Ovid Background and Themes
The reading for this module was from Ovid (43 to 17 CE). Again these are my notes from the lectures by Peter Struck of Penn University.
Due to time constraints we read very little of this book. Ovid, Metamorphoses, books 3, 12, and 13. Although we only covered three books each book contains several individual stories or chapters. Book three has six stories with a seventh embedded into the sixth. Book twelve has stories about the Trojan War. Book thirteen is the longest book in Metamorphoses and has a wide variety of stories in many genres.
From Virgil’s stately, grand long form poetry we move to the poetry of Ovid, which is more playful, intimate and prone to digression. It is episodic in nature. Ovid can’t quite keep his focus on any specific thing, he likes to move from one piece of the story to a totally different story then back to the story he was telling.
In Ovid’s work we see people caught in internal conflicts where they are torn between two courses of action, usually, passion on the one hand and duty on the other hand. In Virgil duty is supposed to win but in Ovid passion almost always wins over duty. There are lots of small details with people on the side-lines focused on as some monumental historical thing happens in front of them. He zooms in to people who are main characters in the action, but a lot of the time he spends on the periphery of things. There are hints of a philosophical outlook of a world based on change.
Ovid was from a prosperous family. He had the best education of the time which meant a training in the verbal arts. Ovid was being trained to be a great lawyer. At some point he announced to his parents that he wanted to be a poet. In those days there was still money and fame to be gained in poetry. The normal course of events would have been to use that education in the verbal arts and become a wealthy senator a provincial governor. Ovid had other plans. He was indisputably the greatest poet of his day, in the generation after Virgil. The Ancients had interestingly mixed feeling about him. He was clearly a genius, no one thought otherwise. We have this wonderful preserved quotation from Quintilian, a literary critic who on reading Ovid said
“he could have been better if he had controlled his genius rather than letting it control him”.
Ovid allowed his talent let get the better of him and take him off in directions that were maybe not be exactly what one should do with epic poetry. He got himself into trouble with the authorities, we’re not exactly sure how. Augustus was angry with Ovid and that resulted in Ovid being banished. He went away for some unknown error. He was born in Sulmo close to Rome and then he went over to the Black Sea and lived in Tomis. He was a very sophisticated even vain person and he was living out there in the sticks at a time when the greatest city of all time was just waiting for his talents. But because of this error he had to live his life out there in exile. You can see from this map just how far he was from Rome where everything was happening.
Walter Burkhardt, a scholar of Greek Myth, defined Myth as a traditional tale with secondary partial reference to something of collective importance told by someone for some reason. With Ovid, we get a different definition, Ovid thinks of myth as a clump of stories, probably untrue, about ancient characters that may or may not have actually existed with some deeper truths in them or not, but they’re fun to hear. Ovid’s definition of myth is a little like today’s. Ovid jumps into the pool of myths and tells and retells just about everything. His Metamorphoses stands in a unique position. Ovid tries to give a synoptic view of mythology from beginning to end, looking at the whole thing all the way back to Roman times.
His idea or his take on any particular myth is usually the one that wins out over time. Myths retold whether on Wikipedia or an Edith Hamilton or any of the standard contemporary resources that people use to learn about Greek myth, a myth being retold is usually Ovid’s version. He became so authoritative because of his encyclopedic nature and his incredibly playful spirit and wonderful skill and virtuosity in his poetic technique. Ovid sews together traditions with a coherent group of old tales. Coherent so far as it all holds together but Ovid jumps about, he can’t follow a straight line for the life of him, he’s bored by that. This sewing together of all these traditions presents something slightly different than zeroing in on specific episodes within the mythic tradition. We to see something more than just myths, we see mythology as a study in and of itself.
The primary theme is that of change and transformation. The Spartoi that grow up out of the ground is the sort of thing Ovid loves to talk about. A dragon is slayed, its teeth are pulled out and tossed into the ground. From those seed teeth grow plants that turn into human heroes. The line between human and animal is an important one. The tale of Agave mistaking her son for a sacrificial animal and cutting off his head is an illustration. This line between humans and animals is one of the pivotal moments of transformation and change that Ovid is interested in. When that line gets crossed, strange things happen. Ovid is not just an elegant and playful storyteller, the materials that he deals with are deadly serious and usually someone dies. There is a lot of violence in those stories.
Theme two is illicit love and passion. Love is sometimes a euphemism for rape. The idea of rape in Ovid’s tale is presented in a titillating way or an exciting transgression, they are violent outcomes. The results of these transgressions are exhibited. For example a human turns into a flower and that seems like a charming story. In other cases we see a rape that results in a human woman turning into an animal. In both cases violence is near the surface. Don’t be lulled into a sense of the charm of these stories as violence is occurring when we see
these scenes of elicit erotic passion turning into rapes.
