Illustration: The Muse Erato (muse of erotic poetry), from a wall-painting from Herculaneum, in Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
This is the season of gift-giving, and we offer a poem by the Roman poet Catullus (84-ca.54 B.C.), better known to us as the author of passionate poems to his girlfriend "Lesbia" (real name Clodia). In this poem he presents his collection of poems as a gift to his friend Cornelius, the historian Cornelius Nepos (ca.99-ca.24 B.C.). He thanks the older writer for having looked kindly upon some of his earlier efforts. The patrona Virgo whom he addresses is probably his Muse, although she could be a goddess, perhaps Pallas. Here is the text, in both Latin and English.
Cui dono lepidum novum libellum
Illustration: The Muse Clio (muse of history), from a wall-painting from Herculaneum, in Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890.
Illustration: detail of the so-called "Harvester Vase" from Hagia Triada, Crete. This Minoan vase (ca. 1550 B.C.) is generally supposed to represent a procession of men carrying sheaves of grain.
The farmer gets ready for winter
At this time of year, we think of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and harvest festivals to celebrate the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Hesiod (the Old Curmudgeon!), however, had his mind on more practical matters, such as real estate and personnel decisions.
In his Works and Days (composed ca. 750 B.C., and addressed to his ne'er-do-well brother Perses, who had squandered his patrimony), Hesiod gives advice to the thrifty farmer on how to buy a home, cut wood in season to make plows and other tools, how to care for fallow land so that it will be ready for spring planting, and how to make wise choices for obtaining help around the farm: Get a woman (a slave-woman, NOT a wife!) who can help plow; hire a man of forty years, too old to be distracted; buy two oxen of nine years -- ditto -- still strong, but too mature to fight each other instead of plowing. Make good use of your time. Here are excerpts:
When the strength of the sharp sun abates
Illustration: Tableau of skeletons on a boat ride in the Gardens of Xochimilco, Mexico City, for El Dia de los Muertos, purchased in Olvera Street, Los Angeles (photo by C.A. Sowa). See pictures of the real Gardens of Xochimilco, below.
Theophrastus' Characters: "You might be a superstitious man if . . ."
Theophrastus (ca. 370 B.C.-285 B.C.) was a respected philosopher and student of Aristotle who wrote works on such topics as botany, winds and weather, logic and metaphysics, rhetoric and politics. But he is best known today for his little book of Characters, descriptions, often very funny, of an array of character types inhabiting the Athens of his day. The work actually fits into a completely serious kind of philosophy, the division into formal categories of vices, virtues, and emotions, as exemplified by Aristotle's own Ethics. But they also belong to the comic genre, and can remind a modern audience of Jeff Foxworthy's jokes that begin "You might be a redneck if . . ."
The little vignettes of the Characters include such traits as Flattery, Idle Chatter, Boorishness, Obsequiousness, Penny-pinching, Bad Timing, Absent-mindedness, Bad Taste, Arrogance, Cowardice, and Authoritarianism. In honor of Halloween and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, we present Theophrastus' depiction of Superstition.
The superstitious man is the kind who, having washed his hands and sprinkled himself with water from a shrine, puts a sprig of laurel in his mouth and walks around like that all day. And if a weasel runs across his path, he will not proceed before someone else passes between them, or he throws three stones upon the road. If he sees a snake in his house, he invokes Sabazios, but if it is a holy snake, he immediately builds a hero shrine on that spot.
Illustrations: Postcards of the real Gardens of Xochimilco, with flower-bedecked boats.
Illustration: "Storming of a Besieged City," from Caesar's Commentaries, ed. Francis W. Kelsey, 1918.
Can good generals serve under bad emperors?
This September, we saw General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, defend (mostly) President Bush's position on the Mideast war, as he walked the thin line between honest portrayal of the continuing mayhem and collapse of civil authority in Iraq and his duty (as he saw it) not to undercut his boss's insistence that the war is a "success" and that the U.S. is "marching to victory." Both liberals and conservatives have tended to see General Petraeus as a kind of savior, a competent and realistic military leader who would vindicate their position, either to end the war (liberals) or "win" it (conservatives). Liberals, in particular, have been vocal in their outrage that Petraeus did not flat-out repudiate the president's muddled policy. By seeming to be a tool of the conservatives' propaganda, Petraeus is in danger of joining the list of fallen idols, along with General Colin Powell before him.
