Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Twelve

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 ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Twelve 628 has lines on 30 pages.

Book Twelve is mostly about the Trojan War.  But instead of describing the war itself, as Ovid’s predecessors Virgil and Homer did, Ovid describes it as yet another brawl breaking out at a wedding reception (see Book Five).

The book starts with a short, weird piece about the thousand ships leaving Greece for Troy after Paris abducted Helen which started the Trojan War.

Next is a seemingly unconnected story about Rumour.  I’m particularly fond of the way Ovid describes Rumour’s home.

… who chose to live on a mountain,
with numberless entrances into her house and a thousand additional
holes, though none of her thresholds are barred with a gate or a door.
… the whole place hums and echoes, repeating whatever
it hears.  …
(lines  43 – 45, 47 – 48)

There are 23 lines which exquisitely describe this home and its denizens.  This is why I continue with Metamorphoses, the language can be so beautiful and interesting.

Then there’s the story of Cycnus, yet another man who metamorphosizes into a swan.  This Cycnus brags to Achilles about needing no armor.  Comically, Achilles keeps trying to kill Cycnus by throwing his spear multiple times and always missing.  Even more comically, while Cycnus is boasting he can’t be killed, Achilles strangles Cycnus with the strap of his own helmet.

The after battle story telling around the fire leads into Nestor’s story of the transgender Caenis/Caeneus.

His exploits won him renown, the more surprisingly so as he started life as a woman.
(line 174 – 175)

The story of Caenis makes sense, since she was raped by Neptune who offers her anything she wants.  She asks to be made something other than a woman so that she will never have to suffer rape again.  (lines 199  – 203)

The core of Book Twelve is “The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs,” Ovid’s comical version of the Trojan War.  At the wedding of Pirithous and Hippodamia, the drunken centaur, Eurytus, decides he’s going to make off with the bride.  Which never goes over well.  There erupts an epic brawl in which weapons are improvised from the furniture and table settings.

One line in particular caught my fancy.  There’s a centaur passed out drunk in the midst of this chaos with a cup of wine spilling from his hand.  A lapith sees this and takes action.

Now you must mix your wine with Stygian water!
(line 322)

Book Twelve ends with the death of Achilles, as cowardly Paris’ arrow is guided by Apollo through Achilles’ heel.

If Priam, after the death of Hector, had cause for rejoicing,
this surely was it.  So Achilles who’d vanquished the mightiest heroes
was vanquished himself by a coward who’d stolen the wife of his Greek host.
(lines 607 – 609)

The death of Achilles ends with preparations for the dispensing of Achilles’ belongings.

In my research, I keep being reminded that the Romans were a blood-thirsty lot and all these tales of battles and wars would have been greatly appreciated.  Even as I caution myself of this, I can’t help wincing over the detailed gory events.  Eyeballs dangling onto faces just isn’t a very nice thing to think about, no matter how much the antagonist might have deserved something horrible.

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