Category Archives: Reading Ovid

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Six

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 SevenBook EightBook NineBook Ten Book Eleven Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Six has 721 lines on 35 pages.

This book is filled with stories of arrogant mortal women getting their comeuppance from goddesses.

Arachne and Niobe both claim they are better than Minerva and Lanto,

Arachne & Minerva

Arachne, of humble birth and place, has a reputation in her region as being a remarkable weaver. She is also arrogant enough to believe she is better than Minerva, goddess of weaving (among other things), and challenges her to a contest.

Minerva’s weaving showed triumphal stories of the gods while Arachne’s illustrated faults. Of course, the goddess took umbrage and “used it [shuttle] to strike Arachne on the forehead.”  (line 153)  Rather than take this punishment, Arachne tried to hang herself.

She was hanging in air when the goddess took pity
and lifted her up. “You may live you presumptuous creature,” she said,
“but you’ll hang suspended forever. Don’t count on a happier future:
my sentence applies to the whole of your kind, and to all your descendants!”
(lines 135 – 138)

Thus, spiders.

Niobe, on the other hand, brags that her fourteen children are more than the two Latona has had.  Therefore, she is more worthy of worship than Latona.

I am undeniably blessed; and blessed I’ll continue to be,
without any doubt. My abundance assures me I’ll always be safe.
I am far too important a person for fortune’s changes to harm me.
However much I am robbed, far more will be left to enjoy.
My blessings are such that I’ve nothing to fear; supposing a fraction
of all this people, my children could ever be taken away, my losses could never reduce me to only two, the magnificent
crowd Latona can boast, so near to making her childless!
(lines 193 – 200)

Some people never learn. Don’t taunt the goddesses, it never ends well.

Niobe Weeping Rock

Ovid spends a lot of time describing, in excruciating detail, how Latona shows her wrath, with the help of her two children, Apollo and Phoebe, killing all fourteen children.  As Niobe weeps and wails, Latona turns her into a weeping rock.

Book Six feels like a much shorter book than it is because most of it is taken up with Arachne and Latona.

Delos (aka Leto), just after giving birth to her twins comes across a lake and begins to drink from it.  The peasants have different ideas and order her off.  After pleading with them, they jump in the lake and stir up the mud so the water is undrinkable. For this transgression, they are turned into frogs.

She raised her hands to the heavens and cried, “May you live in your filthy
pool for ever!” Her prayer was answered. The peasants’ delight
to be under water, now plunging the whole of themselves to the bottom,
now popping their heads out, sometimes swimming close to the surface.
Often they’ll stay on the bank in the sun and often jump back
to the cool of the water. But even today they continue to wag
their tongues in loud and unseemly arguments; shameless as ever,
although they are under the water, they’ll try to indulge in abuse.
Their voices too have gone hoarse; their throats are inflated and swollen;
their noisy quarrels have stretched their jaws to a hideous width.
Their shoulders rise to their heads as their necks appear to have vanished;
their backs are green, while their huge protruding bellies are white.
They leap about in the muddy pool transmuted to frogs.
(lines 368 – 381)

Near the end of Book Six is the story of Tereus, Procne and Philomela,  but I have had enough of brutal rape, and arrogant, narcissistic males who find nothing wrong with their actions.  Metamorphoses can be really brutal sometimes.

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Five

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 SixBook SevenBook EightBook NineBook Ten Book Eleven Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Five has 678 lines on 33 pages.

A writer reflects the times in which they are writing.  It’s all too easy to apply modern sensitivities to earlier times.

Ovid’s Rome was patriarchal, with  slave and class systems in place.  Metamorphoses has been a very influential piece since the time it was written.  It should come as no surprise that the attitudes of ancient Rome have been spread across the globe, and can still be found in contemporary society.

Ovid’s treatment of the characters in his epic poem resonate deeply with what one has experienced or observed from a 21st century perspective.  So much work left to do.

The epic story of Perseus continues with a wedding banquet turned brawl thanks to Andromeda‘s first intended.  Phineus insists on taking Andromeda back and leads a sword swinging fest that is gore and blood and anguish defined.  It isn’t until after much stabby-stabbity that Perseus remembers he has Medusa‘s head and begins using it to literally stop his foes in their tracks.

Why he waited so long is a question only Ovid can answer.  Friends keep telling me not to ruin a good story by trying to make sense of it.  So I’ll let it be.

In all of the words about fighting comes an object lesson about death coming to you no matter your class or status.

