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‘Known Only to the Night’
Part 7 of 8: Impressions of Metamorphoses by Ovid
© 2023 James LaFond
NOV/3/23
Book 13 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
It is clear that there was a former war for Troy, won by Heracles, who defeated this place upon an older time. The key maritime location of this place doomed it to be oft fought over, as in later times Constantinople fell more than once. Ovid’s treatment of Troy marks it more definitively as a convergence point on a power line matrix, than as a case of a stolen queen.
The entire first half of Book 13 is a debate between Ajax and Odysseus [Ulysses] over which one of them deserve to inherit the arms of Achilles, his helmet, the shield with all of the universe depicted upon it, and the spear and sword.
Ajax makes a bitter case that Ulysses is a coward, whose deeds “are only known to the night,” as he was essentially the special operations general in a long war that only lent itself to a handful of battles. He makes the racial case, that his blood ties to Jove should be considered. This is a pointed indictment of Ulysses, of the Man of Many Wiles. Along with Achilles, Ajax enjoys the status of being fearless, which Ulysses does not share, having broken in battle. It is also pointed out that Ulysses tried to avoid serving in this war.
Ulysses takes the stage and gives his much more eloquent case, which is not tinged with bitterness, but grants that Ajax is the stronger and braver, but that he is stupid. Ulysses sites his service as the advisor to the king, whose every victory can be credited to his crafty wit. For not only did he make successful plans, but he was the man who convinced Achilles to join the fight. Furthermore, Achilles’ mother had dressed him as a girl in his youth to hide him from the warrior kings and it was Ulysses who presented “the girl” with weapons to unlock his boyish soul to its martial purpose.
Ulysses says that a man who does not understand the world depicted on the shield, should not bear it, and that it would be put to better use adorning the arm of the Statue of Minerva that he stole from the Trojan temple. Ulysses admits to being a burglar of sacred Trojan temples, of being a diplomat, of acting from ambush by night. He also points out that the many cities that this army sacked as it spent years dismantling the Trojan political and economic sphere, fell to his craft.
The Trojan Horse is not mentioned in his speech, as it had not yet been employed. Epeus, the boxing carpenter would build it at Ulysses’ directing.
Ulysses points out that The King, Agamemnon has been afflicted by the very gods, has had bad dreams sent to him by Jove, and that the wits of Ulysses have been instrumental in detecting divine interference so that it may be addressed.
The debate, of these two orations, agrees that Ajax is the Shield, Achilles was the spear, and that Ulysses is the mind that guides the left and right hand. Diomedes is selected by both parties as the most steadfast of all the army. Ulysses admits to being dependent on Diomedes for the execution of his plans. Ajax points out that the shield of Ulysses is barely marred, and that his great shield, which once sheltered Ulysses had a thousand cracks. Ulysses counters that Ajax has not been wounded, while he shows how he has wounds in his chest.
The debate is between conventional and unconventional warfare over who would best represent the fallen Achilles. This debate is an admittance that the very actions of this pillaging, pirate army have changed the nature of warfare, has restructured the geopolitical space which they still have to navigate. This is the most convincing case that the entire Trojan cycle, which included much more than The Iliad and The Odyssey was in fact about military nomadism at once bringing about the collapse of a civilization, and making the means of that collapse [the light raiding ship] the basis for such colonization, as described in The Aeneid, which the Romans viewed as their origin story.
Ployxena, last daughter of Hecuba, Queen of Troy in captivity, widow of Priam, is demanded by “the shade of Achilles” as a sacrifice. This courageous girl recalls her race and her father, and bears her neck for the slaughter, praying to the gods as she does so, naming herself a fitting sacrifice. The very enemy priest that cuts her throat cries as he does the rite.
Her bereaved mother then goes down to the shore with her women, who she commands still. This indicates that the Trojan population is being led into captivity as a body, expected by the captors to provide their own internal order until what time as they are separated to their certain masters. As she commands that water be gathered to bathe the body of her last daughter, the murdered body of her last son, Polydoros, washes up on shore. He had been placed in the care of a Thracian King, who murdered his foster child to be sure he did not fall afoul of the outward sailing Greeks.
Hecuba now has a final reason to live, revenge on that King.
The entirety of book 13 is shot through with the woes of war, beginning with the toils, wounds, losses and hauntings of the victors and ending with the abysmal sorrows of the vanquished.
It is difficult to be an admirer of Achilles, whose very shade yet drives his enemies to extinction after his death and the burning of their home.
“Hecuba mixing her grief with age,” went to the Thracian King who murdered her son with gift, “Calling on her group of captive women,” to hold the traitor king as Hecuba gouged out his eyes. She then went insane and barked at the Thracians who stoned who, there, where she would be buried at a place called The Bitch’s Tomb where she could be heard howling for years.
Even Memnon, the son of Aurora, the Goddess of Dawn, was slain by Achilles. His mother mourns her loss to the Almighty, “Oh supreme ruler of the gods, I beg you,” to honor her son. The smoke from Memnon’s funeral pyre created the Memnonities a breed of black bird, and his mother wets the world with dew that are her tears.
The book ends with the hope of Aeneas, the escaped hero of Troy that would lead his people to found the poet’s own nation.
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