Tag Archives: metamorphoses

Love’s dangerous power in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

apollo__daphne_september_2aThis 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)

*spoiler*

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.

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Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!

Mesopotamia

  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.

Ovidian humanity

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 epicThe OdysseyThe AeneidGilgamesh, 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.