Ovid Metamorphoses:Guide to The classics – Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Reading Rape
Some say love is what the world needs to rebuild and rejoice but in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” this is not the case. Throughout the book we see the opposite instead. Love is basically vile, and it dehumanizes most of those affected by it. Specially speak about the nature of love in the myths of Narcissus, Echo, Deucalion, and Pyrrha tells us that Ovid wanted people to think that is was a dangerous and a negative force. That once you catch the lovebug it’s takes over you completely, you’re so deep in it you can’t see past it. Even if you see that love is destroying everything, you ignore it because no one can resist its nature. In the myth’s above love often brings misery to those who endure it.
In Echo’s myth we see the constant theme of wanting something that you can’t have and how the effect of that want can be devastatingly dangerous. In the myth we come along a simple yet beautiful forest nymph who has already endured a lot in her life. In her past Echo was known for talking a lot and one day it changed her forever. Echo was telling tales to Juno while a nymph was with her husband Jupitar. The nymph escaped from the castle, which left Juno with no use her wrath on. Until she remembered who held her up, Echo. So, Juno ultimately made her live up to her name on the basis of having to repeat everything someone says. With the past discuss we move on to nature of love in this myth. One day Echo was walking through the forest when she sees Narcissus and suddenly its love at first sight, or obsession at first sight. Echo’s love for this man made her basically stalk him until her finally notices her. But once he does, she can’t talk back since Juno gave her the penalty of repeating others, ultimately Narcissus rejects her. This rejection doesn’t end her love or obsession for him, it just causes her more pain. Echo’s “…great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows”. The power of love and how it can take over someone is apparent throughout Echo’s story. With Echo always wanting Narcissus even though the love she feels for him is destroying her being, she never gives up hope on fulfilling her dreams on being with him. Which causes her to slowly fade away with nothing, but her voice left.
The nature of love isn’t forgiving in Narcissus fate either. similar to Echo’s myth, Narcissus love is so powerful that it takes over everything he is. As it takes over him, we see how it destroys him as well. Echo wasn’t the only nymph to declare their undying love for him. It got to the point where Narcissus prayed to the gods about it “If he should love deny him what he loves!”. This prayer was answered by Nemesis but would be the end of him. There was an untouched fountain in hills of the forest, where Narcissus decided to rest after a grueling day of hunting. As he drank from the fountain he froze, there was the most beautiful angelic man looking right at him. He sees “All that is lovely in himself he loves”, which makes him want only himself. As he sits there looking at himself, he has an indescribable desire to be with himself. He tries to hold and kiss the reflection but every time he does it disappears. While staring at the water “He knows not what he there beholds, but what he sees inflames his longing, and error that deceives allures his eyes”. He doesn’t know what he has but he knows that just by looking at it he has an intense longing to love it, but this longing cause by love is detrimental error in his fate. Once he realizes that if he looks away, he will lose his love, he ignores his every need for his crazed love. In the end Narcissus dies because love was such a powerful but negative force that ended up destroying who he was.
Both myths of Echo and Narcissus nature of love was such a powerful force that they could not see past it or ignore how toxic and miserable it made them. The power of love took and left terrible affects that both could not see, only us as readers can see. Love hit these two like a freight with no end. The pain and misery of not being able to be with the one you love drives them to their demise. But at the same time, they still don’t give up on their love. It was terrible cycle for both to endure but they could not avoid due to the desirable features of it.
The myth containing Deucalion and Pyrrha is more on the side of the gods being affect by love, and how their love drove them to extreme circumstances. It all started when the Jupitar quickly realized that their beloved creations were not as innocent as they thought. The ones they were made to pray and love them weren’t doing what they were made to do. Jupitar made the connection that ” all men conspire in evil”, so he “Let them therefore feel the weight of dreadful penalties so justly earned”. So, Jupitar and the other gods were betrayed by the ones that they love the most, which angered them. The love and anger they felt towards man set them into a blind rage that they made man pay for. As Jupitar thought this through, he created a huge store to wipe out all of humanity. When the storm set off to do its purpose the humans went into turmoil. But as the destruction was happening, he saw an innocent man and woman still worshipping the gods as their world is being destroyed around them. As he watches these to pray to the gods his love and hope for humanity return because of these two. So being the almighty one that he was he stopped the flooding and dangers that where Deucalion and Pyrrha lay praying at. He gave them enough room to survive. After that whole ordeal the loyal creations decided to walk and as they walked, they noticed a temple. When going inside the temple they notice an oracle.
The oracle saw how dedicated to the gods they were and gave them some advice on rebuilding humanity. The oracle said to toss “the bones of your great mother”, both were confused at first until Deucalion realized that their great mother was. So, they threw rocks as the bones and suddenly humans started to appear. This myth shows more negatives to love, and how betrayal can turn love into an uncontrollable rage. We see that love basically dehumanized gods to their creations because what was in place of their creations weren’t the ones they loved. Which ultimately caused them to ignore how man changed to evil by destroying man completely, so all they remembered was the good parts they loved not the bad parts they hated. Until Jupitar saw how Deucalion and Pyrrha’s love for the gods caused them to ignore all that was happening around them. Basically, the gods wanted to wipe out humanity for their love of how it used to be, but Deucalion and Pyrrha changed their minds to rebuilding man to be like Deucalion and Pyrrha. So, the gods loved being worship and this loved caused them to take extreme measurement to fix their misery of not being worshipped. This misery almost caused them to ignore innocents that still loved and worshipped them.
In the end Ovid’s book really highlights the negatives that love can bring to those affected by it. Especially in the myths above we see the nature of love take everyone to point of ignoring the destruction of themselves or the world they created. In the myths we see the common theme of wanting the perfect kind of love even if it produces a negative force to those who endure it and are around it. Love causes people to ignore its destructive characteristics just to feel its superficial vibes.
Minerva and Arachne. Transformation in the Book Metamorphoses and Velasquez’s Painting
Minerva and Arachne Metamorphoses
Art and literature are two very powerful ways of portraying stories. Interpretation has a huge impact on stories as well, depending on how the audience and the artist interpret the work. Through stories in the book Metamorphoses we see the use of enargeia, or ‘vividness’. This visual sensory detail allows for mental pictures to be formed rather than looking at a physical picture of the story. Art was highly contested because it was made with the hands, so this raised the question if paintings were really a form of art. Stories in art and literature go hand in hand, but it can often be confusing sometimes when it comes to deciphering what exactly they mean. Through in depth analysis we can derive meanings, although often subjective, through text and art.
Specifically, through the story of Minerva and Arachne, we see an example of a transformation. Arachne was from a poorer region in Lydia, but an excellent weaver. She was so well known for her weaving that she became boastful, claiming that she was even a better weaver than Minerva. Minerva hears this and appears at Arachne’s house in form of an old woman; she tells Arachne she must basically mend her ways and honor the goddess. Arachne responds boastfully and Minerva transformed back into her normal state ready to beat Arachne in a weaving challenge. This marks the first minor transformation that occurs in this story.
Minerva’s tapestry she weaves depicts heroic, epic scenes of the gods and the border contained images that represented the displeasure of the gods; which can be interpreted as a warning for Arachne to give up. Arachne’s piece however depicted explicit scenes of the gods, with a more sinister approach. After the weaving is complete there is a mutual agreement that Arachne’s work is flawless. Minerva is outraged by this and proceeds to tear Arachne’s work to shreds, and then begins to beat Arachne. Arachne attempts to hang herself, and Minerva decides that if she wants to hang that she can help her. She then transforms Arachne into a spider, so she can hang for eternity. Ovid describes this metamorphosis in the following way “her flowing hair fell to the ground, and left her temples bare; her body lessen’d all, but most her face. Her slender fingers, handing on each side with many joynts, the use of legs supply’d. “ Through this description of the transformation we can see the vividness and how even though Arachne is becoming a spider, there are still some human aspects to this transformation.
