Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Conventions: I refer to the characters in Metamophoses as Roman Ovid has. Links, for the most part, go to Wikipedia which refers to the characters as Greeks. For my purposes, Wikipedia provides a good overview about Greco-Roman mythology.
In 779 lines, the equivalent of 44 pages, Ovid has a lot to say. Stories galore populate these lines. A lot of “aha!” moments for me as the origins of the laurel tree or the pipes of pan, are revealed.
I’m doing my best not to recap because good ones can be found all over the internet, like this one.
Ambitious Ovid implores the gods to inspire him to
“spin a thread from the world’s beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.”
From the Creation story in which chaos is turned into order, I love this description about the stars:
“Nature had hardly been settled within its separate compartments
when stars, which had long been hidden inside the welter of Chaos,
began to explode with light all over the vault of the heavens”
(lines 68 – 70)
The banquet of Lycaon, who tested Jove‘s omniscience by serving a roasted human. Gross and disgusting. Just …. eww. But Jove knew what was what and Lycoan’s punishment was transformation into a wolf, a lycan.
“The house was in uproar; passions blazed as they called for the blood
of the reckless traitor; as, when that band of disloyal malcontents
raged to extinguish the name of Rome by murdering Caesar.”
(lines 99 -102).
In case his contemporary audience doesn’t understand the severity of what Lycaon has done, Ovid tells them by comparing him to those who killed Julius Caesar. I can picture knives plunging in high dudgeon.
As Jove is threatening to kill everything with a terrible flood, the gods wail about no one being left to serve them, and deliver delicious tidbits. Can’t have that.
“But still a murmur went round: Who will bring to our altars the offerings
of incense? Is earth to be left to the mercies of ravaging wild beasts?”
(lines 247 – 248)
” … Here is the world with its glorious lands, from east to west; and here are we,
an inglorious crowd of two.” (lines 343 -345).
I love that phrase, “an inglorious crowd of two.” It illustrates just how alone and scared they must be. Everything they have known is gone and it is just the two of them alone, facing unknowable challenges.
Themis tells Deucalion and Pyrrha to cover their heads, untie their robes, and toss stones over their backs toward the sea, in order to repopulate the world.
“And so our race is a hard one, we work by the sweat of our brow,
and bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin, …” (lines 414 – 415)
I will say one thing for Ovid, he doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the ugly side of the gods. The story of Io, for instance.
Jove, not well known for his faithfulness to his wife, Hera, is off raping Io. Not wanting to get caught, he turns he rinto a “snow-white heifer.” Hera is charmed and asks for the cow as a gift.
What was he to do? Notice Ovid’s use of the word conscience, as though gods would allow a little thing like a conscience get in the way.
To surrender his love
would be cruelly painful, but not to give her would look suspicious.
Conscience would argue for her surrender, his love was against it.
Love indeed would have won the battle; but if he refused
the paltry gift of a cow to the wife …
it would have appeared that the creature was not exactly a heifer.
(lines 617 – 621)
One of my favorite stories is that of Argus, servant to Hera, a giant with one hundred eyes who is set to watch over Io, just to make sure Jove doesn’t get up to any more hanky-panky with her. Argus is killed by Pan, who chased Syrinx until she turned into marsh willows to get away from him. Pan uses his pipes to lure Argus, and all his eyes to go to sleep, at which point Pan beheads Argus.
Book One ends with the beginning of the story of Phaethon, who decides to prove the Sun god is his father. Even if you don’t know the story, you just know chaos is about to ensue.