Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.44

Natalia Agapiou, Endymion au carrefour. La fortune littéraire et artistique du mythe d'Endymion à l'aube de l'ère moderne. Ikonographische Repertorien zur Rezeption des antiken Mythos in Europa, Beiheft IV.   Berlin:  Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2005.  Pp. 285.  ISBN 3-7861-2499-X.  €48.00.  

Reviewed by Corinne Ondine Pache, Yale University (
Word count: 1519 words

The Moon's love for the mortal Endymion is one of those myths that come down to us from the classical tradition but gain their fame from their articulations in later periods rather than from the forms they originally had in antiquity. In Endymion au carrefour, Natalia Agapiou (A.) examines the reception of the motif of Endymion and Selene in the Renaissance, when it became the focus of attention for both poets and painters. A. stresses that she is not interested in tracing the evolution of a literary myth, as George Steiner does in Antigones or Pierre Brunel in Pour Électre, but in exploring the "fortuna" of the figure of Endymion in the literature, art and philosophical thought of the Renaissance. This she does elegantly, taking her reader through a whirlwind tour of the multiple manifestations of Endymion and the Moon in Italy, France, and England during the period between 1501 and 1623. Because of its precisely delimited chronological scope, and its assumption that readers will easily understand 16th and 17th century poetry in the original French, Italian and English, the book will appeal mostly to Renaissance scholars, but classicists interested in the Nachleben of classical myths will find much of value in A.'s book.

Chapter 1, "Les vestiges antiques," examines the ancient sources of the myth and its reception through late antiquity. Surprisingly little remains on the Greek side, where two different traditions seemed to have co-existed: in some sources, Endymion is the son of Aithlios and grandson of Zeus, who is granted a wish and chooses to experience his death as sleep (e.g., Hesiod, fr. 245 MW); this Endymion occupies a central place in Aitolian genealogies (Ehoiai, fr. 10a60), and becomes an important king on the Peloponnese whose tomb and statue was seen by the 2nd century AD traveller Pausanias, but Selene is nowhere to be found in these accounts. Another thread takes us east to Karia, where the goddess Selene meets the mortal in a cave on Mount Latmos. Sappho was supposed to have sung of the Moon's love for Endymion, but the first extant sources for the story are from the Hellenistic period. In Apollonios Rhodios' Argonautika, Selene bitterly complains of her passion, while Apollodoros later records how, when Selene fell in love with Endymion, Zeus granted him a wish, which was to sleep forever, immortal and ageless--though the mythographer leaves the connections between these events unexplained. The two different strands, the Aitolian king and the Karian lover of the moon, later became fused. Agapiou takes us across this "mosaic" of myths and teases out the main features of the original tale--ultimately strangely deprived of narrative content, as A. notes--that make their marks on the later tradition and can be pithily summarized as "the sleeping lover of the moon" (13), a motif that became source of inspiration for poets, as well as the focal point of allegorizing interpretations by pagan and Christian philosophers.

