Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Fourteen

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 Fifteen

Book Fourteen has 831  has lines on 43 pages.

As I come close to finishing this doorstop of a book, it’s not a bad time to remind myself that Ovid’s stated intent with his epic poem was to tell the story of Roman history from the beginning of time until Rome’s founding by Romulus.

That is a lot to write.  As I said in my review of Book One, Ovid had an ambitious goal.  I’m also discovering that while I may “know” some of the stories in Metamorphoses, I don’t know Ovid’s versions.  I know Odysseus (Ulysses) from Homer.  The same with the Trojan War.  Ovid’s audience would have known Homer’s work well, so while Ovid pays homage to the authors who came before him, he does not tell the same stories.  Which can be confusing..  To add to the confusion, Homer was Greek;  Ovid Roman.

This book may be the most disjointed of all.  The stories are all over the place, jumping from metamorphosis to metamorphosis without much plot cohesion.

It begins with a return to the story of Glaucus and Scylla.  Book Thirteen ended with Scylla rebuffing Glaucus who, seemingly, went to Circe in a huff.  Book Fourteen reveals that Glaucus was not seeking out Circe to heal his broken heart, but to plead for a spell or potion to be whipped up that would make Scylla love him.  And, as we have become used to, jealousy rears its ugly head.  Circe refuses Glaucus’ request, wanting him for herself.  Instead, she turns Scylla’s lower half into dogs.  Glaucus continues to spurn Circe, and no one ends up happy.

Ovid briefly mentions Scylla being turned into a headland of rock, just across the way from Charybdis’ whirlpool, making the strait of Messina difficult to navigate for sailors.  Between Scylla and Charybdis is the origin of “between a rock and a hard place.”  Scylla being the rock and Charybdis the hard place.

A poorly executed encounter between soldiers who once fought on opposite sides of The Trojan War, leads to the story of the aftermath of Ulysses’ men in Polyphemus‘ cave.  Great care is taken with the details of a blind, angry cyclops who pulls Mt. Etna apart and grabs every human he can feel and eats them whole.  This is some gory stuff which Ovid’s audience would have loved.

Now the other soldier in this encounter relates what it was like to be traveling with Ulysses and get stranded on Circe’s island.  Entering her palace, twenty-two men are greeted by friendly animals of all kinds.  The animals are wagging their tails and licking the hands of the new arrivals.  Circe greets them kindly, while the men notice that her women are not carding wool or spinning thread, but rather sorting grasses, flowers and herbs.

Circe directs the women to make a potion for the visitors.  As they drink, she taps each one on their head and they become pigs.  Here again, Ovid dwells on the details of this transformation.

… I started to prickle all over
with bristles.  My voice had deserted me, all the words I could utter
were snorting grunts.  I was falling down to the earth, head first.
I could feel my nose and my mouth going hard in a long round snout;
my neck was swelling in folds of muscle; the hands which had lifted
the cup just now to my lips were marking the soil with hoof prints.
(lines 279 – 284)

One of the men, Eurylochus,  does not drink the potion and is able to alert Ulysses, outside of the palace, who comes in and convinces Circe to return them all to human form.

While lingering at Circe’s, one of her maidens tells the story of the statue of Picus to Macareus.  As is common in these tales, Picus is gorgeous and young.  He is also married to Canens, a beautiful young woman who could move anyone and anything with her singing.

One day, while out picking herbs, Circe gets an eyeful of Picus and falls in love.  She is determined to have him, but Picus keeps denying her because he’s married to Canens.  Circe becomes so incensed she casts a spell and turns him into a woodpecker.

Picus is searched for but, of course, no one can find him.  Canens wanders for six days and six nights and finds herself on the shore of the Tiber river.  As Canens sings her sorrow, she wastes away to nothing.

Once again, I’m reminded of the Roman audience who would have loved this sort of gossipy story.  That it also explains the name of a physical space called Canens is a bonus.

Pomona is the goddess of orchards, who cares only for trees which bear fruit and nuts.  She’s decided to spend her life away from men, which is difficult because the males don’t take no for an answer.

One, Vertumnus, changes the seasons, and can change his appearance at will.  He disguises himself as an old woman so he can go into the orchard and talk to Pomona.  In this guise, he gives her many reasons why she should marry him.

He doesn’t wander all over the world in search of new women;
he sticks to his own patch.  Nor does he fall in love with the latest
girl he has seen, like most of your suitors.  You’ll be his passion,
his first and his last; he’ll devote his life entirely to you.
(lines 679 – 682)

Then old-lady-in-disguise Vertumnus tells her the story of Iphis and Anaxarete, which does not end well.

Iphis is a shepherd who falls in love with the lady Anaxarete.  He fights his feelings because of their differences in class.  When he can no longer fight them, he goes to her home and pleads with her.  He asks her servants to help him woo her, but Anaxrete has a cold heart and spurns him repeatedly.  She even makes fun of him.

In an act of desperation, he goes to her front door and beseeches her one last time.  When Iphis is rebuffed yet again, from behind a closed door, he commits suicide where the servants find him.

Still Anaxarete is unmoved which makes “a vengeful” god angry and she is turned into a statue.

At the end of this story, Vertumnus changes form into his own beautiful self, ready to rape Pomona, if “necessary.”  But his story has changed her mind about men and she gives herself willingly to him.  At least it’s another rape avoided.

Which brings us, at last, to the founding of Rome by Romulus.  Ovid does not mention the twin brother Remus or the myth of them being raised by a she-wolf here.  As with most well-known stories written by other authors, Ovid either glosses over them or focuses on different details.  As I’ve stated many times, his Roman audience would have been familiar with these stories, so Ovid didn’t need to retell them.

Rome has been founded during the festival of Pales, the god of shepherds.  But war broke out with the neighboring Sabines, because the Roman men abducted and raped Sabine women for wives.  After a sufficient amount of blood being spilled, peace is negotiated and Romulus rules over both Romans and Sabines.

The last story in Book Fourteen is brief and relates the story of how Romulus became a god.  Mars fulfills his promise to Romulus who takes the name Quirinus once deified.

His wife Hersilie is left behind and grieves the loss of her husband.  But Juno has plans for her and sends Iris to fetch her to Romulus’ Hill, where she is transformed into a goddess and joins her husband as Hora.

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