I had never heard of Ovid until I was reading a book on Shakespeare and the author mentioned him. He summed up his comments with this statement:
There is hardly a single Shakespeare play or poem that does not owe character, language or plot to Ovidian mythology.
Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name
My curiosity was piqued and I've been slowly reading him since. The "Ovidian mythology" refers to the book Metamorphoses and I downloaded several free versions on iBook. I finally paid a few bucks for the complete works that includes the original Latin, English verse translations, and prose translations of not only Metamorphoses, but the rest of his poetry, and a biography.
So why bother reading some dusty old poetry written a couple thousand years ago? Because the imagery is surprisingly vivid. For example, here is how Ovid describes the goddess Envy:
[Envy] rises sluggishly from the ground, and leaves the bodies of the serpents half devoured, and stalks along with sullen pace. And when she sees the Goddess [Pallas] graced with beauty and with splendid arms, she groans, and fetches a deep sigh at her appearance. A paleness rests on her face, and leanness in all her body; she never looks direct on you; her teeth are black with rust; her breast is green with gall; her tongue is dripping with venom. Smiles there are none, except such as the sight of grief has excited. Nor does she enjoy sleep, being kept awake with watchful cares; but sees with sorrow the successes of men, and pines away at seeing them. She both torments and is tormented at the same moment, and is ever her own punishment.”
Isn't that just how envy feels?
Here is an excerpt of the story of Phaethon taking a joyride on his father's Sun chariot (with a time lapse of me sketching a portrait of Ovid):
Book of Changes
Metamorphoses is made up of fifteen books and spans from the creation of the earth to the reign of Augustus. These myths were recorded by others before him, but Ovid was the first person to bring them all together in chronological order. The first eleven Books deal with the Gods and Demi-Gods, and Book 12 tells of the Trojan War. The remaining Books gradually bring us to Ovid's time, with the death of Julius Caesar and the beginning of Augustus's reign.
The theme of metamorphosis seems to start with Jove raping various nymphs and humans, and his wife, Juno, punishing them by changing them into various trees, animals, rocks, whatever. And so it goes, the Gods punishing everyone for their own actions and petty jealousies.
However, there are no lessons to be learned. These aren't morality tales. Ian Johnston, retired instructor at Vancouver Island University, observes:
The lasting impression is that the metamorphoses provide a wonderful basis for telling stories effectively, nothing more.
It is there for us to enjoy as an example of a story for its own sake, something we can read and enjoy for the moment, without being led to some system of belief about the world or some cosmic understanding.
What we remember from the poem is the clarity of particular episodes memorably delivered, rather than any consistent illumination of what one might call a vision of life.
If you read the prose translation of Metamorphoses you'll notice the structure is a bit different. The Books are further broken into Fables, and after each Fable is an Explanation. When I first started reading the prose translation I was confused by the explanations. The fables were entertaining, but the explanations seemed misguided, didactic, and often ludicrous. I was glad that Ian Johnston shed light on them:
The extraordinary tendency of the Middle Ages to moralize Ovid, to force onto the poem very didactic interpretations entirely consistent with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, becomes easier to understand. Interpreters in that period certainly put something into the poem that is not there, but did not displace or violate some central vision of things.
Ovid's Influence on Writing
Writers will benefit a great deal from reading and studying Ovid. Ian Johnston also points out:
...if one wants to have any sort of historical appreciation for the development of English poetry, understanding the influence of and the reference to Ovid is essential.
What we are learning, as we read this poem, is not how to understand the world but how to use language and the resources of fiction delightfully.
(In researching Ovid it was inevitable that I'd come across lots of discussion around the various Greek, Roman, Latin, and English poetic forms. I won't go into that here, but see the footnotes if you're interested.*)
Fun Things I Learned from Reading Metamorphoses
- Origin of werewolves (lycanthropy).
- Rover was the name of one of Actaeon's hounds.
- Earth as a sphere was common knowledge in Ovid's time.
- Dreadlocks were referred to (dread-inspiring locks).
- The raven was Pallas's favorite bird. (I wondered why Edgar Allan Poe had the raven sit upon a bust of Pallas.)
How to read Metamorphoses
- Keep in mind Ovid is dark. The stories are often brutal and violent, but the poetic imagery is mesmerizing.
- Read the verse translation, and if you need a little clarification read the same passage from the prose translation. I know, it seems like a translation of a translation but sometimes it helps.
- When you read the prose translation, skip the explanations. They were added by translators in the Middle Ages to impose didactic interpretations reflecting teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
And finally, here is a poster of Ovid with some motivational thoughts for writers:
*Here are a few links that will give you a great refresher on poetic forms: