Episode 63: All Is in Flux

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books 11-15. The vast Metamorphoses draws to a resonant conclusion as Ovid brings his great poem to Rome itself.

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Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Books 11-15

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 63: All Is In Flux. This is the third of three programs on the Metamorphoses, a long poem that the Roman writer Ovid completed around 8 CE. If you want to hear the Metamorphoses from the beginning, the story starts in Episode 61. In this episode, we will cover the five final books of Ovid’s most famous work, books in which Ovid increasingly turns to the subject of Rome, and the contemporary history around him.

As we move into the final third of the Metamorphoses, I think one thing we need to remember is that even in the closing books of his collection, Ovid never slows down. Book 14, for instance, contains 16 embedded tales with references to other stories. As the action in the poem moves closer and closer to Rome, and the poem’s conclusion, Ovid begins to season his collection with native Italian stories. But he never really stops island hopping around the Mediterranean, peopling his stories with a hodgepodge of Greeks, Romans, and others. In the fifteenth and final book of the epic, Ovid gives us something like a conclusion – a syncretic philosophical speech made by a fictional Pythagoras, and then an assurance that with the ascension of Augustus, at least something permanent has been installed in the unending flux of the universe. But Ovid remains a crafty impresario up until the end, and as we’ll see, his enormous book about eternal change does not end with an altogether confident promise about the changeless futurity of the Augustan regime.

Now, where we last left off, Orpheus, the most famous musician in Greco-Roman mythology, was telling a series of stories, serving as a narrator-within-narrator for Ovid. Most recently, Ovid’s Orpheus has just wrapped up the tale of Venus and Adonis – Adonis, gored to death by a boar he had been hunting, was changed into an anemone, or a type of delicate flower. Orpheus, if you remember, had lost his wife Eurydice in the underworld, and has been singing songs to rocks and trees to pass the time. Where we’re going to pick up in a minute, Orpheus’ luck is about to turn from bad to worse, when he’s ambushed by a pack of religious zealots. Inconveniently, Book 11, which we’ll be starting with today, begins with a somewhat befuddling bunch of short tales, which I’ll retell quickly. About halfway through Book 11, though, the final third of the Metamorphoses kicks into gear with some longer, and by all means fantastic stories.

As before, I’ll be quoting from several translations. But unless otherwise noted, I’m quoting from the David Raeburn translation, published by Penguin in 2004. So let’s open up the Metamorphoses one final time, and finish up this wonderful capstone of Augustan Age Roman literature. [music]

The Metamorphoses, Book 11

The Story of the Death of Orpheus

Ovid John William Waterhouse, 1900 - Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus, 1900 version

John William Waterhouse’s Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900).

Orpheus finished his collection of stories, having sung and sung, enchanting the trees and rocks around him. Nearby, he was being watched. A group of women – partaking in the wild and frenzied rites of Bacchus, told her fellow celebrants that Orpheus had rejected their deity. One of them threw her staff at Orpheus. The next hurled a rock, but the rock, spellbound by the sound of Orpheus’ music, fell to the ground. Enraged, the acolytes of Bacchus began to scream, and the noise of their fury drowned the sound of Orpheus’ music. Orpheus’ spell was broken. Rocks struck him. The women seized the animals that had been tamed by his lyre. And then they fell upon Orpheus himself. They took up the tools of some farmers who had fled from the commotion, and they bludgeoned him to death.

Trees dropped leaves, and the rivers swelled with tears. The acolytes of Bacchus tore Orpheus’ body to pieces, and his head into a river, alongside his lyre. A final noise escaped the instrument – the last it would ever play. The famous musician’s head floated into the Aegean, where a snake prepared to devour it. But Apollo turned the snake to stone, and Orpheus’ ghost, having gone to the underworld, was finally united with his beloved Eurydice.

Bacchus was not happy with his rampaging followers. Orpheus, far from having been sacrilegious against Bacchus, had been his priest. Bacchus rounded up the wild women who had killed Orpheus. And he turned them, though they struggled, into a grove of trees. And wandering widely thereafter, Bacchus went to the western shore of the Aegean, to the lands of a man called King Midas. [music]

The Story of King Midas

Lévy-Jugement de Midas Ovid

Émile Lévy’s Judgement of Midas (1870). Here Midas declares Pan’s pipe playing superior to Apollo’s lyre, and as punishment, Midas’ ears are turned to those of a donkey.

Bacchus had once had a godfather, the satyr Silenus. At the time this story takes place, Silenus was living in the kingdom of King Midas. Silenus was a bit of a drunkard, and he didn’t show up to Bacchus’ celebration. Eventually, some peasants discovered the satyr Silenus, and brought him to King Midas. Midas, in turn, brought the satyr to Bacchus, who was so happy to see his godfather that he promised to grant King Midas any wish. And Midas voiced a wish that wasn’t especially farsighted. He said he wanted anything he touched to change to gold.

Wincing a bit, Bacchus nonetheless granted the wish. Soon thereafter, Midas turned a twig to gold, and then a stone, then a clod of dirt, some ears of corn, an apple, the doors of his palace. He was elated. Elated, that was, until it was time for supper, at which time he discovered that anything he attempted to eat changed to gold in his mouth. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t drink. He hated the sight of the gold which now surrounded him. He prayed to Bacchus. And the god told King Midas to go to a river called the River Pactolus, and wash himself in a turbulent part of the river. The desperate king did not hesitate. Midas went to the river and washed himself, and thereafter the river Pactolus became rich with gold deposits.

As for Midas, he began to loathe money and finery. But, as Ovid writes, “his wits remained as obtuse as ever. Moreover, his utter / stupidity, once again, was destined to prove his downfall” (XI.148-9).1 What happened was that Midas wound up watching a musical competition between Pan and Apollo. Pan had insisted that his performances on his pipes were far superior to Apollo’s on his lyre, and in a public competition, Apollo definitively trounced the reed playing upstart Pan. Seeing the results of the competition, Midas said that he had thought Pan’s performance the superior one. Apollo, concluding that Midas had no powers of auditory discernment whatsoever, changed Midas’ ears into those of an ass.

The ears were the only part of Midas that transformed, however, and he hid them under his crown and hair. Only Midas’ barber knew his embarrassing secret. And the barber, consumed with the desire to tell someone, whispered the secret into a hole in the ground. From there, a reed plant grew, and whenever the wind blew over it, the reeds would softly sing the words, “King Midas has [an] ass’s ears” (XI.193). [music]

The Story of Laömedon and the Walls of Troy

The next tale in Book 11 has to do with Troy – only, a generation prior to the Trojan War. At this point, the young city was ruled by a king called Laömedon, who was building the city’s walls. It was clear that Laömedon needed help, and so Neptune and Apollo disguised themselves as mortals and volunteered to help, provided that they were compensated with some gold. Laömedon agreed. But when the walls were finished being built, Laömedon refused to pay his contractors, not knowing that they were deities. Oops. Neptune flooded all the countryside around Troy. In an analog of the Perseus and Andromeda story, Neptune chained Laömedon’s daughter up to a rock to be devoured by a sea monster, but Hercules rescued her, and then conquered the city with the aid of some powerful allies. One of these allies was the father of Achilles, who was called Peleus. [music]

The Story of Peleus and Thetis

Giuseppe Mazzola - The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis Ovid

Giuseppe Gaudenzio Mazzola’s The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1789). The pair’s wedding was a common subject in poetry – Catullus wrote an important poem about it, but Ovid tells us the uglier prehistory of Achilles’ parentage.

Peleus, says Ovid, was married to the goddess Thetis. It was an unusual marriage, and Ovid announces that he will tell how it came about. What happened was that the goddess Thetis got in the middle of a tricky situation. Thetis heard a prophecy that she would bear a son who would be mightier than his father. Now, Jupiter, who always sought to copulate with anything that moved, also wanted to have sex with Thetis. Having heard the prophecy, though, Jupiter didn’t want to accidently sire a son who would overmaster him, and so, showing a truly uncharacteristic amount of self control, Jupiter made other arrangements.

He told his son Peleus to woo the goddess Thetis, who lived on the east coast of the Greek mainland. Peleus didn’t have a lot of luck. When words failed Peleus, he attempted to rape the goddess, but she transformed into a bird. He kept hold of the bird. She changed into a tree, and he held fast to its trunk. She changed into a tiger. And Peleus fled.

Seeking far and wide for advice, Peleus asked an ocean deity what to do. He couldn’t have sex with a bird, or tree, or tiger, after all. This deity told him to catch Thetis asleep, to tie up her limbs, and then to squeeze her until she turned back into the shape of a woman. Peleus went ahead with the plan, and no matter how many shapes Thetis changed into, she still remained ensnared in his ropes. At last, she surrendered, deducing that Peleus was being helped by a god. And thereafter, she became his wife and the mother of the great hero Achilles.

Later in Peleus’ life, he wound up in the court of a king – a man called King Ceÿx. Peleus was an exile at this point – he had killed one of his brothers and been banished from his homeland, and so when he happened to land in the court of King Ceÿx, Peleus did not mention the murder. King Ceÿx’s land seemed to be a welcoming place, after all, and Ceÿx himself said that from the humblest to the highest, he invited all into his lands – after all, said King Ceÿx, he was no saint himself. And with this confession, King Ceÿx began weeping openly, and he told the story of his brother Daedalion. [music]

The Story of Ceÿx and Daedalion

King Ceÿx said that he and his brother Daedalion were the sons of the morning star Lucifer. Ceÿx was the peaceful brother; Daedalion loved war and strife. The warlike Daedalion’s daughter, when she came of age, was highly desirable to all who saw her. The gods Mercury and Apollo were rivals for her virginity, and one day Mercury caused her to fall asleep and then had his way with her. Later that same day, Apollo also raped her, and so brutish Daedalion’s daughter became pregnant with twins – one from each deity. Daedalion’s daughter, as time passed, grew very arrogant, saying that she was greater than the goddess Diana, and the goddess Diana shot her through the tongue to prevent her from further boasting.

King Ceÿx was shattered to watch his brother Daedalion’s daughter die from blood loss. Daedalion himself was heartbroken. He tried to burn himself alive on his daughter’s funeral pyre. Eventually he threw himself from a mountain, and turned into a hawk.

This was the story that King Ceÿx told to Peleus, the father of Achilles, about Ceÿx’s brother Daedalion. Once the story was completed, the two men learned that a dangerous wolf was murdering and despoiling nearby. After a short conference about what to do, Peleus called to an ocean nymph for help, and she turned the ravaging wolf to stone. And the focus of Ovid’s narrative now turns from Peleus, father of Achilles, to King Ceÿx. Up to this point, Book 11 has involved a flurry of rather short tales. But the story of King Ceÿx, and his wife Alcyone, is a famous myth, and Ovid takes so long to tell it that it becomes the centerpiece of Book 11. [music]

The Story of Ceÿx and Alcyone

Ceÿx was worried at all the events unfolding in his kingdom, and so he decided to consult with the oracle at Delphi. But King Ceÿx’s wife, Alcyone, did not want to be abandoned at such a tumultuous time. She worried that if he traveled to Delphi by sea, he’d be shipwrecked. The winds, said Alcyone, moved wildly, and could not be controlled by anyone – not even by her father, the god of winds! Alcyone begged her husband Ceÿx to at least take her with him so that she could share his fate, whatever it was to be.

King Ceÿx didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to leave her abandoned there, nor to bring her along on what might genuinely be a difficult voyage. After some deliberation, he promised her that he would be home in two months, no matter what. With that, he had his ship outfitted, while his wife was overcome with sadness. When it came time for Ceÿx to depart, the couple waved tearily to one another as his ship went out to sea.

