We live in an age of reboots. I for one think this is an excellent thing. Most of the great of history has fallen into the category of reboots, retellings, recapitulations and reimaginings.
Without the concept of fanfic there is no Aeneid, and while many a college Sophmore may rejoice at that idea, world literature would be the poorer for it. That is, as well, what Ovid is doing with the Metamorphoses. He’s compiling and retelling, weaving several hundred different strands together into one long rope of story. And that work is still bearing fruit today.
One of the better and most wideley known tales that Ovid retells is the myth or Orpheus. This one is so commonly read that I’ll just sketch down the bones here: Orpehus was the greatest musician who ever lived. He was married to a young woman named Eurydice, but she died very soon after the wedding. Heartbroken, he made his way down to the Underworld, and with the power of his music, convinced Hades and Persephone to let Eurydice come back to the light. They agreed, the only time in all of history they have done so, because they were so moved by his music. But there was a condition: Eurydice would follow him up to the surface, and he couldn’t look back once.
The problem with gods isn’t just that they’re terrible parents, or that they’re bad luck to be around. Greco-Roman gods were bad news because, well, they were people. Which sounds nice and relatable until you think about some of the people you know.
They’re intense, passionate beings who are untempered by immortality. Which means they feel everything we feel – love, joy, anger, jealousy – but with the powers of a god to back them up.
This is most apparent in the stories of Zeus (Jupiter in Ovid’s works) and his many…. Well, some older editors call them “loves”. Some others call them “conquests”, which is a little better. For the most part, they’re victims, either of Zeus when he kidnaps them or his wife when she finds out about them.
One such victim whose story Ovid tells is Callisto. She was a sworn virgin, a friend of Diana who wandered with her in the wilderness. She spent all her time with her fellow virgins, hunting, fishing, and generally avoiding men and the role usually allotted to young women in the ancient world. Until Jupiter saw her and raped her. As if that weren’t bad enough, when she was discovered to be pregnant, Diana threw her out of her company.
If there’s anything you learn quickly from Ovid, it’s that the gods are real jerks. They aren’t people you want anything to do with.
This is a consistent theme in the ancient world. The entire goal of existence with relation to the gods was to do what you had to do to stay in their good graces and to avoid them ever noticing you. Make your sacrifices, avoid outright blasphemy and sins that really anger them, and otherwise? Don’t ever be too.
Too rich. Too powerful. Too beautiful. Too lucky. Too happy. All of these things are potentially fatal, and that’s just if you’re a mere mortal. If you have the ill luck to be related to one of the gods, you’re all but guaranteed trouble.
So Phaeton is pretty well doomed. When he is taunted by a friend for being a bastard, he asks mother for proof of his parentage. She tells him where to find the palace of the sun, and off he goes. When he arrives, the Sun confirms that he is indeed Phaeton’s father and offers him one favor of his choosing to prove it.
Next rule: never accept a favor from a god. Or a nymph. Or a spirit of any kind. If you ever find yourself in a myth, turn down all favors. It will not end well.
Phaeton, being a young man, asks to borrow his dad’s car. The super cool one that burns with the heat of the sun. Pheobus immediately realizes that he has made a terrible mistake, but his son won’t be persuaded. Off Phaeton goes, with his father’s reins in hand.
The title for Ovid’s Metamorphoses comes from the fact that every story he tells contains one. A metamorphosis, that is. While Homer begins his epics with Anger (in the Iliad and the Odyssey), Ovid begins In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora… “I’m of a mind to tell you about bodies changed into new forms…” Sometimes those changes are incidental to the story, but at the beginning, Ovid is interested in the big changes. The great, cosmic ones. He begins by telling about the first change, from yawning chaos into the slowly increasing order of Creation. He tells of the first four ages of mankind, the Roman version of the Great Flood myth, and of Apollo’s conquest of the great Python.
That last should be a good story, but he speeds past it: Earth Angry, Giant Dragon-Snake thing, God with bow, boom. Festival commemorating mighty victory. Next!
He then tells the story of Apollo and Daphne. The first thing you need to know is this:
Apollo has no game. None. Zero. He is That Guy. He is always That Guy, and the one time he manages to get a boyfriend, said boyfriend ends up instantly dead because Apollo is The Worst.
We have our theories on why that may be, but that comes later. For now, just know this: if Apollo is interested in someone, girl or boy, it will end badly for her or him. And probably for the world at large.
So when he comes into Olympus fresh from killing a dragon and makes fun of Cupid for being a baby archer… well, let’s just say that disturbance in the force that you feel is two-thousand years’ worth of readers cringing and then smacking their faces with their palms. Cupid, after all, enjoys making gods fall in love with really embarrassing people.
We’re kicking off the year (wrapping it up, technically, but since this is an introduction, we’ll elide the difference) with a return to form. I’m also giving myself a holiday present, because this? This is a work by one of my favorite authors of all time.
And when a Classicist says that, it really means something.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses were written under the reign of the Emperor Augustus. If we didn’t have solid dating on Ovidius Naso’s life (he was born on March 20, 43 BC and died sometime in 17/17 CE) we’d have this detail, because he and the first emperor of the Romans did not get on. Ovid ended his life in exile, in part because of his poetry (including the Metamorphoses) and in part because of…something. That something is one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the Augustan era. We know that Ovid did something that offended Augustus so deeply that he was sent to the very end of the empire and left there to rot. He writes in the Tristia (his book of poems written from that exile) that he was sent away for “carmen et error”: a “poem and a mistake”, but never reveals more.