Another theme is a strong sense of links between the divine and the human world. There are dangers as well, when these linkages happen. We see when the human and divine worlds get close as when Diana is spotted. If you’re a human being and you spot a goddess bad things happen. When the ‘humans and divine’ dividing line is crossed or comes close, danger is waiting and we see it visited on those that come too close to the divine world. Ovid is maybe a little bit like Prometheus, he steals fire from the gods and he gets punishment.
A final theme is that of bodies. Ovid is very interested in the physical, corporeal nature of human beings. We see their fragility, their changeability. We see them as all the things that the wider natural world sees them. For example, when predatory animals look at humans they don’t think ‘oh, look at that nice human being, I might like to get to know them’. Instead we look a little bit more like dinner. Ovid doesn’t hide the fact that humans are flesh and that flesh is fragile.
The heroic epics of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid focus on the first word, on a pivotal important theme of what the epic is all about. For the Iliad, it was a war rage, for the Odyssey the opening word is man, for the Aeneid, it’s the arms and a man. For Ovid, he slightly bends the traditional formulation. He uses a prepositional phrase to begin his epic not a concrete noun.
Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me now to recite.
That’s the beginning of what the epic is all about. Translations vary, but the typical one that is latched onto is looking at its first worthy idea of forms changed into new and different bodies. He looks at changing things in and of themselves, as they change.
‘Metamorphoses’ focuses on moments of destruction. Change happens but these moments of change are not gentle but violent; there’s always pain and suffering of individuals. Any individual change that’s talked about could be punishment or could be a form of justice. More often it’s a random visitation on someone that just happens to step into some situation that was precarious and before you know it they’re changed into something else. The judgement that’s visited on them may or may not be deserved. It is not a world that is ruled by some overarching theme of justice. What we see then in Metamorphoses are bodies that are victims, they are wounded, they’re dismembered, they’re dissolved, they’re turned into a thing instead of a human being. Stories that we’ve already seen, like Actaeon and Pentheus when Ovid focuses on these, he talks about these traditional tales of humans getting ripped up, they’re dismembered. In the case of Narcissius Ovid’s version of it puts different spins on it. We see a body that just wastes away, just disappears not like other stories where he was change into animals or plants or animals. Change is always accompanied by some destructive possibility.
In trying to understand this focus that Ovid has on bodies some people have pointed to the historical climate of his time. In the same way that Virgil has one foot back in an earlier age and then also looks forward to this imperial age, Ovid is dealing fully with an imperial age, and it’s an age of high spectacle. The Coliseum is up and running. Human bodies were put on display and ripped up before the crowd by other animals. They saw the porous fragile nature of human bodies exhibited in the form of entertainment. Ovid puts us inside that world and it may well be that his approach to it is influenced by certain carelessness to the human form that is exhibited in the world around him, in the high empire of Rome.
In the first section of reading from Ovid, we return to Thebes. We saw both Oedipus and Pentheus around the site of Thebes. Ovid spends some time in Thebes too. It’s a place where things fall off, and go a bit wrong. Agave makes a mistake thinking her son is an animal. Themes of transformation are hugely important for Ovid and that change is typically violent. He assumes that you already know everything he’s talking about, so he drops things in at a fairly high level because he’s writing for a
highly literate audience. You need to imagine that you already know a lot of the background and you’d be annoyed if someone tried filling you in on them. Ovid does his own retelling of tales.
Cadmus has his engagement he finds this dragon in his way, kills it and takes its teeth and tosses them into the ground. Ovid spends a lot of time on the slaying of the serpent, he likes gory violence. He gives lavish treatment to the serpent getting cut down, and then the magic, the excitement of the transition when the plants all of a sudden become humans and start to move and engage. From that background, he focuses on Actaeon and Semele. There is the story of Teiresias. He talks about Narcissus and Pentheus, all the main themes in these different families centred in Cadmus and around Thebes.
Actaeon gets a glimpse of Diana. The scene is very intimate, it’s a close up detail in the life of the goddess Diana. She’s in the stream bathing it’s something that we ought not to see. In his presentation of the scene Ovid’s allowing us to be like Pentheus and catch this special furtive glance at a goddess. He’s inviting us to commit the same crime that Actaeon does. When Diana reacts to what’s happening, she is embarrassed, she blushes. A goddess that blushes is itself embarrassing. At that point all hell breaks loose. Actaeon is turned into a stag, he his hunted down and killed by his own dogs.