By the first night of the voyage, it seemed that Queen Alcyone’s worst fears were coming true. A gale struck the ship, growing fiercer and fiercer in spite of the skill of the crew. Ovid writes, in the Penguin Raeburn translation,
Disaster had struck with a force too great for his skill to contend with.
The sounds were deafening: yells of the sailors, creaking of cables,
the roar of the rushing waves, with the claps and rolls of the thunder.
The sea was lifted towards the sky and appeared to touch it,
drenching the layers of lowering cloud in showers of spray.
Its colour kept changing: now it was yellow with sand churned up
from the bottommost depths, and then it was black as the streams of the Styx,
and sometimes white when it flattened out into hissing foam. (XI.494-501)

Water crashed into the ship’s hull like a battering-ram, and the wind and waves together were like a savage lion. The gloom of the storm obscured the stars. The sailors realized they were powerless. Poor Ceÿx cried, repeating his wife’s name on over and over again, so disoriented by the gale that he didn’t even know which direction his kingdom was. Finally, it happened. A gargantuan wave smashed the entire ship and most of the crew under water. Ceÿx himself, and a few others, clutched planks and other debris, and the terrified king prayed to the morning star and god of the winds to help him. As he bobbed and whirled, every time he came up for air he screamed his wife’s name, but a black wave loomed over him and pushed him under.

Ovid Ceyx prenant conge d'alcyone

Ceÿx taking leave of Alcyone, in a 15th-century French manuscript.

Queen Alcyone had no idea what had transpired – that her husband’s voyage had come to an almost immediate, and certainly fatal conclusion. Alcyone prayed to Juno for the safety of her husband, and Juno sent her a message by way of the god of sleep. The god of sleep had an emissary called Morpheus, who could change into any form, and Morpheus changed into the drowned and dripping specter of King Ceÿx and stood at the foot of Queen Alcyone’s bed. He told her that Ceÿx was dead, and, that he had died with her name on his lips.

Queen Alcyone asked the drowned specter to take her away with him, but it was already gone. Queen Alcyone surrendered herself to despair. She said he had died just as she had somehow known he would. In the morning, she went out to the seashore – the place she’d last seen him depart. In the distant ocean, she saw something bobbing – a shipwrecked sailor, she presumed. And when it became discernible, she saw that it was, indeed, the remains of her lost husband. Without thinking, she threw herself forward into the air, and changed into a bird. Skimming over the surface of the water the bird that had been Alcyone reached the floating remains of her husband. The gods, pitying the loving couple, changed Ceÿx into a bird, as well. They became a pair of kingfishers, and every year, for a week, the god of winds calmed the ocean so that baby kingfishers could fly over the waves that had claimed the lives of their distant patriarch. A story involving the ardent love of a married couple for one another, and a tragedy with a beautifully bittersweet ending, the tale of Ceÿx and Alcyone is one of my personal favorites in the Metamorphoses. That image of cute little kingfishers flying over peaceful ocean waters always makes me happy. [short music]

The Story of Aesacus and Hesperia

As the kingfishers that had once been Ceÿx and Alcyone glided over the ocean, they were observed by an old man, who knew that the two birds were lovers who would always be together. The old man, through a friend, learned the story of a man called Aesacus – the final story in Book 11 of the Metamorphoses.

Aesacus was the illegitimate son of King Priam of Troy. Aesacus did not like towns or cities, and he lived a simple life in the countryside. Aesacus was in love with a nymph called Hesperia, the daughter of a river god. This nymph was bashful – she ran from Aesacus when he approached her. As she fled, she was bitten by a snake. Hesperia fell down, dying, and Aesacus took her in his arms and cried, wailing that her death was his fault – he should have never pursued her! He said that he deserved to die, as well, and flung himself off a cliff. As Aesacus fell, he transformed into a bird, but even as a bird, he refused to fly. Instead, he dove, deeper and deeper into the ocean, his body thinning and changing further. When he reemerged, he was a diving bird, which Aesacus remains to this day. [music]

The Metamorphoses, Book 12

The Story of Iphigenia and Diana

Ovid Le Sacrifice deIphigénie

Abel de Pujol’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1822-5). In a different account than Aeschylus’, the goddess Artemis/Diana interceded as Iphigenia was about to be killed, replacing Iphigenia with a deer.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world, rambling forward through mythological history in very loose chronological order, until in Book 12 we finally we come to the story of the Trojan War. Having read the Iliad carefully, we might think we can dash through this section of the Metamorphoses pretty quickly, but Ovid’s interest in this long poem is always on transformation, which leads him to focus on some smaller and more idiosyncratic moments in the greater epic cycle – moments that Homer either doesn’t narrate at all, or only mentions in passing.

Not all of this book is related directly to the Trojan War, though – in fact a large portion of it is a series of yarns told by wise old Nestor, one of the leading strategists on the Greek side. Ovid begins his treatment of the Trojan War by telling of how Priam noticed that Paris was missing, and how Paris had abducted Helen.

Ovid then covers an episode that Homer only mentions in passing, and this is the sacrifice of the Greek King Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia at Aulis. What happened was that the Greeks, even after seeing an omen of their impending victory, could not get favorable winds to help launch them eastward across the Aegean. A prophet said that a virgin’s blood must placate the goddess Diana, who was keeping them stuck in Greece, and Agamemnon, ever a likable character, agreed to the ritual killing of his daughter Iphigenia. However, Diana swapped out Iphigenia with a deer, and the sea calmed, and the Greeks were able to begin their ten year campaign. And with the events that preceded the Trojan War narrated, Ovid begins narrating some of the earliest events of the Trojan War. Homer, if you remember, begins the Iliad when the fighting has already been raging for almost a decade. Ovid starts in the very first year, with the very first battle. [music]

The Story of Achilles’ Duel with Cycnus

The deity Rumor, which dwelt deep in the bowels of the earth, in a catacomb of perpetual echoes, spread the news to the Trojans that a large fleet was approaching their shore. The Trojans went out to meet them. The first death was a Greek man’s, but soon the shore was littered with mutual carnage. One powerful Trojan is the subject of this story – his name was Cycnus, and he was the invincible son of Neptune.

B. Picart’s Cycnus (1733). That swan has been spending some time at the leg press.

The Greek hero Achilles was killing fighters left and right, and looking for either Cycnus, or Hector, the Trojan champion. Achilles saw Cycnus first, and promised the other man that Cycnus would feel lucky to be slain by him, rather than someone else. Achilles tossed his spear, but it merely bounced off of Cycnus’ chest. Two more attempts to impale Cycnus were unsuccessful, and Achilles stormed off in anger. Achilles checked his spears. They seemed okay. He had certainly murdered many people that day. Perhaps, Achilles wondered, it was his arm? Achilles leveled a spear and threw it straight through the chest of another Trojan warrior, who died. He resolved to throw that same spear at the invincible Cycnus. Achilles did so, and the spear clanged off of Cycnus’ shoulder. Achilles seized his sword from its scabbard and started slicing away at Cycnus, and although Cycnus’ helmet and armor became dented and battered, the man himself was unscathed. Even angrier, Achilles started slamming the hilt of his sword onto Cycnus’ face.

This, finally, had an effect. Achilles began chasing his foe around the battlefield and battering him. As he finally got Cycnus down in the dirt and prepared to clobber him to death, however, Neptune changed Cycnus into a swan, denying Achilles the glory of a full victory. [music]

The Story of Caenis’ Transformation into a Man

A short truce followed this initial confrontation and skirmish between Achilles and Cycnus. The Greeks feasted and drank deeply and recounted their recent combat exploits. Everyone was talking about the man Achilles had fought and bludgeoned, and how they’d never seen anything like him. But old Nestor, who’d been around for a bit, said he’d seen some pretty wild stuff along the same lines – specifically, he had once seen a man named Caeneus, who had not only been impervious to cuts and slashes, but had also been born a woman. Naturally, Nestor’s friends in the Greek camp were intrigued by this strange lead-in, and they asked old Nestor to tell the story of the invincible, sex-changing Caeneus.

Caenis (who later became Caneus) was a beautiful girl who lived on the eastern part of the Greek mainland. She had many suitors, and declined them all, until one day, while walking on the beach, she was raped by the sea god Neptune. Neptune, exultant after committing the crime, said he’d enjoyed it so much that he’d grant her any wish. And Caenis said she wanted to never be able to be violated in such a manner – never again.

Neptune consented. He made Caenis the woman into Caeneus the man, and thereafter Caneus could never be harmed by any weapon. [music]

The Story of Pirithoüs’ Wedding and the Battle with the Centaurs

Old Nestor of the Greeks was evidently starved for attention, because with no segue he straightaway launched into another tale, which is the main course of Book 12 of the Metamorphoses. This is a story about a big, bloody fight at a wedding, like the one we heard earlier back in Book 5, and the sex-changing Caeneus from the previous tale makes a fantastic cameo at the end. What happened was as follows. There was a hero called Pirithoüs – he was actually Theseus’ best friend. Pirithoüs was marrying a woman named Hippodamia. And to their wedding, he invited a bunch of centaurs. The wedding was going nicely. The lovely Hippodamia entered with her escort of attendants. And then, unfortunately, one of the centaurs, already stone drunk, grabbed the bride Hippodamia, and prepared to rape her.

The humans were incredulous. Theseus, who was also there, reproached the centaur and got slugged as a result. Theseus then smashed the offending centaur’s head with a wine bowl. Whether he was dealing with half-bull half-men, or half-horse half-men, Theseus had a lot of natural ability with dispatching hoofed mythological creatures. Regrettably, the wedding then turned to an all out battle between humans and centaurs. Ovid throws himself into an energetic recitation of who killed whom, and how the killing was carried out. Eyes flew out of skulls, and teeth out of mouths. A centaur hurled part of the fireplace into some humans. A human grabbed some antlers from a wall and drove them into a centaur’s face until one of his eyes was in his beard. A human’s hair caught fire – another ended up with brains all over the floor, another still with a torch shoved down his throat. One centaur, passed out drunk, still took a javelin to the neck; another took a javelin through the ear, another still had his scrotum impaled by a tree.

You might think the catalog of violent deaths is about out of gas, but Ovid is actually just getting started. A centaur’s arm was pulverized by a club. A human’s torso was torn in half by a flying pine tree. A centaur took a spear to the lung and backbone. Nestor killed a centaur by pinning its hand to its face with a flung javelin. Another centaur died when its disemboweled stomach tangled guts onto its fleeing hooves. A male centaur was speared in the heart – his lover, also a centaur, impaled herself with the spear that had killed him. A human got his skull crushed, but Nestor knifed the murderer. Yet another centaur took a spear to the face. A man took a crowbar to the chest. A centaur took a spear to the testicles. Another centaur still had his tongue pinned in his mouth by a weapon. The whole scene is perhaps purposely over-the-top. Classicist Denis Feeney writes that “Homer and Virgil are, in their own way, just as aware as Ovid is of the problem of aestheticized violence. . .but Ovid knows that the inertia of the tradition keeps desensitizing us to the issues.”2 It’s as though Ovid read every blood splattering and head exploding death in Virgil and Homer and compiled them into one stupefying catalog, a sort of experiment in black comedy that calls attention to how silly narrations of epic war can actually sometimes sound. Anyway, into this general bloodbath there waded a familiar figure.

Ovid Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs by Luca Giordano, The Hermitage

Luca Giordano’s Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs (17th century). Note Hippodamia at the center. This battle, sometimes called the Centauromachia, was a common subject for artists to tackle – Ovid’s bloody, no-holds-barred narrative of the battle is akin to the many representations of the famous wedding brawl in art history.

