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Catullus 64: Initiation and Apocalypse. Jean Alvares NJCA March 15, 2008. What is an ‘archetype’?. It is a recurring image or narrative pattern, one which appears again and again because it has proven to be a very effective expression of some important thought, idea, feeling and so forth.

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Catullus 64: Initiation and Apocalypse

Jean Alvares


March 15, 2008


What is an ‘archetype’?

It is a recurring image or narrative pattern, one which appears again and again because it has proven to be a very effective expression of some important thought, idea, feeling and so forth.


It can be argued that we actually reflexively THINK and CREATE in archetypal patterns -- often unawares!





Individual poetic life/labor/genius

A poem is the result of an interplay between the archetypes, the literary/artistic tradition, the poet’s own personal history, temperament, genius, with pure chance always a factor.


Critics have argued much about the ‘unity’ of Catullus 64. Here Catullus is writing in the mode of Hellenistic poets like Callimachus, Apollonius and Theocritus, who reappropriated and refashioned prior Greek literary genres in complex, often ironic and puzzling, ways.


The complex organization of stories within stories, obscure mythological references, revisions of traditional myths, recollections of other literary works, the dramatic, pathetic, romantic, utopian passages, all are items characteristic of Hellenistic poetry.


It can be argued, on the level of conscious literary art, Catullus wants to keep the reader guessing, alternating between multiple and conflicting interpretations, always admiring, of course, the literary magic.


I argue that, if we interpret this poem through its use of archetypes, a considerable unity can be discovered.

To do this, let us begin at the poem’s end, with apocalypse.


“For when righteousness was not yet spurned, heaven's inhabitants used to go to see the heroes' houses, free from wrong, and reveal themselves in the guise of a mortal throng. The father of the gods, paying his regular visit to the gleaming temple, caught sight of one hundred bulls falling forward onto the ground, since the yearly rites had come on the festal days. {More about the former idyllic communion of gods and men}


“But after the earth was given its first experience of unspeakable crime, and everyone expelled justice from his greedy mind, brothers drenched their hands in brotherly blood, the son ceased to mourn his deceased parents, the father wished for the funeral of his youthful son that he might freely enjoy the youthful beauty of his unwed stepmother, and the mother, blasphemously offering her son her sex, did not fear defiling the household gods with sinful acts. All things, lawful or not, blended thoroughly with malicious passion, diverted from us the just mind of the gods. The gods therefore will neither visit our weddings nor be illuminated by the bright light of day.”


This recalls a passage of the Works and Days of Hesiod

(ll. 170-201) Thereafter, would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. ...................... The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother as aforetime. Men will dishonour their parents as they grow quickly old, and will carp at them, chiding them with bitter words, hard-hearted they, not knowing the fear of the gods. They will not repay their aged parents the cost their nurture, for might shall be their right: and one man will sack another's city. There will be no favour for the man who keeps his oath or for the just or for the good; but rather men will praise the evil-doer and his violent dealing. Strength will be right and reverence will cease to be; and the wicked will hurt the worthy man, speaking false words against him, and will swear an oath upon them. Envy, foul-mouthed, delighting in evil, with scowling face, will go along with wretched men one and all. And then Aidos and Nemesis (7), with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.


As does Hesiod, Catullus pictures ours as the ultimate age of final degradation, where soon human evil, which has caused the Gods to shun us, will consume all. This ‘apocalyptic age’ is our first archetype.

What led to this apocalypse?


In religious myth, oracles often make prophecies linked to the coming end of the age.

The prophecy of the Moirai about the future of Achilles fills this function.


Another archetype is that of the ‘marvelous child’ who has special parents, often enjoys a unique childhood, whose actions (often involving some Quest) bring some great benefit or change.

Achilles, son a great hero and a goddess, who is raised by a Centaur, and who is one of the two central human warriors of the end-of-the-age battle at Troy, certainly fits this case.


The prophecy of the Moirai moves from mention of the idyllic union of two lovers, to Achilles’ athletic abilities, to a longer, increasingly gruesome description of Achilles the killer who brings horror on the families of his enemies, including aged parents, culminating in the sacrifice of the innocent Polyxena at his tomb.

Clearly something went VERY wrong.


Another archetype is the ‘coming of age/initiation’ pattern. The young (usually male) person must go out into the world, often engages upon a Quest (another archetype) and, having succeeded, comes home with benefit to his society, as well as with a new role in his society, and often with a wife -- see all this in the myth of Perseus.


Achilles’ initiation/quest is in the end a failed one. He dies at Troy, and, in this version, the closest thing he gets to a ‘wife’ is poor, murdered Polyxena. His father, of course, is made desolate by his death. And the whole Age of Heroes soon ends with the Trojan war, just as the vast battle on the field of Kuru ends the age of heroes in the Mahabharata.


I suggest that Achilles, the son of an exemplary hero and a goddess, Thetis, who joins with Peleus in true love, was the gods’ ‘last, best hope’ for the human race.

