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From the Trade Paperback edition.
2. What was the first poetic handbook of Greek mythology?
Ovid's Metamorphoses, completed c. AD 8, one of the most influential books of all time
Just before his banishment to frigid, semibarbarous Tomis on the Black Sea coast by Caesar Augustus in AD 8 for an offense that may have involved the emperor's slutty granddaughter Julia as well as a sexy earlier work--a tongue-in-cheek seduction manual called The Art of Love--the Roman poet Ovid completed his Metamorphoses, a Latin poem of nearly twelve thousand hexameter lines. This treasure trove of Greek myths is thematically unified by the miraculous transformation of humans into beasts, birds, trees, plants, rocks, bodies of water, and even heavenly bodies.
Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC-AD 17/18) set out to write a different kind of epic from the martial sagas of Homer and Virgil. His aim was to collect the most important Greek myths into a single narrative with the leitmotif that all is constant flux in the universe. The artistic problem was to keep the momentum going over a sprawling and varied terrain, which Ovid solved by weaving myths into other myths and quoting speakers who quote other speakers in a kaleidoscopic orgy of narration that never degenerates into a shaggy-dog story.
Ovid recounts about fifty myths in detail, such as that of Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection in a pool while ignoring the proffered love of Echo (who pines away until only her voice remains), and the tales of the famous lovers Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis, and Orpheus and Eurydice. The myth of Daphne, changed into a laurel tree to save her from rape by Phoebus Apollo, inspired one of Bernini's marble masterpieces, besides countless literary retellings. In some pruriently macabre lines from the tale, Ovid dramatizes the frustrated erotic desire of Apollo, the original tree hugger:
But Phoebus loves her even as a tree--placing his hand
on the trunk, he feels a heartbeat beneath the bark,
and taking the branches in his arms, as if they were human limbs,
he kisses the tree, but the tree rejects his kisses.
An immensely popular school text for teaching Latin and the myths at the heart of Western culture, the Metamorphoses became the secular bible of artists like Dante, Chaucer, Titian, Shakespeare, John Milton, and Ezra Pound. The 1567 translation of the poem into heptameter couplets by Arthur Golding, often referred to as "Shakespeare's Ovid," inspired the Bard's narrative poem Venus and Adonis, as well as the farcical playlet enacted by Peter Quince and his "rude mechanicals"--The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby--that provides A Midsummer Night's Dream with some uproarious humor. More recent manifestations of the book's perpetual appeal are the partial translation by Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997), and the dramatic adaptation, Metamorphoses, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, through which Ovid made a big splash on Broadway in 2002 in a ninety-minute play staged around and in a large pool of water.
As far back as c. 700 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod had assembled myths on the genealogy of the gods in his Theogony. Ovid took his cue, however, from the Alexandrian Greek scholar-poet Callimachus (third century BC) who, in a long poem now almost entirely lost, the Aetia (Causes or Origins), explained certain cultural practices of his day by searching Greek history and legend for their ultimate explanations.
Ovid's more ambitious aim was to collect all the most noteworthy Greek myths and a number of Roman ones into a single narrative proceeding from the creation of the world to the transformation of the deified Julius Caesar into a star. In this poetic world, humans were often mere playthings of the gods. Did the hunter Actaeon, for example, do anything wrong when he stumbled on the goddess Diana stark naked in her bath deep in the woods? If not, why did she change him into a stag so that his own hounds would rip him apart?
The worldly-wise poet's main concern wasn't theological, however, since he believed in none of the old divinities, but psychological. He wanted to delineate the myriad ways that passion can lead to self-destructive behavior. Not all passion in Ovid is sexual. There is the fatal passion of the young Phaethon to drive the heavenly chariot of his father, Apollo the sun god. In a similar tale, the boy Icarus forgets his father Daedalus's instructions about how to fly safely with wings of feathers and wax, plummeting into the sea after soaring too close to the sun. The tender tale of the hospitable old married couple, Philemon and Baucis, whose passion was to die at the same moment, ends with their being changed by the gods into an oak and a linden tree growing from a double trunk.
Another major theme of Ovid's book is that of hubris punished when mortals or lesser divinities offend the Olympian gods by daring to compete with them. Consider the sorry case of Marsyas, the satyr who thinks his piping sounds much better than Apollo's, thereby earning the punishment of being flayed alive--the subject of a gruesome canvas by Titian. Then there's Arachne, who boasts that she can weave better than Athena, the goddess of handicrafts. When Athena examines the girl's awesome work, she boxes her ears in a fit of envious rage, driving the desperate young woman to hang herself. In a questionable gesture of pity, Athena changes Arachne into a spider--the first arachnid ever and still a world-class weaver. Queen Niobe can't understand why her people worship the goddess Latona, mother of only Apollo and Diana, whereas she herself is the mother of seven handsome sons and as many lovely daughters. The reward for her presumption is to see her entire brood shot to death by the arrows of the divine siblings and to suffer transformation into a woman-shaped rock that still exudes moisture as if weeping tears of grief.
Though most of the love stories in the Metamorphoses feature heterosexuals, Ovid clearly relished those dealing with alternative lifestyles, such as the strange tale of Tiresias, who starts out a man, is changed into a sexually active woman for seven years, is changed back into a man--and vouches that sex is more enjoyable for women. Iphis, a girl who grows up as a boy, is transformed into a man so that she can marry the woman she loves. Caenis, raped by Neptune, begs to be changed into a man and becomes the warrior Caeneus. We also find in Ovid's poem the original hermaphrodite (Hermaphroditus, who is joined, literally, with the water nymph Salmacis); incest (Byblis falls in love with her brother, Myrrha with her father); pederasty (Jupiter's love for Ganymede, Apollo's for Hyacinthus); fetishism (the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with his beautiful statue); and even bestiality (centaurs attempt to rape women; Queen Pasiphae mates with a bull and gives birth to the monstrous Minotaur). With heady cocktails like these served up via the vivid storytelling that characterizes the poem, is it any wonder the Metamorphoses has been read avidly (and sometimes surreptitiously) for the past two thousand years?
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Posted March 14, 2010
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