The Roman historian and politician Tacitus (55?-after 115 A.D.) struggled with the same issues, as he expressed most poignantly in his biography of his father-in-law Agricola, whose "caving in" to the demands of the Emperor Domitian he defends as indicative of his courteous and practical nature. Tacitus is best known for his Annals and Histories, which chronicled events of the Roman Empire from Augustus to his own time. He was married to the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, one of Rome's most able generals, under whom the Roman armies pacified most of Britain. (Whether this was a good or a bad thing depends, of course, on one's point of view. Boudicca's brave revolt against Rome had just been put down when Agricola arrived, and Tacitus even has one of the British leaders say "To robbery, killing, and plunder they [the Romans] give the false name of empire; where they make solitude, they call it peace" -- Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.)
The general Agricola and the emperor Domitian
Agricola had the misfortune to be governor of Britain under the Emperor Domitian, famous as one of the most cruel and capricious of Rome's rulers. While some of Domitian's excesses may or may not have been exaggerated (the gossipy Suetonius says that the young emperor spent hours shut up in his room stabbing flies), he was apparently quick to murder enemies, of whom he made many, especially among the senatorial class, whose power he curtailed. He had good reason to fear; he was eventually assassinated by conspirators who included his own wife. Agricola was among those whose popularity he feared, and the general was recalled from Britain. He was in line to be made proconsul of either Africa or Asia, but was persuaded (by not-so-veiled threats) to "request to be excused" so that he could "retire to a life of quiet and leisure." Agricola died in 93 A.D.
Tacitus survived into the more benign reigns of Nerva and Trajan, and gained the honors denied to his father-in-law, becoming proconsul of Asia toward the end of his life. His eulogy of Agricola was written in 98. A translation of a portion of Tacitus' Agricola follows. The phrase "empty boasts of liberty" refers to the nostalgic (and unrealistic, in Tacitus' opinion) desire of some for a return to the long-gone Roman Republic.
The year had now arrived, in which [Agricola] was eligible to obtain by lot the proconsulate of either Africa or Asia, and as Civica had lately been murdered [C. Vetulenus Civica Cerealis, proconsul of Asia, executed by Domitian for treason], Agricola did not lack a warning nor Domitian a precedent. Certain persons approached him, well-acquainted with the deliberations of the Emperor, to ask Agricola, as if on their own initiative, whether he intended to go to the province. At first, hiding their purpose, they praised a life of quiet and leisure, then they offered their help in case he sought approval of a request to be excused, then finally, no longer hiding their purpose, by persuading and at the same time terrifying him, they forced him to come before Domitian. The Emperor, prepared in his hypocrisy and assuming an air of arrogance, listened to his prayers that he might be excused, and when he had granted the request, allowed himself to be thanked, nor did he blush at the ill will contained in such a favor. But he did not give to Agricola the proconsular salary which he himself had granted to some governors, either offended at its not having been requested, or from conscience, lest he be seen to have bought the refusal that he had commanded.
Illustration: Roman soldiers, with their packs suspended from staffs on their backs, from Caesar's Gallic War, Books I-IV, ed. James B. Greenough, 1904.
Illustration: Horace (on the right) with Maecenas (center) and Augustus (seated, on the left). From a wall painting found in the palace of Augustus on the Palatine.
Roman roads connected the Roman world
The tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis has made us aware of the importance of the infrastructure, especially the roads and bridges, that connect the far-flung parts of the United States. The Roman roads, well-engineered and paved, served the same purpose in the Roman Republic and later in the Roman Empire. Like the American Interstate highway system, the Roman roads were originally built for military purposes, designed primarily to move troops efficiently where they were needed. Like the Interstates, they also became conduits of commerce and of the dominant civilization. An unfortunate feature of the Interstate highway system is that a road in California looks just like a road in Pennsylvania or New York, with the same kind of rest stops operated by similar conglomerates. They are disconnected from their local context, but have had the further effect of bringing change and uniformity to the local culture itself.
The Roman roads were, in some ways, more like the old Route 66 (or the even older Lincoln Highway) than the limited-access Interstates, being more intimately tied to their local environment. Accommodations and amenities varied with the location and the temper of the inhabitants. Horace has left us with an account of a two-week journey that he made, perhaps in 37 B.C., from Rome to Brundisium, to attend a meeting between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Antony, which was also attended by Maecenas, the influential Roman who was the patron of both Horace and Vergil. The story is told in Satires Book 1.5.
Horace's bad trip on the Appian Way
The first part of the journey, which we quote below, was begun along the Appian Way, then continued by canal through the Pontine Marshes. On this Vacation from Hell, voyagers on the mule-drawn boat are kept awake by swamp bugs and the shouting of drunken boatmen, in scenes reminiscent of the old Erie Canal. In later parts of the tale, the travelers suffer various vicissitudes, including a cook nearly burning down the dining room at an inn. Horace makes an ill-fated attempt to have sex with a girl, who fails to show up for their date. Horace falls asleep and awakes with an embarrassing wet dream. (This passage is expurgated from older textbooks!) All eventually arrive, thankfully, at Brundisium. Here, translated from the Latin, are verses 1-24:
Leaving great Rome, Aricia received me
Illustration: a portion of the Appian Way, from Lanciani, Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries, 1898.
Magic, ritual, and religion
This July, the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opened, with the final volume of J.K. Rowling's epic of the young wizard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, appearing later in the month. Magic was very much a part of the ancient world, and we offer an example of ancient magic by Theocritus, from his Idyll II, known as Pharmakeutria, or The Sorceress.
Magic is generally distinguished from religion, although the rituals practiced by many religions have a magical element to them. Magic comprises the use of spells, drugs, herbs, human and animal body parts, incantations, etc., all of which are supposed to influence events. The influence may be over nature (such as the weather) or human behavior (such as falling in love). Magic has been compared to science, in that the same action is always supposed to produce exactly the same result. Magic may be sympathetic, where one action produces another that is similar, as when herbs are thrown in the fire to make someone "burn" with love, or it may be contagious, where something belonging to the victim of a spell, like a strand of hair or clothing, is used.
In Homer, the great sorceress is Circe, who with her drugs and magic wand, transforms Odysseus' companions into pigs (she later is persuaded to un-pigify them). The god Hermes, also a practitioner of magic, saves Odysseus from the same fate by giving him the herb called "moly." Circe, falling in love with Odysseus, entertains him for a year, at the end of which she gives him the spells to call up the spirits of the dead and visit the Underworld. In myth and tragedy, the most famous sorceress is Medea, who puts her spells at the service of Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece, leading to her ill-starred love affair with the hero of the Argonauts. Thessalian witches were especially known for their ability to draw down the moon from the heavens.
Theocritus, born in Syracuse perhaps around 310 B.C., is known for his Idylls. The word eidullion means "little image" or vignette. These poems, in the Dorian dialect, are mostly on pastoral subjects, and were the model for Vergil's Eclogues. But Idyll II is on an urban subject. A young woman named Simaitha has fallen for a young man, Delphis, whom she has seen walking from the gymnasium, "glistening like the moon." She, sick with love, invites him to her house, where he says he has already loved her from afar. (Liar!) They "Do the Big Thing" (eprachthê ta megista) and she becomes a "non-virgin" (aparthenon). Now he never comes around, and she hears that he has a new love -- perhaps male, perhaps female. She uses magic to try to woo him back (or if that doesn't work, to kill him!).
Simaitha uses both sympathetic and contagious magic. With the help of her maid, Thestylis, she burns bay leaves in the fire to make Delphis burn with love, but she also adds a piece of fringe from his cloak. She pours libations and utters spells. She turns a magic wheel (called an iugx, after the bird (the wryneck) that witches traditionally bound to the wheel) to draw Delphis to her, providing the refrain of the poem: "Iugx, draw thou that man to my house" (iugx, helke tu tênon emon poti dôma ton andra). In the middle section of the poem, where Simaitha recounts her sad story, she uses another refrain, addressed to Selene, the Moon, "Tell me whence my love came, Lady Selene" (phrazeo meu ton erôth' hothen hiketo, potna Selana). Here are selections from the opening and closing verses of the poem:
A filly wins the Belmont
The filly, Rags to Riches, won the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 2007, the first female horse to win this race since 1905. We celebrate this event with a passage from Pindar's Sixth Olympian Ode, composed for the winning team, apparently female, in a mule race.
The Greeks raced both horses and mules. Pindar's Sixth Olympian celebrates the victory of a mule chariot owned by Hagesias of Syracuse, probably in 472 B.C. The poet asks the victorious mules to take him on a mythical time-journey to the ancestors of the winner. The mules would appear to be female. While the word for mule, hêmionos (literally "half-ass"!) can be either male or female, grammatically feminine words are used to describe them (keinai gar ex allân "they above all others").
