Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Oresteia ~ The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus

The Return of Orestes (1785)
Anton von Maron
source Wikimedia Commons

The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus

"Hermes, lord of the dead, who watch over the powers
of my fathers, be my saviour and stand by my claim.
Here is my own soil that I walk.  I have come home;
and by this mounded gravebank I invoke my sire
to hear, to listen ....."

Mercury (Hermes) (1636-38)
Peter Paul Rubens
source Wikimedia Commons
The play opens with Orestes standing at the tomb of Agamemnon, with a request to Hermes (or "Cthonic Hermes" who acts as a messenger between the Olympian gods and the Underworld) for favour and for the ear of his father, to bring his spirit back into play. Sadly, in the only surviving manuscript of The Libation Bearers brought to Florence in the 15th century, the opening speech is damaged and there are number of missing lines, the number of which can only be guessed (an estimate is 80 lines).  However, other lines survive in works of other authors:  the first five lines are written in Aristophanes' play, The Frogs, and other lines can be found in the commentaries of other authors, however, it is expected that most of the explanatory prologue has been lost.

As Orestes lays a lock of his hair on the tomb to honour his dead father, a Chorus of women, dressed all in black, hurry towards the grave.  As they approach, Orestes and his companion, Pylades, hide themselves and he recognizes his sister, Electra, among the mourners.

The women are captive slaves who have been sent by Clytaemestra to pour libations (liquid offerings) on Agamemnon's grave in response to a nightmare which has disturbed her sleep.  The dead king rages through the queen's dreams and she will placate his spirit if she can, but the Chorus sings of the impossibility.  The crime committed far exceeds any reparation.

Frederic Leighton
source Wikiart
Electra's conflict is truly pitiable.  How can she complete the task in true principle?  Both her father's body and memory have been disgraced, and furthermore the acts were perpetrated by her own mother.  How can she give her father prayers from his own murderer?  Should she simply pour the libations into the ground?  In a fascinating exchange, the Chorus acts as a teacher or mentor, instructing Electra in almost a Socratic way, encouraging her to pray for retribution and the return of Orestes.  First praying to Hermes, Electra's prayer then moves to her father, asking for vengeance with a glimmer of hope that good will come out of it, almost like her father's wish in Agamemnon.  Can good come out of evil?  We shall see ..............

Reaching the tomb, Electra is astonished to discover the lock of hair, then she finds footprints, and finally Orestes comes out of concealment. However, his presence is met with doubt by his sister, yet after convincing her of his identity, she gives him all her familial love.  After praying to Zeus, Orestes recounts the oracle at Delphi and his order of vengeance, however he admits that even if Apollo would not persuade him to revenge, his own personal desires would ensure the act, dismissing both Clytaemestra and Aegisthus as "women".

As Orestes and Electra exchange prayers, mostly to their father, Orestes' resolve becomes more driven by personal desire than duty.  He then learns of Clytaemestra's dream; she birthed a snake that drew blood as it suckled, and Orestes claims the dream a portent of the coming murder of his mother.  With the chorus spurring them on to action, Orestes orders Electra to keep secret his arrival and to go inside, whereupon he leaves with Pylades to find Aegisthus and kill him.

Electra at the Tomb of Agamenon (1874)
William Blake Richmond
source Art Gallery of Ontario

As the chorus sings of parents who have murdered their children (such as Althaea & Meleager - see Metamorphoses Book VIII) and children who have killed their parents (such as Nisus and his daughter [Syclla] - see Metamorphoses Book VIII), Orestes arrives at the palace and announces to his mother the death of Orestes.  Not recognizing him, she laments the curse of the House but her regret appears mild, as the slave Cilissa later confirms when she notes there was a "smile inside her [Clytaemestra's] eyes".  Cilissa, guided by the Chorus, takes a message to Aegisthus that he needs not his bodyguard while meeting the stanger, allowing Orestes his moment of revenge.  As a servant careens through the door, calling a riddle about the living killing the dead, Clytaemestra arrives and with the courage of a man, calls for an ax. As the truth dawns, Clytaemestra's words change to the feminine, recalling her care of her son as a child.  As Orestes' resolve falters, Pylades reminds him of his duty and he finally enacts revenge for the death of his father, Agamemnon.  And in a gross re-enactment of the death of Agamemnon and Cassandra, Orestes is shown standing over the bodies of his mother and her lover, a further echo of the curse blanketing the house of Atreus.

