Theology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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The Metamorphoses of Ovid is a collection of Greco-Roman mythological stories, from Creation to Caesar, weaved into a continuous narrative of epic dactylic hexameter verses. (My sister once accused Virgil of being an author of fan-fiction, having based his writing on the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. If that is so, then Ovid is doubly a fan-fiction author, even recounting the events of the Aeneid.) At the time of the Renaissance, this work of Ovid became popular all over, and is the likely inspiration for much of the art decorating palaces and piazzas all over Europe. Romola in Renaissance Florence makes frequent references to the work, and Dante places Ovid among the greatest poets who occupy the first circle. As a classic epic, there is no need to defend reading the Metamorphoses.

Unlike the epics of Homer and Virgil, which each possess a single “action” which unifies the whole, Ovid’s epic is more like a collection. He uses every scheme he can to tell more stories, whether it be telling a story within a story (sometimes already in another story) or giving a story with the same character, outcome, setting, or moral as the previous story. What is especially excellent about the composition of the work is the ease of retelling the stories to others. Over the couple weeks that I was reading Ovid, nearly every lunch or dinner conversation began with some brief story from the work. (Lunch probably isn’t the best time to talk about a Bulgarian king being fed his own son as an act of revenge…but what a story!)

IMG_0487To pick one thing from the Metamorphoses and consider in this post, I looked at some of the more interesting statements about the gods, and especially the limitations they seem to impose on them, making them appear creature-like, albeit of a higher order than men. The first thing I noticed was the apparent power of Cupid/Eros over the other gods. That the gods are frequently carried away by passion is basis for perhaps half of the stories in the book (not a great exaggeration). The power of passion over the gods is personified in Cupid, and this is explicitly mentioned twice. In the tale of Apollo and Daphne, Cupid says “Your arrow, Phoebus [Apollo], may strike everything; mine will strike you: as animals to gods, your glory is so much the less than mine!” Later on, in the Rape of Proserpina, Venus says to Cupid, “My son, my sword, my strong right arm and source of my power, take up that weapon by which all your victim are vanquished […] You govern the gods and their ruler; you rule the defeated gods of the ocean and govern the one who rules them, too.” Little theological history side-note: The first Christian theologian to attribute the name “eros” to the revealed God was the so-called Dionysius the Areopagite, likely a 5th century Syriac author, well-versed in Greek philosophy. Perhaps he was familiar with this power of Cupid/Eros over all, even over the gods, and so attributed this name to the one true God.

The tale of Baucis and Philemon begins in the context of an argument about the power of the gods. The freethinker Pirithous says, “The fables that you tell, Achelous, attribute too much power to the gods, if they can change the shapes of things like that.” The response he receives is that “omnipotent and limitless is heaven, and what the gods desire is accomplished.” Now the objections of Pirithous have little ground in his experience: his own father begot a race of centaurs and he is currently talking to a river-god while being served by river nymphs. Perhaps Pirithous is disinclined to believe on account of the eternal punishment suffered by his father, Ixion? On the other hand, based on the note above and below, it seems Achelous may be overestimating the capacity of the gods.

IMG_0486The next limit placed on the gods is Fate. Jove speaks before the gods in assembly, “Does anyone here imagine himself able to overcome the limits set by Fate? Iolaus was given back the years he was in need of […] by the will of Fate, which governs even us; I tell you this that you might put a better face on it—yes, you are ruled by Fate, and I am too.” This subjection to Fate puts the Greco-Roman pantheon in contrast with the God of revelation who stands above such an ordering. Early Christian writers (Origen and Bardaisan come to mind) spent quite some time, either showing that Fate did not exist, or at least that God was not subject to it. Thomas Aquinas, thinking along lines similar to Boethius, gives an orderly account which distinguishes Providence from Fate, identifies Providence with God himself (I.22), and then consider Fate as existing in creatures and being subject to God (I.116).

Two more affirmations about the gods appear in two stories of unnatural desire. In the story of Byblis and Caunus, a woman falls in love with her own brother and debates with herself about acting on this desire. “The gods took their own sisters, to be sure! […] the gods, though, are a law unto themselves! —Why should I try to use them as my models when their behavior is so unlike ours?” This is a very interesting point of contrast between the old gods and our one. Whereas one of the most important book in Christian literature is The Imitation of Christ, it does not seem any particular god serves as a model of moral behavior. The question is more complex than that: to what extent do we look to an omnipotent Creator as a model rather than simply a giver of moral norms? The Incarnation makes things a lot easier, but otherwise it is quite the task to translate divine action into moral precept.

IMG_0488The other deviant story involves a woman, brought up from her youth as if she were a boy, falling in love with a woman and desiring to be a man so that she could marry her. She calls out, “The gods have not denied me anything; agreeably they’ve given me what they could; […] but Nature, much more powerful than they are, wishes it not—sole source of all my woe!” In general, the gods seem to be much better at estimating their power than mere mortals are. The upshot of Iphis’ prayer is that she indeed receives what she asks for, thereby showing that even Nature does not impose any great limit on the gods.

Another subject to consider as well is the possibility of mortals to become gods, as happens with Hercules, Aeneas, Romulus and Julius Caesar. Indeed, there are many other major themes to consider, but that will have to wait for another time!