This weaving contest represents two very different perspectives; especially with Minerva’s work glorifying the gods while Arachne’s work shames them by depicting various scenes of rape and wrongdoing. As Minerva torments her, she commits suicide, eliminating the possibility for a clear victory. We then see Minerva, punishing Arachne, because as her tapestry depicted, it is a god’s right to do so. And vice versa, Arachne is tormented by a goddess, as also depicted in her tapestry, which conveys that mortals should be wary of the gods and their deceitful actions.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez was a Spanish Baroque painter who painted a scene of the fable of Arachne. At first glance one might not realize what this scene depicts, seeing as this painting is sometimes also referred to as ‘The Spinners’. However, we can immediately tell that the picture depicts two women weaving. The scene in the foreground has been painted with a darker set of colors than the separate scene in the background of the portrait. It has been speculated that the foreground represents before the weaving contest has begun and the background represents the end of the tale of Arachne. The background scene depicts just moments before Arachne was transformed into a spider by Minerva. This can be considered the most important scene in the picture because it represents the transformation that relates the tale back to the entirety of the book.
We can see similarities in the painting and the text of Metamorphoses, but at first glace one might not automatically know what the painting is of unless some background information was provided. However, the different perspectives of both Minerva and Arachne in the weaving contest can be seen throughout the painting by Velazquez, especially in the form of the use of the drastic difference in the foreground and background, which basically depicts light and dark. Also the ideals that Minerva and Arachne hold also represent a dark and light aspect. We see Minerva take on a more balanced approach, while Arachne has more of a dark, cynical view on the world. These foreground and the background of the painting provide a sense of balance throughout the piece of art.
More specifically, the background depicts a woman dressed in an antique helmet who is believed to be Athena and to her right we can see a very youthful Arachne. This scene is to be borrowed from another well-known piece of art by Titian. The background image depicts when Athena committed the sacrilegious act of deeming her work better than a god’s. There are an equal amount of women in the foreground and the background, which could lead us to believe that they are in fact the same women in both scenes. In the background we can see Minerva’s anger emphasized, with her arm extended in a ‘striking’ position. The light source coming from the upper left of this scene, falls directly on Minerva in her armor as well.
Through the strategic highlighting we see throughout Velazquez’s piece of art, we can basically determine the highlights of the story. Arachne is portrayed with much more highlighting than Minerva is, so we can assume she is the main subject of this story, especially in the means of the transformation. However, Arachne’s face is not shown in the foreground of the picture as she weaves. The piece that really pulls both pieces of this painting together is the woman in the background who is intently gazing into the foreground scene.
While the piece of work by Velazquez does not depict the actual metamorphosis of Arachne into a spider, it accurately reflects the events that are detrimental to the metamorphosis overall. The events that Velazquez decided to focus on highlight the characters and their overall values. Arachne views the gods as deceitful and unbalanced and this is reflected in the piece in the terms of ‘good versus evil’, which is a common theme found throughout literature and art. The good versus evil is exemplified in the use of the incredibly dark foreground and light, luminous background. In the end, Minerva proves what Arachne wove into her tapestry, that the gods are vengeful and take advantage of mortals in the world. These events are ironic in the sense that Minerva’s actions prove Arachne to be not only the winner of the contest, but also correct in her views on the gods. Once again, the tapestries themselves represent the depiction of good versus evil in the myth. All of these light and dark themes are illuminated in Velazquez’s piece of art, which visually create a dramatic difference.
In conclusion, we can see many parallels in the story of Arachne that are reflected through Velazquez’s piece of art, not only in literal characters, but also certain artistic elements that were used to provide emphasis on aspects of the story. The visual emphasis helps define the importance, mood and details about the characters. While the painting does not literally depict the actual metamorphosis of Arachne into the spider, it emphasizes the events pertaining to the metamorphosis itself. We can pull these ideas out, first off, by the background scene, which is very bright with Arachne in the center of the scene. This scene depicts Minerva in a striking pose, angered by Arachne’s boastfulness. This scene is detrimental to the competition that ensues afterwards, in order to determine who is the better weaver. The foreground, which is much darker, depicts the actual event of the weaving contest, which is the bulk of the story. It introduces a theme of good versus evil and the picture effectively ties that in with its color schemes and painting styles.
The attention to detail that Velazquez used in his painting is what really brings it to life, and makes it reflective of the myth Ovid told in Metamorphoses. When we analyze the two works separately, many of the elements do overlap, making it true to the story of Arachne and Minerva. Velazquez translates the use of enargeia by Ovid in his stylistic choices he used in the painting. Both of the works are done in two completely different elements, yet when further analyzed, there are a lot of similar parallels between the two that really link them together. The human elements Ovid did use to provide imagery were literally translated by Velazquez into the form of art. Overall, this painting accurately depicted the story of Arachne, especially by depicting two different scenes in the composition. It’s a different approach that includes a lot more of the story rather than Velazquez just using one scene.
The Unjust Laws in the Metamorphoses by Ovid and the Death Penalty
“Unjust laws exist”
Laws were created by people with a motive in keeping structure and class within a society for the benefit of others; nonetheless many laws are unjust and wrong. They were established by people who felt that citizens would gain a profit from the laws created, however laws such as the death penalty and laws found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses are not justified.
The death penalty is a debatable topic in countries and although many countries have banned it, others have not. The death penalty was created to punish people who have done terrible deeds. Osama Bin Laden was put on death penalty after his many attempts and attacks on United States soil. He was a very big criminal and therefore I am not against his sentence. The death penalty is also placed upon many innocent people and that creates the fine line between integrity and discrimination. The Troy Davis case was a 22 year long case involving a young man, Davis, and the death of a police officer. Davis was accused of killing the police officer, although “the gun that killed the officer was never found” according to New York Time article published on September 21, 2011. The young man was imprisoned for twenty two years and dealt with 11 court verdicts according to a CBN news article published on September 22, 2011. Davis pleaded guilty at every verdict and told investigators to look further into the case because he sure he was innocent. Troy’s lawyer requested a lie detector test which was denied and shortly after, he was put to death by lethal injection. This man was imprisoned for twenty years, pleaded and begged for his innocence and with no luck put on this death row. There were no solid evidence against the killing, yet the Davis was killed. Why was he denied of a lie detector test if investigators were sure that he was the killer? The death penalty should be used when necessary and can be a possible just law if used wisely; however if used foolishly innocent people could lose their lives.
There are also many unjust laws evident in literature such as Ovid’s Metamorphose one being Jove’s punishment to all of mankind when Lycaon is turned into a wolf and starts eating human flesh. Jove judged the character of one being to everyone else and killed off all of mankind leaving only two survivors. This was a reprehensible move that he made after taking the actions of a single being into account; he was able to end most of the human race. By judging the character of all humans, he committed an unlawful deed.
Unjust laws do exist and while many may support them, because they certainly were made for the public good, others are totally against them. They were made to keep a society balanced and there is a plan behind every law created; however not all laws are justified and many create chaos.
Love the Trigger of Transformation in Metamorphoses
The tile of Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses literally translates to mean “transformation.” The compendium is actually itself a transformational work, merging a multitude of Greek and Roman historical traditions into one massive epic poem. There are many different types of transformations that occur for different reasons throughout the poem: people and gods change into plants and animals, love into hate, chaos into being. Love is the catalyst that creates these changes in the stories that comprise the Metamorphoses. This love is portrayed as a turbulent force that possesses the power to create both positive and negative change. Those affected by this force are wholly in its power, to the exclusion of reason and often morality. Transformations in the Metamorphoses flow from the pursuit of or effects rendered by love. As noted, this love does not always have a positive result; in fact, often the case is quite the opposite. Five main sub-categorical causes stem from love-provoked transformations: sexual encounters, escape, sorrow, punishment, and romantic love.
Sexual encounters are various and common within the stories of the Metamorphoses. The two types of encounters that recur are those of rape and relationships resulting in pregnancy. Rapes are disconcertingly rampant in the plots of these stories. These instances occur in plots such as that found in Book X, which documents the rape of Caenis by Neptune. Thereafter, Caenis transforms into a male so that she may never again be sexually violated. In Book VI Tereus rapes his sister-in-law, Philomela, who eventually, along with her sister, turns into a bird to escape. When, in Book X, Myrrha satisfies her sexual appetite for her father and becomes impregnated, she runs from her home land and prays for transformation; thereafter, she is turned into a myrrh tree that produces the illegitimate child.
