Beginning Ovid's Metamorphoses
BEGINNING OVID'S METAMORPHOSES: CREATION IS ONLY A PREAMBLE (An Irreverent Tour of the First Book of Ovid's Masterpiece)
'Of bodies chang'd to various forms, I sing' Ovid begins to chant, the moment we open Book One (BUT FIRST...these important MESSAGES from our sponsor!) . We're going to have to wait awhile for the main anthology of Transformation Stories to begin.
So while we're stranded here at the very beginning of Ovid's Metamorphoses, folks, how about THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE & HUMANKIND leading up to that first story? Ovid is nothing if not a 'master of suspense'.
After rattling on about Chaos for awhile, our poet-host may momentarily leave the reader feeling a bit muddle-headed: 'No certain form on any was imprest; / All were confus'd, & each disturb'd the rest.' Confusion in the midst of Chaos is, I suppose, a 'natural'; after all, '...hot & cold were in one body fixt; / & soft with hard, & light with heavy mixt.'
Looking for some sign of directed activity or organizational talent in the midst of this melee, Ovid considers things to have picked up considerably (& why not?) with the advent of the first humans:
The God of Nature
did his soul inspire,
Or Earth, but new divided
from the sky,
And, pliant, still retain'd
th' aetherial energy:
Which wise Prometheus
temper'd into paste,
And, mixt with living streams,
the godlike image cast.
Sounds a bit like playing at mud-pies, yet 'From such rude principles our form began; & earth was metamorphos'd into Man.' These inchoate early hominids I suspect possessed 'verisimilitude after the manner of cloud-shapes, which in their rapid metamorphoses one compares now to human beings & a moment afterwards to centaurs' -a serendipitous descriptive phrase Aristotle uses to characterize some hybrid kinds of human images.
Ovid's search engine now relentlessly cloverleaves us into a purposely-detailed highly moralistic timeline: first we flirt with an idyllic Golden Age (kind of like the calm before the storm) . The poet's drowsy vision of this prelapsarian era lies suspended in time: 'Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet's angry sound: / Nor swords were forg'd; but void of care & crime, / The soft creation slept away their time.' Kind of like naptime in kindergarten. But when snacktime came along, no problem: 'The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough, / & unprovok'd, did fruitful stores allow: / Content with food, which Nature freely bred, / On wildings & on strawberries they fed...'
Golden Age climate-control did the rest: 'Western winds immortal spring maintain'd.' Need a little lift? That sugar rush was only an arm's length away:
'...honey sweating through the pores of oak.'
Regrettably, by the very next age, the Silver Age, it's already pretty clear things are going into the dumper. The entire Spring season, for instance, has been reduced to the equivalent of a long weekend(!) : 'Good days contracted, & enlarg'd the bad./ Then air with sultry heats began to glow; / The wings of winds were clogg'd with ice & snow; & shivering mortals, into houses driv'n, / Sought shelter from th' inclemency of Heav'n.' Boring rounds of card-games were probably the rule.
Brazen Age, same story: things still going downhill.
Then The Giants' War comes along: ' Nor were the Gods themselves more safe above; / Against beleaguer'd Heav'n the giants move./ Hills pil'd on hills, on mountains mountains lie, / To make their mad approaches to the skie.'
Well, this kind of overbearing hooliganism cannot continue in Ovid's world without a stern reprimand, so 'Jove, no longer patient, took his time / T' avenge with thunder their audacious crime'. Next move: 'Red light'ning plaid' against a Scotch-tape sky, as Tom Waits might complete the phrase.
In this Giants vs. Jove match, we find the Giants' 'demolish'd works to pieces rent./ Sing'd with the flames, & with the bolts transfixt'.
Now comes a scene worthy of Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Moreau: 'With native Earth, their blood the monsters mixt; / The blood, indu'd with animating heat, / Did in th' impregnant Earth new sons beget: / They, like the seed from which they sprung, accurst, / Against the Gods immortal hatred nurst, / An impious, arrogant, & cruel brood; / Expressing their original from blood.'
