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 at the end of January with our deadline for Book 12 poetry being yesterday, Thursday 30th January
This post sets out to provide an overview of Book 13 with a deadline for the poems inspired by this book being Thursday 27th February.
The fourth batch of Book 11 poems went out this Wednesday featuring NAT HALL and GREG MACKIE (here). There’s one more great Book 11 poem and then Book 12 poetry will be posted out for the rest of February.
Overview of Book 13:
Book 13 is the longest of all of the books in Metamorphoses. It endeavours to embrace, at great length, as many of the same stories and characters as are featured in either The Illiad or The Aeneid. Ovid, in a similar fashion, also creates an ‘epic cycle’. However Ovid, in contrast to his predecessors, also attempts to challenge and transform the actual epic form at the same time. As in previous books Ovid does so once again by engaging with a variety of different forms of narratives, creating his own textual transformations. In so doing he retells and reshapes many of the tales therein. He focuses particularly on the small happenings between the large scale events, in contrast to those usually featured in the Greek and Roman tradition. Ovid picks on unfamiliar aspects of some tales in a micro manner. He formerly uses a particular rhetorical technique called ‘variato’ which was often deployed in a variety of rhetorical debates (Lively: 127) to serve this purpose. You can see this particularly at work in the debate between Ajax and Ulysses (Odysseus). He is in effect creating a new form of storytelling which subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) subverts the classic tradition. The themes of elegy and lament (Ajax and Ulysses) are also touched upon, as is an exploration of heroism- feminised in ‘The Sorrows of Hecuba’.
Summary of the Tales in Book 13
The captains took their seats; the rank and file
Stood in a circle round. Then Ajax rose,
Lord of the sevenfold shield, now quick as ever
To anger, and turned his smouldering gaze towards
The fleet that lay along Sigeum’s shore,
And, pointing to them cried ‘Before these ships,
By Jupitor I plead my cause-and my
Opponent is Ulysses!
The Myths and Key Characters: The Debate Over the Arms of Achilles,The Sorrows of Hecuba, Memnon, The Wanderings of Aeneas, Galatea and Polyphemus
The Debate Over the Arms of Achilles
In this particular story Ovid wryly squishes the whole of the Trojan war into a few lines in order to focus on the more micro elements of the tale. The narrative starts off with Ajax (the son of Telemon and Penboea) and Ulysses (Greek King of Ithaca) listing the events of the Trojan war in their own fashion. Each also outlines why they should inherit Achilles’ armour instead of the other.
Characterised as a man of action Ajax eventually suggests to Ulysses that they should fight over who inherits the armour. Ulysses, rather than attacking Ajax directly with his words, instead targets his reply to the Greek leaders who are around him, through their response moves his argument towards ‘us’ the readers. Ulysses’ eloquence is well known and the leaders are persuaded by his argument. They award him Achilles’ armour, which exemplifies the fact that:
‘Words carry more weight than deeds’ in Metamorphoses. (Lively 129).
This is in direct contrast to the tone of the other epic narratives. Instead of depicting the full breadth of the heroes’ action, Ovid gives us the power of their words; he lets them speak. In this particular section Ajax is foregrounded as a more traditional hero, and Ulysses as a more dynamic, new version. Ovid lets the latter win as the better storyteller. He takes on the rhetoric of elegy and we are met with the themes of commemoration and lament.
As the fight climaxes Ajax commits suicide by falling on Achilles’ sword, and a purple hyacinth springs up from his blood. The petals in a pattern of AIAI. The flower then acts as a memorial lament for this epic hero (130).
The Sorrows of Hecuba
Book 13 then goes on to commemorate the heroism of the Trojan survivors of war as they similarly honour their dead. Ovid places much more emphasis on the act of this commemoration than on the actual deaths of Priam (King of Troy during the Trojan war) and Paris his son. Side-lining the entrapment of the Trojan women, he Instead focuses on the Trojan queen Hecuba (wife of King Priam). Ovid highlights the particulars of this and uses it as a metaphor for the fall of Troy.
In an example of how the moral weight of the dead place a heavy burden on the living , Achilles (greatest Greek hero of the Trojan war) initially comes out of his grave and states that he wants a share of the Trojan women. In order to assert himself he also orders the slaying of Hecuba’s only surviving daughter (Polyxena) to commemorate his death. This imitates the sacrifice of Iphigenia (daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) at the beginning of the Trojan war. Polyxena is ripped from her mother’s arms and accordingly meets her death. She is depicted very much like an epic hero who courageously meets their foreshortened life (unlike Ajax and Ulyssses who fight against their deaths). She is, as Lively puts it, a hero in a ‘new-and improved-feminine form’ (131). This in itself is a transformation of epic heroism.
