Ancient Literature and Language
Chapter 12: Ovid and The Metamorphoses
I. Ovid and the Augustan Age
A. Ovid's Life and Early Works
A friend of mine once told me that, if Ovid were alive today, she'd invite him to her parties. It's a clear reflection of the character and tone of his work, more charming, vivacious and full of zest for life than any other ancient poet, arguably than any writer ever. In part, that's because of Ovid's poetic persona, playful and effervescent, and in part, it's the result of the times in which he lived, the heyday of Augustan glory when the Romans had as little reason as they ever would to worry about anything but living the good life. Simply put, Ovid was the right sort of man for this day: urbane, quick-witted, energetic, naughty and nice.
From the civil wars that defined the bloody century known as the Roman Revolution (131-31 BCE), Augustus emerged at last victorious and established the Roman Empire. That put to an end internal strife, at least for the time being. Nor was there now any real threat of foreign invasion since the Romans had conquered all the nations around them, handing them also control over the economy of the Western world. Indeed, for the first time in their history, they could afford to sit back and collectively relax. It was, all in all, a well-earned vacation, and those lucky Romans whose lives spanned the closing decades of the first millennium quickly mastered the fine art of leisure, none better than Ovid.
Not having grown up in Caesar's generation witnessing the convulsions which accompanied the death of the Republic, Ovid had no personal experience of the carnage upon which his Rome's tranquillity rested. More important, to him and his crowd living as they did at the outset of the Pax Romana (31 BCE-180 CE), empire was a given, and the old days of representative government something only their elders had known, but none of their peers. Though the younger generation in this age tasted many of life's delights—most of them, in fact—freedom was not one of them.
Thus, where Vergil and his colleagues sought to praise or censure Augustus' domestication of the Roman world, Ovid and his peers just took it on faith that there was no other way—having a master was all their generation had ever known—and so their compensatory praises of the emperor ring as hollow and mechanical as students assigned to argue some theme in an essay. Moreover, instead of fighting for freedom or power or even wealth, like the rich and spoiled teenagers they were at heart, they spent their time partying, looking for new and quicker avenues to self-indulgence. In other words, Rome went on an extended spring break.
If some people have a genius for that sort of revelry, Ovid is surely their patron saint. To judge from his poetry and what survives about his life in historical documents, he moved comfortably in the fast lane, carousing, cavorting and consorting with a rat pack of like-minded celebrities. His circle even included many near the emperor Augustus himself who was at the time trying to repress the excessive behaviors of such people, with notably little success. Yet, while it's clear that the sexual and moral liberties which naturally accompany a jet set came readily to Ovid, nonetheless he seems to have genuinely loved both his wife and a succession of mistresses, a situation he felt remarkably free to expose in his poems with no fear of public scorn.
To judge from how often he's quoted in contemporary and later sources, even in graffiti on Roman walls, Ovid was a spectacularly popular author, and the reason lies not just with his subject matter. For any who might have been put off by the sensual nature of his material—Augustus' attempts at legislating moral reform appear to have made little or no dent in the readership of erotic poetry in Rome—there was, of course, the overwhelming compensation of Ovidian verse. As natural-born a poet as Latin ever had, Ovid executes meters so elegant and smooth they appear almost conversational, carried off with a contagious grin and impish charm, in spite of the fact these verse forms are actually quite difficult to shape on the Roman tongue.
At the same time, however, his poetry is also elevated in tone far above common discourse. Close inspection of his work shows that Ovid's graceful and easy expression is actually the product of tremendous finesse and skill, though probably not comparable toil. Hardly like Vergil in this or any respect—no mere ten lines a day for this versifier!—Ovid, it seems, could go out in the morning and meet his friends, conduct some business, then slip off with his girlfriend for an afternoon rendezvous, take his wife to a soiree at the palace and somewhere in between all this, compose exquisitely crafted verse. Little wonder, then, he spent most of his early career writing about love.
With a sparkling sense of humor and joie de vivre, Ovid's first publication, Amores ("Love Affairs"), narrates the ups and downs of his love life: how his mistress rejected him, how they reconnected, how she flirted with her husband at a party making Ovid furious, how they spent a hot summer afternoon making love, how she got a bad dye-job making her hair fall out, how impotence struck him out of nowhere making her worry that her maid—and that means all Rome!—will think she isn't attractive to men any longer, and so on. Amores was an enormous hit, handing the young Ovid overnight success on the literary circuit and making him one of the few Roman poets of the day who wasn't on Augustus' payroll.
That kind of box office always demands a sequel, and Ovid was more than happy to gratify the public's lavish fascination with his love life by putting out another book of erotic verse, Ars Amatoria ("The Lover's Craft"—or, in modern idiom, "Love For Dummies"), a manual of seduction which takes up where Amores left off, and then proceeds quite a bit further down the primrose path. Advertising himself as "the master of love," Ovid advises potential boyfriends on how and where to find "girl"—he talks about dating women as if it were hunting wild animals—what to say and when to say it, how to avoid spending too much money ("If it's her birthday, pretend to be sick and refuse to see her!"), even how to make her husband feel flattered because you're having an affair with his wife. To this anti-Hippolytus, nothing, it seems, was too much in the service of Venus.
Among his more sage bits of counsel, Ovid suggests that, if you meet a girl in the crowd when you're both watching a military procession—for instance, one of the many triumphs Augustus held in his own honor, in spite of the fact he himself was rarely seen on the battlefield—and she asks you who the people in it are, tell her even if you have no idea: "Make up names! Girls don't want guys who really are smart, just ones who look that way." If you notice any dust on her dress, brush it off to show you care about how she looks. "And if there isn't any dust, brush anyway! That way you get to touch her. And speaking of brushing, brush your teeth." It's a far, far cry from Anchises, the dead penatis walking who narrates to his sombre son Aeneas the triumph of Rome-yet-to-come. Indeed, Ovid seems to be commenting directly on Book 6 of Vergil's Aeneid, telling us what people really think and do at triumphal parades, which is not to "predict" Roman history but try to get a date.
With this, it will come as little surprise that, late in life, Augustus decided he'd had enough of the poet's flippancy and profligacy and, worst of all, literary success, especially when the emperor was attempting to restore moral order at home. In 8 CE with a wave of his all-but-royal hand, Augustus sent Ovid into exile, expelling him forever from Rome, the only home he'd ever known and a place he loved as much as its women. Worse yet, the emperor didn't banish the fun-loving and sophisticated love-master from the Roman capital just so he could go live the high life in Athens or some eastern metropolis and carouse with a new crop of sloe-eyed beauties. He sent him away to a small place named Tomis on the western shores of the Black Sea—few then or ever since have heard of it—to Ovid, it must have seemed like he'd fallen off the edge of the world.
By then the veritable tyrant of Rome and no longer accountable to anyone, Augustus refused to make public his reason for exiling the most popular poet alive—not that anyone in the day or since has ever really wondered why, still he didn't even offer an excuse—and with unprecedented modesty Ovid also declined to discuss the specifics of his banishment. Merely hinting at the issue, he acknowledges in subsequent works only that the emperor told him it was a matter of, in his own words, carmen et error, "a song and an indiscretion." Unfortunately, the identity of neither is clear.
Most scholars today assume that the carmen is Ars Amatoria, and the error probably had something to do with the sexual indiscretions of Augustus' granddaughter Julia, also exiled in the same year. Nevertheless, whatever their literal meaning, the greater truth surrounding Ovid's carmen et error is all too clear: Augustus was "king" in all but name and could do basically anything he wanted. . In the end, insipid excuses like "a song and an indiscretion" matter little when the real truth—absolute power corrupts absolutely—is all too painfully evident.
Ovid ended his career and life with a series of pitiful letters written to his friends and family back in Rome, a body of poems entitled Tristia ("Sadnesses"). They constitute some of the most beautiful and polished verses Ovid ever wrote, as he laments his isolation—he claims that if he wants to hear Latin, he has to talk to himself—and pleads for help in securing the emperor's forgiveness, promising to be good. In the end, his sadness came was to no avail. He never returned to Rome. Even Augustus' death in 14 CE and the ascension of his successor, the dour and deranged Tiberius, brought Ovid no respite. After more than a decade in the hinterland, the master of love and Latin letters died alone, never again having seen his wife or girlfriends or his most beloved mistress, Rome.
