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).
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.
Book Eleven starts with the death of Orpheus at the hands of the “wild Ciconian women.” They tear Orpheus to pieces because after Eurydice’s second death he refused to get involved with women, but rather immature boys (see Book Ten). At last, Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited in the underworld and can walk side by side.
Bacchus punishes the women by turning them into trees. Further, he is so displeased with Thrace that he takes a band of dancers and heads for the kingdom of Midas.
After Midas has performed a good deed for one of Bacchus’ followers, he is offered any gift he wants. Ovid portrays Midas as a slow-witted buffoon, greedy with little thought. He asks for the “golden touch,” so that anything he touches will turn into gold. It’s not too long before the misfortune of this boon is found.
Literally, anything Midas touches turns to gold. His food, his servants, his clothing, his … everything. He begins to starve because he can’t eat gold. So he asks Bacchus to take the “gift” away and return him to normal. But Midas isn’t done being stupid.
When he’s observing a musical contest between Pan and Apollo, he calls the decision of Apollo as the better musician “unfair.” Which, of course, pisses Apollo right off. Midas’ reward for this opinion? Donkey ears. Apollo gives him donkey ears, which Midas tries to hide from everyone.
Right there, that’s the origin story of the phrase “the Midas touch” and the meaning of having donkey ears as stupid. I love learning things like that.
I am mostly going to skip the details of the story about Peleus and Thetis because it’s another story about rape, and it’s becoming easier to get fed up with these stories. However, it’s an important story because it leads to the argument which began the Trojan War.
The story of Peleus and Thetis is also important because it leads into the story of Peleus being exiled for the murder of Phocus, his half-brother. Peleus winds up in the court of Ceyx, in Thessaly.
There’s a story about the giant wolf rampaging on the beach eating and destroying all the livestock. After the wolf has been turned into a marble statue, King Ceyx decides that he must consult the Apollonian oracle at Claros.
This involves a sea voyage, Ceyx’s wife, Alcyone pleads with him to go overland instead.
Just tell me you’re journeying overland, then I’ll only miss you and won’t be also afraid. I’ll fret without being frightened. But no, you are going by sea, and that is the ugly picture which fills me with terror. I recently noticed a wrecked ship’s boards on the shore, and I’ve often read names of graves containing no bodies. (lines 424 = 429)
And then the mother of all storms hits. This being an epic poem featuring Roman mythology, I should rephrase that. A great big storm happens, caused by nature, not by gods (surprise!). Everyone on board is killed, the ship itself is destroyed. Ceyx dies wishing he could see his wife Alcyone again.
Meanwhile, Alcyone is at home weaving new clothes for them to wear once Ceyx returns. She has no idea that disaster has struck. She goes to Juno’s temple frequently to pray for her husband’s safe return.
The catch with Juno is that praying for dead people is considered unclean, and she no longer wants her temple polluted by Alcyone’s prayers. Juno’s solution is to send a messenger to Sleep telling him to send a dream lifelike enough for Alcyone to know that her beloved husband is dead.
Iris arrives at the palace of Somnus, and delivers her message. Sleep rouses himself long enough to choose Morpheus:
… the master mimic, the quickest of all to capture a person’s walk, his facial expressions and tone of voice; he’ll also adopt the original’s clothing and typical language. (lines 634 – 637)
Morpheus enters Alcyone’s dreams and convinces her of the truth her husband is dead. In deep grief, she returns to the spot where they said their last goodbye. Off in the distance is something which looks like a body.
As it gets closer, she recognizes it as Ceyx and jumps onto a groyne (new word!) to get a better look. She is turned into a bird, and flies to Cyex’s body to try to kiss him. He too is turned into a bird and they fly off together.
This story, while sad, is refreshing in its portrayal of love and devotion. It happens sometimes in Ovid.
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.
Sounds like Lot in Genesis in the Old Testament, doesn’t it? Only it’s Lot’s wife who is told not to turn back and look. Of course she does look back and is turned into a pillar of salt.
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.
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. (line 366)
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.
Tony Hillerman is a part of my formative years. I discovered him while living in New Mexico, probably during high school. Reading his books are sort of like coming home for me. Even though I lived along north I-25, and the books take place along west I-40, the descriptions of Navajo culture resonates deeply. I can still see the vivid colors and smell the Indian Fry Bread.
