Author: Ovid, translated by David Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
Publisher: Penguin Classics
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.