B. The Metamorphoses
If Ars Amatoria is, in fact, the carmen Ovid mentions as the reason for his exile, there's a very odd factor at play in Augustus' decision. The Lover's Craft had already been in circulation for almost a decade by the time the emperor decided to banish its author. Such slow political reflexes are, to say the least, uncharacteristic of Augustus—even in his dotage—which means, to judge by timing alone, there's something amiss. Seen strictly from a chronological perspective, there's a far better candidate for the notorious carmen, a work composed much closer to the time of his banishment, The Metamorphoses ("The Changes"), Ovid's crowning literary achievement.
On the surface, this epic poem hardly seems to have presented Augustus with any reason at all for imposing such harsh measures on its writer. The theme isn't love today or the careless pursuit of public adultery, but a subject that looks to be far more harmless, the omnipresent motif of transformation in myth. This the poet elaborates in a long and loosely organized compendium of tales encompassing more than one hundred separate myths of varying length—some entailing hundred of lines, others no more than a few—all of it sprawled out over fifteen books of poetry.
The only thing holding the tales together is that in each at least one character undergoes some sort of a physical transfiguration, turning into trees, rocks, birds, springs and so on. Moreover, Ovid varies the tone of these myths widely: in one pathos dominates, in another comedy, or sensualism or the simple love of narration. All in all, The Metamorphoses presents, at least on the surface, little excuse for anyone, even a despot, to exile its author from his county.
In addition, it's a masterpiece—Augustus was very well educated and would surely have recognized its brilliance—indeed, in many ways it's the very apex of Hellenistic myth-making. Essentially a lengthy pastiche composed of short tales weakly held together by a strong theme, it captures the essence of what both Callimachus and Apollonius were attempting, making it in many ways the culmination of three centuries of literary scholarship, invention and experimentation. Thus, what began at the Library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies became in Ovid's masterful hand a transforming reality, a work both short and long, detailed and accessible, easy to read and immensely deep, romantic and scientific, affecting and amusing, Greek and Roman, and, above all, quintessentially Ovidian, shot through with his typical charm and grace and sly, risque wit.
Though it may on the surface seem unlikely, then, that this is the carmen which made Augustus' ire boil over, a closer look at the poem opens that very possibility. For instance, Ovid's rendition of what looks to be a fairly innocuous myth, the tale of Daphne and Apollo—how a nymph named Daphne ("Laurel") changed herself into a tree to avoid the lustful god Apollo's amorous embrace—the Roman poet turns this arborist's fantasy into a sensuous, rollicking satire of classical lore. It's found in Book 1 of The Metamorphoses (488-513; pp.18-19 in Humphries' translation). Please read it now.
While on the surface this tale looks to be a simple story about a randy male chasing a reluctant female—and it's hardly a shock to find a situation like that in ancient mythology—the details Ovid adds are erotic and damning, not to mention, damn erotic. Put cinematically, the poet's camera lingers lasciviously over Daphne's long hair, her eyes, her lips, her bare arms and lovely legs, and finally even her soft breasts as laurel bark slowly grows over them and Apollo caresses the tree trunk. Carving eros out of a tree takes lively imagination and true poetic talent.
But that's hardly all the perilous fruit to be found in this fondled forest, which is about as far from Hippolytus' "untouched meadow" as it's possible to go on a nature walk. Indeed, Ovid comes dangerously close to mocking the god himself—one should note here that Apollo was Augustus' preferred deity—especially when the poem compares the divinity's foolish heart to a brush fire caused by a careless traveler in a passing chariot or stubble in a harvested field, neither of which is a particularly ennobling simile. It's hard to tell which of the offended should be permitted to protest first: Homer, Apollo or Augustus?
Moreover, Apollo's own words make him seem all the more inept as he tries to win the nymph over by listing his own powers and attributes. It's as if he were handing her his business card and from that expecting a date. To put it succinctly, does the poet, a self-proclaimed "master of love," expect any of his readers to believe that "all herbs are subject to me" will work as a pick-up line?
Worse yet, when the chase at last ensues, Ovid dips his poetic paintbrush in fairly overt erotica, for example, when Apollo watches his sexual prey run in terror and notes her loveliness "even in flight, her limbs bare in the wind." If this weren't essentially a boss chasing his secretary around the desk, the god's behavior might be excused as hormonal excess, but the leering harassments of a promiscuous nobleman as he bears down on a helpless peasant girl add a Don-Juan smarminess to the picture which is bound to squelch any decent person's enjoyment of the proceedings. In the end, one must ask if creatures which play at such trivial games should or even can be called gods in any real sense of the word.
Books 9-11 of The Metamorphoses , the readings covered
in the next two sections (see below, Chapter 12.II-III),
only drive the point home further. In them, Ovid explores in varying levels
of detail more than fifteen different myths—some featuring famous names
like Venus and Adonis, Hercules and Orpheus, and others highlighting exotic
and unfamiliar characters—and ranges into morally nebulous terrain involving
incest, homosexuality and female boar-hunting. One of the important questions
at hand here is how pleased Augustus was when he read this, since there's
no question the Roman public devoured The Metamorphoses with greedy
glee, as have all subsequent centuries. In sum, is this epic enough to convict
and exile its maker?
|Terms, Places, People and Things to Know|
carmen et error
II. Ovid,The Metamorphoses, Book 9
Now begin reading Ovid's The Metamorphoses, Book 9, with one eye on the notes below.
9.1-97 Book 9 opens in mid-conversation. The river-god Achelous is telling stories to the Athenian hero Theseus (see above, Chapter 9.I.B). In answer to Theseus' request, Achelous narrates the tale of his unsuccessful courtship of Deian(e)ira whose hand in marriage he lost to Hercules, a mortal, clearly the source of some chagrin to the deity.
The myths surrounding Hercules' birth and labors were so famous in antiquity that Ovid assumes his readers are intimately familiar with them. Here they are in summary form.
Hercules was Jupiter's son by a mortal woman named Alcmena. Because of her husband's infidelity, Juno hated both mother and child and, even before Hercules was born, tried to prevent the baby's arrival by forcing the goddess of midwives to remain knotted up, leaving Alcmena to suffer the pains of labor for many days. It was not until a maid named Galanthis ("Weasel") tricked the goddess in relaxing, that Hercules' birth could occur at last. In frustration and anger, Juno sent two enormous snakes to destroy and devour the infant, but this was no ordinary baby. Still an infant, little Hercules in his crib strangled both serpents with his bare hands.
Later, when he was grown and married, Juno again attacked, this time driving Hercules mad. Amidst his god-sent frenzy, he unwittingly killed his own wife and children. To pay penance for this crime, the gods obliged him to serve at the whim of his jealous cousin Eurystheus by performing twelve seemingly impossible tasks, Hercules' famous Labors. For instance, Eurystheus sent him into a dark swamp to slay a giant nine-headed serpent called the Hydra ("Water[-snake]") which spit venom and had poisonous blood. Worse yet, when any of its heads was cut off, two grew back, forcing Hercules to invent cauterizing. That is, when he lopped a head off the Hydra, he seared the wound shut with a torch before new heads could emerge, and in that way he finally killed the beast. To cap off this Labor, he dipped his arrows in the dead snake's blood, rendering them lethally toxic.
His other Labors included abducting the hellhound Cerberus from Hades, taming man-eating horses in Thrace, ridding Lake Stymphalus in southern Greece of menacing birds, choking to death the Nemean lion whose hide was impenetrable to metal weaponry, and shooting with one well-aimed arrow the three-bodied giant Geryon (see above, Chapter 7.II.B.782-974). He even ventured to the far west to steal three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides at the edge of the world. There, he encountered the Titan Atlas to whom Jupiter had assigned the onerous duty of holding up the sky so that the heavens don't crash down on the earth—a collection of maps is still called an "atlas" because an image of the kneeling giant was frequently included in the corner of early maps—enlisting Atlas' aid in the theft, Hercules briefly bore on his own powerful shoulders the entire weight of the universe.
When the Titan returned from stealing the apples, he at first refused to resume the burdensome task of sustaining the celestial vault. Craftily, Hercules first complimented the slow-witted hulk on having tricked someone else into doing his job for him and then begged one last favor of him, that Atlas hold the cosmos for just a moment so Hercules could straighten out the lion-skin robe he wore across his back and make his new duty a little more comfortable. The simple-minded giant could certainly sympathize with such a request—while he didn't understand much, he knew the backache in store for Hercules—and so consented to take the weight of heaven back on his shoulders, but only long enough for the mortal to adjust his cloak. Of course, when he did, Hercules skipped off laughing at how easy it is to trick a Titan.