In the Navajo language, the word for mole translates to People of Darkness, those who come from below. The book hinges on the origin of the mole fetishes carried by six Navajo men, who survived an oil well explosion in the late 1940s. These men also belonged to a peyote church whose leader had a vision which warned them to stay away from the well on the day of the explosion.
People of Darkness is the introduction of Jim Chee into the world Tony Hillerman has created. Chee is faced with big decisions; FBI or Navajo Police, cop or singer and healer for his people. As he gets pulled deeper into the mystery of a stolen box filled with mementos, a hired assassin and six deaths from cancer, Chee nearly gets killed himself.
Hillerman’s mysteries are kept from being run of the mill by the intersection of white and Navajo culture. Since they’re set on Navajo land which has sketchy boundaries at best, there’s always jurisdictional issues. FBI or Navajo Police? Sheriff or BIA? Some combination of that or someone else? In Hillerman’s books, FBI almost always thinks it’s their jurisdiction.
What I’m most appreciative of are the descriptions of manners and customs. One does not drive up to someone’s home and knock on the door. One parks 30 feet away and waits for someone to come to the door and invite you in.
Navajo religion plays a big part in these books as well. Navajos seek harmony and believe that a person’s illness is caused by being out of harmony. A healer determines which ceremonies must be performed in order to bring the person back into harmony. Cancer isn’t a disease of uranium poisoning through mole fetishes, it’s being out of harmony. It’s Chee’s understanding of this concept and his training to be a singer which helps him understand how the pieces fit together.
People of Darkness is also the introduction of Mary Landon, a white teacher from Wisconsin. Hillerman has Chee and Landon do the dance of inter-racial suspicions before they settle into a friendship. She’s described as the typical white woman Chee knows so well as someone looking for a good time with him because he’s Native American. He’s described as the typical Navajo who is suspicious of anyone white. It’s fun to read how the dynamics change between them as the story progresses.
Tony Hillerman’s mysteries are not deep, most books run right around 200 – 300 pages. They’re a fun way to pass an evening, and some days that’s all anyone can want.
I have loved the little yellow absurdities known as the Minions since Despicable Me. I giggle at their antics and their lovable interactions with the three adopted girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes.
Are there problems with the movies? Yes. Sexist tropes by the handful, stupid scatological jokes, and mean parents, and violence to name a few.
And okay, I get that there are huge problems with the gender stereotyping in Minions. My friend, Melissa, at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has a great article about the problems of gender in animated movies, in general, starting with specific issues with Minions.
When Melissa first brought this up on Facebook, I was a little chagrined that I hadn’t actually noticed. Minions have always been genderless, or gender-fluid to me, so the fact the three main minions were named Kevin, Stuart and Bob just kinda flew by me. Yeah, okay they’re male names but honestly, I didn’t see anything particularly male about them. Except Bob. Bob has always been a goofy little boy who flirts with yellow fire hydrants pretending to be a player and failing. As the narrator says, “Bob’s an idiot.” Bob has always been like that, in all three movies.
Kevin is the leader. He’s the one who steps up to go on a quest to save the minions from the mind-numbing leaderless time they’re spending in ice caves. Minions need someone to serve, and Kevin volunteers to lead the quest. When he sees Scarlet Overkill, it is game over for him. He falls in love with her, not because she is some ideal of feminine beauty but because she is the most evil villain in the world and he wants to work for her.
And loveable little Stuart hauls his eyeless, over loved teddy bear with him everywhere, adopting animals along the way, including a rat he names Butchie. He’s afraid to enter the larger world and Kevin and Bob make sure he knows they’re right there for him.
I still think it’s brilliant that Scarlet Overkill is the evil villain. She is so deliciously over the top and up to no good. There’s even a little girl sitting in the audience when Scarlet makes her first overblown entrance who stands on her chair and excitedly proclaims, “I want to be just like Scarlet when I grow up.”
Scarlet’s dream doesn’t reach far enough. She only wants to steal the Queen of England’s crown because she wants to be a princess, because, “everyone loves princesses.” Scarlet clearly didn’t get enough love as a child and her stunted childhood dream is to be a princess so people will love her. No super villain has come from a family where there was enough joy and love and support. They wouldn’t be villains if they had.
