Academic journal article Helios

Weaving Time: Ariadne and the Argo in Catullus, C. 64

Academic journal article Helios

Weaving Time: Ariadne and the Argo in Catullus, C. 64

Article excerpt

The Latinate future, from the future participle of the verb 'to be', suggests what 'is about to be', that is, it sees the future as a modality of the present, and, in a way, as already existing (is about-to-be).                     Duncan Kennedy, Antiquity and the Meanings of Time 

I. Ordering Time

A reader of Catullus's c. 64 is in for a perplexing, if captivating, experience. The poem, his longest by far, is often called an epyllion, or miniature epic (1) It opens with the voyage of the Argo, designated as the first ship at 64.11: ilia rudem cursu prima imbuit Amphitriten (She first inaugurated inexperienced Amphitrite [i.e. the ocean] with her journey). (2) After nymphs marvel at the innovative vessel (15-18), the narrative pivots to the wedding of the Argonaut Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis (19-49), which is itself interrupted by a lengthy ekphrasis of a tapestry showing Ariadne abandoned by Theseus (50-266). While describing the tapestry, the narrator recounts how Ariadne helped Theseus escape from the labyrinth by betraying her father, thus causing the death of her Minotaur half-brother (71-123). Ariadne's ensuing complaint and curse are provided in direct speech (132-201), followed by their outcome in the death of Theseus's father Aegeus (241-250). The description of the tapestry concludes with the arrival of Bacchus as Ariadne's future husband (251-264). Finally, the speaker returns to the opening narrative frame of Peleus and Thetis's wedding, which is celebrated by the gods (269-302). The Parcae spin wool while performing a wedding song for the couple which predicts the birth of their son, Achilles (303-383). In the concluding lines of the poem, the narrator laments the end of the era when gods and mortals socialized together (384-408).

The poem's convoluted and counterintuitive narrative structure can at least be understood and charted. (3) Its mythical chronology, on the other hand, has been a long-standing problem. In the lines quoted above, Catullus suggests that the Argo was the first ship. (4) However, in the central section of the poem, we see a tapestry whose theme is the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus. How can a wedding celebrated in the middle of the very first human voyage contain a representation of a previous sea journey, that of Theseus and Ariadne? One possible response to the problem is to mitigate it by emending 64.11 and thus removing the claim that the Argo was the first ship. (5) This emendation, however, is not widely accepted and would not solve all of the chronological issues in the poem. A further wrinkle is caused by the myth of Medea, unnamed in c. 64 but central to the myths of the Argo and of Theseus. (6) One of Catullus's Hellenistic models, Callimachus's Hecale, assumes that Theseus's father Aegeus is living with Medea. (7) The Argonauts' journey, therefore, must precede the Cretan expedition of Theseus by many years, providing enough time for Medea to arrive in Greece on the Argo, have children with Jason, be abandoned by him, and flee to Athens so that she can marry Aegeus and threaten Theseus as he sets out for Crete. (8) As part of the extended ekphrasis of the tapestry, Catullus even describes the death of Aegeus (64.238-248), emphasizing the incoherence of the chronology.

Temporal confusion over the order of the voyages of Jason and Theseus is not original to this poem. Catullus appears to be repeating a supposed 'mistake' by another of his Greek forerunners, Apollonius of Rhodes. (9) In his Argonautica, Jason attempts to persuade the young Medea to help him acquire the Golden Fleece by telling the story of Medea's cousin Ariadne, who similarly helped a Greek stranger on a quest (Argon. 3.997-1007). Further connecting the two myths, Apollonius's Jason even owns the very wedding blanket of Dionysus and Ariadne (4.423-434), given to him by a previous lover and used to lure Medea's brother to his death. Yet, according to Callimachean chronology, it makes little sense for Jason to know about Theseus, since Medea has not yet reached Athens and married Theseus's father. …

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