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 April with our third deadline for Book 3 poems for this Thursday 25th April.
This post sets to provide an overview for Book 4 with a deadline for the poems of Thursday 30th May. Book 2 poems are still being posted out steadily over April; May will be filled with Book 3 poems.
This month it’s been a real joy to pick poems for the weekly posts that slightly contrast or compliment each other in texture and form. It’s also been a real pleasure to see people experimenting! If you missed any of the Book 2 poems you can find them here, here here I’ve also created a Transformations poems tab on the menu for ease of access.
I will be putting out the Book 4 Prompt and Deadline Details on Tuesday 30th April.
Overview of Book 4:
While Danae’s heroic son enthralled
The chiefs of Cepheus’ court, a noisy mob
Crowded into the palace-not the sound
Of happy wedding songs, but heralding
Battle and blood, the banquet suddenly
Transformed to tumult, like a quiet sea
That winds in fury rouse to raging waves
And so begins Book 4…
Quite a few of the more well known tales which have been taken up by other authors can be found in this particular book, specifically that of Pyramus and Thisbe, the tale of whose love affected Shakespeare explicitly in his creation of both Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this book we also see Ovid lifting from other epic writers such as Homer in the story of Mars and Venus.
In Book 4 Ovid delves into some of the most ancient myths in recorded history , ones that were recorded on the tablets of Sumer in 300BC, specifically Juno’s decent into hell which represents the descent of Inanna, Queen of the Heaven’s into the Under World.
In terms of narrative structure this book is also framed by the trope of a servant woman telling a sequence of tales as she and her friends weave. This weaving acts as a winding vehicle through which to explore the consequences of not showing appropriate respect and honour. Strikingly, in Book 4 there is also a depiction of sexual violence instigated by a woman; and we are also reminded that the god’s follow their own codes of conduct.
The daughters of Minyas act as ‘internal narrators’ alongside Ovid as narrator and tales are told within tales. The stories also coalesce to explore the idea of passion thwarted and the ramifications of divine anger and do so quite often with comedy, particularly in the story of Perseus.
Summary of the Tales in Book 4:
The Myths and Key Characters: The Daughters of Minyas; Pyramus and Thisbe; The Sun Is Love; Salmacis and Hermaphroditus; The Daughters of Minyas Transformed; Athamas and Ino; The Transformation of Cadmus; Perseus and Andromeda
The Daughters of Minyas; Pyramus and Thisbe, The Sun Is Love
The Daughters of Minyas, alongside Pentheus also refused to worship Bacchus and showed this by continuing with their weaving and daily pursuits during the holidays ordered by Bacchus. Ovid interestingly explicitly sides against the daughters and with Bacchus in this instance. During one of these weaving sessions one of the daughters’ serving-women tells them a stream of stories. She tells them of Pyramus and Thisbe and the death of the two lovers… She tells them of how Vulcan (the god of fire and metalwork ) corners his unfaithful wife Venus (the goddess of love) by trapping her in a chain he has fashioned out of metal whilst betraying him with Mars (the god of war). Venus punishes the sun god who informed Vulcan of her betrayal by punishing the god’s lover Leucothoe (the daugther of Eurynome ). Clytie, a rival of Leucothoe, reports her behaviour to her revival’s father and he turns her into a Frankincense bush. Clytie is transformed into a sunflower, constantly turning away from her faithless lover.
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus
Alcithoe (the serving woman of the Daughters of Minyas) then tells the tale of Salmacis (a naiad), a fountain who makes men weak (both a pool and a predatory female unlike Echo). She pursues Hermaphroditus (the child of Mercury and Venus) who rejects her. She wraps herself around him (serpent-like) trying to rape him. The description of this rape has been called one of the most disturbing in ancient literature, and I must say it’s more than a bit feisty and tenticular. To escape, Hermaphroditus asks for a curse to be put on Salamacis’ pool.
The Daughters of Minyas Transformed & Athamas and Ino
The divine power of Bacchus has been established by now and Bacchus punishes the Daughters of Minyas for their lack of worship by turning them into bats. In this story Ovid takes up the control of the narrative and borrows from Virgil’s Aeneid heavily in his depiction of Juno’s journey into the underworld.