Orestes Slaying Aegisthus & Clytemnestra (1654)
Bernardino Mei

Orestes' speech after the murder begins with a justification of his action, but soon the audience sees his assurance begin to break down and his mental state becomes tenuous.  Though victorious, he feels the evil in his deed.  Since Apollo had counselled his actions, he will go to him as a suppliant to beg his advice:

"I would have you know, I see not how this thing will end.
I am a charioteer whose course is wrenched outside
the track, for I am beaten, my rebellious senses 
bolt with me headlong and the fear against my heart
is ready for the singing and dance of wrath.  But while
I hold some grip still on my wits .........
.... I go an outcast wanderer from this land, and leave
behind, in life, in death, the name of what I did."

Though no one else can see them, Orestes can now see the "bloodhounds of his mother's hate." These Furies punish family member who have harmed family members, in particular, children who have abused parents.  Orestes rushes out in torment and the chorus laments, wondering what will happen to the family of Atreus.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862)
William-Adolphe Bourguereau
source Wikiart

The plays of The Oresteia are astonishingly well-constructed.  All the questions of revenge and justice and murder and duty are woven with a skillful needle throughout the drama, weaving a tapestry that at times can be alternately poignant, terrifying, suspenseful or appalling.

Setting Electra, a princess of Argos, among captive slaves is very effective.  In effect, she is a slave as well, impotent in her ability to do anything about the situation. Essentially, by placing her among the women, they are made allies in their mental battle against her mother, Clytaemestra, and Aegisthus.

We've continued with the theme from Agamemnon of discordant responsibilities that bring conflicting thoughts and either paralyzed or inconsistent action.  Apollo has threatened Orestes with madness if he does not avenge his father, yet the Furies promise the same fate if he does.  His dilemma is identical to that of his father.  With blood justice comes the duty of killing but the process is always cyclical and the avenger often does not escape his own fate.  As to the limitations of this type of justice, Aeschylus makes them obvious.

De Offerstrijd Tussen Orestes en Pylades (1613)
Pieter Lastman
source Wikimedia Commons
I noticed either a "cataloguing" or a "sandwiching" of themes or issues within this play. Initially Aeschylus mentions "bright/half-dark/gloom" within three lines of the play; Electra says "... between my prayer for good and prayer for good I set this prayer for evil;" the Chorus asks for Justice (good), based on hatred in exchange for hatred, then invokes the spirit of Right (good); and throughout the play a connection is implied between the gods (heaven & Apollo), Orestes and Electra (their struggles on earth), and Hades & Agamemnon (Underworld or under earth).

There are a couple of issues in this play that readers might like to be aware of.  The scene where Clytaemestra is pleading with Orestes and bares her breast to him, is not in the original play, and merely an addition by some overexuberant revisionist fond of gratuitous additions.

I also noticed a few non-scholarly commentaries that mention that women in this play are portrayed as "weak" and their place in the home is disparaged and devalued.  In fact, in ancient Greece there were two important roles that both sexes fulfilled and, unlike modern times, there was no crossing over between the two.  The women's role in the home was considered an important one and in court if there was evidence with regard to a home in a legal case, the woman's evidence or opinion would be taken over a man's.  Interesting, isn't it?