Many of the characters in these stories experience a transformation in their attempt to escape a person, god or a situation. In Book I, Apollo pursues Daphne, a follower of Diana who was determined to preserve her virginity. When Apollo persists against Daphne’s wishes, Daphne flees and calls on her father, the river god, to transform her beauty. Daphne becomes a laurel tree and successfully escapes by doing so. In the next example, we again see a human fleeing the unwanted affections of a god. In Book 5, Arethusa is transformed into a river by the goddess Diana to escape her pursuant, Alpheus. In both instances, the gods take pity on humans, modifying their physical composition.
Sorrow often becomes the cause of a transformative tale due to the fact that the human or god form that the character occupies becomes unbearable. By transforming, typically into a plant form, this character not only escapes their mourning, but preserves the memory of that for which they mourned forever. In Book X the young man Cyparissus accidentally brings about the death of his favorite deer, and in his inability to stop mourning, Apollo turns him into a cypress tree. Book VIII tells the story of Byblis, whose unrequited love so grieves her that she turns into a spring that is eternally fed by her teardrops.
Punishment is a consistent theme throughout the epic, usually inflicted by the gods on human beings or upon each other due to outrage over hubris or simply out of revenge. These types of punishment tie into love in that revenge is an act of self-love by the doer- it focuses on appeasing oneself. Similarly, hubris is also the act of self-love, to the exclusion of all others. Revenge is sometimes motivated by genuine grievances, but more often is carried out on a whim by one of the gods. We see this fickleness in Diana, who in Book 3 transforms Actaeon into a stag to be murdered by his own hounds and companions, due to the fact that he accidentally happened upon her while she was bathing. Hubris, however, is considered a very serious and fatal flaw that often causes a character’s downfall. This hubris always catches the attention of the gods and is punished. The gods, as portrayed by Ovid, are hostile to any human being who tries to be their equal. Arachne is transformed by Minerva into a spider after she proudly boasts that her weaving skills surpass that of the gods in Book VI. In the same chapter, the woman Niobe is punished for boasting her worth by the death of her nineteen children and is then turned into stone.
Finally, transformation may be the product of romantic love. Romantic love is a mutual force that may end in tragedy or joy, but focuses mainly upon emphasizing the power that that love held. In Book VIIII a girl named Iphis is transformed by the gods into a male so that she may marry her love, Ianthe. Book X documents the love of Venus and Adonis. When the latter dies, Venus preserves his blood in the anemone to represent her eternal love for him. The reader gets the impression that because this love was romantic love, it had already defied time and the anemone is simply a symbolic act that represents this defiance.
Transformations, then, occur in myriad forms and most of these transformations can be traced back to the predominant impetus, love. Love, being a turbulent force that overtakes its subjects wholly, is capable of producing good or evil. In the collection of Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts the legendary stories that result from the various types of love, conveying the idea that the world essentially is change and one of the greatest catalysts of this constant change is love, in its many forms.
Giving Eurydice a Voice
In Book X of The Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is the well-known story of a Thracian poet, Orpheus, who travels into the underworld seeking return of his new bride, Eurydice, who had been bitten by a serpent and died on their wedding day. Brought to tears by OrpheusÃ¢ singing an emotional plea for her return, the king and queen of the underworld agree to release Eurydice. However, her reprieve depends upon the condition that Orpheus not look back at her until they are completely out of the underworld. Orpheus does not meet this condition, and upon his turning around, Eurydice sinks back Ã¢into the same place from which she had come.Ã¢?In his version, Ovid does not offer much in the way of descriptions of EurydiceÃ¢s character. She is merely that which Orpheus longs for; she is his unobtainable desire. In fact, her second chance at life is referred to as Ã¢the gift that had been givenÃ¢? to Orpheus, not as a gift for herself. Ovid apparently expects the reader to disregard any possible wishes and desires that EurydiceÃ¢s holds for herself and instead, focus on the how his loss of her affects Orpheus alone.The reader of OvidÃ¢s version is provided with a rare insight into Eurydice thoughts as she dies a second time. At this point Ovid claims that she Ã¢uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved?Ã¢? This glimpse into EurydiceÃ¢s thoughts is not meant to provide much revelation about her character, but rather to provide a justification for OrpheusÃ¢ descent into the underworld. Her thoughts serve both to verify OrpheusÃ¢ strong love for her and to eliminate any potential guilt on his part for causing her second death. His strong love for her brought him to the underworld in the first place; as Ovid seems to claim, one could not possibly judge him guilty for this. And how can he be held accountable, when the victim herself doesnÃ¢t even feel she was victimized?EurydiceÃ¢s thoughts allow OvidÃ¢s audience to infer that she had accepted her death and therefore wasnÃ¢t angry that a chance to live again had been lost. Yet this inference only brings forth the question that if she had truly accepted her death, what feelings did she have about Orpheus bringing her back to life? Was she opposed? Or perhaps her death was so complete, that she was already forever numb to the events surrounding her and, had her husband not turned around, would have existed in a Ã¢zombie-likeÃ¢? state even in her second life.The reader could infer that OvidÃ¢s failure, or perhaps refusal, to develop EurydiceÃ¢s character to the same extent that he does OrpheusÃ¢ indicates that he believes the female perspective to bear no importance. The reader could also further infer that this hypothetical belief of OvidÃ¢s is reflective of the time in which Ovid wrote. The Greek culture was most likely male-dominated; the thoughts and feelings of women were not essential. While this conclusion would be an easy one to make, it is more likely that Ovid omits EurydiceÃ¢s voice, not because she is female, but because she is merely a symbol of loss.The central theme in OvidÃ¢s tale is obsession over that which is unobtainable or lost. Eurydice is merely that for Orpheus; expounding on her own thoughts is not necessary for Ovid to demonstrate that OrpheusÃ¢ eventual murder by the Maenads is directly caused by his over-obsession. (OrpheusÃ¢ great love for his wife caused him to lament endlessly over his loss. He never slept with another woman and this angered the female Maenads, who greatly desired to sleep with him. The offense incensed them to the point that they subsequently tore his body limb from limb and cast his head on the island of Lesbos, where it continued to sing.) While OrpheusÃ¢ quest to regain his wife was justified, his inability to move past his loss, after this failed quest, was not excusedÃ¢”thus the dangers of over-obsession.In her poems Ã¢Orpheus (1)Ã¢?, Ã¢EurydiceÃ¢?, and Ã¢Orpheus (2)Ã¢?, Margaret Atwood recounts a version of this myth that includes EurydiceÃ¢s perceptions. In her translation, Atwood comments on the conditions of life and death and the notion of love in each of these realms. She grants Eurydice a voice in order to accomplish this. She does not lend a voice to Orpheus directly, but uses the voices of Eurydice and Hermes (who in this version retrieves Eurydice for Orpheus and accompanies her on her journey out of the underworld) to covey OrpheusÃ¢ thoughts. In AtwoodÃ¢s version, Eurydice does not choose to return to life, but does so out of loyalty to her husband. She says to Orpheus, Ã¢I was obedient, but numb, like an arm gone to sleep; the return to time was not my choice.Ã¢? She goes on, Ã¢before your eyes you held steady the image of what you wanted me to become: living again. It was this hope of yours that kept me following.Ã¢? The words Ã¢what you wanted,Ã¢? insinuate that this was not want Eurydice wanted; she did not wish to live again. The reader is again confronted with EurydiceÃ¢s state of content in death in HermesÃ¢ speaking to her. His confirmation of her desire to remain dead suggests that it is not just caused by her numbness, but also by her wish to avoid the negative aspects of life: Ã¢You would rather have gone on feeling nothing, emptiness, and silence; the stagnant peace of the deepest sea, which is easier than the noise and flesh of the surface.Ã¢?In AtwoodÃ¢s version, the world of the living is presented in negative terms. Eurydice describes this world as Ã¢the green light that had once grown fangs and killed me.Ã¢? During the journey back to this world, her body begins to change back into a physical form. This physical state is not depicted as pleasant: Ã¢Already there was dirt on my hands and I was thirsty.