While it might appear from all this that nothing could defeat or kill this hero, he did, in fact, die, ironically not in combat with any monster but at the hands of his second wife, the beautiful Deianeira. After winning her in the wrestling contest with Achelous which Ovid describes at the opening of Book 9 of The Metamorphoses, Hercules was taking his new bride back to his home when they came to a river in flood. There they met a wily centaur named Nessus—centaurs are half-horse half-human creatures, often portrayed in myth as lustful and violent—who offered to carry her on his back across the raging waters but, when Hercules agreed, the beast instead attempted to make off with the helpless Deianeira.
Unable to reach them because of the high waters, Hercules pulled out his bow and shot the Centaur from a distance with one of his poison-tipped arrows. As the Hydra's venom coursed through his veins and the lusty beast lay dying, with his last breath he told the frightened, naive girl to take some of his blood, explaining that it was a love charm she could use if Hercules ever became unfaithful to her. And, of course, she did.
And, of course, he did. Many years later, realizing that her husband on one of his many foreign campaigns had fallen in love with a beautiful captive girl named Iole, Deianeira daubed a cloak with Nessus' blood and sent it to Hercules. When he put on the robe, instead of inspiring renewed love for his wife, it caught fire and turned him into a living torch. Being half divine, he couldn't die easily, so the gods convened and, watching his anguish, even Juno agreed that it was time to let his mortal part burn away so that his Jovian half could join them on Mount Olympus. Thus, Hercules was exalted into the firmament he'd once carried briefly on his shoulders.
Hercules' stepmother (9.15) is, of course, Juno.
Oeneus is Deianeira's father.
Clearly Ovid's principal interest in describing the wrestling match between Hercules and Achelous centers around the opportunity it presents to fill his verse with details about the sport and similes aggrandizing the match. After a blow-by-blow commentary, the scene climaxes with Achelous shifting form to avoid being pinned. When that's done, however, Ovid's fascination with the myth quickly fades and the story ends abruptly, returning the reader to the river banks on which Theseus and Achelous lie.
Most notable is the wonderful character touch that Achelous' horn was torn off during this bout—the horn becomes the cornucopia ("horn of plenty"), the symbol of a bountiful harvest still seen sometimes in modern Thanksgiving displays—and so the river god wears a garland of reeds on his head to hide the scar of an ignominious defeat (9.96-7). This deity's vanity and injured pride at having lost a wrestling match to a mortal, even if that man was Hercules, is a wonderful touch, giving dimension to a type of character who rarely receives such care in literature.
9.98-272 "The wheel your father rides in eternal Hell should be your warning against forbidden loves" (9.124f.) is a reference to Ixion who tried to seduce Juno and was punished by being tied in Tartarus to a wheel that spins forever (see above, Chapter 11.III.B.440-636).
Ovid offers the variation that the centaur Nessus gave Deianeira
a cloak already soaked in his poisoned blood.
Oechalia is Iole's hometown in Boeotia. Calydon in northern Greece is Deianeira's home to which she briefly contemplates returning if Hercules brings Iole home to live with them.
Meleager, Deianeira's brother, was the focus of several famous myths set in Calydon. When he was born, one of the Fates appeared and said to his mother that her baby would die when a small log in her hearth had finished burning. To save Meleager, she reached into the fire and pulled the log out, then extinguished the flame and hid it away in a safe place.
After Meleager grew up, a huge boar began ravaging the countryside of Calydon. So he called together the greatest champions in Greece to fight it in what came to be known as the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Many heroes joined this quest, including the great huntress Atalanta (see below, Met.10.560-680). In the end, however, it was Meleager himself who killed the boar.
Having fallen in love with Atalanta during this exploit, he gave her the hide of the boar as a present, but his uncles on his mother's side felt they should have gotten it and stole it from her. Furious at this insult to both himself and his beloved, Meleager killed them. His mother, upon hearing about the death of her brothers at her son's hands, took the magical log from its hiding place and threw it back in the fire. As it burnt up, Meleager slowly died in agony.
Deianeira's comment, "I might remember Meleager was my brother, might plan some desperate deed, . . ." (9.149f.) recalls the hopeless rage that drove their mother to kill her own son. Though Deianeira is contemplating doing something similar to her husband's girlfriend, in the end, ironically, it's not Iole she hurts but Hercules himself who burns up in the robe she sends him tainted with the Centaur's poisoned blood. This misstep will drive the impetuous beauty to suicide. All in all, it seems fair to conclude that Ovid is suggesting Deianeira's whole family is rather hot-headed, if not downright igneous.
Lichas is Hercules' herald. The great hero was driven mad with pain when he put on the fiery cloak which the hapless Lichas had brought him at Deianeira's behest. In the delirium of his agony, he picked up the hapless Lichas and threw him far out to sea where he was turned into a rock. This moment is important because it's Ovid's passport into the myth of Hercules' death. Otherwise, the tale doesn't involve a physical transformation and thus by Ovid's own rules could not be included in The Metamorphoses.
Hercules' ravings in pain are the centerpiece and highlight of this section of the epic. As the wrestling contest with Achelous lay at the heart of the preceding myth, the pathos of the dying hero—that is, the narration of Hercules' explosion into flames and subsequent tirade against the injustice of the gods—betray Ovid's real reason for wanting to narrate this particular passage of Greek mythology.
Poeas' son is Philoctetes, an important character in Greek myth—all three of the great classical Athenian tragedians wrote plays entitled Philoctetes—because, as Ovid describes here, Hercules on his funeral pyre gave him his famous bow. According to mythic tradition, the Greeks had to secure this bow from Philoctetes in order to take Troy.
9.273-323 Ovid appends a wonderful detail to the end of the story about Hercules' deification. Atlas feels the added weight of the newly invested divinity, now a constellation in the heavens. It's a clear allusion to the Labor noted above during which Hercules gathered three apples from the Garden of the Hesperides and duped the giant who helped him with their theft into taking back the sky on his shoulders. Ovid notes wryly that, if Atlas hadn't been so gullible, the situation at the time of Hercules' apotheosis (transformation into a deity) might have been very different, with the man bearing the Titan's weight instead.
While Ovid's transition from the tale of Hercules' death to that of his birth may be artistically satisfying inasmuch as it's a bold poetic leap, its rough execution leaves a jagged scar on the text. With both Hercules and his wife dead, only the hero's mother Alcmena and his mistress Iole are left of his immediate family. Their sudden appearance and dialogue hardly follow organically from the story of the hero's death—Ovid, nevertheless, provides a quaintly homey touch that the aged Alcmena, seeing her son's mistress pregnant, reminisces about the birth of her own son—which is not to say that Ovid's work is sloppy or rushed at this, or any, point. Indeed, rather than avoiding such ragged transitions, Ovid seems to relish them, as if he were progressing from story to story haphazardly rather than along a carefully laid-out plot line, which, of course, is the case (see below, Met. 10.560-739). The chatty, oral feel of a rough cut like this constitutes a delectable oxymoron in the work of literate poet, in much the same way that some directors of big-budget movies today try at times to give their work a jerky visual quality, as if it had been filmed with hand-held cameras.
Ilithyia, or Eileithyia, (9.283) is the goddess of childbirth.
In the tale of Hercules' birth, Ovid focuses on the pathos of Alcmena unable to give birth because of Juno's wrath, as outlined above (Met. 9.1-97). The wailing and flailing of the parturient Alcmena all but preempts the rest of the tale, which culminates with the metamorphosis of her maid Galanthis into a weasel after tricking the goddess of childbirth into releasing her mistress from the pangs of labors. As with Lichas above, Galanthis' transformation opens the possibility of inserting this story into The Metamorphoses.
The ancients believed that weasels gave birth their young through their mouths, probably because these animals are known to carry them with their teeth.
9.324-393 Just like Ovid's rendition of Hercules' birth and death, the Dryope story focuses on pathos, in this case the travails of a girl changing into a tree. Such an exotic fantasy allows Ovid to concoct wonderfully ridiculous lines of the sort, "Take my boy away from the branches of his mother" (9.375). The author's laughter echoes beneath the extraordinary suffering of his arboreal heroine, as he delights in and lingers over the absurdities of this tale.
9.394-453 Iole's story transforms briefly into the myth of Iolaus, the son of Hercules' little known twin brother Iphicles. After the great hero's death and transfiguration into heaven, his divine wife Hebe, the goddess of youth, granted her husband's request to make Iolaus young again in order that he might feel new strength and defend Hercules' helpless grandchildren when Eurystheus, the jealous man who sent the hero off on all his Labors, attacked them. Thus re-energized, Iolaus finally did away with the man who'd been Hercules' great tormentor in life.