Ino (the aunt of Bacchus) is very proud of Bacchus, but Juno, not liking the fact that this rival family should prosper, requests that the Furies should descend and destroy the happiness of Ino’s family. The Furies turn Ino and her husband Athamas insane and they kill their own children. Venus feels sorry for the couple and turns them into divinities.
The Transformation of Cadmus
In this story the consequences of godly wrath are explored and we see the fulfilment of the prophecy that Cadmus would end his life as a snake. Cadmus and his wife, not knowing Venus had stepped in, mourn the loss of Ino’s and Athamas’ children. They flee from the city where they live to take up a life in exile. He accepts his fate having killed a sacred snake previously, and he and his wife are turned into benevolent serpents.
Perseus and Andromeda
Ovid starts this story right in the middle of things: blood dropping from the sky and transforming into snakes. Ovid presents us, however, with a different Perseus one who is more concerned with love than war in contrast to the setting within which he finds himself.
Bacchus has descended down to Olympus with all of India and Greece worshipping him. Only the King of Argos and Perseus (the child of Jove) are resisting Bacchus now. Perseus, who has come back with Medusa’s head, having killed her, tries to befriend Atlas but because of a past prophecy Atlas is suspicious of Perseus. Perseus shows Atlas Medusa’s head and he is promptly turned into stone.
Perseus flies to Ethiopia and on his way he sees Andromeda (the princess and daughter of Cassiope and Cepheus) chained to a rock by her mother because of her vainity and beauty and he falls head over heals in love. The god Ammon punishes Andromeda by letting a monster guard her. Perseus decides to attack the monster guarding her and in return for her freedom asks her parents if he can marry her. He defeats the monster by planting Medusa’s head in the ground and he retells the story of how he killed Medusa.
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
Here are some of the primary themes flowing through Book 4: the power of the gods; their personal code of conduct; the ramifications of divine anger; sexual violence instigated by women; passion and unfulfilled love.
Some specific themes highlighted in brief for you:
- Unfulfilled Love- This book features a variety of characters all connected by the theme of unfulfilled love: Pyramus and Thisbe, separated by their family; The Sun only able to help Leucothoe by turning her into a Frankincense bush and the frustration of Salamacis’ one-sided love for Hermaphroditus.
- Divine Wrath- In Ovid’s focus on the story of Cadmus again he flags up the unrelenting nature of the god’s wrath through the continued destruction of Cadmus’ family. Juno’s rage over Ino’s worship of Bacchus is explicit. And wrath comes round in full circle (the story intimates) with Cadmus being turned into a serpent. What goes around comes around.
- Hereoism/The nature of a hero: Ovid examines the nature of heroism through his oft-times comic characterisation of Perseus. Perseus rather than being brave, is fearful and his fight with Atlas is not aggressive and does not involve combat. In so doing he delicately questions the texture of violence and the intent of those that perpetrate it. This is also challengingly explored in the tale of Salmacis which disrupts our perception of the dynamics of violence by foregrounding female violence.
>Things of Interest:
>Below you’ll find a rather more modern engagement with Metamorphoses by ‘Pants On Fire’:
‘Before sea, land and sky are created, there exists only one form, chaos’
As I’ve put together this post I have kept coming across references to poet, novelist and thinker Robert Graves and his definitive book, ‘The Greek Myths’. The quote below, although not directly about Metamorphoses, gives us something to think about in relation to the archetypal themes with which it engages.
“Myth has two main functions, the first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?’ …The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account of traditional rites and customs.”
Robert Graves, “Introduction,” New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (v)
Nothing to do overtly with myth, but a poem by Graves engaging with religion (but maybe the two are actually closely linked??) A Boy in Church
I’ll post out the prompt and deadlines post for Book 4 on Tuesday 30th May. I will also include an audio recording of ‘The Daughters of Minyas’ story in case anyone is too busy to read the whole book. And watch out for the poetry inspired by Book 3 which will be posted out during May.
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: contiuum
Ovid (1986) Metamorphoses, World Classics, tr. A.D Melville, Oxford: Oxford University Press