"Admire ses bras quand elle danse, sa voix quand elle chante, et quand . . ." ("Admire her arms when she dances, her voice when she sings, and when . . ." — Ars Amatoria II.305-6). In happier days, Ovid wrote the tongue-in-cheek love/sex/how-to-pick-up-girls manual the Ars Amatoria, one of the causes of his exile. Illustration: from Ovide, L'Amour, L'Art d'Aimer , Paris, Éditions Nilsson, ca. 1920 (there is no date in the book itself), watercolor by Edith Follet.
An urbanite among barbarians
Winter begins, and depending on the hemisphere, latitude, elevation, and the course of the jet stream, the season may bring sunshine or snow, long days or long dark nights. This month, we bring you Ovid's vivid description of harsh winter in Tomis (modern Constanţa, Romania), where he spent the last decade of his life in exile. The order to leave Rome came from the Emperor Augustus, for reasons that are still only partly understood. Through it all, he keeps his sense of humor, if just barely!
Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses, Heroides, Amores, Ars Amatoria, the (half-finished) Fasti, and other poems, was at the height of his popularity in 8 A.D. when he was abruptly sent into exile by the Emperor Augustus. He was banished to Tomis, a remote Roman outpost near the mouth of the Hister (Danube) on the Black Sea. The form of exile was not the severe exsilium, in which the banished man could travel freely outside of Rome but lost both citizenship and property and could not write friends for aid (supporters could be penalized for helping him). This was a milder relegatio, in which the exile could maintain contact with whomever he wanted (including the emperor himself) and retained his civic rights, but was tied to a prescribed location — in this case, forever. Ovid's (third) wife stayed in Rome, and, with his friends, loyally petitioned the emperor to lift the sentence, but in vain. There were two reasons for his exile, Ovid tells us, "carmen et error, "a poem and a blunder" (Tristia 2.207). The poem he acknowledges is his "manual on adultery" (the Ars Amatoria), which undermined Augustus' moral crusade. The error he refuses to discuss. Was he privy to a conspiracy against the emperor? We still do not know.
Ovid wrote two books of poems in exile, the Tristia ("Sadnesses") and the Epistulae ex Ponto ("Letters from the Black Sea"), in which he complains bitterly about the rough conditions in which he, the quintessential urbanite, was forced to live, and implores his supporters to plead his case.
Ice road truckers eat frozen wine by the chunk
Tomis was inhabited largely by the tribe of the Getae and by Greek colonists who had intermarried with native peoples. They were quite kind to Ovid, even exempting him from paying local taxes. He was grateful — sort of — and even learned the native languages, writing a poem in Getic, which does not survive, a loss to linguists. But he hated their city, and could not understand why the Tomitae resented his loathing for their land! (Ex Ponto 4.14.15-18). Modern Constanţa has forgiven Ovid, whose statue (pictured below) stands in the city's Piaţa Ovidiu.
In Tristia 3.10 Ovid describes winter in Tomis, where frost tinkles on the hair and beards of inhabitants bundled in their hides and furs, and frozen wine is eaten in chunks. (The Loeb translator compares this to "the tales of serving whisky in the Klondike 'in chunks'!") The frozen rivers become roads for ox-carts (think of North America's "Ice Road Truckers" made famous on the History Channel). Ice roads also provided a route for marauding tribes to swoop down on homes and farms, carrying off plunder and killing with poisoned arrows, burning what remained. He ends by exclaiming, "Though the world is so wide, this is the place discovered for my punishment!"
Below, in Latin and English, is the first part of Tristia 3.10. "Naso" is Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso). Boreas and Aquilo are both names for the north wind. The "papyrus-bearing stream" is, of course, the Nile.
Statue of Ovid in Constanţa, Romania (ancient Tomis), created in 1887 by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari. An identical replica was placed in Sulmona, Italy, Ovid's birthplace, in 1925. (Image from Wikipedia, photo by Kurt Wichman).
The rocky soil of a Greek farming village, Sigurio, near Epidaurus, with women around the village well. (Illustration from Hanns Holdt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Griechenland, 1928). While the Rharian Plain, around Eleusis, is described in the Homeric Hymn as "fertile," a crop failure such as that caused by Demeter could still be devastating.
What we give thanks for
November is the month of Thanksgiving. In the first place, we give thanks that the U.S. elections are finally over. For the first time in what seem eons, we have some respite from negative ads and obsessive vote counting — who's ahead, who's behind, where, why. We also give thanks that Hurricane Sandy has stopped its relentless floods. We ourselves were on high ground and had our power restored in a week, but many are still in the cold and dark, and many lost their homes and even their lives. We give thanks for what we have, and for the bravery and heroism of those who saved the lives of others.
Demeter's little girl grows up
Our Quotation of the Month is from Homeric Hymn II to Demeter, in which Demeter gratefully receives her daughter Persephone back from the Underworld, to which she had been kidnapped by Hades, god of the Underworld (who is also her uncle). Demeter, in mourning for her daughter, has caused the crops to fail and was about to destroy mankind (and incidentally, rob the gods of their rich sacrifices!), but Zeus sends Hermes to request that Hades release Persephone. He lets her go, but gives her the pomegranate seeds to eat, which ensures that she will spend part of the year in the Underworld. Yet her reunion with her mother is joyous, and Demeter, having established her sacred Mysteries, ends the famine and brings fertility to the farmers' fields. The upside of the bargain with Hades is that Persephone is now the mighty Queen of the Underworld, as we see her in later art and literature, very different from the heedless young maiden picking flowers with her friends at the beginning of the Hymn. The illustration at the bottom of this item shows Persephone in her new role. Demeter's little girl has grown up.
