Author: Ovid, translated by Daniel Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Book Eight has 884 lines on 42 pages.
It’s not hard to imagine readers giving up on Metamorphoses. This is a big book. And Ovid tries the patience of the most diligent readers because he often doesn’t make sense.
I must remind myself frequently that Ovid’s audience would have known about most of what I’m reading, and that it had cathartic elements for those in a highly stratified, patriarchal society.
Juno’s jealousy and anger can be more easily absorbed when it’s understood that women in Ovid’s time had absolutely no recourse for anything which happened to them. Rape was not uncommon, especially amongst slaves and serving women. Fidelity to a wife was considered a suggestion, not a norm.
So Jove having his way with whomever he sees is a reflection of the sexual norms of the times, taken with a wink and a nod by laughing men in the audience. Juno’s overblown anger and desire to punish the victims can be seen as women lashing out at their perpetrators in a safe environment.
It’s often difficult for me not to become outraged at the appalling behavior presented, a good reminder not to apply my twenty-first century attitude to first century concerns. Myths, and religions, have been designed to explain what mortals cannot comprehend. Your neighbor’s cow died suddenly? He must have angered some god, and there’s a story for how and why.
Book Eight features more daughters in conflict between fathers and lovers, similar to Medea and Jason in Book Seven.
Scylla (not the same Scylla paired with Charybdis) falls for Minos hard. Minos has come to do battle and conquer Megara, ruled by Scylla’s father. The king has a crimson lock of hair at the crown of his head which grants him invincibility. To impress Minos, Scylla cuts off this lock of hair and presents it to Minos, who rages at her for her filial betrayal.
… I pray that the gods will banish you far
from their own bright sphere and that space is denied you on land and ocean
Certainly I shall never allow my own sphere, Crete,
the cradle of Jove, to be made unclean by so evil a monster!
(lines 97 – 100)
As with Medea, Ovid writes of Scylla’s internal dialogue weighing her options. Should she remain loyal, or allow herself to help the gorgeous Minos? How should she go about this treachery? She daydreams of turning herself in and allowing herself to be taken hostage, so that her father will have to pay a ransom. Scylla’s ponderings seem extreme, but young girls are no strangers to this sort of fantasizing.
In the next story is Minos’ half-bull, half-human son, the Minotaur who lives in a maze designed by Daedulus. Every nine years, Minos sent fourteen boys and girls into the maze to be eaten by the Minotaur as a sacrifice.
This story adds another piece to the legend of Theseus. With the aid of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, Theseus uses a thread to lead him back out of the maze after killing the Minotaur. But, as is typical, Theseus abandons Ariadne the first chance she gets.
These stories contain so many layers in so few lines. Women betray their fathers for the chance at love with the good-looking man. Good-looking man uses woman to meet his needs and betrays her, leaving her stranded and without love and family. Passion is one of the continual themes in Metamorphoses. Passion rarely leads to happy endings.
Daedulus is the connection to the next story. It’s the origin story for the phrase “flying too close to the sun.” The meaning comes from Daedulus’ warning to his son Icarus, about being sure to pay attention to his flight path as they escape their island exile by using wings made of bird feathers and wax. Icarus becomes enamored of the experience, and the sights he’s seeing, and forgets his father’s advice. By flying too close to the sun, the wax on Icarus’ wings melts and he plunges to his death in the sea.
The crux of the story is that Diana goes unacknowledged in the annual sacrifice to the gods in Calydon, so she sends a giant boar to ravage the countryside. A hunt is set up, Meleager and a list of heroes go off to kill the boar. Among the hunters is Atalanta, a young woman with whom Meleager falls in love. When the boar is killed by Meleager, he presents the spoils of the win to Atalanta which causes the other hunters to argue with him. Because Atalanta is a woman, she does not deserve the spoils, despite her contributions to bringing the boar down and the promise made by Meleager.
Fighting ensues, men kill each other, because it’s a mythic story and this is how disagreements are settled. In the heat of battle, Meleager kills his two uncles, brothers to his mother. Mom has conniptions fits over this and ruminates over her anger at her son for killing her brothers. Torn between the love for her son and her brothers, she eventually decides to follow through on burning the log the Fates gave her at the birth of Meleager.
As long as the log goes unburned, Meleager, will continue to live. Queen Althaea wrapped and hid the log at his birth, ensuring that no one else had access and that her son would live a long life. Until the boar hunt.
Vengeance is mine by sin; and death is atoned for by death;
crime must needs be added to crime; and a body to bodies.
Perish the guilt-cursed house in sorrow heaped upon sorrow!
I pray to the shades and the newly departed soul of my brethren:
take regard of the honour I show you; accept my sacrifice,
offered at such dear cost, the evil fruit of my own womb!
