Metamorphoses, Books 11-15

As I said in my last post, Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses ends with the songs of Orpheus, flowing along in formal dactyls that belie his rather shocking subject material. Once again, Ovid doesn’t tie things up neatly at the end of the book: Book 11 begins with Orpheus’s death at the hands of the Maenads. I’ve mentioned this movement of story from one book to another before, and the fluidity and uncertainty it gives the narrative, just as each story of metamorphosis tells of the same fluidity. The only permanency is change.

Bacchus punishes the Maenads for killing Orpheus by turning them into oak trees. Contrast their transformation with Daphne’s:

as when a bird steps right into the snare

the skillful fowler cunningly conceals,

and sensing itself caught, it beats its wings

in agitated fear that only serves

to draw the noose more tightly round its leg;

just so, as each of them, fixed to the soil

in terror, vainly tries to get away,

is kept in place by the resistant roots,

and as she struggles upward, is drawn back,

and when she seeks her hands, her feet, her nails,

beholds the bark surmounting her trim calves;

and when her grieving hand would strike her thighs,

she strikes an oak; of oak is her breast made,

and oaken are the Maenad’s shoulders, too;

you would have thought her knotty arms were branches —

and you would not have been at all mistaken.

An almost identical transformation is punitive, this time, instead of protective, and Ovid brilliantly conveys the terror of it.

Just in passing, I was fascinated to meet the god Sleep in these pages. I’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, with Morpheus as the protagonist, and I’m sure Gaiman is familiar with these passages:

Doors are forbidden here, lest hinges creak,

no guardian is found upon the threshold;

but on a dais in the middle of the cave

a downy bed of blackest ebony

is set with a coverlet of muted hue;

upon it lies the god himself, at peace,

his knotted limbs in languorous release;

around him on all sides are empty shapes

of dreams that imitate so many forms,

as many as the fields have ears of wheat,

or trees have leaves, or seashore grains of sand.

This, and the following story of the way Morpheus visits a woman in her sleep to tell her that her husband is dead, is so strikingly visual in its quality that it could have been drawn by Charles Vess. Ovid is skilled at scenes like this, as much as the cartoon battle-scenes, or at the pounding, suspenseful scenes of pursuit or agonized unrequited love. Gorgeous.

Ovid’s storytelling is part eyewitness, part hearsay. Some of the scenes are written as if Ovid himself is watching them and recording them, down to the last bit of flayed skin on Marsyas’s poor body. Others are reported events from someone who saw them, like the last escaped man from Circe’s dreadful island. Still others are given with a touch of skepticism, like the story of Iphigenia on Aulis. The story I knew was that Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father to gain a good wind for the Greek boats. But here, Ovid says, “Diana substituted — so they say — / a deer for Iphigenia.” These different modes of storytelling, some explaining language or rock formations or flowers, some merely recounting what everyone knows, still others building the story of the venerable and divine history of Rome, shift tone and register. Does Ovid believe what he’s saying? Should we? Which stories are true, if the very point of the Metamorphoses is that everything changes and that no truth is permanent?

This fluidity is made most clear in the mouth of Pythagoras, toward the end of Book 15 (and thus the end of the Metamorphoses themselves.) Pythagoras spends many pages and many lines of dactylic hexameter discussing the impermanence of everything in the universe:

I truly believe that nothing may keep the same image

for a long time; the age of gold yields to iron,

and often places will know a reversal of fortune.

For with my own eyes, I have seen land that once was quite solid

change into water, and I have seen land made from ocean;

seashells have been discovered far from the seashore,

and rusty anchors right on the summits of mountains;

a former plain was converted into a valley

by rushing waters, whose force has leveled great mountains;

and a onetime marshland has been turned into a desert,

while thirsty sands have been transformed into a marshland.

Pythagoras’s proclamation is dangerous, of course. If everything changes, then Augustus Caesar’s seat on the throne (or as a deity) is temporary at best. Who wants to hear that?

But it’s clear that Ovid believes at least one thing will never change: he believes in the lasting power of his own work, the lasting power of story to change us and move us. The last words of the Metamorphoses are:

if there is truth in poets’ prophecies,

then in my fame forever I will live.

If I am any proof, Ovid is absolutely right.

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6 Responses to Metamorphoses, Books 11-15

  1. Susan E says:

    I’ve enjoyed your discussion and excerpts of this. I’ve always thought of it as primarily a collection of myths and am intrigued by the nuances and subtleties you point out. It sounds like you would recommend this translation; were there any others that you considered?

    • Jenny says:

      I got several recommendations, and this is the one I chose as being the most faithful (not adding to or taking away from the text) but also the most fluid and poetic. I am very glad I did.

  2. DKS says:

    I’ve been enjoying these Ovid posts — I especially liked the way you picked out the transition into “that heroic son of Autonoe”‘s point of view a while back. After that, I looked at the poet I was reading and realised that he never changed points of view at all. He was entirely “I.” Well, I thought. I’ve been made aware of something.

    Susan: Ted Hughes’ ‘Tales from Ovid’ doesn’t cover the whole work, but it’s massively vigorous.

    • Jenny says:

      A little comparison shopping convinced me to settle on this one, but I think it would be fun to sit with a couple of different translations and look at things like that. And it made me wish I knew Latin.

  3. Danielle says:

    So cool you are reading this–I have it on my pile and occasionally pick it up and consider reading it….

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