Ã¢? In his announcement to Eurydice that Orpheus has come to take her back, Hermes suggests that her previous life was unpleasant. He tells her that Orpheus is offering Ã¢a promise: that things will be different up there than they were last time.Ã¢?However, it is not just the idea of living that keeps Eurydice from wishing to return. Atwood hints that OrpheusÃ¢ love for Eurydice is not true: Eurydice speaks of his love for her as constricting, Ã¢You had your old leash with you, love you might call it.Ã¢? OrpheusÃ¢ love is not true because he does not actually love her, but rather the person he wishes her to be. Orpheus cannot conceive that Eurydice is more than her physical body. He identifies her personality with her past, physical self and without the presence of that body, he does not know her; how could he possibly truly love someone that he doesnÃ¢t even know? Hermes provides an even clearer description of the conditions of OrpheusÃ¢ love. Ã¢He says he is singing to you because he loves you, not as you are now [Ã¢¦] He wants you to be what he calls real […] This love of his is not something he can do if you arenÃ¢t there.Ã¢? Hermes clearly points out that OrpheusÃ¢ love is dependent upon the physical. Remember that even Eurydice says to Orpheus, Ã¢you held steady the image of what you wanted me to become.Ã¢? Orpheus is not only incapable of loving her without being able to look upon her, but he also needs her to look exactly as she did when she was alive. Only in her previous body, can she represent that person whom Orpheus believes her to be.Atwood uses EurydiceÃ¢s experience in death to expound on the notion of true love. She claims that love is above physical boundaries and the realms of life and death. As Hermes says to Eurydice, who in death is Ã¢chilled and minimal,Ã¢? Ã¢you knew suddenly as you left your body [Ã¢¦] that you love him anywhere, even in this land of no memory, even in this domain of hunger.Ã¢? As Hermes describes it, love is not restricted to being expressed physically. Furthermore, he states, Ã¢You hold love in your hand, a red seed you had forgotten you were holding.Ã¢? True love is expressed without purposeful intent; it is done instinctively and can be forgotten, just as one does not dwell on the blinking of their eyes, their breathing, or the beating of their heart. HermesÃ¢ description of EurydiceÃ¢s love of Orpheus explains that, while she does possess love for Orpheus, she does not dwell upon it. Her love for Orpheus, the Ã¢red seedÃ¢? in her hand, is always with her. However, this love is so much a part of her character that she need not remember to love him; Eurydice loves Orpheus unconsciously.On the surface, Margaret AtwoodÃ¢s translation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth simply aims to provide a more solid characterization of Eurydice. However, this characterization completely alters the argument of the myth. In OvidÃ¢s version, OrpheusÃ¢ failure to bring his Ã¢love into existenceÃ¢? rests on his inability to follow the orders of the king of the underworld and his subsequent demise is brought about by his refusal to move past this loss. In Margaret AtwoodÃ¢s translation, OrpheusÃ¢ failure to bring his Ã¢love into existenceÃ¢? rests on his inability to understand the true nature of love. His subsequent downfall is not his murder, but rather the fact that Ã¢he will go on singing,Ã¢? attempting to defy the notion that he never truly loved Eurydice at all.
Orfeo v. the Fairy King: Models of Kingship in Sir Orfeo
The Breton lai Sir Orfeo is an English reworking of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. In contrast to the classical tale, this anonymously authored text replaces tragedy with comedy while also including a didactic function for a medieval Christian audience. Within the poem are two examples of a ruler: Sir Orfeo and the Fairy King. Orfeo’s reaction to the loss of his wife, Dame Heurodis, serves as a narrative device by which the poet allows Orfeo to develop into the construction of a truly ‘good’ king. On the other hand, though very little is known about the Fairy King, the poet’s descriptions of him and his actions reveal that he does not conform to the title of ‘king’ in the same way as Orfeo and thus should not be considered as a model of kingship. Rather, he and the entire fairy realm by extension operate as a symbol of external forces which test Orfeo to determine if he possesses the necessary wisdom to be an effective leader. Therefore, the model represented by Orfeo is one that forgoes all preconceived notions of leadership and is instead one reliant upon the king’s unique talents rather than the luxuries accorded to his position – a king that embodies the greatness of the human spirit.
In a literal sense, the Fairy King and all he represents is very much an external force because he must breach the borders of the kingdom, Orfeo’s castle, and Heurodis’s garden in order to capture her. In a metaphorical sense, he aligns more with a larger symbol of adversity and catastrophe that might plague a ruling king. Therefore, the poet uses the Fairy King to direct his illustration of a wise and capable king. For example, the Fairy King’s delay in abducting Heurodis seems questionable and frankly odd. Andrea Babich argues that his allowance of Heurodis to tell Orfeo of her impending abduction and his threat of violence are both designed simply to gain Orfeo’s attention (478). The Fairy King is not interested in Heurodis for love nor other less savory intentions as he permits his private act to become a public one, then keeps Heurodis as little other than a collectible in his castle. The reason for this delay, then, can only be understood as an interest in Orfeo’s response to a threat levied against the woman he deeply loves. Orfeo’s response, rooted in his kingly powers, is not adequate enough to deter the Fairy King. Considering the presumed Christianity of the audience, it could be argued that the Fairy King is a medieval adaptation of God’s test to Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac.
Babich also argues that the physical resemblance of the Fairy King’s castle to that of Orfeo’s suggests he is attempting to establish a kingdom to rival Orfeo’s Traciens (479). As further evidence, Babich gives the Fairy’s adherence to trouthe as demonstrative of an ‘eagerness to become a noble king’ (479). But these two instances are the only modes of direct comparison between Sir Orfeo and the Fairy King. Anne Marie D’Arcy, in contrast, states that a ‘principal demonic preoccupation is the emulation of the divine’ (26). D’Arcy’s statement is more strongly supported than Babich’s because, as Orfeo walks through the fairy country, he does not observe it to be comparable to his own. Instead, the plains, hills, and castle adorned with precious stones causes Orfeo ‘By alle thing [to think] it is / The proude court of Paradis’ (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 375-376). Though a fantastic sight, the poet constructs this Otherworld palace as ‘very dazzling, and very artificial’ (Gros Louis 251). The castle may look like some heavenly spectacle from the outside, but the horrible state of other captives is hidden behind its walls. The artificiality of physical looks is emphasized again in the Fairy King’s response to Orfeo’s request of Heurodis as his boon. He denies Orfeo on the grounds that they would not be suitable because Orfeo is ‘…lene, rowe, and blak, / And she is lovesome, withoute lak’ (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 459-460). Sir Orfeo, of course, is truly a king, and therefore his disguise, like the display of the fairy castle, cannot be trusted. Taken together, the Fairy King’s threat and his court seem to function as an effort to emphasize this realm as a superior, previously unforeseen power more than a supernatural entity.
The Fairy King, however, makes no delay in displaying that power. Heurodis tells Orfeo that the crown he wears is not made of silver or gold, but a single precious stone (ll. 149-151). This headpiece of only one stone is representative of the orphan stone motif, which was associated with imperial magnificence (D’Arcy 22). Another curiosity is his warning of dismemberment, since it seems Heurodis would still be worthy of capture despite being reduced to a torso. The Fairy King does not make empty threats, as his less fortunate victims stand exhibited in their mutilated states – some wounded, some strangled, some drowned, some burned and even some without heads (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 391-400). D’Arcy remarks on the persistent belief in the ‘ensoulment’ of statues, which is the belief that souls can become locked within their stone likenesses (20). Consequently, it is not Heurodis’ physicality which the Fairy King deems valuable, but her human soul. Finally, the Fairy King makes no indication that he is done ‘collecting’ despite the unprecedented encounter with Orfeo. His final words, ‘Of hire ich wol that thou be blithe’ (‘Sir Orfeo’ l. 473), could be read as a curse, but also as an acknowledgment of Orfeo having passed the test originally set ten years ago. Orfeo has finally come full circle, but not easily and not without significantly shaking his understanding of the world.
