Posted by: gdevi | February 5, 2010

Ovid, The Metamorphoses

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Ovid – The Metamorphoses (17 CE)

 

Ovid was born the year after Julius Caesar’s assassination (43 BCE) and lived during the prosperous period of pre-Christian Roman empire writing about the racy lives of the Roman elite, seduction manuals (for both men and women), but also unforgettable retellings of Greco-Roman myths. Ovid’s seduction manuals were very popular with his Roman readership but towards the middle of his life he was banished from Rome to the little town of Tomi in modern Romania; we don’t know the exact reason why Ovid was banished but the generally agreed upon belief is that Ovid ran afoul of Augustus Caesar with some salacious comments about his daughter. Augustus Caesar was trying to bring back the old Roman standards of morality and was very possibly offended at Ovid’s portrayal of the great nation as a place of promiscuity and amusement. Ovid’s seduction manuals and his retellings of Greco-Roman myths have both been read in modern times as veiled political texts. Ovid never returned to Rome from his exile and his greatest work Metamorphoses was written during his exile and remained unfinished at the time of his death in 17 CE.

The Metamorphoses is a miniature epic written in dactylic hexameter, the meter of heroic poetry used in such epics as The Iliad, Odyssey, and the Aeneid. In fifteen books, Ovid narrates the stories of Greek and Roman gods and the mortals who had the fortune or misfortune to run into them, plus evolving stories of the Caesars. While ancient Roman poetry had plenty of room for salacious details of the lives of mortals and immortals, The Metamorphoses is unique in its distinctly violent portrayal of the said gods and goddesses. The poems speak of the transformations (metamorphosis means “change of form”) between different species of creation, mostly gods and humans to flowers, animals, trees, hills, mountains etc. These are stories of instabilities and as such they challenge, question and debunk standards of moral order imposed on a society from top down. The stories employ many points of views – we hear gods and goddesses speaking, humans speaking and conventionally inarticulate species speaking.  For all their violence these stories are also enduringly witty and powerful in their ability to provoke a range of emotions from surprise, shock, pathos, terror and revulsion.

Most of these stories embody the seemingly self-evident truth of Ovid’s observation in Book 2:

Majestic power and erotic love

Do not get on together very well,

Nor do they linger long in the same place. (Book 2, Jove and Europa)

Myths are serious stories that people tell themselves about what they need to know about their origins, their gods, their social structure, their natural environment etc. Ovid artfully retells the traditional Roman stories about secular, erotic love. Love and Power, Ovid shows us again and again through his retellings of the Greek and Roman myths, cannot be present at the same place at the same time. Where one is present, the other is not. It is an exclusion principle that almost all cultures and all religions seem to know but chooses to ignore. (Another exclusion principle applies to Knowledge and Wealth; where one is present, the other is not. This is another archetypal myth.) Almost all the stories in the Metamorphoses show perversions of love occasioned by abuse and misuse of power. Gods and goddesses do this; mortals do this as well.

Book 2 Jove and Europa: Classic story of abduction of a young woman by a powerful man; here Jove (Greek Jupiter) King of Gods changes into a bull and frolics with the cattle of King Agenor of Phoenicia so he can get close to Europa, the king’s daughter. How does Ovid tell this story? How would you characterize Ovid’s diction and point of view? How is Jove portrayed? How is Europa portrayed?

Book 10 Pygmalion: Pygmalion who hated women falls in love with a statue that he has created. Observe the frank description of Pygmalion’s sexual arousal while touching the statue; what is Ovid telling us about male power and female passivity? Venus, the goddess of love, grants life to the statue so that Pygmalion can actually marry the statue. How do you read the seduction of the statue by Pygmalion: what does it mean to say that a statue came to life under Pygmalion’s hands? How does Ovid present male and female roles in this story?

Cinyras and Myrrha: Observe how Ovid evolves the story. The offspring from Pygmalion’s marriage with the statue begets Cinyras whose story is an archetypal story about the taboo of incest. Myrrha conceives a misplaced passion for Cinyras, her own father. Study how Ovid tells the story of their copulation; how does he communicate the unnaturalness of this union?  What is the mood evoked by this incident?

Observe also how transformations are used as origin stories. The story of the unfortunate Myrrha is also the story of the origin of Myrrh, one of the fragrant oils used in various sacraments.

Venus and Adonis: The troubled lineage continues with the story of Adonis, son of Myrrha and her father, Cinyras. How does Ovid present Venus, the goddess of love? How about Adonis’s characterization? What do you notice about the relationship between Venus and Adonis?

Another origin story about red anemone flowers from the blood of the dead Adonis.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Greek/ Roman myths have been a rich source material for artists and writers across cultures through centuries. Here is a frightening poem by the great poet W. B. Yeats – Leda and the Swan – about Jupiter’s rape of Leda. Jupiter visits her in the form of a swan. You will see the historical scope of the myth—myths create historical continuity for a people—in the reference to “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead.” The reference is to the birth of Helen, the child of this union, who is the direct cause of the war between Greece and Troy recounted in Homer’s Iliad.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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Responses

  1. […] June 5, 2010 by chinarose Kaivalya provides a more detailed explication of the text. Thanks! Dr. G. Devi English 220 Ovid – The Metamorphoses (7 CE) Ovid was born the year after Julius Caesar’s assassination (43 BCE) and lived during the prosperous period of pre-Christian Roman empire writing about the racy lives of the Roman elite, seduction manuals (for both men and women), but also unforgettable retellings of Greco-Roman myths. Ovid’s seduction manuals were very popular with his Roman readership but towards the middle of his life he w … Read More […]


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