Dorylas rich in land, whose estates of cornfields and mounting
heaps of imported incense were larger than anyone else’s.
Rich as he was, he was struck by a javelin thrown from the side
in the groin, that sensitive place.
(lines 129 – 132)

Not only did the rich man die in a brawl, he died from a javelin to the groin.

A prime example of a mother’s love is the story of Proserpina.

…when Pluto espied her,
no sooner espied than he loved her and swept her away, so impatient is passion.
(lines 394 – 396)

They wind up in Hades.  Meanwhile, Ceres searches for her daughter.  Finding evidence of Prosperina’s girdle in Sicily, Ceres (goddess of agriculture) lays waste to Sicily until Arethusa talks her down and tells her Prosperina is queen of the underworld.

Jupiter, of course sticks up for Pluto:

… Lord Pluto hasn’t committed a crime
but an act of love.  No need for us to feel shame at the marriage,
if only you will accept it, Ceres.
(lines 524 – 526)

So long as Prosperina has not eaten anything in Hades, she is free to return home.  Sadly, she ate seven seeds and was sentenced to spending six months in the underworld, the other six at home.  (Thus, the mythological reason for seasons.)

Book Five is one third of the way through, and it continues to fascinate and appall with plenty of aha! moments, giving me lots to think about,  A lifetime of reading is being recast as I continue.

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Four

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 FiveBook SixBook SevenBook EightBook Nine Book Ten Book Eleven Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Four has 803 lines on 40 pages.

Meet Pyramus and Thisbē, the ill-fated lovers who were the eventual inspiration for stories like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet ( the inspiration for West Side Story).  This story has all the familiar trappings; feuding families, young people in love separated from each other (in this case, by a wall), whose plans to escape and be together tragically fail.

Thisbē makes it to the meeting place first, but loses her cloak as she moves away from a lioness whose muzzle is smeared with blood,  The lioness chews on the cloak, smearing blood on it.  Thisbē hides in a cave waiting for Pyramus to arrive.

Pyramus, of course, arrives and sees the blood-stained cloak and jumps to the wrong conclusion.  Underneath a mulberry tree, he uses his dagger to kill himself.  Thisbē, after a plaintive prayer, uses Pyramus’ dagger to join him in death.

You sad, unhappy fathers of  Thisbē and Pyramus, hear us!
We both implore you to grant this prayer: as our hearts were truly
united in love, and death has at last united our bodies,
lay us to rest in a simple tomb. Begrudge us not that!
(lines 153 – 157)

The roots of the word hermaphrodite comes from the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus.  Salmacis is the only nymph rapist in the ancient myths.  She liked to loll around the lake, making herself beautiful.  When Hermaphroditus arrived at the same lake, Salmacis could not take her eyes off him.  Or, the rest of her.  No one taught Salmacis “no means no,” as she desperately clung to him and had her way.

The boy held out like a hero, refusing the nymph the delights
that she craved for. Salmacis squeezed still harder, then pinning the whole
of her body against him, she clung there and cried: “You may fight as you will,
you wretch, but you shan’t escape me. Gods, I pray you decree
that the day never comes when the two of us here shall be riven asunder!”
Her prayer found gods to fulfil it. The bodies of boy and girl
were merged and melded in one. The two of them showed but a single
face.
(lines 367 – 375)

And lastly, there’s the story of Perseus and the gorgons, specifically Medusa, whose head of snakes kills anyone who looks directly at her.  It’s interesting to note that Medusa was a mortal.

But first, “the shower of gold.”  Yes, my mind went there, how could it not?  Jupiter impregnated Danae with Perseus by becoming a shower of gold and pouring down on her.

Ovid’s politics become obvious in this tale.

While Perseus was flying on whirring wings through the yielding air,
bearing his famous trophy, the head of the snake-headed Gorgon;
and as he triumphantly hovered over the Libyan desert,
some drops of blood from the Gorgon’s neck fell down to the sand,
where the earth received them and gave them life as a medley of serpents,
which explains why Libya now is infested with poisonous reptiles.
(lines 614 – 620)

In this long heroic tale about Perseus, what fascinated me most was the story of Medusa.  She’d once been very beautiful, but according to Ovid, she was raped by Neptune in the temple of Minerva.  To protect herself from this horror, Minerva raised her shield to her face and punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes.

As I read, I continue to ponder the attitudes towards women.  Victims of rape are punished for the crime, often by other women.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the appalling nature of Roman mythology.

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Three

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 FourBook FiveBook SixBook SevenBook EightBook Nine Book Ten Book Eleven –  Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Three has 733 lines on 35 pages.

