The Reader in White

The Reader in White
 05/26/2017 04:01 AM


 Ovid in exile, sad, morose, not well, cold, appealed to the 'candidus lector' (Tristia 1.11.35; 4.10.132: 'the open, frank reader') to be his ideal reader. But what is a 'candidus lector'? Someone who only sees the bright surface sheen of the Tomitan ice and takes it as being the only land there is? Until it melts?

First of all, even the words 'candidus lector' will have to be read by a 'candidus lector'. This wide-eyed person will I presume actually take his or her very concrete view. They might choose 'the dressed-in-white reader' who might be a slave in a tunic. Or should we go for the of-sunny-disposition-reader or the 'l'm-disposed-to-always-seeing-the-best' reader.

To be serious and 'candidus', I like the white-dressed option. Ovid or Ovid's white-dressed people are involved in a holy ritual (Tristia 5.5.8; Fasti 4.906; Amores 2.12.23). They are in holy register. In Rome these types were especially prominent in January and early February with the addition of so many more feast days in honour of the royal house.

To enter the spirit of 'candidus lector', we don our own white robes to fry the incense. We're looking for favourable omens. The smoke starts drifting towards our noses. There's the omen. We make a wish: 'Please, please let us know how to sniff out old Naso like a 'candidus lector'. A muffled reply from the bowels of the earth. 'Get the wrong end of Dikaiopolis' stick'. Gosh that was clear, not. How do we know which is his right one. And was that scatological? He's a one that Dikaeopolis. 

'Ye gods and, Oh, the city' What do we do? DI-KAI-O-POLIS! Stop plucking all your hairs out & come here. How, Dikaiopolis, would you interpret Tristia 3.9.9-10: 'impia desertum fugiens Medea parentem / dicitur his remos applicuisse vadis' ('the undutiful Medea fleeing her deserted dad / is said to have brought her oars against these shoals')?'

'Ooh a shoal of anchovies. Great. show me the way.'

Go back to your depilation. We'll do it ourselves. We'll take the text literally as a 'candidus lector' might. In other words, a naive, quasi-religious belief in the ominousness of each word is required. First of all, we wonder how it is that only Medea brought her oars to bear on the shoals? Was she the only one rowing? She seems to have deliberately 'set' her [plural] oars on the shallow sea bed. If she had two oars does that mean she was the helmsman? Clearly a helmsman does not use their oars to propel the ship. Nor is there any suggestion of speed involved here, because we later learn that the anchor is raised and the stern cable is detached during departure. This proves that the boat did not beach at high speed like the Phaeacians at Od.13.113-115. Instead it hoved up gently. Then the prolonged mooring procedure was set in train (Aeschylus Suppliants 764ff). Thus, the way the Argo departs will tell you everything about the way it arrives (sedately). Meanwhile the steering oars were precious. They were not there to stop a runaway train. That is, it would be absurd to imagine Medea (for instance) somehow using her oars to absorb the shock of a beaching. Where were these shoals? The deictic 'his' ('these here') seems to suggest they're in Tomis (Constanta). Authors such as Ammianuus Marcellinus and Strabo speak of the serious scourge of Danubian sand flats and even 'breasts' of alluvial deposits in the sea. 

The conclusions of a 'candidus lector':

Medea went from dead slow to stop by applying the steering oars against the sands below the surf. There then followed a text-book mooring. The most likely scenario is that the ship glides in and Medea simply holds the tiller-bars with the steering-oar blades flush along the sides of the ship to ensure the boat's progress is not brought to a premature halt by the 'braking' effect of the oar faces being held at 90 degrees to the ship.The assumption must be that the steering oars were designed to stretch down as far past the bottom of the ship as will have allowed these oars to impact the sand below the surf before the incoming ship grounded. This is so simple it must be right. Medea has her two hands on the tiller and simply waits for the bottom of the blades to make contact with the sands. She holds the ship steady as the little toe that was a feature of Greek steering-oars buries itself in the surf-covered sand and holds firm. It stands to reason there must have been a reason for this toe on the steering oar. It was there to stub itself in the shoals. Greek ships commonly approached harbour or beach backwards so this all makes sense. The  helmsman will remain in position until the anchor is dropped & stern cables attached.

It also stands to reason that the Argonauts would not have posted a look-out ('speculator') on an eminence ('tumulo') unless it was vital they had as much warning as possible in order to extricate the ship from its mooring. Yet a departure from a mooring can be expedited rapidly as it is in this case. Even as the anchor is hauled up the stern cables are being reeled in. We suggest it was quite normal practice to slip a knot on the sides of the ship in order to release one end of the cables. The crew would then reel in the cables from the stern without having to go near the rock or tree around which the cables were looped. The other end of the cables would be permanently tied to the sides of the ship by a very secure knot. 

