December 14, 2023

#08-366: Ovid's Metamorphoses

Daphne becomes a laurel tree to escape Apollo's clutches (Wikipedia)

Note: If you had been educated in the 19th century (or before), you would certainly have read the stories of Ovid in Latin. Alas, we "threw the baby out with the bathwater": in not requiring Latin, we lost our familiarity with these great stories, too!

Get Ready: Can you think of an interesting story in which NOBODY changes?

I often draw on collections of famous stories for the works I bring you: Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales, The 1001 Nights, and so on. But I have barely touched on one of the greatest: The Metamorphoses (meaning "transformations") by the great Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, known in English as "Ovid."

The book is purported to be a history of the world from its creation to Ovid's era, ending with the deification of Julius Caesar. Along the way it tells over 250 Greek and Roman myths. It is considered one of the most influential works in Western literature, having served as source material for Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and many, many more.

The thread that strings together many of these stories is transformation: people are changed into animals, gods into people, animals into gods--and all possible permutations, including all of these being changed into inanimate objects and vice versa.

For example, among the stories in Book I (of 15) we find Deucalion who, with his wife Pyrrha, is the only human couple to survive a great flood sent by Zeus. Unlike Noah, he saved no animals, but he repopulated the earth by transforming stones into men.

Also in Book I is the god Apollo, who regularly transformed into a hawk; Daphne, a nymph who was transformed into a laurel tree to prevent her from being raped by Apollo; the human woman Io, the object of Zeus's lust who was transformed into a heifer to hide her from Zeus's wife, Hera; and two transformations relating to the fall of Phaeton, son of the sun-god Helios, who insisted on driving his father's chariot: his sisters were changed into black poplar trees and his lover Cycnus became a swan, all in mourning over his death.

The theme is carried right through to the end of Book XV, where we find Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine who used his art to "transform" sick people into healthy ones; and Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman who, after his assassination in 44 BCE, was transformed into a god in a process called apotheosis. This occurred just a year before the birth of Ovid.

Incidentally, the symbol of Asclepius is a serpent twined around a staff, the serpent embodying transformation by the periodic shedding of its skin.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. hawk
  2. heifer
  3. inanimate objects
  4. incidentally
  5. influential
  6. mourning
  7. nymph
  8. periodic
  9. purported
  10. twined
  1. sadness over a loss
  2. supposed
  3. a high-flying bird
  4. a nature spirit
  5. by the way
  6. a young female cow
  7. from time to time
  8. having a big effect
  9. wrapped around
  10. non-living things

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 14, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. f; 3. j; 4. e; 5. h; 6. a; 7. d; 8. g; 9. b; 10. i