Interestingly enough, this fabricated race of custom-designed creatures strongly resembles certain shifting social boundaries & perhaps even actual medical experiments Ovid may have witnessed transforming his own era, the blatant revelation of which may have effectively led to his banishment by Emperor Augustus in the year 8 C.E. (the poet was, indeed sent into exile just as he reached the exact middle of the Metamorphoses project) .
Certainly we seem to hear echoing in our own millennium sentiments similar to these, from our most pessimistic contemporaries: 'The clamours of this vile degenerate age, /The cries of orphans, and th' oppressor's rage, / Had reach'd the stars: '
Despite an attempt to 'prove this loud complaint a lye', we are forced by Ovid's evidence to conclude at length that 'Mankind's a monster, and th' ungodly times/ Confed'rate into guilt, are sworn to crimes.' But lest we indict only one group or individual, Special Prosecutor Ovid insists that 'All are alike involv'd in ill, & all/ Must by the same relentless fury fall.'
APRES 'THE NEWS', LE DELUGE: Here's where the Giants hit the fan: 'High o'er their heads, behold a watry wall: / Now seas & Earth were in confusion lost; / A world of waters, & without a coast.' Like a media newshound in a hurricane, Ovid blandly describes the misadventures of his doomed creations:
'One climbs a cliff; one in his boat is born/ & ploughs above, where late he sow'd his corn./ Others o'er chimney-tops & turrets row, / & dropp their anchors on the meads below'.
But after a bit of knockabout, the toys go back in their chest: all the Giants perish. Except... 'Deucalion wafting, ' who 'moor'd his little skiff' with suitable nubile matriarch in tow.
Deucalion & his wife/sister Pyrrha 'were only left behind Of perish'd Man; they two were human kind.' With humanity down to a cast of 2, a Gilligan's-cum-Crusoe Island trope out front, (although the 'island' turns out to be the tip of submerged Mount Olympus) , & with Book of Genesis overtones moving up in the stretch, we are now led down a dystopic Garden-path that sounds like the aftermath of World War III:
'At length the world was all restor'd to view; But desolate, & of a sickly hue: Nature beheld her self, & stood aghast, A dismal desart, & a silent waste.'
Here we cut to a video: Deucalion gets to do a number, is it reggae or calypso?
'Oh wife, oh sister,
oh of all your kind the best,
& only creature left [...]
'We two remain a species in a pair
The rest the seas have swallowed
Nor have we even of this wretched life a certainty [...]
'The clouds are still above & while I speak, a second deluge over our heads may break...'
In the midst of this somewhat maudlin dirge, troubadour Deucalion suddenly has a happy thought:
'Oh cou'd our father his old arts inspire, And make me heir of his informing fire.'
Promethean inspiration leads to a riff on the old 'Dry Bones' number:
'This Earth our mighty mother is, the stones In her capacious body, are her bones: These we must cast behind.
[...] 'Descending from the mount,
they first unbind Their vests, & veil'd,
they cast the stones behind:
'The stones... did first the rigour
of their kind expel, / & suppled into softness, as they fell; / Then swell'd, & swelling, by degrees grew warm; / & took the rudiments of human form.'
As the stones (or bones) flesh out (do a kind of voodoo lounge-act striptease in reverse) , 'The sappy parts, & next resembling juice, Were turn'd to moisture, for the body's use' (rich in vitamins A & D, lanolin & other soothing emollients no doubt) .
'The rest, too solid to receive a bent, / Converts to bones; & what was once a vein, / Its former name & Nature did retain./ By help of pow'r divine, in little space, / What the man threw, assum'd a manly face; / & what the wife, renew'd the female race.'
Once the human fixin's are whipped up, the stoutly anthropocentric poet's 'underling' or 'for hire' creatures start squirming into view: 'The fat manure with heav'nly fire is warm'd; And crusted creatures, as in wombs, are form'd'. There's even a kind of yin-yang pair of entities in the offing: 'One half alive; & one of lifeless earth.'
Here Ovid seems to really be getting into the textures: 'the surface of the ground, with mud & slime besmear'd (the faeces of the flood) , / Receiv'd the rays of Heav'n: & sucking in/ The seeds of heat, new creatures did begin'.
