ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes and Supplements: Wedenesday, February 28

The The Loves of the Gods (part 2)


Having analyzed the poetic structures that Ovid uses to assemble his selection of Greek myths into the architecture of the Metamorphoses, we were able to identify some prominent themes that emerge from the various stories. Today we will consider some of the implications and ramifications of these themes. In doing so we shall consider some of the stories that we have already discussed along with some that we have not yet mentioned.

Power and Powerlessness

As we have seen, the stories Ovid tells are aften about relations between stronger and weaker individuals. In many of these stories, the stronger individual feels an erotic attraction to the weaker, and tries to use his greater strength to satisfy his longing. Again, in the majority of these stories, the stronger character is male, the weaker female: some examples include Apollo and Daphne, Jupiter and Io, Pan and Syrinx, Jupiter and Callisto, Mercury and Aglauros, Dis and Proserpina. There are also some surprising variations: the story of Diana and Actaeon involves a chance encounter between Actaeon, a young hunter, and the goddess Diana as she bathes in a secluded fountain. Diana is the goddess of the hunt (cf. the Greek Artemis), and one of her attributes is perpetual virginity. To be seen naked by a mortal man is an affront to her dignity, and one that carries with it obvious sexual overtones. As punishment for his "transgression," Actaeon is turned into a stag, and is immediately torn to pieces by his hunting dogs. Thus in this story, the weaker character is male, and he has no real sexual designs on the more powerful female character, a situation that represnts a double reversal of the "normal" pattern. Nevertheless, the weaker character suffers at the hands of the stronger, just as in the other stories.

The Power of Speech

A consistent motif in these stories is that powerlessness is figured as an inability to speak. In "Diana and Actaeon," for instance, when Ataeon flees the hounds that pursue him, we read the following:
                          ...Actaeon fled,
Royal Actaeon, and marvelled in his flight
At his new leaping speed, but, when he saw
His head and antlers mirrored in a stream,
He tried to say 'Alas!'-but no words came;
He groaned-that was his voice;
the tears rolled down
On cheeks not his-all changed except his mind.
He fled where often he'd followed in pursuit,
Fled his own flok, for shame! He longed to shout
'I am Actaeon, look, I am your master!'
Words failed his will; their baying filled the sky.

                   ...He gave a wailing scream,
Not human, yet a sound no stag could voice,

And filled with anguished cries the mountainside
He knew so well; then, suppliant on his knees,
Turned his head from side to side,
Like arms that turned and pleaded.
Melville pp. 57-58
Ovid's decision to focus on Actaeon's voicelessness is important in several respects. Not only does it heighten the surreal effect of his metamorphosis, but it connects his predicament with that of many other characters who suffer in similar ways. We have already seen, for example, how Apollo, frustrated in his attempt to possess Daphne sexually, tells the laurel tree that she has become that he will make her leaves his special emblem; and when he does so, the tree attempts to express its opinion about the god's plan to possess her in one way if he connot in another. She does so by shaking her "head," i.e. her "leafy crown." But the poem actually leaves it slightly unclear what the tree is attempting to say:
Thus spoke the god; the laurel in assent
inclined her new made branches and bent down,
or seemed to bend, her leafy crown.
Melville p. 18
A number of other stories dramatize the loss of voice in various ways. Here are some (but only some) that you should consider, not only for the ays in which they relate to the theme of voice and voicelessness, but for the ways in which this theme becomes involved with others we have discussed, especially the themes of power and erotic attraction:

Sex-Role Reversals

The dynamics of power and speech in the early stories told in the Metamorphoses generally suggest that power and especially the power to speak are masculine traits, and that the lack of these powers is a feminine trait. Some stories, of course, like that of Actaeon, seem to contradict this idea. Is Ovid merely inconsistent, or is some other thematic principle at work?

If we suppose that voiceless or otherwise victimized characters are (in terms of the poem's thematic structure) being made to play "female" roles, then the apparent inconsistency of these cases begins to make sense. In fact, there are a number of stories in which the boundaries between male and female are blurred of eliminated, either symbolically or literally. In "Narcissus and Echo," for instance, we encounter a nymph, Echo, who had often kept Juno engaged in conversation while Jupiter was making love to one of the other mountain nymphs. In retaliation, Juno deprived Echo of her own voice, leaving her only with the power to repeat the words that she heard others speak. This nymph falls in love with and pursues the youth Narcissus, who disdains all advances. In this respect, Narcissus is almost a "female" character, while Echo, the pursuer, plays a "male" role.

