Essay

Reading Ovid


Like many people, my wife and I spent the strange, socially distant summer of 2020 watching an unconscionable amount of Netflix. I also read a lot, more than usual, and even—just to give myself something to do—got through most of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Latin. I read it in homework-sized chunks, a hundred or, if I was on a roll, two hundred lines a day, pausing often to look up a word or untangle the syntax. (Early on, thank goodness, I discovered a lifesaving app, Latin Words. You type in a word, and it immediately tells you not just the meaning but the case of a noun or the tense and mood of a verb.) Reading this way, thrashing around in the thickets, I frequently lost my bearings and forgot where I was in the story, which is not hard to do. In no particular order, the Metamorphoses contains pretty much everything you know, or think you know, about classical mythology. Diana and Actaeon, Daphne and Apollo, Jove and Io, Leda and the Swan, Echo and Narcissus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice, Daedalus and Icarus, Ganymede, Pygmalion, Pegasus, Bacchus, Tiresias—they’re all here, and making your way through the poem sometimes feels like wander­ing around in a not very well organized attic where all the old tales, some 250 of them, are packed away for safekeeping. That’s what the Metamorphoses became for later writers like Dante and Shakespeare, and for painters like Titian and Rubens and countless others: source material.
 
The playfulness and disorganization of the poem are probably delib­erate, a sly comment on the tight structure and high seriousness of Virgil’s Aeneid, practically every line of which is meant to foretell the founding of the Roman republic. But there really is a plot or purpose to Ovid’s epic, and it’s not unlike Virgil’s. At the very end, the Metamorphoses winds up cele­brating the inevitability and solidity of Roman civilization, which puts an end to all the chaos and mutability Ovid has been describing. The difference is that, instead of beginning with the Fall of Troy, he starts with the Big Bang, with creation itself, and doesn’t get to Troy until more than two-thirds of the way through his epic.
 
Ovid is a poet for whom too much is never enough. He loves stories and details for their own sake and can’t resist the temptation to cram in a little extra, filling up fifteen books, not content with the Aeneid’s mere twelve. His description of Arachne, the young woman (made famous by Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical) who makes the mistake of getting into a weaving contest with Athena, is surely a self-portrait. Athena weaves a tapestry that is balanced and symmetrical, with a central panel and four corner scenes, all depicting her fellow-gods in their majesty and dignity. (Its weightiness and precision are sort of Virgilian, come to think of it—another of Ovid’s jokes.) Arachne’s tapestry, on the other hand, is sprawling and intricate, overflowing with action scenes, all showing the gods behaving badly. Not only are they chasing after women (just like the gods in the Metamorphoses), but in so doing they take on different guises, now one thing, now another. For good measure, not to leave any space unfilled, Arachne stuffs the border of her piece with woven flowers and thick bunches of embroidered ivy. When it’s all done, Athena takes one look and turns Arachne into a spider. (Ovid, when he wrote this, had been punished with exile from Rome—for reasons that are not entirely clear but may have had to do with how raunchy and scandalous the authorities found the Ars Amatoria, his poem about seduction and lovemaking.)
 
What makes the Metamorphoses so hard to follow is that the structure is tangential, with one thing leading to another some­times on the slightest pretext, and with stories embedded within stories within stories. Almost half the poem is in the form of tales told by someone other than the poet, and you can sometimes feel as if you’re unpacking a Chinese box. The unifying theme, of course, is transformation. Things are always turning into something else. The gods become people, when they’re not becoming animals, and people become spiders, birds, frogs, fish, snakes, cows, deer, rivers, streams, pools, fountains, trees, flowers, stones, constellations—the list is endless, not to mention gender-fluid. Women become men, and a man (Hermaphroditus) becomes part woman. These changes don’t happen in a flash. Ovid lingers over them and describes the transformations step by step, so that they happen before our eyes, almost cinematically. You’re reminded sometimes of those signature scenes in the Transformers movies when the Decepticons turn into trucks, sprouting fenders and wheels and radiator grilles.
 
When Cadmus turns into a snake, for example, Ovid describes him being slowly stretched out into a serpentine shape; then his skin hardens, he grows scales, and spots appear on his belly. He falls down, landing on his stomach, and his legs meld into one another and are then extruded into a slender tail. His tongue is cleft, and when he tries to speak, all that comes out is a hiss. Ovid typically accompanies these scenes with lots of alliterative sound effects (the lines describing Cadmus’ loss of speech are full of “s” sounds), and sometimes the language itself enacts a transformation. After Jove has turned Io into a cow, to pick another example, Juno takes pity and turns her back into a human—a metamorphosis in reverse. The process happens in Ovid’s characteristic slo-mo: the hair drops from Io’s body; the horns shrink and disappear; her eyes become smaller; her shoulders and arms return; and finally she gets her hands and feet back. In Latin that last part goes like this: ungulaque in quinos dilapsa absumitur ungues (and her hoof is gone, melted into five nails)—so that the line itself turns a hoof (ungula) back into fingernails or toenails (ungues).
 
One way or another, the agent of most of these transformations is love—or lust, really. In the Metamorphoses they’re pretty much the same thing: a passion both consuming (Ovid’s favorite comparison here is fire) and destabilizing—sometimes literally maddening. It’s true that at the end of some of Ovid’s stories a certain rough justice prevails. Narcissus, after spurning various suitors, falls in love with the one person he cannot possess: himself. The farmers who jealously guard their lake and prevent the goddess Latona from drinking there get turned into frogs and are forced to wallow in their precious water forever. And several of the stories explain in retrospect why something is as it is and seem to suggest a certain fatefulness and appropriateness. This is why the mulberry berries are dark purple, the poem tells us—because they were stained with the blood of the dying Pyramus. This is why the raven is black—because he tattled on one of Apollo’s lovers. This how the island of Icaria gets its name—because it’s near the place where Icarus plunged after his wax wings melted.
 
But mostly the impression you get is of a world in constant and unpredictable flux, a place where the gods are always shape-shifting and where the poor mortals, as often as not, get turned into part of the landscape—sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is all highly entertaining, I should add. If some of Ovid’s stories have a violent, horrific aspect, others—like the story of Echo and Narcissus or the ending of Book II, when Jove, smitten with Europa, turns himself into a gamboling cow, leaping about on the grass—are deliberately cartoonish. Still others, like the stories of Pyramus and Thisbe or of Baucis and Philemon (which I’ll get to in a moment) are sweetly touching. Reading the Metamorphoses sometimes feels a little like channel surfing, skipping from one genre to another: horror flick, rom-com, slapstick, adventure yarn.
 
As the weeks went by, and my Latin became more fluent, I found myself enjoying the poem more and more. It became a form of escapism, I suppose—like Netflix, only more highbrow and in a foreign language. I also found myself wondering why Ovid isn’t taught in school—or wasn’t, anyway, back when I was learning Latin. At my school the authors we read were assigned less on the basis of their literary merit—which was not inconsiderable, as it happens, though I didn’t know that then—than as rungs on a ladder of increasing difficulty. First Caesar, then Cicero and some Catullus (not the dirty poems, of course), and finally Virgil. The Metamorphoses is harder than the Aeneid, I guess, but not much, and I suspect what kept it off the syllabus was not just the specialized vocabulary but the sex and violence—all those rapes. There are a lot, it must be admitted, and it’s not enough to say that most of them are just Jove being Jove. If you were to assign the poem now, you would probably have to include trigger warnings.
 
All the same, Ovid is more fun than most of the Roman authors; his dialogue more nearly resembles real speech than that of the Aeneid, say, where the characters are so often speechifying; and he’s more interested in what we would call human psychology. There’s a telling episode in Book IX when a young woman named Byblis falls in love with her brother. At great length Ovid explores the innermost workings of her mind as she tries to rationalize her forbidden longing: first she’s horrified, then she allows herself to dream about him (on the ground that dreams are harmless), and then, telling herself that the gods commit incest all the time, she composes a love letter to him, behaving like any doubtful author (like Ovid himself, probably), erasing, rewriting, throwing down her pen (or stylus, really, since she’s writing on wax) in disgust at what she’s written, and then—deciding on second thought, the way writers often do, that maybe what she has put down isn’t so bad after all—starting up again. Even after her horrified brother pushes her away, she can’t help second-guessing herself. Maybe she should have told him how she felt, instead of putting it in writing? Maybe the servant she sent with the letter just happened to deliver it at the wrong moment? In the end she, too, gets the landscape treatment and is turned into a fountain. There’s a famous—and cheesily sexy—painting of her at that moment by the French painter Bougereau, but it doesn’t begin to suggest the complexity of Ovid’s portrait or the depth of her interior life.
 
Not all of the Metamorphoses is escapist—or not if you were reading it in the summer of 2020. The poem actually describes two plagues. One, near the end, strikes the city of Rome, now the center of the world, replacing Sparta and Thebes, but is quickly ended by recalling Asclepius, the great physician, from the underworld. (Ovid doesn’t say so, but maybe he brings a vaccine?) The other, in Book VII, is visited upon the island of Aegina by an angry Juno. At first, it’s the usual Ovidian horror show, detail piled on detail: serpents crawling all over the fields and poisoning the rivers; oxen falling to their knees; wool dropping off the backs of sheep; wild boars turning meek; deer and bears becoming listless; and the whole land stinking of carrion. But then the pestilence spreads to people, and in ways that inevitably reminded me of what was happening in New York hospitals right then, with overworked doctors becoming ill and dead bodies, unattended by loved ones, piling up in refrigerator trucks. I was so moved I even attempted my own English translation. It begins this way:

 

No one can control the pestilence, and it breaks out among the
physicians themselves.
By their very skills they do themselves harm.
The nearer they get to the sick, and the more faithfully they
attend them,
The faster are they stricken unto death.

 

And ends:

 

The dead bodies were not carried out to the funerals in the
usual way.
For the gates could not accommodate so many corpses
They either lie on the ground unburied or are heaped on unlit
pyres.
There is no reverence anywhere.
Where are the mourners? There aren’t any.
Unwept, they wander about—the souls
Of children, of parents, of the young and the old.

 

But the passage that affected me most is the story of Philemon and Baucis, from Book VIII. They’re the very old couple who live in a thatched hut on the edge of a marsh thronged with waterfowl—cormorants and seagulls, the text specifies. I imagine the place to be a sort of small seaside town not unlike the one where my wife and I (not so young ourselves) were hiding out from the pandemic and contemplating our mortality, arguing about which of us was more at risk. One day, disguised as mortals, Jove and Mercury visit the area, looking for food and shelter. They knock on a thousand doors, Ovid says—that’s a lot of doors, but presumably gods knock fast—and a thousand doors are shut to them. Only Baucis and Philemon take them in, and cheerfully prepare a meal. There’s a great deal of homely and domestic detail (and therefore a lot of new words for a someone like me to look up) describing how simple and rustic their living arrangements are. The bowls are carved from beechwood. The one couch is made of willow twigs covered with reeds. It’s as if the gods were stopping at a summer cottage. I’m particularly fond of a moment when Baucis places a table in front of the two gods and, discovering that it wobbles on the uneven floor, slips a testa, or a little shard—the first century BC equivalent of a matchbook —under one of the legs. One more instance of Ovid’s almost compulsive generosity with description.
 
After they’ve dined, the gods in gratitude turn the cottage into a shrine—a marble-floored McMansion with fluted columns and a gilded roof. Whenever I re-read this, I find myself thinking, “Typical Roman excess,” and wishing they had left the place as it was. I don’t see what was wrong with that hut. But the ending becomes tender. The gods ask if there’s anything else they can do for the couple, and Philemon replies that, if possible, he and Baucis would like to die at the same moment, so that neither has to watch the burial of the other.
 
The wish is granted, and Baucis and Philemon live on into even greater age, until one day each of them sees the other sprouting leaves. “Vale, o coniunx,” they say in one breath—“Goodbye, dear spouse”—and they turn into trees, an oak and a linden. There are worse ways to go, I found myself thinking the first time I read this, when the news was still full of people dying alone and on ventilators. Arborification! Only Ovid could come up with such an idea.