Employing his usual verbal alchemy, Pindar takes us from the sweaty physical environment of the athletic contest into a magical world of gods and goddesses, of enchanted meadows and helpful snakes. The mules themselves, strong and dependable, become mythic animals, leading us on the path of song. We meet the nymph Pitane, beloved of Poseidon, who gives birth to Evadne, then we learn of Evadne herself, loved by Apollo, who amid colors of silver, dark blue, yellow, and violet, bears Iamos ("Violet"), who becomes progenitor of the Iamidai, a clan of seers, from whom Hagesias is ultimately descended. And so, as usual in Pindar, a long and enchanting road brings us back, once again to Hagesias, Olympia, and the victory celebration.
. . . O Phintis, now yoke for me the strength of the mules
Hermes steals Apollo's cattle, on a Caeretan hydria in the Louvre. Photo by R. Schoder, S.J., as reproduced in C.A. Sowa, Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns, Bolchazy-Carducci, 1984.
A trickster god sends a storm
The quotation for May is unusually late, due to the fact that some trickster god visited a severe storm on our part of Westchester County, downing trees, power lines, and phone lines, as well as gutters, siding, and roof shingles. Evangelical preachers like Jerry Falwell think that disasters like the 9/11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina are signs of God's wrath at a decadent society, doubtless relying on Old Testament parallels, but Homer and Odysseus could tell you that violent storms, lightning strikes, earthquakes, and famines are caused by the anger and feuding of such gods and goddesses as Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, and Demeter. This month's quotation is about a trickster god, Hermes, who was also a god of invention and messenger of the gods. It tells of his birth as son of the goddess Maia, "May."
Ovid's three explanations for the name of the month of May
Ovid, in his Fasti (Bk. V vv.1-110), provides three explanations of the name of the month of May. He asks the Muses for their opinion, and three of them give differing explanations (a sort of quirky Judgment of Paris, but here the contest is not to judge who is most beautiful, but who has the best information). Polyhymnia's tale connects the name to that of Maiestas, the goddess of Majesty. Urania disagrees, saying that the name derives from the reverence paid to the maiores, or elders. Calliope traces the name to that of Maia, one of the Pleiades, daughters of Pleione and Atlas, who became the mother of "him who hastens his journey through the air on winged foot" (i.e. Mercury, the Greek Hermes). Actually, they are all right, in a sense. The Roman goddess Maia, also called Maiesta, was a nature divinity associated with the god Volcanus; the name comes from the same root, meaning "growth" or "increase," as magnus, maior, maiestas, etc. Her name became confused with that of the Greek Maia (whose name may simply mean "mother" or "nurse"), the mother of Hermes, about whom the well-known myths are told, as in the Homeric Hymn IV to Hermes.
Hermes' exciting first day of life
The Hymn to Hermes begins with the god's birth as son of Maia and Zeus, and proceeds to the god's earliest exploits, on the day that he was born. A true Wunderkind, "Born at dawn, he played the lyre at noon, / and at evening stole the cattle of far-shooting Apollo." Both trickster and inventor, like Prometheus or the American Indian Coyote, he "makes the tortoise a singer" by turning her shell into a lyre. He steals his half-brother Apollo's cattle by driving them backwards and disguising his own footprints with wicker sandals, to conceal their true direction. Apollo finds out, of course, but the brothers are reconciled at the end, when Hermes hands over the lyre to Apollo to be his instrument. Ever resourceful, Hermes invents a new instrument for himself, the Pan-pipes. Here are the opening lines of the Hymn.
Sing, Muse, of Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia,
There is a solemnity, a repose about the great trees, and the restless, ceaseless stirring of the small ones is full of mystery. So self-evident are they, so close at hand that we almost find ourselves in danger of becoming oblivious to their presence. They never intrude upon the attention; they rather pursue indomitably their own way. As landmarks of history many trees have been revered; traditions and superstitions have clustered about them while in mute eloquence they have answered the people's expectations. In England, to-day, there are oaks standing that knew the ground before its conquest by the Romans. Nothing is grander than are trees. Nothing gives of its best more freely to man. And to each one there is an individuality which having once been observed may be traced into the folk-lore of nations.
Arbor Day, which has been celebrated since 1872, is devoted to the planting and nurturing of trees. National Arbor Day occurs on the last Friday in April, which this year falls on April 27. Not only does it promote the growing of trees for their usefulness -- to provide shade and windbreaks, to hold the soil, for fuel and building materials, as aesthetic design elements -- but like Earth Day (April 22, founded in 1970), it promotes awareness of the need to preserve the environment, and like Easter and Passover, it has the symbolic meaning of the resurgence of life over forces that would diminish it.