At the poem’s outset, Orfeo is described as a noble king (l. 25). He is valiant, hardy, generous, and refined – all the expectations accorded to a high lord in England (ll. 26-28). Such descriptions illustrate Orfeo as an ideal ruler at the time and immediately position him as the protagonist of the poem. Furthermore, though Orfeo possesses all the valued chivalric qualities, it is problematic when the poet reveals Orfeo is most notable for his skill at harping. In fact, Orfeo loves the music of harping to such an extent that he applied himself to become the best of any man, and plays so well that all men who hear his music think of Orfeo as one of the joys of Paradise (ll. 40-50). Orfeo’s love for and skill at harping adds a layer of intrigue and paints him as an unorthodox king as well. These facets of Orfeo’s character are hints that Orfeo will not conduct himself in the manner expected of kings, therefore implying that these standards of behavior do not make for a good leader. They also signify that traditional uses of this kingly power will not hold much significance in Orfeo’s tale. For example, in the high Middle Ages good kingship involved being dependent on counsel from advisors. But though Orfeo ‘asked conseil at eech a man, / But no man him helpe can’ (ll. 179-180). And again, though Orfeo takes one thousand knights, ‘Eech y-armed, stout and grim’ (l. 184), with him to guard Heurodis, they prove ineffectual at preventing the Fairy King’s abduction. Orfeo’s return of Heurodis to the grafted tree points to a consciousness of avoiding her dismemberment, but he is not aware enough to realize a conventional army will be useless (Babich 481). He already possesses the skills of harping and reason to keep Heurodis from being captured, but has become too accustomed to a king’s might and prestige to realize it.
Even more unsettling is the lack of a ‘long search’ for Heurodis once she has been taken, but Orfeo never intends to embark on one (Gros Louis 245-246). Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis observes that when announcing his exile to his lords, Orfeo does not express any wish or hope of recovering Heurodis (246). Furthermore, Orfeo ‘does not share the Phaeton-like boldness of earlier Orpheus figures’ but harbors a ‘deep humility’ (247). Thus Orfeo’s tale is not one of a daring heroic quest – he does not expect his fortunes to change by any means of his own making. Orfeo learned how little value the power and wealth of kingship held in his attempt to save Heurodis and is so affected by her kidnapping that he swoons to his chamber floor, laments on her capture, and considers his life finished (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 196-200). In response, Orfeo renounces the kingdom and position which failed him, and resolves himself to living, then dying, without Heurodis (Gros Louis 249).
Yet despite no effort from Orfeo, Heurodis suddenly reappears in front of him, and the reasons for her doing so point to Orfeo’s status as a pilgrim. Here, the poet makes a list of point for point contrasts between Orfeo’s previous and current circumstances to emphasize Orfeo’s realization of the ultimate worthlessness of his kingly possessions. He spends ten long years in the wilderness scrounging for roots, berries, and bark while using leaves and moss for a bed (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 255-260, 247-248). As a result, ‘Al his body away was dwined / For misaise, and al tochined’ (ll. 261-262), and ‘His heer of his beerd, black and rowe, / To his girdle-stede was growe’ (ll. 265-266). He has often witnessed the Fairy King riding with a large company ‘come to hunte him al aboute,’ but they never seem to take any beast (ll. 281-288). He might also occasionally see a great host of well-armed knights or ladies dancing through the wood, but never knew where they marched or why they danced (ll. 289-302). Similarly, none of the Fairy King’s people seem aware of Orfeo’s presence nor do they ever deign to acknowledge him. According to Gros Louis, this ‘purgatory of repetitious, purposeless activity’ allows Orfeo to experience a kind of purification whereby the ineffectiveness of his kingly position is further reinforced (248). After this has been completed, Orfeo is rewarded with the sudden reappearance of Heurodis. This is not a mistake, nor is it simple coincidence, and Heurodis has been brought to Orfeo after his time in the woods. Exile, therefore, was a necessity to demonstrate Orfeo’s misguided reliance on kingly acquisitions rather than true kingly attributes.
Once Orfeo has thoroughly rid himself of all indications of his former life, save for his harp, the potential for rescuing Heurodis is presented to him. Having ‘proved his worth as a Christian man’ (250), Orfeo uses his natural skill at harping to enter the Fairy King’s castle as a minstrel (‘Sir Orfeo’ ll. 382-387). As Orfeo enchanted the beasts in the wood, so is he able to enchant the fairy court (ll. 439-446), and the King is so pleased that he offers Orfeo a boon. Though he initially denies Orfeo’s request for Heurodis, the Fairy King relents when Orfeo responds, ‘Yit were it a wel fouler thing / To heere a lesing of thy mouthe…A kinges word moot needes be holde’ (ll. 464-465, 468). As previously stated, Orfeo’s skill at harping is a product of his own interest in learning. His use of it in combination with another learned ability explicitly conveys Orfeo’s assumption of the values of a truly ideal king. It is important to note that when holding the Fairy King to his word, Orfeo does not become outraged nor does he make an attempt at taking Heurodis by force. He remains in his ‘deep humility,’ is again rewarded for it, and responds with gratitude (ll. 474). A final reiteration of Orfeo’s realization is the test of his steward. Upon his return he does not question the quantity of his power but its quality, and is satisfied with the steward’s fidelity.
In examination of kingship in Sir Orfeo, it is only Orfeo who is actually constructed as a king. The Fairy King’s artificiality and statement of imperial might portray him not as a king, but a larger force which Orfeo must overcome to ensure the longevity of his kingdom during his reign. Crucial to that longevity is a reminder of Orfeo’s worth as a clever and musically talented man. By abandoning a king’s material pleasures, Orfeo is forced to make use of his wits and finds them to be more successful in rescuing Heurodis than any number of armed knights. His ability and success as a leader is not dependent on how many knights he can arm or the number of lords that pay him homage, but the recognition that a king’s possessions do not make for a true king.
‘Sir Orfeo.’ The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th ed., ed. by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2012, pp. 169-182.
Babich, Andrea G. Pisani. ‘The Power of the Kingdom and the Ties that Bind in ‘Sir Orfeo.” Neophilologus, vol. 82, no. 3, 1998, pp. 477-486.
D’Arcy, Anne Marie. ‘The Faerie King’s Kunstkammer: Imperial Discourse and the Wondrous in ‘Sir Orfeo.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 58, no. 233, 2007, pp. 10-33.
Gros Louis, Kenneth R. R. ‘The Significance of Sir Orfeo’s Self-Exile.’ The Review of English Studies, vol. 18, no. 71, 1967, pp. 245-252.
Justice According to Ovid: The Logic Behind Transformations in the Metamorphoses
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid discusses tales of transformations and reveals a system of justice within them. Generally, the gods either grant transformations in response to prayers, but for those transformed unwillingly, the change was normally cast as a punishment. In some instances, the person transformed neither wished for it, nor deserved it as punishment. In these instances, the person that was transformed gains justice by eventually benefiting from the alteration. In the end, those transformed against their will received justice, whether it was through punishment or through reward.
Starting with the story of Jove and Io, Ovid shows the system of justice and metamorphosis. Lusting after Io, Jupiter decided to pursue her and in an attempt to hide the affair from his wife, Juno, Jupiter turned Io into a beautiful heifer. Juno saw through this trick and asked to have the cow as a gift, (Book 1, lines 846-856). Jupiter obliged and Juno placed Io under the many watchful eyes of Argus. Io suffered greatly during her time as a cow. She was forced from living her normal, comfortable life to now having to live as an animal, (Book 1, lines 868-880). Jupiter pitied Io and in an endeavor to save her, he sent his son to kill Argus. As a reward for serving her, Juno saved the many eyes of Argus, and placed them on the tail of peacocks in order for him to see forever. Still outraged over his death, Juno called for Io to be tormented more, sending her running throughout the world until she reached the Nile River, (Book 1, lines 991-1007). Seeing her immense suffering, Jupiter begged Juno to end Io’s punishment, swearing to never pursue her again. Juno was appeased and allowed Io to regain her former self (Book 1, lines 1014-1022). Since she was undeserving of punishment, as her only crime was to attract Jove, Io’s transformation was unjust. To make up for this injustice, Io and her son of Jove were granted the honor of being gods and Io lived on as Isis, worshipped by the Egyptians, (Book 1, lines 1032-1037). In the end, Io was rewarded for dealing with her unjust transformation and justice was served.
