Recently, I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by A. D. Melville. This translation captures the speed, the vividness, the living poetry of Ovid’s’ hexameters. I recommend it (whereas the Penguin Classics translation I most emphatically do not).
Unlike most of the epics we think of when we think epic — The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Gilgamesh, Beowulf and such — the Metamorphoses is an entire history of the cosmos from Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, told through the specific lens of — you guessed it — metamorphosis.
Right now, I wish to focus in on one passage from the creation story of Ovid’s mythological epic (epic mythology?). In Bk 1 (remember that in ancient literature a ‘book’ is like a chapter), we read:
Then man was made, perhaps from seed divine,
Formed by the great Creator, so to found
A better world, perhaps the new-made earth,
So lately parted from the ethereal heavens,
Kept still some essence of the kindred sky–
Earth that Prometheus moulded, mixed with water,
In likeness of the gods that govern the world–
And while the other creatures on all fours
Look downwards, man was made to hold his head
Erect in majesty and see the sky,
And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.
Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed
Put on the unknown form of humankind.
Hopefully you have enjoyed Melville’s blank verse rendering of Ovid’s hexameters; I know I do. What’s to notice here is what makes us human. All the other animals have been created (as in Genesis), and now, ‘in likeness of the gods’ (as in Genesis), the human race is made.
This post is not about Christian theology (fear not!). Nonetheless, Christian theologians/exegetes/preachers/commentators have spent much time mulling over what it means to be made in the image of God. Does it lie in God’s first commandment to the man and woman? Does it lie in the nature of the Holy Trinity? Is it reason?
It seems to me that Ovid’s answer is that ‘man was made to hold his head / Erect in majesty and see the sky / And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.’
We are fashioned of earth and heaven, says Ovid. And so, of earth, our feet are planted on the ground. Yet, of heaven, our eyes look upwards. We touch the sky (excuse us as we do so, says Jimi). We, unlike the four-footed beasts (says Ovid), stand erect and behold the vastness of the Milky Way, the passage of the Moon, the blazing inferno of the Sun. We walk beneath this vast, starry host and cannot help but consider our place in the universe.
And, as beings who can feel small in the face of that speckled black vastness, we sing songs of this earthy life and that heavenly glory. We philosophise to make sense of it all. We tell of deeds great and deeds small, of gods gigantic and humans striving for gigantism.
Poised between animal and divine, we are human. Walking beneath the vastness of the stars of night, we turn mystical, philosophical, scientifical.
Not such a bad way to be.