by Galatea, who is recounting to Scylla not just the Cyclops' wooing, but his eventual murder of Acis, and the transformation of her lover into a blue-faced river god.

Polyphemus and Galatea also appear in Theocritus's 6th Idyll.


Royal Ashes and the Genome

Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam—and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? 
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, 
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. (Hamlet V.1)

Arline sent this in the wake of our discussion of the Trojan/Roman gene pool today:

Squash Holds Decapitated King Louis XVI's Blood

More than 200 years ago, France's King Louis XVI was killed (along with his wife, Marie Antoinette) via guillotine, and legend has it someone used a handkerchief to soak up the king's blood, then stored the handkerchief in a gourd. 
Now scientists have confirmed that a squash emblazoned with figures from the French Revolution indeed contains the dried blood of the executed king.

             <big snip>
By comparing the Y chromosome in both samples, the team concluded that the two men were 250 times more likely to be genetically related than unrelated. Both samples had genetic variants characteristic of the Bourbon region of France, and those variants are very rare in Europe today. 
Given the history behind the samples, the new findings confirm that both the dried blood belongs to King Louis XVI. It also verifies that the embalmed head once belonged to King Henry IV. 
Now that it has confirmed the blood came from Louis XVI, the team is planning to reconstruct the entire genome of the deposed French monarch.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The origins and ends of Troy

If Homer had told the tale of Troy in a linear way, the following passage might have been very near the opening of his poem. It's the descent of the kings of Troy from Dardanus down to Priam. But in fact it comes in Book 20.213 ff, quite near the climactic and decisive fight between Achilles and Hektor.

The passage evokes the blessed, proud and happy beginnings of the city sacred to the gods:
"Howbeit, if thou wilt, hear this also, that thou mayest know well my lineage, and many there be that know it: at the first Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, begat Dardanus, and he founded Dardania, for not yet was sacred Ilios builded in the plain to be a city of mortal men, but they still dwelt upon the slopes of many-fountained Ida. And Dardanus in turn begat a son, king Erichthonius, [220] who became richest of mortal men.
And of course the horses of Troy have pride of place:
Three thousand steeds had he that pastured in the marsh-land; mares were they. rejoicing in their tender foals. Of these as they grazed the North Wind became enamoured, and he likened himself to a dark-maned stallion and covered them; and they conceived, and bare twelve fillies. These, when they bounded over the earth, the giver of grain, would course over the topmost ears of ripened corn and break them not, and whenso they bounded over the broad back of the sea, would course over the topmost breakers of the hoary brine. And Erichthonius begat Tros to be king among the Trojans, and from Tros again three peerless sons were born, Ilus, and Assaracus, and godlike Ganymedes that was born the fairest of mortal men; wherefore the gods caught him up on high to be cupbearer to Zeus by reason of his beauty, that he might dwell with the immortals. And Ilus again begat a son, peerless Laomedon, and Laomedon begat Tithonus and Priam and Clytius, and Hicetaon, scion of Ares. 
Two remarkable aspects of this recounting of the lineage must be noted. The first is that the speaker of these lines is not Homer, but Aeneas, who now places himself within that genealogy:
And Assaracus begat Capys, and he Anchises; but Anchises begat me and Priam goodly Hector. This then is the lineage amid the blood wherefrom I avow me sprung.
At the very point at which the fate of the city hangs by a thread, Aeneas, whom Homer knew would survive, is recapitulating his origins and descent as well as those of all the children of Priam.

The other remarkable thing here is that Aeneas isn't speaking to a friend or god or ally. He's speaking to Achilles. The gods have arranged for these two warriors to meet in battle, and the recital of forebears will precede the clash of arms.

After some more words, the two fighters are at the striking point when Poseidon turns to the other gods, explains that Troy has earned Zeus's hate, and foretells the fate of Aeneas:
And forthwith he [Poseidon] spake among the immortal gods, saying: "Now look you, verily have I grief for great-hearted Aeneas, who anon shall go down to the house of Hades, slain by the son of Peleus, for that he listened to the bidding of Apollo that smiteth afar—fool that he was! nor will the god in any wise ward from him woeful destruction. But wherefore should he, a guiltless man, suffer woes vainly by reason of sorrows that are not his own?—whereas he ever giveth acceptable gifts to the gods that hold broad heaven. Nay, come, let us head him forth from out of death, lest the son of Cronos be anywise wroth, if so be Achilles slay him; for it is ordained unto him to escape, that the race of Dardanus perish not without seed and be seen no more—of Dardanus whom the son of Cronos loved above all the children born to him from mortal women. For at length hath the son of Cronos come to hate the race of Priam; and now verily shall the mighty Aeneas be king among the Trojans, and his sons' sons that shall be born in days to come." Iliad 20.292 ff
The entire family tree from Dardanus (actually, before him was Teucer) to Romulus and Remus is here. When the entire lineage is put together, the "linear" tale leads directly from Teucer to Rome. In rescuing Aeneas from the anger of Achilles, Homer's Poseidon is opening the way to Virgil's Aeneas and a new sacred city, the Imperium Romanum

Rome 100 AD