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 October with our deadline of Book 9 poetry being Wednesday 30th October.
This post sets out to provide an overview of Book 10 with a deadline for the poems inspired by this book being Thursday 28th November.
The last batch of Book 7 poems went out last week featuring NAT HALL, JAMES KNIGHT and KARIN HEYER (here). The other great Book 8 poems will be posted out during the rest of October and November.
Overview of Book 10:
‘boys whom the gods have loved and girls punished for their lustful desires’
In Book 10 Ovid throws us with great glee into a sequence of tales of doom and misery in marriage via Hymen (the god of marriage ceremonies), and in so doing gives us an exploration of the problematics of marriage and conjugation. Book 10 is often perceived to be the darkest book of Metamorphoses’ 15, because any happiness granted is immediately retracted. The book starts with the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Here we have a tale of conquest and ruin which Ovid uses to draw us down into a sequence of other challenging relationships that are deeply entrenched in the sexual. It is also the book which explores notions of guilt and guilt by association. All the tales are of ‘unnatural love‘ (picking up on the threads of Book 9). Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most famous tales from Metamorphoses; one that has inspired many an opera; as has the tale of Pygmalion and its confrontation with reality and fantasy and Galatea (the name usually given to Pygmalion’s statue) which inspired George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In contrast to these tales of discord and otherness is also, an engagement with the connectedness of life and its inter-relations.
Summary of the Tales in Book 10
Thence Hymen came, in saffron mantle clad,
At Orpheus’ summons through the boundless sky
To Thessaly, but vain the summons proved.
True he was present, but no hallowed words
He brought nor happy smiles nor lucky sign
Even the torch he held sputtered throughout
With smarting smoke, and caught no living flame
For all his brandishing.
The Myths and Key Characters: Orpheus and Eurydice, Cyparissus, The Song of Orpheus, Ganymede and Hyacinthus, Cerastae and Propoetides, Pygmalion, Myrrha and Venus and Adonis.
Orpheus and Eurydice
In direct contrast to the joyous marriage of Iphis (daughter of Telethusa) and Ianthe (Cretian girl who married Ianthe, See Book 9) the marriage of Orpheus (musician, poet and prophet) and Eurydice (one of the daughters of Apollo) is truly problematic, and eventually culminates in her being bitten by a snake and dying. Ovid tells this part of the story in a very matter of fact way with no emotion. Orpheus then travels to the underworld to persuade the gods to give her back. Permission is given to him but only if he does not look back at her as she follows behind him. Orpheus can’t control his ardour and he does look back-only to see Eurydice sliding into Hell. What we have in this tale is Orpheus setting out to conquer the underworld and what we see by the end is something ruinous. We get the two sides of the coin. This movement from conquest to ruin is is practically the only transformation in this particular story. Ovid’s depiction of this tale is in direct contrast to Virgil’s version (Lively:100) and can also be considered a transformation by Ovid of Virgil’s take on the subject matter. After Eurydice’s death Orpheus mourns for 7 days. Eventually Orpheus dies and his decapitated head floats down a stream with his lyre mystically playing as he goes.
Orpheus overwhelmed by the grief of Eurydice goes through what could be called a psychological transformation – spurning the love of women and seeking solace in boys. It is worth noting, Liveley says, ‘that same sex sexual relationships were not viewed negatively in ancient Greece or Rome’ (100). However, Ovid was not overtly in agreement with this and this impacts on his depiction of Orpheus in relation to Cyparissus (a boy beloved by Apollo).
Orpheus sits down to sing on top of a hill surrounded by some trees which he turns into his audience. Ovid describes these trees in a form of ‘epic catalogue’ (101). For instance Heliades (one of the daughters of Helios) who was transformed into a poplar tree (Book 2), and Daphne (a female nymph, Niad) who was transformed into a laurel tree (Book 1), and the metamorphoses into a Lotus refers back to Lotis (the daughter of Neptune) (Book 9). The catalogue concludes with the transformation of Cyparissus (who was well-known for the inconsolable grief he showed for his beloved pet deer. In butting these two tales up against each other Ovid finds a means to explore Orpheus’ psychological metamorphoses in an innovative manner.
The Song of Orpheus
As Orpheus sings all the animals and trees are transfixed by his music and voice. He enchants them as he sings of Ganymede, Hyacinthus, Pygmalion, Myrrha and Adonis, All the tales that form his song. He calls upon Jupiter (the king of the gods) and the Muse Calliope (muse of epic poetry and daughter of Zeus) to inspire him.
Ganymede and Hyacinthus
Orpheus begins his sequence of songs with Jupiter’s rape of Ganymede (the son of Tros) a young boy. Finishing this song he moves onto the story of how Apollo (god of light and the sun) accidently killed his beloved Hyacinthus (a divine hero) with a discus. Apollo, despite his divine arts, can’t manage to save him and he mourns Hyacinthus, holding him in his arms crying. Apollo, like Orpheus, promises to remember his love in song. He also pledges to mark Hyacinthus’ death by the creation of a flower which also serves to later commemorate the hero Ajax (son of Telamon) as well. From the blood that pours out from the wound caused by the discus, grows a flower- the hyacinth.
Cerastae and Propoetides
The next song Orpheus sings is of the Cerastae (horn wearers-). They are a dangerous, murdering race of both men and women who are transformed into bulls by Venus (the goddess of love, beauty and sex) for their profanity. This is followed by the tale of Propoetides (the daughters of Propetus) , who deny the rulership of Venus and turn to prostitution and then are transformed into statutes for their misdemeanour. Interestingly, the Propoetides, are not turned to stone because they have turned to prostitution, but more for their impiety to Venus. The turning into stone can be seen as a second transformation- a reflection of what they have had to do to their psyche to undergo this life of prostitution: ie. become ‘as hard (as) stones (103).
