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.