Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Book One – Book Two – Book Three – Book Five – Book Six – Book Seven – Book Eight – Book Nine – Book Ten – Book Eleven – Book Twelve – Book Thirteen – Book Fourteen – Book Fifteen
Book Four has 803 lines on 40 pages.
Meet Pyramus and Thisbē, the ill-fated lovers who were the eventual inspiration for stories like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet ( the inspiration for West Side Story). This story has all the familiar trappings; feuding families, young people in love separated from each other (in this case, by a wall), whose plans to escape and be together tragically fail.
Thisbē makes it to the meeting place first, but loses her cloak as she moves away from a lioness whose muzzle is smeared with blood, The lioness chews on the cloak, smearing blood on it. Thisbē hides in a cave waiting for Pyramus to arrive.
Pyramus, of course, arrives and sees the blood-stained cloak and jumps to the wrong conclusion. Underneath a mulberry tree, he uses his dagger to kill himself. Thisbē, after a plaintive prayer, uses Pyramus’ dagger to join him in death.
You sad, unhappy fathers of Thisbē and Pyramus, hear us!
We both implore you to grant this prayer: as our hearts were truly
united in love, and death has at last united our bodies,
lay us to rest in a simple tomb. Begrudge us not that!
(lines 153 – 157)
The roots of the word hermaphrodite comes from the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Salmacis is the only nymph rapist in the ancient myths. She liked to loll around the lake, making herself beautiful. When Hermaphroditus arrived at the same lake, Salmacis could not take her eyes off him. Or, the rest of her. No one taught Salmacis “no means no,” as she desperately clung to him and had her way.
The boy held out like a hero, refusing the nymph the delights
that she craved for. Salmacis squeezed still harder, then pinning the whole
of her body against him, she clung there and cried: “You may fight as you will,
you wretch, but you shan’t escape me. Gods, I pray you decree
that the day never comes when the two of us here shall be riven asunder!”
Her prayer found gods to fulfil it. The bodies of boy and girl
were merged and melded in one. The two of them showed but a single
(lines 367 – 375)
And lastly, there’s the story of Perseus and the gorgons, specifically Medusa, whose head of snakes kills anyone who looks directly at her. It’s interesting to note that Medusa was a mortal.
But first, “the shower of gold.” Yes, my mind went there, how could it not? Jupiter impregnated Danae with Perseus by becoming a shower of gold and pouring down on her.
Ovid’s politics become obvious in this tale.
While Perseus was flying on whirring wings through the yielding air,
bearing his famous trophy, the head of the snake-headed Gorgon;
and as he triumphantly hovered over the Libyan desert,
some drops of blood from the Gorgon’s neck fell down to the sand,
where the earth received them and gave them life as a medley of serpents,
which explains why Libya now is infested with poisonous reptiles.
(lines 614 – 620)
In this long heroic tale about Perseus, what fascinated me most was the story of Medusa. She’d once been very beautiful, but according to Ovid, she was raped by Neptune in the temple of Minerva. To protect herself from this horror, Minerva raised her shield to her face and punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes.
As I read, I continue to ponder the attitudes towards women. Victims of rape are punished for the crime, often by other women. I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the appalling nature of Roman mythology.