Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Prima ab origine mundi, ad mea perpetuum tempora carmen, from the very beginning of the world, in an unbroken poem, to my own time (Metamorphoses 1. 3-4). Publius Ovidius Naso also known as Ovid wrote Metamorphoses, which combines hundreds of stories from Greek mythology and Roman traditions. He stitched many of them together in a very peculiar epic poem in fifteen books. The central theme of the book is transformation from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times. Ovid sweeps down from the creation to the Augustan era.

Metamorphoses or Transformations refers to the change of shape and form of the characters of the poem. The theme is presented in the opening lines of the poem, where the poet invokes the gods who are responsible for the changes to look favorably on his efforts to compose. The main agent of transformation is love, represented by Venus and her youthful and mischievous son, Cupid. The changes are of many kinds: from human to animal, animal to human, thing to human, human to thing. Some changes are reversed: human to animal to human.

Sometimes the transformations are partial, and physical features and personal qualities of the earlier being are preserved in mutated form. All of Ovids tales involve metamorphoses, but some stories (Phaethon (Book 2), Pentheus (Book3), and Heracles (Book 9)) only have metamorphosis tacked on as a casual element, almost as an afterthought. Ovid seems to be more interested in metamorphosis as a universal principal which explains the nature of the world: Troy falls, Rome rises. Nothing is permanent. The chronological progression of the poem is also disorganized.

Ovid begins his poem with the story of creation and the flood, and ends in his own day with Augustus on the throne. However, chronology becomes unimportant in he middle section of the work, as seen by the many anachronisms throughout (Callisto (Book 2), Atlas (Book 4), and Cygnus (Book 11). The transitions of the books are very surprising. The reader never knows where the stories are going. Sometimes the reader follows the same character through different adventures (Perseus (Book 4), Hercules (Book10)). Then there are stories within a story. Ovid uses certain characters to act as an internal narrator (Mercury (Book1)).

The stories alternate from the story of one character to that of a relative or friend (Epahus and Phaethon (Book 1)). There are also variations in theme. For example in Books one and two there are five obvious variations of the virgin pursued by god. Thus, throughout the work Ovid creates a complex chain of interconnecting themes. Ovid also weaves a complex web of interrelationships throughout the entire book. There seems to be four major divisions in the book. The first is, gods in love, then gods taking revenge on humans, then the desolation of love, and finally, the history of Rome and the deification of Caesar.

There is a common transition from gods acting like humans, to humans suffering at the hands of gods, to humans suffering at the hands of humans, to humans becoming gods. It seems that each section prepares the reader for future sections. ‘The characters and the places are too numerous to list. But all of Ovids characters are so alive and have so much personalities. The settings, which have no names only descriptions) are poetic. For example in Book three he describes the stream so clear that its pebbles can be counted or the still pool hidden among the shady trees and, the beach where the sand is of just the right texture for walking.

These give the stories a very poetic appeal. The purpose of this poem is to take the reader through a long and winding journey, which starts with the universe and ends with the emperor Augustus. In between the reader experiences many short but exciting adventures with lively characters. Ovid demonstrates the importance of religion in the Roman culture. By giving all the gods and goddesses humanistic emotions and temperaments, he tells the readers that humans are the reflections of gods. This poem would be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in mythology, love, warfare, nature, animals, monsters, murder, rape, greed, lust, and everything else.

Ovid obviously knew what he was doing when he decided to gear this book towards everyone, not just the scholars. Children would enjoy these exciting tales at bedtime, adults can read it to gain knowledge about different cultural beliefs, or ancient widely held beliefs. Some modern scholars are even comparing some parts of the poem to the Bible and site many examples that make it within the realm of possibility. For example, in Book 1 when the floods came and destroyed the whole earth because the world was full of monsters and giants, but Deucalion and Pyrrha lived on to create a new race of man.

This story parallels the story of Noah and the ark, where his three sons and their wives reproduce the human race after a great flood destroys the earth. Others find it blasphemous to compare a fictional work to the Bible. But nonetheless this is a very entertaining and enjoyable book, fit for the whole family. After careful research one will discover that the reason Ovids Metamorphoses was popular for so many centuries after the ancient world, is his creative ability. The Romans taught children (boys) in the schools to find the most fitting examples to illustrate the points they wanted to make in their speeches.

This skill was known in Latin as inventio meaning discovery. This meant using existing tools to find the best examples. Ovid must have been an over achiever in this skill. At the end of the poem the reader is filled with a sense of awe. It is amazing how beautifully and masterfully Ovid weaves this tale together with so many elements connected by a single and simple themechange. He manages not only to captivate the audience at the beginning but also to keep them on their toes throughout the entire epic.

The strange twists and turns only add to the ever-present element of surprise. Ovid not only wins the favor of the readers, but writing the story of Caesar becoming a star at the end of the work, had won him the favor of the emperor Augustus. His work also provided a source from which the entire western European literatures have derived inspiration, among them, Shakespeare. The story ends with two very confident statements about the work and about Ovid himself. He writes, If there be any truth in poets prophecies, I shall live to all eternity, immortalized by fame.

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