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 September with our deadline of Book 8 poetry being Wednesday 25th September.
This post sets out to provide an overview of Book 9 with a deadline for the poems inspired by this book being Wednesday 30th October.
The last batch of Book 6 poems went out last week featuring REBECCA AUDRA SMITH, SADAF FATIMA and KARIN HEYER (here). The other great Book 7 poems will be posted out during the rest of September and October.
Overview of Book 9:
Book 9 picks up where Book 8 left us with the tale of Achelous (God of the ‘silver swirling’, the largest fresh-water river in Greece) and the comical quizzing about the horn on his forehead. Theseus (hero of Athens) pursues this issue with him and in so doing sets forth the comic and satirical tone of this particular book. We are taken on a journey through a sequence of tales focusing around Hercules, and in particular Achelous’ jealousy of Hercules.
In book 9 Ovid swaps the narrative between himself and his characters consistently. He also touches on and explores the notion of heroism through the stories of Hercules and Alcmenia (female heroism) and he does so within the constraints of his dramatic tradition. He also relates heroism to love and how ‘Amor’ can drive people to death in its pursuit. We also find that Ovid uses the technique of ‘personification‘ (Rumour) to embolden his narrative (The Death of Hercules), and he peppers the stories within Book 9 with various metamorphoses which provide a light motif to the blood and gore. The dynamics of relationships are also explored within families: parents and children (Iolaus, Callirhoe’s Sons and Miletus) and siblings (Byblis). Also in this book we find an engagement with the power of words and their ability to create forms of reality and fantasy. Ovid leads us to question the dynamics between the two. He emphasis the way in which words have the ability to transform and transmogrify.
Summary of the Tales in Book 9
Why the god groaned and how his brow was maimed
Theseus enquired and Caldon’s great river,
His tangled tresses bound with reeds, began;
“Sad is the task you set. For who would wish
To chronicle the battles that he lost?
Yet the whole tale. I’ll tell. It was less shame
To lose than glory to have fought the fight” ‘
The Myths and Key Characters: Achelous and Hercules, Hercules and Nessus, The Death of Hercules, Alcmena and Galanthis, Dryope, Iolaus, Callirhoe’s Sons and Miletus, Byblis, Iphis
Achelous and Hercules
The feast that was started at the end of Book 8 continues and Achelous tells the story of how he fought Hercules for the hand of Deianira (Hercules’ second wife). He recounts a bawdy, unheroic tale of their fight. Achelous viciously taunts Hercules and forces him to retaliate. They have a wrestling match and Hercules is teased about his ability to be a hero. Achelous knows that Hercules is stronger than him and therefore uses his power to transform and escapes Hercules’ grasp by transforming himself into a snake. However Hercules is famous for his snake strangling skills and makes short shrift of Achelous. But Achelous transforms himself once more into a bull and therefore does not die. Hercules in a fury of retribution tears off the horn in the centre of Achelous’ forehead. He does so as a means to assert his power. As another example of metamorphoses Achelous turns his ripped horn into a ‘horn of plenty’ (Liveley: 92) and lets his dinner guests sup from it to end their feast.
Hercules and Nessus
This particular story sits in stark contrast to the previous story Achelous and Hercules where only a horn is lost. Here Nessus loses his life. Nessus (a centaur, son of Centaurus) , like Achelous, also falls in love with Deianira (he is shot in the back by Cupid’s arrow). He comes across Hercules and Deianira near Calydon. However their way back home is still blocked by the waters that had also blocked the boar hunt in Book 8. Nessus offers to help them cross the river. Hercules refuses thinking he doesn’t need any help, but lets Nessus help Deianira across. Hercules’ attention is solely focused on crossing the river, so much so he doesn’t notice Nessus attempting to rape his wife. However, he eventually hears her screams and kills Nessus via a tainted arrow in his back. However, Nessus, before he dies, out of revenge, offers Deianira a blood soaked and poison-ridden cloak pretending it is a love token. This also signals an atmosphere of foreboding pre-empting Hercules’ death.
The Death of Hercules
Fama (the goddess of Rumour) tells Deinara that she has heard that Hercules is in love with another woman. In the hope that she can win back Hercules she sends him the poisoned cape that Nessus gave her and unwittingly kills her own husband. Ovid, in a blow-by-blow manner shows us Hercules’ agonising death. He dies, burned on an alter. As he dies Hercules rages at the goddess Juno (sister and wife of Jupiter) listing all his heroic acts but to no avail.
In the middle of all this anguish Ovid slots in a metamorphoses which has a contrasting intensity. Hercules spies Lichas (the messenger who brought him the cloak) and he flings him skyward and he falls into the icy sea turning (horribly) into human-shaped rock.
Hercules then builds himself a funeral pyre and awaits his own death and is turned from someone dis-empowered to a hero preparing for his own mortality. He transforms himself into a hero once more.
This noble act is appreciated by Jupiter (the King of the Gods) and he assures us and Hercules that his death will not be the end – Hercules is transformed into a god.
This is the first transformation like this we have seen thus far in Metamorphoses. This deification sets up a paradigm which is replicated later by Aeneas (Trojan hero) , Julius Caesar (Roman General, 100 BC-44 BC ) and Augustus Caesar (63BC-14AD). This is particularly significant as the deification of Augustus marks the end of ‘Metamorphoses’ in Book 15.
