By Rolfe Humphries
Indiana University Press Copyright © 1983 Winifred Davies
All rights reserved.
My intention is to tell of bodies changed To different forms; the gods, who made the changes, Will help me—or I hope so—with a poem That runs from the world's beginning to our own days.
Before the ocean was, or earth, or heaven, Nature was all alike, a shapelessness, Chaos, so-called, all rude and lumpy matter, Nothing but bulk, inert, in whose confusion Discordant atoms warred: there was no sun To light the universe; there was no moon With slender silver crescents filling slowly; No earth hung balanced in surrounding air; No sea reached far along the fringe of shore. Land, to be sure, there was, and air, and ocean, But land on which no man could stand, and water No man could swim in, air no man could breathe, Air without light, substance forever changing, Forever at war: within a single body Heat fought with cold, wet fought with dry, the hard Fought with the soft, things having weight contended With weightless things.
Till God, or kindlier Nature, Settled all argument, and separated Heaven from earth, water from land, our air From the high stratosphere, a liberation So things evolved, and out of blind confusion Found each its place, bound in eternal order. The force of fire, that weightless element, Leaped up and claimed the highest place in heaven; Below it, air; and under them the earth Sank with its grosser portions; and the water, Lowest of all, held up, held in, the land.
Whatever god it was, who out of chaos Brought order to the universe, and gave it Division, subdivision, he molded earth, In the beginning, into a great globe, Even on every side, and bade the waters To spread and rise, under the rushing winds, Surrounding earth; he added ponds and marshes, He banked the river-channels, and the waters Feed earth or run to sea, and that great flood Washes on shores, not banks. He made the plains Spread wide, the valleys settle, and the forest Be dressed in leaves; he made the rocky mountains Rise to full height, and as the vault of Heaven Has two zones, left and right, and one between them Hotter than these, the Lord of all Creation Marked on the earth the same design and pattern. The torrid zone too hot for men to live in, The north and south too cold, but in the middle Varying climate, temperature and season.
Above all things the air, lighter than earth, Lighter than water, heavier than fire, Towers and spreads; there mist and cloud assemble, And fearful thunder and lightning and cold winds, But these, by the Creator's order, held No general dominion; even as it is, These brothers brawl and quarrel; though each one Has his own quarter, still, they come near tearing The universe apart. Eurus is monarch Of the lands of dawn, the realms of Arahy, The Persian ridges under the rays of morning. Zephyrus holds the west that glows at sunset, Boreas, who makes men shiver, holds the north, Warm Auster governs in the misty southland, And over them all presides the weightless ether, Pure without taint of earth.
These boundaries given, Behold, the stars, long hidden under darkness, Broke through and shone, all over the spangled heaven, Their home forever, and the gods lived there, And shining fish were given the waves for dwelling And beasts the earth, and birds the moving air.
But something else was needed, a finer being, More capable of mind, a sage, a ruler, So Man was born, it may be, in God's image, Or Earth, perhaps, so newly separated From the old fire of Heaven, still retained Some seed of the celestial force which fashioned Gods out of living clay and running water. All other animals look downward; Man, Alone, erect, can raise his face toward Heaven.
The Four Ages
The Golden Age was first, a time that cherished Of its own will, justice and right; no law. No punishment, was called for; fearfulness Was quite unknown, and the bronze tablets held No legal threatening; no suppliant throng Studied a judge's face; there were no judges, There did not need to be. Trees had not yet Been cut and hollowed, to visit other shores. Men were content at home, and had no towns With moats and walls around them; and no trumpets Blared out alarums; things like swords and helmets Had not been heard of. No one needed soldiers. People were unaggressive, and unanxious; The years went by in peace. And Earth, untroubled, Unharried by hoe or plowshare, brought forth all That men had need for, and those men were happy, Gathering berries from the mountain sides, Cherries, or blackcaps, and the edible acorns. Spring was forever, with a west wind blowing Softly across the flowers no man had planted, And Earth, unplowed, brought forth rich grain; the field, Unfallowed, whitened with wheat, and there were rivers Of milk, and rivers of honey, and golden nectar Dripped from the dark-green oak-trees.