After the mention of Iolaus comes a flurry of myths ultimately leading up to the tale of Caunus and Byblis. Unlike before, here Ovid deploys a sophisticated series of transitions progressing through the epic adventures of the Seven Against Thebes, that part of the Theban cycle following the exile and death of Oedipus. This rapidly evolving sequence of contingent tales touches upon the various crises of a raft of mythological figures: Alcmaeon, Aurora, Ceres, Erichthonius, Anchises and Minos.
Themis is the goddess of Justice.
One of the Seven Against Thebes, Capaneus was scaling the walls of the city when he boasted that not even Jupiter could stop him, whence the sky-god promptly struck him down with a bolt of lightning for such bold hubris. The "living prophet" is a reference to Amphiaraus, another member of the same expedition, who was swallowed up by the earth to forestall his death at the hands of one of the Theban warriors.
Ovid now shows his knowledge of mythological minutiae, a prerequisite for admission to the Alexandrian school of poetry. Amphiaraus' son Alcmaeon, in anger that his mother Eriphyle had encouraged her husband to join the disastrous expedition to Thebes which resulted in his father's death, killed her and, much like Orestes, was pursued by her Furies (see above, Chapter 11.III.B.426-476). Subsequently exiled from his homeland Argos, Alcmaeon went to Psophis and married the daughter of the king Phegeus, but when his madness persisted, he was forced to leave. He continued on to Calydon where he was eventually purified of matricide by the river-god Achelous whose daughter Callirhoe he married. Callirhoe and Alcmaeon had already lived together for some time, when she heard of a beautiful robe and necklace which Alcmaeon had once owned but given away to his first wife in Psophis. Callirhoe insisted that these trappings were rightfully hers and sent Alcmaeon back to Psophis to collect them. There, Alcmaeon lied to his regal former father-in-law Phegeus and said he needed the robe and necklace back to ensure his sanity. Phegeus at first agreed to return them, until he learned the truth—that Alcmaeon's new wife wanted them—and in rage the old king had Alcmaeon murdered. Callirhoe, in the mean time, had been seduced by Jupiter and mothered two sons. When she heard of Alcmaeon's death, she begged Jupiter to accelerate her sons' development and make them grown men overnight so that they might avenge her slain husband. The king of the gods consented and thus the preternaturally mature boys attacked Psophis and murdered Phegeus. Assuming his readers know the story above, Ovid rushes over all of it to reach the point where Callirhoe's sons experience accelerated growth, which he fits into the theme of metamorphoses involving unnatural aging.
In this action-packed transition, Ovid also makes brief references to other myths: Ceres and Iasion, Erichthonius and Vulcan, Venus and Anchises and, in particular, Aurora and Tithonus. The goddess of the dawn Aurora fell in love with a mortal named Tithonus, and they lived together happily. But since she was immortal and he wasn't, he began to grow old and his energies fade as death approached. She begged Jupiter to make her lover immortal, which the sky-god did, but the goddess forgot to request eternal youth as well. Thus, poor Tithonus continued to age but didn't die, eventually becoming so old, so hunched over and twittering that the gods changed him into a cicada.
The near-riot that ensues among the gods as they vie to rejuvenate their particular favorites provides Ovid with a good opportunity for poking fun at how often in classical literature deities squabble, and over what trivial—that is, mortal—concerns. This is perhaps a reflection of the debate on Olympus over Sarpedon's fate as Patroclus bears down on him in Book 16 of The Iliad (see above, Chapter 4.III.D.419-683). There, as here, the poet focuses on the Fates' supremacy over the gods, even Jupiter.
As this complex transition finally begins to wind down, Ovid shifts gears one last time, changing the subject from the gods' inability to rejuvenate their favorites to Jupiter's aging son Minos, who is imagined at this moment to be between his two great regencies: as the living king of Crete and a judge of the dead in the underworld. When he was a feeble old man, Minos' claim to his throne was threatened by a younger rival named Miletus who eventually left Crete. Ovid quickly passes over the reason for this—Miletus had chosen as his lover the Lycian hero Sarpedon and traveled to Asia Minor to be with him, though later their relationship didn't work out and they went their separate ways—instead, the Roman poet advances to a later stage of the story, after the hero has already founded the ancient city which was named for him, Miletus. There, he married Cyane, the daughter of the river-god Meander, and fathered two children, a boy named Caunus and a girl Byblis, the subjects of Ovid's next extended tale of metamorphosis.
9.454-665 The story of Caunus and Byblis provides Ovid with several rich occasions for exploring pathos—mostly Byblis'—for instance, as she debates with herself whether her love for her brother is in any arguable way proper. First, she writes Caunus a letter explaining her love, then panics when she hears of his anger at her proposition. She subsequently wanders all over the Near East bewailing her folly and the loss of her brother's affection, all in fairly operatic fashion. The passage is also rich in precious, Alexandrian finery: Byblis leans on one elbow as the idea occurs to her to write Caunus a letter, she writes but then erases the word "sister," and the last words of her rambling love-letter must be written in the margin. Thus, the essence of Hellenistic verse-making, this obscure story focuses on the heroine's suffering as opposed to the narration of the story, with long emotional set-pieces full of pertinent but unnecessary detail.
At the same time, the story also resonates with themes seen across a wide range of ancient cultures, far more than just the Alexandrian age. It shares, for instance, with the biblical tradition, the motif of a brother-sister incest. To wit, at 2 Samuel 13, David's son Amnon rapes his own sister Tamar by pretending to be ill and, when she comes in to tend him, takes advantage of her. Byblis in much the same way imagines herself lying dead and having Caunus come in and kiss her.
Even more echoes are heard from the Athenian Classical Age, in particular, the plays of Euripides who more than once danced a chorus around the notion of brother-sister incest, the most famous example of which was his Aeolus, a tragedy unfortunately now lost. Ancient sources have, however, preserved some information about the general nature of its plot, which addressed the love felt between Macareus and Canace, both children of the title character. In the play, when their passion is uncovered, their father Aeolus kills his daughter and drives his son to suicide. Appropriately, Ovid has Byblis refer to this myth, but she naturally stops short of recalling these characters' tragic demise.
Moreover, Byblis' rationalization of her incestuous love hearkens back to Euripides' Hippolytus, especially the scene in which Phaedra's Nurse remarks that the gods marry their own siblings (see above, Chapter 9.II.B.433-524). A similar letter-motif appears in Hippolytus (790-901), but applied to the plot in a different way: Phaedra's suicide note does not confess her unnatural love for her stepson but deceives Theseus into thinking that Hippolytus has raped her. Also redolent of Euripides' play, Caunus' rejection of the hapless servant who delivers Byblis' letter recalls Hippolytus' savage denunciation of all women (Hipp. 525-668). In sum, it's quintessentially Hellenistic, to weave together provocative Euripidean plot elements with the delicacy of Alexandrian pathos.
9.666-797 At the end of this myth, Ovid has Byblis metamorphose into a fountain, a transfiguration which should bring the story to a satisfying climax but, instead, seems on the whole forced and perfunctory—Byblis' brazen advance on her own brother calls for greater retribution than mere fontification—but if Ovid is to include this story in The Metamorphoses, by his own law he must introduce some sort of physical transmogrification into the tale. Thus, Byblis becomes a well of tears, making it neither a novel nor logical nor even particularly affecting conclusion. Vergil, one feels, would have worked on this passage a bit longer. Ovid, on the other hand, just moves on.
Worse yet is the transition to the next story, so bad it must be intentional. The statement that the Cretans would have heard all about Byblis' story "except that Crete, by then, was dwelling on a new wonder of her own, the change that came to Iphis" makes both myths sound like local gossip. To claim, in effect, it was a busy news day when the Byblis story broke so it didn't make the front page of the Cretan Tattler is hardly to cast either tale in a serious light. Thus, in classically bad style—that is to say, good Hellenistic style—Ovid draws a strong contrast between the casual tone of the subject matter and the poem's formal verse, all of which is, to be sure, a deliberate attempt to amuse his audience.
Since the Greeks equated their mythological character Io (the daughter of river-god Inachus) with the Egyptian goddess Isis—Io and Isis were both depicted with horns—Ovid refers to the latter as "Inachus' daughter" (9.687). The figures around this Hellenized Isis are, however, all Egyptian: Anubis the jackal-headed god, Bubastis the patron deity of an important Egyptian city in the eastern delta of the Nile, Apis the sacred bull of Memphis, Harpocrates the god of silence, and Osiris who is Isis' husband. In the earlier Hellenistic Age, the worship of Isis had spread around the Mediterranean so she was by Ovid's day a well-known element in Roman religious life, which shows clearly the cosmopolitan nature of Augustan Rome.
