Wednesday 20 April 2016

Metamorphoses by Ovid

“My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
but since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.”

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in Sulmo, east of Rome in the year 43 B.C.  As a son of an upper middle class family, his father sent him to be educated in Rome to distinguish himself in a career in law or government.  Ovid was known as an exemplary rhetorician and worked at minor magisterial posts before quitting his public career to pursue poetry. Immediate success followed his first published elegy and by 8 A.D., the year in which Metamorphoses was published, he was one of the foremost poets of Rome.

Suddenly, in the same year, the emperor Augustus Caesar banished Ovid from Rome, and the poet went into exile in Tomis on the Black Sea.  The only clues we have to his exile is from Ovid himself where he refers to his carmen, or songs, and his error, or indiscretion.  Speculations abounds as to these two causes.  His poem Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love, was a poetic manual on seduction and intrigue, which Augustus may have viewed as corrosive to the moral structure of Roman society, and may very well be the carmen of his sentence.  Rome, at that time, was experiencing a period of instability and Augustus was attempting to re-establish traditional religious ceremonies and reverence of the gods, encouraging people to marry, have children, and making adultery illegal.  Ovid's earlier poetry espoused extra-marital affairs and Metamorphoses is ripe with a very pronounced, and oftimes strange, sexual element in the myths recounted. The treatment of the gods is not reverential and perhaps it wasn't surprising that Augustus wished to rid himself of the popular poet.  Lamenting his exile in his poem Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (letters to friends asking for help with his return),  Ovid died in Tomis in 17 A.D.

Ruins of Tomis
source Wikipedia

Along with O at Behold the Stars, Cirtnece at Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices ... and Jean of Howling Frog Books, I began to read Metamorphoses in January and what a read it has been!  Here are links to my posts for all of the fifteen books of Metamorphoses:

Book I / Book II / Book III / Book IV / Book V / Book VI / Book VII / Book VIII / Book IX / Book X / Book XI / Book XII / Book XIII / Book XIV / Book XV 

In Metamorphoses (Metamorphōseōn librī), or Book of Transformations, Ovid relates over 200 transformations.  Composed in the epic meter of dactylic hexameter, as a whole, Ovid's tales don't appear to follow an obvious chronological order:  stories break off and are continued in other books; some stories wrap back around on themselves, there is a curious lack of important detail in some (which we know from other sources); and often there are stories nested within stories told in a media res format.  Even how Ovid relates his stories speak of flux and change.

The tales themselves offer a smattering of myths from Greek and Roman legend, including Cadmus, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, Hercules, the heroes of Troy and Julius Caesar, although the narratives can also include mortals and lesser deities.  Murder, rage, hubris, affairs, rape, and judgement of the gods abound in his tales, leaving the reader shocked, disgusted, enamoured, sad, engrossed, irritated, and often, conflicted; Ovid can provoke a myriad of emotions within the same story, evidence of the efficacy of his writing.

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838)
J.M.W. Turner
source Wikimedia Commons  

While Metamorphoses is our primary source for some myths, such as Apollo and Daphne, Phaeton, and Narcissus, the playful and ironic tone of the work suggests that we can't always take Ovid seriously in his delivery, and the myths themselves could have been subject to his alterations.  In addition, the work was set out in fifteen books, rather than the usual twenty-four of the common epic standard, and certain important names and actions are missing from very important narratives, such as Dido, queen of Carthage, Jason and Medea, the Trojan War, etc.  I can't help but feel that Ovid was writing with an agenda.  Was he perhaps attempting to "metamorphoses" the traditional epic poem, the traditional myths and the traditional religious tenor of Rome as well?

Ovid Among the Scythians (1859)
Eugène Delacroix
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the speculation, the graphic description, the sexual inferences, the gratuitous narrative and even the confusion, Metamorphoses is unparalleled as a literary adventure.  Ovid's work is certainly one that has a life of its own and its owner a share of its fame.  However, as the poem ends, Ovid reveals that fame and glory were his original intent.