You remember Caeneus, whose story Nestor has just told? The girl raped by Neptune who became an invincible guy? Caeneus was there, and he killed five centaurs. And then a particularly brawny centaur squared off against Caeneus, calling him by his previous, female name. The centaur said, in the Raeburn translation,
Caenis, you bitch! Must I tolerate you? You will always be female
and Caenis to me. Perhaps you forget your original sex.
Do you ever recall what you did to deserve your reward? Do you think
of the price which you paid to achieve this specious masculine body?
Look at the girl you were born and the shame that she suffered. Then go,
return to your distaff and basket of wool. Go back to your spinning,
and leave the fighting to men! (XII.470-6)

The centaur who voiced these disparaging lines soon found out that it’s an extremely bad idea to disparage an invincible man who has undergone divine gender reassignment surgery. Caenaeus slammed a spear through the centaur’s waist. The centaur threw his pike at Canaeus’ head, and the weapon bounced off. Another centaur then broke his sword hacking away at Caenaeus’ thighs, and Caenaeus stabbed this creature with his sword and twisted the blade.

The centaurs threw themselves at the invincible Caenaeus in futility. How could they be beaten by such an individual, they wondered? It was humiliating! They resolved to use their great strength to suffocate and crush the life from their invulnerable foe. And so they began heaving trees at Caenaeus. Tree after tree piled onto the hero, until he couldn’t breathe, and then he couldn’t see. As to what happened, no one ever knew – some said that the hero was driven under the earth to the underworld, and others that they saw a brown bird rising up from the uprooted forest. The death of Caenaeus drove the humans to fight all the harder, and they managed to best the centaurs at last. [music]

The Story of Periclymenus and Nestor’s Wisdom

Thus, Nestor wrapped up his yarn. One of his listeners, the son of Hercules, was concerned. Hercules’ son had heard that Hercules had been instrumental in conquering the centaurs, but Hercules had been left out of Nestor’s tale altogether. Nestor winced. He said that Hercules was kind of a sore spot – that great hero who had done so much good, and so much evil. Hercules had killed all twelve of Nestor’s own brothers. Thinking of these long ago crimes, Nestor began telling them the story of Periclymenus.

Periclymenus, a descendant of Neptune, could change into any shape he wanted to. Periclymenus ended up fighting Hercules, changing from shape to shape to shape, but there seemed to be no form that Hercules could not defeat. Finally, Periclymenus transformed into an eagle, slicing at Hercules’ face with sharp claws. The eagle took an arrow to the wing – not a fatal wound, but one which caused it to fall toward the earth, where, unluckily, it became impaled by the shaft that had struck it. Having told this short story, Nestor looked at Hercules’ son and said that Hercules had committed terrible crimes against his family, and thus he just couldn’t eulogize the great hero. But, added Nestor, he had no hard feelings for Hercules’ son. It’s a memorable moment in the Metamorphoses. The Junos and the Venuses of the divine pantheon hate anyone, or the descendants of anyone who has wronged them in any way, no matter how ridiculously tangential the connection. But human Nestor, whose brothers have been slaughtered by Hercules, is sure to tell Hercules’ son that he has no hard feelings toward the young man. The humans in Greco-Roman epic, as is the case here, are often far kinder and more intelligent and rational than the gods. [music]

The Story of the Death of Achilles

Ovid moves the narrative forward ten years to relate a rather important episode in the Trojan War – one which Homer and Virgil more or less skip over, and this is the death of the Greek hero Achilles. Neptune detested Achilles for killing his son Cycnus. He asked Apollo if Apollo might shoot an arrow at Achilles, and Apollo said he would do so.

Descending down to where the fighting was, Apollo saw Paris. Ovid’s description, which I always remember from when I first read this book, is that “[Apollo] noticed Paris / shooting away in a desultory fashion at common Greek soldiers” (XII.599-600). For some reason the description makes me think of the minstrel boy in the tower in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the boy who only wants to sing, and the way that young nobleman fires his bow, if you happen to have seen that flick. Anyway, Apollo saw Paris “shooting away in a desultory fashion,” and he told Paris to take aim at Achilles. Paris did so, drew, and fired. The arrow found Achilles’ heel, and he burst into flames in his armor, so that only a tiny handful of ashes remained.

The death of Achilles was a boon to the Trojan forces, and a great loss to the Greeks. The Greeks had not only lost their best warrior – they also had to deal with the tricky matter of deciding who would receive Achilles’ armor and famous shield. Only two made claim to the shield – wily Ulysses, and giant Ajax. And in order to avoid a lethal duel, the Greek king Agamemnon called Ulysses and Ajax to the center of the Greek camp, so that the leading warriors could plead their cases in a debate, a debate which will kick off the beginning of Book 13 of the Metamorphoses. [music]

The Metamorphoses, Book 13

The Story of Ulysses’ Debate with Ajax

Book 13 continues Ovid’s version of the Trojan War, and stories about the war and its aftermath dominate the beginning of this section of Ovid’s long poem. Book 13 begins with a nearly 400-line debate between Ajax and Ulysses – a debate about which great Greek warrior ought to inherit the divine gear of the great Achilles. This is, to scholars on the subject, particularly interesting place to see where Ovid contradicts, or has Ajax or Ulysses ignore, contradict, or distort some of the events we read about in Homer in order to serve his cause as a poet.

All of the Greek captains had taken seats to watch this debate. Ajax was the first to speak. He said he had once saved the Greek fleet while Ulysses was elsewhere, implying that Ulysses was one for talk and strategy, but not there when the war really needed him. Ajax recounted his divine heritage, and emphasized that he was Achilles’ cousin. Ajax recalled how, in an incident related in the later epic cycle, Ulysses had tried to feign madness in order to avoid participating in the Trojan War. Additionally, said Ajax, at a pivotal moment earlier in the war, Ulysses hadn’t helped wise old Nestor in a moment of great need. Yet when Ulysses had needed help in the midst of the war, Ajax had helped him, said Ajax, recounting an instance when he’d protected Ulysses with his great tower shield.

Even more pointedly, Ajax reminded the assembly that during intense fighting at the Greek ships, Ajax had fought the great Trojan champion Hector to a draw – not Ulysses. Besides, said Ajax, Ulysses was small and soft and sneaky. The brightness of Achilles’ armor would give Ulysses away as he stole around at night, skulking, and Ulysses was too feeble to carry Achilles’ spear and wear his helmet. As for Achilles’ shield, said Ajax, his own shield was battered and beaten from hard fighting – he needed a new shield, anyway, to protect his Greek comrades as he had been doing through the whole war.

Ovid The Suicide of Ajax

A digital enhancement of an image beneath the rim of a black-figured column-krater, dated to around 600 BCE. The image shows the suicide of Ajax while Diomedes and Odysseus look on.

It was Ulysses’ turn to respond. And while Ajax had addressed his speech to the army, Ulysses addressed his speech to the chieftains, systematically replying to points that Ajax had raised. Ulysses said that indeed he was eloquent, as Ajax had charged, and that his eloquence had time and time again served the Greek cause. Ulysses said that Ajax was descended from Jupiter, but he was, as well. Indeed, Ulysses admitted, Ajax was Achilles’ cousin, but if Achilles’ arms were supposed to go to a relative, then Achilles’ gear should go to his Achilles’ father or son.

Then Ulysses began recounting some of his own contributions to the Greek war effort. First of all, Ulysses emphasized, Achilles wouldn’t have even gone to the war without him – Ulysses had convinced the Greek champion to come in the first place. Thus, the glory of Achilles’ deeds, including the killing of Hector, were all Ulysses’ to share. Rather craftily, Ulysses said that he had helped convince the reluctant Agamemnon to kill his daughter Iphigenia in order to get them favorable eastward winds – and this claim, whether or not it was true, helped win King Agamemnon over to his side.3 Ulysses then told the assembly that he’d been the first envoy to Troy to request Helen’s return – a perilous endeavor that really should have prevented the war in the first place. Ulysses admitted that Ajax had certainly been heavily involved in fighting, but that he had undertaken clandestine missions and laid brilliant traps that had often rendered fighting unnecessary. And Ulysses continued his assaults on Ajax. When Agamemnon, ten years into the fighting, had pretended to curtail the war efforts as a test of loyalty, many Greeks had been eager to go, including Ajax. But Ulysses, exercising his powers of eloquence, had convinced everyone to stay. Yes, said Ulysses, he was sneaky, but on one occasion a night raid he’d undertaken with Diomedes had yielded indispensible tactical information. And as far as warmongering, Ulysses offered a who’s who of Trojans he had butchered over the course of the war, and showed them some of his scars. He had even, Ulysses told them, grabbed the dead body of Achilles when the hero fell and carried it off the battlefield.

Ulysses adroitly answered other charges that Ajax had leveled against him – of coming late to the war, of not helping defend the Trojan ships at a crucial juncture. He said he’d captured a sacred statue of Athena in Troy that was crucial to the war efforts. And, not exactly humble, summarizing some of the points he’d made earlier, Ulysses told Ajax,
Your physical might serves well
on the field, but your limited powers of thinking need my direction.
Your strength is mindless, where my concern is to plan ahead. . .
. . .Your simple brawn must be measured
against my brain. (XIII.361-3,5-6)

And in spite of such arrogantly uncivil remarks, in the end, the Greek chieftains decided that Ulysses’ case had been more convincing than Ajax’s.

Ajax was devastated. He had fought Hector to a draw, not Ulysses. He had stood in the center of uncountable maelstroms of fighting and protected his allies. Ajax said that at least his own sword was his, and, so saying, he drove his sword into his mighty chest. From his blood, there grew a hyacinth flower. [music]

The Story of Polyxena and Hecuba

With the tale of Ajax’s suicide finished, Ovid quickly moves on to the subject of Troy’s destruction, telling a shortened version of what Virgil tells in the Aeneid, and then moving on to the subject of Hecuba. Hecuba was the widow of Priam, King of Troy, who had been killed during the sack of the city. Hecuba ended up being taken in King Agamemnon’s ship as one of the prizes of the long war, along with Queen Hecuba’s youngest daughter, Polyxena. The returning Greeks were stopped in the northern territory of Thrace on their way home, and they were suddenly confronted by the ghost of Achilles. Achilles demanded that they sacrifice for him – specifically, that they sacrifice the young Trojan princess Polyxena.

Hecuba from Ovid

Giuseppe Crespi’s Hecuba Kills Polymestor (first half of the 18th century). As gruesome as this sudden attack is, Hecuba had ample reason for it.

Polyxena was led away from her mother, and was soon face to face with Achilles’ son, the man who was ordained to kill her. Polyxena said she was prepared to die, but that she didn’t want a bunch of guards’ hands on her as she fell – she said she wanted to die free while her lifeblood flowed out of her. Finally, she asked them if they would please give her body back to her mother without demanding a ransom – or if a ransom was needed, to let poor old Hecuba pay it with tears.

Those participating in the ritual sacrifice unexpectedly started crying. Achilles’ son, as he drove his sword into Polyxena’s heart, wept. Polyxena, however, did not flinch, looking fearlessly forward as she sank down, dead, faultlessly brave and dignified in her final moments. Her body was returned to her mother, who embraced it and washed it with her tears. Old Queen Hecuba voiced a long, sorrowful speech. The Greeks had killed her entire family and destroyed her home, she said. Why was she being kept alive? At least Priam had been spared seeing the violent and debasing afterlife suffered by the Trojan women.

She had one son alive, Hecuba reminded herself, and his name was Polydorus. Polydorus had been sent to Thrace as an emissary, but Hecuba was crushed when she learned shortly thereafter that Polydorus had been killed, too – killed by Thracians who had good reason to suspect that Troy would lose the war. Upon learning of the death of her final son, Hecuba went into a rage and plotted revenge – a remarkably swift, and violent revenge. Hecuba invented a story for the perfidious Thracian king, saying that there was a hidden cache of Trojan gold buried in Thrace. And Hecuba met the Thracian king, who blithely told her that good things would happen if she gave him the hidden Trojan gold.