The tale of Pygmalion (Cypriot sculptor) is told next. He so abhors the behaviour of the Propoetides that he turns to celibacy and the rejection of women. Rejecting the flesh he shapes an ivory sculpture of what he sees as the perfect woman. The sculpture is so realistic it appears as if it is alive. Pygmalion falls in love with the statue and caresses the figure as if it were his mistress. He also believes that the figure is returning his favours. He buys her gifts and flatters her. Pygmalion behaves very similarly to the ‘art of love’ Ovid lays out in Ars Amatoria which sets out in detail how to woo a woman.
As this continues Pygmalion confuses fantasy with reality and this all escalates at a festival for Venus. He prays to Venus for a wife exactly like his statue and it is clear he is truly confused between what is real and what is not. He returns to his house from his prayers and finds that his prayers have been granted and a wife exactly like the statue has been given to him. Because of this he is filled with affection for his statue and he handles her like she is ‘a work of art’. He caresses her body not like a woman, but ‘as a sculptor would mould wax’ (Liveley 105). The sclupture is transformed into something living but aesthetic and then into something real and tangible from an ‘art object’ into a ‘love object’ (105).
Ovid then tells the story of Myrrha and her incestuous relationship with her father. Orpheus abhors the behaviour of Myrrha-rejecting the lure of women and their wily ways. Myrrha’s behaviour has nothing to do with love or ‘amor’ rather than passion. There is no sympathy for her like Ovid had for Byblis (See Book 9). Here we are given another measured soliloquy (like we had from Medea) . Myrrha calls upon examples from nature and other societies to justify her actions and ‘unnatural love’. Indeed, matters get very complex when Cinyras (Myrrha’s father) asks her what sort of husband she would like and she replies- ‘someone like you’. A nurse helps Myrrha into her father’s bed chamber and tells him she has a young girl for him of a similar age to Myrrha. Night upon night of incest follows. Cinyras eventually wants to really know who he has been sleeping with and he brings in a lamp to look properly upon his lover. When all is illuminated he grabs a sword to kill her. Myrrha escapes from her home petrified, and in so doing is transformed from villain to victim. She roams around for 9 months pregnant and then she asks to be released from her mental and physical agony. A random god feels sorry for her and turns her into a tree where you can see Myrrha’s tears trickling down the bark. The tree was called a Myrrh tree.
Venus and Adonis
Myrrha, trapped within the tree, still has to give birth to her child, Adonis. Lucina (the goddess of childbirth) helps Myrrha and she gives birth to a baby boy. Adonis grows up and gets some retribution for what has happened to his mother by making Venus (the goddess of love) fall in love with him. Cupid (Venus’ son) accidentally grazes her breast with one of Cupid’s magic arrows and she falls in love with Adonis.
Ovid then creates a story within a story as Venus then tells the story of Atalanta (daughter of Iasus and virgin huntress) and Hippomenes (descendant of Poseidon). Atalanta, trying to evade getting married, challenges her suitors to a running race. She offers herself as the prize for success and their death if they fail. Venus helps Hippomenes trick Atalanta so he wins the race. However, Hippomenes forgets to thank Venus for her help and she inflames the pairs passions so much they desecrate a sacred spot of Cybele’s (Anatoian mother goddess) and they are turned into Lions as punishment.
Adonis is mortally wounded by a boar, and a flower, the anemone sprang up from his blood to commemorate Venus’ grief.
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
In Book 10 some of the following ideas and themes are explored:
- ‘Unnatural’ Love: There is a strong undercurrent of subversiveness in this book-particularly in relation to sexual love. This is in direct contrast to the examples we have seen of ‘amor’ in previous books. We have Orpheus assuaging the loss of Eurydice with his new love of young boys, and we have Myrrha in her incestuous relationship with her father. Judgement of these unnatural acts is often veiled or masked.
- Moral Transformations: There are relatively few actual metamorphoses in this particular book, rather we are given depictions of ‘moral transformations’. We have firstly the Propoetides and their moral ‘metamorphoses’ into prostitutes: and then the even more catastrophic moral impiety of ignoring Venus, which actually is the act that turns them into stone- not the prostitution. It is the change in morality that is flagged up as more important than the physical calcification. And secondly in Pygmalion we have love for an object, ‘aesthetic love’ turned into ‘real’ love; from aesthetic objectification, to fantasy, to reality.
- Reality Versus Fantasy: In this book Ovid challenges the notion of the boarders between reality and fantasy, and the notion of subject and object. This is subtly depicted by the transforming relationship Pygmalion has with the sculpture he has created. As his involvement with his art transforms from aesthetic love into the world of his imagination, to the moment with his fantasy becomes real. In this depiction Ovid blurs and challenges the lines of reality and fantasy asking which is the better?
Things of Interest:
Orpheus and Eurydice by C.W. Gluck (1774)
Dance of the Blessed Spirits
George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion
“I can’t turn your soul on. Leave me those feelings; and you can take away the voice and the face. They are not you.” (From Pygmallion by George Bernard Shaw)
Theatre Guild Radio Production
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Verse Form: Urjuzah – The rajaz metre calls for lines of 24 syllables, divided into two hemistichs (or half-lines) of 12 syllables, with a caesura (or break) between them. Each hemistich contains three similar feet, of 4 syllables each. The third syllable is unstressed, and all the others are stressed – “dum-dum-di-dum”. In Western prosody, such a foot (which doesn’t arise all that often) would be called a third epitrite.
See here for more information.
n.b. Here is an audio of the tale of ‘Hyacinth’ in case any of you are too busy to read the book.
Watch out for more poetry inspired by Book 8 coming out throughout October and November.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 9 Poetry is Wednesday 30th October.
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