Hymen (9.762; see below, Met. 10.1) is the god of marriage whose name was often invoked at ancient weddings.
|Terms, Places, People and Things to Know|
Calydonian Boar Hunt
A. Metamorphoses, Books 10-11
Now begin reading Ovid's The Metamorphoses, Books 10-11, with one eye on the notes below.
10.1-108 The naturally superstitious Romans thought it was a bad omen if the torches at a wedding ceremony would not easily catch fire or sputtered out after being lit (10.6ff.). This resembles other superstitions prevalent in Roman society, such as the bad luck associated with stumbling as one passed over a threshold (see above, Chapter 11.II.D.199-249).
Orpheus was a legendary bard, in many ways the very prototype of poets in antiquity. The myths concerning him center around his beloved Eurydice (Eurydike), a nymph who was to become his wife but she died on her wedding day, when a snake bit her in the ankle. Heartbroken at her loss, Orpheus went to the underworld and sang so beautifully that Dis (Hades) and Proserpina (Persephone) returned her to him, with the stipulation he mustn't look back at her as they climbed out of Hell. Unable to resist a glimpse of his bride regained—or because he didn't trust she was there, or because he simply forgot the arrangement—Orpheus glanced back and Eurydice's spirit was dragged back down to Hades.
A story widely known in antiquity, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice can be found in the works of many ancient authors. In Ovid's day, its most recent incarnation was at the end of Vergil's Georgics, where it served as the culmination and climax of the fourth and final book. Since Ovid's version of this tale clearly responds to his great Roman predecessor's, it's necessary to read the passage from Vergil in order to understand this part of The Metamorphoses.
In good Hellenistic style, Vergil packages the story of Orpheus' aborted marriage and subsequent trip to the depths of Hades inside another myth, the tale of Aristaeus, a bee-keeper who, when his hives die, seeks the reason why. To learn this truth, he discovers he must visit the old man of the sea, in Greek myth a secretive, shape-shifting deity named Proteus—from him we derive the word protean, meaning "changeable"—who knows all things but is reluctant to reveal them.
In his effort to drive from Proteus the cause of his bees' demise, Aristaeus is forced to catch the slimy sea-demon unawares and hold onto him firmly around the neck without letting go until he coughs up the truth. When Aristaeus does this, Proteus changes form dramatically in an effort to escape, morphing from lion to bull to raging river. But having been warned in advance of his deceptive, illusory nature, Aristaeus refuses to release him. At last, the salty old oracle consents to render up the answer to Aristaeus' question, what killed his hives (Georgics 4.450-528):
At long last, the prophet Proteus with
"This wrath that
wears you down, it's heaven-sent, you know;
She was, when she fled
from you by the rivers headlong,
|Instead, a chorus of nymphs, her bridesmaids,
The hilltops with weeping. Rhodope's heights rained tears,
The peak Pangaea, too, and Rhesus' war-torn land,
Getic peoples, and the Hebrus River, and Attic Orithyia.
|He himself, though, soothed his ailing
love upon a hollow lyre
‘You, sweet wife, O you' upon some lonely shore, forlorn,
‘You' at daybreak, ‘You' at nightfall, that is all he sang.
|Even in Taenarum's jaw, the lofty doors
And the grove that steams with blackened fear,
Inside these he went, approaching ghosts and their fearsome lord
And hearts untrained to bend when mortals beg.
|And stirred by song from their homes in
Shadows came, thin reflections without light,
As many as the leaves hide birds by thousands,
When evening or a winter shower purges mountains,
Mothers and men and bodies bereft of life once
Holding hearty heroes, boys and girls as yet unwed,
And children laid in flames as parents watch,
Whom all around the inky fen and shapeless sedge
Of Cocytus, the dank molasses of that unpalatable marsh
Girds and binds, and nine times the Styx divides them.
The palace doors themselves hung open, as did Death's lowest
Hell, likewise the sky-blue curls of serpent-hair that crown
The Furies, and all three tongues of Cerberus stopped,
And so did the windy wheel of Ixion stand still.
And now retracing his
step, he'd skirted every trap.
|Nor would Orcus' doorman|
|Endorse another trek across the forbidding
What was he to do? Where should he go, twice deprived of wife?
What weeping works on ghouls, what word would move the gods?
She, indeed, was on the boat, shivering in the Styx.
Seven, they say, entire months, he spent one after another,
Beneath a soaring peak abreast the river Strymon's solitude,
Watering his eyes, and under chilly suns unwound
Such things as tame tigers and teach trees to follow a tune.
Much as a nightingale in grief hiding beneath a poplar's shade
Bewails the young she's lost, what the hardy farmer
When he spied them in their nest, featherless, tore down. And she
Cries the night. Atop a tree she weaves a sorrowful
Song, and piteous laments pour over the place far and near.
|No Venus for him, though, not a single
The bachelor North Pole, over the frozen Danube
And sheets Riphaean, married for eternity to rime,
These he circled, mourning lost Eurydike and Dis' worthless
Favor, spurning the mothers of Ciconian Thrace, who gave
Thanks to their god in night's ecstatic bacchanal
By shredding far and wide the man who fed their fields.
|And still from out that marble neck the
As Oeagrus' river bore it down its stream,
Turned and called ‘Eurydike,' a voice alone,
An icy tongue, ‘Ah, poor Eurydike!,' as breath ran out.
And ‘Eurydike' reflected back on every river bank."
Vergil's ghoulish, highly stylized and affecting rendition of the myth was already considered a classic in his own time. Seeing this, Ovid responds with a very different version of the tale—in modern terms, he "de-constructs" the Vergil—forging an Orpheus more suited to his generation.
"Taenarian" (10.13) refers to Taenarum, the middle "prong" in the fork-shaped peninsula at southern end of the Peloponnese (south Greece). On this cape was one of the sites which, like Cumae, was purported to be an entrance to the underworld.
In Book 6 of The Aeneid, Vergil also mentions Tityus (see above, Chapter 11.III.B.477-636).
Belus' (grand)daughters are the Danaids who, according to Greek myth, were compelled by their uncle to marry his sons, the girls' own cousins. Aghast at this, the reluctant brides took matters into their own hands and on their wedding nights collectively killed their grooms-to-be. In punishment, they were dispatched to Hades where for all eternity their doom is to draw and carry water in leaky urns, a nightmarish variation on common women's work.
Another famous villain sequestered in Tartarus is Sisyphus who saw Jupiter make off with the daughter of the river-god Asopus and told her father where she was. In anger at being betrayed by a mortal, Jupiter forced the ghost of Sisyphus to spend all time pushing a large rock up a hill. But being slick, this boulder always slips out of his hands, usually just as he's nearing the summit, and tumbles back down the hill. Thus, Sisyphus spends forever trying to make a stone roll up a mountain.
Ovid brings a much lighter tone to Vergil's morbid tale of Orpheus by adding many a risible detail. For instance, when he hears the bard's beautiful song, Sisyphus stops pushing his rock for a moment and, instead, uses it as a perch to sit on and listen—that is, Sisyphus has a balcony seat at the concert—and the ghost of Eurydice, as Ovid imagines her, limps because her ankle is sore from the fatal snake bite she received on her wedding day.
But Ovid has the most fun with Orpheus himself. After losing Eurydice a second time, the celebrity bard refuses to marry another woman "either because marriage had meant misfortune or he had made a promise." This pseudo-scholarly statement reads as if Ovid had done research into the various historical sources surviving in his day which addressed Orpheus' motivations for not remarrying, but the investigation hadn't turned up any definitive reason. In opposition to this academic-sounding report, the reader knows that Orpheus' actions and their justification are entirely in Roman poet's control—Orpheus is a fictional character whom Ovid can manipulate at will—thus, the transparent facade of this purported uncertainty is clearly meant to be comical, and even more so, to judge from what falls. Ovid adds that soon thereafter Orpheus suffered a bout of pederastic longing and began directing his affections to boys rather than women, which represents, if nothing else, quite an unexpected turn in the story.
The brief mention that a mere glimpse of Cerberus had once turned a man to stone—but Ovid never says who, and so we aren't sure about the identity of this mythological figure—is either Ovid's fabrication or a reference to an otherwise unknown myth of some sort.
