ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes for Monday, February 26

The Loves of the Gods (part 1)


Last Wednesday I mentioned that structure is an important principle for understanding what Ovid is saying through the myths he relates in the Metamorphoses. Today we will look more specifically at the ways in which Ovid links, groups, and frames the various myths that he tells. Understanding such structural devices helps the reader both to make sense of the enormous collection of stories that the poem contains, and also provides interpretive insights into the individual stories themselves and the larger poetic structures of which they are part.

Standard Elements of Traditional Mythography

The Greek myths from a very early period seem like parts of a coherent extended narrative. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, for example, both tell stories connected with the Trojan War; and we know that there were in antiquity othe r poems, now lost, dealing with various episodes of the Trojan War. Originally there were no narratives that attempted to tell the entire Trojan saga. Eventually, however, mythographers did attempt to gather all the information they could find about Troy and to collect it in one place. An example of this is Apollodorus' Library, which was in fact written after the Metamorphoses but which is generally held to reflect a conservative mythographic tradition extending back into Hellenistic times. A section of this handbook deals with the events concerning Troy, from its earliest foundation to the judgment of Paris to the abduction of Helen, the Trojan War itself, the destruction of Troy, and the homecomings (Greek nostoi) of the Greek heroes who fought there.

The Trojan saga was not the only mythic cycle with which ancient mythology and mythography dealt. The Greek city of Thebes was the cite of a rich variety of myths, some of them dealing with the foundation of the city, others with the ill-starred house of Labdacus (the Oedipus saga), and others with the arrival of the god Dionysus. Other mythic cycles concern the family of Deucalion, Labors of Heracles, the voyage of the Argonauts, to name a few.

These and other cycles had been organized into a chronological continuum before Ovid composed the Metamorphoses, and his arrangement of topics reflects this organization. Like Apollodorus, he begins with theogonic material and then passes to human affairs. But Apollodorus pays a lot of attention to the very early heroic period in Arcadia, Argos and the Peloponnesus - stories that express Greek views about their national origins at the local and the Panhellenic levels, as we have seen - and to the myths of Athens, which in the classical period established itself as the most important center through which earlier Greek culture was transmitted to later times. Ovid does not ignore this material, but he does deal with it in a rather summary fashion. Beginning with the story of the flood in Book 1, Ovid fashions a somewhat miscellaneous sequence of stories. OF the major episodes in Books 1 and 2 (Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaethon, Callisto, The Raven and the Crow, Ocyrhoe, Battus, Aglauros, and Europa), only three (Io, Callisto, and Europa) follow the pattern that we find in Apollodorus. The others represent Ovid's arbitrary insertion of external material into the established sequence. This represents a kind of violation of an established structural principle, similar to the violation of the poem's book-by-book structure at the end of Book 1, where the stroy of Phaethon, which has really just begun at that point, runs over into Book 2.

What is the effect of these structural violations? We can point to at least 2:

  1. Movement from Chaos to Order. This is of course a major theme in the early part of the poem. The universe itself is shown to come into a kind of order (though a very dynamic kind) from a state of chaos and disorganization. It would seem that Ovid's handling of the mythic material that he inherited from the mythographers develops in a similar way. The early sequence of human stories is disordered with respect to tradition. It remains to be seen whether order emerges from this disorderly arrangement.
  2. Thematic Emphasis. Ovid's decision not to include all the standard stories of earlier mythographers involves a decision to be sure to include some of them. The ones that he does include - Io and Callisto, for instance- all relate to a common theme, "the loves of the gods." As often, the amorous god in question is Jupiter, king of the universe. The first story Ovid tells at length, Apollo and Daphne, clearly relates to this theme as well. In addition, the stories about divine passion regularly involve a powerful god suddenly afflicted with extreme lust for a beautiful and much less powerful goddess or mortal woman; the goddess or woman usually shows little interest in the god's advances; and in the course of the story she usually suffers in some way. By repeating this story patten so frequently in the early books of the poem, Ovid develops a thematic order out of the structural chaos.
By attending to the structure and thematic center of the first two books, it is possible to begin to see what Ovid is doing with inherited mythic material: he is announcing very clearly that one must look for order in these stories, and he is suggesting that one kind of order relates to the theme of violence or the propensity of the powerful to take advantage of the less powerful; and he relates this theme specifically to the theme of erotic passion, and consistently casts male characters in the role of the exploiters, female characters in the role of their victims. This is a point that we will want to bear in mind as we read the later books of the poem.

