Ovid's Corona

Ovid's Corona

Ariadne's crown was metamorphosed into a constellation by her divine consort, Dionysos. Here we examine Ovid's handling of the aition.


Ovid's Corona

Halfway through the Metamorphoses (8.172-182) Ovid relates a brief aition explaining the presence of the constellation 'Corona ('Crown') in the night sky. In the Ars Amatoria (1.527f) the same story involving Theseus' abandonment of Ariadne on Naxos and her subsequent abduction by Dionysos had been given much fuller treatment by the same poet. Thus one scarcely expects the Metamorphoses passage of 11 lines to do much more than mediate between the stories of Nisus and Scylla on the one hand and Daedalus and Icarus on the other. In fact however this particular 'Corona' is highly pliable and wends its serpenting path back to the start of Metamorphoses 8. In being described as 'nitidos' the 'ignes' ('stars') of Ariadne's crown counterpoint the 'daylight' of line 1 through the latter being given the same adjective ('nitidum ... diem'). This earlier passage concludes the story of Cephalus which immediately precedes that of Scylla and Nisus. The adjective 'nitidos/um' therefore stands sentinel over the two ends of the legend of Nisus and Scylla, and points up the salient aspect of the story, namely the pivotal 'brilliance' of Nisus' purple lock of hair. In a metapoetic vein meanwhile the constellation of ‘Corona’ ('ring') not only creates ring composition through 'nitidum/os' but also reflects the weaving of a garland by insinuating a reference to 'nitidum' into the intervening story. For the phrase that is most totemic of the Scylla story, namely 'purpureum crinem' ('purple lock of hair') contains an adjective 'purpureum' that on the face of it means 'purple' but which also bears the nuance of 'shining' making it a synonym of 'nitidum'. Meanwhile the same weaving of words is eveident in Nisus being described as 'splendidus [ostro]' ('radiant with his purple [lock]') and in Minos being presented as 'shining' ('fulgentem') and 'radiant' ('purpureus'). Lastly the word 'beatam' plays a similar role. Whilst in context meaning 'fortunate' (of Scylla), it also conveys 'splendour in appearance' ('argentum felix omnique beatius auro': Ex Ponto 2.8.5; 'beatae gazae'; Horace Odes 1.29.1).

However, there are ‘circles’ (‘coronae’) within 'circles' here for Ovid inserts into the Corona aition the sort of etymology for Nisus we might have expected to come across in the Scylla story. He mentions that the constellation ‘Corona’ lies between that of ‘Nixi genu’ (‘The Kneeler’ or ‘Engonasis’ in Greek) and the Snake-holder.

‘qui medius Nixique genu est Anguem tenentis’ = 'which lies between the one who leans on his knee and the snake-holder'

The past participle ‘nixus’ (‘striving, leaning, kneeling’) derives from the verb ‘nitor, niti , nixus’ (‘I strive’) and has a variant in 'nisus’. Meanwhile there are morphological coincidences between the 'sheen' of Nisus and his 'striving' ('nitor' 'sheen' > 'nitor' 'I strive'). Now 'striving' reminds us that Nisus, radiant with his hair, has also been 'straining' against Minos' seige for six months. The word 'cursus' is used nearby of 'impetus', a word which itself occurs  twice in the context of describing  Scylla's 'impulses' towards Minos.  Such a grouping of words suggest an etymological basis, and indeed the word 'nisus' can also mean 'thrust' 'onward striving'' 'effort'. Moreover, when Scylla imagines alighting in Minos' camp, the verb used, 'insistere', is homonymous with 'nitor' in the sense of 'pressing hard upon'. Indeed the word 'nitidum' itself seems too close to 'Nisus' not to be influenced by that word as an etymology. For the story is much illuminated if we suppose 'nitidum' conjures up 'Nisi taedium' ('boredom with Nisus'). This is precisely the problem lying at the root of the story. The young girl Scylla, has time on her idle hands during the military 'stalemate' ('belli mora'). 

But Ovid's textual sequins as well as looking back with their etymological insinuations about the previous story, also foreshadow, or rather pick out the colours of, the following  story. Daedalus was, by name and reputation, the artist of ‘poikilia’ par excellence (Hesychius). The word 'daedaleos' in Oppian seems to mean 'shot with light' or 'sheeny' ('nitidus'). It also means 'speckled' and this is anticipated by the 'gemmae' ('gemstones') which encrust the crown of Ariadne. The crown will be 'speckled with light' in preparation for variegating the sky, with when these gems becomes stars