Only, all in a rush, old Hecuba seized the totally unsuspecting Thracian king by the head and rammed her fingers into his eye sockets. The Thracian people were shocked. They burst into incredulous shouts. Hecuba turned with bloody hands as they flung stones at her, and her stern mouth turned into snapping jaws, and she became a furious dog, haunting the lands of Thrace thereafter, and making even the gods weep at her unspeakable misery. [music]

The Story of Aurora and Her Son

Everyone had lost something in the Trojan War – even, Ovid tells us, Aurora, the goddess of dawn. Aurora’s son Memnon had been killed by a spear from Achilles. The day after it had happened, the hues of daybreak were faint and pallid, in contrast to their normal rosy glow. Aurora went to Jupiter. She said she knew she wasn’t a very important goddess. But she added that she had lost her beloved son, and asked if Jupiter could at least provide some measure of comfort to her poor departed boy.

Up from Memnon’s funeral pyre there arose clouds of black ash, clouds that sparred against one another and dropped fighting birds down onto the turf. They became a species of birds called ruffs thereafter, crested sandpipers notorious for their sparring habits. And in eternal mourning for her lost son, every morning at dawn, the goddess Aurora wept tears of dew. [music]

The Story of the Trojans on Delos

With the death and destruction of the Trojan king Priam’s entire family, only a small, sturdy contingent of Trojans were alive and free in the Mediterranean. Their leader was Aeneas. And at this point in the Metamorphoses, Ovid deals with a couple of key episodes from the adventures of Aeneas. The first of these deals with Aeneas’ arrival on the island of Delos, and his interactions with a confusingly named man called King Anius [Ánius], not to be confused with Aeneas, hero of Virgil’s Aeneid. King Anius of Delos welcomed Aeneas and the Trojans. The Trojans recollected that their host had daughters, and inquired about them. King Anius of Delos then filled them in. His daughters, he said, had been granted special powers by Bacchus – they could transform anything they touched into corn, and wine, and olive oil. Such powers were extremely useful, and Agamemnon sought to kidnap them for use during his military campaign. The princesses of Delos, however, prayed for divine help, and Bacchus turned them into doves. [music]

The Story of the Cyclops and Galatea

Aeneas and the Trojans continued their adventures after landing on Delos, visiting various Aegean islands before sailing around the mainland and up into the Adriatic. One of the areas they passed was the Strait of Messina, that legendary place where the whirlpool Charybdis churned to the west, and the monster Scylla snapped her jaws to the east. This strait – the channel of water where Sicily comes closest to the Italian peninsula, is the general setting for the final two stories in Book 13 of the Metamorphoses. The second of them, which we’ll get to in a minute, is the story of how the monster Scylla came to be a monster. The first is the tale of the Cyclops, and the nymph that he loved, Galatea, a tale that came from Virgil’s Eclogues, and before them Theocritus’ Idylls. It’s a simple story – the Cyclops loves Galatea, and Galatea does not love the Cyclops. Virgil and Theocritus only give us the Cyclops’ point of view. Ovid offers us Galatea’s, too.

The nymph Galatea had once loved a teenage boy named Acis. He was only sixteen, but the nymph Galatea couldn’t take her eyes off of him. In fact, she loved Acis just about as much as she hated the Cyclops. Although Galatea was revolted by the Cyclops, Ovid’s description of what the Cyclops did to woo her favor is pretty endearing. Ovid writes,
The wild Polyphémus was combing his prickly locks with a mattock,
attempting to trim his shaggy beard with a pruning-hook,
and trying to look less fierce when he gazed at his face in a pool.
His passion for slaughter, his brutal ways and his boundless bloodlust
were all in abeyance; the ships could arrive and depart without danger. (XIII.765-9)

Polifemo y Galatea in Ovid (Aníbal Carracci)

Annibale Carracci’s Polyphemus and Galatea (1605). Ovid’s Cyclops, when he’s not in a rage of murderous jealousy, is a pretty likable character.

A prophet told the Cyclops that one day, his eye would be stolen by a man named Ulysses, a reference to what happens in Book 9 of the Odyssey. The Cyclops laughed, and said that his eye had already been stolen – by the beautiful Galatea. The Cyclops ignored all of his other duties, playing love ditties to Galatea from a huge set of pipes. As for the nymph Galatea, she snuggled together with her teenage lover Acis while the Cyclops sung lengthily about her manifold beauties. He said he would get her berries, and plums, chestnuts, fresh milk, lambs and baby goats, cheese, and an adorable pair of bear cubs. Really, Ovid’s Cyclops comes across as quite a sweetheart.

He said he knew he was a bit unusual looking – that his having only one eye was a drawback, but that he had fantastic hair, and maybe if she thought about the sun as the eye of the world, she’d realize that the world only needed one eye, just like him. Additionally, said the Cyclops, Galatea would have Poseidon as a father-in-law if they married, as the Cyclops was Poseidon’s son. Then – uh – a different side of the Cyclops emerged.

If Galatea really preferred the little pansy teenage boy, Acis, said the Cyclops, he would concede to his rival. However, if the Cyclops ever saw Acis, he would tear the boy’s guts out, dismember him, and scatter his remains broadly over the land and sea. Speaking these words, the Cyclops grew angrier and angrier. And then he saw Galatea with her lover Acis. Galatea was so terrified that, being a sea nymph, she dove into the ocean. Poor Acis was still standing there, and he was killed instantly when the Cyclops threw a mountain at him. Seeing a trickle of her lover’s blood emerge from beneath the mass of earth, Galatea changed Acis into a river, a river which in Ovid’s time flowed from the foot of Etna to the ocean on the east coast of Sicily. [music]

The Story of Scylla and Glaucus

Vaccaro-nicola-1637-1717-italy-glaucus-fleeing-from-skylla-th Ovid

Nicola Vaccaro’s Scylla Fleeing from Glaucus (before 1717). Mermen and cyclopes have bad luck with the ladies in Ovid’s Book 13.

The final story in Book 13 is one we’ve never heard before – the tale of how a beautiful girl called Scylla, who had many suitors, transformed into the head-crunching monster we meet in Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey. Here’s the story. Lovely Scylla was bathing in the nude on the beach. And she was glimpsed by a merman called Glaucus – a half fish, half man, in other words. Glaucus was a relatively well known oceanic deity in antiquity, able to foretell the future – sort of second or third behind Neptune when it came to the briny depths. Anyway, this merman Glaucus saw the lovely, desirable Scylla, and in spite of his polite overtures, the sight of him scared her into running away. She was so terrified that she hurried up onto a high rock, far above the seawater. Having a captive audience, now, the merman Glaucus then did his best to put himself in a favorable light. He said he wasn’t a sea monster, but a deity, and that he had once been a mortal fisherman. And then he told of how he’d become a merman. After catching a whole net full of fish, said Glaucus, he’d set them on some fresh grass – grass that had never been cut or grazed. And when the fish touched the grass, suddenly, up they hopped, and they went straight back to the sea. Glaucus, being an open-minded ancient fisherman, then ate a few blades of the strange grass, and suddenly he felt it – he absolutely had to get into the ocean. And so he rushed over to the beach and dove into the water. After completing some fairly involved aquatic rituals, Glaucus noticed that he had been changed into a merman. Having completed his story to the elusive beauty Scylla, Glaucus looked up to determine the effect that it had on her. I mean if someone told me about magical grass that they’d consumed that had transformed them into a half fish, half man, I would be panting with desire, or at least requesting to try some of the grass, but as for Scylla, she had disappeared. She had gone, Ovid tells us at the gap between Books 13 and 14 of the Metamorphoses – Scylla had fled. [music]

The Metamorphoses, Book 14

The Story of Scylla’s Transformation

Circe Invidiosa Ovid - John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (1892). Circe, jealous of Glaucus’ love for Scylla, poisons the water Scylla is going to bathe in, changing the nymph into a monster.

Book 14 of the Metamorphoses picks up the story of lovely Scylla and her pursuer Glaucus, the merman, from the previous volume. Glaucus went to the most famous witch in Greco-Roman mythology – the witch Circe, who lived on a promontory on the Italian coast between Rome and Naples.4 Much of the action of the remainder of the Metamorphoses, by the way, will take place in and around Italy. So the lovelorn Glaucus came to the witch Circe, and asked her to make the beautiful Scylla love him as he loved her.

Circe wasn’t the best person to ask for assistance, though. Whether because she was lonely and cooped up, or because she was genuinely attracted to the merman Glaucus, Circe told him he deserved someone who wanted him – as she did. Telling Glaucus to forget about Scylla, Circe said, “Reject the one who rejects you, / respond to her who pursues you, and give two women at once / the payment you owe them” (XIV.35-7). Glaucus was not persuaded. He said he’d always be loyal to Scylla. And this did not please the witch Circe.

Circe went to where poor, innocent Scylla lived – down where northeast Sicily almost touches the toe of the Italian boot. And Circe poisoned one of the pools where Scylla liked to bathe. When Scylla went to bathe there, a frightful transformation took place – she found that below the waist she had been changed into a pack of vicious dogs! Glaucus, heartbroken, gave up. As for Scylla, it wasn’t too long thereafter that she attacked Odysseus’ fleet by way of venting her anger. Eventually, she was turned into a promontory of rock, which still stands today, and is called Mount Circeo.[music]

The Story of the Cumaean Sibyl, and Achaemenides

With Scylla and Glaucus’ tale wound up, Ovid turns back to the subject of Aeneas. Aeneas, Ovid briefly tells us, had a tragic stayover in Carthage, where he broke Queen Dido’s heart. The Trojans, northward bound, passed a strange land where the people had been changed into apes. Finally, they came to the city of Naples, and the region of Cumae, where the Sibyl lived. We learn a little bit more about the Cumaean Sibyl in Ovid’s Metamorphoses than we do in Virgil’s Aeneid. Ovid’s Sibyl was once desired by Apollo. He said he’d grant her any wish, and she said she wanted to live as many years as there were grains of sand in a mound in front of her. But, as was also the case when Aurora asked for eternal life for her lover Tithonus, the Sibyl forgot to ask for everlasting youth, as well. Apollo had offered to keep the Sibyl young, provided that she would have sex with him. But she refused. And so, Ovid’s Sibyl is seven hundred years old and she shows signs of her age, telling Aeneas that she would live three hundred more years still.

While the stage is set on the coast of Italy, Ovid pauses to tell the tale of Achaemenides, who had been abandoned in the land of the Cyclops and almost devoured there, and in Ovid as well as Virgil, was eventually rescued by Aeneas. Ovid then includes the story of Ulysses’ visit to Circe, following many of the details from Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey. Circe had an entourage of animals, and she changed some of Ulysses’ crewmates into boars after giving them a magic potion. One of the crewmembers, however, refused the potion and alerted Ulysses. Ulysses made a bargain with Circe – he would let the witch sleep with him, his crewmates would return to normal. The arrangement worked out so well that Ulysses and his men remained with Circe for an entire year. [music]

The Story of King Picus

While Ulysses and company were shacking up with Circe, one of his men heard an interesting story from one of Circe’s nymphs, a story that is not from Homer, but instead from ancient Italian folklore. This is one of those neat things about the Metamorphoses, by the way – we are several layers of framing narrative down at the moment – Ovid was telling the story of Aeneas’ adventures in Italy, then a speaker in this tale began telling of Ulysses’ adventures from Greek mythology, and then within that narrative a speaker begins to tell an ancient Italian folktale. It’s a little bewildering if you try to hold it in your head all the time, but if you are willing to just shrug and enjoy the stories, you are able to, as you are at many moments of the Metamorphoses, get lost in a web of entertaining tales that come from several different cultures and literary traditions. The story concerned a man named Picus, who was, in Roman mythology, the first king of Latium.

Picus was a handsome and dignified man, a man sought after by many nymphs and dryads. Picus ignored all of them, however, and he fell in love with a sort of female Orpheus figure – a nymph who could charm the birds and beasts and rocks with her singing. Her name was Canens, she returned his affection, and they were happily married.