The action of this narrative should be compared with the closing scene of Euripides' Iphigineia in Tauris. The line in which the anchor is hauled in through a flurry of hands, is  inspired by the attempts of Orestes, Pylades and their crew to reel in  the stern cable in Euripides' play (1352: 'ἦγον χερων  πρυμνησια'). In that play the anchors are mentioned first, as being hung  from the catheads, with the stern-cables being simultaneously hauled in  by other crewmen (as described above). In both plays the main protagonists are ashore as the crew prepare to leave. In both cases the heroine comes up with a delaying tactic which buys the Greeks precious time. There are many other parallels between these two  myths. To name but a few (a) the heroine's theft of Artemis' statue in Euripides (1383f) equates to the theft of the golden fleece (implied) in  Ovid (b) the female personae dramatis, both temple wardens, both  sacrificers of guest-friends from Greece, both attempting a  sacrireligious act before escaping to Greece from the western Black Sea  via the Clashing Rocks en route to Attica (c) the use of deceit on  the part of Medea and Iphigineia (Euripides 1330ff).

The parallels are clearest at Euripides 1292: 'Ἀγαμεμνονείας παιδὸς ἐκ βουλευμάτων / φεύγοντες ἐκ γῆς τῆσδε καὶ σεμνὸν βρέτας / λαβόντες ἐν κόλποισιν Ἑλλάδος νεώς' ('fleeing thanks to the plans of the daughter [of the king] in Greek ship having taken the holy image'). There are deliberate echoes of Euripides in Ovid's text. The flight of the Taureans to the cliff-tops (1375-1376) echoes the behaviour of Homer's Laestrygonians in Odyssey 10, but it is in turn picked up in Ovid by the speculator's position and that of Absyrtus' limbs. The two heroines steal or help to steal precious cargoes which are either 'fallen from the skies' or connected to a fall from the sky (Iphigineia In Tauris 1384-1385; the golden fleece came from the airborne ram from which Helle had fallen). Lastly it is in both cases the 'love of a brother' that saves the beleaguered heroine. In Ovid, the love of Aeetes for Medea's brother delays their father the king and allows the Argo to escape. In Euripides the love of Iphigineia for her brother persuades  the goddess Artemis, known for her love of her brother Apollo, to intervene.

We return to the question of Medea's need of a look-out? As far as eminences go, there's quite a cliff face at Constanta today (showing that Ovid must have known his Tomis). One might even suggest the conditions were favourable to the reception of a warning shouted from above. The cliffs will make voices resound. Meanwhile the ship may have been some distance from shore. Today the shoals around the site of nearby Histria are extensive. One can wade a long way out to sea. Thus the look-out's warning cry may have been shouted across extensive shoals (perhaps with sand flats) to a far distant Argo, where the crew are awaiting just such a call. No wonder they 'spring into busy action' ('trepidant'). This would also explain the crew's decision not to beach. Beaching requires 'terra firma', ideally a shelving pebble beach. Shoals are inimical to such a procedure. On the contrary shoals demand great care in the approach, just as Medea had demonstrated. In the meantime we must suppose that Medea is in the vicinity of the look-out, up above on the cliff-tops. She realises she has no time to reach the ship and escape before her father reaches the shoals. Instead she relies on her father's absorption in grief as he sees his son's head and hands positioned perhaps on the same rock on which the 'speculator had stood ('tumulo ... ab alto / scopulo ... in alto'). Aeetes is distracted by his son's remains and simply has no appetite for detaining the Argonauts. Yet to dismember and scatter the limbs of a human being across the fields will have taken Medea considerable time. It is almost inconceivable that Aeetes does not arrive until after Medea has left. One must assume that Aeetes makes a beeline for Absyrtus' remains thereby leaving the Argo to depart at its leisure.

Did Greek ships have two steering-oars or one? I can't understand how they could have had only one and not just because the pottery tells us so. You're heading north. If the wind's blowing the seas at you from a NE close reach angle you'll have a part of the far side of the sail (port side) stretched towards the bows to create a foot (an expanse of canvas designed to catch the wind head-on and make the ship slip ahead like a squeezed bar of soap ALWAYS assuming the steering-oar is deflected to make the seas blown towards it, push the stern round to the west). The whole ship will be acted on as one by the differing elements. The ship should make progress but also a lot of leeway. If the wind suddenly shifts 90 degrees to NW (at Odyssey 12.405 it switches 180 degrees) you have to be ready to switch quickly. The starboard steering-oar will now be redundant. The seas will now only act on a port oar.

© Barney McCullagh 2017. All rights reserved

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