Below, in Greek and English, is the scene of reunion of Demeter and Persephone, followed by the mission of Rhea (mother of Zeus, Demeter, and Hades) sent by Zeus to announce the bargain to Demeter. In the next scene, Demeter will teach her Mysteries to the kings of Eleusis and restore the crops' fertility. Hecate, another chthonian (underground) goddess, connected with crossroads and sometimes with the moon, is frequently associated with Demeter and Persephone.
Persephone as the wife of Hades. A scene of domestic comfort, as Persephone puts her arm around Hades' shoulders, and Cerberus, the three-headed dog, begs for treats. (Illustration from Seyffert's A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1899.)
This creepy fellow, folding his (or her?) cloak-like wings in a perfect Dracula impersonation, is a giant golden crowned fruit bat, also called a "flying fox" (acerodon jubatus). This bat, a fruit-eater of the Philippines important to pollination and seed dispersal, is endangered by loss of habitat and hunting. (Image from Wikipedia Commons, Philippines, 2007 by LDC Foundation.)
Hermes leads the Suitors' ghosts to the Underworld
Ghosts throng the blood-filled trench, old and young, youths and maidens dazed and shocked at being dead; Odysseus' mother's ghost slipping from his arms as he tries to embrace her; Ajax's phantom still embittered that Odysseus got Achilles' armor; Tantalus and Sisyphus, Leda and Jocasta (here called Epicaste), all the heroes and heroines of old. Teiresias, "to whom alone Persephone allowed to keep his reason," foretelling Odysseus' fate. A carnival of souls, the famous and the unsung, in one weird ghost story. This is Odysseus' Journey to the Underworld in Odyssey Book 11, the famous Nekuia or ritual calling up of the dead. But the Odyssey contains another Journey to the Underworld from which there is no return, the descent of the evil Suitors of Penelope, slain by Odysseus, as they are herded by Hermes down the mouldy paths, gibbering and twittering like bats disturbed from their perch, with Hermes fulfilling his role as psychopompus or conductor of souls. This uncanny journey is our Quotation of the Month.
Bats in the belfry
Bats, along with black cats (of which I have two!) are associated with Halloween. An ancient belief saw bats as souls of wicked people (although in Book 12 of the Odyssey Odysseus clings "like a bat" to a tree above the whirlpool Charybdis with no apparent dire associations). In our day, bats are associated with vampires (Dracula turns into a bat) or with Batman, who is a heroic figure. The modern Greek poet Giorgos Seferis, in his poem "The King of Asine" (O Basilias tis Asinis), fantasizes that a bat appearing suddenly from a cave, "hitting the sunlight as an arrow hits a shield," is a reappearance of the long gone Mycenaean king. When we say a person has "bats in his belfry" we mean he is crazy. Actually, bats, of which there are many diverse kinds, are timid creatures, important to the ecosystem. Fruit-eating bats, like the fellow pictured above, pollinate fruits and distribute their seeds. Small bats use echolocation to rid the environment of insects. Some bats even catch fish. Ony a very few small bats, in Mexico and South America, suck the blood of animals. But their nocturnal life, their habit of hanging upside down (weird!) and their seemingly erratic flight as they use their wings to catch prey, make them a little creepy, especially when they get in your house — incidentally, I stopped a bat from flying around my living room by turning off all the lights except one light on the outside deck. It happily followed the light out of doors. Exit bat.
Achilles' funeral, Athena's peacemaking
In our quotation, Hermes leads the Suitors' ghosts into the Underworld, squeaking and twittering like bats, disturbed when one becomes detached from their group's huddled chain (see the picture at the bottom of this article for such a bat colony). In the dank realm are heroes of the Trojan War, including Achilles and Agamemnon, who movingly describes to Achilles the details of that hero's funeral, so different from his own ghastly murder at the hands of his wife Clytaemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. The two wonder at the presence of the Suitors, one of whom Agamemnon recognizes. Meanwhile, the Suitors' bodies remain above, unburied, but their kinsmen soon come and bury them, and start a war with Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and his old father Laertes, to whom Odysseus at last reveals himself. The fighting only comes to an end when it is stopped by Athena, who appears again in the guise of wise Mentor, as she did when she "mentored" Telemachus back at the beginning of the Odyssey. Peace is made. The Odyssey ends.
Below, in Greek and English, is the opening scene of Book 24.
A colony of greater mouse-eared bats (myotis myotis). The type of bat pictured here eats insects and spiders, like many bats, but mostly eats them from the ground rather than hunting them in the air, the common practice of other small bats (such as the little brown bat (myotis lucifugus), another kind of mouse-eared bat of North America.). In Europe, mouse-eared bats establish colonies in caves (southern Europe) or in attics (northern Europe). (Image from Wikipedia Commons, Walchsee, Tirol, Austria, 2005, by Mnolf.)
Clouds over Athens, with Mount Lykabettos hovering like a spaceship in the background. (From a postcard.)
Sneaky logic versus honest logic at the Thinkery
Of what use is a college degree? Should education be for profit or non-profit? How can pointy-headed academic learning help us with mundane problems, like how to get out of debt? These questions, argued passionately today, affected the ancient Athenians, too. This month's Quotation of the Month comes from Aristophanes' Clouds, where a cartoon Socrates spouts silly logic at the Phrontisterion (the "Thinkery"). "Socrates" is presented as a typical Sophist, charging a payment to teach students how to make "the worse argument appear the better." His "teachings" are a mish-mash of ridiculous ideas, not actually attributable to the historic Socrates himself. This is a far cry from the calm, noble Socrates, seeker of truth, that we meet in Plato. To be sure, his would-be student Strepsiades does not fare much better. His obtuse literal-mindedness supplies much of the humor, and many of the puns. There is no evidence that Socrates himself minded the ribbing.
