This morning I finished reading A.D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The power and danger of love are a main theme running throughout this 15-book epic of transformations. That amore, love, should be a main feature of Ovid’s epic is no surprise — he is one of Latin poetry’s great love poets (arguably the greatest, although popular opinion would probably grant that to Catullus). Before turning to epic, after all, Ovid wrote elegiac verse. His first production was a series of love poems, the Amores. He also wrote the Ars Amatoria — the art of love (really, the art of seduction) and the Remedia amoris — the remedy of love. His first extended foray into mythological poetry was the Heroides, a series of letters written in elegiac couplets betwen famous heroines of myth.
So — no grand surprise that love is one of the most powerful driving factors when Ovid turns his mind to epic verse.
Part of the dangerous power of love in the Metamorphoses lies in the rejected lover. This struck me today particularly in Book 14, when Picus rejects the witch Circe’s advances, since he’s already in love with his wife, Canens. Circe responds:
‘non inpune feres, neque’ ait ‘reddere Canenti,
laesaque quid faciat, quid amans, quid femina, disces
rebus; at est et amans et laesa et femina Circe!’ (Met. 14.383-385)
‘You shall not act without punishment, nor,’ she said, ‘return to Canens,
and what a wounded, what a loving, what a woman may do, you shall learn —
indeed both the one loving and the wounded and the woman is Circe!’ (my trans of the top of my head)
Picus gets turned into a woodpecker.
For marital faithfulness.
Throughout the Metamorphoses, people are slain or transformed because they reject the love of some powerful being. Perhaps, as in Apollo and Daphne, the transformation is salvation. Perhaps, as in Picus and Circe, the transformation is punishment.
It’s been about nine years since I read Plato’s Symposium, a dialogue all about eros — love — but I do wonder what a good Platonist would make of Ovid’s amor. Elsewhere, Ovid refers to himself as tenerorum lusor amorum — the player of tender loves.
But the loves of the Metamorphoses are not tender. They can be violent. Rape is a disturbiningly common reality for the females of Graeco-Roman mythology. The raptus of Proserpina may, in context, refer to her being snatched away to the Underworld by Pluto — but its etymological descendant is uncomfortably near the surface of the whole tale. And even the willing suffer for their love in this poem — Semele, the human mother of Bacchus, is fried to a crisp by the lightning flash of Jupiter’s godhead, to give one example.
Love is a powerful force. Amor, eros, desire — driving people, pulling them in one direction or another. The poet knows it and exposes it here, often at its grimmest — murder, deception, incest, intrigue, suicide, starvation. I guess this is why Plato has Socrates discoursing about seeking the good and the beautiful, and that our powerful desires will ultimately only be satisfied by to kallisto, the most beautiful.
Otherwise, we risk being turned into trees, springs, rivers, rocks, and birds.