" ..... But with the better part of me, I'll gain
a place that's higher than the stars: my name,
indelible, eternal, will remain.
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people's lips; and through all time ---
if poets' prophecies are ever right ---
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life."

While Ovid's works went out of fashion for a time, in the late 11th century classic literature gained a new life.  Ovid's writings began to have a significant influence on culture, the 12th century often being called The Ovidian Age.  As cathedral schools flourished in the early Middle Ages, Ovid's work was widely read as moral allegories, with added Christian meaning.  William Caxton published the first English translation of Metamorphoses in 1480, and the poet's influence continued, imbuing Shakespeare with many of his comparisons.  In fact, the many Ovidian allusions within Shakespeare's works are part of what makes it difficult reading for modern day readers, unless they are familiar with this work.  Ovid certainly has approached a fame and regard worthy of a great poet, and perhaps has vindicated himself within the realms of classic literature.


  1. welcome back from your mythical expedition! quite an achievement, reading all that... very interesting your and O's posts have been. i asked her and i want to ask you also, if you have any knowledge or opinion of robert graves, "greek Myths"... thank you...

    1. I'm both happy and sad to finish. I do have Robert Graves' myths and some of Edith Hamilton's mythology books, but I haven't really looked at either. Perhaps that should be my next foray. Thanks for reading my Ovid posts ...... there were rather a lot of them, but I enjoyed writing most of them!

  2. After reading Ovid's Metamorphoses..
    I finally glanced at Edith Hamilton's Mythology paperback that I have been (..and this is the truth)lugging around with me, across the globe for the last 45 years.
    Conclusion: After Ovid, Edith Hamilton's masterpiece is like.....a pie without the filling! :)

    1. Yes, I can see that! I just opened Graves' book to look at it and while his myth summaries are interesting, he references Apollonius and Thucydides, etc. I'd rather just read Apollonius and Thucydides, so I think I'd do just that!

    2. that's been my problem with Graves, also: his mythological book resembles "the white goddess" quite a bit in the small excerpts that i've scanned. i really think his difficulty with laura riding (mistress and feminist) led him to a possibly warped view of early mideastern history. he's a provocative writer and erudite, but a little strange(which actually is good, imo, anyway...).

    3. That's interesting. I had a feeling Graves was "odd" but I never knew enough about him to make a decision. I'd then certainly leave off reading his myths until I learned about them from the original sources. I do have his bio "Goodbye To All That", so I'd probably read that first to get a sense of him before I tackle his myths. I would like to read I, Claudius though.

  3. This is a really excellent informative post. I have not attempted Metamorphoses yet but after reading your post I feel a little more prepared to do so. Wish I could read Greek but that is not happening anytime soon, so I'll have to go with a translation. The snippet you shared about Ovid's intent to be famous and live forever shows me that even in translation this is going to be a great read. It's amazing how much of the cultural/political scene is lost to history - how we can only look back and try to piece things together. It makes me wonder how baffling our own culture is going to look to people several hundred years in the future.

    1. Thanks, Carol. Metamorphoses is easy to deal with because it's really a compilation of many short stories. It's very easy to pick up and put down again. Haven't you started your elementary Greek studies? ;-) I did but I've stalled and it's so frustrating. You really don't have to study a huge amount of it at a time, you just have to be consistent. I'm lacking the consistency, which is bad. Perhaps I can pick it up again when summer rolls around.

  4. Well done! Excellent post :D

    Intrigued too at Ovid's exile. Some say he wasn't exiled at all, and Tristia was simply fiction. I need to read more about it. Love the Turner painting - have always loved that one :)

    After this I am looking forward to reading more Ovid! I have read Ars Amatoria but want to read it again, hopefully this year... :)

    Well done again, and thank you for being such an excellent reading companion! :D

    1. You're welcome! It's such fun to do these reads together!

      Not exiled? Well, I don't know how they could come up with that? I thought his exile was reasonably well-documented, only the reason for it is unclear. The Epistulae ex Ponto were letters to his friends asking them to intervene to secure his return. I'd say that's pretty clear unless it was a well-orchestrated joke, and I couldn't see that going over well with Augustus, or really, anyone.

