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Is Ovid Still Worth Reading?

“Such politicized readings of the last 50 years miss the profundity of Ovid’s inclusion of the story in his grander poetic agenda of love being the constant star in the midst of a world of violence and transformation.”

In the annals of Roman poets, Ovid occupies a unique place. He is generally regarded as inferior to Virgil, Rome’s grandest and grandiose poet whose Aeneid still stands as Rome’s mythopoetic masterpiece and whose Eclogues set the stage for the development of the pastoral idyll in Western literature. Yet Ovid’s language and picturesque scenes strike one as occasionally more remarkable and energetic than Virgil; Edward Gibbon, for instance, said he derived more pleasure reading Ovid than the other Latin poets. Ovid, however, strikes moderns as dangerous and out of date. His poems on sexual violence, often tinging with toxic masculinity, do not necessarily fit the sensibilities of our post-#MeToo age. But such readings of Ovid fail to see the grander portrait, even the dark wisdom, found in the Metamorphoses.

The Metamorphoses is an epic of transformation, of change. Like Pseudo-Apollodorus’s Bibliotheca, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a collection of the grandstanding myths of Antique culture, especially as inherited in the Latin-Roman tradition. It opens with the birth of the cosmos, its wrestling into order from chaos which provided the basis for life and all the subsequent stories that the poem sings of. It concludes with a summary of the great stories that moved pagan consciousness, finishing with the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, the expansion of the walls of Rome and Roman civilization with it (echoing Virgil), and Ovid’s own declaration that his fame will live on for all eternity because of the “truth” “stablished by poetic prophecy” that he himself is the avatar of. We will return to this point later.

Yet Ovid does not celebrate, upon closer inspection, the mighty walls of Rome as do his contemporaries. Ovid pays his due respect to Rome, but Rome must submit to the winds and cosmos of change; time changes all things, and Rome is no exception. This is why Ovid leads up to his conclusion by including the speeches of Pythagoras, the great Greek philosopher who argued that in the cosmos of time that changes all things only one thing remains the same in the midst of this torrential sea of change: the soul. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then, is an inspection into the soul that never changes; and, in that inspection, Ovid finds the tension between love and lust, beauty and ugliness, death and redemption, sorrow and happiness. The soul may experience changes wrought by its burdening enslavement to the oceans of time, but what the soul seeks is the same: constancy through love, the eternity which never changes because love never changes. 

I shall examine, here, but a few of the many stories included in Ovid’s great epic of the human soul. Each embodies its own unique particularities. Each also reflects the great spirit of prophetic song that Ovid wanted us to know as the only constancy in our lives full of flux. 

Cadmus, as we know, was one of the great early Greek heroes before the time of Hercules and the mythical founder of Thebes, the first of the grandest city-states of Greece where it can be said Greek culture was born. The son of King Agenor of Tyre, when Jupiter (Zeus) stole Europa out of lust, Cadmus was sent west to retrieve his sister under the threat of permanent exile. Cadmus complies out of love for his father and love for his sister but fails. 

The heart of Cadmus, however, is eventually rewarded for his love and piety. Journeying west in pursuit of Jupiter to find Europa, he eventually comes across the fertile ravines, plains, and hills of Boeotia. He kneels before the oracle of Apollo, an act of loving piety, and upon hearing the oracular prophecy and finding the land he will soon settle and call his new home, he gives thanks again to the gods and makes a sacrifice to Jove. 

Companions of his are sent out to retrieve clean water for the ritual. They encounter the dragon, a large snake, and are devoured by the predatory beast. Worried about the whereabouts of his brethren, Cadmus strikes out to find them and discovers the beast: “Its crest sh[ining] gleaming gold; its eyes flash[ing] fire.” The monstrous dragon and Cadmus soon do battle, with Cadmus emerging victorious. There, Pallas Minerva arrives and commands Cadmus to bring into existence a people and city. Planting the teeth and blood of the slain dragon into the soil, up springs the warriors of Thebes and the protectors of Boeotia born out of the death of the serpent. 

