Some years ago, I read Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian folktales. As I read that large work (well over 700 pages), I became fascinated by the way folk tales and fairy tales operate by rules: be kind, be generous, be the third son if possible, and so on. While reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I tried to come up with a similar set of rules by which ancient Greek and Roman myth might operate:
1. Be beautiful, but not too beautiful, and fortunate, but not too fortunate.
2. Never, ever boast about anything.
3. Don’t screw with the gods, figuratively or literally.
As this marvelous book continues working out its variations on the grand theme of metamorphosis (and it doesn’t continue in a linear way so much as it practices its reeling and writhing and fainting in coils), these rules make themselves more and more clear. Take Arachne as a perfect example, she who wove such beautiful works and boasted that she was better at weaving than Pallas Athena. Arachne challenges the goddess to a contest:
To see her wonderwork, the nymphs would leave
their vineyards on the slope of Mount Timolus
or their haunts along the winding Pactolus.
They came not just to see the finished product,
but to watch her working, for such comeliness
and grace were present when she plied her art,
whether she shaped the crude wool in a ball,
or with her fingers softened it and drew
the fleecy mass into a single thread
spun out between the distaff and the spindle,
or worked a pattern into what she wove
with her embroidery.
According to Ovid, Arachne wins the contest with the goddess, but is punished for her boast by being changed into a spider, in which form she may weave as much as she likes. This story, however, is not so much about boasting as it is about storytelling. The goddess’s tapestry portrays the gods as good and mighty; Arachne shows them at their weakest and most degraded. Her transformation is a punishment for the story she tells, the art she makes, more than anything else. This must have been a story close to the exiled Ovid’s heart.
Another story about a maker is, of course, the tale of Daedalus and Icarus. This one stands out for its stunning shift in point of view. Through the whole story, we see the action through Daedalus’s anxious eyes, making and fitting Icarus’s wings, telling him not to fly too high or too low, kissing the boy. Then, suddenly:
Some fisherman whose line jerks with his catch,
some idle shepherd leaning on his crook,
some plowman at his plow, looks up and sees
something astonishing, and thinks them gods,
who have the power to pass through the air.
We see them from afar, and suddenly grasp that this is flight, this is no mere toy, no little workshop invention, this is something only gods can do. It’s also startlingly like, and yet unlike, Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” in which that very plowman isn’t startled at all.
Book 10 begins the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It’s treated in what was, for me, an unexpected manner: the marriage of the two and the death of Eurydice take a mere 14 lines. The story of his (spoiler!) unsuccessful attempt to lead her out of Hades is dealt with in another brisk page and a half. The rest of the book is occupied with Orpheus’s songs after Eurydice has died a second time: “I sing of young boys whom the gods have desired,/ and of girls seized by forbidden and blameworthy passions.” These songs are, like those of the Muses, in formal dactyls, and tell some pretty hair-raising stories. Pygmalion, whom I find creepy, is perhaps the most innocent of these. Don’t — I repeat, don’t — screw with the gods, people.
I have to say again here what a wonderful translation this is. Someone said in the comments to my last post that the play with meter, particularly the rap, sounded flip, and it is, actually, extremely silly in parts. I get the feeling that this is because Ovid is extremely silly in parts. This approach makes this work enormous fun to read, light where it should be light and grave where it should be grave. Here, another silly bit for you. Here, as a concluding section, is an excerpt from the Athenians’ hymn to Theseus, framed as an 18th-century naval song or something of that kind. (Please believe it killed me to cut it off at two verses.)
Now Marathon lies at your feet,
The slayer of the Bull of Crete,
To you the men of Cromyon bow
For sticking the Enormous Sow;
You sent the hero, Periphetes,
With giant club, right to his knees
In Epidauria, and you slew
Fierce, club-wielding Procrustes, too!
But don’t take my word for it, or even wait for my last post on it. Go get it yourself.
p.s. Kate Beaton, who is infinitely wonderful, is also doing mythical stuff right now!