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.

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