So let me get this straight.  Cadmus is ordered by Europa’s father to go in search of her and not return until she’s been found.  Cadmus travels the (known) world and doesn’t find her.

Phoebus, the patron of Delphi, tells Cadmus to follow a heifer to where she lies down and there he will found Thebes.

Then, Cadmus slays a dragon.  So far, I’m with this because it’s mythology writ large.  But, Athena tells Cadmus to plant the dragon’s teeth and fierce warriors arise out of the ground.

At no point does Ovid describe these warriors as small, but I kept imagining miniature figurines rising out of the ground.  Little hoplite like miniatures fighting it out in hand to hand combat literally in the trenches.  Yeah, I kept giggling.

The last five warriors make peace with each other and join Cadmus in founding Thebes.

I’m not sure why planting dragon teeth put me over the edge.  There have been out of control carriages crossing the sky and wreaking havoc, a physical description of Envy, people turning to stone, etc.  It’s not like warriors from dragon’s teeth is any more over the top than the rest of it.

Book Three is when the women show they can be even worse than the men, in terms of vengeful spite.

Take Diana, for instance, who went more than a little overboard when Actaeon, purely by accident saw her, and her maidens, bathing naked in the pond. Turning him into a stag, and then setting his own hunting dogs on him, seems a little overboard for an unwitting mistake. Surely there was a kinder, more “understanding” way to send the message that looking upon the naked Diana, even by mistake, is punishable by death.

I keep saying this, “Never swear on the river Styx until you know what you’re being asked to promise.” I’m looking at you Jupiter.

Juno gets angry because Semele is pregnant by Jupiter, so she plots to punish Semele.  Jupiter promises Semele anything, until the one thing she asks for – coming to her bed dressed as though he were going to Juno’s bed – is too much.

“… Jupiter wanted
to gag her lips, but the fatal words had already been uttered.
Neither her wish nor his solemn oath could now be retracted.”
lines 295 – 297

Juno knew that Jupiter arriving in Semele’s bed, a mortal, as he would Juno’s, a goddess, would kill Semele. And it did, but the baby survived by being sewn into Jupiter’s thigh.  Oy.

The way Ovid tells the story of Echo and Narcissus is so sad.  Juno’s jealous, vengeful wrath is again at play as she takes Echo’s voice from her, leaving her only with the ability to repeat the last few words spoken by someone else first.

The word narcissist gets tossed around lightly to describe a person who is hopelessly, selfishly in love with herself, and could never be in love with anyone else.  But think how it might feel, if the beloved someone was not recognized as his own image.

Ovid portrays Narcissus as a gorgeous young man chased by both men and women but refuses their advances.  He even insults Echo who has fallen hopelessly in love with him.  One day Narcissus sees someone with whom he falls in love, never realizing that it is merely his own reflection.  There is much pining for this other person who is so near, yet so far away, separated by the thin film of water in a pond.

“He fell in love with an empty hope,
a shadow mistaken for substance.
(lines 417-418)

Ovid’s writing here is so poignant, as though telling a love story of two people, aware of, and reaching for, each other across a great chasm, when it’s only a young boy in love with his reflection.

Book Three ends on a note of “religious” persecution as Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus, and current ruler of Thebes, loses his mind over the presence of Bacchus and his followers.  Thebans just wanna have a good time, but some rulers can be so picky.

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book Two

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 ThreeBook FourBook FiveBook SixBook SevenBook EightBook Nine Book Ten Book Eleven Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Book Two has 875 lines on 43 pages.

So much already vaguely familiar and so much new to learn.  They’re right, Ovid is everywhere in our history, literature, art, etc.  It’s like sitting down with a great history book, in which I learn the origin of every day things.

As is to be expected, Phaethon‘s ride in his father’s (Helios) carriage was a cataclysmic disaster.  Never swear on the river Styx unless you are truly willing to do whatever is asked of you.  Gods sure can be dumb sometimes.

Good grief, the men in Ovid’s tale are just …

When Jupiter spied her [Callisto] lying exhausted and unprotected,
he reckoned:  ‘My wife will never discover this tiny betrayal;
or else, if she does, oh yes, the joy will make up for the scolding!’
(lines 422-424)

Mercury:
He assumed no disguise, as beauty is always so full of confidence.
Justly sure of his charms…
(line 731-732)

The story of Envy is really something. Minerva is angry with Agraulos for her greed in promising to help Mercury gain the love of Herse. Minerva goes to the caves of Envy and orders her to strike Agraulos. When Mercury returns, she refuses to move away from Herse’s door, so he turns Agraulos into a statue.