I also thought it was brilliant that when the minions stole the crown, the Queen started hanging out at the pub drinking pints and telling jokes with the common man. (And yes, they were all men.)
Things happen, Kevin is made king because he stole the crown and that makes Scarlet very angry. But all Kevin wants to do is serve Scarlet, because that’s his purpose in life, to serve. So he abdicates, and then her coronation day gets spoiled by another super villain.
Make no mistake, Scarlet turns into a whiny, petulant child when she doesn’t get her way. She is stuck in a childhood dream which makes no sense. She believes that she must be pretty and have a tiny waist to be adored. And yes, that’s a big problem in terms of gender stereotypes. There’s also a stereotypical gay hairdresser who doesn’t quite understand why his vision isn’t better than the childhood crayon drawing of a stick figure princess with “curly” hair.
At the end of the movie Gru arrives on the scene, uses his freeze ray gun and Kevin knows where the minions belong. This is really the story that connects Despicable Me and the minions, it’s the story about how Gru and the minions found each other.
The biggest problems I had with the movie were not the gender stereotypes but the violence. And the stupid jokes given to Bob who flirts with yellow fire hydrants and shows the audience his thong underwear. That was just idiotic.
For all of that, I’m glad the conversation is ongoing about problems with representation of boys and girls in movies. About how movies sell women and girls short on a regular basis and how men and boys are shortchanged on learning to be anything other than stoic, protective, fumble fingered with emotions, and yes, stupid.
Director Pierre Coffin didn’t help himself by saying he made the minions boys because “boys are stupid” and he couldn’t imagine girls being that stupid. If what he meant to say was that little boys do goofy things because they’re little boys and little girls don’t tend to do the same goofy things, that’s a different story. Saying girls are smarter than boys doesn’t help.
Yes, I see the point of the criticisms of Minions, and I’m glad Melissa’s post addresses some of the larger issues in cartoons and how girls/women are portrayed. I do get it.
From a story-teller’s point of view, it’s the story of three yellow things (out of thousands) who go on a quest to find their purpose in life. It’s the story of how the minions met Gru. That’s the point of the story. That one of the villains is a woman inspiring a little girl is something we should cheer for. That the Queen became a “regular” person is something we should cheer for. It’s a step forward. A small one to be sure, but it is a step. And that’s something to cheer for too.
I have this idea I should read the book the author has written, not the book I wanted him to write. Ovid is a first century poet whose stories reflect the times and norms in which he lived. In Book Nine, we encounter two stories of “inappropriate” love, and the way Ovid handles them says more about his world than anything else.
We meet Hercules and learn about the contests he’s had to prove his strength and worth. Achelous, the river-god, challenges Hercules to a fight for a woman named Deianira. In the end, the god’s superior strength and shape-shifting ability are no match for Hercules who breaks off one of the horns while Achelous is in the shape of a bull.
The story of Hercules and Nessus reminds me of the story about the woman who helps a scorpion cross the river. In order to get her help, the scorpion promises not to sting her but halfway across stings her anyway. When questioned, the scorpion replies, “You knew what I was before we started across.”
Nessus is a centaur with poisonous blood and a deep desire for Deianira. When Hercules and his wife encounter a raging river, which she can’t swim, Nessus volunteers to help. Hercules will swim across and meet them on the other side. Except, you know how this goes. Nessus tries to make off with Delanira and Hercules kills him with arrows. In his last act, Nessus gives Delanira the shirt he’s bled on as a gift which would “excite” Hercules.
Never take gifts from those whom you know to be untrustworthy. The final price isn’t worth paying.
In “The Death of Hercules,” Rumour spreads gossip about Hercules to Delanira, who believes what she hears.
Rumour whose joy it is to embroider the truth with falsehood and grows by her lies to gigantic proportions from tiny beginnings. (lines 137 – 138)
In Delanira’s brief soliloquy she weighs her options, leave Hercules or try to “regain” his love. Not realizing the poison which Nessus’ shirt is soaked in, she has a servant deliver the shirt, as a gift, to Hercules who is performing his ritual in the Temple of Jupiter.