In Chapter 2, "Une psychomachie pour l'homme de la Renaissance," A. turns to the popular Renaissance theme of the tripartite life--sensual, active, or contemplative-- in order to structure her study of the reception of the figure of Endymion. She traces the theme's roots back to ancient philosophy and myth: while Plato and Aristotle played an important role in popularizing notions about the tripartite life, another crucial anchor is the myth of the judgment of Paris. For Renaissance thinkers, writers and painters, the image of Paris and the three goddesses came to symbolize the choice between the three types of life. The motif of Paris's choice gained great popularity and eventually gave rise to a new topos, the dream of Paris, which, like allegorical scenes depicting Herakles sleeping at the intersection of two paths or representations of the dream of Scipio, illustrates the moment of choice between different ways of life and different aspects of the human soul. The evolution of the myth of Endymion in the Renaissance should be understood, A. argues, with this background in mind: Endymion became a paradigmatic figure who attempts all three paths of the tripartite life and can therefore be associated with each of the realms symbolized by Aphrodite, Hera, and Athene.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 pursue the links between Endymion and the three ways of life embodied by Aphrodite (the life of pleasure), Hera (the political life), and Athene (the life of contemplation). Chapter 3 focuses on Endymion and his association with the life dedicated to the pleasures of love. A. shows how Endymion became a Petrarchan figure, a frustrated lover tormented by the object of his affection. Renaissance poets also delighted in exploring the consequences of the Moon's own choice of a life of pleasure. Both the goddess and her mortal lovers thus could be represented as victims of eros. Artists meditated on the virgin goddess's dilemma: John Grange's The Golden Aphroditis, for example, described the Moon striving to keep secret from other gods her love for the mortal, and her subsequent eerie encounter with a deer. This encounter in turn suggests the medieval motif of the virgin and the unicorn, understood by its Christian audience as evoking the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit. The classical myth of Endymion and the Moon became imbued with Christian notions about chastity and love, even as it was deployed as a titillating story of a goddess secretly pursuing a beautiful young man. Conversely, Endymion became fused with the figure of Aktaion, punished for his sight of the goddess Artemis, herself associated with the Moon. In these variations, the story of Endymion and the Moon can be understood as a tale of sexual transgression, and indeed French poets evoked the love of Henri II for his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, in terms of Endymion and Diana the Moon.

Yet Endymion in the Renaissance was not simply a figure of love, and, in Chapter 4, "Endymion sive Gratiosus," our hero wakes up, at it were, as A. turns to Endymion the man of action. This symbolism was particularly popular in England, where poets likened Queen Elizabeth to the Moon (or Cynthia), and the figure of Endymion became short-hand for the ideal courtier or statesman. Some poets depicted other powerful women, such as Marie de Medici and Queen Christine of Sweden, as goddesses to their Endymions, while other writers evoked their own relationships with female patrons in terms of the myth of the Moon and her lover.

In Chapter 5, "Endymion 'au chemin de long estude'," A. focuses on the figure of the thinker, who, under the influence of the goddess Pallas Athene, chooses the life of contemplation. Indifferent to material wealth and the fickle rewards of political involvement, Endymion the "studious man" already finds his roots in euhemeristic interpretations of the ancient myth that saw Endymion as the first astronomer to study the moon's course. Some Renaissance writers came to accept this interpretation as reflecting the "true Endymion," while the story of the Moon's love is rejected as a figment of poets' imagination. Michael Drayton's Endimion and Phoebe and The Man in the Moone both explore the notion of the scholarly Endymion, helped in his astronomical pursuits by the object of his study, a topos we can also recognize, as A. convincingly argues, in Nicolas Poussin's "Séléné et Endymion." Endymion thus acquired a reputation as the ultimate wise man, lover of knowledge, and even inventor of the telescope, while the Moon's role gradually waned. Just as the man who chooses the active life faces the risks of changing political fortunes, the man of wisdom faces the threat of the melancholy that afflicts those who pursue a life of contemplation, an affliction embodied by the supine Endymion. The myth also acquired a mystical sense: the image of the Moon's kissing her lover could be used to represent the moment of death of a pious man, the "mors osculi," with the kiss signifying ultimate knowledge and final union with God (a theme found in both Christian and Jewish mystical texts).

Endymion au carrefour is well produced and contains 50 illustrations (including color plates), a bibliography (arranged by chapter), and an index. A. includes many quotations or primary sources and, at times, the original poetry threatens to overwhelm her argument. Faced with a series of excerpted passages in Italian, English, and French, readers uninitiated into Renaissance poetry may occasionally feel at sea. Yet this strong focus on the primary sources is also what makes A.'s argument so convincing. By using a combination of textual and visual evidence, A. is able to explore in depth the many variations on the theme of Endymion and the Moon and to place them within their intellectual and social contexts. And something extraordinary happens to the "sleeping lover of the Moon" in the Renaissance. Because the symbolism of the moon and her lover is strikingly pliable, Endymion came to embody various aspects of the human condition: the passionate lover, the statesman, and the seeker of knowledge, Endymion experiences life in all its possible diversity. Renaissance thinkers appropriated and transformed the story of Endymion, and ultimately, as A. compellingly argues, fashioned new myths for their contemporaries and successors.

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