(lines 483 – 490)
Kids don’t piss off your mom.
Then we have sweet Philemon and Baucis, an elderly couple who take in two strangers and share their meagre belongings and food with them. Turns out the strangers are gods, there to destroy the village. But because Philemon and Baucis have welcomed them into their home, their lives will be spared.
This story is recognizable in many other cultural stories. In the Old Testament, Lot and his family take in two strangers who reveal themselves to be angels and warn the family about the impending doom of the city they live in.
Book Eight ends with the story of Erysichthon, the man who ate himself to death, literally. This is a brief story featuring the rage of Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and the disrespect for her forests by Erysichthon, yet another in a long line of arrogant males in Metamorphoses.
To punish him, Ceres pleads to Hunger (much like Minerva pleads to Envy in Book Two). Hunger curses Erysichthon, making him so hungry that no matter how much he eats he’s never satisfied. After having eaten everything in his purview and spending all his money on food, he begins to eat his own body. Points for creative punishments.
Author: Ovid, translated by Daniel Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Book Seven has 865 lines on 43 pages.
In my lifetime of reading, there are large gaps in the list of books I believe I should have some introduction to. Admittedly, this belief comes from exposure to critical ideas about the “western canon.” My love of books and reading can never really be sated, there’s always more to learn and understand.
When one’s tribe is made up of well-read, erudite and eclectic readers, one cannot avoid the mention of characters and ideas which are centuries old.
Medea is one of those references. For as long as I can remember, her name has come up a lot. It was understood there was an important cultural reference being made when I read or heard about her, but I’d never really become familiar with her story. Until Ovid, of course.
I vaguely understood her as a signifier for feminism. Vaguely. Somewhere, more than likely in a Western Civ class, I probably read some of Euripides’ play about this woman who tried to take control of her life under the very heavy thumb of the Greco-Roman hierarchy. To even think of expressing ideas of independence for women was unheard of. It would have been shocking to see a portrayal of a woman visibly wrestling with the strictures of male dominance.
Ovid portrays Medea as a woman torn between passion and loyalty. Jason, the hero, arrives in town with his Argonauts to take the Golden Fleece, a symbol of authority and kingliness. Ovid’s audience would have been familiar with the symbolism of the fleece, but modern readers (or me, at least) have to dig a little deeper.
Medea’s father sets three tasks for Jason to do in order to take the fleece from the always awake dragon which guarded it. Medea’s conflict comes from being in love with Jason and wanting to use her sorcery to help him, and her loyalty to her father who is guardian of the Golden Fleece.
Within the first ten lines of Book Seven, Medea has fallen deeply in love with Jason. Her soliloquy is the first in Metamorphoses to reflect on her conflicting emotions. It took nearly half the book to get to some soul-searching.
… Desire and reason
are pulling in different directions, I see the right way and approve it,
but follow the wrong. I am royal so why should I sigh for a stranger,
or ever conceive of a marriage which takes me away from my home?
(lines 19 – 21)
Medea understands the intent of her father’s tasks, to kill Jason and keep the fleece at home. She feels loyalty towards her father, yet her love for Jason makes her want to see him survive.
Still fighting with herself over these diametrically opposed emotions, Medea convinces Jason to promise he will marry her when he has taken the fleece. In return, she will use her magic to help him complete the tasks successfully.
One of those tasks is to take the teeth of the dragon and plant them, then fight the warriors which grow from them. It was at this point I thought, “Again with the dragon’s teeth?” (See Book Three.)
Jason wins and he and his band of Argonauts sail off, Medea happily on board with her husband. When they reach Ioclos, Jason’s home base, Medea is asked to prove her love again by rejuvenating his father, Aeson, making him young again. Despite her protests, she is convinced.
Ovid attributes Medea’s eventual acquiescence to her own feelings of guilt for having betrayed and abandoned her own father to help Jason win the fleece.
The next story is about Medea killing Jason’s uncle Pelias, king of Ioclos. But Ovid glosses over the reasons for this. Either his audience was expected to know the story of Pelias’ treachery, or he felt it unimportant to relay. It’s not obvious from the text which it is.
And cruel Medea is, to the power-hungry king who is threatening the lands around him with war. Rumor had it he had also been disrespectful to Hera/Juno, and we already know how well she handles that.
Pelias’ daughters saw Medea rejuvenate Aeson and want the same for their father. Medea agrees to do this but tricks the girls into killing him themselves by stabbing him multiple times in order to draw his blood in what they think is part of the rejuvenation spell.
“with eyes averted, they blindly, wildly stabbed at their father.
Dripping with blood, he still was able to lift himself up
on his elbow. Though covered with gashes, he tried to get up from his couch,
and braving the circle of sword points round him, extended his pale arms.
