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~~ Ovid's Metamorphoses ~~


The Emperor, Augustus Ceasar
ENLARGE

Let's start with an admirably concise overview from Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that makes everyone's online research a pleasant, easy experience:

The Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid is a poem in 15 books that describes the creation and history of the world in terms of Greek and Roman mythology. It has remained one of the most popular mythological works, being the one best known to medieval writers and one which had a great deal of influence on medieval poetry.

Ovid takes as his theme tales of transformation so often found in myths, in which often a person or lesser deity is permanently transformed into an animal or plant. The poem begins with the transformations of creation and Prometheus metamorphizing earth into Man and ends with the transformation of the spirit of Julius Caesar into a star. Ovid goes from one to the other by working his way through mythology, often in apparently arbitrary fashion, jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek myth and sometimes straying in odd directions. There is perhaps little depth in most of Ovid's portrayals. However, if others have written far more deeply, few have written more colorfully.

The poem is often called a mock-epic, and for good reason. The entire poem is written in dactylic hexameter meter, the form of the great heroic and nationalistic epic poems both of the ancient tradition (the Iliad and Odyssey) and of Ovid's own day (the Aeneid). It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse," and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection, with little more than token attention to the epic themes of great deeds, national glory, and religious observance.

Instead, the recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love—personal love or love personified as Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to an epic hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god of pure reason. While few individual stories are outright sacrilegious, the work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.

The Arthur Golding translation of 1567 influenced Shakespeare and was characterized as "The most beautiful book in the English language" by the poet Ezra Pound.

This kind of quick background helps us avoid misreading the tales selected in Fantastic Worlds. There's also a good opportunity here to draw some other important distinctions about the difference between looking at "myth" and looking at "literature."

The "Author"

Having an "author," a particular man named Ovid, who wrote at a particular time and place, is quite different from the non-specific "authors" of the oral tales that get circulated culturally until they're transcribed. An author implies an individual writer with individual literary purposes. There's a personality there, an artist's shaping hand, a private vision as opposed to a broad cultural one. Appreciating a work like Metamorphoses means attempting to understand those purposes, that personality, and that vision—to see how well the author achieved them.

About OVID

You don't have to know too much about Ovid to know about his purposes in this book, but a little background doesn't hurt. Perhaps this is a bad analogy, but I think of Ovid as the kind of skeptical, irreverent, thoroughly modern ironist who might've been right at home on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (maybe). Of the great Roman poets, he's the entertainer, the colorful storyteller who knows his audience's tastes. Certainly he's someone who intimately understands, and maybe even loves, the decadence of his times. I'm even tempted to call him antiquity's first postmodernist (maybe someone already has). Unlike Jon Stewart and company, whose satire sometimes ascends to moral righteousness (and we laugh to keep from crying, or tearing out our hair in disbelief), Ovid is often accused of being amoral, even decadent. Only close reading will help you decide where you stand on that accusation.

The perspective you get reading Ovid is that of someone who knows the game, and can play along brilliantly, but at the same time sees right through the paper-thin high notions of piety and propriety. Augustan ideals aside, Roman society may not be so very pious, the Roman character perhaps less than 100% virtuous, and the Gods in their heavens may not be all that morally superior, despite their accidentally acquired supernatural powers, to their human victims and supplicants.

Although the theme of "transformation" is supposedly what gives this epic achievement its thematic unity, at the heart of Metamorphoses is the same fascination that Ovid has elsewhere: a fascination with the psychology, sometimes the pathology, of love: every kind of love. Because metamorphosis plays such a minor role in many of the tales, and in some cases seems perfunctorily tacked on, it seems that the transformation theme is just a peg to hang a hat on, albeit a sturdy peg that serves him well. Each tale does involve a radical transformation, divine or human. But it's clear that Ovid's real interest is elsewhere, whether it be the avenging passions of the gods, or the earthly passions of their human counterparts.

