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, Rumorlives 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 Cycnusor 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

0 thoughts on “Metamorphoses ~ Book XII

  1. i t seems quixotic that greek mythology portrays a violent world, indicating a violent society, but the most famous greeks were placid and thoughtful; i.e.: plato, socrates, aristotle, et. al.

  2. It is curious, isn't it? The Greeks didn't seem to be afraid of violence, and honestly if you look at the world as a whole, perhaps we're as violent today, we just like to downplay it and cloak it in hopes or platitudes. Or perhaps the violence is perpetrated in less obvious ways. Even when later on, Aristophanes criticizes the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, it seems like he focuses on unnecessary loss of life, the wasted money that went into it, and the damage to their social structure. The violence didn't appear to be an issue. Moving from Ovid (& Aeschylus) to other Greek works, I'm going to keep an eye out for any references to it and opinions. I'm guessing that the Greeks realized that the real world (and life) was not kind, and simply acknowledged and dealt with it.

    I also wonder if these stories could be like fairy tales, in that fairy tales were cautionary and perhaps also helped children prepare for life. Could part of the function of these myths be similar?

    I wonder when the philosophical element became important in Greece? I know that pre-Aeschylus, the society moved from a dictatorship to a democracy, but much more than that I haven't discovered yet. Hopefully it becomes clearer as I continue to read through my semi-chronological mental Greek reading list!

  3. I cannot believe I am defending Ovid, but to be fair, his and Homer's focuses are different. Homer's subject was "The War" in all its terrible awe-struck glory; while Ovid has a breath of subjects where Gods are not awe inspiring but more take it as they come variety. Therefore the grandiose element naturally comes to Homer far more easily than Ovid!

  4. From an audio perspective…
    Homer wins the contest hands down…rhythm and rhyme were seductive.
    Ovid 's strong point on the audio…was the voices: raging, lamenting, mocking.
    Great summation of book 12!

  5. Defending Ovid? Cirtnecce, should you see a doctor? 😉 Seriously though, I do know that you mean about their purposes being different. What often disturbs me about Ovid his the tone of graphic joy of situations that harm or demean people (men and women alike) in his poetry. Personally, that's not art and equivocally on the same level as a Hollywood blockbuster (movie) with lots of special effects …… shocking, astounding, yes, but because of the effects and not because of the art.

  6. Thanks! I've listened to neither poet in full, so thanks for this assessment. You've reminded me that poetry needs to be heard to truly get the original purpose and effect of it. The next time I'm going to listen ….. that is if I can find a good translation and unabridged editions.

  7. "the warriors themselves appear more important" – agreed. Ovid has a Woolf vibe 🙂

    As for Ovid or Homer… I do think I prefer Ovid! I know that is blasphemous! And I know what you're going to say – I need to re-read The Iliad. And I will, and then I'll make my judgement.

    And, actually – I have read another Ovid, the title escapes me, The Art of Love I think, and I would say with certainty Homer is the better author. But for Metamorphoses… I think I've enjoyed it more than The Odyssey (which, by the way, I loved too!).

    Tough call, anyway!

  8. To compare, I think you really need to read a good translation of both; translations can make all the differences, especially in Greek. As I learn more Greek I'm realizing the difficulties in translating it. Words don't just have one definition …. it's all context, context, context!

    I have to say that I'm impressed with Ovid's ability to sound both Greek and Roman …… his stories, as they change from one to the other, certainly have a different tone (more scientific, matter-of-fact, and military-ish for Rome). But for grandeur and majesty you can't beat Homer. Try reading Richard Lattimore for The Iliad if you can get a copy of his translation. For that particular poem, in my books, he's the best!

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!