Saturday, June 5, 2010

Quis Actaeon? - Part I

The story of Pentheus, the king of Thebes who renounced the worship of Dionysus, is one of the most gruesome of the Greek myths. The unfortunate monarch ends up being torn to pieces by a group of Maenad women, worshippers of Dionysus, including...his own mother Agave.

The most well-known retelling of the tale is in Euripides' powerfully dark play Bacchae, in which the ostensibly fun-loving Dionysus comes across as a calculating and terrifying avenger. Ovid could never resist a vivid myth, and another memorable account of Pentheus' demise can be found in the third book of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Ovid's excuse for including the Pentheus myth in his masterwork is the closely-related story of Acoetes, the sailor whose shipmates kidnapped the young Dionysus only to be turned into dolphins for their trouble. Metamorphosis - check! Pentheus listens impatiently to Acoetes' tale, imprisons the sailor (he is subsequently magically freed), and then goes up to Mount Cithaeron to observe the crazed followers of Dionysus at their rites.

And this is where our selection begins. The meaning of this post's title will be revealed in Part II, but for now, here is the introduction to the grisly killing of Pentheus, a passage with some typically brilliant Ovidian touches:

monte fere medio est, cingentibus ultima silvis,
purus ab arboribus, spectabilis undique, campus:
hic oculis illum cernentem sacra profanis
prima videt, prima est insano concita cursu,
prima suum misso violavit Penthea thyrso
mater et 'o geminae' clamavit 'adeste sorores!
ille aper, in nostris errat qui maximus agris,
ille mihi feriendus aper.'

"At about the middle of the mountain, there is a clear space, free from trees, and with sight-lines all around, with woods covering the edges. It was here that the first to see him observing the sacred rites with impious eyes, the first to be stirred by a mad desire for the hunt, the first who hurled a thyrsus and wounded her own Pentheus was his mother; and she cried "Oh, my twin sisters, be with me! That boar, the huge one who is wandering in our territory, that boar is mine to smite!"

(Ovid, Metamorphoses III, 708-715)

There is, as always, plenty hidden beneath the surface of Ovid's Latin (ars latet arte, of course):

Line 708: two significant word choices here are "medio" and "cingentibus". They are in the "middle" of the mountain, but the word can also refer to the "nub" or key point of a story (hence the term in medias res - entering a story at the climactic point, without any introduction). As for the verb cingo, the meaning of "surround" often has a military sense; are the woods like a ring of soldiers, blocking Pentheus' escape?
709: the words "purus...campus" are placed in the two emphatic positions of the line, and again "purus" has an interesting double meaning: the plain is "clear" of trees, but the place is also "pure" - fit for the Dionysiac ceremonies, and not fit to be defiled by the unbeliever Pentheus.
710: the justaposition of "sacra profanis" is effective: another example of how the fluid word order of Latin sometimes offers possibilities denied to English.
711ff: the anaphora of "prima" obviously builds up the suspense, but also the tragedy of the situation; not only does Pentheus die at the hands of his own mother, but she is the catalyst for the whole terrifying scene, the first to spot him. The alliteration of "c" sounds at the end of line 711 suggests Agave and the Maenads springing into action, and "suum...Penthea" - her own prey and also her own son - is a passing touch of pathos.
713: finally, the long-delayed word "mater" - in emphatic position again, deepening the pathos and the horror. The sense of jubilation behind Agave's words is also jarring for the reader/listener.
714f: more emphatic positioning with "ille...ille". Agave, in her Bacchic frenzy, has mistaken Pentheus for a boar, and the juxtaposition of "ille mihi" in line 715 ("He's mine!") is particularly effective.

More to come in Part II, with some sly Ovidian wordplay accompanying Pentheus' grisly end.

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