Tag Archives: plato

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.

Thor & Plato: Mythology and Philosophy

I recently finished reading Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson, Vol. 1. Amongst the excellent tales gathered together in this volume, we are introduced to Malekith the Dark Elf. Most of us undoubtedly know Malekith best as performed by Christopher Eccleston in the film, Thor: The Dark World. Simonson’s Malekith is an excellent supervillain who blends together a bit of Norse, a bit of ‘Celtic’ fairy lore, and a bit of implication from the very name ‘dark elf’ (svart alf). In his return from exile in Simonson’s comic, Malekith — a capricious Dark Elf of Faerie — is seeking the Casket of Ancient Winters to unleash a new Ice Age and free the fiery being Surtur (adapted from the name Surtr) from Muspell to destroy the universe.

The film’s Malekith is an elemental being who has existed before the world, whose own element is darkness. Darkness, in Thor: The Dark World, pre-exists the universe. The goal of the Dark Elves is the unleashing of a substance called Aether that will turn the Nine Realms (the known universe in Thor cosmology) back into the darkness whence they came.

I was thinking about this, about Malekith, and the origins of the universe in mythology and philosophy. In the mythology of the Thor films, we see a universe born out of darkness. Or rather, in opposition to darkness. Darkness itself is pre-existent; it has its own substance, in fact. My first thought was that our modern conception of the universe tends towards seeing ‘nothing’ as darkness. But what we actually live in a universe replete with light? This is the implication of the medieval mind as described by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image. Looking up at the rolling spheres of night, rather than seeing the black between, the medieval mind saw a universe filled with light.

What if before everything else, there was light?

Darkness, in such a world, has no substance of its own.

Either way — whether darkness is pre-existent or light — it is still something with substance, still a thing. Substance is, as a result, co-eternal with the universe and, one imagines, its Artificer.

The pre-existence of the matter, the stuff, the substance of the universe as raw material to be worked upon by the Maker is not restricted to the cinematic imagination. In the issues of The Mighty Thor that follow the tale of Malekith, wherein Surtur tries to destroy the universe and bring about Ragnarok, Simonson has Odin tell the tale of his encounter with Surtur at the origins of the universe, with references to the story as we know it best from the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, such as using Ymir’s skull to form the heavens.

In the Poetic Edda, the universe is born out of a void, as in the Voluspá:

3. Of old was the age | when Ymir lived;
Sea nor cool waves | nor sand there were;
Earth had not been, | nor heaven above,
But a yawning gap, | and grass nowhere.

In the Prose Edda, we learn of Surtr — the inspiration for Simonson’s comics:

Yet first was the world in the southern region, which was named Múspell; it is light and hot; that region is glowing and burning, and impassable to such as are outlanders and have not their holdings there. He who sits there at the land’s-end, to defend the land, is called Surtr; he brandishes a flaming sword, and at the end of the world he shall go forth and harry, and overcome all the gods, and burn all the world with fire

As the Prose Edda makes its way to the creation of the universe as we know it, we encounter a chasm of ice, Ginnungagap, from which Ymir is born. What we do not meet in Norse mythology, whether in Snorri’s Prose Edda or the anonymous Voluspá of the Poetic Edda, is creatio ex nihilo — just as in Thor: The Dark World, something was there. Substance already was.

Greek cosmology is similar. Chaos is where Hesiod’s universe originates — self-generating deities emerge from it on their own. From these, as well as Earth, Tartarus, and Eros, all other deities of his Theogony are born. Chaos is, according the Greek-English Lexicon of Liddel and Scott, infinite space, a chasm, the nether abyss, infinite darkness, the air, any vast gulf or chasm; obviously not all of these at once. It is a nothing with substance. For a chasm cannot be defined without the substances it divides.

The difficulty with the Prose Edda, Voluspá, and Hesiod’s Theogony is that they are richly symbolic and potent expressions of something in the poetic and mythic mode. But not science; not meant to be. Not philosophy; not an attempt to look at the chaos and sort out, using reason and experience, what the cosmos (order) is and how it came to be.

The most influential Classical text that does that is Plato’s Timaeus. In this dialogue, Timaeus says:

This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the others. (30a-b, trans. Jowett,Vol. 3,  p. 717)

Earlier, Timaeus had said that the created universe was made as an image of the eternal, rational one that the Artificer had access to. Plato has no chaos; nor does he have creatio ex nihilo. Lucretius the Epicurean Latin poet-philosopher writes:

when we shall perceive that nothing can be created from nothing [nil posse creari de nilo], then we shall at once more correctly understand from that principle what we are seeking, both the source from which each thing can be made and the manner in which everything is done without the working of gods.

For if things came out of nothing [si de nilo fierent], all kinds of things could be produced from all things, nothing would want a seed. (De Rerum Natura 1.155-160; trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. Martin Ferguson Smith – Loeb)

I have passed the 1000-word mark, so shall now descend to commenting and skip Ovid. Although the film Thor: The Dark World does not seem to follow either Simonson nor the medieval Norse mythological texts, it is consonant with them in envisioning a universe where some sort of substance was coeval with all that is, even with the Artificer-God(s) — and Norse mythology, in turn, resonates with Hesiod in particular, but also Plato’s Timaeus and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura.

The material mind in a material world has difficulty conceptualising nothing, nihil. Indeed, it turns out that the ‘nothing’ of much scientific enquiry seems to have been a ‘something’ all along — that is, the ‘nothing’ of balanced equations. The ‘nothing’ of philosophy and theology remains literally ‘nothing’, no existence, neither darkness nor light, neither chasm nor sphere, without form or substance. Void.

But what if we turn back to hints in the Timaeus?

Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created. … But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible. (28a, 29a)

What if the uncreated Artificer, in fact, created the matter ex nihilo? A universe with no chasm of ice, no chaos, no sphere of unformed matter. Rather,

In the beginning, God created …

(Quick note for the trolls: The above has nothing [ha!] to do with a literal seven-day creation, so save yourselves time and effort by moving on. Thanks.)

The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake