Thursday, April 11, 2013

After Numa: "The ghastly priest"

Numa's trip to Croton gives us the opportunity to hear Pythagoras's speech. It's one of the longest of the Metamorphoses, comparable to that of Ulysses. (A comparative look at the philosopher from Samos with the hero of Ithaca might prove worthwhile, when time permits.)

More to the point for Metamorphoses 15 is to hear the voice of Pythagoras within the strange narratives that frame it. It's tempting, and far too simplistic, to take the philosopher's speech as in some sense a privileged "reading" of what has come before it. To be sure, Pythagoras does "cover" some of the same ground as books 1-14, with a strong emphasis upon mutability, along with an even stronger ethical argument against the eating of flesh. The Greek contemplative mind is here on display -- far-ranging, vivid, and eloquent. It is accompanied by claims of inspiration from Delphi, elements of prophecy, and extraordinary powers of conception and knowledge.

Yet if Pythagoras wants to have the last word, he certainly doesn't get to have it here. His speech is preceded by the tale of Heracles and Croton. It ends by reiterating the warning against devouring living creatures, beginning with an allusion to the high-flying Phaethon of Book 2 before going on to compare the eating of animals to Thyestean feast, and ending with a warning not to bite off more than we might wish to chew:
Let your mouth be free of their blood, enjoy milder food!
ora cruore vacent alimentaque mitia carpant!
Immediately following this, Numa returns to his people:
he taught the sacred rituals, and educated a savage, warlike, race in the arts of peace 
and dies, in the space of six lines.

Lake Nemi, John Robert Cozens
The "segue" that follows is complex and unexpected. Egeria, mourning Numa, melts into a spring in "Oresteian Diana's" sacred grove in Aricia, but not before receiving cold comfort from Hippolytus, who will vividly evoke the climax of the Phaedra. With no preparation or foreshadowing, we pass from Numa's "arts of peace" to a sacred place suffused with Greek nightmares about innocent sons of accursed royal houses: Orestes of the House of Atreus and Thyestes, and Theseus' blameless son Hippolytus, destroyed by Phaedra, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë.

Ovid doesn't drop these references casually. Orestes, the murderer of a murderous mother, and Hippolytus, destroyed by his father's curse at this stepmother's behest, both had come to this Nemorean grove. It was here that Hippolytus instituted the office of Rex Nemorensis, priest of Diana, says Pausanias. The kingship was open to no freemen; only to slaves. To accede to the throne, the escapee had to kill the previous priest, also a former slave, in single combat. The tale attracted the attention of Macaulay:
From the still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia's trees--
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain 
It inspired Sir James Frazer as well. As Wikipedia notes, the "successful candidate had first to test his mettle by plucking a golden bough from one of the trees in the sacred grove."

As Book 15 moves from Pythagoras to Numa to Hippolytus and eventually Aesculapius, Ovid gives us a good deal to ponder: A peaceable Sabine king dies, his consort hides in triform Diana's grove in Aricia, a place haunted by memories of powerlessness, of refugees from accursed feasts and Cretan labyrinths, the site of a lurid rite of passage and a savage succession of kings.

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