The next form of justice that Ovid illustrates is the story of the Muses and the daughters of Pierus. The setting reflects that of a court, with the two sides pitted against each other, the daughters representing the prosecutors, accusing the Muses of not being the best in song and the Muses having to defend their title, (Book 5, line 448). Picked as the judges, river Nymphs came to observe the case, (Book 5, line 466). The daughter of Pierus sang first, telling a narrative of the Olympian gods in a negative light, (Book 5, line 469). Next, Calliope sang alone on the behalf of the Muses’, (Book 5, lines 503). She sang the story of Venus and Cupid, who made Dis fall in love with Proserpina. As Calliope’s song goes, Venus asked Cupid to force Dis to fall in love with Proserpina and he rapes her and then takes her to his underworld kingdom, (Book 5, lines 545 and 562). Ceres, Proserpina’s mother, searches everywhere for her daughter. During her travels, Ceres came across a hovel where she asked for a drink of water. She was given a drink with toasted barley in it and she gratefully drank it, (Book 5, lines 616-620). As she drank, a boy of the household “mocked her and said she was greedy,” (Book 5, line 622). Outraged at the boy’s unjust remark, Ceres punished him by turning him into a lizard, (Book 5, line 628). Continuing on with her search, Ceres discovered that her daughter had been stolen by Dis. In her rage, Ceres makes the earth feel her wrath as she destroys all of the crops and makes it impossible for anything to grow, (Book 5, lines 645-567). After grieving, Ceres speaks to Jupiter, the father of Proserpina and the brother of her captor. Initially, Jupiter says that Dis took Proserpina out of love, and that since Proserpina has married well, that Ceres should be grateful. Ceres counters him stating that their daughter deserves to be married to someone better than a thief, (Book 5, lines 685-695). Finally, Jupiter says that if Ceres really wants Proserpina back, then she may return, as long as Proserpina has not eaten anything from the underworld, (Book 5, lines 704-706). To Ceres’ dismay, Proserpina had been seen eating some fruit in the Underworld, so she is unable to return. Outraged at the one that gave her away, Proserpina turned him into an owl, a symbol of ill omen, (Book 5, line 725). Caught between Ceres and Dis, Jupiter offered a compromise, and divided the year in two, allowing Proserpina to spend equal time with her mother and with her husband, (Book 5, lines 739-742).
The song of the Muse exposes another of Ovid’s tales that displays the system of metamorphosis and justice. Having been stolen away, Proserpina was unjustly turned from a virgin into the Queen of the Underworld. While in the Underworld, Proserpina displays that she is more than sunshine and flowers, by transforming her snitch into a bad omen. This indicates that she rightfully should be queen by revealing that she also possesses dark power. Though she proved that she should remain there as queen, Proserpina had still been unfairly brought to the Underworld. To create balance, Jupiter allows Proserpina to spend half of the year above ground with her mother, and half of the year in the underworld with her husband. This time split created the seasons, with spring and summer being when Proserpina is on Earth, and fall and winter occur when she returns the Underworld. Calliope’s song continues with the story of a fountain and then concludes with the Nymphs awarded victory to the Muses, (Book 5, line 648). Even after their loss, the daughters of Pierus continued to criticize the Muses, mocking them and shouting obscenities. Outraged by the insults given to them by the sore losers, the Muses decided to cast punishment on the disrespectful daughters by turning them into magpies, (Book 5, lines 857-867). Changing into magpies was a fitting penalty as “they are famous for their noisiness as well as for their love of argument,” (Book 5, line 870). The transformation is a just one since the Muses had won fairly but the daughters still claimed to be better.
The final display of justice and metamorphosis seen in the text, is the transformation of Atalanta and Hippomenes. During their travels, the pair came across a temple dedicated in honor of Cybele. While taking a rest in the temple, the couple defiled it by performing forbidden behavior inside of its walls, (Book 10, line 810). Cybele punished the guilty pair by turning them into lions, a fitting punishment since now as lions, “the forest now is their bedroom,” (Book 10, line 818). Since Atalanta and Hippomenes had broken a sacred rule, their punishment was justified, as now they are forced to live in the forest and performed their scandalous behavior in the open rather than in shelter.
Throughout the Metamorphoses, Ovid reviews stories of transformations and reveals a system of justice within them, but he also shows the difference between justice and revenge. Juno’s jealousy driven revenge was not seen as justice since Io had not done anything against Juno. None of the events were Io’s fault since it was Jupiter that had sought out and raped her, then transformed her into a cow and lied about the affair. Ceres transformation of the boy into a lizard was also not seen as revenge since the boy had acted unjustly and disrespectful to her as a goddess. Next was the punishment of the daughter of Pierus by the Muses. This act was not seen as revenge because the Muses had fairly won the contest and the daughters had continued to claim dominance over them. Finally was the punishment given to Atalanta and Hippomenes by Cybele. Again this was not seen as revenge since the pair had broken sacred rules. While most of the transformations in the book were in response to prayers, some characters were transformed unwillingly. The change was normally cast as a punishment, but in some instances, the person transformed neither wished for it nor deserved it as punishment. In these instances, the person that was transformed gains justice by eventually benefiting from the alteration. Whether punished or rewarded, those transformed against their will received justice.
Vulcan and Arachne: Partners in Crime?
Ovid made a strange decision when he wrote his story about Arachne in Book VI, “Of Praise and Punishment.” After all, her story literally describes her spinning and weaving her art, so one would assume that Ovid would place his story about her in Book IV, “Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales.” Yet simultaneously, it comes as no surprise that Ovid likes to complicate things – he crafts his stories intricately and expertly. Perhaps Ovid separated this particular narrative from the “Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales” section of the Metamorphoses in order for readers to exercise their brains a bit. Ovid’s placement decisions force the reader to draw parallels from the Book IV stories to the one about Arachne in Book VI. Vulcan’s story about Mars and Venus in Book IV most directly mirrors Arachne’s in terms of language. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Vulcan and Arachne parallel each other in their specific episodes.
Through very similar language, Ovid emphasises just how talented both Vulcan and Arachne are in their respective artistic disciplines. For instance, Ovid describes the net that Vulcan weaves for Mars and Venus as, “a net of bronze links/ so finely woven that it fooled the eye” (Metamorphoses IV. 242-3). Upon first glance it seems as though Ovid simply wants to praise Vulcan’s fine craftsmanship when he describes the net as fooling “the eye.” However, upon a closer reading of Arachne’s story in Book VI, it becomes clear that Ovid wants the reader to connect the two stories in his or her mind.
Ovid’s intentions become exceptionally clear when comparing the description of Vulcan’s art to that of Arachne’s in Book VI. For example, when describing the bull in Arachne’s tapestry, Ovid writes that it was, “done so naturally you would have thought/ the bull and the waves he breasted were both real” (Metamorphoses VI. 147-8). Arachne’s tapestry “fooled the eye” in the same way that Vulcan’s net does. Additionally, Ovid makes sure to compliment both works using the same type of emphasis before writing that they “fooled the eye” or made whoever looked upon the art believe that it looked “real.” Ovid writes that Arachne’s tapestry was “done so naturally,” and that Vulcan’s work was “so finely woven.” Ovid uses the word “so” very infrequently in the Metamorphoses to avoid extraneousness, but here he writes “so” twice in a row to exemplify the quality of the works. Additionally, Ovid uses two adverbs in his individual praises for Arachne and Vulcan. These adverbs, “naturally” and “finely,” further link the two images. Ovid could have described these works of art in so many different ways, yet he structures his compliments for them almost identically in order to link Arachne and Vulcan to one another.