The Sophists, teaching life skills for profit
The Sophists ("Wisdom experts") were itinerant teachers who, for a fee, would teach various skills that would help the student get ahead in life. In particular, they taught oratory and debating skills. Since at Athens, in a society as litigious as our own, one could not hire a lawyer to plead one's case in court but had to plead one's own, their role as consultants on constructing arguments on either side of a case was particularly in demand. The most famous sophist was Protagoras, who is credited with the saying "Man is the measure of all things," an aphorism whose meaning is still debated, but is taken to be a statement of the relativity of all knowledge. His was also the claim to teach students to "make the weaker argument the stronger," which morphs in The Clouds into the "Just and the Unjust Logic."
Socrates suspended from a cheese basket
As the play begins, Strepsiades, a country man married to a fancy city woman, is being ruined by debts run up by his son Pheidippides, mostly on race horses. Strepsiades wants his son to attend Socrates' Phrontisterion, where "they teach two logics, the strong and the weak," or the "Just and the Unjust Logic." He wants the son to only learn the Unjust Logic, so that he can get out of debt. Pheidippides refuses to go, so Strepsiades goes in his place. A student shows him around, and he sees several other students bent over, so that their heads can study things beneath the earth while their rear ends study astronomy. His guide explains some supposedly important scientific discoveries, like the exact mechanism by which a gnat buzzes, not through its mouth but through its butt.
Strepsiades first sees Socrates suspended in a basket between heaven and earth. (The basket is often portrayed as a bushel basket like one used for apples, but in Greek it is described as a tarrós, a flat wicker frame for drying cheeses. See the picture below for modern cheeses hanging from a tree to cure.) When asked what he is doing, Socrates replies that he "walks on air and contemplates the Sun." (Strepsiades, interpreting periphroneô "contemplate" in its other sense of "despise," questions why Socrates needs a basket to despise the gods.) Strepsiades asks to learn the Unjust Logic and swears by the gods that he will pay the required fee, as was customary with the Sophists. When Socrates explains that an oath by the gods is meaningless because the gods "have no currency (nomisma i.e. "value") for us," Strepsiades misinterprets nomisma to mean literal coinage and asks if he must swear by iron coins instead. Socrates introduces the chorus of Clouds, which appear as women, but can take any shape. (They also make rain, which Strepsiades had thought was Zeus pissing through a sieve). Socrates explains that Zeus has now been replaced by the Vortex (dinos, actually a cartoon version of early scientific theories of Empedocles and Anaxagoras about the mixing of physical elements). Strepsiades becomes hopelessly entangled in Socrates' logic and finally persuades his son to attend the school. The Just Logic and Unjust Logic appear, personified, and hold a debate (about adultery), which Unjust logic wins. Pheidippides proves an apt pupil, and turns his new-found skills against his father (by proving his right to beat him up). Strepsiades, disgusted, burns down the Phrontisterion.
Asked what he is doing as he hacks at the roof and sets it on fire, Strepsiades repeats Socrates' words "I walk upon the air and contemplate the Sun." Meanwhile, the Vortex (dinos) has metamorphosed into another meaning of dinos, a kind of round earthenware pot, which Strepsiades gazes at, saying, "What a fool I was to think an earthenware pot was a god."
Invoking clouds of academic nonsense
Below, in Greek and English, is Strepsiades' first encounter with Socrates suspended in his basket.
Air-cured cheeses hanging from a tree, Galata, Greece, 1964. (Photo by C.A. Sowa.)
"Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man" by Will H. Low, Motions Court, Essex County Court House, Newark, New Jersey (from an old postcard).
Whacking through the hyperbole: Romney's dog
The Republican presidential nominating convention erupts this month, followed by the Democratic convention. So far, the political advertising has been mind-numbingly negative, putting each candidate's policies in the worst possible light and focusing on the most ridiculous perceived faults, magnified to hyperbolic importance. "Romney once tied his dog (in its carrier) to the top of his car!" "Obama ate dog meat as a child with his stepfather in Indonesia!" "Romney only likes rich people!" "Obama is a socialist!" "Unregulated capitalism will destroy the world!" "No! Capitalism set free will save the world!"
Where, o where, can we find an honest man (or woman)? This month we bring you the philosopher Diogenes with his lantern, depicted above in one of many interpretations.
Diogenes the Cynic: living according to nature
Diogenes (c.400-c.325 B.C.) was, if not the first, certainly the best known of the philosophers known as Cynics, or Dog-Philosophers (from the Greek kuon "dog"). He was born in Sinope (modern Sinop) on the Black Sea in what is now Turkey, where his father Hicesias ran the mint. Father and son came to Athens as exiles after the father (or perhaps both of them) were accused of "defacing the coinage" (paracharattein ta nomisma), a charge substantiated by the modern finding of a number of coins from the period smashed with a chisel. This act of civil disobedience set the tone for Diogenes, who decided from then on (following a variously reported command of the Delphic Oracle) to "smash" the conventions of society in other ways. At Athens, he was influenced by the philosophy of Antisthenes (sometimes named as the first Cynic), a pupil of Socrates, who believed that happiness (eudaimonia) is achieved by virtue (aretê), exertion (ponos), and asceticism. Despite stories of Diogenes following an annoyed Antisthenes around, it is doubtful (because the dates don't match) that the two ever actually met.
