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 March with our deadline for Book 14 poetry being today Thursday 27th March
This post sets out to provide an overview of the last book of Metamorphoses Book 15 with a deadline for the poems inspired by this book being Wednesday 30th April. This is the last overview I’ll be writing for this particular collaboration. I’ve learned a lot from doing them.
The latest batch of Book 13 poems went out yesterday and featured KARIN HEYER and ELEANOR PERRY (here). Book 14 and 15 poems will be posted out across April and May.
Thank you to all those who have taken an interest in these overviews, and to all those in the Transformations project who have stuck with it through until the end. It means a lot. Here’s to the next one!
Overview of Book 15:
In this book we are transported into the present time of Ovid’s world. It is a space where mortals are turned into Gods, and imperial order is established and where battle is transformed into peace. Ovid initially, rather than moving forward chronologically leaps forward in time to focus on Romulus’ successor Numa (where he is told the tale of Myscelus and Hercules). In book 15 notions of morality are questioned (Mysecelus); the character of Pythagoras is foregrounded so the origins and causes of life can be explored retrospectively; and Ovid uses the character of Hippolytus to re-introduce notions of heroism. The book is finished with an Epilogue which serves to delve into the relationship between poet, poem and longevity.
Summary of the Tales in Book 15
Meanwhile the question is who will sustain
The burden of so great a charge, who can
Succeed so great a monarch. For the throne
Fame, truths prophetic herald nominates
The Myths and Key Characters: Myscelus, Pythagoras, Egeria and Hippolytus, Cipus, Aesculapius, The Apotheosis of Julius Ceasar, Epilogue
In a dream Myscelus (a descendent of Hercules) sees a vision of Hercules (the son of Zeus). He tells him to leave the city (which was at the time an act with a penalty of death attached to it). As he prepares to leave he is captured and tried for his crime. However, a serendipitous transformation occurs as the voting pebbles used in the court change from black (guilt) to white (innocence) occurs, and he is allowed to leave. He departs to build a new city.
We move on to see Pythagoras (greek philosopher and mathematician) describe at length to Numa (second king of Rome) , how the universe came into being. He covers such themes as divinity and the origin and causes of life.
Over the previous two books in Metamorphoses we have seen Hercules, Aeneas and Romulus deified; transformed from mortals to gods. Pythagoras’ speech almost acts as a long recapitulation of everything that we have read previously. The speech ranges from touching on: vegetarianism (Cyclops in book 13 and Lycaon in book 1 in the Iron Age); the idea of sacrifice (to fulfil the desires of the gods); and notions of the human soul (which can just as easily be held in a non-human form).
Pythagoras goes on to address the theme of death and old age (which we are not to dread). Neither are we to fear the Underworld as our souls are immortal. He indicates that all is in flux including time:
All is in flux. Any shape that is formed is constantly shifting (Lively:146)
We then move on to the concept of cosmology. In book one we saw chaos and disorder, and here at the end we are once again thrown into a similar cosmic chaos where the elements are thrown into asunder. There is a perpetual state of flux between earth, air, fire and water. Pythagoras posits that the cosmos is in eternal competition with its elements. Once again this description could be describing Metamorphoses, the book, itself. Pythagoras takes us through creation and the formation of bodies of water and transformations of geography. He then takes us through a list of cities and their fate: ‘the rise and fall of civilisations and cultures’ (147). They range from Sparta to Rome with Aeneas’ power transforming the city into a super-power. Pythagoras makes a prophecy that Rome will be the greatest of all cities and the most powerful. However, if everything is flux, surely this cannot be permanently true? Ovid does not declare that this power will be permanent. Rome can still be transformed. It’s power may not last.
Egeria and Hippolytus
Numa took Pythagoras’ tenets and used them to reign over the states he ruled over- in peace and in war, until he died. Egeria, his wife flees into the woods full of sorrow where he meets Hippolytus (son of Theseus) worshipping at an alter for Diana (goddess of the hunt, moon and birthing). Hippolytus tells of his own troubles in order to salve Egeria’s grief.
In bringing in Hippolytus at this time he re-introduces the notion of a Roman hero and transformation (as Hippolytus, wounded is healed and resurrected by Apollo (god of light, sun, truth and prophecy) and Diana. Once changed he reigned over Latium in Italy under the name of Virbius. Hippolytus’ journey represents great strength and fortitude.