In part of Semele’s story, Juno is trying to make her doubt that it was really Zeus that came to her. That seed of doubt is Semele’s undoing. She then insists that Zeus should show himself to her and does this in such a way that Zeus can’t deny it. When she gets the full view of Zeus, she gets immolated and she’s destroyed. Just as in the case of Actaeon and Diana
the line between human and divine is psychologized. In the case of Actaeon, the reaction of Diana is embarrassment, in the case of Juno, it’s doubt and jealousy. There’s a psychological, emotional reading of what happens when human and divine come together.
We hear about Teiresias’ long story mostly so that we can hear the tale of Narcissus. Teiresias knows all kinds of things because he has, uniquely, been able to experience sex as both a man and a woman. Because of this experiential dimension he now has all knowledge. Juno is jealous, and she blinds him. Just as she does when she takes away the voice of Echo, she punishes humans by making them defective.
Narcissus is generally a tale about where flowers come from. He gets frozen, transfixed on his own vision of himself in a pond. He just stands there and turns into a flower. That’s usually the way it’s retold. Ovid
presents this story differently. Narcissus is told by Teiresias that he’ll be fine as long as he never knows himself. In this story Narcissus knows himself he sees himself as an object. When he sees himself as an object, he gets frozen. The story is packaged for us as erotic love which is completely misplaced. There’s a further dimension to this story about what it is to be human. It’s strange to be a self-aware, self-conscious subject it would be a little easier not to be one. My cat is happy enough if he has food in his bowl and can sleep all day that’s enough. For self-conscious human beings life is a little more complicated. Narcissus understands himself, a knowing subject, as an object to other people. That’s strange because he is not only himself a subjective entity who can see, sense, and feel things but he’s also an object to other people, that’s a disturbing recognition and it freezes him in a state he can’t advance from. His life ends there, he doesn’t get out of this moment of self- contemplation.
After Narcissus we come back to Teiresias and we hear about his duel with Pentheus. For Ovid it’s more of a story about Pentheus versus Teiresias, we hear the full back story. There is a further story about Bacchus’ birth and his coming into being, and men who don’t recognize that they have a god around them. That’s troublesome and the full story of what we have already seen happening at Thebes is played out through these close connections between the human and the divine world. In each of the stories that we see framed in this set of Theban tales of Actaeon, Semele, Teiresias, Echo, Narcissus and Pentheus Ovid talks about a close connection between the human and the divine where something goes terribly wrong and that connection is psychologized. In the case of Actaeon we have Diana’s embarrassment, in Semele, it comes out as jealousy and Semele herself might be a little embarrassed. We hear about Pentheus, who’s uninitiated and wants to see what he ought not to see and in the case of Narcissus, his emotional reaction to himself becomes his undoing. These passions show that human transgressions vis-a-vis the divine leads to some problems. That problem shows in a psychological manifestation, and it ends in a corporeal undoing where the human being dissolves, is ripped up, is torn. Humans and divine become separated, because humans might aspire to get a glimpse of that other divine world so what we see mostly there is danger.
Trojan War Again
Ovid’s treatment of the Trojan War moves into a different genre, from an epic treatment of the Trojan War that we’ve seen in seen in Homer and Virgil, into something that we might call a mock epic. Ovid has fun with us all the way through this story. You find yourself on a long digression that seems to indenture and you’re not sure how in the world that’s related to the main action in the Trojan War. Ovid brings us all off into parts of the story that don’t really seem to fit.
Imagine a documentary covering World War II from the middle last century. Imagine in that documentary that there’s no mention at all of D-Day, there are also hardly any battle scenes. In fact there’s one long bloody kind of battle-ish scene where you’ve got General George Patton, who fights someone you never heard of. He has a really hard time of it, and then he eventually pushes the guy over and then strangles him and smashes him with his club. There’s an older colonel who goes off on a long digression and starts prattling on and on and on, about a time when he was a young guy, and there was a pack of bears that came along, and they had to have long fight to fight off the pack of bears. This bear story takes up nearly a third of the documentary on World War II. Then on the Allied side, two top officers argue over who gets to keep General George Patton’s pearl-handled pistols. Let’s just say for sake of argument, Patton gets killed in the middle of the action and he’s got these pearl-handled pistols, and the two great officers from the Allied side fight over who gets to keep them. The documentary mentions that the Axis countries falls, then, we take a long look at the plight of the Japanese Emperor’s family and all the suffering that happens, and we talk about how the Allies savagely firebombed Tokyo. That will be the end of the treatment of World War II. You might say to yourself, well, that’s weird, and it’s focusing on certain pieces and making them seem really important. What’s with that whole digression about the pack of bears? And why is that in there? That’s the same reaction you probably should have to Ovid’s treatment of the Trojan War.