Diogenes believed in living in a natural and simple way, unencumbered by convention. He favored direct action over windy philosophizing and theoretical argument. Anecdotes about his eccentric life and sayings, many gathered together by Diogenes Laertius (no relation) in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, are what he is most remembered for, although he was said to have written dialogues and tragedies illustrating his philosophy. He had little use for his contemporary Plato. He "[called] Plato's lectures a waste of time" (in Diogenes Laertius, Loeb translation), but the Greek is pithier, depending on a pun contrasting diatribê ("spending [time]," i.e. "study") with katatribê ("wearing out [time]"). When Plato defined Man as "a featherless biped," Diogenes plucked a chicken and said "Here is Plato's man," whereupon the definition was amended to "having broad nails."
Philosophy as performance art
Diogenes delighted in very public pranks and stunts, turning philosophy into performance art. He lived for a while in a giant storage jar, or pithos (often mistranslated as "barrel" or "tub" — compare the illustrations below and at the bottom of this section). He ate whenever and wherever he felt hungry, and when he saw a boy eating with his hands, he threw away his bowl as unnecessary. He also relieved himself in public. It is unclear whether he first referred to himself as a "dog" or adopted the name proudly when others applied it to him. When, at a feast, guests threw bones to him as to a dog, he did what a dog would do, urinating on them. In perhaps his most famous stunt, he went around with a lantern, "looking for a (real) man." It is usually said that he was looking for an honest man, but the word is simply anthropos "a human being," implying that those he met weren't really human. (To borrow a Yiddishism, he was looking for a real Mensch!) Diogenes was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery. He promptly said that he should be sold to a man "who needed a master." Xeniades, the Corinthian who bought him, wisely put him in charge of educating his sons and running his household. Diogenes called himself a "cosmopolitan" (kosmopolitês), a "citizen of the world," perhaps the first to use the word.
Alexander's admiration of Diogenes
Alexander the Great (himself a pupil of Aristotle) visited Diogenes in Corinth and asked what he might do for him, to which Diogenes replied that Alexander might move out of his sunlight. Such was Alexander's admiration of Diogenes that he said that "if he were not Alexander, he would wish to be Diogenes."
Diogenes had many followers, and the Cynic way of life became especially popular under the Roman Empire. The Stoic philosophy, founded by Zeno, was influenced by Cynicism. When he died, Diogenes was buried at Corinth, and over his grave was set a marble pillar with a statue of a dog. Today, in Turkish Sinop, there is a statue of Diogenes, its most famous citizen, with a dog beside him (standing on top of a very modern-looking barrel!), as shown above.
Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, tells the same story about Diogenes and Alexander as was later told by Diogenes Laertius, but with more detail. The following, in Greek and English, is Plutarch's version of the story.
Large pithoi at Knossos. Such a jar was the "barrel" in which Diogenes slept. Pandora's "box" that she opened, letting all the evils out but leaving Hope inside, was also actually a pithos. (Photo by C.A. Sowa.)
A modern view of Baia (ancient Baiae), near Naples, with the so-called Temple of Diana. (Image from Wikipedia Commons, photo by Kleuske). Baiae was a fashionable resort for Roman emperors and other upper-crust Romans. Much of ancient Baiae is now underwater, the result of movement of the land caused by volcanic activity.
Baiae, playground of the rich and famous
It's summer vacation time in these northern latitudes, and many inhabitants are either at some picturesque beach or wish they were. Such a spot for ancient Romans was Baiae (modern Baia), at the northern end of the Bay of Naples, near Cumae and near the headland of Cape Misenum that defines the northern limit of the bay (it was named for Misenus, Aeneas' trumpeter who drowned). Baiae was a playground of the rich and powerful, renowned for its baths and sulphur springs. Julius Caesar, Caligula, and Nero all had villas there (and Baiae was the place where Nero had his mother Agrippina murdered).
Baiae was known for its licentiousness and vice. Seneca the philosopher was so disgusted and he left after one day: "To witness persons wandering drunk along the beach, the riotous revelling of sailing parties, the lakes a-din with choral song, and all the other ways in which luxury, when it is, so to speak, released from the restraints of law not merely sins, but blazons its sins abroad — why must I witness all this?" (Letter 51, trans. Richard Gummere). Martial, the satirical poet, thought Baiae beautiful, but preferred his own company, from which the allure of Baiae would only distract him (Epigrams 11.80). Much of ancient Baiae is now under water.
Have I lost my love at Baiae?
Propertius, friend of Ovid and member of the circle of the patron Maecenas (to which Vergil and Horace belonged) wrote four books of elegies, many of them written to or about a woman he called "Cynthia." The object of his infatuation, whose real name was Hostia, was beautiful, well-born, and well-educated. She had many men in her life, but was pleased to include a poet among them. Propertius' affair with her, which lasted several years, did not go smoothly.
In Elegy 1.11, Propertius is stuck in Rome while Cynthia is away in Baiae, and he obsesses over what she is doing and with whom. The poem is in his usual allusive style, with decorative references to sometimes obscure myths. Thus, the Lucrine Lake, on which he imagines Cynthia boating, was cut off from the main bay by a causeway said to have been built by Hercules when he drove the cattle of Geryon from Spain to Greece. Thesprotus was king of a region near Baiae. Teuthras was a Trojan, companion of Aeneas.
Terracotta figure of Hercules (from Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
A Sphinx, from Atica, 540-530 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oedipus was made king of Thebes and married the widowed queen Jocasta after answering the riddle of the Sphinx.
