Saturday, July 29, 2017

Transformation and Transmutation

The Metamorphoses
by Ovid

The Metamorphoses of Ovid
“When he, whoever of the gods it was, had thus arranged in order and resolved that chaotic mass, and reduced it, thus resolved, to cosmic parts, he first moulded the Earth into the form of a mighty ball so that it might be of like form on every side … And, that no region might be without its own forms of animate life, the stars and divine forms occupied the floor of heaven, the sea fell to the shining fishes for their home, Earth received the beasts, and the mobile air the birds … Then Man was born:… though all other animals are prone, and fix their gaze upon the earth, he gave to Man an uplifted face and bade him stand erect and turn his eyes to heaven.”   ― Ovid, Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid describing the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose myth-based historical framework. It is often called a mock-epic, as it is written in dactylic hexameter (the form of the great epic poems of the ancient tradition, such as “The Iliad”, “The Odyssey” and “The Aeneid”), unlike Ovid's other works. But, rather than following and extolling the deeds of a great hero like the traditional epics, Ovid’s work leaps from story to story, often with little or no connection other than that they all involve transformations of one sort or another. Sometimes, a character from one story is used as a (more or less tenuous) connection to the next story, and sometimes the mythical characters themselves are used as the story-tellers of “stories within stories”.

Completed in AD 8, it is recognized as a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin literature. The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love (and especially the trans-formative power of love), whether it be personal love or love personified in the figure of Cupid, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this mock-epic has to a hero. Unlike the predominantly romantic notions of love that were "invented" in the Middle Ages, however, Ovid viewed love more as a dangerous, destabilizing force than a positive one, and demonstrates how love has power over everyone, mortals and gods alike.

It is notable that the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated and made to appear ridiculous by fate and by Cupid in the stories. This is particularly true of Apollo, the god of pure reason, who is often confounded by irrational love. The poem inverts the accepted order to a large extent, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods (and their own somewhat petty desires and conquests) the objects of low humor, often portraying the gods as self-absorbed and vengeful. Perhaps because of the continuing power of Greek culture there remains the shadow of the power of the gods as a distinct recurrent theme throughout the poem.

Revenge is another common theme, and it is often the motivation for whatever transformation the stories are explaining, as the gods avenge themselves and change mortals into birds or beasts to prove their own superiority. Violence, and often rape, occurs in almost every story in the collection, and women are generally portrayed negatively, either as virginal girls running from the gods who want to rape them, or alternatively as malicious and vengeful.

As do all the major Greek and Roman epics, “Metamorphoses” emphasizes that hubris (overly prideful behavior) is a fatal flaw which inevitably leads to a character's downfall. Hubris always attracts the notice and punishment of the gods, who disdain all human beings who attempt to compare themselves to divinity. Some, especially women like Arachne and Niobe, actively challenge the gods and goddesses to defend their prowess, while others display hubris in ignoring their own mortality. Like love, hubris is seen by Ovid as a universal equalizer.

Ovid's “Metamorphoses” was an immediate success in its day, its popularity threatening even that of Virgil's “Aeneid”. One can even imagine it being used as a teaching tool for Roman children, from which they could learn important stories that explain their world, as well as learn about their glorious emperor and his ancestors. Particularly towards the end, the poem can be seen to deliberately emphasize the greatness of Rome and its rulers. 
I read this both with our Sunday Morning Study Group and also as the text for a University of Chicago weekend retreat. Not unlike many works of classical literature this poem has been a rich cultural resource ever since its inception, influencing authors from Chaucer and Shakespeare to, more recently Ted Hughes, and composers from Gluck and Offenbach to Britten.


Brian Joseph said...

This is a marvelous work. As you point out, Ovid's take on love is very different from the romanticized, or realistic views that were developed later and that we seem more accustomed to.

I should find a good translation and give this another read.

James said...

My favorite translation is that of Allen Mandelbaum, but there are other fine modern translations. Another interesting modern translation is Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid. While not complete it captures the sense of Ovid in Hughe's modern poetic idiom.

R.T. said...

What a wonderful review/commentary! I remember pleasurably wrestling with Ovid in translation (which one I don't recall) when I was so keen on Shakespeare in the 70s; I tried to imagine Shakespeare as schoolboy wrestling with Ovid in Latin in Stratford. In many ways it is too bad that schoolboys (and girls) no longer wrestle with Latin and Greek in school (but I remember grappling with Latin and Mrs. Thelma Brandfas for 3 years in high school); unfortunately, classics have no place within social engineering curricula. I wonder if the pendulum will ever swing back to the classics in schools? Any thoughts?

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. As for your thoughts on Latin - I couldn't agree more. I was fortunate to study Latin for two years in high school (My inspiration was our teacher Mrs. Daggett who instilled a love for all things classical, both Rome and Greece). This was in the sixties and we studied Shakespeare in English every year. I'm not sure that the study of Latin will ever be as important as it once was, but I'm also confident that it will never disappear.