After Saturn Was driven to the shadowy land of death, And the world was under Jove, the Age of Silver Came in, lower than gold, better than bronze. Jove made the springtime shorter, added winter, Summer, and autumn, the seasons as we know them. That was the first time when the burnt air glowed White-hot, or icicles hung down in winter. And men built houses for themselves; the caverns, The woodland thickets, and the bark-bound shelters No longer served; and the seeds of grain were planted In the long furrows, and the oxen struggled Groaning and laboring under the heavy yoke.
Then came the Age of Bronze, and dispositions Took on aggressive instincts, quick to arm, Yet not entirely evil. And last of all The Iron Age succeeded, whose base vein Let loose all evil: modesty and truth And righteousness fled earth, and in their place Came trickery and slyness, plotting, swindling, Violence and the damned desire of having. Men spread their sails to winds unknown to sailors, The pines came down their mountain-sides, to revel And leap in the deep waters, and the ground, Free, once, to everyone, like air and sunshine, Was stepped off by surveyors. The rich earth, Good giver of all the bounty of the harvest, Was asked for more; they dug into her vitals, Pried out the wealth a kinder lord had hidden In Stygian shadow, all that precious metal, The root of evil. They found the guilt of iron, And gold, more guilty still. And War came forth That uses both to fight with; bloody hands Brandished the clashing weapons. Men lived on plunder. Guest was not safe from host, nor brother from brother, A man would kill his wife, a wife her husband, Stepmothers, dire and dreadful, stirred their brews With poisonous aconite, and sons would hustle Fathers to death, and Piety lay vanquished, And the maiden Justice, last of all immortals, Fled from the bloody earth.
Heaven was no safer. Giants attacked the very throne of Heaven, Piled Pelion on Ossa, mountain on mountain Up to the very stars. Jove struck them down With thunderbolts, and the bulk of those huge bodies Lay on the earth, and bled, and Mother Earth, Made pregnant by that blood, brought forth new bodies, And gave them, to recall her older offspring, The forms of men. And this new stock was also Contemptuous of gods, and murder-hungry And violent. You would know they were sons of blood.
And Jove was witness from his lofty throne Of all this evil, and groaned as he remembered The wicked revels of Lycaon's table, The latest guilt, a story still unknown To the high gods. In awful indignation He summoned them to council. No one dawdled. Easily seen when the night skies are clear, The Milky Way shines white. Along this road The gods move toward the palace of the Thunderer, His royal halls, and, right and left, the dwellings Of other gods are open, and guests come thronging. The lesser gods live in a meaner section, An area not reserved, as this one is, For the illustrious Great Wheels of Heaven. (Their Palatine Hill, if I might call it so.)
They took their places in the marble chamber Where high above them all their king was seated, Holding his ivory sceptre, shaking out Thrice, and again, his awful locks, the sign That made the earth and stars and ocean tremble, And then he spoke, in outrage: "I was troubled Less for the sovereignty of all the world In that old time when the snake-footed giants Laid each his hundred hands on captive Heaven. Monstrous they were, and hostile, but their warfare Sprung from one source, one body. Now, wherever The sea-gods roar around the earth, a race Must be destroyed, the race of men. I swear it! I swear by all the Stygian rivers gliding Under the world, I have tried all other measures. The knife must cut the cancer out, infection Averted while it can be, from our numbers. Those demigods, those rustic presences, Nymphs, fauns, and satyrs, wood and mountain dwellers, We have not yet honored with a place in Heaven, But they should have some decent place to dwell in, In peace and safety. Safety? Do you reckon They will be safe, when I, who wield the thunder, Who rule you all as subjects, am subjected To the plottings of the barbarous Lycaon?"
