Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Eleven

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 Eight Book Nine Book Ten Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Eleven has 795 lines on 39 pages.

Book Eleven starts with the death of Orpheus at the hands of the “wild Ciconian women.”  They tear Orpheus to pieces because after Eurydice’s second death he refused to get involved with women, but rather immature boys (see Book Ten).  At last, Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited in the underworld and can walk side by side.

Bacchus punishes the women by turning them into trees.  Further, he is so displeased with Thrace that he takes a band of dancers and heads for the kingdom of Midas.

After Midas has performed a good deed for one of Bacchus’ followers, he is offered any gift he wants.  Ovid portrays Midas as a slow-witted buffoon, greedy with little thought.  He asks for the “golden touch,” so that anything he touches will turn into gold.  It’s not too long before the misfortune of this boon is found.

Literally, anything Midas touches turns to gold.  His food, his servants, his clothing, his … everything.  He begins to starve because he can’t eat gold.  So he asks Bacchus to take the “gift” away and return him to normal.  But Midas isn’t done being stupid.

When he’s observing a musical contest between Pan and Apollo, he calls the decision of Apollo as the better musician “unfair.”  Which, of course, pisses Apollo right off.  Midas’ reward for this opinion?  Donkey ears.  Apollo gives him donkey ears, which Midas tries to hide from everyone.

Right there, that’s the origin story of the phrase “the Midas touch”  and the meaning of having donkey ears as stupid.  I love learning things like that.

I am mostly going to skip the details of the story about Peleus and Thetis because it’s  another story about rape, and it’s becoming easier to get fed up with these stories.  However, it’s an important story because it leads to the argument which began the Trojan War.

The story of Peleus and Thetis is also important because it leads into the story of Peleus being exiled for the murder of Phocus, his half-brother.  Peleus winds up in the court of Ceyx, in Thessaly.

There’s a story about the giant wolf rampaging on the beach eating and destroying all the livestock.  After the wolf has been turned into a marble statue, King Ceyx decides that he must consult the Apollonian oracle at Claros.

This involves a sea voyage, Ceyx’s wife, Alcyone pleads with him to go overland instead.

Just tell me you’re journeying overland, then I’ll only miss you
and won’t be also afraid.  I’ll fret without being frightened.
But no, you are going by sea, and that is the ugly picture
which fills me with terror.  I recently noticed a wrecked ship’s boards
on the shore, and I’ve often read names of graves containing no bodies.
(lines 424 = 429)

And then the mother of all storms hits.  This being an epic poem featuring Roman mythology, I should rephrase that.  A great big storm happens, caused by nature, not by gods (surprise!).  Everyone on board is killed, the ship itself is destroyed.  Ceyx dies wishing he could see his wife Alcyone again.

Meanwhile, Alcyone is at home weaving new clothes for them to wear once Ceyx returns.  She has no idea that disaster has struck.  She goes to Juno’s temple frequently to pray for her husband’s safe return.

The catch with Juno is that praying for dead people is considered unclean, and she no longer wants her temple polluted by Alcyone’s prayers.  Juno’s solution is to send a messenger to Sleep telling him to send a dream lifelike enough for Alcyone to know that her beloved husband is dead.

Iris arrives at the palace of Somnus, and  delivers her message.  Sleep rouses himself long enough to choose Morpheus:

… the master mimic, the quickest of all to capture
a person’s walk, his facial expressions and tone of voice;
he’ll also adopt the original’s clothing and typical language.
(lines 634 – 637)

Morpheus enters Alcyone’s dreams and convinces her of the truth her husband is dead.  In deep grief, she returns to the spot where they said their last goodbye.  Off in the distance is something which looks like a body.

As it gets closer, she recognizes it as Ceyx and jumps onto a groyne (new word!) to get a better look.  She is turned into a bird, and flies to Cyex’s body to try to kiss him.  He too is turned into a bird and they fly off together.

This story, while sad, is refreshing in its portrayal of love and devotion.  It happens sometimes in Ovid.

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