F. J. Sypher – Actaeon’s Dogs in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the Wolf Pack in Ysengrimus

Actaeon's Dogs in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and the Wolf Pack in Ysengrimus

F. J. Sypher

Published in Connotations Vol. 2.1 (1992)


The essay compares the dogs from the hunting episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses with the Wolfpack in Ysengrimus.

Anthony Brian Taylor, in his illuminating, carefully researched article, "Arthur Golding and the Elizabethan Progress of Actaeon's Dogs," points out the vigor of Golding's enthusiastic translation of a passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses (III, 206−24), and shows that Golding's rendering of the lines was admired in the Elizabethan period, especially by Shakespeare. Taylor's emphasis is upon Golding and the influence of his English version, but his article serves equally as a reminder of the vigor of Ovid's Latin verse.

Ovid was highly regarded by his own contemporaries, and his boastful claim to immortal fame—at the end of the Metamorphoses—may be admitted to have been an accurate prophecy. All through late antiquity and the medieval period, Ovid's works continued to be read, even though Christian readers were more partial to the pietas of Vergil than to the pagan sensuousness of Ovid. And during and after the twelfth century, the age of narrative romance and of love poetry, there is extensive evidence of Ovid's influence, as in, for example, The Romance of the Rose, and in the work of Chrétien de Troyes.1)

The influence of Ovid is pervasive also in the poem known as Ysengrimus, a beast epic of 6,574 lines of polished Latin elegiac verse composed around 1149, apparently by a Ghentish author, sometimes referred to as Magister Nivardus.2) In this work the stories of Reynard the fox and Ysengrim the wolf are woven into a carefully constructed mock−epic in twelve episodes, in which the protagonist, Ysengrim, is presented as a rapacious monk−abbot−bishop who constantly tries to take [→page 53] advantage of the other creatures around him. The story opens with the wolf's triumphant consumption of a stolen ham, but after a series of encounters in which he is repeatedly bested by his adversaries, Ysengrim is finally devoured by a ravenous herd of swine, led by Abbess Salaura, a mighty sow. It is a story filled with bitter indictment of the Church's greed, but composed with riotous humor and consummate literary art.

There are numerous echoes of Ovid in Ysengrimus,3) but, amazingly, none of the commentaries seems to have remarked on the fact that the wolf pack in the episode known as "The Animals' Pilgrimage" is modelled on Ovid's presentation of Actaeon's dogs. Ovid's text is in Taylor's article (219, 221); the passage from Ysengrimus4) is as follows:

Iam breuis undenos conflauerat hora sodales:

Ante alios omnes Gripo Triuenter adest,

Abbatis socer ille fuit, cursuque rapaci

Ysengrimigene tres comitantur auum:

Magna salus ouium, Larueldus Cursor, auique

Cum facie nomen Grimo Pilauca tenens,

Et numquam uel pene satur Septengula Nipig;

Griponis subeunt pignora deinde duo:

Guls Spispisa prior, post natus Gvulfero Worgram;

Hos inter sequitur Sualmo Caribdis Inops

Et proles amite Griponis, Turgius Ingens

Mantica, quo genero Sualmo superbus erat,

Sualmonisque nepos, Stormus Varbucus, et audax

Priuignus Stormi, Gulpa Gehenna Minor,

Hinc patruus Gulpe, Sualmonis auunculus idem

Olnam cognomen Maior Auernus habens.   (IV, 741−56)

In a brief moment he had stirred up eleven comrades. Gripo Threebelly arrived ahead of all the others. He was the abbot's father−in−law. And at a greedy pace three children of Ysengrim's ran along with their grandfather, the great protector of sheep, Larveld Swiftfoot, and Grimo Gooseplucker, who had the face as well as the name of his grandfather, and Nipig Sevengullet, who was never, or almost never, full. Then followed Gripo's two children: first Guls Spispisa, and the next born, Gwulfero Worgram. Together with these came Sualmo Alwaysinwant Charybdis; and Gripo's aunt's offspring, Turgius Hugebag, a son−in−law of whom Sualmo was proud; and Sualmo's nephew, Storm Varbuc; and the bold stepson of Storm, Gulpa Gehenna Minor; hence Gulpa's paternal uncle, who was also the maternal uncle of Sualmo, Olnam, had the cognomen Avernus Major.