They burned, they trembled. Who was this Lycaon, Guilty of such rank infamy? They shuddered In horror, with a fear of sudden ruin, As the whole world did later, when assassins Struck Julius Caesar down, and Prince Augustus Found satisfaction in the great devotion That cried for vengeance, even as Jove took pleasure, Then, in the gods' response. By word and gesture He calmed them down, awed them again to silence, And spoke once more:
The Story of Lycaon
"He has indeed been punished. On that score have no worry. But what he did, And how he paid, are things that I must tell you. I had heard the age was desperately wicked, I had heard, or so I hoped, a lie, a falsehood, So I came down, as man, from high Olympus, Wandered about the world. It would take too long To tell you how widespread was all that evil. All I had heard was grievous understatement! I had crossed Maenala, a country bristling With dens of animals, and crossed Cyllene, And cold Lycaeus' pine woods. Then I came At evening, with the shadows growing longer, To an Arcadian palace, where the tyrant Was anything but royal in his welcome. I gave a sign that a god had come, and people Began to worship, and Lycaon mocked them, Laughed at their prayers, and said: 'Watch me find out Whether this fellow is a god or mortal, I can tell quickly, and no doubt about it.' He planned, that night, to kill me while I slumbered; That was his way to test the truth. Moreover, And not content with that, he took a hostage, One sent by the Molossians, cut his throat, Boiled pieces of his flesh, still warm with life, Broiled others, and set them before me on the table. That was enough. I struck, and the bolt of lightning Blasted the household of that guilty monarch. He fled in terror, reached the silent fields, And howled, and tried to speak. No use at all! Foam dripped from his mouth; bloodthirsty still, he turned Against the sheep, delighting still in slaughter, And his arms were legs, and his robes were shaggy hair, Yet he is still Lycaon, the same gray ness, The same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture Of bestial savagery. One house has fallen, But more than one deserves to. Fury reigns Over all the fields of Earth. They are sworn to evil, Believe it. Let them pay for it, and quickly! So stands my purpose."
Part of them approved With words and added fuel to his anger, And part approved with silence, and yet all Were grieving at the loss of humankind, Were asking what the world would be, bereft Of mortals: who would bring their altars incense? Would earth be given the beasts, to spoil and ravage? Jove told them not to worry; he would give them Another race, unlike the first, created Out of a miracle; he would see to it.
He was about to hurl his thunderbolts At the whole world, but halted, fearing Heaven Would burn from fire so vast, and pole to pole Break out in flame and smoke, and he remembered The fates had said that some day land and ocean, The vault of Heaven, the whole world's mighty fortress, Besieged by fire, would perish. He put aside The bolts made in Cyclopean workshops; better, He thought, to drown the world by flooding water.
So, in the cave of Aeolus, he prisoned The North-wind, and the West-wind, and such others As ever banish cloud, and he turned loose The South-wind, and the South-wind came out streaming With dripping wings, and pitch-black darkness veiling His terrible countenance. His beard is heavy With rain-cloud, and his hoary locks a torrent, Mists are his chaplet, and his wings and garments Run with the rain. His broad hands squeeze together Low-hanging clouds, and crash and rumble follow Before the cloudburst, and the rainbow, Iris, Draws water from the teeming earth, and feeds it Into the clouds again. The crops are ruined, The farmers' prayers all wasted, all the labor Of a long year, comes to nothing.
And Jove's anger, Unbounded by his own domain, was given Help by his dark-blue brother. Neptune called His rivers all, and told them, very briefly, To loose their violence, open their houses, Pour over embankments, let the river horses Run wild as ever they would. And they obeyed him. His trident struck the shuddering earth; it opened Way for the rush of waters. The leaping rivers Flood over the great plains. Not only orchards Are swept away, not only grain and cattle, Not only men and houses, but altars, temples, And shrines with holy fires. If any building Stands firm, the waves keep rising over its roof-top, Its towers are under water, and land and ocean Are all alike, and everything is ocean, An ocean with no shore-line.