It all started with a traffic dispute
It's the beginning of the summer driving season, and with it come new instances of "road rage," where drivers dispute the road with various degrees of aggression, including yelling, obscene gestures, pounding on your window at a traffic light, aggressive tailgating, games of "chicken," and sometimes the drawing of guns and death. Perhaps the earliest literary example of road rage is Oedipus' killing of his father Laius at the fateful crossroads outside Thebes, a story told in epic, lyric, and drama, in many versions and with many outcomes.
More than one version of the story
The most famous version of the Oedipus story is that of Sophocles, told in his Oedipus the King. In this telling, Oedipus killed his father, Laius, the king of Thebes, in an argument over the right-of-way on the road between Thebes and Delphi, not knowing that he was his father, or even who the (rather obnoxious) old man was. It was generally reported that Laius was killed by robbers. Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, who had been persecuting the people of Thebes (Riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening? Answer: man, crawling first on all fours, then standing erect, then supported by a cane.) The Sphinx commits suicide (or is killed by Oedipus in some tellings) and Oedipus is rewarded by being given as his wife the recently widowed queen Jocasta, who is actually his mother. As the play opens, Thebes is beset by a plague that will only be lifted when the murderer of Laius is found and expelled. The play unfolds as Oedipus discovers both that he killed Laius and that Laius and Jocasta were his parents. Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile.
There were other versions. In the Odyssey, Odysseus meets Jocasta (here called Epikaste) in the Underworld (Book 11), but in this telling, while Epikaste hanged herself, Oedipus continued to reign as king of Thebes. In the Iliad (23.679-80) we hear of his funeral games at Thebes. More versions of the story were told in the lost epics Thebais and Oidipodeia. The afterstory of Oedipus and his progeny was picked up in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone and in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. Euripides' Phoenician Women puts a strange spin on the story, including not having Jocasta kill herself (but she kills herself later, after her two sons kill each other off). Pindar refers to Oedipus' killing of his father and to his sons killing each other in the second Olympian Ode as an example of the vagaries of Fate (Moira) but does not mention Jocasta — a rare extant Theban telling of this Theban myth. Hesiod (another Boeotian), describing the Age of Heroes in the Works and Days, tells how men died before Thebes "fighting over the flocks of Oedipus," portraying Oedipus' death and the following wars of succession in terms of a cattle raid.
Two arrogant men meet on a narrow road
This month's Quotation of the Month is from Oedipus the King, where Oedipus, beginning to realize that the man he killed may have been Laius, but not yet that Laius is his true father, describes his encounter with the nasty old man who barred his way. Oedipus had left Corinth because he was told by the oracle that he would kill his father and marry his mother, who he believed were the king and queen of Corinth. Little does he know that he has walked into the situation he was trying to avoid. Oedipus proves to be as arrogant and hot-headed as his father. Note that Oedipus says "I killed them all [of the king's entourage]," but actually there was one survivor, who started the false rumor that more than one robber attacked Laius.
An apênê or wagon, Illustration from Autenrieth's Homeric Dictionary, 1876. Laius may have been riding in such a conveyance when he had his ill-starred encounter with Oedipus.
Cybele, Mother of the Gods, seated on a throne and petting a lion. Compared to the goddess, the lion looks the size of a cub, but its mane shows it to be a mature lion. Illustration from Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
A wild mountain cult, with cymbals and lions
In the late third century B.C., Rome was in the middle of the Second Punic War against Carthage and Hanniibal (the guy with the war elephants!), and the Senate decided that the people needed some new festivals to raise their spirits. In 205 B.C., the Phrygian goddess Cybele, with her clashing cymbals, was officially introduced to Rome. Rome had long been assimilating Greek, Etruscan, and other divinities into its pantheon, along with borrowed myths about them. These were overlaid upon the old native cults of household and farm, the Lares and Penates and the hearth-goddess Vesta. Like the sober Romans they were, official boards of priests kept tight rein on what was allowed in the imported religions. The worship of Cybele was especially problematic, associated with eunuch priests called galli and with the cult of Attis, her self-mutilated consort. The galli were not allowed to be Roman citizens.
Cybele, the "Mother of the Gods," was an Anatolian goddess (from the area that is now Turkey), associated with mountains and wild nature (represented by attendant lions), and with disease (both giving and curing), oracles, and defense of cities (depicted by her "mural crown" of walls and towers). In both Greece and Rome, she was identified with various other maternal deities, including Rhea (mother of Zeus, the Roman Jupiter) and Demeter. About Attis, her self-castrated consort, there were many conflicting myths. (Perhaps originally a vegetation god, under the Roman Empire he developed into a celestial and solar divinity.) Rome's religious officials, duly consulting the Sibylline Books, declared that Rome could defeat Carthage if Cybele was brought to Rome. She was brought by ship in the form of a sacred black meteorite from her cult place in Phrygian Pessinus, through the good offices of King Attalus of Pergamum, a Roman ally.
I would have come sooner, but . . .
Ovid, in his Fasti, or "Roman Calendar," tells the story of Cybele's arrival as an entry under April, the month of the Megalensia, her festival, although we are telling it in May, for Mother's Day. Her story is told to Ovid by the Muse Erato, Cybele's "granddaughter," the Muses being daughters of Jupiter. In this telling, Cybele becomes a Trojan goddess (well, close!) and Ovid whimsically suggests that she considered coming to Rome with Aeneas when he brought his other household gods, but the time wasn't quite right. He also says, probably untruly, that Attalus was reluctant to part with her until she herself spoke, with terrifying portents that frightened him into letting her go. Note the wry comment that Rome is a good place for every god to go! Following the passage quoted below, there follows a long account of Cybele's travels from Phrygia to Rome by ship, ending with her trip up the Tiber. The climax comes in the story of Claudia Quinta, a chaste Roman matron who was thought to be unchaste. When Cybele's boat was stuck in the mud, Claudia proved her chastity by herself unsticking the boat and triumphantly towing the boat into port.