The concluding third play of the triology is called The Eumenides.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Metamorphoses ~ Book XIII


Ajax and Achilles' Armor / Ulysses and Achilles' Armor / Ajax / The Fall of Troy / Polymestor and Polydorus / Polyxena / Polyxena & Hecuba / Hecuba, Polydorus, Polymestor / Aurora & Memnon / The Voyage of Aeneas / The Daughters of Anius / The Daughters of Orion / The Voyage of Aeneas / Galatea & Acis / Glaucus & Scylla

Ajax and Ulysses contend for the armour of the fallen hero, Achilles.  In spite of proclaiming himself a man of action and not one for florid speech, Ajax commences a rhetorical banquet, listing all his ancestors and spewing vitriol against Ulysses.  Ajax's father is Telamon, who was friend to Hercules as he destroyed Troy's walls, sailed in the ship with Jason and was born of Aecus.  In fact, he is a descendant of Jove, a honour he shares with Achilles, etc., etc.  Ulysses is nothing but a smooth talking, lily-livered, cowardly, sneaky, dishonest fraud.  Oh, and all his feats are minor.  In fact, he, Ajax, should be the winner of the armour because his own shield is so damaged with fighting, yet Ulysses' shield is so little used.  He suggests that the armour be thrown among the Trojans and whoever reclaims it, be it him or Ulysses, will be the victor.

The Quarrel Between Ajax and Odysseus (1625-30)
Leonaert Bramer
[Public Domain] source

With his renowned eloquence and gracious speech, Ulysses counters the argument of Ajax, contending that lineage should not be the judge of greatness, but instead a man's own deeds.  He disputes Ajax's deprecation of his lineage, saying that he has an equal ancestry to him, and furthermore, none of his ancestors are criminals.  As for deeds, what has Ajax really done?  However, he, on the other hand, has worked wonders, such as finding Achilles for the War, and therefore, all Achilles' feats are due to him.  He also brought about Agamemnon's change of heart with regard to the sacrifice of his daughter, and he was responsible for asking for the return of Helen.  For nine years the Trojans stayed within their walls, so open war was impossible, but while Ajax did nothing, he was busy planning objectives.  It was he who turned the troops back to war after they were going to disperse prompted by Agamemnon's dream.  His further rhetorical examples, reverse Ajax's argument with stunning guile and perception.  The Greek chieftains are so moved by Ulysses' reasoning that they award Achilles' armour to him.

Thetis Bringing Armor to Achilles (1806)
Benjamin West
source Wikimedia Commons

This decision is too much for the undefeated hero's pride and he encounters the first enemy that will be his destruction:  his own unmitigated anger.  Grabbing his blade, Ajax cries that he is the only one who can claim victory over himself, driving the shaft into his own chest.  As his blood seeps into the rich soil, up springs a purple flower, the same flower from Hyacinth's wound, with the letters, "AI-AI", echoing both of Ajax (often spelt Aias, therefore the "AI") and the lament of Hyacinth. (See Book X)

Ulysses retrieves his arrows from Lemnos, the arrows Hercules gave to Philoctetes, and brought back they haunt the skies of Troy.  The fall of Troy was swift, and with Ilium ablaze, the Trojan women embrace their gods for the last time.  They kiss the soil as they are born away, captive, and Hecuba is found at the graves of her sons.  Ulysses carries her off, clutching ashes of Hector to her bosom.

Dead Hector (1892)
Briton Riviere
source Wikiart

In Thrace lies Polymestor's magnificent palace and there he is covertly keeping Polydorus, son of Priam.  But there was gold given in payment and when the fall of Troy begins, the king slits the throat of the boy and tosses him from a cliff into the sea, to hide the body.

Agamemnon's fleet is moored along the Thracian coast when the ghost of Achilles bursts up, awesome and threatening, incensed that the Greeks would leave without honouring him.  He requests the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, Polyxena, as a sacrifice.  She dies with dignity, asking only that no rough hands touch her and that her body will be given to her suffering mother.  Every one weeps at her sacrifice.

The Sacrifice of Polyxena (1733-34)
Giovanni Battista Pittoni
source Getty Open Content

The Trojan women mourn.  Ulysses has won Hecuba but does not really want her, only accepting her because she gave birth to the great Hector.  Hecuba thought that after Achilles death he could threaten them no more, but he has proved her wrong.  Her speech is a dirge:

".... I gave birth to a funeral offering
to our destroyer.  I must have a heart 
of iron if I still resist, still live.
What am I waiting for?  Endless old age --
what can it hold in store?  O cruel gods
why do you let me live --- unless it be
that you have savd saved still other griefs for me? ...."