In other stories the confusion between genders is even more extreme. You should consider the following stories carefully, paying attention (as in the list of stories dealing with voice and voicelessness given above) to the involvement of the dominant theme with others we have considered:

The Artist and His (?) Material

The narrator of the Metamorphoses shows a lively interest in artistry of all sorts, to the extent that one ought to regard artistry itself as an important theme of the poem. One particularly pronounced instance of the theme is the story of Pygmalion, a confirmed bachelor and an artist who makes a statue of a woman he finds so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He prays to Venus that this statue might be his bride; and, happily for him, the goddess, answering his prayer, causes the statue to come to life under his touch. This is a story with a "happy ending," unlike many in the poem, but it is worth thinking about seriously as well, mainly for the erotic connection that it suggests between the artist and his creation, which is explicitly figured as an example of active male desire for an inert female object that comes into existence only through his skill and comes to life only under his touch.

Is the Pygmalion story a model for how we should understand the relationship between the poet and his material as well? Certainly the general pattern is repeated often enough. In fact, at the beginning of the poem, the creation of the universe is implicitly likened to the creation of a work of art: some unnamed god fashions the world out of raw materials, just as Prometheus later fashions his beloved humankind out of clay.

On the other hand, not all creators in the poem are male, and not all stories celebrating creativity end happily. In fact, these stories, too, are often implicated with the themes of power, voice, gender, and the erotic. One significant example of this linkage involves those rare occasions on which the poem actually presents instances of writing. One of these is rather humorous, if also somewhat pathetic. In the story of Io, the heroine, who has been turned into a heiffer, manages to convey her identuty to her father by scratching her name in the dirt with her hoof. This is a minor instance of writing, to be sure; but it does represent the written word as an attempt to overcome voicelessness and to gain power. In the story of Byblis, the heroine uses writing to create a much more alaborate and even spectacular document, a love letter, in which she confesses her love for her brother Caunus. This confession leads not to reciprocal affection, but to disastrous and tragic rejection.

Without going further into the interpretation of these particular stories, we may ask, why in the Metamorphoses do only women write? The motif would seem to suggest some symmetry between the poet who wrote the poem and the women who write in the poem. This parallel involves an element of gender reversal, but this, as we have seen, is a fairly common motif. Does Ovid's handling of myth suggest that there is an important affinity between the artist and the characters, mainly women, who suffer at the hands of the powerful?

The story that most supports this view is the story of Arachne. It is a story that should be studied in close comparison with that of the Pierides and the Muses, which contains the story of the anduction of Persephone. The relationship is figured both structurally (the two stories involve contests; one stands at the end of Book 5, the other at the beginning of Book 6) and by virtue of the fact that they both involve (though in different ways) the goddess Minerva. The thematic associations are equally pronounced; we shall discuss some of them, and leave others for you to work out on your own.

Arachne is an expert spinner and weaver who claims to do better work even than Minerva, the goddess of handicraft. She even challenges Minerva to a contest. Weaving, of course, especially in ancient Roman society, is "woman's work" per excellence. But in this case, Minerva and Arachne do not only spin exquisite thread and weave beautiful cloth; they embroider the cloth with mythological scenes as well. Minerva produces a very orderly tapestry with dignified scenes on it; Arachne employs a much less orderly design in which the gods appear in somewhat embarrassing positions, many of an erotic nature. The two compositions are very different; but the narrator reports that both were so accomplished, it was impossible to judge between them. Minerva neverthelss smites Arachne with her spindle. Arachne then hangs herself, whereupon Minerva, in pity, turns her into a spider.

In this story the main subject would seem to be the power of the artist as measured against that of even more powerful figures. The artist certainly claims and exercises a certain kind of power, but it is not absolute; and in view of the subject depicted on Arachne's tapestry, "the loves of the gods," it is tempting to see her, like the god who creates the universe at the beginning of the Metamorphoses, as an analogue, but one of a rather different kind, to the poet who creates the poem. In this context, it is of interest to point out that in AD 8, as the Metamorphoses was supposedly nearing completion, Ovid was banished from Rome by the Emperor Augustus, and spent the rest of his life writing poetry and trying to secure his return to the capital from the city of Tomi on the shores of the Black Sea. He continued to assert that one of the things that led to his banishment was his poetry.

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