12 December 2008

Perceiving the Truth in Shadows and in Mirrors

I have already had occasion to mention The Bacchae of Euripides (concerning which I simply must insist that everyone read the fascinating comments of Louis Markos in his From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics [Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007], pp. 179-86), a tragic play about the vengeance of Dionysus on the family of his mortal mother by Zeus, Semele. When I read this play (in which I’d become interested after reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History nearly ten years ago) earlier this year, I found I was sadly unequipped with the back story of the wine-god’s conception. A little research then led me to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Ovid, Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation, trans. David Raeburn [London: Penguin, 2004]), where I discovered a theophany story of a type I find highly intriguing.

Semele, the virgin daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, has become pregnant by Zeus—Ovid calls him by the Latin names, Jupiter and Jove—in the form of a mortal man. But his jealous wife, Juno, disguises herself as Semele’s nurse, Béroë, and suggests that she demand her lover reveal his ‘majestic splendour’ (Met. 3:285) so she can be sure he really is a god and not just some rogue. Semele then makes Jupiter promise to give her anything she wants, and upon his assent, demands, ‘Come to my bed as you come to your wife, when Juno embraces / your body divine in the pact of Venus (Met. 3:294-5)!’ Jupiter, knowing what will happen, reluctantly prepares to carry out her request, but chooses a smaller thunderbolt, ‘less charged with the power of his anger’ (Met. 3:307), with which to come to her.

Armed with this he entered the palace of Cadmus; but Semele’s
mortal frame was unable to take the celestial onslaught.
His bridal gift was to set her ablaze. The baby, still
in the foetal stage, was ripped from her womb, and, strange as it seems,
survived to complete his mother’s term stitched up in his father’s
thigh. . . . (Met. 3:308-13)

This story, in a number of details, reminded me of another ancient tale, one that I originally read in a modern form: the story of Cupid and Psyche. I’ll discuss this tale in a later post. For now, note the idea of the god somehow diminishing his ‘splendour’ on behalf of a mortal (with its parallel with Exodus 33:13-34:9), the nature of that splendour, i.e., its connection with anger and lightning (cf. Ps. 17:7-15 LXX), and the effect upon mortals when the full divinity is revealed (cf. Ps. 67:2 LXX). We will revisit these, and their Scriptural parallels, in part 2 of this post.

(The illustration at the top is an engraving by Virgil Solis, originally from Ovidii Metamorphoses Illustratae [Frankfurt, 1563], coloured 'for dramatic effect' by Kathleen Jenks.)

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