A Bear in Sewanee

This morning around 4:20am a black bear was seen running toward the dining hall on campus.  Reports of garbage strewn in different areas have also been reported, read a post from the Sewanee police in an e-mail message earlier this week.  There were subsequent posts about the bear, whether precaution ought to be taken (yes), whether it was okay to feed it (no), should children and pets be kept indoors (perhaps), but none of the follow-ups conveyed the same excitement as the original.  There have been no further bear sightings, disappointingly.

Perhaps it’s just that we don’t need to see the bear again.  Animals are good to think, as Levi-Strauss says, and this bear has jostled me into thinking about a number of things:  a myth I’ve long taught and a favorite etymology, a familiar constellation and an Old Master painting I saw this summer, as well as a recent poem about that painting.  It’s a desultory collection of thoughts, and I hope you will (er) bear with me through them.

As Ovid tells the myth in Book 2 of the Metamorphoses, Jupiter became enamored of a lovely young nymph named Callisto, who, as one of the followers of Diana, had made a vow of chastity.  Undeterred by this and further hoping to avoid detection by Juno, protinus induitur faciem cultumque Dianae, “he instantly takes on the face and appearance of Diana,” and as the goddess rapes Callisto. It is the most unusual of Jupiter’s disguises, I think, and that is saying a lot for a god who has made love as a swan, a bull, and a golden shower in order to escape his wife’s detection. Despite Callisto’s attempts to hide her pregnancy, she is found out by Diana.

Titian, Diana and Callisto, 1556-59
National Gallery, London

This discovery is the subject of a large painting by Titian, pictured above, newly acquired by the National Gallery in London for £45M ($71M).  In the painting, you can see the angry virgin goddess pointing an accusing finger at Callisto’s belly, while all the nymphs turn dramatically away. It is fair to say that the display of this painting, together with two other Ovid-inspired Titians, was the biggest thing going on in London this summer after the Olympics.  The National Gallery pulled out all the stops to celebrate the exhibition by commissioning a new opera, as well as a series of installations and poems to go along with the display. (I have thoughts on the contemporary artwork which I will discuss more fully soon).

Exiled from Diana’s company, Callisto gave birth to a son named Arcas, but even so was not protected from Juno’s later vengeance.  “I will take that lovely form from you,” Juno declared, and then, as Ovid writes,

… adversam prensis a fronte capillis
stravit humi pronam. tendebat bracchia supplex:
bracchia coeperunt nigris horrescere villis
curvarique manus et aduncos crescere in unguis
officioque pedum fungi laudataque quondam
ora Iovi lato fieri deformia rictu.
…                     vox iracunda minaxque
plenaque terroris rauco de gutture fertur;
mens antiqua tamen facta quoque mansit in ursa,
adsiduoque suos gemitu testata dolores
qualescumque manus ad caelum et sidera tollit
ingratumque Iovem, nequeat cum dicere, sentit.

Pulling her hair over her forehead, she pushed her face down onto the ground.  The girl extended her arms in supplication, arms that began to grow bristly over hands that curved into claws and started acting as feet.  The face once praised by Jupiter grew misshapen with a jutting jaw … and from her rough throat came a hostile, angry, terrifying growl.  Her mind remained as before, but she had taken on a bear’s form. With incessant groans, she lifted her hands (such as they were) to the starry heavens, wordlessly complaining against the impassive chief god.

And it gets worse for the poor girl, of course.  Her son, Arcas, has become a hunter, and one day comes across his mother in her unfortunate transformed state. But before he can unleash his spear against her, Jupiter takes pity.

Arcuit omnipotens pariterque ipsosque nefasque
sustulit et pariter raptos per inania vento
inposuit caelo vicinaque sidera fecit.

All-powerful Jupiter stops his spear and the unspeakable crime at the same time, and at the same time, through the empty sky, he gathers up mother and child and places them side by side in the sky.

And hence Ursa Major and Ursa Minor , the Big and Little Bears, remain in the sky, always where Jupiter and Juno can keep on eye on them, though they do so perhaps for different reasons.  One of the new poems sponsored by the National Gallery is about the myth of Callisto by Jo Sharpcott.  I haven’t typed it out, but you should listen to her read it, as it’s really very good, and addresses the question of what it feels like to be catasterized.

