I like to do requests when I can, and sadly I was not able to fulfill one last week about Erictho, the amazing witch who appears in Book VI of Civil War. Not only that, but David beat me to it with this excellent post, which you should absolutely read if a grisly witch “in touch with the genuine puppetmaster: not merely abstract Fortune, but the celestial watchmaker of the evil watch himself” sounds like fun to you. (It is.)
So instead of repeating much I’d want to from his post, I’ll use Erictho instead as another window into the discussion of Fortune and the idea that “knowledge is at best useless, and at worst a curse.” Over the course of Book VI, Caesar and Pompey end up in Thessaly, which an editor of my Penguin Classics edition helpfully summarizes as being “a cursed land, long fated and well prepared for this world cataclysm of Roman civil war” because of “geography, mythology, and history.” This is where Sextus consults Erictho. He does so “[s]purred by fear to foreknow the course of Fate”:
impatient with waiting, sick from everything coming, he doesn’t consult Delos’ tripods, or Pythia’s caves, nor is willing to find out what Dodona—who nursed us with first fruits—would sound from Jupiter’s bronzes, or who could discern fates in entrails, or read birds, or watch the flashing sky and scrutinize the stars with Assyrian worry, or any other kind of secret that is permissible. He investigated things the gods above detest, savage Magis’ arcane lore and altars sad with funeral rites, trusting in shades and Dis, and pitifully he was certain the gods above know far too little.
Instead, he goes to see the wicked witch of eastern Greece, who deals not with the gods above but
Continue reading “Unlock the abodes of Elysium and call forth/Death herself, and force her to confess to me/which ones of us she’s hunting.”
Alciphron was an ancient Greek epistolographer. We don’t really know when he lived, but we have 116 fictional letters he wrote, supposed to have been by fishermen, farmers, parasites, and courtesans.
I’ve only read a selection, but I really enjoyed them. They are narrative letters about daily life: yesterday’s catch, a disobedient child, party invitations. Like the Heroides, these letters humanize the ancients for me. And they are pretty funny.
Glaucippe writes to Charope, her mother, to explain that she “cannot endure now to marry that stripling from Methymna, the pilot’s son,” because she’s fallen in love with someone else: “you would say that on his cheeks dance all the Graces from Orchomenus, after they have bathed in the Argaphian spring. …Either I marry him, or else like Sappho of Lesbos I will fling myself, not from the cliffs of Leurcas, but from the piers of the Piraeus into the foam.” Her mother is not having any of it: “You are mad, my dear girl; and quite out of your mind. …If your father were to hear of it, he will not hesitate or argue; he will throw you into the sea for the fish to devour.” So, everyone wins, right?
The fishermen were good, and the farmers appealed more than I’d expected. Poor Euthydicus writes to his friend Philiscus about how his good-for-nothing son went to the town and got crazy ideas; now he “denies us outright, saying that everything is the work of nature and that the cause of birth is not a father and mother but rather a combination of atoms. It is plain too that he holds money in scorn and hates farming.” Whose fault is it really? “I blame Solon and Draco: they thought proper to punish with death people who steal grapes but left
Continue reading The Letters of Alciphron
Letter-writing is hardly a modern activity, and there were many epistolographers among the ancients I would like to read someday. I went with fiction: Ovid’s Heroides, a series of fictional letters between mythic figures. The first group are all single letters from a woman to a man; these are followed by three exchanges.
The verse letters give voice to some very famous women (and men): Penelope, Ariadne, Dido, Medea, Paris, Helen… They are stylized and exotic in an ancient sort of way—much rending of clothes from breasts and tearing of hair—but Ovid imbues each character with very recognizable human emotions. Most of the stories are of love lost, women scorned, &tc., all very dramatic.
The epistolary form is relevant here. Harold Isbell, in his very helpful notes, explains that we see, for example, a different side of Medea than Ovid shows in the Metamorphoses, whose “narrator…though apparently all-knowing, quite often misses the subjective states of a character while the objective facts of a character’s actions are recited with apparent accuracy.” Medea’s letter, on the other hand, is all about her subjective state—and she doesn’t exactly have the same opinion of herself we do. Her letter to Jason is particularly vivid:
I have subdued serpents and raging bulls, but a single man I could not control; I have turned back the raging fire with cunning potions, but I cannot turn aside the consuming flames of my desire. My spells, my herbs and all my skill have left me; my goddess has forsaken me, and Hecate ignores the sacrifice I make.
The letter form provides something else for Ovid to take advantage of, a knowledge problem that goes very well with his sense of irony. Letter-writers know only what they know at the time of writing. In epistolary novels, this can often
Continue reading Heroides by Ovid