Of course, Ovid writes “revolting to detail” (line 167) and then proceeds to graphically describe the effect of this poison on Hercules. This also gives Hercules the opportunity to list the Twelve Labors he’d performed. Basically he says, “I did all these heroic deeds, and this is how I die?”
Jupiter steps in, saying that since Hercules is half mortal on his mother’s side, and immortal on his father’s (Jupiter) side, only the mortal parts of Hercules will burn away, making him an immortal welcomed to the halls of Olympus.
Next is a different story of love. To say Byblis has issues would be putting it mildly. Hers is a story of unrequited love and her struggle to not give into her darker impulses. Because the man she burns for is her twin brother.
She makes many arguments trying to reason through why incest isn’t such a bad idea. They are not yet adults, it can be blamed on their youth. The gods slept with their siblings, why can’t they? She would never turn Caunus’ advances down if he were to make them, so why shouldn’t she make the advances herself?
The ick factor is high with this one, but the way Ovid writes her is almost sympathetic. If she were a young woman burning for a man not related, one could feel compassion for her.
Byblis’ solution is to write a letter to Caunus describing her deep abiding love to him, expecting him to reciprocate those feelings. Of course, Caunus is appalled and livid to receive such a message, throwing the tablet it’s written on across the room and threatening to kill the messenger.
Shocked at the response she receives, Byblis loses her mind and travels the country exhibiting her grief quite publicly. Exhausted, she falls to the ground weeping and the Carian nymphs try to console her. She is quite inconsolable and turned into a spring.
And finally, there’s the story of Iphis, whose love is also problematic. While her mother is pregnant, her husband threatens to kill the baby if it’s not a boy. To save the life of her new-born girl, she lies.
Iphis is raised as a boy. At the age of thirteen, her father arranges a wedding between her and her best friend, Ianthe. Ianthe comes from a wealthy family and will provide a large dowry. She’s fallen in love with Iphis believing she’s male.
… but Iphis loved without hope of ever enjoying her loved one, which made her passion the stronger – a girl in love with a girl! Almost in tears, she sighed: Oh, what will become of me now? I’m possessed by a love that no one has heard of, a new kind of passion, a monstrous desire! If heaven had truly wanted to spare me, It ought to have done so. If not, and the gods were out to destroy me, they might at least have sent me some natural normal affliction. (lines 723 – 730)
Iphis’ soliloquy is heart wrenching as she mourns for the love that cannot be. She prays to the gods asking why they were causing the wedding to go forward when they knew Iphis would never know the physical love of her wife.
Her mother is equally troubled and does all she can to postpone the wedding day. Here, it’s made clear that Iphis has no idea why the lie has been told, and that her father has remained clueless all these years.
The day before the wedding is set, mom takes Iphis to the temple of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and prays for help. It was Isis who had visited during childbirth offering exhortations to lie about Iphis’ gender, in order to protect her life. The temple trembles as the prayers are offered, which is taken as a “propitious omen.”
As mother and child leave the temple, Iphis’ body changes, and she becomes a boy. Joyously, Iphis takes his place beside his bride, Ianthe, knowing that he will be able to fulfill his husbandly duties.
While reading the story of Iphis, I had to remind myself that Ovid’s audience was not twenty-first century citizens who had just witnessed the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US. His audience would have had very real phobias and concerns about homosexuality.
Only the very rich men, and the scholarly, were allowed to sate their sexual desires in any way they chose. Though they were often portrayed as bisexual rather than homosexual. Women were not allowed this freedom.
As with all hierarchical patriarchies, what is okay for the upper classes is definitely not okay, and can often be seen as shameful, for the lower classes. Thus, the reflection of the times in the story of Iphis who must become a man before getting married to his love.
It’s not hard to imagine readers giving up on Metamorphoses. This is a big book. And Ovid tries the patience of the most diligent readers because he often doesn’t make sense.
I must remind myself frequently that Ovid’s audience would have known about most of what I’m reading, and that it had cathartic elements for those in a highly stratified, patriarchal society.
