Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Eight

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 ThreeBook FourBook FiveBook SixBook SevenBook NineBook Ten Book Eleven Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

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 meatiest story in Book Eight is that of Meleager and the Calydonian Boar.  This is another story of betrayal, familial conflict, and infatuation.

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.

print