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THE “ METAMORPHOSES” OF OVID.
The Mythology of the Greeks, adopted by the Romans, consists mainly of two distinct parts. The first is what is technically called Theogony, “ the generation of the gods,” and was put in the shape best known to us by Hesiod, some time before 500 B.C. It began, there is no reason to doubt, with rude personifications of the objects and forces of nature, such as would be natural to a people of active intelligence, lively imagination, and childlike ignorance on all matters of science. The Sun, the Dawn, the Winds, the Floods, are easily conceived as superhuman persons. Some of the earlier fables are hardly any thing more than metaphors, or poetic images, put in the form of narrative. That the Sun is figured as a shepherd, and the fleecy clouds his Rock, which are scattered by the wind and gathered again by his beams, – a very old bit of Eastern poetry, — easily gives rise to the stories of Apollo as the shepherd of Admetus, and that which tells the stealing of his cattle by the rogue Hermes. That the maiden Artemis gazes with love on the sleeping prince Endymion, is hardly more than a poetical way of describing the beautiful spectacle of a full moon rising opposite the sun at his going down. A season of blasting drought and heat may have been described by saying that the chariot of the Sun was driven from its course by the unskilful, self-confident boy, whose fate is told in the wild tale of Phaëthon. And so on.
But few fables can be explained in this simple way. By a very natural process, a group of divine or ideal Persons was conceived, whose family history or personal adventures became the subject of tales absolutely devoid of any symbolical meaning. In the system found in the Greek and Roman poets, nature is full of mythological beings, grouped — as subjects in a monarchy — about the one celestial or royal family, which has its abode on Mount Olympus. The King of Heaven, ZEUS (Jupiter), with his sisterqueen HERE (Juno), is the child of KRONOS (Saturn) or Time, who again is the son of OURANOS and GAIA (Heaven and Earth), beyond which imagination did not seek to go. His brothers are POSEIDON (Neptune) and HADES (Pluto), kings of the Waters and of the Lower World. His sisters are DEMETER (Ceres) and HESTIA (Vesta), queens of the Harvest and of the Home. His sons are APOLLO, god of Light, ARES (Mars) of Strife, and HERMES (Mercury) the Herald. His daughters are ATHENE (Minerva), APHRODITE (Venus), and ARTEMIS (Diana), goddesses of Wisdom, of Love, and of the Chase. These are the twelve great divinities (dii majores). And about them, in nearer or remoter kindred, are grouped the inferior deities, the heroes or demigods, their children by half-mortal parentage, and the innumerable progeny of fabulous beings inhabiting the kingdoms of sky, water, or earth.
The other department of mythology is that with which this poem chiefly deals. It consists of the miracles and adventures ascribed to these superhuman persons, – a vast field, in which ancient fancy rioted as freely as the modern fancy in novels and fairy-tales. Some of them may possibly be explained as a picturesque way of recounting natural phenomena, or as exaggerated tales of real events. But in general they seem purely fictions of the imagination. In a very large proportion they take the form of metamorphoses, that is, transformations of men or other creatures into various shapes ; and this feature gives the subject and the title of the present poem (see the first lines of Book I.). It professes simply to tell those stories which have in them this element of the marvellous, – the transformations, particularly, of men into plants or animals. But as nearly all myths introduce some such feature, first or last, it manages to include nearly all the important ones with more or less fulness. They are told in a rambling discursive way, one story leading to another by the slightest possible link
Metamorphoses of Ovid.
of association, - sometimes by what seems merely the poet's artifice, aiming to make a coherent tale out of the vast miscellany at his command.*
With the primitive (fetichistic) notion of a separate life in every object, and the human soul differing in no essential regard from the life that dwells in things, it was easy to imagine the spirit of man, beast, or plant as passing from one dwelling to another, for a longer or shorter stay. Such a transmigration was, in fact, taught as a creed by the school of Pythagoras (see Metam. xv. 1-487). But, as against the Hindoo doctrine of transmigration into the very life of other animals, the Greeks held to the identity and continuity of the human soul, which after death had its abode assigned in the Lower World. The metamorphosis, therefore, is only an occasional miracle, not a real metempsychosis ; f it did not alter essentially the ordinary course of human life, but only marked the intimate connection between that and the life of external nature; or, in a certain wild, pictorial way, showed the workings of human fancy, to account for the first creation of plants and animals, or other striking phenomena of the natural world, -a clear water-spring in a little island (Arethusa), a mountain ridge of peculiar shape (Atlas), a bird of plaintive note (Philomela), or a rock weeping with perpetual springs (Niobe).