Metamorphoses is one of the last works Ovid completed before being tossed into exile. Maybe it was his reputation for writing "immoral" books, or maybe he did something specific to deserve it—the affair is shrouded in mystery, still—but he was banished by Augustus ostensibly for being a corruptive influence. Although he staunchly maintained his innocence, he died in exile far from the world he loved on the outer edge of civilization, in a town called Tomis on the Black Sea, in what is now Romania.

Ovid's incredible achievement with Metamorphoses can't be banished so easily, though.

Here's a book that uses mythological materials from Greek culture in a new literary way that is not tragedy, not quite epic poetry, and not the typical satire—yet it is something from each of these older forms and more, and less. It's a book, in other words, that's very difficult to classify. It's been called a "mock-epic"—and it does serve us with a roughly chronological "tale," in dactylic hexameter, spanning from creation through the deification of Julius Caesar—but there's no central hero. There are tragic tales, tragic scenarios throughout, but they are routinely stripped of tragic emotion and spiritual content. There's satire, but it's (apparently) "amoral," one ironic wink after another. Ovid appropriates the past only to strip it of its moral certainty, only to fill it with ambiguity and irony. He shapes his tales of antiquity so that they reflect, not their ancient Greek tellers, but their contemporary Roman listeners.

Ovid is a great artist, no mere transcriptionist! By rearranging, re-envisioning, reinterpreting these stories, he vividly reinvents and reawakens an entire cosmic pantheon, revealing not only the nature of divine justice, or injustice, but the tastes and temperament of contemporary Augustan Rome. A close reading of the small sampling of stories in Fantastic Worlds will reveal his unique concerns and achievements.

The Story of Actaeon

In its original Greek version, Actaeon is one of many cautionary tales dramatizing the overwhelming power of the Gods—in this case Artemis (who becomes Diana in the Roman pantheon). Actaeon's "innocence" is Ovid's invention; in the original tale, stumbling upon her bath in the woods, Actaeon is overcome by Artemis' beauty and so he deliberately hides himself and sneaks a long guilty peek. Unfortunately for him, he's discovered, and the chaste virgin goddess responds with fury at being spied upon. She immediately accomplishes her revenge, turning him into a stag, and he's quickly destroyed by his own dogs.

Obviously, this is all but the same story Ovid tells, yet the differences he introduces are too significant to call it the "same" tale. It's no longer a simple piece of didactic moralism. Instead it becomes a short bit of black comedy that raises more questions than it answers. What kind of a world is it when bad things like this happen to good people? Was the goddess "too cruel"? Are the gods just or unjust? As our narrator cuts away from Actaeon's unfortunate end, we learn that public opinion is divided about this story. Some think yes, the goddess was too cruel, but some think she had every right to defend her honor, and both sides can reasonably justify their positions. That is moral ambiguity writ large, but writ with a wink.

If Ovid repulses our sensitivities and frustrates our moral sense by (1) having an innocent young man meet a gruesome death, and (2) refusing to tell us the meaning of his doing so, it seems to be because he's abandoned simple, single-minded didacticism in favor of literary ambiguity. The shallows are giving way to the depths. The "myth" is transformed into "story." Just because meaning is open-ended and ambiguous doesn't imply the story is vacuous, a piece of lightweight, colorful entertainment—on the contrary, it's ultimately deepened, darkened, heavier.

From its opening lines, which echo the last lines of one of the greatest tragedies ever written, the satiric content is aimed straight at tragedy, straight at the quintessential tragedy, Sophocles' Oedipus. In that play we beheld another "innocent" who was driven to a horrible destiny by "fate." But unlike Sophocles, who explored the labyrinthine relationship between character and fate, Ovid would have us believe that fate alone, quite apart from any "character flaw" or hubris on the part of Actaeon, led him on until he reached the grove where he accidentally glimpsed the goddess. "Calm reflection will show that destiny was to blame for Actaeon's misfortunes, not any guilt on his own part." Reflecting on such injustice is supposed to make us feel calm? Why is destiny so cruel to Actaeon? Does he deserve it? Not that we can see. What's the meaning of Diana's rage? If utter destruction can be the result of an accidental glimpse, then life is a minefield, indeed. When powerful forces, like goddesses (or emperors), can destroy an innocent life at will, to satisfy a desire for revenge, and feel justified in doing so, then the less powerful among us better watch it.

