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Solve nefas: Crime, Expiation, and the Unspeakable in Ovid's Fasti 2

Caleb M. X. Dance

 This essay identifies unspeakable crime—nefas—as a thematic motif in Book 2 of Ovid's Fasti and proposes that stories of crime and expiation from the first half of Ovid's poetic treatment of the month of February create a cogent literary theme that is sustained throughout the book. Building off of Feeney's (1992) and Newland's (1995) observations about speech and silence in Ovid's account of the “Rape of Lucretia” in Fasti 2, I suggest that the term nefas functions as the literal nexus of crime and silence (“unspeakable crime”) in Ovid's poem. I then consider how in the opening verses of the book (2.19-46) nefas presents itself as a counterbalance to the concepts of expiation and purification with which the month of February is etymologized. In the remainder of my essay, I examine three passages of nefas/crime and its successful or prevented expiation: the attempted murder of Arion in 2.79-128; the praise of Augustus in comparison to Romulus in 2.129-144; and the punishment of Callisto in 2.153-192. I conclude with a brief consideration of how the literary themes of crime, expiation, and the unspeakable in Fasti 2 interact with Ovid's larger calendrical project.

The two main players in my thematic exploration, “unspeakable” nefas and its expiation, are clearly set forth in Ovid’s opening etymology of February (2.19-46). In v. 19, Ovid observes that februa (from which the month gets its name) are piamina—instruments of purification. He then runs through an assortment of objects associated with different rights of purification that are all known as februa; the terms purgamina (2.23), piantur (2.29), lustrant and piamen (again in 2.32) lend additional credence to the assertion that purification and February (via februa) go hand in hand. Where purification is required, some sort of impurity is presumably present. Indeed, nefas, causae malorum, and impia facta all appear in vv. 35-38. Ovid drives the point home in 2.43-44 when he relates the story of how the son of Amphiarus, Alcmaeon, said to the river Achelous, “solve nefas”, and the river obliged. With this two word entreaty, crime and expiation are presented in exact counterpoise.

The pirates' attempt on Arion's life, Augustus' accomplishments in comparison to Romulus, and Juno's punishment of Callisto—all three of these episodes in Fasti 2 draw crime, speech, and silence to the forefront of the narrative. The murder of Arion is averted through, appropriately, the pia facta (2.117) of a dolphin that rescues the rhapsode after his dramatic leap into the sea. Augustus is cast as a living piamen who explicitly repulses nefas (reppulit nefas in 2.140) when his deeds are set alongside his archaic predecessor's. And Callisto, following her rape, her near-murder at the hands of her son, and her catasterism (into the Bear constellation), is denied by Juno the physical expiation that would come from setting into the ocean (2.191-192).

Having laid the groundwork for an interpretation of Fasti 2 as a composition thematically unified in its treatment of crime, purification, and the unspeakable, I conclude with a brief consideration of the possibility that each month in Ovid's Fasti, and thus each book of the poem, is a unified composition that addresses thematically related material.

Session/Panel Title

Monsters and Giants

Session/Paper Number

13.4

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