Juno’s jealousy and anger can be more easily absorbed when it’s understood that women in Ovid’s time had absolutely no recourse for anything which happened to them. Rape was not uncommon, especially amongst slaves and serving women. Fidelity to a wife was considered a suggestion, not a norm.
So Jove having his way with whomever he sees is a reflection of the sexual norms of the times, taken with a wink and a nod by laughing men in the audience. Juno’s overblown anger and desire to punish the victims can be seen as women lashing out at their perpetrators in a safe environment.
It’s often difficult for me not to become outraged at the appalling behavior presented, a good reminder not to apply my twenty-first century attitude to first century concerns. Myths, and religions, have been designed to explain what mortals cannot comprehend. Your neighbor’s cow died suddenly? He must have angered some god, and there’s a story for how and why.
Book Eight features more daughters in conflict between fathers and lovers, similar to Medea and Jason in Book Seven.
Scylla (not the same Scylla paired with Charybdis) falls for Minos hard. Minos has come to do battle and conquer Megara, ruled by Scylla’s father. The king has a crimson lock of hair at the crown of his head which grants him invincibility. To impress Minos, Scylla cuts off this lock of hair and presents it to Minos, who rages at her for her filial betrayal.
… I pray that the gods will banish you far from their own bright sphere and that space is denied you on land and ocean Certainly I shall never allow my own sphere, Crete, the cradle of Jove, to be made unclean by so evil a monster! (lines 97 – 100)
As with Medea, Ovid writes of Scylla’s internal dialogue weighing her options. Should she remain loyal, or allow herself to help the gorgeous Minos? How should she go about this treachery? She daydreams of turning herself in and allowing herself to be taken hostage, so that her father will have to pay a ransom. Scylla’s ponderings seem extreme, but young girls are no strangers to this sort of fantasizing.
In the next story is Minos’ half-bull, half-human son, the Minotaur who lives in a maze designed by Daedulus. Every nine years, Minos sent fourteen boys and girls into the maze to be eaten by the Minotaur as a sacrifice.
This story adds another piece to the legend of Theseus. With the aid of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, Theseus uses a thread to lead him back out of the maze after killing the Minotaur. But, as is typical, Theseus abandons Ariadne the first chance she gets.
These stories contain so many layers in so few lines. Women betray their fathers for the chance at love with the good-looking man. Good-looking man uses woman to meet his needs and betrays her, leaving her stranded and without love and family. Passion is one of the continual themes in Metamorphoses. Passion rarely leads to happy endings.
Daedulus is the connection to the next story. It’s the origin story for the phrase “flying too close to the sun.” The meaning comes from Daedulus’ warning to his son Icarus, about being sure to pay attention to his flight path as they escape their island exile by using wings made of bird feathers and wax. Icarus becomes enamored of the experience, and the sights he’s seeing, and forgets his father’s advice. By flying too close to the sun, the wax on Icarus’ wings melts and he plunges to his death in the sea.
The meatiest story in Book Eight is that of Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. This is another story of betrayal, familial conflict, and infatuation.
The crux of the story is that Diana goes unacknowledged in the annual sacrifice to the gods in Calydon, so she sends a giant boar to ravage the countryside. A hunt is set up, Meleager and a list of heroes go off to kill the boar. Among the hunters is Atalanta, a young woman with whom Meleager falls in love. When the boar is killed by Meleager, he presents the spoils of the win to Atalanta which causes the other hunters to argue with him. Because Atalanta is a woman, she does not deserve the spoils, despite her contributions to bringing the boar down and the promise made by Meleager.
Fighting ensues, men kill each other, because it’s a mythic story and this is how disagreements are settled. In the heat of battle, Meleager kills his two uncles, brothers to his mother. Mom has conniptions fits over this and ruminates over her anger at her son for killing her brothers. Torn between the love for her son and her brothers, she eventually decides to follow through on burning the log the Fates gave her at the birth of Meleager.
As long as the log goes unburned, Meleager, will continue to live. Queen Althaea wrapped and hid the log at his birth, ensuring that no one else had access and that her son would live a long life. Until the boar hunt.