Daphne, fleeing Apollo, is turned into a laurel tree
Our quotation again comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, from which last month's story of how old King Kadmos and his wife, Harmonia, were transformed into benevolent snakes, also came. It tells the story of Daphne, the nymph beloved by Apollo, who was turned, in answer to her prayer, into a laurel tree.
Apollo and Cupid fell into an argument when Apollo saw the boy Cupid wielding a bow and arrow, which are more properly "a man's weapons." Cupid, in anger, shoots Apollo with an arrow that makes him fall in love, but shoots an arrow that makes the recipient reject love into Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, deity of the river that flows through the Vale of Tempe, a wild gorge in Thessaly. His speed outdoes her ability to flee, and she prays to her river god father to change her shape, whereupon she becomes a laurel tree. He still loves her, and promises to wear her leaves as his crown.
Since Ovid is Roman, although telling a Greek story, he has Apollo foretell that her leaves will also be worn by Roman generals, and that the laurel tree will guard the house of Augustus! As a matter of fact, two laurel trees actually stood on either side of the doors of Augustus' palace. In the quotation below, Apollo is also called by two of his other names, "Phoebus" and "Paean."
. . .
Ovid, Metamorphoses I.533-567.
Leaves of the white oak, from A Guide to the Trees by Alice Lounsberry, illustration by Mrs. Ellis Rowan, 1900.
The constellation Ophiouchus ("The Serpent Bearer"), sometimes identified with the god Asclepius. Illustration: detail from Burritt's Geography of the Heavens, 1856.
Snakes in the woods and in myth
It is spring, and all sorts of living things are stirring in the trees and grass: birds, insects, mammals large and small, and in most places -- except Ireland -- snakes.
St. Patrick is supposed to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. However, according to the National Zoo Web site, Ireland (along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Anarctica) never had snakes to begin with. These places were either under water or surrounded by water at the time snakes were developing in other parts of the world, and the myth of St. Patrick has more to do with symbolism associating snakes with paganism, which Patrick also set out to subdue.
In non-Christian civilizations, including the Classical lands of Greece, Rome and also Egypt, snakes were venerated, especially as chthonian (underground) spirits, sometimes portrayed as malevolent dragons, but often as bringers of health and renewal. Snakes "renew" themselves by shedding their skin, and rising from underground, represent restoration from death. Athena wore the protective vest called the aegis, made from goatskin (Greek aix, aigos "goat") trimmed with an edging of snakes. Snakes are associated with Asclepius, the god of healing, who was sometimes represented by a sacred snake. The herald's staff entwined with snakes (Latin caduceus, Greek kerykion) was an attribute of Hermes (Mercury), the snakes having developed out of an earlier representation of shoots of foliage. Asclepius also bears a snake-wrapped staff, and the caduceus has become the recognized symbol of medicine.
Kadmos, founder of Thebes, and his wife Harmonia (daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, that is, "War" and "Love") in old age were turned into snakes. Kadmos, son of Agenor, king of Tyre, was sent, when young, to search for his sister Europa, abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. Arriving in Greece, he was told by the Delphic Oracle to follow a cow and found a city where it lay down. In Boeotia (the name suggests bous, "cow"), he founded a settlement. He killed the dragon guarding a spring and sowed its teeth, from which sprang up warriors, most of whom killed each other off. The remaining five became the founding nobility of the city of Thebes. Kadmos married Harmonia and gave birth to an ill-starred family. Their daughter Semele became mother of the god Dionysos by Zeus's lethal thunderbolt, a story told in the February Quotation of the Month, which remains below. Their daughter Agave, driven mad by Dionysos as a result of his mistreatment by her son, King Pentheus, killed her son, thinking that he was a lion (also told below). Their daughter Ino, also driven mad (in another long story involving the Golden Fleece), leaped off a cliff into the sea, together with her son Melicertes. Ino and Melicertes were both turned into sea-gods (Leucothea and Palaemon). Kadmos, long since retired as king, and Harmonia, leave Thebes, and feeling guilt at having started it all by killing the dragon, are themselves turned into snakes. Ovid's telling of this story is the Quotation of the Month.
Cadmus and Harmonia in old age become benevolent snakes
Our quotation comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses (tales of people who turned into other things -- animals, flowers, trees, etc.). His telling of the story of Cadmus (Greek Kadmos) and Harmonia, turning, at the end of their long and honored lives, into snakes, shows Ovid's characteristic combination of the silly and the poignant:
The son of Agenor did not know that his daughter and little grandson
And so they slither off into the grass, just a pair of old snakes, guardians of the garden . . .