To give something like system, order, and development to this world of fable seems to have been a favorite aim of poetical composition with the ancients. This aim is partly religious, and partly scientific, — if that can be called scientific which only fills with fancies a void that no science yet exists to fill. Thus the “ Theogony” of Hesiod groups together the myths relating to the birth of gods and heroes — making a sort of pagan “Genesis” – in a form partly chronological, partly picturesque and poetical. This
* The connecting links between the several narratives contained in the present Selection are given, bracketed, in the headings, thus presenting the entire argument of the Metamorphoses as a connected whole.
† Thus the princess Io is changed into a heifer (Met. i. 611). She retains her human consciousness, deplores the change, and writes her own name on the sand, to inform her father of it. This is metamorphosis, or change of form. According to the oriental doctrine taught by Pythagoras (Met. xv. 459), the heifer in your stall was doubtless once a human being, perhaps your own mother or sister: it would be wicked to kill her, and impious to eat her flesh. But she has only a brute consciousness; and simply shares the universal life of man and brute. This is metempsychosis, or change of soul.
is apparently the first attempt of human thought to deal systematically with the phenomena of nature — so as, in a manner, to account for things — before inen were sufficiently free from superstition to reject the early fables. The titles of several Greek works of the same kind are known; and Virgil, in the Sixth Eclogue, puts a similar song into the mouth of Silenus.
Any thing like a real belief in these fables had passed away long before the time of Ovid. He was the popular poet of a sensual and artificial age, who found in these creations of ancient fancy a group of subjects suited to his graceful, ornate, and marvellously facile style of narrative, and who did not hesitate to alter or dress them up to suit his purpose. The “Metamorphoses ” — Libri xv. Metamorphoseon (a Greek genitive) — is the most abundant and rich collection of these fables that exists. They are told in a diffuse, sentimental, often debased way, which contrasts strongly with the serious meaning that originally belonged to these myths; but are wonderfully fluent, easy, and melodious in their language, and show a skill of versification which seems never to halt or weary. The poem begins with the first origin of things from chaos, the four ages of gold, silver, brass, and iron, the deluge, followed by the graceful and picturesque version of the tales of gods and heroes, through a long narrative, — about 12,000 verses in all, - ending with the apotheosis of Cæsar, as the sequel of the tale of Troy. The series purports to be chronological; but the order is often arbitrary and the connection forced or affected, as would naturally be the case with an author res diversissimas in speciem unius corporis colligentem (Quint. iv. 1, 77).
The mythology of Ovid and the other Roman poets was Greek mythology dressed up in Roman names. It is not necessary to remind the reader that the stories here told related to Zeus, Athene, Artemis, and the other members of the Greek Olympus, and could never have been attributed to the sober abstractions of the Roman Pantheon. Nevertheless, in commenting upon Ovid, it is impossible to avoid making use of the names in the same sense that he did, – the names long familiar in modern litera.
I. THE CREATION AND THE FLOOD.
PROEM (1-4). Description of Chaos (5-20). The Creator assigns the elements to their places, and divides the land from the waters : the zones and climates (26-58). The heavens are clear, and living things come forth upon the earth : lastly man, fashioned by Prometheus in the image of the immortals (69-88). The Four Ages : description of the Golden Age (89–112). The Age of Silver, Brass, and Iron : Astræa quits the earth ; the Giants, and men of violence that sprang from their blood (113-162). Jupiter recounts the crimes of Lycaon, and his transformation to a Wolf (163-243). He resolves to drown the world with a Flood rather than destroy it by Fire : description of the Deluge (244-312) The righteous Deucalion with his wife Pyrrha : when the waters are abated, they behold the earth desolate, and beseech aid at the shrine of Themis (313–380). Instructed by the oracle, they cast stones above their heads, which are miraculously converted into human beings, and thus repeople the earth (381-415).
TN nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora. Di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas) adspirate meis, primaque ab origine mundi ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.
ANTE mare et terras et (quod tegit omnia) caelum, unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe, quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles, nec quicquam nisi pondus iners, congestaque eodem non bene junctarum discordia semina rerum. nullus adhuc mundo praebebat lumina Titan, nec nova crescendo reparabat cornua Phoebe,