Orlando Furioso Canto X: Catullus Edition

It’s good to have a good classics friend work with you.  That way when the ERC nerds gather to read about Bireno abandoning Olympia, he can say “Cool, that’s just like Catullus LXIV.”

Catullus is most famous, at least among school boys, for his amusing-but-line-crossing obscene break-up poems.  It is a rite of passage for all Latin students to puzzle over a phrase in Catullus until a shocked, giggling “OH!” bursts forth.  He was emo and savage, devoted and cruel.

But he was quite a poet in addition to having a potty mouth to make a sailor blush.  One of his greats is Catullus LXIV, a multi-level mini-epic which tells the story of Theseus and Ariadne within the tale of Peleus and Thetis (the parents of Achilles).  Go read Opera Antiqua for a lengthy treatment of the poem, including some commentary on its use in Orlando Furioso.

A few brief observations.  Once again we see the synthesizing always underway in the mythological corpus.  Catullus ties Theseus into Achilles and the Iliad, which works out great for Ariosto and his grand mash-up.  But like everywhere else, the tropes are carved up and redistributed.

The original Proteus is the sea god who teaches Peleus how to capture Thetis.  In Orlando, he’s the torqued-off sea god who is terrorizing Ebuda with the orc, which is killed trying to devour Olympia, who plays the role of Ariadne, whose doomed romance figures in Catullus LXIV, which tells the story of Peleus and Thetis, which originally figures Proteus…

In the Greek material there are some ambiguous “alternate” versions of Proteus, or same-named figures.  Ariosto tidies them up by having Orlando drive Proteus off to Ethiopia, a nod to the Egyptian Proteus figure.  There’s also the wrestling between Orlando and the orc, which reworks the struggle between Menelaus and Proteus in the Odyssey.  And, lo, Menelaus was in some small way connected to Helen and the Iliad, if I remember correctly…

Proteus is not the only one carved up.  Olympia gets to play the part of Thetis as well, thinking she will attend a marriage feast with Bireno.  Ariosto has run together Thetis and Ariadne into one woman, instead of playing a tale-within-a-tale.  And the burning love of Thetis is displaced to Bireno, who burns for his fourteen year-old jailbait and abandons his faithful bride-to-be.

Perhaps that’s the simplest way to consider what Ariosto has done here: he tells a tale in which Thetis is turned into Ariadne before her marriage.  “Catullus did ok with ‘Marriage of Peleus and Thetis,’ but wouldn’t it be cooler if, when they saw the tapestry of Ariadne, that like, magically happened to them?!”

Was Ariosto trying to one-up the Greeks in depicting ugly break-ups?


One thought on “Orlando Furioso Canto X: Catullus Edition

  1. Don’t forget Medeia, for she’s the forerunner to Catullus’ Ariadne and Ariosto’s Olympia – and there are fewer (if any) break-ups nastier than hers:

    Jason. My sons, mine own!
    Medea. Not thine, but mine . . .
    Jason.. . . Who slew them!
    Medea. Yes: to torture thee.
    (Trans. Gilbert Murray)


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