I’ve decided to revisit Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I wish I could say that I’ve decided to “reread” Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but who am I kidding. If I actually reread the whole thing, it’ll be a miracle. More likely I’ll get about a third of the way through before something distracts me away from it. “Revisiting” a thing has a much more relaxed set of implied expectations.
I remember loving Ovid when I first read him. The Metamorphoses was part of the syllabus for a class on Dante I took in college, and it’s a nice context in which to first encounter Ovid. In this and similar contexts do we most often hear about him today; this epic for which he’s most known is commonly referred to as a trove of source material for later dudes like Dante and Shakespeare, who allude to Ovid’s specific retellings of classical mythology frequently enough to grant the work a status of “definitive”.
The downside of this is that we might forget what’s great about the poem in and of itself, detached from its own sources in classical tradition, and from its influence on later writers. And it’s with this in mind that I’ve always wanted to revisit Ovid, to read his stories with a beginner’s mind and see what they have that’s inherently special.
He begins with a creation story. There was once formless chaos, then somebody formed it, and now we have all the stuff in the world. Doesn’t sound like the most original thing in world literature, but nevertheless I love how he actually does it:
Although the land and sea and air were present,
land was unstable, the sea unfit for swimming,
and air lacked light; shapes shifted constantly,
and all things were at odds with one another,
for in a single mass cold strove with warm,
wet was opposed to dry and soft to hard,
and weightlessness to matter having weight.
This chaos is not merely an absence of form, or of content; it is swirling confusion borne from conflict. Things are in perpetual change, and in a way that completely precludes the possibility of order. Opposition of conflicting forces does not define them in the dialectical sense; it blurs them into indistinguishability. Here we see a certain kind of change that defines the primordial state of things, an ongoing tempest of constant, violent motion that is unable to resolve itself into a world that is inhabitable in either the physical, or the logical sense.
Then, something very important happens: “Some god (or kinder nature) settled this/dispute by separating earth from heaven”. This is also a kind of change, but a very different kind. This is not the perpetual change that describes an ongoing state of things, but a single change, an isolated event which once and for all replaces a certain state of things with a new one. It is not “change” in the general sense, but “a change” in the particular.
Most notably, this new change consists in giving a direction to things. From now on, it asserts, here is heaven, and here is earth. They are separated according to a single direction, or axis: heaven is up, and earth is down. Sounds simple enough to us, who feel gravity from the first moments of our lives, but can you imagine what a radical change it would have been for someone accustomed to the old state of things, when “in a single mass cold strove with warm”?
“This is up, and this is down.” A simple, single, defining principle, indeed, but one whose very existence has far-reaching consequences. This is how Ovid has us summarize our understanding of this new world (essentially, our world), which will allow for all kinds of great stuff that hadn’t been previously possible. Before anything else, we are given one fundamental idea: instead of all things existing in a swirling, hideous clump of confusion, they can exist according to certain rules which define them, and grant them an essence to inspire their place in the world.
Simple and singular as this new “up/down” rule is, we quickly see it form the basis for more complex systems of order:
The fiery and weightless aether leapt
to heaven’s vault and claimed its citadel;
and next in lightness to be placed was air;
the denser earth drew down gross elements
and was compressed by its own gravity;
encircling water lastly found its place,
encompassing the solid earth entire.
Here we get, by name, this force called gravity which is contained within the “up/down” rule, and whose directive single-handedly guides the development of earth’s entire geological hierarchy. The motif of “order by separation” is sustained throughout Ovid’s creation story, and offers an amazingly succinct guiding principle by which we might understand the nature of all things.
Further, the ordering of things by separation is recapitulated more than once, and in particular on occasions when the cosmos takes a step back in its own formative process. For example, when Jupiter calls forth a huge, destructive flood:
There are no longer boundaries between
earth and the sea, for everything is sea,
and the sea is everywhere without a shore.
Or when Apollo’s son Phaëthon does a horrible job of driving his father’s horses, and almost destroys the planet in the process:
The soil cracks everywhere, and now the light
seeps to the underworld and terrifies
its ruler and his wife; the sea contracts,
and what had been until quite recently
a sheet of water is a field of sand,
and peaks that once were covered by the waves
are new additions to the Cyclades!
The possible destruction and loss of all things that have been created, Ovid informs us, is to be found when the distinctions we once understood between sea and land, heaven and earth, up and down, threaten to vanish. This dreaded possibility represents a return to that bad kind of change, that perpetual, ongoing, dizzying change that once prevented any order, any definitions of things, any knowledge, from existing prior to the great creation. Against it Ovid continually poses that other kind of change, the singular event, be it an act of creation or a flood of destruction, which represents the work of the gods, and in his own doing, that of humans.
Of course, a discussion on change at the start of this poem, and at the start of my own thoughts on it, is appropriate, because the name of the damn thing is Metamorphoses. In choosing this title, Ovid suggests that change is, well, super important. His poem is truly all-encompassing in its proposed sweep, and he knows this, so it’s not a stretch to say that for him, the word “Metamorphoses,” and the very idea of change, is that which most directly defines the substance of our world and our history.
It’s also important to note early on not simply the importance of change, but the difference between these two kinds of change that we’ve observed. Later on in the poem, Pythagoras will give a lengthy treatise on the nature of all things, and will refer to a kind of change which is, like the chaotic state of things pre-creation, once again perpetual. But before we get there, we have to read through hundreds of pages in which Ovid offers, over and over again, examples of the kind of change he seems more interested in: the single, isolated event, be it one of creation, destruction, or transformation, which stands alone and definitively separates two irreconcilable states of being.