One day, Picus was off hunting in the forest. The witch Circe saw him and she was instantly smitten. She stalked him for a while, and then made her appeal – she asked him to satiate her passion and marry her. Picus said he wasn’t interested – his beautiful wife Canens held his heart, and he would not be disloyal to her. And so Circe transformed him into a woodpecker. As for Picus’ attendants, who investigated his absence, Circe transformed them into various creatures – and poor Picus’ wife Canens wandered off and transformed into water. [music]

The Story of the Petition to Diomedes

With the tale of Picus, first King of Latium told, Ovid returns his narrative back to the adventures of Aeneas. Aeneas, if you remember from the Aeneid, married a princess of Latium, and Ovid rather quickly recounts how the war broke out when Aeneas arrived at the mouth of the Tiber near the site where Rome would one day stand. As Aeneas and the native cities of Italy all sought to bolster their forces, the native Italians sought help from a Greek warrior called Diomedes, who had once bested Aeneas in combat during the Trojan War.

Diomedes, however, said that he could not help the Italians who had come to seek his aid. He was kind of in trouble. His crew had been punished for raping one of the Trojan king’s daughters. He had also been punished for spearing the goddess Venus through the arm (this happens in Book 5 of the Iliad). Specifically, one of his crew members, a blasphemous man, had shouted that none of them regretted the fact that their commander had wounded the goddess. And Venus, by way of getting revenge on the arrogant blasphemer, changed Diomedes’ crew into seabirds. [music]

The Story of the Death of Aeneas

Having told of the fate of Diomedes and his men, Ovid offers a rapidfire series of transformation tales. A shepherd mocked Pan and his nymphs, and so he was changed into the bitter wild olive tree. Aeneas’ ships were almost burned, but they changed into ocean nymphs who would forever after protect imperilled vessels at sea. A major Italian city fell, and from its ashes rose a heron, thereafter a bird that signified the destruction of a city. Ovid then turns very directly, and rather briefly to Aeneas himself, telling us that when the great Roman hero died, his mother Venus, after getting Jupiter’s permission, washed her beloved son in the river and rendered him an immortal. Ovid then races through a list of the early rulers of Latium, that city in which the forefathers of the Romans lived before migrating to Rome. These kings included Aeneas, and then his son Iulus, then Silvius, then Latinus, then Alba, Epytus, Capys, Capetus, Tiberinus, and Acrota. After this wicker basket of shorter tales about ancient Italy, Book 14 moves on to some longer and more well-known Ovidian tales, the first of which is the story of Pomona and Vertumnus. [music]

The Story of Pomona and Vertumnus

Vertumnus and Pomona Ovid 1630 Paulus Moreelse

Paulus Moreelse’s Vertumnus and Pomona (1630). Moreelse’s Pomona looks impishly out at the audience, as though she’s aware of whom she’s really speaking to. Moreelse’s Vertumnus helps himself to an eyeful of cleavage.

Pomona was the Roman goddess of orchards. She did not love all trees or forests – only orchards where trees were cultivated for fruit. Pomona was a hot commodity – a goddess who produced copious amounts of fresh fruit, she was desired by a number of satyrs. But Pomona did not yield to their attempts. She was only interested in her orchards.

One of the deities who loved Pomona was called Vertumnus. Vertumnus was an Etruscan god associated with the changing seasons, and he loved to wear disguises. Vertumnus would dress as a reaper, or a haymaker, or a ploughman, or a pruner, and in these disguises he wiggled his way closer and closer to lovely Pomona, goddess of orchards. One day, Vertumnus disguised himself as an old woman, and began a friendly chat with Pomona. Pretending to give matronly advice, Vertumnus told Pomona that without a husband she was like a vine floundering around without a tree to keep it aloft. The disguised Vertumnus gave Pomona all sorts of advice, and in order to convince her to marry him, he told a story-within-a-story – a cautionary tale about a peasant swain who’d loved a princess. The princess, said Vertumnus, had cruelly rejected the peasant boy’s advances, and so he hung himself. And the princess, seeing her dead suitor hanging there, turned to stone, her interior coldness and hardness symbolically taking over her physical body.

Vertumnus had said all he needed to. He transformed into his true from – a handsome deity, bright as the sun. And at that moment, Pomona, goddess of the orchard, fell passionately in love with Vertumnus, the shapeshifting god who’d disguised himself as an old woman to get close to her and win her heart. [music]

The Story of Romulus

With the setting of his stories now firmly in and around the future site of Rome, Ovid closes Book 14 of the Metamorphoses with the story of Romulus, telling us about the first ruler of Rome. After Romulus founded Rome, Ovid writes, the Romans kidnapped women from the Sabines. In the retaliatory war that followed, which pitted families against themselves, a stalemate eventually left the Romans with their new brides, and Romulus ruled over both Rome and the Sabines.

Romulus’ father was Mars, and when Romulus grew old and died, Mars deified his famous son, lifting Romulus up into the blue dome of the sky. Romulus then became a god called Quirinus. Romulus’ wife wept for her husband’s departure. When she was hit by a shooting star, however, Romulus’ wife caught fire and then soared up into the sky, where she was welcomed in her husband’s arms for all eternity. [music]

The Metamorphoses, Book 15

The Story of King Numa and Pythagoras

Ovid finishes Book 14 of the Metamorphoses with the death of Romulus, the first ruler of Rome. He picks up Book 15 with the ascension of a king called Numa, the second ruler of Rome. Numa had an active, and restless mind, a mind which led him to wander widely on the Italian peninsula, all the way down to the Magna Graecian town of Croton, on the bottom of the Italian boot.

Pythagoras with tablet of ratios

Pythagoras works with ratios in this detail from Raphael’s School of Athens (1509).

King Numa learned about the origin of the town of Croton upon arriving there, but also, about the man who was likely Croton’s most famous citizen, Pythagoras. Now, the legendary reign of Numa would have taken place some time in the late 700s BCE, whereas Pythagoras is thought to have lived in the mid to late 500s BCE, and so Ovid’s timeframe is a little off. Nonetheless, Numa’s account of Pythagoras and his ideology is one of the longest passages in the Metamorphoses, and one which presents Pythagoras’ philosophical doctrine thoroughly, a doctrine that famously involves the belief in reincarnation.

Pythagoras, writes Ovid, had a powerful, capacious mind, and he investigated the origins of the world and universe. Partly due to his belief in reincationation, Pythagoras also endorsed vegetarianism. Eating meat, to Pythagoras, was abhorrent. People shouldn’t act like the Cyclops, or any carnivorous animals – the earth created all sorts of things to eat, so that one didn’t have to kill anything in order to have a meal.

Pythagoras’ doctrine of vegetarianism helps him introduce a familiar story – one that appears in the pages many ancient Mediterranean texts – the story of the Ages of Man. During the Golden Age, says Ovid’s Pythagoras, humans did not eat meat. But at some point, someone did, polluting humankind’s lips with blood for the first time. Thereafter, it was a short jump to making blood sacrifices – to taking hardworking livestock like oxen and slashing their throats no matter how industrious they proved in the fields.

Following his plug for vegetarianism, Ovid’s Pythagoras offers the parameters of his philosophical doctrine. Except, a lot of Pythagoras’ philosophical doctrine sounds quite a bit like Lucretius and Epicurus blended together a belief in reincarnation. Ovid’s Pythagoras says we shouldn’t live in fear of death – we just die, and that’s it. Outlining the notion of reincarnation, he says, in the Raeburn translation,
All is subject to change and nothing to death. The spirit
in each of us wanders from place to place; it enters whatever
body it pleases, crossing over from beast to man,
and back again to beast. It never perishes wholly.
As pliable wax is easily stamped with a new impression
and never remains as it was nor preserves one single shape,
but still is the selfsame wax, so I say that our souls are always
the same, though they move from home to home in different bodies. (XV.165-72)

Most readers, by the way, note how the view of reincarnation expressed underscores the overall theme of metamorphosis that governs Ovid’s fifteen book long poem from beginning to end. Echoing the ideas of another Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, Ovid’s Pythagoras says, in the Penguin Raeburn translation,
All is in flux. Any shape that is formed is constantly shifting.
Time itself flows steadily by in perpetual motion.
Think of a river: no river can ever arrest its current,
nor can the fleeting hour. But as water is forced downstream
by the water behind it and presses no less on the water ahead,
so time is in constant flight and pursuit, continually new. (XV.178-83)

The sky, says Ovid’s Pythagoras, is always changing, and the moon. The seasons, following the same pattern of human lives, go from green and young to white and old. Even the youthful and beautiful and strong, says Pythagoras, fall victim to the jaws of time. Landforms are replaced by water, marshes overtake deserts, underground rivers appear in unexpected places, and the ocean breaks isthmuses and drowns whole cities. Even the earth, Pythagoras emphasizes, makes and remakes itself, belching magma and opening fissures.

Ovid’s Pythagoras then begins a catalog of Metamorphoses that happen in nature. Butterflies come from coccoons. Tadpoles turn into frogs. Larvae grows into insects. Birds grew from the yolk of eggs. The phoenix lives for five hundred years, until another phoenix is born from its body. Chameleons change their very color. Corals harden when brought into air. And civilization as well as nature is full of transformation. Troy was once great, and it fell. Sparta, Thebes, and Athens shared the same fate. And Rome, on the contrary, had grown from obscure origins to become the center of civilization, with Augustus at its helm, and Ovid writes, “When the earth has enjoyed his presence, the realms / of the sky will enjoy him too; he is finally destined for heaven” (XV.448-9). Speaking of heaven, says Ovid’s Pythagoras, the sky itself changed constantly. And, returning once more to the doctrine of transmigration of souls, he says,
We too are part of the world and are more than physical bodies;
we also possess winged souls. We are able to make our abodes
inside wild beasts and to hide away in the hearts of cattle.
The creatures we see may well embody the souls of our parents
or brothers or people to whom we’ve been bonded – of human beings
at least. (XV.456-61)

And with this final reminder that animals all around us might contain the souls of human beings, Ovid’s Pythagoras calls again for vegetarianism. With Pythagoras’ 400-line speech completed, Ovid tells us that Numa, the second king of Rome, had Pythagoras and other such sages for instructors before going on to rule the city. [music]

The Story of Aesculapius

Numa, the second legendary king of Rome, ruled lengthily and successfully, and when he died his stricken wife went to the forest to nurse her sorrows. There, she met a man who had died and been brought back to life as a minor woodland deity, but his story of his sorrows only caused Numa’s wife deeper sadness, and she changed into a forest spring. Ovid tells the story of an Etruscan deity who had once changed one of Romulus’ spears into a leafy tree. He tells of an early Roman ruler who discovered horns on his head – an omen that he would rule the Romans as a king during the Republican period, when kings were anathemzied. This ruler, rather than becoming king, made sure that his countrymen exiled him, and posterity has honored him ever since.

Ovid then tells the story of a god called Aesculapius. Aesculapius was the Roman god of medicine and healing, and temples to him, called Asclepieia, were quite common in the Roman world. Once, says Ovid, a plague ravaged the city of Rome in its younger days. Romans, desperate for help, sent an emissary to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, but Apollo told them to seek out his son in the city of Epidaurus, just southwest of the Corinthian isthmus on the Peloponnese.

The Greek elders at Epidaurus were apprehensive about helping the Roman envoys, but Aesculapius, god of healing, came to one of the Romans in his sleep and promised aid. Appearing before the Greeks and Romans one morning as a giant snake, which was thereafter his symbol, Aesculapius signified that he wanted to accompany the Romans to Rome. After a long journey to the city, Aesculapius made his home on a temple on Tiber island, a temple that Ovid knew had stood there since the early 200s BCE. [music]

The Story of Julius Caesar and Augustus

Aesculapius was important to the Romans, Ovid writes, but more important still was Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar did extraordinary things as a general and as an administrator, but, Ovid emphasizes, Julius Caesar’s greatest achievement was being the adopted father of Augustus. Admittedly, Caesar had sailed a victory fleet up and down the Nile, he’d conquered Britons, but still, Augustus was his greatest achievement. You can see, by the way, that here Ovid is following Virgil’s path in glorifying Rome’s first emperor, but we’ll look at some of these passages a bit later on and consider how serious Ovid actually is.

