Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Three

Metamorphoses
Ovid
Translated by David Raeburn

Title: Metamorphoses
Author: Ovid, translated by Daniel Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-0140447897
Publisher: Penguin Classics

Book OneBook TwoBook FourBook FiveBook SixBook SevenBook EightBook Nine Book Ten Book Eleven –  Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Three has 733 lines on 35 pages.

So let me get this straight.  Cadmus is ordered by Europa’s father to go in search of her and not return until she’s been found.  Cadmus travels the (known) world and doesn’t find her.

Phoebus, the patron of Delphi, tells Cadmus to follow a heifer to where she lies down and there he will found Thebes.

Then, Cadmus slays a dragon.  So far, I’m with this because it’s mythology writ large.  But, Athena tells Cadmus to plant the dragon’s teeth and fierce warriors arise out of the ground.

At no point does Ovid describe these warriors as small, but I kept imagining miniature figurines rising out of the ground.  Little hoplite like miniatures fighting it out in hand to hand combat literally in the trenches.  Yeah, I kept giggling.

The last five warriors make peace with each other and join Cadmus in founding Thebes.

I’m not sure why planting dragon teeth put me over the edge.  There have been out of control carriages crossing the sky and wreaking havoc, a physical description of Envy, people turning to stone, etc.  It’s not like warriors from dragon’s teeth is any more over the top than the rest of it.

Book Three is when the women show they can be even worse than the men, in terms of vengeful spite.

Take Diana, for instance, who went more than a little overboard when Actaeon, purely by accident saw her, and her maidens, bathing naked in the pond. Turning him into a stag, and then setting his own hunting dogs on him, seems a little overboard for an unwitting mistake. Surely there was a kinder, more “understanding” way to send the message that looking upon the naked Diana, even by mistake, is punishable by death.

I keep saying this, “Never swear on the river Styx until you know what you’re being asked to promise.” I’m looking at you Jupiter.

Juno gets angry because Semele is pregnant by Jupiter, so she plots to punish Semele.  Jupiter promises Semele anything, until the one thing she asks for – coming to her bed dressed as though he were going to Juno’s bed – is too much.

“… Jupiter wanted
to gag her lips, but the fatal words had already been uttered.
Neither her wish nor his solemn oath could now be retracted.”
lines 295 – 297

Juno knew that Jupiter arriving in Semele’s bed, a mortal, as he would Juno’s, a goddess, would kill Semele. And it did, but the baby survived by being sewn into Jupiter’s thigh.  Oy.

The way Ovid tells the story of Echo and Narcissus is so sad.  Juno’s jealous, vengeful wrath is again at play as she takes Echo’s voice from her, leaving her only with the ability to repeat the last few words spoken by someone else first.

The word narcissist gets tossed around lightly to describe a person who is hopelessly, selfishly in love with herself, and could never be in love with anyone else.  But think how it might feel, if the beloved someone was not recognized as his own image.

Ovid portrays Narcissus as a gorgeous young man chased by both men and women but refuses their advances.  He even insults Echo who has fallen hopelessly in love with him.  One day Narcissus sees someone with whom he falls in love, never realizing that it is merely his own reflection.  There is much pining for this other person who is so near, yet so far away, separated by the thin film of water in a pond.

“He fell in love with an empty hope,
a shadow mistaken for substance.
(lines 417-418)

Ovid’s writing here is so poignant, as though telling a love story of two people, aware of, and reaching for, each other across a great chasm, when it’s only a young boy in love with his reflection.

Book Three ends on a note of “religious” persecution as Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus, and current ruler of Thebes, loses his mind over the presence of Bacchus and his followers.  Thebans just wanna have a good time, but some rulers can be so picky.

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