Sunday, November 14, 2004

Baucis and Philemon

14 Nov 04 Baucis and Philemon

Ovid, Metamorphosis, Bk VIII
Dryden, transl Metamorphoses

Book VIII about 3/4 through book

Nearly every culture tells stories about gods or saints wandering about the earth, in search of good men. Brecht takes up the theme in his play, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan, in which the virtuous citizen is revealed to be a prostitute. The New Testament offers the Parable of the Good Samaritan, becoming the model for hospitals and emergency medical units over centuries, although the first Hospitalers were religious orders established along the routes of the Crusaders sweeping mercilessly over Europe, slaughtering the innocents that lived in their paths. Their vocation was to tend to the wounded knights and soldiers who were left on the field and to offer shelter those on pilgrimmage.

A band-aid does not much cover up the violence of genocide or religious wars as Central Europe became the chessboard of marauding Crusaders and invading Turks alternately sweeping off each other in bloody battles that captured towns, depopulated villages and persecuted Christians and Jews alike.

Ovid relates the Flood Story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, and although water does wash away dirt, it has little effect on men's souls. The plants and animals perished, subdued by the Deluge, but man resilient to nature through his engineering genius or tenacity to survive endured. In a few generations after the Great Flood, man resorted to his normal corruption and violence with much zest. The world turned and nothing changed much in human character.

And as then as now, disputes arose whether gods exist or the world has a Divine Creator. Atheism seemed as prevalent then as now with Ixion's son ridiculing Aechelous' explanation for the island, claiming it was a maiden drowned transformed.

"The others disagreed with what he said
And grew uneasy at his blasphemy
Particularly Lelex who was wise
Mature in years as well as wit and feeling.
He said, "The powers of heaven are eternal,
Not to be measured by our time and space,
And what the gods decide, their will is done."

transl Horace Gregory,
Mentor, 1958 p235

Lelex interrupts the discussion, presenting the story of Baucis and Philemon, relating the rustic beauty of the foothills of Phrygia where once Pittheus reigned. Jove took to wandering the earth, garbed like a peddler, searching for a stall to stay the night. One after another, the local inhabitants turned him away until he came to the hut of Baucis and Philemon. They had but little, but what little they had was theirs: a goat or two, the cheese thereof and smoked sausages hung from the rafters of the roof of the one-room dwelling.

Their door swung open as well as their hearts. A humble dinner lay upon the table and Jove invited in. Although meager, their frugal meal replenished itself. The food and drink never ran out. And for their hospitality, two trees now grow entwined together where a temple once stood. Jove granted their request never to be separated in life or in death.

As simplistic as the story seems, it is the source of a plethora of literature including Henry David Thoreau's Walden, as he cries to contemporary consumers to "Simplify, simplify, simplify."

"I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and ruckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labour in. Who made them serfs of the soil 1 Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushedand smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and wood-lot!"

H D Thoreau, Walden, Walter Scott Publishing 1886, p3

Thoreau reduces life to the needs of Food, Shelter, Clothing and Fuel, seeking a temporary refuge on Walden Pond as he contemplates the meaning of life and the corruption of man. Critical of the religious fervour of his age, he comments on the bustling trade at Salem harbour which brings no trade into the Celestial Empire, explaining that his purpose in living at Walden was not to live cheaply, but deeply, taking his accounts before his Creator , being a self-appointed inspector of snow and rain storms, of highways and forest paths and watching the wild stock of the local village.

Through the eyes of Thoreau, we see our exaggerated needs for artificial entertainment and our greed for superfluity while two-thirds of the world is deluged by unremittant poverty. The refrigerator does not hold a chicken, but a dozen eggs and milk cartons supplied by a distant dairy. The dinner comes in foil, popped into the handy nuker sitting on the kitchen counter. Cook? Make your own syrup from the elderberries hanging despondently on the neglected bushes? Collect the quinces falling by the side of the road? Or use the shrivelled carrots for a hearrty soup? Me?

Why should I do that when I can heat a pizza?

And so for their gratitude for the little they had, and the much they shared, Baucis and Philemon grew together, immortalized as trees, at the edge of a meadow for their hospitality to wayward strangers.

H D Thoreau, On Walden Pond

An Internet Directory for Ovid's Metamorphoses
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old 1997-98

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Perseus Project : Ovid Metamorphoses

Ovid Metamorphoses
Golding complete text
The Fifteen Books of Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1567
The first translation into English - credited to Arthur Golding

University of Wisconsin at Madison
an annotated Ovid, printed just like a chumash

Ovid with the Picasso illus


14th March 04 Pygmalion:

15 Febr 04 Pyramus and Thisbe: Till Death Do us Not Part

27 Sept 04 Daedalus and Icarus

20 Sept 04 Deucalion and Pyrrha

11 Sept 04 Daedalus and Icarus

4 Sept 04 Phaethon Rises

7 Nov 04 Medea

21 Dec Let Us Orpheus Theosophically

4 Jan 05 Orpheus and Eurydice a Transcendental Kind of Love

30 Jan 2005 Venus and Mars


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