The catalogue of trees (10.90ff.) is a clear recollection of Homer who more than once includes in his works long lists, for instance, of ships or nymphs. While such litanies may be impressive in an oral poem—a bard of Homer's sort reciting from memory a long catalogue in meter is a notable accomplishment—the same, however, is not true in literary epic. A written author's catalogue shares more with a shopping list than anything in oral epic, because the reader knows it was probably taken from some sort of reference work. Thus, in contriving this parade of poetic shrubbery, Ovid is most likely being comical again, mocking the encyclopedic traditions of earlier literature, which, no doubt, bored him and his audiences to trees, I mean, tears.
10.109-142 And now that he's minoring in queer studies, Ovid diverts from the main story of Orpheus and explores the myth of Apollo and Cyparissus ("Cypress"), in which one of Apollo's young lovers metamorphoses into a cypress tree and dies. To Ovid, this explains why the wood of this tree was used in antiquity to make coffins.
10.143-154 Leaving Orpheus as such behind, Ovid now launches into what seems at first will be a brief diversion but turns out to be a long excursus across a panoply of different myths. Only at the beginning of the next book (Book 11 of The Metamorphoses) does the poet finally return to Orpheus himself and narrate the tale of the bard's tragic death. Notably, the equivalent passage in The Georgics takes up fewer than ten lines ("Seven, they say, entire months, he spent one after another, . . . and piteous laments pour over the place far and near."), which Ovid now turns into hundreds of lines. Thus, in The Metamorphoses, Orpheus' laments seem more like the seven-month song Vergil mentions but doesn't quote. Surely, this is Ovid belaboring and challenging his respected predecessor.
Furthermore, that the Ovidian Orpheus assumes the poet's voice for the rest of Book 10 is doubtless also a reflection of Vergil, in at least two ways. First, it takes to task the master-poet's obsessive discretion in The Georgics—note how Vergil demurely never quotes Orpheus directly except to say "You" or "Eurydike," words it seems safe to conclude Orpheus probably used—because what verses could anyone ever compose as good as his who conquered death with song? Ovid responds to this by citing with joyous abandon page after page of purported Orphistries, as if he were saying to Vergil, "Here's what Orpheus said. Maybe you couldn't say it but I can, because as poets go, I'm just that good."
Second, when Vergil decided to cast Aeneas as the major speaking role of Books 2 and 3 of The Aeneid—remember that it's Aeneas, not Vergil as such, who narrates the story of the Trojan Horse—this overtly theatrical posture allowed him to assume a character's mask and lament in person and depth the fall of Troy, a licence for all sorts of literary excesses. Ovid now does the same by donning the guise of Orpheus and playing up the pathos inherent in the tales he's telling, except there's at least one major difference. Orpheus has far less reason to mourn the subjects of his myths because, unlike Aeneas, the stories he relates he didn't "witness with [his own] eyes and was [himself] a part of" (Aen. 2.8). Ovid's Orpheus is just wailing and lamenting because that's what pathetic poets do, particularly ones schooled in Alexandrian technique. Thus, again the younger Roman poet pokes fun at his great forebear's modesty and caution, and not entirely without just cause.
10.155-219 The ram is Aries and the fish is Pisces (10.165), setting the time of year as spring. "My father" (10.167) refers to Orpheus' sire Apollo. In some stories, however, Orpheus is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus.
The simile comparing the dying Hyacinthus and a drooping flower (10.190ff.) clearly stems from Homer who compares a hero falling in battle to a flower beaten down by rain (see above, Chapter 4.III.B, Iliad 8.306-8). Ovid's comparison is, however, more than a simple simile. It prepares the reader for Hyacinthus' upcoming metamorphosis, in which he will actually become a flower, the hyacinth, of course. The ancients imagined that the letters AI, one of the Greeks' many words for "alas," could be seen and read on this flower.
Originally, Hyacinthus may have been a vegetation god. The ancient Spartans and their neighbors held an annual festival called the Hyacinthia in his honor, suggesting Hyacinthus was at some point in early history a divinity, one associated with plant life, no doubt. The remnant of this cult is seen in the type of metamorphosis the character undergoes in Ovid.
10.220-297 Leaving homosexual themes behind, Ovid rushes briefly over two myths of transformation which demonstrate the consequences of Venus' wrath. Both are set in the goddess' birthplace, the island of Cyprus. In the first, women who murder their innocent guests are turned into bulls. In the second, "hardened" prostitutes become literal stone.
It's worth noting that Ovid's transitions assume a more graceful quality at this point, no doubt, because Orpheus is now the narrator and so Ovid graces the bard's song with elegant bridges, the sort suitable for a poet of his distinction. Thus, The Metamorphoses graduates smoothly through a rainbow of sexual affairs: from homosexual business (Cyparissus/Ganymede/Hyacinthus) to loveless heterosexual sex (the prostitutes of Cyprus) to a variety of troubled male-female relationships (Pygmalion/Myrrha/Atalanta), eventually ending up with a tale of mutual heterosexual love (Venus and Adonis).
Perhaps one of the most famous stories in The Metamorphoses is that of Pygmalion and the statue—only much later in literature was the statue given the name Galatea ("Milky")—the modern playwright George Bernard Shaw updated the story in his play Pygmalion, the basis for the musical My Fair Lady. To Ovid, Pygmalion is the consummate sculptor of all time, the very paradigm of those who work in the plastic arts. However, Pygmalion's skill was so great his statuary not only seemed to live but, in one case, actually came to life.
10.298-559 After concluding the tale of Pygmalion, Ovid-as-Orpheus moves smoothly into the next story, the myth of Cinyras and Myrrha. The connection between them is obvious since Pygmalion is Myrrha's grandfather. Likewise, after Myrrha and Cinyras, he again leaps adroitly to the next tale, the legend of Venus and Adonis, because through her incestuous relationship with her father, Myrrha is the mother of Adonis.
Like the myth of Byblis and Caunus (see above, Met. 9.454-665), the tale of Myrrha and Cinyras centers around incest, providing Ovid with ample opportunity to explore in Hellenistic fashion the pathos of a girl who's in love with a forbidden partner, in this case, her own father.
In the end, Myrrha appropriately metamorphoses into a myrrh-bearing tree which has a fragrant but bitter resin that the ancients made into perfume, incense and medicine. Ovid later refers to this resin as "(Myrrha's) tears."
Lucina (10.510), an aspect of Juno, is the Roman equivalent of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth whose help ancient women in labor evoke.
Myrrha's story is a variation on Byblis' and shares several features with it, such as the poetic flights of pathos Ovid bestows on both. Also, like Byblis' tale, Myrrha's has Euripidean overtones, mostly from Hippolytus (see above, Chapter 9.II.B). For instance, like Phaedra, Myrrha's desire undermines her health, and when she throws a rope over rafters and attempts suicide, her actions recall her tragic prototype who dies by hanging. Like Phaedra, too, Myrrha has a nurse to whom she at first refuses to speak but who worms the truth out of her—and, in both cases, a mother provides the nurse with the final clue about the beloved's identity, Hippolytus' Amazon mother and Myrrha's jealousy of her own mother—but then rather than being horrified, the nurse serves as an abettor in the illicit passion. All in all, it seems clear that Ovid in telling both these myths has Euripides' Hippolytus on his mind.
More than that, he appears to be thinking about both of Euripides' tragedies named Hippolytus—it's important to remember that the Roman poet had access to the earlier Hippolytus (Veiled) which we don't have today—thus, the Byblis and Myrrha tales seem not only to draw on Euripides' two versions of the Phaedra story but as a pair to resemble the very plays themselves. That is, Ovid's earlier Byblis myth closely reflects Euripides' first Phaedra, the brazen adulteress of Hippolytus Veiled who confronts her beloved with an open invitation to sex, whereas the subject of Ovid's later tale, Myrrha, is a far more discreet heroine as appalled by her incestuous feelings as anyone in the story, making her a close counterpart of Phaedra in Euripides' second Hippolytus (Garlanded). The use of the nurse in Myrrha's tale only underscores this parallel.
Thus, Ovid has not only remade Euripides' tales but revived Euripides himself in The Metamorphoses, rendering a portrait of self-conscious artistry which is appropriate for Orpheus, Greek myth's most celebrated poet. Moreover, that Ovid knew both Orpheus and Euripides ended up as exiles who died in northern Greece may have contributed to the allusion. That he himself would also end up in banishment in the same general area is an irony he couldn't have foreseen, though it's not impossible Augustus did.