The skies gained two new constellations, and the land from which they were snatched took their names, since Arcas is the Greek word for “bear.”  Despite the tragic story, Arcadia has ever been a byword for a locus amoenus, a lovely pastoral place, where the world with all its bother never intrudes.  Sewanee was so styled in William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee, a beautifully-written memoir of a Southern gentleman from 1941.  Of his alma mater Sewanee, he wrote, in a passage well-known in these parts,

Bench in Abbo’s Alley, Sewanee

It’s a long way away, even from Chattanooga, in the middle of woods, on top of a bastion of mountains crenelated with blue coves. It is so beautiful that people who have been there always, one way or another, come back. For such as can detect apple green in an evening sky, it is Arcadia — not the one that never used to be, but the one that many people always live in; only this one can be shared.

I like to think the black bear was remembering Percy’s passage while strewing garbage about the quad.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Astronomical, Classics, England, Language & Etymology, Mythology, Poetry, Sewanee. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Bear in Sewanee

  1. Wonderful post, Chris. I continue to be fascinated by this and the other moments in the Metamorphoses where the change is incomplete, merely physical, leaving a human consciousness to suffer in a beastly form – Actaeon and Io come immediately to mind as two of the other more poignant ones. I was sad that Titian’s Diana and Actaeon companion piece to the Diana and Callisto wasn’t on display when I was at the National Gallery earlier this year.

    What are your thoughts on metamorphosis that creates not an entirely new being, but a hybrid form that it always somehow both old and new, both living and dead?


    • Thanks, William. The praise is meaningful from a man with an inspiring blog about beer and Shakespeare! About metamorphoses, the earliest one is in the Odyssey 11.240ff. (Circe and the pigs), “And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before.” And even late in the tradition, Lucius remains sound of mind though turned into an ass in Apuleius’ Golden Ass. But those are not Ovidian, I’ll grant. What so you have in mind?

      • Ha – thanks for the nod to my blog; I hope I can get back to updating it regularly once the craziness of the job market subsides a bit. WIth the JIL going live yesterday (with almost no jobs, of course), my drinking has naturally become more purposeful yet less reflective, if you know what I mean.

        Thanks also for reminding me of the classic Circean example on which Ovid clearly draws, as well as the Apuleius – I’ll have to reread that.

        My interest in the matter is primarily Shakespearean, of course, as one of my dissertation chapters deals with the heavy, regularly-acknowledged debt that “Titus Andronicus” owes to this particular strand of the Ovidian tradition. Lavinia is explicitly and repeatedly made a figure of Philomela, and in both type and antitype the transformative violence of rape and mutilation leaves the victim in a quasi-metamorphosed state where communication is desperately desired but painfully occluded.

        Philomela finds her voice by turning smoothly and tacitly to the example of Arachne, while stump-armed Lavinia turns more clumsily and obviously to Ovid’s text itself. Initial metamorphosis, by leaving consciousness intact, guarantees a continuation of the story – to whatever bloody ends. The change that Shakespeare effects on his source comes with the secondary metamorphosis – Ovid has Callisto become a navigation-aiding constellation, Philomela a signing nightingale, but for Lavinia there can be no such physical change into an enduring symbol of communication. There is only death, and the only afterlife is the contingent one where she herself becomes a touchstone for literary exempla, just like Philomela and Jephtha’s daughter have been for her – and something, I want to argue, she will actually become in “Cymbeline.” The alluding text subsumes her into the logic of cyclic, mimetic metamorphosis, just as the logic of vengeance within the play has made her but one cog in the gears of violence.

        Or something like that. Sound reasonable? Vaguely interesting?

  2. Janice Fahy says:


  3. Liz Pickens says:

    I enjoyed this greatly. My son, Ward is a senior this year at Sewanee. He may have been in your Latin class. I got a mental picture of him roaming about like a bear there on campus. I am certain he has been rather bear-like on many occasions, along with his other ursine pals!

  4. elinorann says:

    Wow. “I will take that lovely form from you.” Great post. Reminds me of some of my favorite lines ever:
    ” . . . the poet’s pen/ Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name./ Such tricks hath strong imagination,/ That if it would but apprehend some joy,/ It comprehends some bringer of that joy;/ Or in the night, imagining some fear,/ How easy is a bush supposed a bear!”

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