Priam should be glad he's gone, unable to witness the atrocity.  She cannot even give her daughter a respectable burial; the only honour Polyxena receives is her mother's tears on foreign soil.  At least, Polydorus, Hecuba's son, is sheltered by the Thracian king.  This fact is her only consolation.

Hecuba and Polyxena (c. 1814)
Merry-Joseph Blondel
source Wikimedia Commons

Hecuba moves towards the shore but suddenly sees the corpse of her son, Polydorus. The Trojan women wail in lament but Hecuba is arrested in her grief, the tragedy almost too much to bear.  As she views his fate, anger inflames her, burning to revenge.  She meets with Polymestor and promises gold for her son which he agrees to give him. False, lying Polymestor!!  Hecuba grips him and calls her Trojan women, and as she does, she digs her nails into his eyeballs and plucks his flesh.  The Thracians attack the women with stones and lances, but Hecuba attempts to catch the stones, her voice transforming into barks and howls and even the gods admit that Hecuba did not deserve such sorrow.

Hecuba (c. 18th century)
Guiseppe Crespi
source Wikimedia Commons

Aurora did not lament the Trojans' demise as expected because she was devastated by the death of her son Memnon at the hands of Achilles.  She pleads with Jove for a gift for the honour of her son and from his pyre, flames and ashes soar high then from it a bird ascends, then many.  After circling the pyre three times, they split into two flocks and begin to battle, falling into the ashes of Memnon as an offering.  They do this every time the sun rises but even to this day, Aurora mourns her son with her tears.

Aurora (1614)
Guido Reni
source Wikiart

Even though Troy was destroyed, part of it survived in the figure of Aeneas, hence the voyage of Aeneas begins.  Fleeing his city with his old father, Anchises, his son, Ascanius, and sacred images, he sails first to Thrace, then to Delos.  The kind, Anius, welcomes Aeneas, and it was here that the two tree-trunks opened and Latona gave birth to her twins.  (See Book VI)

Aeneas and his Father Fleeing Troy (c. 1635)
Simon Vouet
source Wikimedia Commons

Aeneas asks if he saw a son and four daughters of Anius when he last visited his city and Anius tells a tale of woe.  His son, Andros, is king of an island that bears his name, but Bacchus gave to his daughters the power to turn anything they touched into wheat, wine, or oil.  Realizing their value, Agamemnon dragged off the girls, to use them to feed the Grecian fleet.  Two daughters escaped to Euboea, and two to Andros, but their brother, fearing war, relinquished them to their fate.  About to be chained, the two girls lifted their arms in plea to Bacchus and were turned into snow-white doves.

At daybreak, the Trojans visit the oracle which tells them to seek out their "ancient mother" --- their land of origin.  Anius sees them off with gifts, and an engraved cup he brings tells its own story.  The seven gated city of Thebes was in a disasterous state with fires and pyres and wailing women, bare trees, stony fields and a mighty funeral pyre where Orion's daughters sacrificed themselves to save the people from the plague.  Out of their virgin ashes rose the Coroni, two youths, the final scene on the cup to commemorate their origin ---- their mothers.  The Trojans give fine gifts in return.

The voyage of Aeneas begins.  Seeking the land of Crete, where their ancestor, Teucer came from, an early king of Troy, upon landing they find the land too harsh and sail for Italy.  Sailing on and on, they reach Sicily and land on the sands of Messina.

The Wanderings of Aeneas
source Googlemap

In the straits of Messina, Scylla is watching the east and Charybdis never sleeps in the west.  The latter preys on ships by sucking them into her depths but Scylla's waist is populated by snapping dogs.  She once was a young girl but disdained her suitors and when the sea nymph, Galatea, heard Scylla's tale, she related her own story of her interactions with the Cyclops.  She loved Acis, son of a woodland Faun, but Polyphemus the Cyclops wished to possess her, although she hated him with a passion. He composed odes to her beauty, then disparaged her, spewing barely cloaked threats. With a menacing tirade directed towards Acis, he discovered the lovers. Pursuing Acis, he hurled a massive rock and even though it only grazed Acis, its size pressed him into the ground.  But then the rock split and from it came a green reed, then a river rushing and from the waters sprung a river-god .... Acis.  (I hope this is a different Galatea than Pygmalion's Galatea in Book X)

