The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Emma Pauly
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I always gravitate towards stories and texts that feature Dionysus—Bacchae has been the focus of my work as a translator for a number of years now but I wouldn’t say that the emotions it evokes are strictly comforting. Validating, yes. Enriching, yes. Rapturous and raging and everything in between, yes. Comforting? Not necessarily. I feel alive when I work with Bacchae, but alive doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with ‘better’. When I need ease, when I need lightness and a little bit of fun, I often find myself turning to Metamorphoses, specifically Book III, lines 580-689 (approximately), the story of Dionysus and the Tyrrhenian pirates.
When did you first come across this text?
Metamorphoses was a huge part of my high school Latin curriculum, but we never touched upon that story in particular. I think I read it in translation in high school, but never in Latin. I came back to it in college when I dipped back into Ovid just for fun, which happened to coincide with when I was discovering my interest in Bacchae and in Dionysus more broadly. I translated it for kicks a few years back (an end product which will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon, at least not until I have the mental wherewithal to edit it thoroughly)!
Can you tell me a bit about this story and its context?
This particular story is told in first person, from the POV of the lone sailor with a brain cell on that particular vessel: the helmsman Acoetes. It comes towards the end of Book III, in which Ovid centers the stories around the house of Cadmus; we have Cadmus slaying the serpent and sowing the teeth, Actaeon, Semele and the birth of Dionysus, Teiresias, Narcissus and Echo, and finally Pentheus. It’s a bit of a different take than Bacchae; here, the priest brought before Pentheus actually is human. Acoetes unfolds the story of how he came to serve Dionysus to Pentheus, half as an honest answer to Pentheus’ questions and half as a clear and pointed warning. He tells the story of his former occupation as the helmsman of a pirate crew: one day, he relates, they came across a mysterious, well-dressed young man, seemingly drunk asleep on the shores of Chios. Thinking they’ve come across a prime target for ransom, they bind him and bring him aboard immediately. The youth (who Acoetes clocks immediately as ‘definitely not human’) asks politely to be dropped off at Naxos. The pirates scoff at him, Acoetes slowly begins to panic, and chaos unfolds as only Dionysus can bring.
What is it about this story that appeals to you most?
This is among my favourite stories of Dionysus and Ovid’s particular version has so much playfulness in it. It’s a bit of a lighter take on the traditional Dionysian motif of rejection and punishment; the god is mistreated or rejected and he takes vengeance, usually in a spectacularly bloody or upsetting fashion. This story is a little more whimsical and extravagant, maybe even a little sensual. If Dionysus is going to let you know you’ve messed up, be sure he’s going to do it in style. The god stops the whole ship in its tracks, tangles the oars in ivy, and adds in some illusory big cats, just in case they hadn’t gotten the message.
And that’s before the dolphins! I’m Los Angeles born and raised and have a lot of fond childhood memories of being out on the Pacific seeing dolphins play in the wake of the boat, so I’m definitely partial.
On a much less serious note, I take a tremendous amount of joy in Dionysus’ fake-crying when he ‘discovers’ that his captors have no intention of dropping him off at Naxos.
“…non haec mihi litora, nautae,/promisistis” ait, “non haec mihi terra rogata est./ Quo merui poenam facto? Quae gloria vestra est,/ si puerum iuvenes, si multi fallitis unum?” (III.650-654)
“This isn’t the shore you promised me, sailors! This isn’t the land I wanted. What did I do to earn this abuse? What credit do you earn yourselves by lying to a young boy, if all the many of you lie to poor lonely me?”
It’s so gloriously unnecessary and theatrical, almost camp. It’s just the best.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I cook quite a bit, and I’m confident enough to say I’m pretty good at it. I’m not very ‘crafty’ and I have truly terrible hand-eye coordination (which takes things like knitting or painting off the table), so cooking is something I can physically make that is productive, creative, and meditative. There’s some of the same ephemeralness in cooking that I love so much in theatre; you can spend hours, even days, on something beautiful that is gone from the world in a matter of minutes. But you can always try again, you can always improve, experiment, invent, over and over.
And sometimes you set off the smoke alarm, but at least you tried!
I also play Dungeons and Dragons! It’s a great medium for collaborative storytelling and building a world with friends. Sometimes Classical themes and motifs even manage to sneak their way in there; I’m currently playing a character named Kalamos, who I named after a figure mentioned very briefly in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca.
Emma Pauly is a Chicago-based dramaturg, classicist, translator and performer specializing in Greek tragedy. Their work centres on performance and reception of tragedy, particularly in the context of queer themes and representation. Their translation of Euripides’ Bacchae has most recently been published in the translation journal The Mercurian and they are currently serving as dramaturg for the Reading Greek Tragedy Online series with the Center for Hellenic Studies, the Kosmos Society and Out of Chaos Theatre. Readings are every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern Time on the CHS Homepage, livestreamed to YouTube.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.