Adonis is the child of Myrrha and Cinyras. Because he was still in his mother's womb when she turned into a myrrh tree, her trunk had to split open for him to be born. Thus, his birth entailed his spilling from a tree, about as clear a sign as there can be that he's a vegetation deity. Indeed, to judge from my myth, Adonis appears originally designed to serve as the mortal consort of a god, the same basic relationship seen between Attis and Cybele or Hyacinthus and Apollo, the type who dies and is reborn each year, a clear symbol of plant life. In his case, the companion deity was Venus.
After his arboreal birth, Adonis was raised in the wild and grew to extraordinary beauty—in ancient literature, the offspring of incestuous unions are often exceptional in some way, for instance, Jocasta and Oedipus' progeny who are unnaturally quarrelsome and in their struggle for power precipitate the disastrous expedition of the Seven Against Thebes (see above, Chapter11.III.B.426-476)—Adonis, then, was so beautiful he attracted Venus' eye. Their love affair was famous in the classical world as the paradigm of the relationship between a younger man and an older woman.
After he'd grown up, Adonis dedicated himself to hunting from which the love goddess tried to keep him away but to no avail, and, of course, one day a boar gored him and he died. At the end of Hippolytus, Euripides has Artemis refer to this myth as her anticipated revenge for the title character's premature death at her rival Aphrodite's hands (see above, Chapter 9.II.B.1347-1443).
10.560-739 At this point, the complexity of Ovid's epic reaches a fever pitch of confusion, as the Roman poet quotes Orpheus who quotes Venus quoting the words of Hippomenes and Atalanta. Thus, the story exists and has meaning on four levels simultaneously: as Atalanta attempts to outrace nature and her attraction to Hippomenes, at the same time Venus is warning Adonis not to hunt wild animals, while a grief-stricken Orpheus is also singing sad songs to console himself and, behind it all, Ovid is luxuriating in a myth of love and tragedy effected in his usual sprightly style. All these layers of meaning have been carefully woven together, as if Ovid were conducting a symphony with four melodies playing in counterpoint at once.
The myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes (10.560-680) is the story of a woman who outdistances her lovers in a footrace—and just as in the tale of Oenomaus and Hippodameia, the losing suitors are killed (see above, Chapter 7.I.B)—but though she's swifter, she's finally defeated by a man who distracts her by throwing golden apples as they're racing. At the conclusion of the tale, Ovid recalls Catullus 63 (see above, Chapter 10.II.D.77-92), the point in the poem when Cybele's lion of madness chases Attis off into the forest and renewed madness. Ovid appears to be complementing—and also complimenting!—his Roman predecessor by filling in the other side of Poem 63, the lion's end of the tale. He suggests that beast was a metamorphosed creature, not the same but just like Atalanta and Hippomenes.
Anemos (10.739) in Greek means "wind," cf. anemometer, a device to measure wind velocity. The anemone is, therefore, the "wind-flower."
At the end of Book 10, Orpheus finally finishes his lengthy song. Although it seems a rather disjointed and rambling effort, it's actually a carefully structured sequence of stories as consciously crafted as any work written in antiquity. Its structure, however, is hard to see at first, because it's so complicated and entails a new way of balancing plot elements.
B. [Orpheus:] Jupiter and Ganymede
C. The Women of Cyprus
c. Pygmalion's Statue
b. [Venus:] Atalanta and Hippomenes
The first group of myths running from Cyparissus to Hyacinthus, labeled as A1-A2 above, involve homosexual affairs. In the center stands Orpheus' brief discourse on Ganymede. Parallel to these is the group of myths covering Myrrha to Adonis, labeled as a1-a2 above, all heterosexual affairs of some sort. Venus interrupts this sequence with her lengthy narration of Atalanta and Hippomenes' tale. Thus, a series of homosexual encounters is equated with a later collection of heterosexual counterparts.
The parallels, however, are even broader and more complex than that. Notably, Apollo dominates the first group, where Venus oversees the last. Even more important, the sequence of myths running from the Cyprian women to Pygmalion, cited as C-c above, divides the balanced groups on either side of it (A1-A2 and a1-a2), and it, too, forms a balanced pair, constituting a little play-within-a-play that functions as the central sequence of Orpheus' song. This calls to mind Euripides who ingeniously re-situated Phaedra's suicide at the center of Hippolytus (see above, Chapter 9.II.C), though Ovid has deployed his central sequence in an even more complex and interesting way. In the first half, the women of Cyprus become stones (C) and, in the second half, a stone statue becomes a woman (c)—thus, it resembles some sort of mythical metamorphical recycling project engineered by Venus—all of it balanced by the goddess' wrath at the first group (Cyprian women) which is counterposed with her kindness to the other (Pygmalion).
In addition, the balances between the metamorphoses in the outer groups (A1-A2 and a1-a2) are readily apparent from the diagram above. In the first group (A1-A2), the characters transform successively into a tree, an eagle and a flower, whereas in the second (a1-a2) they become a tree, lions and a flower. With one minor variation involving wild animals—an eagle as opposed to a pair of lions—the pattern is exactly the same.
From all this, it's clear Ovid employed the same basic structural pattern of narrative Homer had used many centuries prior, but with some significant differences. Primarily, the Roman is a literate poet and isn't relying on the ABA construct as an aid to memory, which opens him up to re-employing the pattern in a new way, as an end unto itself and a source of artistic satisfaction all on its own. By creating divisions inside the groups themselves, Ovid has turned Homer's simple A=a into the more intricate ABA=aba. That is, the groups subdivide in the same way that the structure as a whole makes balanced pairs, resulting in boxes within boxes. Such subtle and delicate micro-management of text could come only from a literate author who knows that in re-reading his work some of his public will surely discover and enjoy unwinding this little labyrinth of narrative structure.
11.1-84 Ovid's version of the death of Orpheus is largely based on sparagmos, the ritual dismemberment of a victim as part of the worship of Dionysus (see above, Chapter 3.I.B.8). Usually, however, some hapless animal is the focus of the celebrants' ecstatic fury. Here, however, Orpheus' scorn of the Thracian maenads (female worshipers of Dionysus)—in Vergil, they're simply angry because of his rejection ("spurning the mothers of Ciconian Thrace"), but Ovid suggests it was also because he'd taken to admiring boys—brings their unwanted attention his way, and he dies, ripped alive into bits at their hands.
With typical finesse Ovid concludes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with a whimsical glimpse of their life—death?—in the underworld, noting in particular that the ghost of Orpheus may now turn around and look at his beloved wife whenever he wishes (11.64-66). Thus, with a smile and a wink, Ovid ends the poet's tragic tale.
To append the requisite metamorphosis onto the tale—thus, earning its inclusion into The Metamorphoses—Ovid's Bacchus punishes the maenads who killed Orpheus by turning them into trees, carried off, of course, with his usual carefree style: "Their breasts were oak, and oak their shoulders, and their arms you well might call long branches and be truthful." The last comment puts the reader and poet, not Orpheus or any figure in myth, at the center of the narrative, signaling that Ovid is winding up this section of the epic.
11.85-193 The myth of Midas, the foolish king of Lydia, serves as a coda ending this long sequence of The Metamorphoses, a complex tapestry of myth-making which began two books ago with Achelous lying on his own banks and talking to Theseus. Famous for his "golden touch," Midas' tale is rich in comic possibilities, especially since in the end he undergoes a partial metamorphosis into a donkey. For his inanity and bad judgment, the gods rewarded him with an ass' ears, a rather insensitive way of explaining why Middle Easterners wear turbans—according to the classical Greeks and Romans, Arabs and their kin wear scarfs on their heads because they want to hide the fact they all have donkey ears—the humor of this myth serves well to counterbalance the tragic tone of the previous stories and will seem all the funnier after listening to the woes of Orpheus.
The Pactolus (11.87) is a river in Lydia, which the Greeks saw as a "river of gold." This hyperbole refers to the fabulous wealth of the Lydians whose waterways, they imagined, flowed with untold riches, the source, no doubt, to the Midas myth itself. Gold as well as other mineral resources are, in fact, found in natural abundance in the region. Thus, Ovid's tale will culminate with the metamorphosis of the Pactolus into a "river of gold."
Silenus (11.99), often called "Papa Silenus," was an old, satyr-like companion of Bacchus. He's often depicted as drunk and occasionally accompanied by similar-looking minor deities called silenoi ("Silenuses"). According to Ovid, Silenus has adopted Bacchus as his son.