Did he have an affair with Augustus’s daughter Julia, who was exiled for promiscuity? Did he have a part in a revolutionary plot, a role that was too vague for execution but too solid to be ignored? Did he make one joke too many? We don’t know, and it keeps me up at night. In all seriousness, if I ever wake up in the dead of night to hear that telltale whoosh-rattle-whoosh and a blue phone box appears in my garden, you will see me running outside in my nightie waving a copy of the Oxford Classical Dictionary and screaming “TAKE ME TO OVID!”
Gigamesh and Enkidu return to Uruk after Humbaba’s death. Gilgamesh bathes and puts on his royal garments. This effect is so impressive that the goddess Ishtar herself appears before him and begs her to marry him.
If you remember back to the Odyssey, this is a pretty typical motif: the hero who is so manly that goddesses are laid low. But while Odysseus tried to have his cake and eat it too (pardon the expression), Gilgamesh has absolutely no interest in playing nice.
He does not offer Ishtar a polite refusal. He calls her a whore. He lists the many lovers she has had and their terrible fates.
And that is just the beginning. He calls her:
a half-door that keeps out neither breeze nor blast,
a palace that crushes down valiant warriors,
an elephant who devours its own covering,
pitch that blackens the hands of its bearer,
a waterskin that soaks its bearer through,
limestone that buckles out the stone wall,
a battering ram that attracts the enemy land,
a shoe that bites its owner’s feet!
Luckily, the Epic of Gilgamesh has one handy. This monster comes in the form of Humbaba, a being who is massive and terrifying, who was created to be “a terror to human beings” and who acts as a guardian of the Cedar Forests.
And frankly, he’s a really weird monster. As I’ve noted before, Mesopotamian myth feels very strange to us. Four-thousand years may be a blip geologically but anthropologically it’s a massive gulf. And as illustration, I offer up the fact that Humbaba’s face is usually depicted as being constructed out of intestines.
(Yes, we’re still talking Gilgamesh, I haven’t hit my head. Just give me a second. Haven’t we developed that kind of blogger/reader trust yet?)
In fact, I love a good romance. Give me a lady in a corset and a handsome young duke/earl/suitably wealthy gentleman/starving but really charming young artist, 300 pages and a stretch of time that my weesters are occupied elsewhere and I am all yours. I think the romance genre of fiction is underrated and, frankly, under-read by writers in many other genres.
But romance, or more precisely eros, has taken over fiction and fandom. Romantic relationships have become the primary relationship we see in our entertainment. Romantic tension is wedged into stories, often awkwardly. It’s often justified by seeking to appeal to a female demographic, as if women were incapable of liking stories without romance or that romance is the only relationship that we value. This is not only condescending, it’s exclusionary on a number of levels. And it is sad, because some of the greatest relationships in history were not romantic or familial, but friendships.
And the first great relationship we have recorded is just that. As we discussed last time, Gilgamesh has been making a royal pain of himself, and when his people pray for help, the gods respond by creating a man who will be his match. That man is Enkidu, and once the gods breathe life into him, they set him down in the wilderness.
Vengeful goddesses. Rad bromances. Quests for eternal life. Sex, sex, and more sex…
Sounds like The CW, right? Instead, it’s what is likely the earliest surviving piece of literature we have: the Epic of Gilgamesh.
First written in the 18th century BCE, and composed in its present form probably sometime in the 13th century BCE, Gilgamesh was lost to us until 1853, when its tablets were discovered in Ninevah.
That’s right: tablets. Ancient Mesopotamian texts were inscribed by a wedge-shaped stylus onto wet clay tablets. (Bring that out the next time someone starts up the paper vs digital book argument.) And a good thing, too: had the epic been inscribed on parchment, it would be long gone.
But while the text itself was lost to us for millennia, the story left its traces behind. Once the Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered, we could see its fingerprints all over ancient myth and literature, from the Book of Genesis to the Illiad.
Today, we’re concluding our wanderings through the Mediterranean with Jason and the Argonauts as we look at the major tropes explored in Apollonius’s Argonautica.
A beginning, like an ending, is a very delicate time.
End The Blair Witch Project in just the right place and it’s a short film about three kids who filmed their uneventful camping trip. Cut Old Yeller early and it’s a charming story about a boy and his dog.
Take out the majority of the story of Jason and Medea and it’s a rip-roaring adventure with a strong side of romance.
You have to feel bad for Apollonius. As much as I joke that the work ought to be called “Medea and the guys she got a ride from”, it really is the Argonautica. It is supposed to be the story of the Argonauts, led by Jason. Unfortunately the whole of the story doesn’t cooperate. Once Medea arrives in the myth, she takes over and pushes all the other actors to the sides of the stage.
The author had a similar problem with Heracles, but myth provided a way out. And while Greek audiences would tolerate a lot more play with mythological canon than any modern audience would (wait, who am I kidding, they just made another Hercules movie), there wasn’t a way to remove as critical a character as Medea.
Once Euripides has done a play on your life, you’re kind of a big deal.