Some poor fellow Seizes a hill-top; another, in a dinghy, Rows where he used to plough, and one goes sailing Over his fields of grain or over the chimney Of what was once his cottage. Someone catches Fish in the top of an elm-tree, or an anchor Drags in green meadow-land, or the curved keel brushes Grape-arbors under water. Ugly sea-cows Float where the slender she-goats used to nibble The tender grass, and the Nereids come swimming With curious wonder, looking, under water, At houses, cities, parks, and groves. The dolphins Invade the woods and brush against the oak-trees; The wolf swims with the lamb; lion and tiger Are borne along together; the wild boar Finds all his strength is useless, and the deer Cannot outspeed that torrent; wandering birds Look long, in vain, for landing-place, and tumble, Exhausted, into the sea. The deep's great license Has buried all the hills, and new waves thunder Against the mountain-tops. The flood has taken All things, or nearly all, and those whom water, By chance, has spared, starvation slowly conquers.
Deucalion and Pyrrha
Phocis, a fertile land, while there was land, Marked off Oetean from Boeotian fields. It was ocean now, a plain of sudden waters. There Mount Parnassus lifts its twin peaks skyward, High, steep, cloud-piercing. And Deucalion came there Rowing his wife. There was no other land, The sea had drowned it all. And here they worshipped First the Corycian nymphs and native powers, Then Themis, oracle and fate-revealer. There was no better man than this Deucalion, No one more fond of right; there was no woman More scrupulously reverent than Pyrrha. So, when Jove saw the world was one great ocean, Only one woman left of all those thousands, And only one man left of all those thousands, Both innocent and worshipful, he parted The clouds, turned loose the North-wind, swept them off, Showed earth to heaven again, and sky to land, And the sea's anger dwindled, and King Neptune Put down his trident, calmed the waves, and Triton, Summoned from far down under, with his shoulders Barnacle-strewn, loomed up above the waters, The blue-green sea-god, whose resounding horn Is heard from shore to shore. Wet-bearded, Triton Set lip to that great shell, as Neptune ordered, Sounding retreat, and all the lands and waters Heard and obeyed. The sea has shores; the rivers, Still running high, have channels; the floods dwindle, Hill-tops are seen again; the trees, long buried, Rise with their leaves still muddy. The world returns.
Deucalion saw that world, all desolation, All emptiness, all silence, and his tears Rose as he spoke to Pyrrha: "O my wife, The only woman, now, on all this earth, My consort and my cousin and my partner In these immediate dangers, look! Of all the lands To East or West, we two, we two alone, Are all the population. Ocean holds Everything else; our foothold, our assurance, Are small as they can be, the clouds still frightful. Poor woman—well, we are not all alone— Suppose you had been, how would you bear your fear? Who would console your grief? My wife, believe me, Had the sea taken you, I would have followed. If only I had the power, I would restore The nations as my father did, bring clay To life with breathing. As it is, we two Are all the human race, so Heaven has willed it, Samples of men, mere specimens."
They wept, And prayed together, and having wept and prayed, Resolved to make petition to the goddess To seek her aid through oracles. Together They went to the river-water, the stream Cephisus, Still far from clear, but flowing down its channel, And they took river-water, sprinkled foreheads, Sprinkled their garments, and they turned their steps To the temple of the goddess, where the altars Stood with the fires gone dead, and ugly moss Stained pediment and column. At the stairs They both fell prone, kissed the chill stone in prayer: "If the gods' anger ever listens To righteous prayers, O Themis, we implore you, Tell us by what device our wreck and ruin May be repaired. Bring aid, most gentle goddess, To sunken circumstance." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Ovid Metamorphoses by Rolfe Humphries. Copyright © 1983 Winifred Davies. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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