“… She simply sat there, a lifeless statue;
the stone was not even white, but stained by her own black envy.”
(lines 831 – 832)

Jupiter returns for the last story in Book Two, turning himself into a gentle bull so as to lure Europa onto his back and into the sea for … well, we all know by now what Jupiter is best known for when he’s after a woman not his wife.

There’s also the theme of talking too much, and out of turn, as in the story about Raven and Crow in which Crow tries to warn Raven that he will be turned black for gossiping. And Old Battus who sells Mercury out to himself by accepting a reward from him for both promising not to tell anyone where Mercury’s cows are, and for telling Mercury, in disguise, where his cows are. Ouch.

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Book One

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 TwoBook ThreeBook FourBook FiveBook SixBook Seven Book EightBook Nine Book Ten –  Book Eleven Book TwelveBook ThirteenBook Fourteen – Book Fifteen

Conventions:  I refer to the characters in Metamophoses as Roman Ovid has.  Links, for the most part, go to Wikipedia which refers to the characters as Greeks.  For my purposes, Wikipedia provides a good overview about Greco-Roman mythology.

In 779 lines, the equivalent of 44 pages, Ovid has a lot to say.  Stories galore populate these lines.  A lot of “aha!” moments for me as the origins of the laurel tree or the pipes of pan, are revealed.

I’m doing my best not to recap because good ones can be found all over the internet, like this one.

Ambitious Ovid implores the gods to inspire him to

“spin a thread from the world’s beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.”
(line 3).

From the Creation story in which chaos is turned into order, I love this description about the stars:

“Nature had hardly been settled within its separate compartments
when stars, which had long been hidden inside the welter of Chaos,
began to explode with light all over the vault of the heavens”
(lines 68 – 70)

The banquet of  Lycaon, who tested Jove‘s omniscience by serving a roasted human.  Gross and disgusting.  Just …. eww.  But Jove knew what was what and Lycoan’s punishment was transformation into a wolf, a lycan.

“The house was in uproar;  passions blazed as they called for the blood
of the reckless traitor; as, when that band of disloyal malcontents
raged to extinguish the name of Rome by murdering Caesar.”
(lines 99 -102).

In case his contemporary audience doesn’t understand the severity of what Lycaon has done, Ovid tells them by comparing him to those who killed Julius Caesar.  I can picture knives plunging in high dudgeon.

As Jove is threatening to kill everything with a terrible flood, the gods wail about no one being left to serve them, and deliver delicious tidbits.  Can’t have that.

“But still a murmur went round:  Who will bring to our altars the offerings
of incense?  Is earth to be left to the mercies of ravaging wild beasts?”
(lines 247 – 248)

The Flood story echoes the story in Genesis.  Everyone and everything dies, except Deucalion and Pyrrha.  As the waters recede Deucalion wails,

” … Here is the world with its glorious lands, from east to west; and here are we,
an inglorious crowd of two.”  (lines 343 -345).

I love that phrase, “an inglorious crowd of two.”  It illustrates just how alone and scared they must be.  Everything they have known is gone and it is just the two of them alone, facing unknowable challenges.

Themis tells Deucalion and Pyrrha to cover their heads, untie their robes, and toss stones over their backs toward the sea, in order to repopulate the world.

“And so our race is a hard one, we work by the sweat of our brow,
and bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin, …”  (lines 414 – 415)

I will say one thing for Ovid, he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the ugly side of the gods.  The story of Io, for instance.

Jove, not well known for his faithfulness to his wife, Hera, is off raping Io.  Not wanting to get caught, he turns he rinto a “snow-white heifer.”  Hera is charmed and asks for the cow as a gift.

What was he to do?  Notice Ovid’s use of the word conscience, as though gods would allow a little thing like a conscience get in the way.

To surrender his love
would be cruelly painful, but not to give her would look suspicious.
Conscience would argue for her surrender, his love was against it.
Love indeed would have won the battle; but if he refused
the paltry gift of a cow to the wife …
it would have appeared that the creature was not exactly a heifer.
(lines 617 – 621)

One of my favorite stories is that of Argus, servant to Hera, a giant with one hundred eyes who is set to watch over Io, just to make sure Jove doesn’t get up to any more hanky-panky with her.  Argus is killed by Pan, who chased Syrinx until she turned into marsh willows to get away from him.  Pan uses his pipes to lure Argus, and all his eyes to go to sleep, at which point Pan beheads Argus.

Book One ends with the beginning of the story of Phaethon, who decides to prove the Sun god is his father.  Even if you don’t know the story, you just know chaos is about to ensue.