Anyway, continuing with his assessment of Julius Caesar, Ovid writes of the day of Caesar’s assassination, when his progenitor, the goddess Venus, saw the assassins sharpening their daggers. The morning of Caesar’s assassination, the sky was clogged with black clouds, which oozed blood. The earth was as pale as a phantom, and even the morning star was mottled with rust colored spots. Venus knew what was going to happen, but Jupiter came to her and assured her that Caesar’s posthumous deification would be a suitable reward for the great deeds he’d accomplished on earth.

And so when Caesar had been murdered, Venus took his body up into the heavens, causing a comet to appear in the sky, and ever since, the deified Julius Caesar had been gazing down, proudly, on his adopted son Augustus’ achievements. And as Ovid writes in the Raeburn translation,
Now Julius watches his son’s achievements
and proudly admits they surpass his own. Though Augustus will never
let it be said that his deeds are greater than those of his father,
speech that is free and unfettered, in spite of the emperor’s wishes,
declares him supreme. (XV.850-4)

Just as Caesar was once deified, Ovid concludes in the final lines of the Metamorphoses, Augustus, after living a long and even more successful life, would ascend to the heavens and listen to the prayers of Romans for all time. And that’s – almost – the end.

Ovid’s Closing Lines

There’s just one more section to the Metamorphoses, a ten-line epilogue that I’ll read to you now. This is the Mary Innes prose translation, published by Penguin in 1955.
My work [Ovid writes with a final flourish] is complete: a work which neither Jove’s anger, nor fire nor sword shall destroy, nor yet the gnawing tooth of time. That day which has power over nothing but my body may, when it pleases, put an end to my uncertain span of years. Yet with my better part I shall soar, undying, far above the stars, and my name will be imperishable. Wherever Roman power extends over the lands Rome has subdued, people will read my verse. If there be any truth in poets’ prophecies, I shall live to all eternity, immortalized by fame. (XV.871-9)5

And with Ovid’s arrogant, and aggravatingly correct prophecy of his future popularity, the Metamorphoses comes to a triumphant conclusion.6 [music]

Ovid’s Take on Augustus

Well, there are two things I think we ought to discuss before we’re through with the Metamorphoses altogether, and for the most part they have to do with Book 15 – Pythagoras’ doctrine of reincarnation, and what it’s doing in the book, and then, of course, the surprisingly enthusiastic endorsement of Augustus that concludes the entire epic. Let’s start with the latter – Ovid’s claim that Augustus is superior to Julius Caesar, and his prayer that “Augustus / leaves the world that he rules and rises up to the heavens. / So may he lend a favouring ear to our prayers from his new home” (XV.868-70).

Statue-Augustus world of Ovid

The Augustus of Primaporta (1st century). Unsurprisingly, Ovid does not reveal an entirely reverent attitude toward his emperor in the final book of the Metamorphoses.

If you read Ovid’s works from the beginning, as we have, you can’t help but feel suspicious toward these closing lines of the Metamorphoses. Ovid is nothing if not irreverent, and so it’s hard to believe that in his seminal poem about eternal change, he genuinely endorses the changeless greatness of Augustus and looks forward to the emperor’s deification. During other moments of Ovid’s career, like the Art of Love and Cure for Love, he blatantly ignored Augustus’ social legislation. The emperor might have passed laws requiring marriage, fidelity, and childbirth, but these laws, inconvenient to the romantic diversions of Ovid’s class, didn’t even seem to exist to the author as he wrote his love poems and guide books on how to find a lover and enjoy good sex. Many scholars find the closing lines of the Metamorphoses fishy. Scholar E.J. Kenney puts it nicely, arguing that “For [Ovid] the Augustan settlement was not, as it had been for Virgil, the start of a new world. . .but rather another sandbag in the shifting stream of eternity.”7 If you can never step twice in the same river, as Ovid’s Pythagoras asserts, then why is Augustus a giant boulder that will resist the flow of time? If Augustus was barely a consideration to Ovid while Ovid wrote his earlier love poems, then why is the emperor suddenly the culmination of the universe in the Metamorphoses?

For the simplest answer, we have to look beyond the text of the Metamorphoses itself. By 8 BCE – by the time literary historians think Ovid had the Metamorphoses more or less complete, he seems to have been in trouble with the emperor.8 Augustus, who was about 71, exiled Ovid, who was about 51 that same year. The next episode of this podcast is all about Ovid’s exile, so we’ll talk more about that soon. Now, we don’t know whether Ovid wrote the closing portion of the Metamorphoses in Rome, or in exile – whether he predicted Augustus’ deification because he had come around to the emperor’s way of thinking, or due to a desperate bid to regain Augustus’ favor. But it will suffice to say that an endorsement of the emperor may well have been an eleventh hour political gesture to try and kowtow before a statesman whom he’d often ignored, and whom around 8 BCE he had definitely done something to offend.

A deliberate effort to conciliate Augustus is probably the best explanation behind Ovid’s devout attitude toward the emperor throughout Book XV. Even in the midst of Pythagoras’ long monologue, even though Pythagoras explicitly affirms the doctrine of reincarnation, the great Augustus is somehow exempt. Ovid’s Pythagoras, forecasting the glorious future of Rome, states that
Other leaders, over the centuries, will render her more powerful;
but one man born of [Aeneas’] blood will make her the mistress
of all the world. When the earth has enjoyed his presence, the realms
of the sky will enjoy him too; he is finally destined for heaven. (XV.446-50)

The statement is not only at loggerheads with Ovid’s general iconoclasm. These lines also contradict Pythagoras’ own doctrines. If everyone is destined for reincarnation, if, in Pythagoras’ words, which are also the title of this episode, “All is in flux” (X.178), then why does Ovid’s Pythagoras envision an exception?9 It’s possible that by placing this statement about Roman exceptionalism and the deification of Augustus squarely in the middle of a enormous monologue about a 500-year-old philosophy perfectly suited to the Metamorphoses, Ovid is drawing attention to the absurdity of anyone living forever, the emperor included. That’s a stretch, though. I think that what we can safely say is that the idea of the emperor living forever is wildly out of place in the final book of Ovid’s poem, and that Ovid, as Virgil had in the Aeneid, and Horace had in various poems, was simply trying to secure the emperor’s favor.

Still, Ovid doesn’t entirely truckle at the feet of the Julio-Claudians in the last moments of the Metamorphoses. In a surprisingly derogatory series of multilingual puns, toward the end of Book XV, Ovid makes fun of Julius Caesar’s appearance. At one point in Book 15, Jupiter tell Venus that “you must rescue [Julius Caesar’s] soul from his cut-ridden body / and make him a comet, that deified Julius’ image may always / gaze on my Capitol Hill from the height of his shrine in the forum” (XV.840-2). As I’ve mentioned before, Romans witnessed unusual meteorological phenomena in 44 BCE after Caesar’s death, including a comet, and this comet was part of Caesar’s iconography. A comet rested on the head of Caesar’s statue in the Roman forum, and a coin minted in 36 BCE shows Caesar’s temple with a star glittering at its top.10 So far so good, right? Ovid patriotically alludes to the famous comet that seemed to many to signal the ascension of Julius Caesar to divinity. Only, there are some funny details about the way he describes Caesar and Caesar’s comet.

Let’s get those lines in our head for a second. First of all, Romans pronounced the name Caesar as KEYE-czar – that’s an important nugget to know up front, if you haven’t heard it before. Venus is told, “you must rescue [Julius Caesar’s] soul from his cut-ridden body.” The end of that quote, in Latin, is caeso de corpore, or “cut-ridden body,” and caedo, or “to cut” is the root of our modern term “Caesarian section.” This is a pretty clever pun on Ovid’s part, but Julius Caesar’s last name didn’t mean “cutter,” in spite of the commonality between caedo and Caesar. The real etymology behind Caesar’s last name was the word caesaries, which means, a full head of hair. And Julius Caesar, famously, did not have a caesaries by the time he took office. He was bald, or getting there quickly. Ovid has one more satirical pun up his sleeve related to Caesar’s baldness. And this is that Caesar, fortunately, was turned into a cometa, the Latin word for comet, which Ovid knew came from the Greek word for comet – aster kometes, or “long-haired star.” It’s a pretty cute etymology, if you haven’t heard it before – the ancient Greeks called comets hairy stars. Anyway, to sum up this complicated series of puns, Ovid points out that Julius Caesar, lamentably, did not have a caesaries, or full head of hair, but that thankfully, he was able to transform into a cometa, or hairy star.11

This is not, obviously, a dig at some obscure Roman’s personal appearance. Ovid, in a long passage that extols the greatness of Caesar and even more so, Augustus, veers left for a moment to disparage Caesar’s receding hairline, an extremely strange thing to do, considering the context of the quips about Caesar’s baldness. So while the Metamorphoses, like the Aeneid, does end with the fall of all other regional powers and the ascension of Augustus, Ovid wisecracks and puns right up until the end, telling us that Augustus’ hairless father was blessed by Jupiter and Venus to turn into a hairy comet. And while Ovid could have ended the epic with its closing lines about Augustus watching over Romans from above after the emperor’s deification, Ovid doesn’t do so. Ovid ends the Metamorphoses by telling us about his own poetic triumphs, and his own impending rise toward literary immortality. [music]

Ovid, Pythagoras, and the Issue of the Soul

Now that we’ve talked about the mixture of kowtowing, mockery and self-promotion that Ovid leverages to close his epic, I want to switch topics a bit. Book XV of the Metamorphoses contains a 400-line monologue by the philosopher Pythagoras, in which the philosopher basically promotes vegetarianism alongside the doctrine of reincarnation, and seasons the mixture with an Epicurean fearlessness toward death. Reading Pythagoras’ monologue, readers have often tried to nail down whether or not it represents Ovid’s personal philosophy, without much luck. Ovid, if you remember from last time, didn’t even care to define who created the world or how humankind was made. If we try and apply a doctrine to him, we’re not likely to have a lot of luck.

Nonetheless, as Ovid set the Metamorphoses down, about fourteen hundred miles to the southeast of him, John the Baptist was probably a teenager, Paul the Apostle was born, and Jesus Christ was learning to walk in the rugged country between the Sea of Galilee and the settlement of Nazareth. And in 6 CE, just before Ovid completed his most famous poem, Augustus deposed the descendants of King Herod and made Iudea, or Judea, into a Roman province. The takeover left plenty of sovereignty and cultural liberty to the various sects of Judaism resident there. But it also meant that Roman culture, and Latin were freer than ever to join the hodgepodge of linguistic groups resident in and around modern day Israel – Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and others, and that as the reputations of Augustan Age poets grew, the scrolls containing their works slowly infiltrated the land that had once been called Canaan.

Now, I am not going to try and trace out parallels between the Metamorphoses and the New Testament – we’ll have plenty of New Testament before too long. What I do think we should do, though – just because the Metamorphoses is such a broad cross section of ancient Mediterranean culture, is to consider some of the elements that we encounter in the Metamorphoses that also show up in early Christianity.

