Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.
Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].
It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:
Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.
There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.
If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.
I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though.