The trials and labors of Cadmus conclude with his marriage to Harmonia, daughter of Mars and Venus. Harmonia, of course, means harmony. They have many children together. While the eventual demise of Cadmus and Harmonia is described later (as Cadmus is turned into a snake as is Harmonia), their transformations into snakes to slither and wander the world not as predatory monsters but as loving companions brings solace to the story. Love binds together, even if in fantastical imagery, as Ovid recounts for us. Cadmus and Harmonia come together in love in Boeotia; their love is stronger than mere physical attraction to beauty for even when Cadmus is metamorphosized into a snake, Harmonia will not abandon her husband and is transformed with him. Despite all the transformations that occur around them, the soul of love remains constant between Cadmus and Harmonia, even as they themselves are altered.

The transformation of Cadmus and Harmonia is followed by the story of Perseus and Andromeda, one of the most famous stories of antiquity. We know it well through cultural inheritance, even if we have not spent the time to read the classical stories of mythology. Paintings throughout the Western world depict the events of Perseus’s life, and Perseus is still a hero in film, as seen in The Clash of the Titans and its recent remakes.

It is cheap and easy to read the story of Perseus and Andromeda as one of male sexual fantasy and the masculine and misogynistic trope of the heroic male securing his bride who is the damsel in distress. Such politicized readings of the last 50 years miss the profundity of Ovid’s inclusion of the story in his grander poetic agenda of love being the constant star in the midst of a world of violence and transformation.

Andromeda is chained to a rock, doomed to be eaten by a sea monster because of the haughtiness of her mother. Cassiopeia challenges the divinities, the naiads, that Andromeda is more beautiful than they. Neptune (Poseidon) is enraged by this irreverence (irreverence, a lacking in love, is often a catalyst for darkness and death throughout the Metamorphoses). Neptune steals Andromeda and chains her to a rock in the sea to meet her fate.

Meanwhile, the gorgon Medusa was transformed into her serpent-like monster form for offending Minerva (Athena) by seducing Neptune and having sex inside Minerva’s temple (as goddess of wisdom and virginity, the act defiles Minerva’s temple). Medusa considered herself to be the most beautiful creature in the world. Minerva forcefully takes revenge for this impiety by turning Medusa’s beautiful flowing hair into snakes and by turning the gaze of men into a moment of death: Whereas before men could have looked upon Medusa’s face and been enraptured by her beauty, now men who look upon Medusa’s face die as they turn to stone. 

So enters Perseus in the midst of a drama caught up by irreverence as a dithering fiancé (Phineus) whose only interest in Andromeda was to secure advancement in royal lineage and power. What, then, makes Perseus stand out compared to all the other actors in this story? Where Cassiopeia and Medusa are irreverent and punished because of it, Perseus is pious and reverent by contrast. Before Minerva he trusts (fides, has faith) the goddess and her revelation of how to defeat Medusa. Where Cassiopeia and Medusa are vain, Perseus is humble; where sexual lust leads to danger and destruction, Perseus is more interested in getting to know the soul of Andromeda despite her obvious carnal beauty: “When Perseus saw her, had a wafting breeze/Not stirred her hair, her eyes not overflowed/With trembling tears, he had imagined her/A marble statue. Love, before he knew,/Kindled; he gazed entranced; and overcome/By loveliness so exquisite, so rare,/Almost forgot to hover in the air…Reveal, I beg, your name and this land’s name.” Moreover, Perseus truly loves Andromeda upon saving her, whereas Phineus saw Andromeda as a mere object for his social and political empowerment and advancement.

Perseus’s faith in Minerva’s revelation allows him to use the reflecting shield given to him to defeat Medusa. (Ovid’s story of Perseus’s slaying of Medusa is far less dramatic than Hollywood renderings; there is not a fight at all as Perseus encounters the gorgon seductress asleep and turns her to stone without much struggle.) The hero then mounts Pegasus, soars into the skies, and eventually comes across Andromeda “pinioned on a rock” as the sea monster Cetus approaches to devour her.

Again, it is Andromeda’s face, her eyes, the windows into her soul, which capture the heroic heart of our hero. Rather than thinking her a statue, he sees a human in distress and needing rescue. So Perseus ventures down from the heavens, a heaven-sent angel of deliverance, to rescue the sinless girl being punished for iniquity not her own but that of her mother. Perseus does battle with the sea monster, turns it to stone, and then frees Andromeda and begs her name—for, as mentioned, Perseus takes an interest in the soul and personality of Andromeda rather than her mere physical beauty.