It starts with a departure for Troy and in that departure we hear about Iphigenia, in Ovid’s version, she is saved at the last minute. Diana substitutes a deer, there’s a, change that happens. Then, we jump to a story about Achilles, the great Greek warrior. He’s a killing machine in Homer. He’s extraordinarily good at it. He carries it in a way that makes it clear it’s a tough burden for him to shoulder, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s an elegant killer. In the scene that Ovid chooses to pull out, it’s Achilles against Cygnus. If you haven’t heard of Cygnus as a famous warrior, well, it’s because Cygnus isn’t a famous warrior, it’s a small end battle. We have Achilles compared to a bull. There’s a rich simile that talks about him as a bull. In the end, he just takes Cygnus and beats his face in with a shield then finally he chokes him to death. This is not elegant killing, not the thing that Homer talks about. Achilles is able to use sharp bronze weapons to take the life of other people in dramatically efficient ways. Here is an inefficient, cloddish, cumbersome, bull-like overwhelming brute force, using brute force of one not very famous guy. That doesn’t seem very glorious or heroic.
Then we get the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. About a third of Ovid’s recounting of the war at Troy focuses on this. Ovid has only a very tangential relation between this whole thing and the Trojan War. Nestor tells us this story. Nestor is traditionally a guy who likes to talk, he’s an old man and he likes to hear his own voice. He just decides he, wants to talk about Phineas who was once a woman and he wished he could be turned into a man to avoid being raped again and on and on. Then all of a sudden, we start hearing about him as a Lapith and how they fought off the Centaurs, otherwise, there’s really no connection. The way Ovid frames things is a triumph of gruesomeness and gore for gore’s sake over heroism. He focuses in on these beasts getting ripped apart and there’s gory detail after gory detail. Homer himself spends a lot of time with gory detail, but, and by contrast, in most of the cases that Homer does that, we care about the person that’s getting ripped up. Here, the Centaurs play a role like the role that zombies play in contemporary horror movies. Zombies are there in order to just get ripped up and you watch their green, gooey, gore blood splatter everywhere. They’re debauched creatures, these Centaurs; they’re man and beast together. We don’t really admire them. Instead of a grand, heroic scene with people on one side and people on another fighting over a great cause, we have gore for gore’s sake.
Ovid brings us through this long gory detail that doesn’t really have much at all to do with the Trojan War, then we hear about the death of Achilles. Paris is not the greatest of warriors and he fights with a bow and arrow, that’s never coded as being a very brave thing. Bow and arrow fighters fight from far away, they shoot then they run off. His arrow flies and it hits Achilles. It’s just a tiny mention, not as though anything grand happened. After Achilles is dead, there’s an argument over who gets to keep his arms.
Battle for the Arms of Achilles
There is a famous struggle in mythological tradition after Achilles is killed. He has heroic arms, they’re divine. Whoever has them has an impenetrable shield around them. Each of the Greek heroes thinks they should have the arms of Achilles. The two best candidates are Ajax and Odysseus (Ulysses in this text). Famously in the tradition the two of them have a verbal battle. Each of them gives a speech that says why they should be the one that gets the arms of Achilles. Rather than focus only on their own good qualities, they mostly criticize the other person. In the version that Ovid gives us Ajax’s opening statement talks about Ulysses doing the night raid, a famously nasty bit of work that Ulysses did in in the Iliad book 11. Ulysses faked madness in order to dodge the draft he tried to avoid Troy. We hear about Philoctetes, a warrior who was wounded on the way to Troy and has this awful condition that is so nasty it makes all the all the other Greek warriors disgusted so they stow him off on an island and let him rot on his own. Ulysses is the one that spearheads that little nasty business as well. He’s a crafty talker and a liar Ajax says and he’s parasitical on Diomedes, this other great warrior who Ajax says does all the hard fighting. Then it was the turn of Ulysses to speak. After a pause and some words about Achilles he says
“You shouldn’t let Ajax’s dullness of intellect count in his favor or hold my quickness against myself; it has always been used in your service, my Lords. Don’t grudge me my eloquence”
He’s especially careful to flatter Agamemnon throughout the speech. As a good rhetorician, he makes sure his audience likes him. He recounts all his own victories and successes and talks about how stupid Ajax is, that’s Odysseus’ whole speech. Ovid spends a lot of time in his treatment of the Trojan War dealing with these two arguing back and forth talking about each other. In the end there is victory of chattering over heroism. These two have a rhetorical debate, that’s not as glorious as a debate using marshal weapons of arms, they’re on the same side so it has the aspect of civil war to it. Ovid takes the typical glorious moments out of this story and instead, focuses on inglorious ones. This story is not always so quite so negative in valance.