Alcemena and Galanthis
Ovid then takes us time travelling back to Hercules’ birth, therefore confirming his death as a point of re-birth. Herecules’ mother Alcmena tells Iole (her daughter-in-law) about how Juno (the goddess of childbirth) tried to impede Hercules’ birth (as Hercules was another example of Jove’s roving eye). Alcmena labours for 7 days and 7 nights. Ovid uses this as an example of female heroism. This heroic birth acts as a parallel to Hercules’ labours and Galanthis (one of Juno’s attendants) tricks her into freeing the spell she has put over the baby. Galanthis is punished for her trickery by being turned into a weasel.
Iole then tells a story of a mother and a son which mirrors the combination of rape and transformation we have seen in other books. She tells of a nymph Lotis who evades the passionate attentions of Priapus (god of fertility) by turning herself into a lotus flower. Dryope (a nymph) tries to pick the lotus flower and finds it dripping blood from its stems. She gradually turns into a lotus tree. Her family cry out at her metamorphosis and she asks them to use her as an example to her son so he does not inadvertently hurt a nymph trapped within nature either. This is another example in Metamorphoses of a human morphing into a tree (following Daphne (1), Heliades (2), Baucis and Philemon (8), Cyparcissus (10), and Myrhha (10) ) Liveley states that humans are ‘peculiarly tree-like’ (95). Quoting Robin Nisbet:
‘Trees are like people. They have a head (vertex)., a trunk (truncus), arms (bracchia). They stand tall like a soldier as a bridegroom…Their life moves in human rhythms…’
Iolaus, Callirhoe’s Sons and Miletus
Iolaus (Hercules’ nephew and oft-time companion) re-appears to help Hercules’ sons defend themselves against one of his old enemies Eurystheus (King of Tyrins) . A tale is told of how Callirhoe’s (a nyaid nymph) young sons were aged quickly so they could kill their own father. This tale is then used to outline how the gods can choose to rejuvenate their favourite mortals. A present example of this is given by foregrounding Minos (one of the Kings of Crete) who lives in immanent fear of Miletus’ usurpation with his twins Caunus and Byblis.
In this tale Ovid concentrates on notions of ‘unnatural love’ within families. He focuses on Byblis (daughter of Miletus) and her ardour for her twin brother (Caunus, son of Miletus) . She is presented as a warning and as an example of other girls in a series of tales who also break the law in terms of love.
In Byblis’ case affection is transformed in dangerous desire. And like Medea before her, she explores this in a soliloquy. She then decides to write a letter to Caunus and he replies horrified at her feelings for him. Caunus leaves the family home and Byblis, grief stricken, is turned into a stream that weeps for a life-time. Byblis in her wish to accept the incestuous nature of her feelings holds the gods up as an example. She sites Aeolidae, in particular, as an example who married his sisters. Byblis also places a lot of faith in the ability of words to explain her dilemma (the letter) . She can use words knowingly to shape her reality and desires. Lively says ‘In fact Byblis sees language rather than law or morality as posing her main obstacle to her incestuous desires ‘(97).
Language, and its ability to transform, is once again explored in this story. The power of names to determine characters is considered: just like Narcissus became a flower in Book 3. So the story begins with a couple accepting the fact that they will have to kill the child they are expecting if she is a girl (in line with Greek tradition). When the child is born the mother pretends the child is a boy and the father names her Iphis. The girl Iphis is then raised as a boy. She/he is raised up alongside Ianthe to whom she eventually becomes engaged. Unlike Byblis who rails against her ‘curious’ feelings for her twin brother, Iphis just accepts hers hopelessly. Instead of exploring she reasons. What appears to be repeated in this tale is that lesbianism is unnatural. Iphis and Ianthe can’t live naturally side by side in this story. A miracle and a reversal of genders has to occur before it is acceptable. as the wedding nears Iphis undergoes a transformation and becomes a man.
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
In Book 9 some of the following ideas and themes are explored:
- Heroism and Deification: Embodied within the stories related to Hercules we explore the relationship between strength and weakness and god and man; how man can rise above all of humankind (with the help of the gods) to exist beyond human constraints. And in the story of Alcmenia we have, for the sake of balance, an example of female heroics.
- Language and Transformation: In the two stories of Byblis and Iphis we see how they use language to attempt to come to grips with their individual struggles with their sexuality. Both use language in different ways to cope with the reality of their situations. And in so doing we can see how powerful word construction is in the defining of our reality or our fantasy. How we use language creates strikingly different results.
- ‘Unnatural Love’: In this Book we also see Ovid engage with unlawful love within the confines of the Greek tradition. Two ‘women’ struggling to come to terms with their feelings in two strikingly different ways. And even though Ovid’s conclusions rest within the confines of his own tradition, he nevertheless engages with these contemporary issues in a strikingly bold and provocative manner.
Things of Interest:
Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss:
A live recording from 1968 by George Szell
An elegy written in response to the devastation of Munich in world war two. An articulation of the bestiality of man, and in the transcendence of man to the divine (like Hercules.
C.S Lewis and the notion of Deification
“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Verse Form: Ballade – Three 8 line stanzas rhyming ababbcbC followed by followed by a 4-line envoi rhyming bcbC, the same rhymes being used throughout. The capital C’s indicate that the same line is repeated at the end of each stanza as a refrain.
See here for more information.
Here is an audio of the tale ‘The Birth of Hercules’, in case any of you are too busy to read the book.
.Watch out for more poetry inspired by Book 7 coming out throughout August and September.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 8 Poetry is Wednesday 25th September.
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