But, more importantly, the Daedalus story also concerns his son, Icarus who was of the same name as he (Icar[i]us) who taught the Athenians the pleasures of the grape and fatally suffered the consequences. Icar[i]us' ‘other’ name was Bootes, and ‘Bootes’ is the first constellation that Daedalus tells his Icarus to avoid (line 206) as he prepares him for his maiden flight on purpose-built wings. So Ovid alerts us to this vinous Icarian undercurrent beneath the flying Icarus.  But, returning to the Corona aition, if we consult a star map contemporaneous with Aratus, we will see, along with Hollis, that the constellation ‘Corona’ is in the middle of ‘The Kneeler’ ('Nixus / Nisus') and ‘Bootes’ (‘Icar(i)us’), not, as Ovid seems to aver, in the middle of ‘The Kneeler’ and ‘The Snake-holder’. The point however is that this distortion is deliberate. In reconfiguring slightly the geography of the sky, Ovid has simultaneously alerted the reader to the 'error'. As the reader puzzles over Bootes, Ovid's 'planetary' ('errant') schema homonymously orients the reader from the story of Nisus towards the story of (a different, indeed 'wrong') Icarus. From Nisus, via Corona in the sky, the narrative arrives at Bootes who will donate his 'Icarus' to stand sentinel over the coming tale of Daedalus and his namesake, Icarus. This is the way Ovid knits together his ‘non enarrabile textum’. Our line 8.182 looks back to Nisus and onwards to Icar(i)us. It is a perfect bridge, as well as reminding us of the ‘bridging’ story itself - the tale of Ariadne’s ‘Corona’. 

But the problem remains of the apparently erroneous location of the constellation ‘Anguitenens’ viz-a-viz Corona. We must suppose ‘Anguitenens’ is an indication of some other direction in which Ovid is intent on driving his allusiveness. The reason ‘Anguitenens’ is mentioned is likely to have some (other) importance in the context of these stories. One possible explanation is that Ovid has ‘buried’ (‘condit’) a hidden word here:

   ‘qui medius Nixique /GEN(u)EST A/nguem tenentis’ [‘...GENESTA...’]

 ‘Genesta’ or ‘genista’ was a plant that Pliny says was supple enough to provide the  ‘ties’ (‘vincla’) that were used to support young vines (24,65). It is a supple plant too in Vergil (‘lentae … genistae’: Georgics 2.12) and is regularly grouped with ‘salix’ the willow, as a type of flexible osier (Georgics 2.434). For Pliny the Elder, its flower attracts bees (19.15), and the same author identifies odiferous plants, such as genista, with those that are used for chaplets. Vergil groups genista amongst the wild forest shrubs (Georgics 2.9-21), and it is noteworthy that in Catullus 64, Chiron the Centaur turns up to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis with ‘silvestria dona’ - the plant products of hillside, plain and valley, amongst which would no doubt be ‘genista’ - all woven into undifferentiated wreaths (‘indistinctis ... corollis’). 

But ‘genista’ could also be the Greek ‘spartos’ according to Pliny, and this would translate into Latin as ‘spartium iunceum’ or ‘Spanish Broom’.  Ovid Himself at Fasti 4.870 suggests that among the plants that prostitutes offer to Venus, the ‘iuncea vincla’ (‘bands of rushes’), when interwoven with roses, form garlands as acceptable to Venus as ‘sisymbria’ and ‘myrtle’ whose status as material for wreaths was not in dispute. As Ovid has reached April, Venus’ month, he will certainly have in mind one of Venus’ etymologies which is from ‘vincio’ (‘I bind’) when he mentions ‘vincla’, and, as we know from Varro (DLL 5.62), ‘corona’ (‘wreath’) is indirectly related to ‘Venus’ by etymology, on the grounds that it (‘corona’) is the ‘binding of the head ‘quod vinculum capitis est’.

In summary, ‘genista/genesta’ is firmly connected to the making of ‘vincula’ (see also Columella On Trees 29 ‘idonea vincula’) not just because it is supple enough to bind tender vines (Col.4.13 and 4.31.1) but also because, like its synonym ‘iunceum’ in Latin, it was used as the basis for making ‘vincula’ (meaning ‘garlands’ at Fasti 4.870). Now at Met. 8.182, the ‘place’ where the transformed ‘gems’ of Ariadne’s crown come to a halt in the sky is ‘in the middle of ‘ the following words' sc. ‘Nixique genu est anguem tenentis’. These words contain in their midst the word ‘gen(u)esta’. In other words the word ‘genesta’ is here the platform for (the ‘place’ for) the reconstituted ‘jewels’ of Ariadne, just as the plant ‘genesta’ or ‘spartium iunceum’ was in reality the ‘setting’ for the roses that formed the final part of the composite wreath at Fasti 4.870. The ‘gems’ of Ariadne’s crown now seem rather coy. They ('gemmae') are much more naturalistically translated as the ‘buds’ or ‘eyes’ that form part of the ‘genesta’ plant, now relocated to the celestial setting of a sidereal crown. In any case, we would hardly expect Ariadne’s crown to have been made from the flowers of the earth rather than from precious metal. On a more metapoetic level, a poet who makes frequent use of ‘medius’ (often followed by the genitive) does so because he wants to insert hidden words ‘into the middle of' parts of his text.