Near the beginning of what we read for today, at the moment when the famous musician Orpheus is caught and murdered by religious zealots, Ovid describes the moment of Orpheus’ death. Let’s hear it in Latin, first.
. . .pro (Iuppeter!) illud
auditum saxis intellectumque ferarum
sensibus in ventos anima exhalta recessit
. (IX.41-3)

Here’s a literal translation of these lines by classicist Victoria Rimell.
. . .(O Jupiter!) –
[Orpheus’] lips, which held the rocks, and hearts of fearsome beasts enthralled,
breathed out his soul, which flew off on the winds.12

When I first read these lines, I was hung up on a single word, and one which I hadn’t seen a whole lot of in literature up to that point. That word was “soul,” or, in Latin, anima, which can be translated as “soul” or “spirit,” but also as “life,” “breath,” “wind,” or “air.” The Biblical Hebrew word nephesh, often translated into Greek as psyche in the Septuagint, generally makes it into the Latin Vulgate as anima, which in turn gets translated as “soul.” Today, we generally understand the word “soul” as describing an unchanging spiritual essence unique to human beings. This isn’t quite what the Hebrew and Latin words – again nephesh and anima mean, though. Nephesh, which is all over the Hebrew bible, is a complex and multivalent word, but as with the Latin anima, it is tied to the notions of breath, animation, and vitality, as in Genesis 2:7: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being,” or a “living nephesh.” The Greek word psyche which often takes the place of the Hebrew nephesh and Latin anima, also has roots that have to do with breathing – psyche comes from the Greek psukhḗ, which means “spirit,” or “breath.”

Today, in the Anglophone world, we lose a lot of etymological roots from Greek and Latin with the word “soul,” because our word has Germanic and Baltic origins. Near the end of the Old English epic Beowulf, after the hero speaks his last words, the poet writes that “his soul migrated from his breast,” but the word is sawol or “his sawol migrated from his breast.”13 This word, sawol, or sêola, has various Saxon, Baltic, and Old Norse roots, but it probably comes from the Old Saxon word for sea, which is sêo, as some ancient cultures believed that the life force of humans came from lakes and oceans.14 This is a different idea than the one associated with the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin words for “soul,” all of which have to do with wind and breath, rather than bodies of water. So when we read the word “soul” in the Metamorphoses as a translation of anima, we miss out on the complex and multicultural history behind the word, and what Ovid’s original readers would have understood. Our current word “soul” is built atop a tottering totem pole made of very different ideas and etymological roots.

To return to the pertinent line in Ovid, in the Ancient Mediterranean, whether the Hebrew nephesh, the Greek psyche, or the Latin anima, the notion was that humans are imbued with an animated force at some point, just as the Old Testament deity breathes life into Adam. Orpheus, in the Raeburn translation, breathes his last breath, and when he exhales, “his soul passed forth with his breath and melted into the winds” (XI.43). This description is consistent with the way that Ovid’s Pythagoras describes transmigration and reincarnation four books later. Pythagoras claims that “The spirit / in each of us wanders from place to place; it enters whatever / body it pleases, crossing over from beast to man, / and back again to a beast. It never perishes wholly. / As pliable wax is easily stamped with a new impression” (XV.165-70). And toward the end of his speech, Pythagoras summarizes his doctrine as follows:
We too are part of the world and are more than physical bodies;
we also possess winged souls. We are able to make our abodes
inside wild beasts and to hide away in the hearts of the cattle.
The creatures we see may well embody the souls of our parents
or brothers or people to whom we’ve been bonded. (XV.456-60)

And in both cases the original Latin for “souls” is animae, or spirits, or, perhaps, animatedness.

It is tempting to pause for a moment and ask that this long, pseudo-Pythagorean treatise is doing in Book 15, and whether, perhaps, it signifies Ovid’s own allegiance to the philosophy. But as scholar E.J. Kenny notes, “It is idle to ask what Ovid ‘believed.’ He was neither a devotee nor a philosopher, but a poet who, when it suited him to do so, used the language and the ideas of religion or philosophy to lend authority to his fixed convictions.”15 In Ovid, the anima, which leaves Orpheus at the moment of his death, and which moves from organism to organism as creatures are born, mature, and die, is an ideal doctrine to underscore the general theme of his epic – transformation. Amidst the endless fireworks show of life and death, the life force of one creature moves to another creature, providing a small measure of continuity amidst a cosmos of changeless change. Pythagoras espouses reincarnation, and it’s important to remember that no passage in the Metamorphoses indicates that an anima, once it has left a physical body, travels to an afterlife. But nonetheless, later Christian readers could, and did, go back to the Metamorphoses and pinpoint what appeared to be the doctrine of the immortal soul in the pages of a pagan author. A man might change into a stag, or a woman into a nightingale; a man might change into a wolf, or a woman a watery spring, and still, it seemed, they possessed some defining kernel of their former identities, just as in Pythagorean doctrine of reincarnation.

Ovid comparant l'univers à un œuf - (Enluminure pour les « Métamorphoses » d'Ovide, Belgique, Flandre, XVe siècle)

Ovid Compares the Universe to an Egg, from a fifteenth-century manuscript from Belgium. Hundreds of years of readers tried to nail down the Christian elements of the Metamorphoses, usually without a great deal of success.

Later readers found many other things in the Metamorphoses that were consonant with Christianity, as well. Maybe the most important is something we’ve talked so much about that I can pass over it rather quickly – the ages of man tale that Ovid tells toward the beginning of Book 1. There was an idyllic golden age, then Jupiter usurped Saturn, hearkening a silver age. Then there was the grim and degenerate iron age, in which we all live, with various kinds of variations. Happy emoji. Sad emoji. Almost all of the Augustan Age poets told this story – Ovid’s most closely follows Virgil’s Georgics. Hesiod was telling this story in the 700s BCE, but by the time it made its way into the second and first centuries BCE, it had a more optimistic ending – the golden age would come again. In the Book of Daniel, from about 160 BCE, the golden age would come again through the Old Testament God raising the kingdom of Judah above all others.16 In Virgil’s Eclogues, the golden age would come again through the birth of a baby, most commonly interpreted to be the son of Mark Antony and Augustus’ sister Octavia.17 And in various Christian texts, the moment of deliverance from a sooty and debased present will come at an individual level through ascension to heaven, and on a collective level through the second coming of Christ.

The Metamorphoses also has a small population of sons of gods – Asclepius, son of Apollo; Orpheus, son of Apollo; Theseus, son of Poseidon; Romulus and Remus, sons of Mars; Pollux, son of Zeus; Hercules, son of Zeus; Perseus, son of Zeus; and most importantly, Dionysus, son of Zeus, a deity who had been forced on the Jews around the time of the Maccabean revolt in the 160s BCE. These are just a few, of course – if you removed all the demigods from Greek mythology, you would have a skeleton crew of deities on the left and mortals on the right, with no stories that brought them together in particularly compelling ways. What makes the narrative of the New Testament unique, of course, is the singularity of its god and this god’s son. Many of the early controversies in ancient Christianity, like Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and others had to do with working out the exact composition of Christ – how much of him was human, and how much divine, and how these two natures coexisted – and perhaps if one of the demigods of Greco-Roman theology had achieved such a level of singularity, we would have heard pagan philosophers debating about how much of Hercules was from Zeus, and how much was from his mother Alcmena.

The point of this quick discussion of Ovid and Christianity isn’t to propose the Metamorphoses as a central source of Christian doctrine. Book 1 of the Metamorphoses also has a creation story involving a single deity and a flood story, but we’ve heard enough ancient literature by this point to know that the Mediterranean was awash with creation and flood stories long before the Book of Genesis, let alone the Metamorphoses and the New Testament. Iudea’s location during the first century BCE meant that cultural influences there were pouring in from all directions. The point is really to say that in Ovid’s sizable crock pot of Greco-Roman myths, we see some pretty specific ingredients that would later also be a part of Christian doctrine. Early Christians noticed. The theologian Lactantius, advisor to Constantine the Great, around the year 300 CE, made careful note that in Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, a single creator deity made the earth, just as was the case in Christianity.18 By the late 700s, the Bishop of Orleans, Theodolphus wrote that while much of Ovid’s poetry was pagan superstition, within the web of the Metamorphoses there were many truths pertinent to medieval Christianity.19 Thus, picking and choosing from Ovid’s most famous poem, a small set of early Christian theologians found that sections of it were quite consonant with their religious beliefs.

However, notwithstanding the Metamorphoses’ creation and flood stories, its unfolding ages of man, and its multifarious sons of gods, early Christians never tried to convince themselves that Ovid had written a canonical piece of scripture. Scholar Mary Innes writes that by the age of Constantine,
The temper of the times was changing, and Ovid’s popularity declined. Nor was he regarded with approval in the centuries that followed, when the influence of the early Christian teachers and preachers was ascendant. . .From their point of view, Ovid’s writings, with their worldly attitude, their frank tales of the Olympians’ none too respectable behavior, and their open enjoyment of this world’s pleasures, would be calculated to do much harm, however charming they might seem.20

Early Christianity’s opposition to Ovid’s pantheon isn’t surprising. An undignified mob of gods who spend their hours variously fighting and raping one another was a tough sell to theologians preaching monotheism and the graceful wisdom of a single deity. But to return to an issue we talked about in the previous episode, perhaps what was equally unsettling about the Metamorphoses was that it did not have any particular thesis that could be latched onto, whether to be contradicted or endorsed. During the long centuries in which Catholic theologians were harvesting chapters from Aristotle and Plato in order to buttress the intellectual history of Christianity, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was an overgrown garden – full of great beauty, but frightfully overrun with pagan philosophy and disconcerting superstitions. Beyond the obvious theological disagreements the early middle ages had with Ovid – monotheism vs. polytheism, to put it simply – there was an equally unsettling problem. Ovid was not a system builder. He had little interest in the logic and syllogisms of medieval churchmen. In the words of scholar Alessandro Schiesaro, “Ovid. . . problematizes. . .the very notion of knowing, and drowns. . .fundamentalist certainties in a whirlwind of competing accounts and elusive contradictions.”21 One of Christianity’s perennial attractions has been that it offers answers to some of our most distressing questions. And Ovid, particularly in the Metamorphoses, offers questions rather than answers – a nondenominational circus that culminates, loosely, with the Julio-Claudians, but takes so many detours and back alleys on the way there that his readers remember the journey far more than the destination. The result, to early Christians, was a book whose ideological pluralism was as unnerving as its impiety. But as centuries passed, and readers and copyists began enjoying and exchanging largely secular tales of romance and adventure, the Metamorphoses, a thousand years after its birth, became one of the most popular books in Europe. [music]

Ovid in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Ovid’s growth in popularity over the course of the Middle Ages was a slow process, and is often associated with elevated standards of living and social stability in the 1100s and 1200s. The ascension of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne and Otto I led to what historians call the High Middle Ages, a period when Romanesque architecture turned to Gothic, when vernacular literatures began to join Latin, when commerce and state bureaucracies spurred urbanization, and the first European universities were established. Greco-Roman texts, which had never gone away completely, began to gain ground, and during the Crusades, Ancient Greek scientific texts, often packaged with contemporary Arabic ones, made their way into the hands of a tiny minority of readers.22 The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw technological and ideological changes sweeping the populous centers of Europe – changes which affected the lives of commoners, who could marvel at new architectural innovations and enjoy greater economic stability than their ancestors, and changes which affected the lives of artists and intellectuals like Dante Alighieri, who made full use of the texts and ideas that history had made available to them.