What are you doing, my children?” he cried. “Who gave you those weapons to
murder your father?”
In disgust, Medea finishes the job and boils his “butchered limbs” in water. One of the questions I have about this whole affair is why Medea was the one to kill Pelias? Did she feel duty-bound to Jason to use the ruse of a rejuvenation spell to get in close enough to both sully the daughters by making them do most of the work, and then finish it off herself?
Most of the rest of Book Seven is filled with travelogues, the recounting of the plague at Aegina, the turning of ants into men who became the Myrmidions, repopulating Aegina after the plague. But it ends with the tragic love story of Cephalus and Procris. Trust does not last long in Ovid’s tales, and that always leads to tragedy.
After their marriage, Aurora tries to draw Cephalus away from Procris, but he will not give in, speaking only of how much he loves his wife. In a fit of jealousy, Aurora plants doubts in Cephalus’ mind about Procris’ devotion. This is the age old theme of “if I can’t have him nobody can.” Sadly, Aurora has planted enough doubt and he begins to wonder if his wife is truly faithful.
So he tries to trick Procris by disguising himself (with Aurora’s help). As time goes on and Procris remains faithful to her husband, Cephalus keeps upping the ante, offering enormous gifts if only she would go away with the stranger before her. Finally, of course, Procris breaks down and agrees. Cephalaus reveals himself, confesses to his trickery, and eventually forgives her for capitulating.
This is a theme which always makes my blood boil. Mozart’s Cossi Fan Tutte has been banned from my music library because this is the basis of the story. Men don’t trust their women and to prove them untrustworthy, the women are tricked by their lovers in disguise. When the women finally give in, usually after a great deal of time and offers of many lavish gifts, the men reveal themselves basically exclaiming, “I knew you couldn’t be trusted!” More cajoling occurs and everyone ends up laughing it off because, as cosi fan tutte is loosely translated, “Women are like that.”
To return to Cephalus and Procris, once they have made up, he goes hunting. In the mid-day sun, when Cephalus needed a break from hunting, he would rest and welcome the breeze which blew through the valley. He was overheard speaking to the breeze,
Come to me, beautiful breeze, steal into my breast, you’re so lovely. This heat
is burning me up. Relieve me I beg you, as only you can!
lines 813 – 814)
The busybody who overheard this scurried home to tell Procris that her husband was wooing another woman. Procris rushes out to hear for herself and hides in the bushes. Cephalus hears her noises and throws his spear which never misses, a gift from Procris, and kills her.
At least Ovid has the decency to show Cephalus crying at the end of this tale.
Hey 19, look at you with that luscious body! Damn, if only you knew how beautiful you were.
I’m sorry you grew up in a household which didn’t teach you about loving yourself. Which didn’t teach you about self-esteem and confidence. For being surrounded by the constant talk about needing to go on a diet. And for the doctors who told you to lose weight without talking about nutrition or healthy eating. Who threatened to put you on diet pills if you didn’t lose weight.
I’m looking at you and wishing you had just known how wonderful you were. How you didn’t have to let men touch you if you didn’t want them to, and how sex wasn’t affection. I’m wishing you knew how powerful you were, how strong your body was.
This is the body which marched with the high school band in parades and half-time shows. And danced at the discos in its polyester diva clothed glory.
I want you to know all messages you received about needing to diet were bullshit. Look at you! How I wish you could have seen your body the way it was, not the trumped up image of being fat which led to buying clothes which were almost always too big, and rarely flattering. I wish you could have looked in the mirror and seen lovely, beautiful, awesome you; not the fat girl you thought no one loved.
You lived in a household where nobody valued you, and in a society hung up on beauty standards no one could reach. That part hasn’t changed, but there are women now who push against the idea that we have to shape our bodies to meet expectations.
Feminism was just entering the national conversation. But you, my awesome 19, were confused and unsettled, there was no way you could have known what any of that meant. You weren’t allowed to say “no,” or think about what you might really want to do with your life. You were expected to just go along, and so you did.
Healthy body image wasn’t really a thing then. Your stupendous 155 pounds were deemed too many, and that was that. So you yo-yo dieted, along with every other girl in America, believing that you were too fat to be worthy of anything good.
It’s 35 years later as I write this. Sighing deeply when this picture filtered to the top, I wish I could take you aside and tell you how beautiful and worthy you were. I wish you could know self-esteem and confidence, believing what you wanted was important and worth pursuing. I wish I could have taught you how to believe in yourself and ignore the judgmental people around you.
Your parents’ divorce had nothing to do with you. It really wasn’t your responsibility to provide emotional support for them. I wish you could have known that.
I wish we could have talked about the importance of owning and wearing good bras. And better looking glasses.