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 November with our deadline of Book 10 poetry being Thursday 28th November.
This post sets out to provide an overview of Book 11 with a deadline for the poems inspired by this book being Thursday 26th December.
The second batch of Book 9 poems went out today featuring ELEANOR PERRY and KATE GARRETT (here). The other great Book 9 and 10 poems will be posted out during the rest of November and December
Overview of Book 11:
The dynamics of narration, the relationship between a storyteller and his tale and the character who is telling the tale, is constantly highlighted in Metamorphoses. This is particularly the case in book 11 where we are once again dropped into the ongoing tale of Orpheus and his demise (having been set up in book 10). Within this framework of tales within tales Ovid’s voice can clearly be heard- supporting or castigating the character’s he has created.
Within book 11 Ovid develops and embellishes very well known tales such as king Midas. The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is also to be found here with its engagement with the sadness and complexity of death and dying, and the nature of sorrow. The principle of the Golden Mean is suggested, where nothing should be taken to extremes. Book 11 also paves the way for our introduction into the Trojan war which is engaged with more heartily by the books to come.
Ovid also touches upon the theme of love and marriage via the story Peleus and Thetis. Ovid once again prepares the way for this through his retelling of the tale of Midas and the consequences of his foolish, greedy requests to the gods. The story of Laomedon delves into the nature of betrayal. And famously, there is a beautiful personification and embodiment of sleep in the tale of Ceyx. There is a constant layering of stories which all have a sequential impact- one on the other.
Summary of the Tales in Book 11
The sorrowing birds, the creatures of the wild,
The woods that often followed as he sang,
The flinty rocks and stones, all wept and mourned
For Orpheus; forest trees cast down their leaves,
Tonsured in grief, and rivers too, men say,
Were swollen with their tears.
The Myths and Key Characters: The Death of Orpheus, Midas, The Song of Orpheus, Laomedon’s Treachery, Peleus and Thetis, Peleus and Ceyx, Pygmalion, Ceyx and Alcyone, Aesacus.
The Death of Orpheus
Orpheus’ voice and Ovid’s voice blend in this story, with the more critical of the two voices (Ovid’s) ringing through. The Women of Thrace are mortified by Orpheus’ treatment of women (Eurydice, the Propoetides, Myrrha, and Atalanta, and his rejection of women for boys). The women are disempowered initially because Orpheus’ music makes the weapons the women throw harmless. However, angered, in retaliation they begin to drown out his music with their own raised voices and music. They become a mass of caterwauling maenads (female followers of Dionysus). The Thracian women rip Orpheus apart. His head and lyre drift off down the river Hebrus still producing music- – a lament. Orpheus finally joins Eurydice in the Underworld. However, Ovid’s real focus is on the punishment of the Thracian women for Orpheus’ death. They are transformed into an oak tree. This transformation is imbued with a ‘jokey’ feel as Ovid takes us back to our first introduction to Orpheus in book 10 where he plays to an audience of trees.
Ovid throws us right into the middle of the story of Midas (King of Phrygia) who requests that whatever he touches be turned to gold. The trope of a character coming to regret asking something of the gods (like Phaethon in book 2 and Semele in book 3) is repeated. We hear the cries of Midas suffering amidst all his wealth (as we have heard Narsissus in book 3, Byblis in book 9, Iphis in book 9, Myrrha in book 10 and Pygmallion in book 10). King Midas prays to give up his gift and the gods show kindness and remove his ability to turn things into gold. The gods ask Midas to wash the gold away in the river Pactolus. Midas is then asked to judge a music competition between Pan and Apollo, and he stupidly judges the rustic music of Pan’s pipes better than the god Apollo’s lyre. He is punished for this by being given donkey’s ears. Midas tries to keep his donkey’s ears a secret but they are exposed when he has his hair cut at the barbers. The barber is forbidden to discloses his find and has to whisper it into a hole for good measure.
In this sequence of tales Ovid explores the nature of betrayal via the telling of two specific stories. Firstly, Laomedon (Trojan King, son of Ilus) who withholds payment from Apollo and Neptune for the building of the walls of Troy. The two gods come after Laomedon but he chases them away therefore betraying their trust. For this error the god’s ask that Laomedon’s daughter be sacrificed. The second tale recounts how Laomedon tried to cheat Hercules out of his prize for rescuing his daughter from a sea monster. To fight back against Laomedon’s deception Hercules leads an army against Troy aided by his brothers Telemon and Peleus.
Ovid then takes us back in time and launches into the tale of Peleus and Thetis who are the parents of Achilles. In so doing, Ovid re-roots Metamorphoses back in time and casts a new light on what has been and what is to come.
Peleus and Thetis
Ovid tells the tale of how Peleus (son of Aeacus king of Aegina) forces Thetis (a sea nymph able to shape-shift and daughter of Proteus) to be his bride. This story is very reminiscent of the other aggressive couplings we have seen in previous books. Thetis tries to escape from Peleus’ forceful attention. Peleus tries to rape Thetis while she sleeps and she transforms herself into various shapes to escape. But despite this Peleus eventually ties her up and unable to retaliate has to yield to Peleus. At this point in Metamorphoses particularly, questions have always been raised as to Ovid’s portrayal of women and violence against women. What does Ovid actually feel about these women, is his portrayal pornographic or empathetic? Amazingly, Peleus and Thetis actually get married. However Ovid focuses his attention much more on the rape than the marriage. It is from this difficult joining that Achilles (hero of the Trojan War) is born.