Ovid’s had great training to be a good spokesman and wonderfully skilled in the verbal arts. This is a way to get ahead in his time its equivalent to what contemporary lawyers training would be. In the education system in ancient Rome one of the standard ways that people practiced and sharpened their verbal arts was to take set pieces from ancient mythology and then produce them on stage for their peers. The set pieces they take would be where one character from mythology would argue against another and those arguments would be nasty verbal back and forths against each other. Ovid must have seen many times and probably himself participated in lots of arguments of Ajax and Achilles and arguments with Ajax and Ulysses over the arms of Achilles. He knew this as an exercise as a school boy and here, he is putting it in his epic in a way that is meant for the Romans to reflect on themselves. He has presented mythic poetry as if it’s a school boy’s exercise. That’s exactly how his teachers used it, in the training that he got as a lawyer. This grand mythological tradition with all of its heroism has been reformulated to train you in verbal arts, to rip down your friend, who is also your countryman who happens to be your opponent in some political or legal battle. Its a wonderfully subtle satirical move on Ovid’s part. It shows his careful satirical eye, his savage wit and his brilliant skill at bringing those two things together.
The Fall of Troy and the Founding of Rome
In the closing parts of Ovid’s treatment of the Trojan War, we see the sufferings of Hecuba and her children. These are famous threads in the yarn around Troy, and it’s not as though the tradition ignores them. Ovid seems to pay special attention to them. We’ve seen him take some of the story of Troy where great heroic grandeur is traditionally displayed, and recast them as moments of nastiness. Now in the parts of the tradition where the nastiness is acknowledged Ovid almost embraces. We see Hecuba suffering. She has a matriarchal sense to her that of a great loss. She maintains her dignity with a decimated family. We jump from here to a story of the Aeneid and meet Aeneas as he gets out of Troy. Then we go through Delos and Crete and as far as Scylla and Charybdis very quickly. Once we get to that point, there’s a long digression. It goes on for almost ten pages where we hear about Galatea and Acis, who are happy lovers. The Cyclops loves Galatea. Ovid gives us a long, amusing, digression on the softer side of the Cyclops. Ovid starts to think about him as having romantic feelings for this young beautiful tender woman. Then we hear about the Scylla and how she got that way. Again, it makes us feel tender to the Scylla, there’s a love that’s gone wrong and now she’s turned into a monster. Next we hear about Dido and the sibyl for another few pages.
We jump back to the main story and then another long digression. We hear Greek tales of Achaemenides and there’s some more story about Polyphemus, and Aeolus, and Circe. Then some love stories of people that you’re not sure who they are. We are supposed to be talking about Aeneid and the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome but he’s going off on all these digressions. Then we get a founding of a Roman settlement. There is a war with the locals that were Rutulians. Some more grand epic heroic warrior stuff that happens as Aeneas is clobbering the local Rutulians that happened in books 7 through 12 of the Aeneid. There are more digressions that pepper this story. He avoids direct confrontation with Virgil but there are strong contrasts that are pretty obvious. There is a lack of theological thrust in Ovid. It’s not as though things are all moving towards a purposeful end, it seems the opposite, they start towards some purposeful end but then get pushed off into a digression.. There is a lack of prophecy. We don’t have lots of pronouncements. There’s a prophecy at the end of the story but not these heroic battles.
In Ovid the world is struggling between two potential strong forces, order on the one hand, disorder on the other. Disorder in the end seems stronger, anything that seems stable is always about to change. There’s internal conflict passion versus duty. Passion almost always wins out.
We have a closing look at everyday life, small people in the middle of grand circumstances. There’s a fumbling march toward some endpoint. In the end Ovid tells us at the end of his Metamorphoses, it is indeed Rome and it is indeed Augustus. As the closing a tale of an epic is built on change and instability the idea of Roman permanence and stability at least somewhat subtly is a bit undercut by the way Ovid has told this story up till now. This is a poet who’s really interested in how this grand vision of a monumental Rome may have some creaky pieces to it and stability for all time as is imagined by political leaders, is probably not something that will be forever. This may be connected somehow with the reasons why Ovid was exiled we don’t know. He did something to displease Augustus and, that’s never wise.
- The World’s Best English Epic Poetry – Ovid’s Metamorphoses (in English Translation) (antipodeanwriter.wordpress.com)
- Heroic Effort: Comparing Two Classical Studies MOOCs (MOOC news and Reviews)