Vengeance is mine by sin; and death is atoned for by death; crime must needs be added to crime; and a body to bodies. Perish the guilt-cursed house in sorrow heaped upon sorrow! … I pray to the shades and the newly departed soul of my brethren: take regard of the honour I show you; accept my sacrifice, offered at such dear cost, the evil fruit of my own womb! (lines 483 – 490)
Kids don’t piss off your mom.
Then we have sweet Philemon and Baucis, an elderly couple who take in two strangers and share their meagre belongings and food with them. Turns out the strangers are gods, there to destroy the village. But because Philemon and Baucis have welcomed them into their home, their lives will be spared.
This story is recognizable in many other cultural stories. In the Old Testament, Lot and his family take in two strangers who reveal themselves to be angels and warn the family about the impending doom of the city they live in.
Book Eight ends with the story of Erysichthon, the man who ate himself to death, literally. This is a brief story featuring the rage of Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and the disrespect for her forests by Erysichthon, yet another in a long line of arrogant males in Metamorphoses.
To punish him, Ceres pleads to Hunger (much like Minerva pleads to Envy in Book Two). Hunger curses Erysichthon, making him so hungry that no matter how much he eats he’s never satisfied. After having eaten everything in his purview and spending all his money on food, he begins to eat his own body. Points for creative punishments.
In my lifetime of reading, there are large gaps in the list of books I believe I should have some introduction to. Admittedly, this belief comes from exposure to critical ideas about the “western canon.” My love of books and reading can never really be sated, there’s always more to learn and understand.
When one’s tribe is made up of well-read, erudite and eclectic readers, one cannot avoid the mention of characters and ideas which are centuries old.
Medea is one of those references. For as long as I can remember, her name has come up a lot. It was understood there was an important cultural reference being made when I read or heard about her, but I’d never really become familiar with her story. Until Ovid, of course.
I vaguely understood her as a signifier for feminism. Vaguely. Somewhere, more than likely in a Western Civ class, I probably read some of Euripides’ play about this woman who tried to take control of her life under the very heavy thumb of the Greco-Roman hierarchy. To even think of expressing ideas of independence for women was unheard of. It would have been shocking to see a portrayal of a woman visibly wrestling with the strictures of male dominance.
Ovid portrays Medea as a woman torn between passion and loyalty. Jason, the hero, arrives in town with his Argonauts to take the Golden Fleece, a symbol of authority and kingliness. Ovid’s audience would have been familiar with the symbolism of the fleece, but modern readers (or me, at least) have to dig a little deeper.
Medea’s father sets three tasks for Jason to do in order to take the fleece from the always awake dragon which guarded it. Medea’s conflict comes from being in love with Jason and wanting to use her sorcery to help him, and her loyalty to her father who is guardian of the Golden Fleece.
Within the first ten lines of Book Seven, Medea has fallen deeply in love with Jason. Her soliloquy is the first in Metamorphoses to reflect on her conflicting emotions. It took nearly half the book to get to some soul-searching.
… Desire and reason are pulling in different directions, I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong. I am royal so why should I sigh for a stranger, or ever conceive of a marriage which takes me away from my home? (lines 19 – 21)
Medea understands the intent of her father’s tasks, to kill Jason and keep the fleece at home. She feels loyalty towards her father, yet her love for Jason makes her want to see him survive.
Still fighting with herself over these diametrically opposed emotions, Medea convinces Jason to promise he will marry her when he has taken the fleece. In return, she will use her magic to help him complete the tasks successfully.
One of those tasks is to take the teeth of the dragon and plant them, then fight the warriors which grow from them. It was at this point I thought, “Again with the dragon’s teeth?” (See Book Three.)
Jason wins and he and his band of Argonauts sail off, Medea happily on board with her husband. When they reach Ioclos, Jason’s home base, Medea is asked to prove her love again by rejuvenating his father, Aeson, making him young again. Despite her protests, she is convinced.
Ovid attributes Medea’s eventual acquiescence to her own feelings of guilt for having betrayed and abandoned her own father to help Jason win the fleece.
The next story is about Medea killing Jason’s uncle Pelias, king of Ioclos. But Ovid glosses over the reasons for this. Either his audience was expected to know the story of Pelias’ treachery, or he felt it unimportant to relay. It’s not obvious from the text which it is.