Galatea (1896)
Gustave Moreau
source Wikiart

Scylla continued on, stopping to rest in a pool to refresh herself.  Glaucus, its inhabitant, desired the girl and pursued her though she fled.  Reaching a mountain peak that rose from the sea, she turned to see that he was part man and part fish, not sure whether to marvel or be terrified.  He was a god as important as Triton or Proteus, but  he used to be a man who worked always near the sea.  One day as he saw fish leave his net and walk back into the sea, he suspected the grass they had laid upon to be the source of their powers.  Chewing it, he felt himself metamorphosing, a desire welling up within him for the ocean.  He would have said more but Scylla had fled and he set out for the isle of Circe.  (See also Scylla in Book VIII)

Glaucus and Scylla (1580-82)
Bartholomäus Spranger
source Wikimedia Commons

With the sparring between Ajax and Ulysses, we seem to get more questions than answers.  The reader, as well as the chieftains, are trying to discover who has the most kleos (glory) to be worthy of the armour of Achilles.  Instead, we get two sides of action ---- the physical (Ajax) and the mental (Ulysses), and which one is most important?  An answer doesn't seem to be possible, and in the end, it is Ulysses' smooth tongue and not kleos that secures the prize.

Ovid does not seem to care for Thracians.  Not much good seems to come from them or be said about them.


Ajax's blood  ❥  purple flower
Hecuba's speech  ❥  barks/howls
Memnon  ❥  birds {Memnonides}
Daughter's of Anius' touch  ❥  wheat, wine, oil
Anius' daughters  ❥  snow-white doves
Orion's daughters' ashes  ❥  Coroni
Acis  ❥  river-god
Glaucus' lower body  ❥  fish

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Amoretti LXVIII ~ Most Glorious Lord of Life by Edmund Spenser

Amoretti LXVIII: Most Glorious Lord of Life
Edmund Spenser (1552–1599)

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day,
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin:
And having harrow'd hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
And grant that we for whom thou diddest die,
Being with thy dear blood clean wash'd from sin,
May live for ever in felicity.
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again:
And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy,
With love may one another entertain.
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought,
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Jesus and Mary Magdalene (c. 1534)
Antonio da Corregio
source Wikimedia Commons
The Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ (c.1603)
Adam Elsheimer
source Wikimedia Commons

** paintings above are The Resurrection of Christ (1565) by Tintoretto & Resurrection of Christ (1875) by Carl Bloch, both on Wikiart.  I had so much trouble with this post ---- Blogger deleting whole posts, etc. that I'm terrified to touch anything else!  Happy Easter everyone!

Thanks to Amanda, here's the poem in song!

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

"No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine."

While Northanger Abbey was the first novel written by Jane Austen and sold to a publisher by her brother, Henry, in fact it was repurchased by the author and not published until six months after her death in December 1817.  Austen's parody of 17th century Gothic novels is told with a good-natured humour, but a valuable lesson lies beneath the surface of its narrative.

Catherine Morland, the daughter of a vicar, is given the chance to travel to Bath with a respectable family called the Thorpes.  Isabella Thorpe is her particular friend and the two absorb the delights of the town with an eager anticipation.  Yet Catherine's sheltered upbringing has perhaps made her more artless than your average girl of her age, and her innocent and credulous nature allows for a manipulation of her desires by those with more experience in the arts of enterprise and self-interest.  Her steady diet of Gothic novels, combined with her somewhat protected existence, contribute to her highly erroneous perceptions of the motivations and behaviour of others.  When an answer does not immediately present itself, she speeds off in wild internal ramblings of imagination, that rarely represent reality.  Likewise, when she is faced with obvious circumstances, she fails to perceive them.  Her lack of discernment with regard to John Thorpe's infatuation of her remains puzzling until her understanding is brought into context.  What experience does this young sheltered girl have to bring her presence of mind and an ability to discern attitudes outside of her usual element of a protected existence and romantic Gothic narratives?  With her uncritical naiveté and wild flights of fancy, initially one wonders if Catherine will be able to navigate through the pitfalls of her own mistaken perceptions to arrive at an outcome that will benefit her innocent, and yet misguided, nature.