Some readers are perplexed that Actaeon's "misfortune" doesn't seem to arouse Ovid's sympathy. But I would disagree. There are passages where Ovid's fellow feeling finds expression, as when the dogs give him chase and he longs to cry out to them, and later when they do catch him and Actaeon groans; "The ridges he knew so well were filled with his mournful cries." However, sympathy for Actaeon is not the main show, and it doesn't last long. The tale is not tragedy. What we are served by this tale is irony, satire, even a little burlesque, and more irony. And then a little more irony.

It's a dark comedy. Looking for moments? Try:

  • The very beginning echoes the theme of antiquity's greatest tragedy, and then proceeds to strip the present tale of all tragic emotion, all emotional involvement
  • Actaeon is attracted into Diana's grove because it's a place where "nature imitates art" (a reversal of Aristotle's great dictum that art should imitate life); it has the feel of a perfectly arranged snare, a cosmic trap (which it is), which the expert hunter walks right into
  • Diana, goddess of the hunt, is portrayed exactly as any wealthy "lord of the manor" being attended by servants might be portrayed; not a very macho moment
  • The nymphs trying in vain to hide Diana, but she's "too tall"
  • Diana's blushing cheeks are described in ironically mellow terms (reflected sun rays and rosy dawns) when in fact she's murderously furious
  • The narrator sarcastically refers to Actaeon as the "hero"
  • The way Actaeon takes a moment, as he runs away in a Diana-induced panic, to "marvel" at his swift speed in his new stag form
  • Actaeon's "hesitation" allows his dogs to catch up with him ("As he hesitated, his hounds caught sight of him."), an ironic nod to Sophocles' "character determines fate" theme
  • The long, ironic passage cataloguing Actaeon's dogs as if they're brave, wise, long-suffering soldiers parading before the gates of Homer's Troy (epic epithets aplenty: "the wise Ichnobates," "keen-scented Agre," etc.), and at the end, the even more ironic, "and others whom it would take long to name"
  • Actaeon's "supplication," his prayer-like pose, ironically has the effect of intensifying the carnage
  • Actaeon's friends ironically lament that Actaeon is "absent" and Actaeon ruefully, ironically, notes their error
  • Actaeon's playful response about being "all too present" when he hears his friends call to him
  • Diana's unrepentant pleasure in revenge, her "satisfaction" at Actaeon's gory death, shows a complete lack of understanding of Actaeon's innocence, and demonstrates her further lack of awareness that many people will have lost respect for her because they will see her as "too cruel" and unjust

Why does Ovid make a comedy of this potentially tragic tale? Perhaps he (and his audience) felt it too much of a joke to believe that a woman would guard her "honor" so vigorously when all contemporary evidence seemed to suggest that chastity was a rare thing, as unguarded as the full moon on a cloudless night.

The Story of Echo and Narcissus

The Story of Philomela

Questions for Analysis

  • Is "The Story of Echo and Narcissus" a single-minded moral tale or does it have elements of literary ambiguity? Explain.
  • What are two kinds of "lovesickness" explored in the story?
  • What do you consider some of the tale's comic moments?
  • Do you consider Echo and Narcissus' transformations "tragic"? Why or why not? Is Narcissus' metamorphosis portrayed tragically?

Questions for Analysis

  • Is Tereus suffering from a kind of "lovesickness" that's different from what you observed in Echo and Narcissus? Explain.
  • How are the main characters in the story transformed even before they metamorphosize? What is the cause of their transformations, in each case?
  • Is the violence in this story obscene or immoral in your opinion? Would you indict Ovid or defend him for the way he tells this tale?
  • Analyze the narrator's tone and attitude throughout the tale. What inferences can you make about Ovid's purpose?

 

 

 

     

 


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