Perseus’s rescue of Andromeda endears him to her parents. Cepheus agrees that Perseus, not Phineus, should wed his daughter. This enrages Phineus whose plans of political advancement are now thwarted. During the wedding banquet of Perseus and Andromeda, Phineus and his henchmen storm the palace to slay the Perseus and steal Andromeda as a captive war bride. Ovid inserts into Cepheus’s rebuke the reality of love against lust, love, and personal empowerment, which serves as the marked contrast between Perseus and Phineus:  “this/Your thanks for such great service? This the dower/You pay for her life saved?/It was not Perseus/Who took her from you, if you want the truth:/It was the Nereids and Neptune’s wrath,/It was the horned Ammon, it was the sea-monster/Who came to feast upon my flesh and blood/You lost her then, then when her death was sure,/Unless her death indeed is what you want/And mean my grief to ease your cruel heart.” Phineus, as revealed between the lines, cared not for Andromeda and only for himself and his ambitions; whether she lived or died on that rock was of little concern for him. By rescuing Andromeda, Cepheus’s rebuke asserts, Perseus showed the magnanimity of his love to her. Phineus, enraged, hounds his men over the party but is defeated by Perseus, whose love brings peace and order to the palace halls.

The story of Perseus and Andromeda is more hopeful than many of the stories Ovid includes. Yet its theme is remarkably the same as most of the stories: the power of love in the midst of a world filled with carnage, death, and destruction. Where sorrow often reveals the heart of love in a love unconsummated (more on this in a moment), the love of Perseus and Andromeda reaches fruition in their marriage. They live a happy and joyful life together, blessed with many children who venture eastward and found new civilizations (per the story). So in the midst of all the skullduggery that surrounds the story of Perseus and Andromeda what do we find? 

Love once again binds two flesh together as one. The love owed to the gods is rewarded in this instance, for it is Perseus’s faith, and his piety, which separates him from Cassiopeia and Medusa. His genuine affection for the soul of Andromeda, rather than personal self-gain through political marriage, wins the heart of Andromeda in stark contrast to the naked vanity and ego of Phineus. The love Perseus and Andromeda share for each other is consummated in marriage and blessed with children, the highest good in much of ancient literature.

Yet not all the stories of love in Ovid’s Metamorphoses have good endings. If Cadmus and Harmonia remained together in love even after being transformed into hideous snakes, and if the love of Perseus and Andromeda comes the closest to the Christian vision of divinization through love, what, then, do we make of all the stories of horror and sorrow that dot the landscape of Ovid’s masterpiece?

Sorrow can be a testament of love. In fact, sorrow reveals to us the true totality of one’s loving heart. The stories of Venus and Adonis, and Galatea and Acis, undoubtedly reveal the power of love through sorrow.

The story of Venus and Adonis is unique among the stories of intermingling between gods and humans in ancient myth and poetry. Most of the stories reveal capricious and lusty gods engaged in torment, torture, and outright violence toward the human captives of their eyes. This is not the case with Venus and Adonis. Jupiter may have swept down to steal and defile Europa, but Venus and Adonis share a far gentler, loving, and touching relationship. 

As is customary, there is a dark and bleak backstory. The lust of Myrrha and Cinyras, for Myrrha has sex with her father and conceives Adonis through sin, is the origin of Adonis’s birth into the cruel world of ever-changing tides of lust. For Adonis is a “wicked seed” and a child “conceived [in] crime.” Yet as Adonis grows into manhood, an extremely handsome man at that, the gods take a new interest in this child of perdition.

Adonis is the apple in Venus’s eye. So in love with Adonis is Venus that she is willing to “shun heaven too: to heaven she preferred/Adonis. Him she clung to, he was her/Constant companion.” Adonis, too, is in love with Venus. Together, they lay in each other’s caressing arms with kisses delight that would make any god or mortal jealous just as Satan looked “with jealous leer malign/Eyed [Adam and Eve] askance, and to himself thus plained” upon seeing the love Adam and Eve shared with each other in the Garden of Eden. In their loving embrace Venus tells Adonis the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes before departing for Cyprus. 