"Cybele" in line 249 is the name of a mountain in Phrygia, as are Didymus and Ida, and all are sacred to the goddess. The prophetic Sibylline Books are called "Euboean" because Cumae, home of the Sibyl, was a colony of Euboea. "Paean" is the Delphic Apollo. "Ausonian" simply means "Roman," although "Ausonia" properly refers roughly to the territory around Campania.
Cybele, Mother of the Gods, in a chariot drawn by lions, accompanied by Attis. As city-protector, she wears the "mural crown," or crown representing city walls or towers. Illustration from Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
A Roman interpretation of the Earth goddess, "Tellus." She is surrounded by divinities of Air and Water on a panel from the Ara Pacis of Augustus (9 B.C.). From Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
An oath, invoking Gaia, precedes a duel between heroes
In the Iliad, Gaia (or Ge) is not a fully fleshed-out character like the Olympians Zeus, Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hephaestus, Artemis, Aphrodite, and all the other major and minor gods and goddesses who interact with Homer's heroes and heroines. This lack contrasts with Hesiod, where Gaia plays an important role in the dynastic struggles of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus narrated in the Theogony, and with Homeric Hymn XXX to Ge, Mother of All, where there is no real story, but the goddess is praised for bringing not only sustenance to creatures on land, air, and sea but wealth and good order to "the city of fair women (polin . . . kalligunaika)."
However, Gaia is important in another way in Homer, invoked in oaths as upholder of a person's word of honor. She is fundamental, whether personified or not. She is a very old goddess, perhaps conceived as the plot of earth the farmer tills or Earth in general. She may be anthropomorphic, or simply the mana or power of an elemental force. It is from the earth that all things come, and to which they all return. There were echoes of an old cult of Gaia in many places, mostly displaced by other, more personal deities. She was associated with oracles and with divination. The earliest occupant of the Delphic Oracle may have been Gaia, before Apollo took over. In Homeric Hymn III to Apollo, the god kills the serpent (otherwise known as "Python," but unnamed in the Hymn). Snakes are associated with chthonic or underground deities, and according to Hyginus, the Pythian dragoness herself once gave oracles at Delphi. It was the view of Farnell (in Cults of the Greek States), that it was through her prophetic character that Gaia became associated with Themis, the goddess of Custom or Law. The Earth around us, like Helios, the Sun, sees all, and an oath might call to witness Zeus, Helios, and Gaia. It was thus with the oath sworn by the Greeks and Trojans preceding the duel between Menelaus and Paris in Book III of the Iliad.
Failure to end the Trojan War by man-to-man combat, as Aphrodite interferes
This month, to honor Earth Day, we bring you the oath and sacrifice preceding the duel between Menelaus and Paris (here called "Alexander"), which, it was hoped, would finally bring an end to the Trojan War (Iliad III.275-296). If Paris won, he could keep Helen, but if Menelaus won, he could take her back, demanding in addition a payment of an "appropriate penalty" (timên . . . hên tin' eoiken). If Priam and his sons refuse to pay, Agamemnon will continue the war to its logical conclusion ("until I reach an end of war," êos ke telos polemoio kikheiô). The oath is sworn by Zeus, the Sun, and the Earth, the most fundamental forces of nature. Lambs are slaughtered, wine is poured upon the ground. Bloodthirstily, both Greeks and Trojans vow that whoever first breaks the oath, "may their brains and those of their children pour forth upon the ground like this wine, and their wives be enslaved to others."
But things didn't work out as planned. Menelaus was winning, so Aphrodite snatched Paris away just in time and transported him to his bedroom, where he could be coddled by Helen. And the war went on.
Below, in Greek and English, is the invocation of Zeus, Helios, and Gaia, along with the rivers and "those who mete out punishment in the nether world," that is, Hades and Persephone. The "son of Atreus" is Agamemnon. (For some other examples of the invocation of Gaia or Ge in Homer and other Greek poets and dramatists, see Farnell, Cults of the Greek States Vol. III, pp. 307-8. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Hera, about to give birth to the monster Typhaon (who was cared for by the Pythian serpent), calls to witness Gaia, Ouranos, and the Titan gods "who dwell beneath the earth.")
The goddess Gaia, rising from the ground, hands the child Erichthonios ("Born of the (Athenian) soil") to Athena, as serpent-tailed King Kekrops looks on, from Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
A modern view of Mount Helicon (from Wikipedia Commons). We can imagine an avalanche, of snow or of rocks (as started by the mountain god in the quotation below) occurring here.
Even mountains get mad
March is Women's History Month (International Women's Day is March 8), and this month's quotation is from a poem by the Boeotian poetess Corinna (6th century B.C.), teacher and rival of the great Theban poet Pindar. She is said to have defeated Pindar at least once in a poetic contest. The poem (in fragmentary condition) is the Contest Between Helicon and Cithaeron, a fictional account of a poetic competition between two great mountains encircling Boeotia. Cithaeron wins, and Helicon, losing his cool, hurls a great landslide down upon the people living below.
