Changes in the Ancient Greek-Roman World
Now this post should have been like written centuries back, but what can I say except life, vacations, friends and finally sickness caught up and this post went lower and lower in the priority, until today, when I finally swore that I will not budge until I had written this post. Considering it took me 3 months of solid reading time to get through this book, it is of utmost important that I devote atleast one post to it!
Back in January, in a fit of complete madness, when possessed by book demons who tempt you to read all kinds of things, I agree to a read along – Metamorphoses by Ovid, with Cleo and O and couple of others. The idea was to read a book every week starting from January and finish the fifteen books by March-April. It seemed doable enough and come on, this is Ovid; in the absence of a real Classical education, this was as close to a group study/help event I was going to get to read one of the most important texts of the Roman world! There was no intention of giving up on something like this and through hail and high water, sometime exhilarating and sometime faltering, I managed to complete the book, early August.
This is an epic poem which is a compendium of all Greek and Roman legends. Each books talks about certain events that led to a metamorphoses of a God, demi-god or human into some feature of nature, tales with an intended moral epiphany. I am not getting into the details of each book, instead I leverage Wikipedia to provide an overview. For details, I would strongly recommend you visit Cleo or O’s blog post for an excellent summary of each book! For now, Ovid divided the poem in 10 books comprising pf about 250 myths, from the time of creation of the world util the rule of Julius Ceaser. The Books can be broadly categorized as –
- Book I – The Creation, the Ages of Mankind, the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaëton.
- Book II – Phaëton (cont.), Callisto, the raven and the crow, Ocyrhoe, Mercury and Battus, the envy of Aglauros, Jupiter and Europa.
- Book III – Cadmus, Diana and Actaeon, Semele and the birth of Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus and Echo, Pentheus and Bacchus.
- Book IV – The daughters of Minyas, Pyramus and Thisbe, the Sun in love, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, the daughters of Minyas transformed, Athamas and Ino, the transformation of Cadmus, Perseus and Andromeda.
- Book V – Perseus’ fight in the palace of Cepheus, Minerva meets the Muses on Helicon, the rape of Proserpina, Arethusa,Triptolemus.
- Book VI – Arachne; Niobe; the Lycian peasants; Marsyas; Pelops; Tereus, Procne, and Philomela; Boreas and Orithyia.
- Book VII – Medea and Jason, Medea and Aeson, Medea and Pelias, Theseus, Minos, Aeacus, the plague at Aegina, the Myrmidons, Cephalus and Procris.
- Book VIII – Scylla and Minos, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Perdix, Meleager and the Calydonian Boar, Althaea and Meleager, Achelous and the Nymphs, Philemon and Baucis, Erysichthon and his daughter.
- Book IX – Achelous and Hercules; Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira; the death and apotheosis of Hercules; the birth of Hercules;Dryope; Iolaus and the sons of Callirhoe; Byblis; Iphis and Ianthe.
- Book X – Orpheus and Eurydice, Cyparissus, Ganymede, Hyacinth, Pygmalion, Myrrha, Venus and Adonis, Atalanta.
- Book XI – The death of Orpheus, Midas, the foundation and destruction of Troy, Peleus and Thetis, Daedalion, the cattle of Peleus, Ceyx and Alcyone, Aesacus.
- Book XII – The expedition against Troy, Achilles and Cycnus, Caenis, the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, Nestor and Hercules, the death of Achilles.
- Book XIII – Ajax, Ulysses, and the arms of Achilles; the Fall of Troy; Hecuba, Polyxena, and Polydorus; Memnon; the pilgrimage of Aeneas; Acis and Galatea; Scylla and Glaucus.
- Book XIV – Scylla and Glaucus (cont.), the pilgrimage of Aeneas (cont.), the island of Circe, Picus and Canens, the triumph and apotheosis of Aeneas, Pomona and Vertumnus, legends of early Rome, the apotheosis of Romulus.
- Book XV – Numa and the foundation of Crotone, the doctrines of Pythagoras, the death of Numa, Hippolytus, Cipus, Asclepius, the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, epilogue.
This book has inspired, poets, play-writers and painters. Its effects can be seen even in the 21st century and needless to say has many complex and layered meanings in it. Ovid creates a world which both incredibly frightening at the same time extremely interesting – like a world you are scared to explore, but cannot seem to draw away from! There is intense violence in the book; some of the most grotesque violence I have ever read were in this book – violence that defines imagination and brings in shuddering horror! Violence against women is another theme that runs through the book – they seem to be constantly chased and violated by some God or other for their beauty. Makes one wonder, why these creatures were designated Gods in the ancient world, because they seem to display very little God like behavior and you would never want to be a nymph in ancient Greece, because first the Gods chase you and rape you and then the God’s consort turns you into a tree or an animal for enticing him! Yeesh! In fact Ovid’s woman do not come out in a good light, either they are making each other’s life miserable through curses, or lusting after father/brothers. There is a certain antagonism against the women that comes through in all the 15 books.Having said that, let me re-emphasis that the Gods are no better and their deeds no very God like either – challenge them and you will fall, defy them and you will fall , ask for forgiveness, that too may be denied! They indulge in wars which sound like bar brawls and the only thing that seems to keep em’ going is to engage in some kind of sexual escapade! To me this kind of action from Gods seemed difficult to relate, especially growing up around Hindu mythologies, where Gods are Gods because of the exemplary conduct; it was difficult to wrap my head around a concept of a God with as many failings as a common mortal! It is written in meter of epic poetry, very much in the lines of The Illiad and The Odyssey, but in a significant departure to those poems, Ovid combines all kinds of genres in Metamorphoses – there is tragedy, comedy, drama, irreverent humor mocking the Gods, love poetry as well pastoral hymns! Yet while writing an epic, he subverts some of the key events which are considered of epic nature – The battle of Troy and the adventure of such heroes Achilles or initially Hercules. But then, considering the breath of his work, Ovid may have considered skipping some of the more well known events to focus on lesser known stories! He briefly touches on these subjects/heroes and nimbly and quickly moves on to other subjects! of Another unique feature of this book is the way Ovid plots the books together; in a daring leap of innovations, he plots the books through themes and yet manages a chronological timeline which propels the reader from one century to another. Though there are times, the plot seems to jump leaving certain threads hanging, yet one cannot help but appreciate the different approach to a timeline.
To end, this has not been an easy book to read! Especially towards the end, I have had to struggle to continue and the treatment of Roman myths was a let down. Also the amount of violence and the kind of personal pleasure that Ovid seemed to describe it and re-visit it disturbed me greatly! However there is no taking away that Metamorphoses is a grand adventure, a Goddish tour-de-force if you will and while I do not like the poet much, I cannot help but say, that read this book atleast once!