If Adonis was a child of sin, to which he cannot escape this fate and the law of incest must be punished, the tragedy of Venus and Adonis still reveals how love draws two together even in death and the memory of love lives on forever despite the gliding winds of time. Venus had warned Adonis not to be too bold and prideful on the hunt. This revelation of Venus to Adonis is discounted, for the young man acts with irreverence to the goddess’s revelation, which eventually leads him to his failed hunt wherein he is gorged by the boar and dies in the forest. 

Despite Adonis’s lack of living by the word of Venus, Venus is still drawn to his cries as she ventures to Cyprus. It is her love for Adonis which causes her to turn back, to rush to him in his final dying moments as he lay alone, blood spilling out of him, in the woods. Love unites lover and beloved even in death. While Venus curses the fates and is filled with sorrowful tears, her tears reveal her love for Adonis and how that love leads her to memorialize him for all eternity. Venus’s tearful lament over Adonis’s death establishes the cult of Adonia to commemorate his death. Likewise, her tears of love mingled with the blood of Adonis give birth to Anemone flowers, whose beauty reminds the world of the beauty of Adonis and stands as an everlasting and constantly blooming and reblooming reminder of the brief love they shared. 

In sorrow, Venus revealed her love for Adonis. And she left to the world—through the cult and festivals of Adonia and the birth of the Anemone flower—an everlasting reminder of the love they shared. While this love could not be consummated to fruition, for many reasons—the two obvious pitfalls being the sinful lust of Myrrha and Cyranis from which Adonis was conceived and Adonis’s own impiety of not heeding Venus’s warning which was reinforced by the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes—the tears of Venus still show us the power of love in the midst of a world often beset by callousness, darkness, and violence.

So too, then, does the sorrowful lament of Galatea to Acis, crushed by the envious rage of the cyclops Polyphemus, reveal the poignancy of love in a tragic world. 

Galatea was born from the lonely hands of the sculptor Pygmalion, who is brought to new life through the beauty of his marble-white statue turned real: 

“incumbensque toro dedit oscula visa tepere est;

admovet os iterum, manibus quoque pectora temptat:

temptatum mollescit ebur positoque rigore

subsidit digitis ceditque.”

 

“(Where she lay he kissed her, and she seemed warm to the touch,

so kissing her again and caressing her breasts,

the ivory grew soft in his fingers

and its hardness vanished into flesh.)”*

With Pygmalion deceased, Galatea is free to roam the world where she is beset by the lust of the beast Polyphemus—caught between the monster’s predations and his “wild urge to kill” and the gentle love of Acis. Like Venus and Adonis, this story of the love between mortal and divine is free of the usual violent passions of the divine encroaching on the realm of human mortals. Like Venus and Adonis, the gentle love between mortal and divine cannot be consummated. 

Yet the love shared between Acis and Galatea is touching and warming. It reveals their personalities. We learn something about the lovers in their fleeting moments together. It is not mere body heat that draws the two ill-fated lovers together; personality draws them together as one. It is a love that is pure, a love that springs with joy and life—a purity and joy that makes Polyphemus rage with jealousy. 

Here, Ovid reflects on the tragedy of love triangles. The rage that a scorned lover feels (Polyphemus) is what compels him to violent action. If he cannot have the love of Galatea, no one can. Ovid, here, is remarkably modern in his outlook. The world of love is often messy as we know today. While some loves do consummate themselves in blissful happiness (as we saw with Perseus and Andromeda), other loves are beset by petty and violent rivalries and jealousies that lead to heartbreak and tragedy.

Polyphemus’s lament reveals the emptiness of jealously, the envy that leads to violence: “I’ll gauge his living guts, I’ll rend his limbs/And strew them in the fields and in the sea.” Looking upon the star-crossed lovers, Polyphemus springs into action. He violently storms down upon them, startling Galatea, who flees into the sea, leaving Acis alone to flee for his life. Acis cries out as he runs for his life, “Help, Galatea! Father, mother, help!” But there is no one to help poor Acis. Polyphemus lifts up a boulder and hurls it at Acis, crushing him, his blood spilling out over the fields. The murderous cyclops retreats to his cave, satisfied in the deadly deed done.