When we think of Classical Greece, we think first of democratic Athens, and perhaps of its opposite, militaristic Sparta. But Greece was made up of many cities, all different from each other, with various forms of government and differing cultures. Thebes in particular, north of Athens, and its surrounding region, Boeotia, was another sort of anti-Athens. Largely landlocked and agrarian, the Boeotian towns formed the Boeotian League, led by Thebes, an oligarchy, and their inhabitants were mocked as bumpkins by Athenian writers. Thebes took the losing side of Persia in the Persian Wars, but became briefly the leading Greek city at the end of the Peloponnesian War, when it defeated the Spartans, who had defeated the Athenians. Thebes was ultimately conquered by the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander. Some of the greatest mythic stories take place at Thebes, including those of Oedipus and Antigone, of Cadmus (who sowed the dragon's teeth), of Dionysus, and of Heracles. But for the most part, the Theban stories come down to us as told by Athenian writers, especially the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. We do not hear the Thebans' own voices. Nor does Thebes today exhibit the spectacular ruins of the Athenian Acropolis. The seven-gated city, destroyed once by Alexander (who spared only Pindar's house), now lies beneath the modern town of Thiva. Two great Boeotian poets survive: Hesiod, composer of didactic epic, especially the Theogony and Works and Days, and Pindar, whose odes to victories in the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games remain.
Corinna's contest: did she make a sly dig at Pindar?
Women of Thebes seem to have occupied a position of greater importance than in Athens, especially in religious and artistic life. Thebes was home to several important cults, including the native cult of the Kabeiroi and the mystical society of the Pythagoreans. Women's choruses were an important part of several cults, and even Pindar composed a number of (lost) parthenia, or "songs for maidens." Women were also themselves poets, and competed with the men. Myrtis and Corinna are two poets' names that we know. Of Myrtis, said to be a teacher of both Corinna and Pindar, nothing remains. Corinna was born in Tanagra, a town east of Thebes. She was, it is said, the teacher of Pindar, and when he overloaded a poem with mythic references, she gave him the famous advice to "sow with the hand, not with the full sack." She is also said to have, on at least one occasion, defeated Pindar in a poetic contest. She composed poems in the Boeotian dialect (a form of Aeolic), unlike Pindar, whose poems were composed in a more literary form of Greek, and she wrote on local topics. Only two of her poems remain, much mutilated, from a second century B.C. papyrus. These are the Contest Between Helicon and Cithaeron and Marriages of the Daughters of Asopus. It is from the first of these that our quotation comes, a fictitious account of a poetic contest between two local mountains (or the gods of these mountains), and the landslide caused by the sore loser. One interpretation of the poem is that it is an allegory for Corinna's own defeat of her student and rival Pindar. Did he get mad and throw a fit?
Below, in Corinna's own Boeotian dialect and in English translation is the is the remaining fragment of Corinna's poem. The text is that of the Loeb edition (1927, revised 1940), and the translation is based on the translation by J.M. Edmonds. The footnotes explaining the emendations and interpretations have been omitted here. The song sung by Cithaeron seems to be the story of how the infant Zeus was secretly fed, after his mother Rhea saved him from being swallowed by his father Kronos by giving Kronos a stone to swallow instead. Kronos later threw up all his children, whom he had previously swallowed, in reverse order, beginning with the stone (for computer nerds out there, this was the first example of a push-down stack!) The stone (or one claimed to be it) was still exhibited at Delphi in Pausanias' time.
For more reading on the position of women at Thebes, see Nancy H. Demand, Thebes in the Fifth Century, 1982.
Map of Boeotia (adapted from J.B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, 3rd ed. 1956). The "X's" mark the two mountains, Helicon in the lower left, Cithaeron at the bottom, the latter forming the boundary between Boeotia and Attica (and Athens) to the south. Mount Parnassus, overhanging Delphi, is off the map on the upper left. Thebes is in the center, with Tanagra (birthplace of Corinna) to the east, and Ascra, home of the earlier Boeotian poet, Hesiod, to the west (on the slopes of Mount Helicon, where he once met the Muses, as told in Theogony 22-35). Lake Copais, in the center of the map (once famous for its delicious eels), no longer exists, having been drained in the nineteenth century.
Arachova, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, on the road to Delphi. The town is not on Helicon (it is on the next mountain over), but we can imagine that it is the kind of village onto which a petulant Helicon pushed his rock slide. (Illustration from Hanns Holdt and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Griechenland, 1928.)
"Je vous vis alors échanger des baisers criminels, des baisers dans desquels j'ai vu . . ." ("Then I saw you exchange criminal kisses, kisses in which I saw . . ." — Ovid Amores II.5.23-24). Illustration: from Ovide, L'Amour, L'Art d'Aimer , Paris, Éditions Nilsson, ca. 1920 (there is no date in the book itself), watercolor by Edith Follet.
I saw what you did!
In 8 A.D., the poet Ovid was exiled from his beloved Rome to Tomis on the Black Sea (in present-day Romania) by the Emperor Augustus. The reasons, according to Ovid, were carmen et error, "a poem and a mistake." The poem is generally thought to have been his risqué love manual, the Ars Amatoria, "The Art of Love," which made a mockery of the Emperor's moral legislation. The nature of the "error" may forever remain a mystery (like the Mysteries of Demeter, whose true rituals may be forever hidden). It has been speculated that he had knowledge of some scandal or some conspiracy against the Emperor, but for whatever reason, the Emperor's anger was unrelenting. Ovid never returned, but continued writing, producing his Tristia ("Sad Poems") and Epistulae ex Ponto ("Letters from the Black Sea"). He even learned the native Getic language and wrote a poem in it, which is unfortunately lost, to the eternal regret of modern linguists.
Ovid wrote three major poetic works on love and sex, the Amores ("Loves"), the Ars Amatoria, and the Remedia Amoris ("The Cures for Love"). This month's Quotation of the Month is from the Amores. In Amores II.5, he tells of his wretchedness at seeing his girlfriend making out with another man at a party, while she thinks he is passed out from too much wine. She and the other man start by wiggling their eyebrows at each other, then progress to writing secret notes in wine on the table, then speaking in private double entendres, finishing with a bout of wild tongue-kissing. The poem continues with Ovid pleading with the girl to give him some of the same. But she obliges with such enthusiasm that he feels even worse. Where did she learn to kiss like that? And what else has she learned, and from whom?
Below is Ovid's description of what he saw.
"Et soudain les cymbales et les tambours qu'agitent des mains frénétiques font retentir au loin de rivage." (And suddenly the cymbals and the drums, struck by frenzied hands, make the distant shore resound" — Ovid Ars Amatoria 1.537-538, in which Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, meets Bacchus on Naxos). Illustration: from Ovide, L'Amour, L'Art d'Aimer , Paris, Éditions Nilsson, ca. 1920, watercolor by Edith Follet.
A dragon by the Japanese artist Hokusai, woodcut, 1845, cutting by Hokusai's favorite artisan, Egawa Sentaro. From Marvels of China and Japan, Kyoto, 1850.
Happy Year of the Dragon!
This month of the lunar calendar is the start of the Chinese Year of the Dragon. The year of the Dragon is marked by excitement and unpredictability. It is a lucky year, and those born in a year of the Dragon are independent and adventurous. Because parents want the best for their children, birth rates in Asia jump in a year of the Dragon.
Dragons, huge, exuberant reptilian creatures, have exerted a fascination in cultures in many parts of the world. Once upon a time, of course — in the Jurassic period — giant reptiles did roam the earth, and smaller ones still do today — alligators, crocodiles, monitor lizards and such. In northern Europe, mythical dragons were depicted as destructive or evil, forces of chaos to be defeated (Beowulf, Siegfried, St. George). In Japan and in China (the Chinese identify several distinct kinds of dragon), the duality of their nature is more accepted, especially as water spirits who bring both fertility and typhoons. European dragons often have wings, Asian dragons, with few exceptions, do not. In Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was a creator god. In real life, in fact, birds were probably descended from dinosaurs. In Greco-Roman literature, dragons are joined by a whole zoology of fantastic creatures — the Chimera, the Sphinx, the Minotaur, Harpies, Medusa, Echidna, Cerberus, the Centaurs, Satyrs, and many, many others, often with Near Eastern and Egyptian counterparts (and whose analogues live on today as Bigfoot, Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil, and mermaids). We have two major Classical stories about dragons, Apollo's killing of the dragon of the spring at Delphi and Cadmus' killing, while founding the city of Thebes, of another spring dragon and his sowing of its teeth.
The dragon of the spring
In the Homeric Hymn III to Apollo, the god, having decided to found his temple at Delphi, kills a female dragon guarding its spring, a dragon that had once been the foster-mother of another monster, Typhaon. From the rotting (puthein) of the dragon's corpse, Apollo names the place "Pytho" and becomes known as the Pythian Apollo. Cadmus' story, on the other hand, is best known to us from the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cadmus, who in the myth was from Phoenicia, was searching for his sister Europa, who had been abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. His father, Agenor, ordered him to not come back if he did not find her. Seeking advice from Apollo's oracle, he was told to follow a heifer that he would meet, and where she lay down, he was to found a city, and to call the land "Boeotia" (bos, "cow"). In the place ordained, a dragon sacred to Mars (Ares), guarding the local spring, kills all Cadmus' companions. Cadmus kills the dragon and is told by Pallas (Athena) to sow the dragon's teeth, which will grow into new companions. But the newly risen warriors fall to killing each other, until Pallas stops the fight. Five warriors remain, and help Cadmus found the new city of Thebes. (Question: where did they find wives?)
A snaky end to Cadmus' life
Cadmus married Harmonia, daughter of Mars and Venus (Ares and Aphrodite), but his lot, seemingly so bright, contained tragedy. His daughter Semele was the mother of the god Dionysus by Zeus, but in the process was killed by Zeus' thunderbolt. His daughter Agave, in a fit of Bacchic madness, killed her son Pentheus, who she thought was a lion (as dramatized in Euripides' Bacchae). Actaeon, son of daughter Autonoë, having seen Artemis bathing, was turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his hounds. A fourth daughter, Ino, in a complicated story of duelling stepmothers (Ino and Nephele both wives of Athamas), ended by leaping with her son Melicertes into the sea, where they became the deities Leucothea ("White Goddess") and Palaemon. Cadmus and Harmonia themselves, because he had killed the sacred serpent of Ares, were, at the end of their lives, both transformed into snakes, a story told by Ovid with his usual tender absurdity, as they trundle off into the woods.
Below, in Latin and English, is Ovid's telling of Cadmus' sowing of the dragon's teeth. The excerpt begins just after the killing of the dragon. "Tritonis" is the same as Pallas (Athena). Cadmus is called "Sidonian" because he was thought (probably falsely) to be from Phoenicia. The warriors rising from the ground are compared to figures on a curtain being closed, because in the Roman theater, the curtain was closed by rising from the bottom of the stage. For a book that analyzes the tangled myths of many of the world's monsters, see Fontenrose, Python, 1959.
Cadmus, helped by Athena, slaying the dragon, in a vase painting. (From Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890).
Winged monsters surround a sleeping man, woodcut by Hokusai, cutting by Egawa Sentaro. From Marvels of China and Japan, Kyoto, 1850.
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