Ovid even goes so far as to compare both Arachne and Vulcan to the same animal, connecting them even further. In reference to Vulcan’s net, Ovid writes that, “no thread of mortal weaving was as slender/ as this one was: finer than a spider’s” (Metamorphoses IV. 244-5). Ovid makes such an obvious reference to Arachne in this quotation that it would be difficult not to associate these two characters after reading that sentence. After Arachne challenges the goddess, for the rest of her life, she, “as a spider, carries on/ the art of weaving as she used to do” as a sort of punishment for her arrogance (Metamorphoses VI. 207-8). Upon a closer reading, one might wonder why Ovid used a spider instead of a more attractive animal in reference to both of these characters.
Perhaps Ovid chose the spider as the animal responsible for linking Vulcan and Arachne’s stories because both of their narratives involve this strange balance between fear and the motif of being overlooked. For instance, Vulcan and Arachne are both metaphorically small characters in the Metamorphoses. Like a spider, people tend to step on them a lot. Vulcan is crippled, so his beautiful wife Venus thinks that she can cheat on him whenever she pleases. Arachne grew up in rough circumstances, so she feels angry at the gods for smiting her (Metamorphoses VI. 10-20). Yet although Vulcan and Arachne both had a rough time in life when compared to many other characters in the Metamorphoses, people fear them, too. They both have supreme mastery and talent in their respective arts. Arachne has the courage to challenge the gods, and even though Vulcan is deformed, he still has enough pride to stand up for himself when his wife, Venus, cheats on him so openly. Like spiders catching prey in their webs, both of these two characters use their talents to attempt to catch their prey in different webs of sorts. Perhaps the ironic fear that these two underdog characters bring about explains why Ovid chose the spider image to link them together.
Ovid’s purpose in using such similar language for both Arachne and Vulcan was to connect the characters and force the reader to compare them with each other. From their nature as underdogs to their talents as artists, Arachne and Vulcan are very similar people. Eventually, Arachne gets punished because she is not a goddess, and Vulcan claims victory in his task due to his status as a god, keeping in theme with Ovid’s larger narrative in the Metamorphoses. However, if not for the very specific verbal techniques that Ovid uses in his stories about both of these characters, one would be much less likely to notice just how similar they really are.
Exploring the Theme of Impossible Love Throughout Virgil’s The Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Throughout the ages, the theme of impossible love in literature has prevailed. Impossible love is an overall broad theme; generally speaking, it is a love that is forbidden, unrequired, or unable to flourish. Somewhere between 29 and 19 B.C. the legendary Roman author Virgil wrote his epic: The Aenid. The Aenid chronicles the journey of the great hero Aeneas, who falls in love with the queen of Carthage, Dido—resulting in a tragic spell of impossible love. Some years after Virgil, surfaced Ovid with his classic Metamorphoses which links a stunning array of mythological tales through the common theme of change or transformation. Many of the tales told by Ovid interact with the theme of impossible love—but especially the story of Pygmalion and his ivory maiden. The theme of impossible love is timeless because it is incredibly relatable, the heart wants what the heart wants, and therein negative consequences and drama forever ensue.
In fourth book of The Aeneid, the theme of impossible love presents itself when Dido and Aeneas fall deeply in love. Initially, Dido does not want to marry Aeneas. Dido is busy being a strong and well-liked leader for her people, she is aware of his journey, and knows that in the future the Trojan descendants of Aeneas will ruin her beautiful city of Carthage. Loyal to both her people and her deceased husband, Dido is an admirable woman. From the very first moments of Dido’s infatuation with Aeneas, the poet foreshadows to the readers that her love will be her destruction. However, Juno, who openly detests Aeneas, convinces Dido to marry Aeneas to interfere with his quest. Juno’s devious plan to distract Aeneas works for a while. Aeneas is content with his lovely queen, until Jupiter hears of the union. Jupiter then dispatches Mercury to remind Aeneas of his duty, to found the great city of Rome. Aeneas is a slave to his duty, he must stick to the Roman Cardinal Values: prudentia, fortitudo, justicia, and temperanta. Though Aeneas does love Dido, he understands that the Gods through their divine intervention have called upon him, he has a grand and divine purpose, which he ultimately knew all along—but he was distracted by Dido’s impossible love. Before Aeneas arrived in Carthage, Dido was already a somewhat tragic character. She was a widowed woman in charge of a kingdom that will certainly be overthrown. As Aeneas tells Dido he must resume his journey, Dido becomes a lovesick wreck: So Dido pleads and so her desolate sister takes him the tale of tears again and again. But no tears move Aeneas now. He is deaf to all appeals. He won’t relent. The Fates bar the way. and heaven blocks his gentle, human ears. (Virgil 142-143, lines 549-554) After being pressured by Jupiter to complete his quest, Aeneas can no longer sympathize with Dido; he knows he no longer has time for his love. The strong and intelligent queen cannot bear to lose another husband and therefore throws herself upon a blade as Aeneas sails on. Even for a work of fiction, Dido’s sudden irrationality and act of suicide is puzzling. According to Mike McCool author of the article, “The Tragedy of Dido: An Unresolved Epistemological Crisis” Dido was, “drawn irresistibly into the world of intrigue between Gods and men.” (McCool). Dido was used as a tool for Juno’s plan to distract Aeneas; their love was not natural for it was formed through the Gods, Cupid’s poison specifically. Unlike many others, especially most characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dido did not openly defy the Gods or do anything to spite them, resulting in Dido and Aeneas’ relationship being one of the most tragic and impossible in all literature.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the sculptor Pygmalion manufactures his own impossible love. Displeased by the imperfections of real earthly women, Pygmalion decides to fashion his own vision of a perfect woman out of ivory. Pygmalion falls madly in love with his ivory maiden, he kisses her, caresses her, dresses her, and even speaks to her. But, it is obviously impossible to love and marry an ivory statue. His ivory maiden is not a real human, and therefore does not exist in real life, yet she still exists in the realm of art. His beloved statue is, “white as snow,” (Ovid 394, line 49), and it is very interesting that Ovid picked ivory instead of marble for Pygmalion’s medium, signifying that his maiden is pure—a perfect image of feminine beauty. In a sense, Pygmalion began to live inside his own head, when he touched the statue he thought to himself, “flesh or ivory? No, it couldn’t be ivory now!” (255). Pygmalion wished so badly for his inanimate love to stir, so he prayed to the Gods to marry a woman like his statue. Luckily for Pygmalion, Venus heard his prayers, and knew that he really wanted his statue to live so he could marry it, and so she turned his impossible love into a reality. When Pygmalion returned home he went to his statue and, “fondled that longed-for body again and/ again.” (286-287). Pygmalion’s unattainable woman is now standing before him, as a real human. Jane O’Sullivan author of the scholarly article, “Virtual Metamorphoses: Cosmetic and Cybernetic Revisions of Pygmalion’s ‘Living Doll’” argues that, “here fetishism is taken to be a process by which a concurrently feared and desired object—in this case, a woman—refashioned to conform to idealized notions of femininity in a bid to render her a compliant and familiar substitute for that unruly object and, in so doing, to tame her.” (O’Sullivan 134). Taking O’Sullivan’s argument into context, she is saying that Pygmalion was afraid of women, and of their rejection, so to hide his resentment for women, he created his own perfect woman, who would not talk back to him, displease him, or reject him. What was once a fetishized and quite frankly, unsettling, love is now a thing of reality. Pygmalion’s maiden is a real living human being. Though the tension of impossible love is relieved in terms of Pygmalion, it is now present regarding his ivory maiden.