      I'd like to read some other works by him too, but with a little break. While amusing at times, he could also be wearing. But he does have his own unique personality that is certainly larger than life.

    2. Haven't come across Epistulae ex Ponto - thanks for mentioning that, I'll check it out at some point :)

      As for the exile.... Ah, I've no idea, not read enough. Here's an interesting bit on Wikipedia though. I need to delve in at some point, probably when I read Tristia, which is unlikely to be this year :) Like you, I need a little break I think, but I will get to Ars Amatoria before the year is out.

      Wish I knew enough not to rely on Wikipedia! :)

    3. PS - when I do get to the 'delving' part of my Ovid reading I'll probably start with this - Ovid in Exile: Fact or Fiction? by Antonio Alvar Ezquerra (pdf). Not read it yet, just the first two pages, but it looks like it'll be a good starting point :)

    4. I read a little of the essay and the part on Wikipedia. Ezquerra's essay is problematic because he seems to be getting his information from someone else and where did they get their information from? Having three sources I believe is actually quite good for those times. Also his statement that Tacitus and Suetonius remain silent on the matter of Ovid's exile is wrong. Suetonius speaks of it in detail, which I found here: It's actually quite interesting, as Suetonius goes quite deeply into the matter.

      Why everyone accepted the exile story and then suddenly in the 20th century someone decided to question it, is suspect. Would people who lived thousands of years after the event be more knowledgeable about it than people who lived closer to the event? It's doubtful, and the person questioning better make sure that he'd done his homework.

      During the time of Ovid's exile, Rome was suffering from a number of internal problems. Men where beginning to decide that married life was inconvenient ....... they often did not show loyalty to their wives (keeping mistresses) and children were a burden, not only financially but it made the family split their estates up into smaller and smaller pieces. Why get married and suffer through this when you could simply play the field and keep all your riches? So men were deciding not to marry and have families. Of course, this would eventually cause a crisis in the Roman population, so Augustus had to make a move to counteract the trend and his emphasis on traditional values and religions was necessary and very important. If he thought that Ovid was threatening his plans, it is completely understandable that he would have him exiled. The fact that Ovid's property was not confiscated is perhaps evidence that Augustus did not want to act, but was left with no choice. In any case, take a read of the Suetonius link ..... it's quite fascinating.

    5. I will, thanks for sharing it :)

      Came across another literary conspiracy theory the other day claiming that Virgil was assassinated by Augustus! Didn't find much online, info came from a friend. All sounds very bizarre! Love these conspiracy theories (whilst, I hasten to add, not necessarily believing them) :)

    6. I don't mind conspiracy theories, if the person promoting them truly believes in them and applies common sense when judging them. For example, I think Samuel Butler was a little odd with some of his ideas, but I do feel that he really believed them. However, there are a number of people nowadays who promote these conspiracy theories, not to search for truth, but to gain fame, and/or money, or mere controversy. I have no respect for them. I think when we're dealing with people, even dead people, we owe a certain respect to their memory. Of course, that doesn't mean one can't tell the truth, but it does mean that one doesn't throw around speculation indiscriminately. It's odd actually ....... legally we don't allow people to make untrue/ speculative statements about other people (without proof), but when a person is dead, it doesn't seem to matter anymore. I do think that is a commentary on our society and perhaps not a very good one ....

      On another note, re: Virgil and Augustus, it seems that we have Augustus to thank for the fact that we are able to read the Aeneid today. On one hand, I think he should have respected Virgil's wishes (burned it), but on the other, what a loss! Sigh! Life is so complicated, isn't it? :-l

  5. Replies
    1. You're welcome, Peder! I had fun writing them up. Ovid is certainly a character.