Title: The Epic of Gilgamesh
Author: Translated by N. K. Sandars
Publisher: Penguin Classics
I found SparkNotes helpful.
This is the grandmama of all written epic stories, the progenitor of familiar quest stories and tropes through the ages. It’s also based on the historical Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh is 2/3 god, 1/3 human and has no equal. As such, his arrogance and hubris get the better of him while he literally rapes and pillages his way through his own land, Uruk.
The gods create Enkidu from clay (completely mortal) as a balance to Gilgamesh’s excesses. When they meet, they fight each other but once they discover they are equals, they become great friends.
Because Gilgamesh is restless, he and Enkidu go on a quest which includes stealing cedars from a forest forbidden to mortals. After they kill the demon Humbaba, Ishtar tries to entice Gilgamesh into a love affair with her. He flatly turns her down, which enrages her and she calls down the Bull of Heaven to kill him.
Enkidu dies from a protracted illness because the gods must punish one of them for killing the Bull of Heaven. Gilgamesh is bereft and leaves Uruk in search of Utnapishtim, the man who survived the Great Deluge and was given eternal life.
In his travels to the end of the world and back, he finally accepts that life is not eternal, but the impact on those he comes in contact can be.
I first read Gilgamesh for a class about ethics towards animals (Enkidu was raised among the animals).Reading it is the start of many familiar stories, like the Great Deluge, considered to be the genesis of the Flood story and Noah in the Bible.
For more about the genesis of myths which have become common knowledge around the world, read my review of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
When I write about books, I strive more for commentary than recap or review. In the case of Metamorphoses, I am not qualified to give a close or technical read. This is some heavy going and I could easily take several classes about Roman literature, Ovid and Metamorphoses itself, just to learn more about the time and context. Not to mention the fun of taking art history and literature classes devoted to the impact Ovid had on Western art and literature.
Metamorphoses has been studied since first published in 8CE, just a few years before Ovid died. The body of work devoted to this epic poem is prodigious.
It seems to me that reading it at least once is worthy of the effort, if only to be exposed to this grand writing, and learn the origin stories of things we already know in our contemporary lives. Black ball, Midas touch, hyacinth and Pygmalion come to mind.
I encourage anyone who has wondered if they should read it, to give it a go. My views on what people should or shouldn’t read are pretty clear; people should read what they want.
At the start of Metamorphoses, Ovid states his ambition; to tell the story of the founding of Rome from chaos to the present. That is a lot of ground to cover. When I first looked at the page count, 636, I thought it would just take a couple of weeks. Hah! Two months later.
Raeburn’s translation helped, as did the trick I finally figured out of reading to the punctuation instead of the meter. I am horrible with meters and they just make the poem choppy and ugly to me. But ignoring the meter and reading to the punctuation made things so much easier.
There’s so much going on in this work. It is grand and sweeping, and sometimes choppy and even more difficult. I would like to have a better grounding in the literature of the time so that I could understand the allusions and homages more easily. Romans loved their blood and guts and adventure tales.
In fact, Metamorphoses is rife with violence, gruesome in its detail and astonishing in the litany of names of characters involved in all the “stabbity-stab-stab.” Rape is another prevalent topic, as is punishment by the gods and goddesses.
This is not a nice, tidy look at the story of Rome, fiction or not. There were numerous times when I had to stop and remind myself that Metamorphoses was written for an audience who had certain expectations for a great story, and for whom violence was nothing to be squeamish about.
The attitudes towards women are difficult, but again, this was written in first century CE, when the very idea of women speaking up for themselves and showing agency was frowned upon at best, punishable at worst. Ancient Rome was a very stratified society, even wealthy women were held to be barely better than the slave class. So it is no surprise this found its way into the literature.
There are very few happy endings in Metamorphoses. Love goes unrequited, and is frequently punished with grim results. Happy love stories are reserved for those who are pious in their thoughts and actions. Even those end sadly, as the characters nearly always die.
The parts I most enjoyed were the personifications of emotions and dreams. Envy, Rumour and Sleep are all represented here, imagined with entertaining lines.
I enjoyed reading the details of how Ulysses’s men turned into pigs on Circe’s island, from the point of view of one of the men. And, although Polyphemus was a monster in all meanings of the word, it was fun to read how he tried to make himself into something Galatea could love. Jove as a golden shower getting Danae pregnant is another favorite bit.
There’s so much to enjoy, and revile, in Metamorphoses, it’s impossible to recount them in any way that makes sense. I could comb back through each book’s commentary and look for things to write about here. But I won’t.
What I will say is that reading Metamorphoses was a journey worth taking. One which I am just as happy to have completed, leaving me to move on to less complicated books in my stacks. One lasting effect I am sure of, nothing I see or read will ever be the same since reading it.
If you’re up for an adventure, and don’t mind working for your read, give Metamorphoses a try. I can’t guarantee what you’ll get from it, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t get into it. There are far too many books to be read; don’t read the ones you can’t get into. As for me, I’m glad to have had the experience.