In many ways, Northanger Abbey is a comedy, as Austen treats her character with a gentle type of humour. Catherine, while having admirable qualities, is living a delusion, cultivated by her reading material, yet her mistakes are of innocent intent due to ignorance rather than willful human folly. Her awakening, while somewhat arduous, is brief, and she soon demonstrates her innate ability to put into action the values instilled by her family and, with the guidance of the young gentleman clergyman, Henry Tilney, both her instincts and maturity grow, while her wildly unrestrained imagination is harnessed, and diminished into a sensible and mature culmination of happiness and contentment.  

While this book doesn't necessarily showcase Austen's usual brilliance, it is solidly developed and an engaging story until the last chapter. Then the book falls all to pieces. Somehow Eleanor Tilney, Henry's sister, makes a brilliant match with a character, "a man of fortune," who has never been mentioned by anyone, including the bride herself, until four paragraphs from the end of the novel; the General (Henry's father), who has been somewhat gruff and stringent, yet ofttimes displaying a pleasant character, turns into a mercenary, blustering, (and may I add, foolish) tyrant; and Catherine and Henry's success in love looks in jeopardy.  Yet all is tied up in a sentence or two, and the reader is left feeling like they just hit a brick wall.  It's not Austen at her finest, yet the book is a charming experiment and an example of Austen at the origin of her art.

Ruin of Kenilworth Castle - a gothic-type building
source Wikipedia

Northanger Abbey has the unique distinction for being known as the novel that alludes to a number of Gothic suspense novels.  If you are a Gothic connoisseur, here is the list for your enjoyment:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
  • Clermont by Regina Maria Roche
  • Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
  • Mysterious Warnings by Eliza Parsons
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest by Ludwig Flammenberg
  • Midnight Bell by Francis Latham
  • Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
  • Horrid Mysteries by Carl Gross (translated by Peter Will)
  • The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

Friday, 25 March 2016

The Morning of Life by Victor Hugo

My ninth choice for my Deal Me In Challenge comes from "diamonds," my poetry section.  I have completely avoided my short story section so far, not out of design, but out of fate.  I just haven't chosen a club yet.  In any case, for this choice we move to France and the poetry of Victor Hugo.

Le Voile du Matin
by Victor Hugo

Le voile du matin sur les monts se déploie.
Vois, un rayon naissant blanchit la vieille tour ;
Et déjà dans les cieux s'unit avec amour,
Ainsi que la gloire à la joie,
Le premier chant des bois aux premiers feux du jour.

Oui, souris à l'éclat dont le ciel se décore ! -
Tu verras, si demain le cercueil me dévore,
Un soleil aussi beau luire à ton désespoir,
Et les mêmes oiseaux chanter la même aurore,
Sur mon tombeau muet et noir !

Mais dans l'autre horizon l'âme alors est ravie.
L'avenir sans fin s'ouvre à l'être illimité.
Au matin de l'éternité
On se réveille de la vie,
Comme d'une nuit sombre ou d'un rêve agité.

source Wikipedia

The Morning Of Life (an ode)
by Victor Hugo

The mist of the morning is torn by the peaks,
Old towers gleam white in the ray,
And already the glory so joyously seeks
The lark that's saluting the day.

Then smile away, man, at the heavens so fair,
Though, were you swept hence in the night,
From your dark, lonely tomb the owlets would stare
At the sun rising newly as bright.

But out of earth's trammels your soul would have flown
Where glitters Eternity's stream,
And you shall have waked 'midst pure glories unknown,
As sunshine disperses a dream.

This is a beautiful poem, but this was the only English translation that I was able to find, and the poem really suffers in the translation.  From the French (keeping in mind, my French is adequate, but I'm certainly not fluent),  the reader is assailed wtih images of newness and light and birth and song, but there is also a reference to an old tower.  Yet in the second stanza the poet mentions that though he may be found in a coffin (I suspect that he is the "old tower" from the first stanza), the sun will continue to shine and that same bird will sing on his tomb.  And should the reader be saddened by his death?  The third stanza indicates not, as the poet will have an endless horizon as he awakens in the light of eternity.  The first life now appears as a dark night or restless dream in comparison to this new everlasting life.

