Friday, February 26, 2021

Pindar's Medea

Pindar's longest ode, his Pythian 4, is also considered by some to be his greatest. It turns in part upon a muscular recounting of the Argonauts' adventures, in which Medea features as a vatic voice whose words, spoken 17 generations before Pindar's song, carry prophesy.

A brief intro to this difficult (Pindar is always difficult) ode can be found in the Loeb edition:

As the Loeb edition limits viewership, here's the Medea portion of Diane Arnson Svarlien's good translation of Pythian 4 from Perseus:

Pythian 4

For Arcesilas of Cyrene Chariot Race 462 B. C.

Today you must stand beside a beloved man, Muse, the king of Cyrene with its fine horses, so that while Arcesilas celebrates his triumph you may swell the fair wind of song that is due to the children of Leto and to Pytho, where once the priestess seated beside the golden eagles of Zeus, [5] on a day when Apollo happened to be present, gave an oracle naming Battus as the colonizer of fruitful Libya, and telling how he would at once leave the holy island and found a city of fine chariots on a shining white breast of the earth, and carry out [10] in the seventeenth generation the word spoken at Thera by Medea, which once the inspired daughter of Aeetes, the queen of the Colchians, breathed forth from her immortal mouth. 

She spoke in this way to the heroes who sailed with the warrior Jason: 

“Hear me, sons of high-spirited men and of gods. For I say that from this wave-washed land one day the daughter of Epaphus [15] will have planted in her a root of cities that are 1 dear to men, in the temple of Zeus Ammon. Instead of short-finned dolphins they will have swift horses, and reins instead of oars, and they will drive storm-footed chariot teams. That token shall make [20] Thera the mother-city of great cities, the token which once, beside the out-flowing waters of lake Tritonis, Euphemus received as he descended from the prow, a clod of earth as a gift of friendship from a god in the likeness of a man. And as a sign of favor, Zeus the son of Cronus sounded a peal of thunder, when the stranger found us hanging the bronze-jawed anchor [25] , the bridle of the swift Argo, against the ship. Before that we had been dragging our seafaring ship for twelve days from the Ocean over the deserted back of the land, having drawn it ashore by my counsels. 

And then the solitary god approached, who had assumed the splendid appearance of an honored man. He began to speak friendly words, [30] such as beneficent hosts use when they first invite arriving strangers to a meal. But we could not stay, for the plea of our sweet homecoming prevented us from lingering. He said that he was Eurypylus, the son of the holder of the earth, the immortal earth-shaker Poseidon. He realized that we were hurrying on our way, and straightaway with his right hand he snatched up a piece of earth, [35] the first thing to come to hand, and sought to present it as a gift of hospitality. 

He did not fail to persuade Euphemus; the hero leapt down onto the shore, and, pressing his hand in the hand of the stranger, received the divine clod of earth. But now I learn that it was washed out of the ship into the sea by a wave [40] at evening, following the watery tide. Truly, I often urged the sailors who relieve their masters from toil to guard it; but their minds were forgetful, and now on this island the immortal seed of spacious Libya is washed ashore before the proper time. For if only Euphemus had gone to his home in holy Taenarus and cast the clod beside the earthly mouth of Hades— [45] Euphemus the son of lord Poseidon, ruler of horses, whom once Europa the daughter of Tityus bore beside the banks of the Cephisus— the blood of the fourth generation descended from him would have taken possession of that broad continent together with the Danaans; for then they will be uprooted from Lacedaemon and the Argive gulf and Mycenae. [50] 

As it is, Euphemus shall find in the beds of foreign women a chosen race, who, with the honor of the gods, will come to this island and beget a man who will be master of the dark-clouded plains; whom one day Phoebus, in his home rich in gold, will mention in his oracles [55] when he goes into the Pythian shrine at a later time; Phoebus will tell him to carry cities in his ships to the fertile precinct of the son of Cronus beside the Nile.” Indeed, these were the oracular verses of Medea. And the godlike heroes bowed down motionless and in silence, listening to her shrewd words of wisdom.


The poet goes on retelling moments from the voyage of the Argo, including:

Aphrodite of Cyprus brought the maddening bird to men for the first time, and she taught the son of Aeson skill in prayerful incantations, so that he could rob Medea of reverence for her parents, and a longing for Greece would lash her, her mind on fire, with the whip of Persuasion. [220] And she quickly revealed the means of performing the labors set by her father; and she mixed drugs with olive oil as a remedy for hard pains, and gave it to him to anoint himself. They agreed to be united with each other in sweet wedlock.. . .

It is too long a way for me to go by the beaten track; for time presses, and I know a shortcut. In poetic skill I am a guide to many others. Jason killed the gray-eyed serpent with its dappled back by cunning, [250] Arcesilas, and stole away Medea, with her own help, to be the death of Pelias.

After his "shortcut," he moves to a finale that asks pardon for a young man. But before he gets to that, Pindar sings with prophetic vigor of a more general prescription for healing -- one that will never gone out of date:

Now, learn the skill of Oedipus: if a man, with a sharp-cutting axe, cuts the branches from a great oak, and spoils its marvelous beauty, [265] even with its fruit destroyed it votes for its own worth, if it comes at last to the winter fire; or if it is placed with upright columns belonging to a ruler, performing a slavish service among foreign walls, having deserted its native place. [270] 

But you are a most opportune healer, and Apollo Paean honors your light. One must apply a gentle hand to tend a sore wound: it is easy even for weak men to shake a city to its foundations, but to set it in its place again is indeed a difficult struggle, unless a god suddenly comes to guide its rulers. [275]  

"Aeetes Accepts the Dismembered Corpse of Absyrte".
Engraved by 
René Boyvin after Leonard Thiry, 1563.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Ovid's Medea and some iconography


Medea rejuvenating Jason's father Aeson

Ovid was drawn to the daughter of Aeetes. His only tragic drama was his lost Medea. A surviving fragment appears to be an ominous warning from Medea to Jason - and it's pure Ovid:

'servare potui; perderean possim rogas?’ 

‘I was able to save you; do you think I cannot destroy you?’

Medea dominates half of book 7 of the Metamorphoses. The character and her story develop into something of a travelogue featuring detailed descriptions of her search for the highly rarefied materials of her sorcery. That book can be found here in Tony Kline's translation.

While Medea puts the Dragon to sleep, Jason,
followed by Orpheus, takes the Golden Fleece

The images of Medea are from Greek Mythology Link, which has a rich "bio" of Medea. The top figure is from a 17th century French translation of the Metamorphoses. The lower one is by William Russell Flint.