Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Book Nine has 797 lines on 40 pages.
I have this idea I should read the book the author has written, not the book I wanted him to write. Ovid is a first century poet whose stories reflect the times and norms in which he lived. In Book Nine, we encounter two stories of “inappropriate” love, and the way Ovid handles them says more about his world than anything else.
We meet Hercules and learn about the contests he’s had to prove his strength and worth. Achelous, the river-god, challenges Hercules to a fight for a woman named Deianira. In the end, the god’s superior strength and shape-shifting ability are no match for Hercules who breaks off one of the horns while Achelous is in the shape of a bull.
The story of Hercules and Nessus reminds me of the story about the woman who helps a scorpion cross the river. In order to get her help, the scorpion promises not to sting her but halfway across stings her anyway. When questioned, the scorpion replies, “You knew what I was before we started across.”
Nessus is a centaur with poisonous blood and a deep desire for Deianira. When Hercules and his wife encounter a raging river, which she can’t swim, Nessus volunteers to help. Hercules will swim across and meet them on the other side. Except, you know how this goes. Nessus tries to make off with Delanira and Hercules kills him with arrows. In his last act, Nessus gives Delanira the shirt he’s bled on as a gift which would “excite” Hercules.
Never take gifts from those whom you know to be untrustworthy. The final price isn’t worth paying.
In “The Death of Hercules,” Rumour spreads gossip about Hercules to Delanira, who believes what she hears.
Rumour whose joy it is to embroider the truth with falsehood
and grows by her lies to gigantic proportions from tiny beginnings.
(lines 137 – 138)
In Delanira’s brief soliloquy she weighs her options, leave Hercules or try to “regain” his love. Not realizing the poison which Nessus’ shirt is soaked in, she has a servant deliver the shirt, as a gift, to Hercules who is performing his ritual in the Temple of Jupiter.
Of course, Ovid writes “revolting to detail” (line 167) and then proceeds to graphically describe the effect of this poison on Hercules. This also gives Hercules the opportunity to list the Twelve Labors he’d performed. Basically he says, “I did all these heroic deeds, and this is how I die?”
Jupiter steps in, saying that since Hercules is half mortal on his mother’s side, and immortal on his father’s (Jupiter) side, only the mortal parts of Hercules will burn away, making him an immortal welcomed to the halls of Olympus.
Next is a different story of love. To say Byblis has issues would be putting it mildly. Hers is a story of unrequited love and her struggle to not give into her darker impulses. Because the man she burns for is her twin brother.
She makes many arguments trying to reason through why incest isn’t such a bad idea. They are not yet adults, it can be blamed on their youth. The gods slept with their siblings, why can’t they? She would never turn Caunus’ advances down if he were to make them, so why shouldn’t she make the advances herself?
The ick factor is high with this one, but the way Ovid writes her is almost sympathetic. If she were a young woman burning for a man not related, one could feel compassion for her.
Byblis’ solution is to write a letter to Caunus describing her deep abiding love to him, expecting him to reciprocate those feelings. Of course, Caunus is appalled and livid to receive such a message, throwing the tablet it’s written on across the room and threatening to kill the messenger.
Shocked at the response she receives, Byblis loses her mind and travels the country exhibiting her grief quite publicly. Exhausted, she falls to the ground weeping and the Carian nymphs try to console her. She is quite inconsolable and turned into a spring.
And finally, there’s the story of Iphis, whose love is also problematic. While her mother is pregnant, her husband threatens to kill the baby if it’s not a boy. To save the life of her new-born girl, she lies.
Iphis is raised as a boy. At the age of thirteen, her father arranges a wedding between her and her best friend, Ianthe. Ianthe comes from a wealthy family and will provide a large dowry. She’s fallen in love with Iphis believing she’s male.
but Iphis loved without hope of ever enjoying her loved one,
which made her passion the stronger – a girl in love with a girl!
Almost in tears, she sighed: Oh, what will become of me now?
I’m possessed by a love that no one has heard of, a new kind of passion,
a monstrous desire! If heaven had truly wanted to spare me,
It ought to have done so. If not, and the gods were out to destroy me,
they might at least have sent me some natural normal affliction.
(lines 723 – 730)
Iphis’ soliloquy is heart wrenching as she mourns for the love that cannot be. She prays to the gods asking why they were causing the wedding to go forward when they knew Iphis would never know the physical love of her wife.
Her mother is equally troubled and does all she can to postpone the wedding day. Here, it’s made clear that Iphis has no idea why the lie has been told, and that her father has remained clueless all these years.
The day before the wedding is set, mom takes Iphis to the temple of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and prays for help. It was Isis who had visited during childbirth offering exhortations to lie about Iphis’ gender, in order to protect her life. The temple trembles as the prayers are offered, which is taken as a “propitious omen.”
As mother and child leave the temple, Iphis’ body changes, and she becomes a boy. Joyously, Iphis takes his place beside his bride, Ianthe, knowing that he will be able to fulfill his husbandly duties.
While reading the story of Iphis, I had to remind myself that Ovid’s audience was not twenty-first century citizens who had just witnessed the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US. His audience would have had very real phobias and concerns about homosexuality.
Only the very rich men, and the scholarly, were allowed to sate their sexual desires in any way they chose. Though they were often portrayed as bisexual rather than homosexual. Women were not allowed this freedom.
As with all hierarchical patriarchies, what is okay for the upper classes is definitely not okay, and can often be seen as shameful, for the lower classes. Thus, the reflection of the times in the story of Iphis who must become a man before getting married to his love.