[→page 54] The dogs' names in Ovid's work are Greek, whereas the wolves' names in Ysengrimus mix Germanic and Latin elements; but in both texts there is a linguistic counterpoint between the Latin narrative and names in a different language. A number of the medieval poet's wolf names are translations of Ovid's Greek names into Netherlandic equivalents, and in a few instances the names in Ysengrimus are strikingly similar to Golding's English names. The following list presents detailed explanations and comparisons.5) The wolves are listed in order of appearance:

1. Gripo Triuenter. Neth. grijpen "to grip"; Lat. tri− "three" + uenter "belly." Cf. Ovid's Ladon "catcher"; Golding's "Ladon."9) Cf. below, no. 4.

2. Larueldus Cursor. Neth. laar "open land" + veld "field"; Lat. cursor "runner." Cf. Ovid's Nape "land"; Golding's "Laund"; Ovid's Thous "swift," Golding's "Swift."

3. Grimo Pilauca. Obsolete Neth. grim "grim"; Lat. pilare "to pillage" + Vulg. Lat. auca "goose." Cf. below, no. 6. Cf. also Ovid's Alce "might," Golding's "Wight" (meaning "strong").6)

4. Septengula Nipig. Lat. septem "seven" + gula "gullet"; Neth. nijpen "to nip." Cf. Ovid's Harpalos "greedy," Golding's "Snatch"; also Ovid's Ladon "catcher" as in no. 1 above.

5. Guls Spispisa. Neth. gulzig "greedy"; spijs "food." Cf. Ovid's Harpya "harpy," Golding's "Greedigut"; Ovid's Labros "gluttonous," Golding's "Jollyboy."10)

6. Gvulfero Worgram. Neth. wolf "wolf" perhaps with a suggestion of Neth. golf "gulf"; Neth. worgen "to strangle" + ram "ram." Cf. Ovid's Lycisca "wolfish," Golding's "Wolfe"; Ovid's Nebrophonos "fawn killer," Golding's "Kilbucke." Cf. above, no. 3. Cf. also Ovid's Theridamas "beast−conqueror," Golding's "Kildeere."

7. Sualmo Caribdis Inops. Neth. zwelgen "to swallow"; Lat. (from Greek) Charybdis (the Sicilian whirlpool, applied metaphorically to a greedy person); Lat. inops "needy."

8. Turgius Ingens Mantica. Lat. turgere "to swell"; ingens "huge"; mantica "bag."

9. Stormus Varbucus. Neth. storm "storm"; obsolete Neth. vaar "fear" + Neth. buik "belly." Cf. Ovid's Aello "storm," Golding's "Tempest"; Ovid's Laelaps "hurricane," Golding's "Spring."7)

[→page 55] 10. Gulpa Gehenna Minor. Neth. gulpen "to gulp"; Lat. (ultimately from Hebrew) Gehenna (a biblical name for hell); Lat. minor "lesser."

11. Olnam Maior Auernus. Neth. al "all" + nemen "to take"; Lat. maior "greater"; Auernus (Vergilian equivalent of hell, cf. Aeneid IV, 126). Cf. Ovid's Pamphagus "all eating," Golding's "Eateal."

In general, Ovid's (and Golding's) names and descriptive adjectives are designed to reflect typical characteristics of dogs: their behaviour (running, climbing, hunting, stalking), sound (barking, ringing), appearance (color, coat, teeth), breed (place of origin), as well as agility, strength, ferocity, and greediness. By contrast, the wolves in Ysengrimus are characterized in ways that emphasize the greed which is at the core of the poet's satire: taking (Larueldus, Gripo, Nipig, Pilauca, Worgram, Olnam), violent force (Grimo, Stormus, Cursor, Gvulfero), food (Spispisa), belly (Triuenter, Mantica, Varbucus), great size (Turgius, Ingens), devouring (Septengula, Guls, Sualmo Caribdis Inops, Gulpa Gehenna Minor, Maior Auernus).8)

Strong as is the satirical intent in this passage of Ysengrimus, one senses also the author's delight in creating comic linguistic coinages by juxtaposing barbarous words with elegant Latin versification. He obviously also enjoys his presentation of this villainous wolf pack according to the conventions of the epic catalogue of forces, including a dizzyingly confusing array of genealogical relationships. The ensuing battle between the wolves and the other animals parodies the siege of Troy, and so offers yet another parallel between the wolves' Germanic names, and their Greek models. Finally, the total number of wolves, eleven plus one, inevitably suggests—in this context—an infernal parallel to the twelve disciples. Note, for example, the last two, with the epithets Maior and Minor, like St. James the Great, and St. James the Less. The master of this pack would of course be the devil.

Coming back to the passages in Ovid, one wonders what other traces through the centuries might have been left by Actaeon's hounds as they have charged down innumerable paths with ringing voices and unquenchable élan.

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