Ai-ya!  I was able to pull very little of that explanation from the English translation.  The French says "mon tombeau" (my tomb), not your tomb, and with the English second person pronouns in the third stanza, it is very confusing as to who is speaking.  Anyone with more adequate French skills than I have, is welcome to comment.

For those of you who didn't know that Hugo was also a recreational artist, producing more than 4000 drawings, I'll leave you with one of them:

The Wave of My Destiny (1857)
Victor Hugo
source Wikiart

Deal Me In Challenge #9

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Metamorphoses ~ Book XII

Book XII

Iphegenia / Rumor / Achilles & Cycnus / Caenis/Caenus / Lapiths & Centaurs / Cyllarus / Caenus / Hercules & Periclymenus / The Death of Achilles

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1770)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
source Wikimedia Commons
While Priam doesn't realize that his son has been changed to a bird, and mourns his death with Hector, Paris is missing from the funeral rites, as he has gone to Greece, stolen a wife and returned with a war behind him.  But the Greeks chasing Paris, become bound by storms at Aulis, so they kindle fires for Jove in hopes of smooth sailing.  However, a blue-green serpent climbs a sycamore tree, seizing eight fledglings and their mother, and swallowing them in his greedy jaws.  Calchus, the augur, son of Thestor, claims it is a sign that the Greeks will be victorious but only after a long war.  Nereus' rage though is unrelenting and Calchus claims Diana is aggrieved that Agamemnon slew her sacred stag.  He requires payment in virgin's blood, and so Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia is sacrificed.  The girl does not die, however, as Diana covers the altar with a dark cloud, exchanging Iphigenia for a hind.  Her wrath appeased, the thousand ships are able to sail for Phrygian shores (Troy).  (For a somewhat different story of Iphigenia's sacrifice, see Agamemnon).

Where the earth, heavens and sea meet, Rumor lives high upon a peak in a palace with no doors, and everything that is spoken in the wide world is taken in ....  Credulity, Error, Joy, Consternations, Fears, Seditions and unknown whispers.  Rumor knows all.  This is why, as the Greeks reach the shores of Troy, the Trojans are not unaware of their coming.  Under Hector's deadly spear, Protestilaus is the first to lose his life.  The Danaans pay in death, but the Trojans lose men too and each learn the prowess of the other.

Achilles races in his chariot, searching for Cycnus or for Hector. He finds the former and attempts to kill him but Cycnus is the son of Neptune and no weapon can pierce his skin.  Spear after spear glances off him and Achilles is enraged, eventually questioning his own might. Leaping from his chariot, he attempts to stab him without success, finally grabbing Cycnus and choking him until the hero dies.  Or so he thinks, for as he tries to strip his armour, he finds no body.  Neptune has already changed his son into a swan.  This seems a perpetual feat, as Cycnus has already been changed into a swan under different circumstances in Book II and is mentioned again in Book VII.

Achilles is so wonderful that everyone can only speak of courage and bravery around him.  His victory over Cycnus is astonishing, although Nestor relates of another warrior whose body could not be touched by weapons.  His name was Caenus although he was born as a woman.  Shocked, the Greeks beg for the rest of the tale and we hear how Caenis was born fair and famous for her beauty.  Raped by Neptune, he promises to give her what she desires, and vowing never to suffer such outrage again, she wishes to become a man.  She transforms into Caenus, and no weaponry could ever kill her.

