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‘Souls Never Die’
Part 8 of 8: Impressions of Metamorphoses by Ovid
© 2023 James LaFond
NOV/6/23
Books 14 and 15 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
I would here like to thank Ovid for entertaining me towards the useful purpose of his work while sick in bed these past two weeks.
-4/10/2023
Book 14 continues with the outward ejection of Greeks and Trojans, conquerors and the conquered, from Troy to Italy. [0] Glaucus, Grey-fish, a minor god, expresses his love for a nymph to Circe, Daughter of the Sun, apothecary of the gods. Circe offers herself and is rejected, so, in typical goddess fashion slays the nymph, Scylla, who is turned into a reef by the same name.
Side characters, castaways, from the Odyssey, are encountered by Aeneas and his refugee Trojans. A companion of Odysseus describes how he and his fellows were turned into hogs by Circe, what an evil goddess she is, and that Odysseus conquered, wed and abandoned her. The way in which Circe is described, as having many servants who tend and pick and sort every herb and seed and thing that can heal or poison, with her weighing and valuing and assigning these things purpose, is read with a chill by this supplicant at the pharmacy window being sustained by the godlike powers of antibiotics and steroids.
Another child of the sun, Asclepiades, is the doctor of the gods and appears to aid an early figure forgotten in my fever.
The theme of transformation into birds, stones and trees, continues, yet is gradually supplanted as a good by ascension. The Barbary Apes, those nasty baboons of north Africa are described as having been a rude tribe cursed by a god. Indeed, the companion of Ulysses, describes the shocking aspect of his transformation into a pig as being his downcast face, looking into the ground. This reverses Ovid’s contention that man was formed to stand upright to regard the heavens. It also reminds this reader of the downward gazing posture of the smart phone user.
Aeneas buries his father and his nurse with great honors. Aeneas himself, is brought up into heaven and placed among the stars at his mother Venus’ urging. Likewise, Romulus, the man credited with defending and expanding what Aeneas planted, is described as having been fathered by Mars, who, with the permission of Jove Almighty, carries Romulus up into heaven and places him there. So, according to Ovid, Trojan refugees, under the sponsorship of Love and War [the two gods wounded by man at Troy] found Rome and plant the seed for greatness. The gathering of such honored dead to heaven is congruent with passages in Enoch and Exodus and used heavily by Tiraldos in The Song of Roland [circa 1000] in Dante’s works [circa 1300] and in 1600s religious literature by Milton and Bunyun, describing angels gathering the blessed to heaven, even as devils drag the accursed to damnation.
Juno then gathers the widowed queen of Romulus to heaven. Elysium is discussed as a destination for the highly virtuous soul. With the founding of Rome, transformative hope of a positive afterlife begins to creep into Ovid’s narration, his moral tempo rising.
Along with Circe, another aspect of these refugee stories that seems on the face primitive, might be suggestive of advanced technology: The Cyclops.
The one-eyed giants, man-eating fiends, throw great rocks out to sea like siege engines. Tolkien used the one all-seeing eye to great effect in his Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for imperial overlordship. The suggestion is tempting, and yet is tempered by the mention of astronomical events and volcanism accompanying the outward migration from Troy.
Love reminds her son, Aeneas that “no path” denies the tread of “virtue.” Aeneas, like Herakles, Orpheus and Odysseus, dares “the Stygian shades” of Pluto’s underworld and returns to the living.
The poet crafts some insightful lines, including, “Fame, prophetic messenger of Truth.”
The cycle of nations rising and declining is admitted as a natural state of transformation.
The founding of various Greek cities in southern Italy is discussed. In particular is the founder of Croton, who was to be sentenced to death in Greece for the crime of abandoning the home city. The vote for death or life was given with pebbles, placed in “the cruel urn” black for guilty, white for innocent. The man prays to Herakles who changes the black pebbles to white.
Once southern Italy is planted with Greek colonies, an heir to Romulus’ throne, Numa, journeys there to study, to learn lessons for civil government from Pythagoras. Book 15 is dominated by Pythagoras and his teachings. Mentioned in his teachings is that Bacchus, or Dionysius [1] conquered India in prehistory, and their gained the grapevine for civilization.
Pythagoras, according to Ovid, fragmented quotes and precepts:
“In his thoughts he visited the gods...discovering everything that hides away from human sight…”
“If you would hear the oracles of a majestic mind...it pleases me to leave the earth and look down upon scurrying man…”
“Souls never die…we have souls with wings…”
Pythagoras rants against “the habits of the cyclops,” being the “feeding of blood with blood,” of eating meat. He postulates that the pig was the first domesticated animal, enslaved as punishment for rooting up man’s crops.
Pythagoras taught that there were four elements: earth, water, air and fire and that the sun was red at dawn and dusk due to “Earth’s contagion.”
Rather than life being extinguished, Pythagoras taught that death, like birth, was a transformation. He discusses the earth being subject to this, with sea shells being found far inland and “...on a mountain summit men have found an ancient anchor,” indicating that the seas and lands are not constant fixed bodies.
Pythagoras taught about the motions of the heavenly bodies and that eating meat was one step from crime and that men should content themselves with the milk, wool and labor of their animals and eat fruits and grains. The doctrine of the Phoenix, that this singular bird lives 500 years and that when it dies a clone of it rises from the pyre to seek the city of the sun, is set forth as a teasing wonder at first glance. However, it is placed by Ovid firmly in the section of the book dedicated to an ideal of a rebirth of political greatness according to long seasons of rise, shine, decline and disaster.
Ovid brings the poem down to his present day and the reign of Augustus, with a brief on the Roman Civil War in which Julius Caesar was butchered in the Senate. It turns out that Venus knows that this descendant of hers is about to be slain and asks her father Jove if she can intercede. Jove informs her that the place where the Fates fashion the narrative in Eternity, he has visited, that he has read their decrees writ in marble and brass, that he has seen that “this man,” has played his part and cannot be saved, that it “is etched in adamant.” Jove does permit Venus to carry Julius’ soul off from his corpse, to set him among the stars of heaven where it is hoped he might advocate for his folk. [2]
At the end of Ovid, the rare procession of the hero into heaven is becoming more regular, a civil service reward, predicting the Christian notion of Saints, with the minor gods like Venus obviously fitting the Christian notion of angels. The poet ends with a plea for himself:
Praying to the muses that, “Gnawing Time...will only take my body...if there is truth in poets’ prophecy, I, Will, Live, On.”
Having studied Exodus before Ovid, I cannot shake the sense that Ovid was hoping for a Christ, as he wrote his poem accounting so many woes afflicting man and so few blessings sent from Heaven.
Thank you, Ovid
Notes
-0. To the far west end of the Middle Sea from where the 7 Bronze Age Age Empires collapsed in the east, 6 completely, with only Egypt maintaining its integrity. The Minoans and Hittites seemed to have suffered the greatest reversal.
-1. Three mentions of the Ganges River in India occur earlier in Ovid’s poem. The metaphysics of Pythagoras are very similar to Hinduism.
-2. One wonders if long contact with Egyptian theology influenced this drift to deification of the departed ruler as an intercessor. Ovid does mention the seduction of Cleopatra of a Roman general as a moral threat.
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