Thursday, July 3, 2014
The Metamorphoses of Ovid is one of those books that you're supposed to have read if you're really into Shakespeare. Both of my Shakespeare professors in college brought it up multiple times in class and The Riverside Shakespeare mentions Ovid's stories hundreds of times in the footnotes because the Bard makes heavy use of Metamorphoses when crafting allusions, especially when describing people who have been brought to a wretched state by fate or bad luck.
The fables in the 15 books of The Metamorphoses are full of stories and characters that modern readers will be at least passingly familiar with: we encounter all those gods mentioned in Disney's Hercules, we run into Icarus and Adonis and Achilles, Ulysses is present in some of the tales, and several of the stories have a structure that is familiar in folklore from all sorts of places. But while there is a lot of the familiar in the fables there is more of the bizarre: men who become gods because they ate grass and jumped into the sea or were tumbled from their chariots, women tearing a musician to shreds for not honoring their god, and Jove being just the worst asshole ever.
The theme of "the gods are assholes" is pretty much constant in the stories - they will sometimes transform someone as a favor but they do it more frequently as a punishment. There are a whole lot of stories of women being "ravished" (read: raped) by gods and then turned into trees or rocks or beasts as punishment (or a sick kind of solace) for giving up their chastity. One story tells of a woman who tries, unsuccessfully, to fight off Neptune's advances; after he's finished with her he offers her a gift for being such a good unwilling lay and she asks to be turned into a man so this will never happen to her again. If that's the way your gods behave and is part of the moral structure of your society then I can see why your empire failed and why Julius Caesar's friends wanted to stab him to death in the Senate.
The translation that I read is also full of at least two kinds of pandering that makes this a less-than-fantastic source; first, Ovid is writing to please Augustus Caesar and so there's a lot of Venus worship going on that's mixed with a nauseating helping of Augustus worship in the final fable; second, this is a Victorian translation and much of the language has been tempered and dulled until it seems pretty clear that the nastier aspects of the stories have been softened for the sensibilities of a nineteenth century audience, which is a little horrifying when you realize that the stories are pretty nasty anyway.
The Victorian aspect shows up most strongly in the footnotes and explanations after each fable, which I strongly recommend skipping. Some of it is interesting history but a lot of it is time spent discussing heathen authors and trying to anachronistically apply Christianity to the tales. Skipping the pompous thoughts of the translating scholar does a pretty good job of making this a much faster and more pleasant (though still occasionally tedious) read.
Ovidius Naso, Publius. Translated by Henry T. Riley. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. George Bell & Sons.
Covent Garden: London. 1893.