Larger Structures

The two major cycles that Ovid develops at length are the Theban and Trojan cycles. The Trojan material we will deal with later. In earlier mythology and mythography, Thebes was destroyed by a band of heroes from Argos under the leadership of Polynices, brother of Eteocles and one of the sons of Oedipus. This effort failed; but the sons of these heroes (collectively called the epigoni were later successful in capturing Thebes; and some of them subsequently fought at Troy as well. So by the genealogical relationship between these generations of heros, a chronological relationship is established between the Theban and the Trojan cycles. Ovid adopts this relationship, developing the Theban material in the earlier part of the poem, and the Trojan meterial in the later books.

Theban material formally occupies almost all of books 3 and 4. Notably, however, a great deal of material that we know from other sources is omitted by Ovid. Notably, the name of Oedipus does not occur in the Metamorphoses. Nor does the story of the seven against Thebes or other famous Theban stories. In fact, Ovid's Theban saga is framed by the figure of Cadmus, who arrives at the site of Thebes and founds the city at the beginning of Book 3, and who dies near the end of Book 4.

This treatment of Theban material is notably different from the treatment of Arcadian and Argive material in Books 1-2, as is the respect that Ovid now begins to show for boundaries between books. The Theban material begins with the beginning of Book 3 and the arrival of Cadmus in Thebes. The story of Europa concludes with the end of that book. The beginning of Book 4 returns our attention to Cadmus, and the Theban saga, as noted above, eventually concludes with his death later in the book. This is a much more orderly structural approach than what we saw in Books 1 and 2.

It also seems significant that the Theban saga is about the foundation, rise to greatness, and ultimate collapse of a city. As we have seen, mythic discourse often equates the structure, stability, and governance of the cosmos with that of the state. In the Metamorphoses, the emergence of cosmic order out of chaos results very soon in the establishment of an elaborate political structure, the city of Thebes. In a poem that extends from the dim antiquity of Greek myth to recent historical events in the modern Roman state, the story of Thebes' rise and fall would seem to be full of implication for Rome as well.

As was noted above, Ovid's handling of the Theban saga is quite curtailed. He does not even mention the name of Oedipus, who is from our perspective one of the most imposing figures of Greek mythology. We have seen that earlier Greek treatments of the Oedipus story differ from what a modern reader might expect, focussing not on the psychological implications of the incest motif, but rather (as is also true of other myths) on the theme of the generational curse, the problem of human knowledge, and the inevitability of divine retribution. Ovid does not even tell the story; is he then even less interested in the incest motif than his Greek predecessors?

This is obviously not the case, since incest figures prominently in at least two important stories: that of Byblis in Book 9 and that of Myrrha in Book 10. It is intstructive top compare Ovid's handling of these incest stories in comparison to that of Oedipus and to Ovid's telling of the loves of the gods. In both types of comparative story, the transgressor is male (a powerful god forces himself sexually on a less powerful goddess or mortal woman; a son murders his father and marries his mother). In Ovid's incest stories, however, the transgressor is female: Byblis falls in love with her brother Caunus, Myrrha with her father Cinyras. These stories do not easily conform to any universal psychological principle that would tie them to the Oedipus story, nor do they agree with the Ovidian stories that figure female characters is passive in matters of love. On the other hand, it may be important that in the loves of the gods and in the incest stories, Ovid is consistent in representing the female characters as suffering because of someone's lust, even if it is their own.


Attention to the structural and thematic principles helps to identify the issues that most concern Ovid in his retelling of the Greek myths. We have seen that while he follows the mythographic tradition in broad outline, he departs from it freely in order to develop his own ideas and interests. So far we have identified several motives: We will return to these themes on Wednesday.
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