(Content warning for frequent references to death, violence and rape.)
Friends, I am in love. This time it’s a poet. As anyone who follows my personal blog may have noticed, Ovid has stolen my heart. It’s rather inconvenient as he was born in 43 BC in the Ancient Roman world, and I followed on two millennia later, but I don’t care. It was meant to be.
To read Ovid’s Metamorphoses at 23, having never read a text like it before, is to have a light switched on in a dark room. No, it’s having the sun come up and illuminate your world. To anyone who loves language and stories, the Metamorphoses are an endless delight and the springboard for endless connections, reflections and ideas. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the word lycanthropy, or the stories behind the words arachnid, hermaphrodite and echo?
Have you ever explained to a child that the whole world is made of atoms, which are constantly shifting and rearranging themselves; about how water dissolves and condenses as cloud and falls as rain? Have you ever thought about how the content of your own human body will one day disintegrate, the atoms in you becoming part of other people. Have you ever felt limited by your own body and have you wondered about the possibility of becoming something greater than or different from yourself? Dickinson wrote that “this quiet dust was gentlemen and ladies” but in The Metamorphoses death (and dust, and decay) is only one direction that a body can take. In this world there are multiple possibilities; people are changed into spiders, wolves, flowers, swans, water, and the whole universe is in a constant state of flux.
You’ve read and seen plenty of retellings of Proserpina’s story – from the references in David Almond’s novel Skellig to Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s iconic painting. But now you read the original tale and its full horror and beauty comes afresh. The story captures the primal anguish of rape, and the terror of a mother who loses a daughter and quite literally tears up heaven and earth to find her:
“[Ceres] had torn up two pine trees,
Kindled both in Etna,
And holding them high
Through the long nights
Lit her path of glittering frost.”
(The Rape of Proserpina)
The stories have a primal, brutal quality, like something that just happened. The word ‘Ovid’ used to conjure up to me a lot of stone statues and dry classical allusions. But read these tales from two thousand years ago and they feel chillingly real. Yes, you think. It happened like that. That’s exactly how I would have felt too.
I discovered Ovid this summer through my usual method of finding new things, which is to chase up references my favourite authors make in their books to other authors. You should also know, if it’s not obvious, that I am basically classically illiterate. I was born a bit early for the Percy Jackson stories, so my primary introduction to the classical world was reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of Greek and Roman myths at age 8. I found them really dry, and couldn’t identify with heroes like Achilles or Hector or Hercules.
I didn’t have a classical education at school either, so as a teenager I found initially that Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, The Iliad and The Aeneid were inaccessible to me even in translated form. I didn’t understand the references or who anyone was supposed to be. I was a girl from inner-city Birmingham and felt locked out of this world. “Well,” I thought, “who needs that anyway?” and I went off and read books by basically anyone born after the fall of Rome. I don’t regret that at all, but I do think it’s a shame that I was so put off by this apparent cultural and textual inaccessibility.
A friend of mine and I once discussed the class aspect of classical education, (in Britain it is generally private schools that teach Latin and Greek language and mythology, whilst comprehensives and grammar schools teach modern languages). We spoke about feeling left out of discourse with people from private schools, who were just as smart as us but had access to a frame of reference that we didn’t know about. We agreed it was unfair that knowledge of the classical world should be associated in our country with wealth and intelligence.
Of course, I still don’t think reading Ovid makes one superior to anyone who prefers reading contemporary novels, or reading graphic novels, or not reading at all. But I will say that Metamorphoses was a thousand times more accessible than I expected. Reading Ted Hughes’s brilliantly accessible and gloriously written translation has made an enormous difference for me. It makes me feel included in an ancient mythological tradition which continues to have an enormous impact on Western culture. I’m able to really understand and treasure stories that have influenced storytelling itself. It makes me realise that anyone, regardless of education or background, should be welcome to this mythological tradition.
In writing this essay I hope to share the joy I had in reading Metamorphoses, and also share a few thoughts on what it was like reading the text as a 21st-century woman. I can’t detach my reading of it from the fact that I am a feminist and a woman, nor do I want to.