Polyxena gives a very moving speech before she dies, and Hecuba in parallel also lists her own burdens. Both women move everyone to tears. As Hecuba then goes to clean her now dead daughter’s feet, she also happens up her dead son (Polydorus) and woe is piled upon more sorrow. Hecuba cannot bear the torment of these two deaths and is stunned dumb -frozen. Hecuba transforms emotionally from grief to anger. She becomes livid and snarls and rages and in so doing is transformed into a dog. Her transformation takes place so she can snarl and rage for the rest of her life. She does so at a place named Cynossema (the Dog’s tomb). A memorial to her strife.
Everybody: enemies, gods and the greek people around are overwhelmed and moved by the story of Hecuba, all apart from Aurora (goddess of the dawn) who has her own burdens of motherhood in the form of her son Memnon. Ovid once again spotlights a minor story foregoing the bigger tales of an epic nature.
Aurora is still devastated by the death of her son who was killed years before in the Trojan war. She pleads to Jupiter (god of the sky and thunder) to allow her to commemorate her son in some way. Jupiter agrees to Memnon’s body being burned on a funeral pyre. The fire appears to take on the shape of a bird. A metaphor becomes a metamorphosis and turns into real birds. This metaphor prepares us for the next retelling…
The Wanderings of Aeneas
In this particular part of book 13 we now follow Aeneas (son of the prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite (Venus)) as he founds a new Troy (Rome). Aeneas flees, along with other evictees and his father and son (Ascanius). He leaves his wife Creusa behind him, failing to pay her due regard (which is typical of an epic hero). This imbalance is then something that Ovid attempts to rectify.
The story continues to follow Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius to Delos where an old friend (Delian king Anius) lays on a party for them. Anius tells the story of how his 4 daughters, who despite having the symbolic power to turn whatever they touched into wine, corn and oil had been turned into doves. Agamemnon had forced the 4 daughters to use their powers against the might of Troy. Anius presents Aeneas with a gift of a delicate bowl depicting the story of his daughters. The tale depicted on the bowl parallels that of Anius’ daughters exactly. He also recalls the fate of Memnon and Polyxena and in so doing once again highlights the theme of female self-sacrifice and re-birth in Metamorphoses.
Ovid then follows the refugees as they leave Crete and a variety of other places, finally ending up in Sicily where Syclla (not the Syclla in Book 8) attempts to destroy their ship. Ovid details the terrifying nature of this new beast who was once a beautiful girl and is now a snarling dog.
Galatea and Polyphemus
Before the telling of Syclla’s love stories (a monster that lived on one side of a narrow channel of water) we are given the story of her sister Galatea (sea-nymph and daughter of Nereus and Doris) . Syclla tells of a three way love story between Galatea’s lover Acis and the horrific Cyclops Polyphemus ( the giant son of Poseidon and Thoosa). In Ovid’s interpretation of this story, Polyphemus is transformed by Venus. His personage starts to change moving away from his beast-like appearance. He even rejects his violent ways and sings and plays the pipes. The Cyclops sings of Galatea, and he promises his love to her. He gives her gifts of fruit and cheese and a pair of small bears (which will (ironically) grow up to be as wild as him in their nature). In his song he also threatens to hurt Acis his rival. And slowly his gentleness vanishes and he is transformed into something violent once again. Polyphemus sees Galatea in Acis’ hands and crushes him to death with a huge rock. Galatea saves Acis by transforming him into a river god. She then swims away to join her sister Syclla in the sea.
The story then swaps to Syclla and we see her wandering the coastline. She is wooed by Glaucus (a sea god ). Syclla finds Glaucus abhorrent and runs away. Glaucus then tries to get a love potion from Circe to change Syclla’s feelings. Thje story of these two characters spreads into Book 14…
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
In Book 13 some of the following ideas and themes are explored:
- Engagement With the Notion of Epic Texts: In Book 13, Ovid most overtly engages with the diverse range of epics that have preceded him and knowingly plays and transforms them. He plays with the notion of telling and re-telling in an overt way too. He focuses on smaller more micro happenings instead of the larger more epic narratives usually foregrounded and in so doing draws our attention to the more subtle emotional aspects that bring depth. See the story of Ajax and Ulysses for this.
- Exploration of heroism and female self-sacrifice : In ‘The Sorrows of Hecuba’ we are given a whole different take on the nature of heroism. We have Polyxena who embodies the male traits of heroism but in a transformed, feminised way. This juxtaposes against Hecuba’s soulful outpouring. Both are brave but in a different way that challenges our notions of what bravery and heroism is.
Things of Interest:
Greek Tragedy, Women and War, with Nancy Rabinowitz
Click the link and you’ll find the text of the play
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Form of syllable counting verse. It has the syllable count of 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, and the first and last lines are identical.
See here for more information.
Here is an audio of the tale of ‘The Fall Of Troy’ in case any of you are too busy to read the book.
Watch out for more poetry inspired by Book 11 and 12 coming out throughout February.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 12 Poetry was Thursday 30th January.
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