As Philip Hardie puts it, this movement is:
‘one of the culminating moments in the accelerating movement of the last books of the poem from the Greek to the Roman world. ‘ (Liveley: 140)
Even though Hippolytus has tried to cheer Egeria up, her sorrow is still not assuaged. She weeps so much that she dissolves into her own tears. Both Diana and Hippolytus are amazed at this. Ovid uses this story to jump into a sequence of transformations and tales which involve amazement, particularly that of Cipus (a famous Roman general) who one day found horns growing out of his head. This tale seems oddly placed within the narrative as Ovid uses it to jump to the telling of a later period of Roman history.
Cipus returns from a battle conquest and finds horns coming out of his head, confused he goes to a seer and is told he is Rome’s new king. However, Cipus is a republican and rejects the kingship. He is exiled and lives outside the city walls. By way of thanks the people of the land give him as a reward as much land as he can plough; and a memorial is carved on the city gates.
It is Cipus, within this tale, that finally brings in the figure of Julius Ceasar who also had refused to accept his crown, and in so doing Ovid brings the story nearer to his own times.
Ovid calls to the Muses as he begins to tell the story of Aesculapius (a man-made God) celebrated in Rome for healing a devastating illness that fell upon the people and which brought about their destruction.
In the form of a snake, the god is welcomed into Rome with great verve comparable to those welcomes of the great generals like Julius Caesar. The masses gather to welcome him. As Aescalapius sheds his snake skin the people are healed of their disease. As Julius Caesar would heal the politics of Rome.
The Apotheosis of Julius Caesar
We enter the age of Augustus (founder of the Roman Empire).
In this section of Metamorphoses Ovid ignores Caesar’s deeds in preference to focusing on his metamorphosis. He reminds us that it is in fact Augustus that made Caesar a god. This is a reversal of the deifications we have seen previously, where mortals were made gods for their great acts of bravery (Hercules, Aeneas, Romulus). Caesar is made god because of the divinity of his chikdren. Ovid argues that Augustus must be the son of god, therefore Caesar must be that god. Ovid then turns to Venus, as the mother of Rome, who has concerns for Caesar. She tries to save Caesar from the murderous plotting that surrounds him. However she cannot save him as the Fates will not allow it. Jupiter reassures Venus of her destiny. He states that Caesarr will die, be made a god and Augustus will take over. Augustus is praised on high. The same level of attention to the Caesars is given in the final book as in book 1 in order to balance the tale at its conclusion.
Ovid returns us to the beginning. The whole continuous poem has been an exploration of the causes that have lead up to this moment- to the Age of Augustus.
Here in the epilogue we are treated to one, final, concluding transformation, that of Ovid himself: that with the existence of Metamorphoses his life will be perpetuated. He will be immortalised by his work. As Lively puts it: ‘the poet will become his own poetry’ (153). And as the ages pass and change so will he, in flux- his identity and life embeded in his poem.
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
In Book 15 some of the following ideas and themes are explored:
- Overview of History: In conclusion Ovid takes on an eclectic journey engaging with both battle and quietude. Giving us a very particular take on the journey he has lead us through.
- Origins and Causes of Life: Through the character of Pythagoras Ovid engages with the impermanence and flux of life and how this connects to notions of mortality. How men are made immortal through deification and the ramifications of this. He looks back through the previous books to do so.
- Notions of Heroism: In this last book Hippolytus, a great Roman hero, wounded badly, is saved by Apollo from dying bringing into question the exact nature of heroism. Is Hippolytus really a hero if he has been saved by a god? Hippolytus endures and prevails against all odds, but what is the real value of this?
- The immortality of a Poet through his Poem: The relation between a writer and their work has been explored perpetually by writers themselves and by critics. By creating a poem about creation, renewal and death that embodies prehistory and history Ovid immortalises himself for the rest of time by his endeavour.
Things of Interest:
The Importance of Ovid
Hippolytus by Euripides
YE elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back, you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring water; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With hiw own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Hir a Thoddaid
Is the most common form of a welsh form of verse called the Awdl
Each line has 10 syllables – in no particular metre, though I seem to have lapsed into iambic pentameter here. All lines of each stanza, except for the penultimate one, rhyme together in the conventional way. The penultimate line rhymes with them all in an unconventional way – its seventh, eighth or ninth syllable contains the rhyme. Furthermore, the word at the end of the penultimate line rhymes with a word somewhere in the middle of the last line.
The first 4 lines are the hir, and the last two are the toddaid (which mutates to thoddaid when you put the phrase together, due to the endearing peculiarities of the Welsh language). The hir can have 2 lines or 6, rather than the 4 used here, but all its lines must always rhyme together.
See here for more information.
n.b. I will shortly put up an audio of the Epilogue in case any of you are too busy to read the book.
Watch out for more poetry inspired by Book 14 and 15 coming out throughout March and April.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 1 Poetry is today Wednesday 30th April
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