Battle Between Lapiths & Centaurs (1735-40)
Francesco Solimena
source Wikiart 
In Thessaly, Pirithous, king of Lapith and son of Ixion, is to be wed to Hippodame (who was supposed to be wed to Pelops in the backstory to Agamemnon, but perhaps this is a different Hippodame) and Caenus attends.   At the feast, the centaurs (bred by Ixion and "Cloud" --- it's a horrendous story if you want to look it up) go mad on lust and wine.  Eurytus snatches the bride, and his brothers begin to snatch women without qualm.  Brave Theseus stands to oppose their evil intentions, throwing a vat into the face of Eurytus, upon which the centaur gushes blood and brains and vomits wine, falling dead to the floor.  War ensues with a descriptive tapestry reminiscent of The Iliad.  Some of the centaurs flee (including Nessus, who met Hercules' bow in Book IX), yet the war continues with even more elaborate description.

Flawlessly handsome, with a black coat yet a white tail and legs, the centaur, Cyllarus, is loved by a woman, Hylonome. However, he is unable to escape his fate and when a spear pierces his body, his wife runs to him, holding him, and then throwing herself on the spear so they die together.

Lapiths and the Centaurs
Jacob Jordaens
source Wikiart
Nestor continues with his stories, telling of how Phaeocomes threw a log which smashed the skull of Tectaphos, the son of Olenus, his brain matter oozing from his eyes, ears and nostrils. Nestor struck him down, along with other centaurs, his strength in those days equal to Hector's.  Caenus was killing centaurs as well, and the rest of the bipeds were in a frenzy of irritation because none of their weapons were able to pierce his skin.  Finally, Monycus came up with a plan: if they weren't able to skewer him, they would smother him.  The centaurs ripped trees from the ground, piling them onto Caenus until he was buried.  A golden-winged bird escaped from the rubble; some say it was Caenus but others claimed that he was pushed right down to the Underworld.

As Nestor's tale ends, Tlepolemus is disturbed that no mention of his father Hercules' feats were acknowledged.  Nestor reveals his hatred for the hero, as Hercules was responsible for razing Pylos, Nestor's homeland, without provocation.  Hercules killed all eleven of his brothers, including his brother, Periclymenus, who was able to change shape, yet as an eagle, Hercules shot him with an arrow.  Yet in spite of his rage against Hercules, Nestor gracefully says that he hold no enmity towards Tlepolemus.

Neptune, still in grief over Cycnus, detests Achilles with a raging passion. He enlists Apollo to covertly bring about the death of Achilles.  Apollo enters the Trojan battle and, as Paris shoots an arrow, the god guides it towards Achilles, felling the hero.  The death is a shameful one, as Achilles is killed by a coward and a debaucher of women.  At his funeral, Achilles' physical ashes barely fill a small urn, yet his reknown is as large as the whole world.  Ajax the greater and Ulysses prepare to contend over the hero's armour. 

The Death of Achilles (1630-32)
Peter Paul Rubens
source Wikimedia Commons

Ovid continues to astonish with his vivid description and puzzle with choice of stories and pacing.  The Trojan War itself is nearly skipped through, as we go from an event at the beginning of it, to an event at the end.  Instead of the battles of Troy, the warriors themselves appear more important.  

There is also the parallel theme of the ignorance of fathers: Priam does not realize that his son was changed into a bird, and neither does Agamemnon know that Iphigenia was saved by Minerva.  

Nestor's treatment of Hercules is very startling.  Fame and glory (kleos) for a Greek warrior is their ultimate purpose in life.  By not mentioning the feats of Hercules against the centaurs, Nestor is suppressing Hercules fame and glory.
"The vengeance that I seek for my dear brothers stops at this:  my speech, in telling of the Lapiths' victory omitted the great deeds of Hercules...."
Nestor is effectively erasing Hercules, as Hercules obliterated Nestor's cherished homeland.

And as much as I'm enjoying Ovid's poetry and stories, he can't hold a candle to Homer.  Ovid's poetry can have some beautiful passages but often the underlying tone seems more ghastly and outrageous, whereas Homer's tone sounds more majestic, with a resonating grandeur.  But, of course, I'm reading poetry in translation, which is always problematic when making judgements.  However, I think the Greeks, at least, would agree with me. :-)


Snake  ❥  stone
Cycnus  ❥  swan
Caenis/woman  ❥  Caenus/man
Caenus  ❥  golden-winged bird
Periclymenus  ❥  many shapes  ❥ eagle