Danae is the mother of the Greek hero Perseus. Though her father had imprisoned her to prevent her from bearing a child which the oracle said was destined to kill him, Jupiter managed nonetheless to impregnate her by entering her locked room through a window. The god came in the form of a shower of gold ("golden rain"), a reflection of the vast wealth of Persia, the nation which Perseus would one day found, according to Greek myth.
Ovid rounds off the story of Midas with two wonderful details. First, in describing the endowment of Midas with an ass' ears, Ovid says that Apollo "made (their) base unstable, giving them the power of motion." (11.177) That is, Midas can now wiggle his ears like a donkey. Second, shortly thereafter, he ascribes to the king's vanity and injured pride the reason he wears a turban, which recalls the river-god Achelous' wounded ego at the beginning of this sequence of myths. Thus, Ovid's allusion brings a sense of thematic closure to a section of his works which might seem otherwise to entail an amorphous mess of metamorphoses.
Barber shops were famous in antiquity as places where men tended to loiter and exchange news. As such, they were well-known to be harbors of gossip. For instance, the Roman playwright Terence's comedy Phormio has much of the crucial information underlying the plot revealed to the characters in a conversation which takes place in a barber shop. It was also said that the initial report of the disaster in Sicily which resulted in the destruction of the Athenian navy near the end of the Classical Age was first announced in Athens to a barber by one of his customers. Ovid plays on that tradition here by characterizing Midas' barber as an inveterate gossip.
B. Conclusion: Post-Classical Literature and the Nature of Ovid's Public
Panta rei, "All things flow" (Heraclitus, Classical Greek philosopher)
If there's one thing to remember about Ovid, it's that he represents the culmination of centuries of literary experimentation, as first the Greeks and then the Romans turned literature, in the technical sense of the term, "texts written and meant to be read," into an art form per se. Thus, what had begun with the oral bard Homer who inherited a wealth of stories and narrative techniques stemming from deep in prehistory—the extraordinary antiquity of The Epic of Gilgamesh shows how far back in time the art of story-telling recurs—which later passed through the tragedians' hands forging dramas designed to be acted on stage, all of that finally came to rest in the laps of Roman master-writers like Catullus and Vergil. And capping it off, at the end of this triumphal parade of ancient literature, Ovid at last appears, standing atop a tradition that sculpts him as much as he does it.
This final transformation of genre, from epic and drama into true literature, entailed a change about as revolutionary as these kinds of things get—the like's not seen again in narrative arts until the modern cinema—making equal and extraordinary demands of both its artists and their audiences. That is, outside of Aeneas himself, Vergil's readers shared in the end remarkably little with Homer's listeners, those pre-Classical Greeks who cherished their poet's words because they represented virtually the only path there was in that day to Troy and its stores of stories. Nor do later Roman readers have that much in common with Aeschylus' viewers, the classical Greeks who crowded theatra for a lingering look at Argive wealth. By no longer owning a myth in performance the way oral bards once did and in having no purple carpets to unfurl, literary authors were obliged to rebuild the very foundation of narrative, in form and energy and audience.
And the limitations of written art were hardly negligible. It demanded of both artists and their public enough leisure, money and, above all, education—literacy at least—to forge a bond between them through the work. But the rewards it delivered were more than comparable to its demands. In particular, because it was essentially interruptible, that is, it could be stopped at any moment allowing readers to review a passage, literary work supported a depth of learning and density of expression as yet unseen in their world. In other words, anyone who was confused, or simply just wanted to, could stop the text, rewind the scroll and study the work anew. In doing so, it was possible—likely even!—the reader would uncover something novel, some allusion or hidden meaning that had been passed over, missed the first time.
All in all, it opened literature up to a new world, one that cherished detail, intensity, intimacy, leaps of logic, rough transitions, and all the things that make a second, third and fourth reading so much fun. Homer's careful recapitulations were now unnecessary—and "weak joins" utterly intolerable—nor did the sharp stichomythia and biting agons of Euripides survive this shift. What works so well on stage loses much of its force on the page. Instead, literary works brought the audience's focus down onto the nuances of meaning in words, not the sentences but the syllables that drive a thought, where flaws only work if they're flawlessly bad, like the author intended to color outside the lines.
More important, where the masters of drama and epic tended to build to great moments and earth-shattering climaxes, literature leaves its exponents less room to maneuver. The author of a written work has to fill in every moment with heavy meaning and pithy detail and sensuous thrill, things that are capable of withstanding the pressure of intensive scrutiny, which is not to say that written works don't have climaxes—they do!—only that they need far more than one. A literary piece must be constantly peaking, keeping the story in a perpetual state of tension and intensity, a fact shown nowhere better than in the different artistic habits of Homer and Vergil. Where the Greek oral poet in a single day's performance composed—or, better, re-composed—hundreds, perhaps even thousands of lines, his Roman literary counterpart, who toiled no less, generated little more than ten lines a day. But it seems fair to say that the quantity of their artistic output is perfectly commensurate.
At the same time, however, with the inauguration of literature, not everything changed—no disrespect intended, but Heraclitus is wrong about that—for, as literature evolved, much remained the same, especially, the myths themselves. Through it all, no matter who the artist or what the medium, Troy always fell, Achilles finally killed, Helen left her man one way or another. Moreover, the basic structure of narrative remained unchanged in its foundation, still resting on various permutations of an ABCBA symmetry, even long after the mnemonic value of such constructs no longer applied. Nor is it hard to see why. An underlying bilateral balance of parts is reflected in much of the visible world, most especially, the human body which the ancients so widely admired.
In the end, however, this stability also stifled creativity and ultimately suffocated it, because for all the shiny-looking newness of Hellenistic poetry, its great contribution to the subject material of classical literature amounted to little more than the invention of the footnote. As a result, the precious minutiae of Alexandria's librarian poets drained the lifeblood from classical literature, making it ultimately a pale reflection of its crude and long-winded but far hardier Homeric forebear. Ecstatic castration, a creepy Orpheus, epistolary incest and the like are all dead ends of one sort or another, though as dead ends go, also magnificent trips. And, whether or not the riders went anywhere in the end, the very journey itself changed them, both our ancestors and us.
But Heraclitus is right about one thing, at least. Change, even if it doesn't always happen, is inherent in everything. Given that, Ovid in The Metamorphoses has composed a truly universal epic. Indeed, this concatenation of myths represents the highest achievement of classical literature itself as tales evolve, absorb and transmogrify into one another, in a seemingly endless permutation of avatars and possibilities. But more than that, the Roman prodigy has sewn together in rapturous rhapsody not only classical forms and characters but the very tales he's telling, weaving ultimately a tapestry of myth that stretches out over all humankind, all time, to the very limits of everything we are.
Riding such a revolution proved, in the end, no easy task for Ovid's audiences then as well as now, and he knew it but that held him back not in the slightest. His work expects—nay, demands!—of its readers a comprehensive understanding of classical literature in form and function down to the most microscopic detail, handing to them the task of struggling to hang on to a protean creation that shape-shifts at will in their hands. It's as if the reader were some sort of Aristaeus clinging onto Proteus' neck as the demon maliciously morphs into beasts and storms or, worse yet, exotic Near-Eastern myths about subjects taboo in most of polite society.
Aristaeus is, thus, not an inappropriate image for the literary public of classical Rome, since, in much the same way the Greek tragedians had cast their viewers as deities watching from above, Vergil and company used the context of their playing field to equal effect. The Roman heirs of Hellenistic literature envisioned, and with some justification, a readership who sat comfortably behind garden walls and unfurled the author's text as they read. These words and the stories that unfold from them contain images and ideas that stretch the mind, as they move from tale to tale. Like modern Aristaeuses, the readers of The Metamorphoses must cling to a liquid creation that flows with Stygian ink beneath their fingers.
And so the real continuity in Ovid's epic—arguably, in all of true literature— isn't, then, anything to be found in the work itself, but outside it, in the hands of the reader unrolling the scroll, the force that truly drives the text forward through its evolution. Therefore, if there is a protagonist in The Metamorphoses, it's the reader who grapples with meaning and form as shapes shift all around. And just like the Fates, those lowly old ladies who merely spin out life and death and answer to not even Jupiter, Ovid's readers roll out his text subject to their whimsy to read, or not read, or re-read any passage, to skim or scan up close, to draw out, cut or twist the poet's yarn. The performance of literature lives, then, in the lap of its reader who along with the poet shares the power to edit at will. Thus, where Homer sets his listeners on the battlefield or in the tents of heroes, where Sophocles casts his viewers as gods, Ovid and his colleagues makes their readers the Fates, the most powerful force in the universe. For from their hands, as they roll through a text, destiny itself unwinds.
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