And cruel Medea is, to the power-hungry king who is threatening the lands around him with war. Rumor had it he had also been disrespectful to Hera/Juno, and we already know how well she handles that.
Pelias’ daughters saw Medea rejuvenate Aeson and want the same for their father. Medea agrees to do this but tricks the girls into killing him themselves by stabbing him multiple times in order to draw his blood in what they think is part of the rejuvenation spell.
“with eyes averted, they blindly, wildly stabbed at their father. Dripping with blood, he still was able to lift himself up on his elbow. Though covered with gashes, he tried to get up from his couch, and braving the circle of sword points round him, extended his pale arms. What are you doing, my children?” he cried. “Who gave you those weapons to murder your father?” (lines 342-347)
In disgust, Medea finishes the job and boils his “butchered limbs” in water. One of the questions I have about this whole affair is why Medea was the one to kill Pelias? Did she feel duty-bound to Jason to use the ruse of a rejuvenation spell to get in close enough to both sully the daughters by making them do most of the work, and then finish it off herself?
Most of the rest of Book Seven is filled with travelogues, the recounting of the plague at Aegina, the turning of ants into men who became the Myrmidions, repopulating Aegina after the plague. But it ends with the tragic love story of Cephalus and Procris. Trust does not last long in Ovid’s tales, and that always leads to tragedy.
After their marriage, Aurora tries to draw Cephalus away from Procris, but he will not give in, speaking only of how much he loves his wife. In a fit of jealousy, Aurora plants doubts in Cephalus’ mind about Procris’ devotion. This is the age old theme of “if I can’t have him nobody can.” Sadly, Aurora has planted enough doubt and he begins to wonder if his wife is truly faithful.
So he tries to trick Procris by disguising himself (with Aurora’s help). As time goes on and Procris remains faithful to her husband, Cephalus keeps upping the ante, offering enormous gifts if only she would go away with the stranger before her. Finally, of course, Procris breaks down and agrees. Cephalaus reveals himself, confesses to his trickery, and eventually forgives her for capitulating.
This is a theme which always makes my blood boil. Mozart’sCossi Fan Tutte has been banned from my music library because this is the basis of the story. Men don’t trust their women and to prove them untrustworthy, the women are tricked by their lovers in disguise. When the women finally give in, usually after a great deal of time and offers of many lavish gifts, the men reveal themselves basically exclaiming, “I knew you couldn’t be trusted!” More cajoling occurs and everyone ends up laughing it off because, as cosi fan tutte is loosely translated, “Women are like that.”
To return to Cephalus and Procris, once they have made up, he goes hunting. In the mid-day sun, when Cephalus needed a break from hunting, he would rest and welcome the breeze which blew through the valley. He was overheard speaking to the breeze,
Come to me, beautiful breeze, steal into my breast, you’re so lovely. This heat is burning me up. Relieve me I beg you, as only you can! lines 813 – 814)
The busybody who overheard this scurried home to tell Procris that her husband was wooing another woman. Procris rushes out to hear for herself and hides in the bushes. Cephalus hears her noises and throws his spear which never misses, a gift from Procris, and kills her.
At least Ovid has the decency to show Cephalus crying at the end of this tale.
… in the last few days she had found herself nearly overwhelmed with a sense of futility. There was, she now accepted, no evidence for what she knew intuitively, and no safe way to bring the evildoer to justice even were there evidence to substantiate her intuition. (pp 160-161)
Matthew Stock is a clothier with a bustling business in Chelmsford (32 miles away from London). He is also the town constable and so is called on to solve crimes from time to time.
A troupe of players have arrived to perform at Sir Henry’s, the Magistrate, home. But the young man who plays all the women’s parts in their entertainments has been found dead in the stable at the inn.
This sweet Elizabethan mystery features questions Matthew is quite shocked to have the answers to. He and his adoring wife, Joan, solve the murders, which keep multiplying, together.
Fairly early on, the murderer/s are alluded to, but proving they did the deed is almost beyond the reach of Matthew because of class status. In the end, justice will out with some help from a highly placed official in London.
Although there were rather abrupt changes in character and point of view with no indication the character had changed, I found The Players’ Boy is Dead to be engaging and entertaining. A nice interlude from the heavier works I have been reading.
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)
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.
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.