Galatea returns after Polyphemus has retreated to his blood-soaked cave. She stares, tears flowing, at the crushed body and spewing blood of her lover. But the gods and fates take pity on Galatea’s tears. With permission from heaven, Galatea turns Acis’s flowing blood into a river of life. The Jaci, in Sicily, is the river that bears Acis’s blood transformed into an everlasting spring of love and life as the final farewell Galatea could give her lover.

In this story, Acis overcomes death through metamorphosis by love. The love that he shared with Galatea empowers Galatea to bring about his final transformation into a river of life that stands to memorialize the brief love the two shared. Rather than sink into the dust of the ground to be forgotten forever, Acis’s blood is transformed into a beautiful spring of life that outlives Polyphemus. Once more, we see in this tragic story how sorrowful tears reveal the spirit of love and how that love can overcome the tragedy of death.

Not all the stories that Ovid recounts necessarily have love as their central focus. Yet many do. And the stories capture Pythagoras’s declaration that the soul remains constant amid the flux of life. Souls are united in love and that unity in love—whether as transformed snakes, blessed couples, or sorrowful lovers who witnessed their beloved die for all the reasons we ourselves are accustomed to (pride, vanity, foolishness, sin, jealousy, etc.)—never dies despite the death and tragedy that surrounds it. 

I would also like to point out that in these stories, especially the sorrowful tales of death, the final apotheosis of love takes us back to the imagery of gardens of love and life. We call these loving idylls by various names: Arcadia, Elysia, Eden. For these images of blossoming flowers and flowing rivers evoke a serenity of love beneath the sun and stars that still our restless hearts and bring us that peace amid the crushing and torrential winds of the cosmos. The cosmos may be dark, but Ovid’s Metamorphoses remind us that there is intense beauty in this often cruel and dark world we inhabit. And that beauty is found in love, whether it is a love that brings joy or a love that brings sorrow—for even in sorrow we find the totality of the love that moves us to tears. As the Victorian poet Robert Browning Hamilton wrote:

“I walked a mile with Pleasure;

She chatted all the way;

But left me none the wiser

For all she had to say.

 

I walked a mile with Sorrow;

And ne’er a word said she;

But, oh! The things I learned from her,

When Sorrow walked with me.”

After chronicling these stories for us and before Ovid inserts himself as the poet who will live on for eternity because of the truth “stablished by poetic prophecy,” he gives final stage to Pythagoras. 

It is interesting that Pythagoras takes center stage. Perhaps Ovid was himself a disciple of Pythagoras’s doctrines. While we eventually yield to the unrelenting assault of the sea of time, Pythagoras says that our souls “Are still the same for ever” even if we “adopt/In their migrations ever-varying forms.” But these varying forms that our souls adopt are still moved by that spirit of love: whether we be snakes, flowers, or rivers. Love is the pulsating soul that gives all things life.

If death be our fate as mortality must invariably end in death, what lives on? What is eternal? Love is eternal. When we look at trees, animals, and nature itself, we are to be reminded of the love that made the beauty of the world possible. That is Ovid’s message and why Ovid can confidently assert that “[He] shall live” forever because of the “truth” “stablished by poetic prophecy” he poetically sang of. That truth is nothing short of the love that unites this disparate cosmos together. 

Despite all the metamorphoses we witness, despite all the darkness and bloodshed our eyes often behold, despite the failures and frequent inability to consummate the love that we do seek, the constant spirit that governs Ovid’s Metamorphoses is love: whether it be blessed, redemptive, or tragic. And that is why Ovid remains so powerful and relevant despite the violence and sexual predation that often accompanies his stories. We might say that he saw the world we are waking up to today. But rather than despair, we too should share in the poetic truth that love can unite even death, and may, just may, in rare circumstances (like with Perseus and Andromeda) end in the felicity beside the flowers and streams of life we all desire. Reading Ovid is indeed a delight, a pleasure, especially once we know what he was singing about.

Paul Krause is the editor at VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He can be found on Twitter @Paul_jKrause

*Editor’s note: The translation here is the author’s. 

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