But for all of the proto-Darwinian wallowing in the ooze, this entire mythos our author so meticulously evolves is only meant to supply the preamble to: METAMORPHOSIS BLOCKBUSTER I: The Legend Begins!
Everything 'til now was merely the windup; now here is what Ovid really wants to pitch to us: 'THE TRANSFORMATION OF DAPHNE INTO A LAWREL! ' (extra! extra!)
Phoebus (Apollo for short) likes to spread his brand of sunshine around, so there are many more amours to come, but back up here at the beginning end of the Metamorphoses, we are still just now meeting the first & fairest of his loves (blush!) , 'Whom not blind fortune, but the dire/ decree Of angry Cupid forc'd him to desire: '
Yep, it's the Admirable Daphne ('& Peneus was her sire') . Peneus or no Peneus, our Phoebian hero 'Swell'd with the pride, that new success attends, as he 'sees the stripling, ' (Cupid with his bow issuing his 'dire decree') , & this is an encounter calling for a taunting insult directed at the initiator of his love for Daphne- sex-fiend Cupid, whom Phoebus slams as 'Thou lascivious boy, ' then adds insult to injury by once more pulling his adult rank on the perpetual youth: 'Are arms like these for children to employ? '
This is where Apollo really loses it, scaring the daylights out his intended object of affection: 'Th' enamour'd deity pursues the chace; / The scornful damsel shuns his loath'd embrace...'
A loner, a very private person, Daphne beguiles her hours 'In hunting beasts of prey'. But her insouciant dishabille as she pursues her favorite activities gives Phoebus a teasing eyeful: 'With naked neck she goes, & shoulders bare; / & with a fillet binds her flowing hair.'
Despite the Sun god's physical attraction, this is a romance made in Hell: 'She shuns, & hates the joys, she never try'd./ On wilds, & woods, she fixes her desire'. Stubborn girl!
Like I hinted before, Phoebus's wacko idea of a courtship is relentless, unremitting pursuit, flowers & candy take the hindmost: 'He gathers ground upon her in the chace: / Now breathes upon her hair, with nearer pace; / & just is fast'ning on the wish'd embrace.'
In video terms, now comes the money-shot: Daphne calls on 'paternal waters' to come to the rescue: 'Oh help, she cry'd, in this extreamest need! / If water Gods are deities indeed: /...change my form, whence all my sorrows come.'
'Scarce had she finish'd, when her feet she found/ Benumb'd with cold, & fasten'd to the ground: / A filmy rind about her body grows; / Her hair to leaves, her arms extend to boughs.'
You've expected it, you've waited for it, now... 'THE NYMPH IS ALL INTO A LAWREL GONE'! ! Like some faded cosmetics advertisement, 'The smoothness of her skin remains alone.'
Phoebus finally gets a clue, now that it's too late: 'casting round her bole, his arms, some little warmth he found.' Daphne, for her part, is still out of breath from the chase-sequence (even as a newly-sprung semi-veggie) : 'The tree still panted in th' unfinish'd part: / Not wholly vegetive, & heav'd her heart.'
At this point things get a little kinky: 'He fixt his lips upon the trembling rind; / It swerv'd aside, & his embrace declin'd.' Still perhaps a little annoyed that she doesn't immediately get a big crush on him (even as a tree) , the Sun god decides to send her round-robin amongst his buddies the poets (poets like Ovid, for instance) : 'Be thou the prize of honour, & renown; / The deathless poet, & the poem, crown.' Daphne, undoubtedly the best sport in the whole scenario, decides this will be ok.
Thus have we circuitously arrived at the very BEGINNING of Publius Ovidius Naso's great cycle of tales (we still have to see Io become a 'Heyfer' & let the Inner Reed in Syrinx express itself, before we even leave Book One) .
Ovid mocks us (as ever) for resisting our encounters with his magic-saturated, shape-shifting realities. And after traversing early on Book One's weary catalogue of decline, deluge, & lose/lose propositions, we readily indeed, & with great relief, surrender our childlike defenses to begin revelling in those ambivalent, delightful, hair-raising tales the poet has now begun to tell.
Jay Mandeville's Other Poems
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