Before I read Metamorphoses I associated classical mythology with films like Troy and Wrath of the Titans, and always assumed that it was mostly about buff heroic men. Which doesn’t interest me much, frankly, because my primary joy was and is to read well-written stories about women and girls. Of course, what I didn’t know is that Metamorphoses is full of strongly drawn, believable female characters. That there are transformations of gender, like Tiresias’ and the strange fate of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, which imply that gender has the capability to be utterly fluid. That the stories frequently return to the violent, volatile tensions between powerful men and the women under their control.
The stories often take in other, entirely human transformations of the body and mind. Rape, pregnancy and childbirth are often inextricably linked, as they unfortunately were in Ovid’s Roman world.
Reading Ted Hughes’s version (Tales from Ovid, published by Faber and Faber) I started making notes about the prevalence of rape and its meaning as power play, punishment and manifestation of addiction. In Tereus, quoted below, it’s interesting to note that Tereus’s behaviour is utterly condemned throughout the story.
“‘He’ll explain,’ cried Juno, ‘why you are
Slave to your irresistible addiction
While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you
Do all they can to shun it.’”
“She was to blame – her beauty. But more
The King’s uncontrollable body.
Thracians are sexually insatiable…
He was the puppet
Of instant obsession…
Philomela twisted away.
Shame tortured her.
She would not look at her sister –
As if she herself were to blame.”
I also noted the instances of, as we call it now, “speaking truth to power”.
Rape is a manifestation of power. It is the gods, especially Jupiter, who are the most frequent perpetrators, but the men of the stories are often no better. The poet often sympathises with their victims and allows them to speak back, even though doing so is often followed by punishment. For instance, Philomela’s wonderful speech to Tereus – where she declares that “shame will not stop her” – angers Tereus so much that he cuts out her tongue. But although the poem is titled Tereus, we know whose story it really is that we are reading. It was a very strange experience to hear Philomela’s articulate voice ringing out, and to realise the commonality of women’s experiences down the centuries:
“I may be lost.
You have taken whatever life
I might have had, and thrown it in the sewer.
But I have my voice.
And shame will not stop me.
I shall tell everything
To your own people, yes, to all Thrace.
Even if you keep me here
Every leaf in this forest
Will become a tongue to tell my story.”
Then there is the story of Arachne, the weaver, who believes herself to be better at weaving than the goddess Minerva. (Arachne notes that “I make up my own mind and I think as I always did.”) Minerva challenges Arachne to a competition to find out who is better at weaving. Minerva’s tapestry illustrates “the kind of punishment Arachne could now expect for her impudence” by showing people being turned by the gods into mountains, storks, cranes and stone. Arachne, meanwhile, creates a tapestry which graphically shows Jupiter raping Europa and other women. Minerva’s response, realising that the tapestry is technically perfect, is to tear the tapestry off the loom and “rip it to rags” – censorship at its most primal. Again, the victim is silenced but her story resonates.
The women of Metamorphoses often meet a ghastly fate. Arachne hangs herself, and Minerva takes pity on her and transforms her into a spider. Echo, who defends her friends by telling lies, is turned by Juno into a disembodied echoing voice. Philomela transforms into a nightingale, and in the most horrific of the stories Niobe loses all her children because of her pride. They’re punished for being proud, for being talented, for being vocal, for defying the gods. These characters stand out to me; they feel much more real and more interesting than the gods. I feel that their stories are not closed, they are ambiguous and they open up in the retelling and rereading.
I am thankful every day that I fell in love with Ovid and discovered the stories of the women in Metamorphoses. Their stories resonate endlessly; they don’t win, but God, they are brave. Their stories still exist, and the telling of them (however you choose to retell them) is endlessly powerful. In her story True Short Story, Ali Smith writes about the nymph Echo and asks: “When is a short story a short story? When its echo answers back.”
I’m reminded of Akhmatova’s poem, Lot’s Wife:
Who would mourn this woman, who was thought
To be the least of losses, hardly worth a breath?
Yet I will always hold her in my heart,
Who for a single glance accepted death.
(Lot’s Wife – Anna Akhmatova)