Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Medea + Achilles: sometimes life imitates art

Achilles and Medea are married partners in the underworld realms of Elysium according to archaic Greek poets Ibycus and Simonides. This seems amazing to me. It's not exactly a match made in Heaven. But maybe it's not the marriage from Hell, either.

Pitt in Troy (2004) and Caldwell in Medea (1984).
She won one of her four Tony Awards for this compelling portrayal.
The Hellenistic scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica 4.805ff. preserves the attributed detail that were otherwise lost.
 ὅτι δὲ Ἀχιλλεὺς εἰς τὸ Ἠλύσιον πεδίον παραγενόμενος ἔγημε Μήδειαν πρῶτος Ἴβυκος εἴρηκε, μεθ᾿ ὃν Σιμωνίδης ["Ibycus and following him Simonides first said that Achilles reached the Plain of Elysium and took Medea to wife" Schol. in Ap. Rhod. 4.814-15a p. 293 Wendel = Ibyc. frg 291 Campbell and Simonid. fr. 558 Campbell]
This long forgotten pairing is not cataloged in Newman & Newman, Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology and shows up only in an occasional footnote.

Since Homer produced Achilles from the gloom for the interview with Odysseus, Achilles himself is no surprise inhabitant of any other poet's conception of the netherworld. But after what Medea did to her sons and her brother and her father... It's hard to fathom a worldview that puts her among the blessed company of Elysium. The only way I can reconcile this oddity is to figure that when Simonides and Ibycus wrote, Medea had not yet fallen into the disrepute she now so infamously shoulders.

Euripides may not have been the first mythographer to project Medea, the sorceress turned infanticide, in such appallingly terrible shades. His play of 431 BC that now narrates for the ages the activities of the world's most terrifying mother may have itself been a novelty. She may not always have been so despicable. Euripides may have bent public opinion against her.

Hesiod's Theogony seems to find something appealing about Medea, the slender-ankled (ἐύσφυρος, 960; no comment from West) daughter whom Idyia conceived of Aetes when she was "overpowered with longing by golden Aphrodite". Line Hesiod (ca. 725 BC) up beside Ibycus and Simonides as poets apparently attracted to Medea.

So, where does such a woman end up in the afterlife?
Everlasting marriage to Achilles seems pretty pleasant as a reward. Even if the Achilles role is not played by Brad Pitt, it would certainly seem that archaic poets' notion of Achilles was pretty positive. Yoking Medea to such a hero seems like a big positive.

When I was researching the perplexing details of Medea's eternal reward recently, I bumped into a real-life oddity. It turns out that two important Italian papyrologists named Medea Norsa and Achille Vogliano corresponded in the 1930's. My friend Francesca Longo Auricchio wrote a useful article documenting the correspondence in Papyrologica Miscellenea. Without suggesting that any amorous interaction existed between those two scholars, I do admit amusement over the literary potential.

Ovid's Heroides are literary fantasies that offer should-have-been correspondence between partners such as Dido and Aeneas or Acontius and Cydippe, a letter from Penelope to Odysseus or Sappho to Phaon. Invented correspondence between Medea and Achilles would have been a precious conceit by the Roman master of erotic poetry. Maybe the practical side of Ovid's realism intervened: Medea, after all, has got to be a neat generation older than Achilles. Achilles is the offspring of a union formed during the voyage of the Argo, when the ship and crew were on their way to Colchis. Medea is going to be at least 15 years older than Achilles. ... Details, details. Maybe somebody needs to write this poem: a pair of epistles ala Ovid's Heroides between Achilles and Medea.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Düsseldorpheus, 1585

Johann Wilhelm, the Duke of Jülich, Kleve and Berg married at Düsseldorf on 16 June 1585 the countess Markgräfin Jacobe von Baden. The celebration was epic. Well, mythological at least.

On the third day of the event, a huge artificial mountain with two peaks was constructed. Upon each peak a musician representing the mythological musicians Amphion and Orpheus sat, playing. Amphion had applied his musical gifts to the building of the legendary walls of Thebes, charming the walls into place with his music and never lifting a hand. (Ovid Met. 6.146-312; 'most postclassical treatments of [Amphion] in the arts celebrate the power of Amphion's music.' Reid. Cf. Hor. Ars 391ff. Orpheus and Amphion are the first poets to teach mankind.) Orpheus' representative at the Renaissance hochzeit played on the false hilltop among a throng of wild animals assembled for the show.

A woodcut published two years later in Cologne shows the scene.

The allegorical purpose of the scene had something to do with invoking the muses, "in the form of Orpheus and Amphion," as sponsors for the newlyweds. Guests were told by placards posted around the scene how the mythological allusions had anything to do with the wedding. I well might have needed some help in the explication, too!

Orpheus gets top billing in lots of weddings, especially after 1600, when the wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France witnessed the premier of Peri's Euridice — a watershed event in the history of opera that joined the forces of Caccini and Rinuccini at Florence's Palazzo Pitti and that is still being talked about. Throughout the 17th Century, Orpheus charmed the nethergods into relinquishing Eurydice in no fewer than 30 operas premiered from Vienna to Wolfenbüttel and from London to Madrid.

And further, Vienna and Graz had witnessed a similar mise en scene in 1571, when an artificial hill was erected — apparently like a parade float, in today's conception, pulled by four white drafthorses — and upon this mobile hilltop sat Eurydice and Orpheus along with representations of the inhabitants of the Underworld who were charmed by Ovid's Orpheus (i.e. Ixion and Tityos, and Tantalus, etc.).

So, particularly in light of that precedent, it is especially remarkable to me that Orpheus is there at the Düsseldorf wedding at the dawn before the 17th Century singing an entirely different tune.

Near contemporaries include Edmund Spenser, whose Faerie Queen (1596) includes Orpheus' music calming strife among the Argonauts (FQ 4.2.1), likely a role similar to that conceived in the company of Amphion at Düsseldorf.

The mythological pastiche is nicely explicated and brilliantly contextualized by E.-B. Krems, "Das Drama des Sehens und der Musik: zur Darstellung des Orpheus-Mythos in bildender Kunst und Oper der frühen Neuzeit," Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft 36 (2009) 269 - 300. I owe all my knowledge of the Düsseldorf Orpheus/Amphion to her article, pp. 269 - 71.