Two Retellings of Mythology

I was most graciously invited to join a reading group in their consideration of Pindar's First Olympian Ode alongside Ovid's first letter in Heroides. Let us hope that the works may speak to us if we lack the foundation of guidance for better comprehension. Still, as the Pindar ode is elusive, I did have to do some extra reading to gain a better grasp of it (see links). The two works are written in different genres and their authors lived almost half a millennium apart.
Despite this, the pairing makes far more sense than exemplifying the modern almost oxymoronic concept of intelligent clashing. And while I retain Gadamer's warning in Truth and Method that the mind of the modern man becomes ever like a museumeverything assembled there removed from its original contextit cannot be denied that both of these short works are examples of retellings of mythology. In this respect, we can read them to appreciate the options open to the writer of today who need not feel entirely divorced from myths by the chasm of time.
Pindar's First Olympian Ode, as all of the odes in that collection, follows a fixed format, wherein victory is proclaimed, including the name of the victor and his parents, place of origin and similar; myth is used as ornament and to demonstrate moral lessons (these may be proverbial); prayers are made. The (limited) points I would like to pick upon here, in order, have to do with the refashioning of myth; 'slander'; victory (and writing).
Pindar claims that humans distort traditional stories, which brings to mind the barring of tragedy in Plato's Republic, which nonetheless uses some of the tropes of these stories itself. Pindar writes: "Tales/ told and overlaid with elaboration of lies/ amaze men's wits against the true word" (trans. Lattimore, I think he translated it best, 28-9). Socrates couldn't have put it better! Pindar, however, is writing here to "speak well of the gods". For this reason, he retells Pelops' story. He warns of what I wonder might be described as ὕβρις, for it is a result of an exaggeration, the loss that comes to those who speak slander, ἀκέρδεια λέλογχεν θαμινὰ κακαγόρους (53). So he changes Pelops' myth and Pelops is not served to the gods but snatched away by the desirous Poseidon (it is better to desire a person and metaphorically snatch them up than to eat them? I mean, the trident is also a glorified fork!)
Finally, Pindar shows how victory is achieved through dangerous acts (in the illustration of Pelops and the chariot race), yet it is precisely the overcoming of such challenges that mean that fame may shine from afar. Here, he connects victory to poetry and explains that just as the victor "walks on this height" it is the poet's role to "stand beside" the victor with his "skill" (i.e. of poetry). Thence the aphorism lauding the importance of the writer to the person performing the feat.

Ovid's Heroides—judging from the limited commentary (Showerman) I read—does not follow a fixed form so much as demonstrate Ovid's working within the genre of the epistolary elegy from the vantage point of heroines. Showerman writes: "What the Heroides lose by ... being the portrayal of legendary characters in language removed  from ordinary life they gain from their ... constant stimulation of literary reminiscence ... they should be judged on the basis of their connection rather with literature than with life."
I do not read Latin and only read the Showerman translation, which appealed to me immediately for how well it lent itself to being read aloud. My favourite parts were Penelope voicing a woman's anxiety (women may be situiationally more vulnerable); the hope of the letter; the woman's perspective of war and victoryconnected finally to absence.
I do not know if this is a trope of the worries we fall to, but nominate it to become one if it isn't: "When have I not feared dangers graver than the real?" The chaste woman is "wroth with vows" she herself has made. The woman who runs the household fears she may be seen as "too rustic" by he who is technically bound to her by wedlock but abroad and may be "captive to a stranger love". Since Penelope has no news of Ulysses, she lives "on in fear of foolish things like these".
It is a beautiful touch, I think, to have Penelope write that she gives this letter to all of the strangers who come to their shores, in case they happen to see Ulysses anywhere. Talk about message in a bottle (cue the Police song—the hopeful message 'fishing' for love).
Finally, from the woman's perspective, Penelope asks what the use is of all the destruction of war if she is to remain alone, i.e. without Ulysses. Further, she muses that if the enemy had not yet fallen she would at least know where her husband was (fighting in Troy) "and have only war to fear".  As it is, Penelope writes, "A victor you are and yet not here" and concludes criticising his "shameful absence" after depicting his son in need of guidance and his rivals growing fat in his halls with no one there to repel them. "My heart is being torn, your substance spoiled"—so it is that absence is not a requisite of love despite that adage about the heart growing fonder.
If I had to draw comparisons between these two works, I would first focus on the concept of victory: Pindar includes warnings of victory (it is dangerous) and Penelope demonstrates some of the cost of war (uncertainty, a son with an absent father). I would also discuss the effects of retelling: to be pious; to take another vantage point, etc. Both of these works also happen to conveniently point to greater questions, like, what is the truth of events, whose narrative should count, and so on.

Magazine: Maire Claire Maison. Brush: Ewansim floer grunge at DeviantART.

No comments:

Post a Comment