Started in February 2013, 17 poets, 15 months, creating 1 contemporary reworking of Ovid‘s Metamorphoses
See the Transformations Page For More Details
Here we are in the middle of June with our deadline of Book 5 poetry being Thursday 27th June. It comes around quickly!
This post sets out to provide an overview of Book 6 with a deadline for the poems inspired by that book being Wednesday 31st July. The second batch of Book 4 poems went out yesterday and Book 4 poems will be posted out for the rest of this month.
Please not that from now on I will combine the overview post with the prompt, deadline and optional verse form post. This seems to make more sense and keeps it all in one place.
Overview of Book 6:
Pallas [Minerva] had listened to the tale she told
With warm approval of the Muses’song
And of their righteous rage. Then to herself-
To praise is not enough; I should have praise
Myself, not suffer my divinity
To be despised unscathed’.
Book 6 is subtly connected to book five by the theme of contest/war/conflict. It also significantly drives the subject matter and thought of the previous books in a different direction. Ovid turns the placid goddess Minerva on her head and transforms her into a punishing deity who chastises a mortal just for her gift of creating magnificent tapestries and for being proud of that fact. Ovid transforms a seemingly slight tale into a story of conflict between two master weavers who both imbue their work with their world view and biases. Indeed, the tapestry that Arachne (a girl of humble origins with amazing weaving skills) creates is used to embody the themes of books 1-3 in its skeins. Ovid uses this scenario to challenge the power of the gods; perhaps, suggesting their influence should be taken lightly.
Book 6 also has the tale of Niobe (Queen of Thebes and wife of Amphion) which embodies an important principle of Greek thinking- ‘that one must not tempt the gods by boasting of luck, good fortune or happiness’ (Brunauer: 64). Importantly, it is also in Book 6 that the epic crucially goes in a different direction: away from the subject of mortals challenging gods towards a story of ’human lust’, brutality, and bloody vengeance within families’ (William S. Anderson in Brunauer: 64). The first part of the poem in Book 6 focuses on the Gods and the second part on mortal men and women.
Summary of the Tales in Book 6
The Myths and Key Characters: Arachne; Niobe; The Lycian Peasants; Marsyas; Pelops; Procne and Philomela; Boreas and Orithyia
The goddess Minerva/Pallas disguises herself as an old woman in order to punish a young girl (Arachne) for boasting about her skills at weaving. Arachne refuses to pay any heed to what Minerva says. In order to undermine Arachne’s refutation Minerva reveals herself as a goddess but Arachne still refuses to listen challenging her to a weaving contest. They both produce phenomenal pieces . Minerva’s tapestry represents her win over Neptune’s (Roman God of freshwater) patronage over the city of Athens and the folly of mortals who challenge the gods’ power. In contrast, Arachne chooses to depict the way the god’s play with the lives of mortal girls. She particularly highlights Jove (Lord of Heaven). Minerva realises Arachne’s work is exceptional and batters her viciously and this so traumatises Arachne she tries to hang herself. Minerva takes pity on her and lets her live but transforms her into a spider.
Niobe (Queen of Thebes, mother of 7 sons and 7 daughters) tragically offends nymph Latona (Mother of Apollo and Diana) by thinking the thought that she was the’ happiest of mothers’. Latona calls upon her divine children to exact vengeance on Niobe by killing all her family with her children’s arrows. Grief-stricken at her children’s death she turns into stone. This transformation occurred in order to remind other mortals what can happen when mortal boasting affects Gods.
The Lycian Peasents:
An unnamed narrator now tells the story of nymph Latona. The importance of this story becomes apparent when read in sequence with the Niobe story as their arrangement is part of the particular tapestry Ovid is creating. In this story Latona is driven into exile by Juno (Queen of Heaven). Thirsty and unable to breast feed her children Lacona tries to drink from a village pond but is harassed by some villagers and she turns them into frogs out of vengeance. Ovid foregrounds the injustice of Latona’s treatment and the nastiness of the local’s behaviour. To turn them into frogs does not seem harsh enough he seems to suggest. The story acts as an example of how context shapes the nature of what is right and wrong and how this shapes meaning.
This story also presents us with a contest- a contest between artists and the punishment that results from it. Marsayas (a satyr) is skinned alive for threatening Apollo in a music competition and not winning. Here we have another example of an artist being punished for their art. The tale is gruesome but it is butted up against a pastoral depiction of sadness at Marsayas’ fate. The tears of Marsayas’ kinsfolk turning the blood of Marsayas into a river of the same name. Despite Marsaya’s challenge to authority, and because of his punishment, he gains notoriety and fame and his art goes on forever.
Tereus, Procne Philomela
The Lycian storytellers continue to tell a sequence of other stories which represent blasphemies in history. The tale of Tereus (King of Thrace) is retold. The king who sent his army to aid Athens against a barbarian invasion. Out of gratitude Tereus is offered the daughter of Pandion (King of Athens)- Procne as his wife. Procne asks Tereus if her sister Philomela can visit, he agrees but when he collects her he is overcome with passion for her and he incestuously rapes her (some critics have seen this section as pornographic Liveley: 74). Philomela threatens to reveal his crime to Procne her sister. In order to prevent this happening Tereus cuts out her tongue and repeatedly rapes her. He leaves her abandoned and lies about why she has not returned with him.
However Philomela manages to get a message to her sister who swears vengeance on Tereus. During an orgy for Bacchus Philomela disguises Procne and removes her from Tereus’ clutches. In punishment for Tereus’ behaviour she serves him his own son in a meal. The two sisters afraid of Tereus’ rage flee and are turned into birds. Tereus is himself transformed into a hoopoe.
Boreas and Orithyia
Pandion (the father of Phiolmela and Procne) is heartbroken at the loss of his daughters. He recounts the story of the rape of his granddaughter Orithya (daughter of Erechtheus) by Boreas (the North wind) who abducts her. Pandion goes in to decline and his throne is taken by Erechtheus. In this tale we see Erechtheus’ children grow into manhood, take wives and sail in the ship Argo across the seas in search of The Golden Fleece. The story of their search is split between Book 6 and 7.
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
Here are some of the primary themes that run through Book 6:
- The nature of right and wrong in relation to context and circumstance (e.g. Niobe). The first half of Book 6 flagging up the state of the Gods and the second mortal man.
- Punishment: being punished for your art and how art can be seen as a way of immortalising yourself through time. The story of Marsayas highlights this.
- Violence and Rape, the cruelty and horror of extreme violence. This is particularly exemplified by the story of Philomela and Procne.
- Silence and Speech- and the impact either ‘withholding’ or ‘speaking out’ has; i.e. the ramifications of sticking up for yourself. An example of this again being Procne and Philomela.
Things of Interest:
T.S Eliot’s poem The Wasteland makes reference to the tale of Phiolmela:
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Verse Form: Rhyme Royal - sometimes known as the Troilus stanza - has 7 lines of 10 syllables each (normally iambic pentameters) and a rhyming scheme of ababbcc.
See here for more information.
N.B. I will shortly attach an audio of the tale of ‘Marsayas’ to this post, in case any of you are too busy to read the book!
Watch out for more poetry inspired by book 4 coming out throughout June.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 6 Poetry is Wednesday 31st July
Brunauer, Dalma H (1996) The Metamorphoses of Ovid, New Jersey Research and Education Association
Hughes, T (1997) Tales from Ovid, London: Faber and Faber
Liveley, G. (2011) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A Reader’s Guide, London: continuum
Ovid (1986) Metamorphoses, World Classics, tr. A.D. Melville, Oxford: Oxford University Press