Note the idyllic wedding imagery, which is also another utopian / apocalyptic archetype. Note, for example, how in the Judeo-Christian tradition the kingdom of God is likened to a wedding. This makes sense, for each marriage is the formation of a new community in miniature.


The idle farmlands of Thessaly reflect the myth of a primal, pre-agricultural paradise, while Peleus’s vast palace, fit to accept the gods, is another sort of utopian image, such as seen in the palace of Menelaus in the Odyssey -- encountered, of course, by Telemachus when a wedding was in progress.


At the beginning of 64, Thetis encounters Peleus on HIS Quest to help Jason get the golden fleece. Peleus immediately falls in love with Thetis, and she reciprocates, and even Jupiter realizes that they must be joined together.

This ideal, mutual love is in stark contrast to the one-sided love of Ariadne for Theseus, or the (implied) love of Jason and Medea -- for as critics note, in many ways Ariadne is meant to recall Medea.


Similarities: the way Ariadne falls instantly in love with Theseus; how she betrays her father and helps murder her brother, how Theseus abandons Ariadne (as Jason

would have if he

could have, and

eventually did),

how Ariadne gets

revenge for her



Another archetypal pattern here is the “Young man gets/marries the (fertility) goddess” pattern. Heroes gain glory by conquering monsters or succeeding in death journeys. But there is real (and dangerous) power in fertility, and that women have it, and men do not.

A hero, who abducts/ marries a goddess, puts this divine power under human (and male) control, for human (and male benefit).


In myth Theseus makes a career of abducting women -- Ariadne, Antiope, Helen, not to mention help Heracles and Perithoos with their abductions.

Ariadne herself is probably originally a Cretan goddess, and thus Theseus’ story is how the Greeks broke Cretan power by destroying the Minotaur AND abducting their goddess.


While the failed initiation of Jason is only hinted at, the initiation/Quest of Theseus is described. It seems to start nobly (note now Theseus wants to prevent the sacrifice of the Athenians), but ends in the betrayal of Ariadne and the death of his father. The horror of the old Aegeus’ destruction will be mirrored in the grieving of aged fathers for sons whom Achilles has killed. And while Theseus tried to stop human sacrifice, Achilles will demand it.


Theseus’ story is told through an ecphrasis of a marvelous coverlet which will adorn the bridal bed of the couple.

Catullus, compared to the tradition, seems to emphasize Theseus’ responsibility for Ariadne’s betrayal and thus the death of Aegeus as a consequence. And of course, the killing of a father by a son, even indirectly, is a great ‘archetypal’ image of evil.


As an aside, several scholars who practice a more ‘autobiographical’ method of criticism think the horror of the betrayed and abandoned Ariadne reflects Catullus’ own feeling of betrayal and loss in his own personal life.


This tale of betrayed love and quasi-parricide seems a terribly ill-omened item for a wedding bed. Why here?

Here all times and events are interwoven, like pictures in a tapestry. I suggest that the Theseus/ Ariadne cycle was exactly the sort of evil that the Peleus/ Thetis/(and later) Achilles complex was to undo -- and fail to undo.


Consider how the coverlet is marvelously woven, and how the Moirai are weaving Achilles’ fate, a similarity linking the two items. Note too that the author does not explain where the coverlet comes from, but all Thessaly gathers to see it.

This suggests that this item is divine, a type of oracle, which shows the potentials for evil (as seen in Theseus story) this marriage must overcome.


Why is Bacchus here? His appearance could refer to the tale of how he rescued Ariadne and, perhaps, was even responsible for making Theseus forget her in the first place.

But Bacchus also symbolizes the power to escape death -- Bacchus and Ariadne scenes were not uncommon on Roman sarcophagi. I suggest that Bacchus represents the possibility of a world reformed, the pain of the past undone, if the potential of the Peleus/Thetis union is achieved. It is not, alas.


Thus Catullus 64 narrates now the gods have left us, after their last, best hope of setting humans to right failed. Prior attempts to create a more noble hero are seen in Theseus, and (by implication) Jason, but these went awry.

That last hope was to be the marvelous child of Thetis and Peleus. Nearly all the gods came to support the marriage. Why do Apollo and Diana/ Artemis stay away? Apollo’s status as traditional enemy of Achilles and his family may explain it.


I suggest that, Apollo as prophet god knows the true outcome of the marriage. I also think, Artemis (and even Apollo, to some extent) as protectors of young life, shun Achilles precisely because they will hate the slaughter which Achilles must produce as his great achievement in the Trojan war.


My way of organizing Catullus 64.

The prologue to the attempt: Peleus and Thetis meet, fall in love

The first phase of the wedding. The Humans arrive

The coverlet (The backstory to the wedding)

Ariadne finds herself abandoned

Flashback to Theseus story –started right, went wrong

The Lament and Curse of Ariadne

Flashback to Aegeus/Theseus last moment

Forgetfulness of Theseus, Death of Aegeus

Bacchus and the hope of rescue

The second phase of the wedding. The Gods

The gods arrive, the Moirai weave Achilles’ fate

Their prophecy - Achilles’ story goes bad (the future story)

The epilogue to the attempt – the gods have left us to our own hell.