 The miniature garland that Ovid has woven here contains one further strand of 'genesta' to bind it into a perfect circle and to make it worthy of queen that Ariadne hoped to become. In the Corpus Glossariorum Latinorum there is the following, apparently routine, entry: 'μυριξ : Genesta'. Liddell & Scott relate 'μυριξ' to 'μυρικη' ('tamarisk'), but whether or not the ancients confulsed the tamarisk with genista is not our concern. The word 'μυριξ', if transliterated into Latin, gives us 'murix'. Now the Latin word 'murix' is a variant speling of 'murex' as Pliny reveals (HN 32.19). This Latin word 'murex' is of course the famous purple dye which was obtained from the shellfish of the same name. And purple is the colour that gives Nisus' famous lock of hair its distinctive appearance. In other words Ovid has used a winding route, worthy of the most serpentining coil in any garland, to relate the neighbouring stories of Nisus and Ariadne. It is to this is the form of artistic construction that Ovid refers only a handful of lines above our passage when he describes Daedalus' labyrinth as filled with 'innumeras errore vias' (Met 8.167). The poet inserts verbal sequins into his narratives specifically to reflect back the intricacies of his own art, and this art is reflected also in the description of the ceiling in Achelous' cave a little later in Met. 8 where the alternating coffering of conches and purple shells ('alterno murice conchae': Met 8.564) emblematise the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of the 'murex' motif over the course of Met.1-182. In fact not only do they emblematise this process, they also play their part within this process. Thus line 564 if set alongside lines 5 and 182 give us three panels of purple within the ceiling that is Ovid's book.

 There are other panels of a more subtle purple (ignoring the mentions of 'purpura/eum'). The 'austri' winds are unusually prominent in the story. They first appear towards the end of Book 7 where they are responsible for bringing heat and pestlience to Aegina. However their subsequent absence during a period when the Eurus prevails may indicate a metapoetical role. That is since 'ostrum' ('purple dye') has a form in 'austrum' (Lucretius 2.829) which is also the accusative of 'auster' the south wind, the onset of the Auster at 8.1 at the expense of the Eurus will allegorise  the beginning of the story centred around 'purple dye', and the close of a story centred around the etymological dependents of the Eurus, namely 'Dawn' ('Aurora') and 'the breeze ('Aura'). The Dawn is briefly narrated at the start of Book 8 even as the 'Eurus falls'. 

Thus the change from Eurus to Auster is necessary to propel the narrative forwards towards 'ostrum' ('austrum'), just as the Athenian ship is propelled to the Peiraeus. Soon enough the mention of 'ostro' ('purple dye') at 8.8 confirms the arrival of the new discourse. The 'Auster' wind returns to sequin the text at 8.121 in a context where it blows directly from the south-west up through the Dardanelles and creates eddies in Charybdis. A final look at the sentence 'dant placidi cursum redeuntibus Austri / Aeacidis Cephaloque' ('the favourable South winds give an impulse to the [heroes] as they return') will pay dividends. The sentence as it stands explains the ships reaching harbour ahead of schedule. However the word 'placidi' has nuances of 'gentle' calm' which do little to reinforce the the speed the winds must be generating. There is instead another way to construe the sentence. One could reasonably argue that the 'nubila' are the subject. They then 'provide the returning heroes with the direction/speed of the favourable Auster'. The clouds are visual indicators of a ship's progress and bearing when a wet wind is prevalent. Winds drive the clouds ahead of them except for the Caecias which attracts the clouds (Pseudo-Aristotle Problemata 26.19-20). However the lack of urgency in 'placidi' is still a concern. One solution is to assume that a male equivalent of the female noun 'placida' existed. this was 'an oared vessel'. One could then translate the sentence as follows: 'the oared vessels provide the impetus of a south wind to the heroes on their return'. This would simultaneously explain why the ships reached port ahead of expectation. They were rowing as well as being under sail. However yet another version has at least an equal, if not better, claim on our attention ('the South winds provide the impetus of an oared vessel to the heroes on their return'). 

Meanwhile the presence of 'corona' in these lines provides an allusion to a poetic ship that has successfully reached harbour. The half-way stage of epics and even of elegiac and didactic works is regularly marked by ships backing water or beaching at a harbour (Odyssey 13.113-115; Phaenomena 345f; Aeneid 6.900-901; Tristia 3.9.10f; cp. Apollonius Rhodius 2.1281-1285) . Virgil adds the crowning of the ship's stern to this vignette at Georgics 1.301-304. In fact the crown fits over the aplustria which itself was termed 'κορωνη' by Aratus (345). Meanwhile the sign of the 'coronis' was a manuscribal 'nota' indicating a work's imminent closure. Coronis is a synonym of 'corona' which makes sterns and garlands the perfect objects of authors' attempts to allude to 'coronis' at times of even temporary closure. On a grander scale the arrival of Cephalus at the Piraeus at 8.1. is counterpointed by Minos' fleet leaving harbour at 8.102-104.

Within a short compass then, Ovid has contrived to set Ariadne's 'corona' at the metapoetic heart of the epic. 

© Barney McCullagh 2017. All rights reserved



Tagged:  #Dionysis #Ariadne