Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Fifteen

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 TenBook ElevenBook TwelveBook ThirteenBook Fourteen

Book Fifteen has 879 has lines on 42 pages.

So here we are at the end of this epic poem, considered to be one of the most influential works in Western arts and literature.   It’s easy to understand why, Ovid’s stories focus not only on change, he focuses on the humanness of his characters, even the gods.  As much as I rail at men who won’t stay faithful to their spouses, and angry women who take it out on the victim, isn’t that what humans do?  It isn’t easy to think about the flaws of us, but Ovid reflects us back to ourselves ultimately.

As an introduction to Croton and its famous citizen, Pythagoras, Ovid tells the story of the city’s founding.  Myscelus is visited in his dreams by Hercules twice.  Each time, Hercules exhorts Myscelus to leave his country and sail to the place where he would found Croton.

However, the laws in Myscelus’ country forbade anyone to leave.  As he tried to sneak out, he is caught and put on trial.  The vote is held by collecting white or black pebbles in an urn.  If all the balls are black, he will be executed.  Since Myscelus is breaking the law of his country, it’s a foregone conclusion that all the pebbles will be black.

He prays to Hercules basically saying, “It’s your fault I’m in this predicament, so help me out here.”  When the urn is emptied, all the pebbles have turned white and Myscelus is released to leave the country.

Heard of the phrase “black balled?”  The tradition of voting related in the story Myscelus is where that phrase comes from.

(Note:  I was reminded of the Greek practice of ostracism which used pieces of pottery called ostracon to vote for the ostracism of a citizen from Athens.  Although similar to being black balled, voters would write the name of the citizen they were voting to ostracize.  The pot sherds were usually black, but it was the name that was counted, not the color of the pot sherd.  For the time being, I stand by my presumption that “black balled” came from the story of Myscelus and Hercules.  31 August, 2015)

And so Croton is founded in Italy and Pythagoras, great philosopher and mathematician, becomes one of its citizens.  Ovid uses Pythagoras as a mouthpiece to discuss how everything transforms, how humanity is connected to each other and everything else on the planet.

One of the more interesting themes here is that of reincarnation.  Not in terms of whether it happens, it’s plainly stated that it does.  But Pythagoras’ reasoning to be vegetarian and stop killing and eating animals is that we could very well be displacing the soul of a relative.  In sum:

All of these nets and traps and snares and crafty devices –
have done with them!  Cease to deceive the birds with your treacherous limed twigs,
duping the deer by stringing feathers on ropes to unnerve them,
luring the fish with bait on the hidden hooks of your lines.
If an animal harms you, destroy it; but do no more than destroy it.
Cleave to a diet that sheds no blood and is kind to all creatures.
(lines 473 ~ 468)

Next, in the “oh you think you have problems” department, Hippolytus determines to cheer up grieving widow Egeria by relating his own woes.

I have this image of a Roman warrior coming upon a crying woman in a grove of trees.  She’s been crying so loud and so long that all the nymphs are telling her she needs to quiet down because Diana is being disturbed by all the ruckus.  In all his well-meant platitudes, he awkwardly pats her on the shoulder and says, essentially, “Lady, you think you have it bad.  Let me tell you about this one time …”

And off Hippolytus goes telling the story of how when he wouldn’t sleep with his stepmom, Phaedra, she accused him of rape to his father, Theseus.  Of course, Theseus believes his wife over his son and curses him and exiles Hippolytus.

As Hippolytus is driving his chariot down the coast, a huge wave comes out of the ocean, turns into a gigantic bull and spooks the horses.  Mayhem ensues, Hippolytus loses control of his horses and chariot which crashes and kills him.

My weary spirit at last gave out, and there wasn’t a part
of my body which could have been known as mine.  It was all one wound.
Now can you, Egeria, dare you compare your misfortune with mine?
(lines 528 – 530)

Then he goes on to say, “’cause let me tell ya, that was just the beginning.”  Just like the one annoying co-worker we’ve all had who just wants to tell his story and get your sympathy, under the guise of “cheering you up.”

After he dies, Hippolytus goes to the underworld to bathe in healing waters which bring him back to life all in one piece again.  And then, and then, he can’t even be Hippolytus anymore, he has to become Virbius because Pluto was angry about Hippolytus coming back to life.

Of course, this story does nothing to make Egeria feel better about losing her husband.  She lays down at the foot of a mountain and continues crying until Diana was moved enough to turn Egeria into a cooling spring.

The Epilogue to this grand work proves that Ovid was both arrogant and prescient.  He ends his masterpiece by stating that nothing will ever destroy his work and that his name shall never be forgotten.

Wherever the might of Rome extends in the lands she has conquered,
the people shall read and recite my words.  Throughout all ages,
if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame.
(lines 877 – 879)

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