Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Book Ten has 738 lines on 37 pages.
If someone were to ask me if I thought they should read Metamorphoses, my response would be “should? no.” No one “should” read anything. But I would definitely encourage them to try. This book is not for everyone, it is big and challenging. It can be a struggle, there have been times when I’ve just wanted to walk away from it and say, “I tried.” And yet I keep slugging it out.
It is worth trying. It is worth wrestling with. Metamorphoses has influenced twenty centuries of western culture and art. There are recognizable stories and imagery.
Be gentle with yourself when the going gets tough. And if you find you cannot, or do not want to, finish, be gentle. This is a tough book, and it requires stamina and vigilance and devotion. There is no shame in putting it down. Metamorphoses can be graphically violent and filled with stories which test the reader. It is also filled with beautiful language and relates tales of the Roman gods, and the mortals who worship them. It can be silly and uplifting. To me, it is a challenge worth pursuing.
My edition comes with a two page overview of each book, and excellent end-notes. The translation is easy to read. Even then, I turn to others’ expertise to better understand what I’m reading. There is no way I could read this book without help.
Before we meet Orpheus, famous bard and poet, who loses his wife, Eurydice twice in Book 10, mention must be made of the irony that it opens with an invitation to a wedding. It’s not the wedding itself which is ironic, it is that Hymen, the god of marriage ceremonies is invited. The very thing society has cherished in women as proof of their virtue is male.
Eurydice is walking to the altar when she is bit in the ankle by a snake and dies from its venom. Orpheus follows her to the underworld to plead for her return. Everyone is so moved by his song and tears that even the Furies cry real tears for the first time. Proserpina and Hades release Eurydice with the admonition that Orpheus is to walk in front of her on the way and not look back until they are both out of the underworld.
I’m sure you see this coming. Orpheus reaches outside a few steps ahead of his wife and looks back waiting for her to come even with him. Since she is still in the underworld, she disappears back into its depths and Orpheus loses her the second time.
From that time on, Orpheus refused the company of women. Here again, it is the homosexuality (or bisexuality) of men which is accepted, and only with very young men.
Orpheus even started the practice among the Thracian
tribes of turning for love to immature males and of plucking
the flower of a boy’s brief spring before he has come to his manhood.
lines 83 – 85
Hyacinth and Phoebus adore each other, always together hunting, playing and relaxing. One day, they are playing what amounts to a game of Frisbee, only with a heavy discus. Phoebus throws it, and as Hyacinth runs to catch it, the discus bounces off the ground and hits him in the face, killing him. Instead of allowing Hades to take him to the underworld, Phoebus turns Hyacinth into a flower.
Pygmalion, the sculptor, fell in love with his own creation, much as Henry Higgins did with Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, which became the musical and movie, My Fair Lady. (The play has a much different ending than the musical and movie.)
The gist of Pygmalion’s story is that he was so sickened by the vices of women that he eschews them, instead sculpting the perfect woman. She was so perfect that Pygmalion would caress her much as anyone would caress a living woman. Praying and making sacrifices to Venus, he asks for a woman just like his “ivory maiden.” Hearing his supplications, Venus turns the statue into Pygmalion’s dream living woman.
Myrrha‘s story is just as icky as Byblis‘ (see Book Nine). While her mother is away from home participating in the annual rites for Ceres, Myrrha confesses her love to her nurse. Nursie then sneaks Myrrha into her father’s bed, who thinks she is some other young girl. For nine nights they have sex. King Cinyras is outraged when he finds out it’s his daughter he’s been sleeping with, he tries to kill her. Myrhha runs away and, while pregnant with her son, Adonis, is turned into the myrrh tree.
Adonis is born and grows into a very beautiful man, one which Venus falls in love with by accident (because her son Cupid grazed her with one of his arrows.) As they are lounging one day, she tells the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes (not the Atalanta found in Book 8).
Atalanta is a highly pursued beauty who can outrun anyone. She is warned by an oracle to avoid men,
But you shall not escape. You will lose yourself, without losing your life.
Suitors continued their quest, despite Atalanta’s rule that any man who does not outrun her will be killed. (Much like Red Sonja who receives incredible fighting skills, on the condition that she never sleep with a man unless he defeats her in fair combat.) One day, Hippomenes arrives on the scene and Atalanta is smitten. There follows a soliloquy in which she examines her feelings and argues with herself about actually racing Hippomenes.
In the meantime, Hippomenes has prayed to Venus for help to win the race and thus, the hand of Atalanta. Venus answers his prayers by giving him three golden apples with which to distract Atalanta. Hippomenes wins the day and takes her as his wife. But he is so filled with lust that they profane the temple of Cybele with their love-making.
Cybele is so angry she decided summarily sending the couple across the river Styx is not harsh enough punishment and turns them into lions.
At this point, Venus admonishes Adonis to stay away from lions and other animals “that won’t turn tail but bare their teeth for a fight.” (line 706)
Venus leaves Adonis, who goes hunting and finds himself cornered in a cave by a boar which impales him in the groin with its tusks. As Adonis lies dying on the floor of the cave, Venus hears his cries of pain and rushes back to him. Unable to save him, she changes Adonis into a pomegranate.
… But this new flower has only a short life:
flimsy and loose on its stem, it is easy shaken and blown
away by the winds which give it the name of anemone – wind-flower.
(lines 736 – 738)
Ovid continues to pack quite a bit into just 37 pages.