Monday, April 15, 2013

Formless air: Motifs in Metamorphoses 15

When Egeria, consort of Numa Pompilius, disconsolately liquifies at Aricia (Metamorphoses 15:479 ff.), her transformation distinctly echoes the tale of Canens in Book 14, whose lover Picus was lost to her through the wiles of Circe. Canens, the daughter of Janus, evaporates at Rome's river:
The Tiber saw her last, with grief and toil
wearied and lying on his widespread bank.
In tears she poured out words with a faint voice,
lamenting her sad woe, as when the swan
about to die sings a funereal dirge.
Melting with grief at last she pined away;
her flesh, her bones, her marrow liquified
and vanished by degrees as formless air
and yet the story lingers near that place,
fitly named Canens by old-time Camenae!’
The Camenae were nymphs who came to be associated with the Greek Muses. They consisted of Carmenta < carmen (English: "charm") a goddess of childbirth and prophecy, and artificer of the Latin alphabet, her two sisters, Antevorta, goddess of the future, and Postvorta, goddess of the past, and, interestingly, Egeria.

Antevorta, Postvorta, Egeria

Thus the mourning of Canens and Egeria in 14 and 15 are joined not merely in an echoic pathos of vanishing nymphs, but also in linking Canens, lamenting her Picus, and Egeria, mourning Numa, to the fountainheads of Latin and ultimately Greek inspiration. But where the Greek often ends in an Apollonian, visual representation -- recall Circe's statue of Picus at her palace -- these Italic muses dissolve into air, flow, voice.

Numa, who did much to organize Roman society, and who gravitated to Pythagoras's realm of mathematical intelligibility, is also associated with a ban on sacred images:
Plutarch ... says Numa "forbade the Romans to represent the deity in the form either of man or of beast. Nor was there among them formerly any image or statue of the Divine Being; during the first one hundred and seventy years they built temples, indeed, and other sacred domes, but placed in them no figure of any kind; persuaded that it is impious to represent things Divine by what is perishable, and that we can have no conception of God but by the understanding".
Egeria becomes water, imageless and flowing. She is linked to childbirth, to writing, and thus to books:

Ninfeo d'Egeria
". . .she is usually regarded as a water nymph and somehow her cult also involved some link with childbirth.
". . . she is shown as counselor and guide to King Numa in the establishment of the original framework of laws and rituals of Rome, and in this role she is somehow uniquely in Roman mythology associated with "sacred books"; Numa (Latin "numen" designates "the expressed will of a deity"[4]) is reputed to have written down the teachings of Egeria in "sacred books"
In addition to echoing Canens, Egeria is also compared to Vegoia, an Etruscan nymph/prophetess associated with writing, The Etruscans attributed the production of their sacred books to Vegoia and to Tages, who is about to spring up from the Earth quite suddenly at Metamorphoses 15.552 ff, after Hippolytus tells the tale of his own transformation into Virbius.

More about the Etruscans in another post. Let's simply note that in this final book, Ovid is complicating matters by seeding Italic ground with figures from Greece, from the Etruscans, from the Sabines and from Italic woodland lore. Diana's grove of Aricia collocates many of these figures.

Threads of diverse mythological systems, transformed deities and sacred writing pop up, in some cases literally, here. Unfamiliar figures bump into once recognizable characters now living under new names, masked by new forms, like some ancient witness protection program. The young Hippolytus, for example, now in hiding, looks like an old man.

Many of these transformed characters have come West to Italy. Some for a fresh start (Aeneas, Diomedes, Pythagoras), for refuge (Orestes), or to hide (Saturn). Some were believed to be dead (Hippolytus), but yet live on. The goddess of the Arician grove, Diana, was also known as Trivia, in part because of her association with the underworld, and with ghosts. On Italian ground, things seem never to quite vanish -- even some who seem entirely too delicate to live, yet live on:
"Luctibus extremis teneras liquefacta medullas
tabuit inque leves paulatim evanuit auras;
fama tamen signata loco est, quem rite Canentem
nomine de nymphae veteres dixere Camenae.” 
"her flesh, her bones, her marrow liquified
and vanished by degrees as formless air
and yet the story lingers near that place,
fitly named Canens by old-time Camenae!’

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