Cadmus slaying the dragon, in a vase painting. (From Roscher's Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1890).
Mardi Gras and Dionysos
New Orleans' spirit is embodied in its Mardi Gras. While New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are STILL not repaired or rebuilt since Hurricane Katrina (shame, shame, shame of a nation!), those who regard the city as a national treasure can continue to send support and cheer as the Saints ALMOST make it to the SuperBowl and Mardi Gras continues to express the city's unquenchable spirit of music and joy.
The rites of Dionysos (or Bacchus) are an ancient analog of Mardi Gras. The illustration above shows a Bacchic parade, with a satyr playing the double flute and participants flourishing the thyrsus, a staff wound with ivy and vines and topped with a pine cone.
The quotation this month is from Euripides' Bacchae. The chorus of Bacchantes, or women acolytes of Dionysos, sing of the joys of their rites of dance and song. They are depicted as having followed him from Mount Tmolus in Lydia to Thebes in Greece, where the play takes place.
Religion of ecstasy and emotion
Dionysos was a god of ecstatic and emotional religion, different from the more stately cults of other Greek gods. The word "ecstasy" (ekstasis) means "a standing apart," or being "beside oneself." It refers to a trance state, which may be reached by wild dancing or by madness, in which one may actually become unconscious or see visions. The cult appealed to both sexes, but particularly to women. Its female votaries, or Bacchantes, were also called "Maenads" (Mainades or "madwomen"). The origins of Dionysos are unknown, but the cult may have come originally from Thrace, via Macedonia, to the north of Greece. His other name, Baccchus, on the other hand, is Lydian. In Euripides, we find him associated with the cult of Cybele, the Anatolian Great Mother goddess. The god was believed to be able to change his appearance, sometimes to that of a wild animal. Masks were sometimes worn by the dancers, though these were apparently human masks. Dionysos was also the god of wine, but that is only part of the story. Great festivals of Dionysos, eventually "domesticated" and civilized, became part of the fabric of classical Greece, and were the origin of the great Athenian comedy and tragedy, the most important celebration being the Great Dionysia, in early spring. Euripides' Bacchae would have been produced at one of these festivals.
The Bacchae and a more primitive religion
The Bacchae (written after a visit by Euripides to King Archelaos of Macedonia), reveals the savage dark side of the Dionysiac religion. Dionysos is the son of Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, by Zeus, who came to Semele in the form of a thunderbolt, which both impregnated and killed her. King Pentheus, son of Agave, another daughter of Cadmus, now rules Thebes (Cadmus is now retired). Pentheus, along with Cadmus' other daughters, Ino and Autonoe, have been disrespecting Dionysos, casting doubt on his divinity and attempting to jail his followers, who are dancing in the mountains. Dionysos takes revenge by driving the Theban women mad, and persuading Pentheus to go to the mountains to spy on them. His mother, Agave, tears him apart, thinking that he is a lion. The episode in which Agave realizes that she has killed her own son is one of the great tragic scenes.
Song of the Bacchantes
Coming from the Asian land,
Iane biceps, anni tacite labentis origo
Weird, old two-headed Janus visits Ovid
Janus is a very old and weird Italian god. Divinity of beginnings and entrances, he is depicted with two faces, facing forwards and backwards. The name is related to ianua "door," and probably to ire "to go." He had a temple in the Forum, which served as a ceremonial gate, with two opposite entrances, which were open in time of war, shut in time of peace. The month of January is his month.
Ovid, in his Fasti or Year's Calendar, of course begins with January. The poet is musing on Janus and his strange form, when Janus himself appears, terrifying Ovid:
But what god am I to say you are, biform Janus?
Janus' cheerful view of history
But Janus tells Ovid not to be afraid, and in fact turns out to be quite the comic as he takes Ovid around and explains various rites and customs to him.
Among other anecdotes, Janus tells how Saturn, hiding from Jupiter, was received into Italy in Janus' reign, a story that we presented for December 2006 as Vergil retells it in the Aeneid. Janus (or rather, Ovid!) tells pretty much the same story of Saturn's utopian age as Vergil, but with a cheerful cynicism that sets it apart from Vergil's earnest official version. ("Why, even in Saturn's reign I scarcely saw a man who did not love sweet lucre!")
Times change, Janus says, but on the subject of the new, fancy gold coinage, he makes the wisecrack that his own biform visage on an old simple copper coin is almost unrecognizable with age. The old coin also depicts the arrival of Saturn.
. . . He concluded his admonitions. With calm speech, as before,
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