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)
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.
Book Thirteen has 967 has lines on 48 pages and is the longest book in Metamorphoses.
In “The Judgment of Arms,” Ajax and Ulysses argue over who should be awarded Achilles‘ armor. Ajax’s basic argument is that he is descended from nobility and braver in battle than Ulysses, because Ulysses skulked around at night hiding from actual battle.
Ulysses, on the other hand, addresses his comments to the chiefs who are to make the decision, not to the onlookers. He speaks of his tactical abilities which, among other things, involved skulking around at night spying and negotiating.
The notes in my copy say that the speeches both cover a spectrum of rhetorical style that Romans would have recognized. Since it is not my intent to give a close or more technical reading, I will leave it to the experts.
After Ulysses is awarded the armor, Ajax commits suicide. Which in Ovid’s hands reads like a pathetic attempt to hurry on to the next story. The retelling of the Trojan War has allusions to Homer but doesn’t address many of the details which would have been familiar to Ovid’s audience. In other writings, Ajax was driven to madness and then committed suicide. Here, Ovid just makes Ajax seem like a petulant little boy who didn’t get his way.
In many ways, Book Thirteen is a relief to read. There’s not so much violence or rape or such goings on. That is not to say that it doesn’t have a share of sadness.
The story of Hecuba is one of those. At the end of the Trojan War, Hecuba and two of her children are just a few of the remaining survivors. One son, Polydorus, was sent to live with King Polymestor In Thrace. Priam sent gold with his son so if Troy fell, Polydorus would be able to support himself. As in most stories involving gold, Polymestor was greedy and killed Polydorus to keep the gold.
Hecuba is aboard a ship in Agamemnon‘s fleet which has anchored off the coast of Thrace waiting for the right winds so they can continue on to Greece. The slave women and Hecuba convince Agamemnon to go ashore and avenge Polydorus’ death.
But as they touch shore, Achilles’ ghost arises and demands the death of Hecuba’s remaining child, Polyxena. Polyxena’s final speech is so brave and moving, telling her killers that she goes willingly but they must not sully her maidenly body by touching it with their male hands. Achilles will be more appeased with the blood of a willing victim. This sweet daughter goes to her death knowing nothing will save her, or her family’s name, and goes bravely.
Poor Hecuba. She has now lost her husband and all her children and is now a slave to the Greeks. Yet she does not lose her dignity. She connives a meeting with Polymestor by telling him she has more gold to give him in return for the release of her son.
Greed overrules smart in so many of these stories. Polymestor thinks he can get the best of Hecuba and keep all the gold for himself. But he soon learns that a mother avenging her children is someone to be reckoned with.
And then she grabbed hold of him tight, with a shout to her posse of female captives, and dug her fingers into his treacherous eyes … (lines 559 – 560)
I’m going to end the commentary on Hecuba with this, “posse of female captives.” Posse?
The last two stories in Book Thirteen are those of unrequited love.
First, the story of Galatea, a sea-nymph, who spends her time in the arms of Acis, a human, and avoiding the advances of Polyphemus, a cyclops. Polyphemus is beside himself that nothing he does can gain the attention and love of Galatea.
He combed his hair, trimmed his beard, and cut back on his slaughter of ships as they anchored in port. One day a seer puts into port and tells Polyphemus he will lose his eye to Ulysses.
The Cyclops replied with a laugh, “Your are wrong, most stupid of prophets, My eye has already been robbed by another!” (lines 773 – 774)
Polyphemus catches Galatea and Acis in each other’s arms and sings a song about what she’s missing out on by not choosing him. He is so angry that his voice causes an earthquake on Mount Etna. Grabbing a piece of the mountain, he flings it at Acis and kills him. Grieving Galatea uses her power to turn Acis into a river.
Here is the lesson, obviously old as time, not to try to make yourself over just to win the love of someone who doesn’t love you. In Polyphemus’ case, it’s literally destructive.
The last story is of Glaucus and Scylla. Scylla, preferring to be alone, has found a cove in which to shelter. She encounters Glaucus, but is wary of him. He swims up, begging her to hear his story and to fall in love with him, as he has done with her. (The Romans were apparently big on love at first sight.)
He tells her that he used to be a fisherman. Once, while letting his nets dry, he discovered the grass he was sitting on sent the fish he’d just caught back into the ocean. Taking a taste for himself, he found himself turned into a sea-god.
It was then that I first set eyes on this beard encrusted with green, on the hair which sweeps in my wake as I swim far over the sea, my colossal shoulders, my blue-coloured arms and my curving legs which vanish away to a fish with fins. (lines 958 – 961)
“My colossal shoulders? My curving legs?” Glaucus is certainly full of himself.
Scylla rejects him and leaves the scene. Enraged, Glaucus goes to see Circe.
The way this is written, my first impression is that Glaucus is just another fickle male, who stomps off to some other woman for comfort when he is rejected.
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.
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.