These centuries – the 1100s, and the 1200s, have in hindsight been called the aetas Ovidiana, or the “age of Ovid.” Classicist Franco Munari summarizes Ovid’s soaring popularity during the High Middle Ages as follows:
In this society, whose eyes turned with more and more longing to the charm and splendour of worldly things, in this society, which for the first time for many centuries gave a place of importance to women and to human love, in this society, which did not yet think seriously of shaking the principles of faith, but which despised worldly pleasure less and less, in this society Ovid, the lover and seducer, Ovid, the man of the world, who lived a life of pleasure at civilisation’s high point, Ovid, the master of poetic form, appeared in all his glory, and set out in a victory parade that can have few parallels in the history of western culture. Dawn broke on the aetas Ovidiana.23

In the 1200s and 1300s, suddenly, Ovid was everywhere in European literature – a twelfth-century French course curriculum, a thirteenth-century German translation and a Spanish epic from the same era, Old French adaptations in the late 1100s in the pages of Chrétien de Troyes, and versions of Narcissus and Pyramus and Thisbe from the same period in the same language. A thirteenth-century French poem goes so far as to list a number of Ovidian stories that any performing bard must be able to execute on command.24 This was only the tip of the iceberg. As the Metamorphoses began to blossom across the pages of High Medieval manuscripts and in the songs European inns and village greens, thirteenth and fourteenth-century Christian interpreters started revisiting key narratives in the book and finding Christian morals and messages in their pages. In a curious historical episode some time in the 1200s, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the primary reference book of Greek myths for Latin readers, was translated into Greek by a Byzantine monk called Planudes, so that eastern Mediterranean readers could also enjoy the anthology that was sweeping the European continent.25

The Knight - Ellesmere Chaucer

The Knight of the Knight’s Tale, shown in the Ellesmere Chaucer. When Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century, Europe had been devouring Latin literature, and most of all Ovid himself, for centuries.

The story of Ovid’s influence after 1100 CE is enormous, and has been the subject of numerous full length studies.26 I won’t tell the whole thing here. But in the future, as this podcast continues on to Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Ariosto, Montaigne, Cervantes, La Fontaine, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, and beyond, we will the encounter the Metamorphoses again, and again, and again. To Ovid himself, Homer, fifth century BCE Athens, and third century BCE Alexandria were the heartwood of Greek literary history. But to Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and others, Ovid himself was the portal to classical antiquity, Greek as well as Roman.

Our podcast generally uses what scholars call a historicist approach to understanding literature. In other words, we read books and then explore how historical and biographical factors may have influenced those books. It’s an old-fashioned and generally uncontroversial approach, provided that it doesn’t get too overconfident or too reductive – an approach that you might find in a Penguin or Oxford introduction, this approach that investigates how books grow out of the historical periods that produced them.

However, sometimes, with certain books – extraordinary, and unique ones – a book makes history after history makes a book. And out of everything we’ve read thus far, the Metamorphoses, due to its explosion in popularity during the High Middle Ages, made a great deal of history. A rarefied sect of polyglot philosopher scientists might have enjoyed Eratosthenes as Greek science slowly trickled into thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe. Christian theologians continued to hybridize Aristotle with Catholicism in inventive ways and correspond about the texts of Plato and Plotinus. Cicero’s writings on oratory remained a secure harbor of pagan wisdom, as they had for a thousand years, to an elite set interested in the subject. But Ovid – Ovid was something else. Ovid was the Ancient Mediterranean in full color – fun, sexy, violent, wildly immoral, hilarious, sparkling with the hues of a dozen lost civilizations, as discomfiting as he was undeniably one of the most ingenious craftsmen ever to write poetry. In an age of waltzes and sonatas, Ovid was jazz, and his book of pagan fables took over European literary history with a completeness that is hard to overemphasize.

The story of the European Renaissance – the commercial side of it, at least – often begins in 1453, with the fall of Constantinople and the opening of eastern trade routes to the Italian shipping merchants who bankrolled Michelangelo and his contemporaries. But centuries before this – in the 1200s, the 1100s – the 1000s – long before Florence under the Medicis – Ovid’s Metamorphoses was being copied, read, and performed with ever increasing frequency. In contrast to the relative singularity of medieval Catholicism, the Metamorphoses offered a shower of stories – erotic, chaotic, exotic, quixotic – so far out of step with the austere directives of European religion that readers couldn’t help but remember them, and hundreds of tales in Ovid’s most famous poem thereafter encouraged uncountable writers, and their readers, to retell, translate, and adapt narratives from the long forgotten past.

I want to end our whole three program series on the Metamorphoses in what might seem a strange place – in an essay about one of the many, many writers Ovid influenced. Miguel de Cervantes, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is often oversimplified in the Anglophone world. His great novel Don Quixote seems to operate on a silly premise – a fanciful nobleman reads too many books and loses touch with reality, his shenanigans a seriocomic cautionary tale about mistaking fiction for fact. Off goes Don Quixote, attacking windmills, mistaking an inn for a castle, and declaring a local farm girl a princess of superhuman beauty. What a fun lot of stories, many of us think, about a capricious Spanish knight. Only, the nearly thousand pages of Don Quixote are hardly that simple. William Faulkner said that he reread the novel every year.27 Fyodor Doestoevsky famously called Don Quixote “the final and the greatest expression of human thought, the most bitter irony that a human is capable of expressing.”28 These are not things that one would expect to hear in regards to a whimsical novel about a quirky early modern Spaniard.

Scholar Roberto González Echevarría, in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Don Quixote, wastes no time in describing the novel’s central significance, and I think that what he says of Don Quixote can also be said of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Echevarría writes,
Miguel de Cervantes Saaverda’s masterpiece has endured because it focuses on literature’s foremost appeal: to become another, to leave a typically embattled self for another closer to one’s desires and aspirations. This is why Don Quixote has often been read as a children’s book and continues to be read by or to children. Experience and life’s blows teach us our limits and erode the hope of living up to our dreams, but our hope never vanishes. It is the soul’s pith, the flickering light, the spiritual counterpart to our DNA’s master code.29

In the dozens of adventures of Don Quixote, in the hundreds of tales of Ovid, transformations are constant. Cervantes’ nobleman becomes a knight, and then, in his restless and beautiful mind, he becomes a hero again, and again, in episode after episode. Ovid’s protagonists begin as one thing, and their desires change, and their stories change, and the book itself constantly turns from narrative to narrative and place to place, a marvelous pageant that never lets up. These two books – Don Quixote and the Metamorphoses – teach us that although our social identity might be static, and although we may be housed in the same physical bodies, year after year, in our dreams and our imaginations we are utterly free, and books take us into a world of perpetual change beyond the mundane confines of ourselves and the world around us. Ovid chose transformation as the theme of his masterwork because indeed physical transformations litter the mythology of Greece and Rome. But he also chose transformation because transformation is at the heart of what literature is – a thing that moves us into other selves, and other worlds, if only for a little while. [music]

Moving on to the Exilic Poetry of Ovid

Well, everybody, we have been deep within the heartwood of Roman literature for a long time, and we’re about to leave the Augustan Age and move into the literature produced under Rome’s first three imperial dynasties – the Julio Claudians, who ruled from 27 BCE until 68 CE, the Flavians, who ruled from 69-96, and the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, on the throne from 96-192. As I record this I’ve already finished writing all of the rest of this long season, and I can tell you that some really fascinating writers lie ahead – Seneca, Petronius, Statius, Juvenal, Apuleius, Marcus Aurelius, and miscellaneous others that I’ve been able to fold into the story. But we still have one last program on the Augustan Age, and that is Episode 64: Ovid’s Exile.

In 8 CE, Ovid was sent overseas to the shore of the Black Sea – specifically, the east coast of modern day Romania, to a settlement called Tomis. It was an especially harsh exile, as far as exiles go – Cicero had once wept about being sent to the balmy northern Aegean, and Seneca would later whimper about an exile in Corsica – but Ovid’s exile was permanent, and to the very fringes of the Roman world. While in faraway Tomis, if we believe the texts that he wrote while there, Ovid spent his days in misery. Ovid continued to write – he wrote poetry in which he tried to cope with his crushing homesickness, and letters urging friends and family to help him win back Augustus’ good graces. Alhough he wrote copiously, he remained partly cryptic on the reason for his exile, and in the next program, we’re going to explore the mystery of the poet’s final years abroad.

As with last time, I have some extra material for you if you want it – there are now three quizzes and sixty questions on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – you can see if you remember your Caeneuses, your Ceÿxs, Polyxenas and Glaucuses. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve put up some Ovid-related Renaissance poems that show the gamut of influence Ovidian love poetry had in the Early Modern period – these include Sidney’s Sonnet 31, or “With how sad steps, O Moon,” Sidney’s Sonnet 71, “Who will in fairest book of nature know,” and then way on the other side of the spectrum, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which is possibly the most famous poem in the English language – always a fun one to teach to freshmen, since in it, they learn that people have pretty much always liked flirting, hooking up, and talking dirty. I also have a song coming up if you want to hear it – and if not, see you very soon.

Still listening? So, in spite of the often gloomy nature of Ovid’s stories in the Metamorphoses, his pre-exilic poetry almost always leaves one with a sense of joy and levity. So I thought a fun, happy, short barbershop ditty would be an appropriate way to close off this rather long episode. Now, importantly, the end of this tune features a musical instrument you may have never heard before – one called a “nose flute.” A nose flute is a novelty instrument powered by exhaling through one’s nostrils. You can get a set of twelve nose flutes for nine bucks online – and let me tell you, it’s pretty hard not to be in a good mood while playing a nose flute, although if you want to upgrade to a “professional” nose flute, one of those will set you back eleven bucks. Because – um – surely there are many professional nose flautists who look down their noses at cheaper instruments. Right. Can’t believe I’m talking to so many intelligent people about nose flutes right now, but let’s be honest – stranger things have happened on this podcast. This one’s called “Ovid Barbershop.”

[“Ovid Barbershop” Song]


1.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn and with an Introduction by Denis Feeney. Penguin Classics, 2004.

2.^ Feeney, Denis. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 372.

3.^ The claim ingratiates Agamemnon partly because Odysseus officially declares his own culpability in the murder, partly clearing the Greek king of blame.

4.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn and with an Introduction by Denis Feeney. Penguin Classics, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 8300.

5.^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated and with an Introduction by Mary Innes. Penguin Classics, 1955, p. 357.

6.^ See also Horace Odes iii.30.6-9 and Virgil Aen ix.446-9.

7.^ E.J. Kenney, The Cambridge History of Classical Literature II: Latin Literature. Ed. E.J. Kenney and W.V. Clausen (Cambridge, 1982), p. 441.

8.^ My chronology comes from Ovid. Heroides. Translated with Introductions and Notes by Harold Isbell. Penguin Books, 1990, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

9.^ The saying, Denis Feeney notes, was attributed to Heraclitus in antiquity. See Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by David Raeburn and with an Introduction by Denis Feeney. Penguin Classics, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 10558.

10.^ See Feeney (2004), Location 10637.

11.^ Ibid, Locations 479-84.

12.^ Rimell, Victoria. Ovid’s Lovers: Desire, Difference and the Poetic Imagination. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 65.

13.^ Anonymous. Beowulf: The Fight at Finnsburh. Translated by Kevin Crossley Holland. Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 93.

14.^ As the Sumerians did – their goddess Nanshe, the deity of divination, controlled the realm beyond the sea, where the dead went and from where life came.

15.^ Kenney, E.J. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford University Press, 1986, p. xvii.

16.^ Dan 2:31-5.

17.^ Sometimes the baby is thought to be the son of Virgil’s patron Asinius Pollio.

18.^ See Innes, Mary. “Introduction.” In Ovid. Metamorphoses. Penguin Books, 1955, p. 19.

19.^ Ibid, p. 19.

20.^ Ibid, p. 18.

21.^ Schiesaro, Alessandro. “Ovid and the professional discources of scholarship, religion, rhetoric.” Printed in Hardie, Philip, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 63.

22.^ Charles Haskins’ Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) is still a great volume on this period.

23.^ Quoted in Grocock, C.W. “Ovid the Crusader.” Printed in Martindale, Charles. Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 57.

24.^ See Innes (1955), pp. 19-20.

25.^ Ibid, p. 21.

26.^ A standard modern reference is Miller, John F. and Newlands, Carole E. A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

27.^ Meriwether, James B. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. University of Nebraska Press, 1980, p. 251.

28.^ Quoted in Justman, Stewart. Literature and Human Equality. Northwestern University Press, 2006, p. 114.

29.^ Echevarría, Roberto González. “Introduction.” Printed in Cervantes. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Penguin Books, 2000, p. vii.