Ovid's Metamorphoses revisited

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm

by Ovid

"I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world's first origins to my own time." Ovid's Metamorphoses comprises some 250 myths which include a bewildering array of transformations: men and women become flowers, trees, animals, stars, stones and sound.

These fables describe a universe defined by a constant state of flux - from creation and ancient Greece via Troy and the founding of Rome all the way to Julius Caesar.

Beginning at the beginning, the Roman poet relates how Chaos, "a raw confused mass", was "ordered … and collected into separate parts". The earth was moulded, there were "flying things" and eventually "humankind". These beings developed under the aegis of the all-powerful gods.

Many of the most famous Metamorphoses result from unfortunate encounters between humans and these superior beings. Actaeon, a hunter, is turned into a stag after witnessing Diana naked in an al fresco shower. The poor chap is then hunted to death by his own hounds. Anaxarete mocks her passionate suitor, the shepherd Iphis, at his funeral and is turned into stone by an angered Venus.

Ovid may not have invented the stories he packed into his unusual literary structure - part epic poem, part story collection, part fantastic history lesson - but his version of events has done its part in changing the world, especially in his influence on writers who followed him.

Chaucer included several Metamorphoses in The Canterbury Tales, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe is woven through Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Kafka stole the title and tenor of Ovid's collection for his own book, The Metamorphosis.

Perhaps a more telling example of how Ovid's stories about change are changed by time runs thus. Pieter Breughel painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which the flying son of Daedalus makes a tiny splash in the background as he plunges to his death. This was transformed by W.H. Auden's poem Musée des Beaux-Arts, which observed how "suffering" ("a boy falling out of the sky") goes unnoticed by people engaged in the everyday: "The sun shone/as it had to." One is tempted to add: Plus ca change