In Metamorphoses, Pygmalion’s statue is not given a name, she is completely Pygmalion’s possession, she is not her own person, and she belongs to him. Thanks to Venus, now that the statue is a real woman she has absolutely no free will, she is forever indebted to Pygmalion and essentially turned into his own personal sex slave. She is unable to make her own decisions and is overall unable to choose whom she is able to love, which leads to another layer of unrequited, and impossible love. In both Virgil’s The Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the theme of impossible love dominates the plots of the stories and essentially terrorizes the characters affected.
In The Aeneid, both Dido and Aeneas are forever changed by their brief relation, Dido gave up her life for the man that she loved and Aeneas had to live with the regret of knowing that he caused his beloved’s suicide due to the fact that he had to complete his God given duty. On the other hand, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Pygmalion’s impossible love with his statue reaches a satisfying solution… for him, however his ivory maiden is forced into a life not of her choosing, therefore resulting in an unrequited and impossible love. Though it is tragic, impossible love will forever be a timeless staple of literature.
Ovid and Dante: The Power of Imagery
In Metamorphoses, Ovid attempts the great task of recounting the history of the world, from its creation to the death of Julius Caesar. However, Ovid’s work is not solely an encyclopaedia of mythology; it is also the source of much standard figurative language. Similarly, Dante Alighieri attempts to achieve the great task of assembling a visionary narrative. The Inferno is a highly structured vision of the future that not only highlights the Christian religion, but also integrates many mythological figures of the past. But the genius of Dante lies not in the grand vision he has dreamed of, but in the way that he has presented it. Through his poem, Dante aims to inspire fear in his readers; he hopes to create a future that is more real than the present so that his readers will repent. To achieve this goal, Dante employs highly concrete imagery. Ovid strives towards an opposite purpose; in his portrayal of specific myths, Ovid aims to evoke a past that is identical to the present. He aims to convince readers that the glorious warriors and fantastical gods of the past are very much like themselves, and thus aims to disenchant his readers. Much like Dante, Ovid also exploits imagery to achieve his goal. However, the ways that these two poets use imagery are different because their purposes are so radically different.
Ovid’s imagery tends to focus on emotions and abstract concepts, rather than physical details. This is particularly true in the case of the myth of Medea. Often described as a vindictive witch, Medea is presented as a sympathetic character by Ovid. Instead of focusing on the shocking acts that Medea commits, Ovid spotlights her great affection for Jason.
as when a spark that has been hidden under
a crust of ash is nourished by a breeze
and comes to life again as it’s stirred up,
regaining all the vigor it once had;
just so her smoldering love, which you’d have thought
was almost out, came blazing up anew (226)
By illustrating Medea’s love as fire, Ovid helps the reader to imagine Medea’s emotions. Like a fire, Medea’s love is wild, spontaneous, and dangerous. Her infatuation is a spark that catches onto anything, and then spreads wildly. By using diction like “vigor”, “smoldering”, and “blazing”, Ovid reinforces the notion that her love is intense and strong. The image of an irrepressible flame is a powerful one; more importantly, it is realistic. In reality, emotions are uncontrollable, and this concept can be easily identified with. Any horrifying acts that Medea commits afterwards seem explainable in consideration of this dangerous love. Medea is no longer an ultimate mythical warning for infidelity, but an abandoned wife who has lost all hope. She is no longer the mother who murdered her own children, but one who has undeniable human emotions. Often, Ovid must work with characters who are often fantastical in all aspects, like Medea. The only things that connect these characters to readers are emotions and abstract concepts. By creating emotionally charged imagery, Ovid is able to convince the reader that these fantastical characters are actually not very different from the reader, and that the myths are much like reality.
Dante, like Ovid, aims to create vivid imagery in order to convince the reader that the world of Inferno is genuine. Unlike Ovid, Dante focuses on the physicals details. Dante attempts to create a world that his readers can easily imagine, a world that is concrete. After all, Dante’s purpose is to compel his readers to realize that the future is more important than the present. Dante does by creating lucid images of the physical appearance of hell.
There is in Hell a vast and sloping ground
called Malebolge, a lost place of stone
as black as the great cliff that seals it round.
Precisely in the center of that place
there yawns a well extremely wide and deep.
I shall discuss it in its proper place. (158)
At each new site that the journey passes, Dante takes time to describe where everything is and how everything looks physically. He does so in order to create a definite and substantial image for the reader. Naturally, the reader knows exactly what the ground is like – “sloping…[yawning] a well”, what colour the stone is – “black”, how it is spatially – “wide and deep.” Dante describes each new creature, each new situation in the same way as well. Although Dante does describe abstract ideas such as emotion, they are absent from the imagery. Through the use of physical imagery, Dante is able to mould his extraordinary world into something tangible and compelling for the reader.
Also in pursuit of the creation of a concrete world, Ovid faces different challenges. The stories that he writes are often exotic relative to everyday life. Consequently, Ovid inserts details into the imagery to inspire a sense of familiarity in the reader. Ovid concentrates detail on ordinary things, as opposed to focusing on dramatic things, such as death. Many myths in Metamorphoses convey a depressing vision of life. Ovid tries to neutralize this potentially bleak aspect of his narrative by creating detailed imagery of the beauty, of the people. In treating the myth of Daphne, Ovid is particularly successful. Instead of highlighting the fact that Daphne dies by transforming into a tree, Ovid concentrates on the splendour of Daphne herself.
Her prayer was scarcely finished when she feels
a torpor take possession of her limbs –
her supple trunk is girdled with a thin
layer of fine bark over her smooth skin;
her hair turns into foliage, her arms
grow into branches, sluggish roots adhere
to feet that were so recently so swift,
her head becomes the summit of a tree;
all that remains of her is a warm glow. (37)
Daphne is stripped of her freedom and human form; this is not a pleasant situation. The attention of the reader, however, diverges from her death as a human being, and is instead caught up with the erotic beauty of the girl. The imagery greatly lessens the brutality of the situation. Ovid pays special attention to the details of each minute transformation to make this beauty seem more real. The reader can easily picture every feature, whether that is the “thin layer of fine bark”, or the “sluggish roots”. In addition, details such as the “supple trunk” and “smooth skin” help enhance the cozy and sultry tone. Overall, the imagery creates a sensual story as opposed to a brutal one. Thus, the story of Daphne becomes less mythical and more relatable.
Dante, on the other hand, does not try to distract us from the suffering. Instead, according to the purpose of his composition, he uses details to enhance the brutality of the situation. The reader is treated to cringe-worthy, detailed description of physical torture.
From every mouth a sinner’s leg stuck out
as far as the calf. The soles were all ablaze
and the joints of the leg quivered and writhed about.
Withes and tethers would have snapped in their throes.
As oiled things blaze upon the surface only,
so did they burn from the heels to the points of their toes.
In this passage, the tactile imagery is very specific. The reader knows precisely what the torture feels like. The burning sensation is strictly identical to “oiled things [ablaze].” The pain is so intense that sinners “[quiver] and [writhe] about” so wildly that “withes and tethers would have snapped in their throes.” The details that are described allow readers are able to feel as if they are standing there on the ground of hell with the characters. Readers are able to imagine that they have truly witnessed the various punishments. Nothing is vague. No feature is unimagined. The gravity of each punishment, the terrible conditions of the environment affect the reader much more because they seem so authentic. Thus, Dante easily achieves his goal of inspiring fear in his readers. This future that he has projected – this frightening experience of hell – becomes even more concrete than the present through the use of detailed physical imagery.
Both Ovid and Dante use imagery to achieve their ideological goals in Metamorphoses and Inferno. Ovid uses emotionally charged imagery to create sympathetic characters, and generate details with positive diction to prevent a focus on cruelty. Through these two techniques, Ovid effectively inserts small slices of reality into his encyclopedia of mythology, making his creation a very honest portrayal of present life. Dante, in contrast, utilizes physical imagery to sculpt a world that he thinks is more important than the present. Dante also creates details, as Ovid does, but instead of preventing a focus on suffering, Dante concentrates his detail on suffering. The conditions of this extraordinary world that Dante creates become more concrete through the detailed physical imagery. By using imagery, both Ovid and Dante are able to convince the reader of opposing ideas: one being that the past was no larger than the present, and the other being that the future is more important than the present.