Peleus and Ceyx
This story follows Peleus and Thetis into exile. In the city of Trachin King Ceyx welcomes them and he tells them the story of his brother Daedalion (Athenian architect) and his neice Chione. Chione was raped by two gods and then killed by Diana (goddess of the hunt) on the same day. As Ceyx tells this tale a report comes in of a vicious wolf who has killed Peleus’ herd (punishment, perhaps, for the death of Phocus (son of Aeacus). The wolf is turned into stone. Ceyx also tells of how Daedalion was turned into a bird. Both these transformations prefigure the famous story to come- Ceyx and Alcyone.
Ceyx and Alcyone:
We are introduced to Ceyx (the son of Esophyrus, king of Thessaly) and Alcyone (daughter of Aeolus, married to Ceyx). Ceyx, troubled by the previous sequences of transformations visits the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Alcyone begs Ceyx not to go. He ignores her and goes off to sea. A storm wreaks havoc and drowns all those on board, including Ceyx. Juno (chief goddess, daughter of Saturn and partner to Jupiter) feels sorry for Alcyone and decides to tell her of Ceyx’s death via a dream. In the telling of this moment ~Ovid creates a metamorphic rendering of sleep in the formation of ‘the cave of sleep’. Within the words he uses he creates a feeling of sleepiness as he forms the cave. He tells how Iris (personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods) brushes away cobwebs like dreams. Shape-shifter Morpheus (has the power to take any person’s shape and appear in dreams) is also brought into life. Morpheus transforms into the likeness of Ceyx. He appears to Alcyone in a dream and as she reaches out to him he vanishes. She begs Ceyx to take her with him. Her lament echoes those of the myriad of other female laments we have heard before.
Alcyone then decides she will join Ceyx in death. Alcyone goes to the shore where she said goodbye to Ceyx and she sees Ceyx’s body washed up upon the shore. She runs into the ocean ready to embrace the body and is turned into a sea-bird. The two lovers are then reunited in death to bring their children up together on the calm seas. The overall atmosphere in this story is one of ultimate quiet before the storm; a moment of respite before recalling the horror of Troy. Comparisons can be made between Peleus and Thetis (Lively: 118).
An old man who sees the sea-birds that Ceyx and Alcyonae have been transformed into (the Alcyonae) is inspired to tell the tale of Aesacus (the grandson of Laomedon, (son of Priam). He tells of how Aesacus falls in love with a nymph Hesperia (one of the Hesperides) who tries to flee from him. Whilst Aesacus chases after her a snake hidden in the grass bites Hesperia in the foot and she dies. Aesacus holds Hesperia in his arms after death (mirroring Ceyx and Alcyone). and Aesacus traumatised asks that his his life be taken also. However, the goddess Tethys (goddess of the waters of the world) feels sorry for him, and as he throws himself off a cliff transforms him into a diving sea bird. In so doing we see the metamorphoses of a Trojan prince who might, had he not undergone this metamorphoses, have been as famous as Hector (greatest fighter in the Trojan war).
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
In Book 11 some of the following ideas and themes are explored:
- The dynamics of Narration- Within Book 11 Ovid clearly plays with the dynamics of narration, sometimes placing his bias in direct contrast to that of his characters and sometimes aligning them with his opinions. In so doing this challenges the relationship between the story teller and his stories. This technique allows Ovid to challenge the morality of his tales. The morality can either be underpinned or challenged, leaving it unclear as to what Ovid’s actual opinion is. This feels very modern.
- Love, Marriage and Betrayal– Aggression is generally the thread that runs through Ovid’s depiction of love and marriage. This book is filled, once again, with problematised depictions of love (‘amor). But the reader is also given tender depictions of real connection, love and despair- Ceyx and Alcyone and Aesacus.
- Preparation for the Retelling of the Trojan war in books to come: Ovid reintroduces the heroic tales of Hercules and Achilles in the form of flashbacks. We are taken to the foundation of Troy in the story of ‘Laomedon’s Treachery’. This fits in with Ovid’s intention to chart the history of the world. However Ovid shifts the tales around sequentially therefore taking history and the origins of creation in his own hands giving them a new point of origin (115).
Things of Interest:
- Edith Hamilton’s ‘Mythology’ Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
A fascinating woman….well worth checking out…
“Recognized as the greatest woman Classicist”. She was sixty-two years old when The Greek Way, her first book, was published in 1930 and Mythology came out in 1942.
For an online version of Mythology go to: http://www.scribd.com/doc/88808169/Mythology-Edith-Hamilton-1942
King Midas and his Lust for Gold…
1953 puppet animated tale of King Midas. Early Ray Harryhausen film:
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Verse Form: Pantoum -The pantoum is a Malay verse form that reached us via France and is said to be one of the hardest verse forms to master. The stanzas rhyme abab, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza reappearing as the first and third lines of the next. To complete the loop, the second and fourth lines of the final stanza are the same as the first and third lines of the first stanza.
See here for more information.
Here is an audio of the tale of ‘King Midas’ in case any of you are too busy to read the book.
Watch out for more poetry inspired by Book 9 coming out throughout November and December.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 10 Poetry is Thursday 28th December.
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