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!

Helena, and what makes Christianity different

IMG_0412This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.

Waugh does a beautiful job depicting both the time and all the various places that appears throughout the book. The novel starts with Helena as young princess in Britain, which he portrays as both primitive and exotic, much like Till We Have Faces. From Britain, we then follow Helena all over the Empire: through Germany, out to the lonely Balkans, then to Rome, and finally through Asia Minor down to the province of Palestine. And each of these has their distinctive character, especially Rome. “To a Roman there can only be one City and that a very imperfect place indeed.” Waugh does not hold back from making Rome appear as unattractive as possible, everything from the court intrigue and treachery to the fashions and popular superstitions. Then there is the awkwardness of the newly legalized Christianity, personified in Pope Sylvester. This simple Pope is caught between gratitude for the new freedoms and yet the impossibility of compromising with  paganism, and so the risk of offending so great an ally as Constantine, who is at once planning to be baptized someday and yet also the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pagan religion.

“All my life I have caused offense to religious people by asking questions.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the book is that Helena is portrayed as a skeptic from beginning to end, always asking questions and rarely satisfied with answers (or a lack of answers). Her searching attitude allows Waugh to demonstrate how Christianity does not fall within the lines of myth and philosophy. Helena, after a particularly disappointing lecture on myth, turns to her Christian servants and asks, “Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?” “I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.” “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?” And so the seeds are planted for the faith that will blossom in the soil of Helena’s desire for something tangible and historical, and ultimately lead her to seek out the True Cross of Christ. (Speaking of tangible and historical: I visited the tomb of St. Helena at the Ara Coeli Basilica in Rome this very day. The picture I took is just below.)

IMG_0410This tension between the abstract and the concrete appears not just between pagans and Christians, but even among Christians themselves. Eventually Constantine, tired of everything wrong with Rome (and it truly is wretched), decides to go and start a New Rome in the East which will be cleaner, and there he will make basilicas dedicated to “Wisdom” and to “Peace”. “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.” After Constantine leaves, Pope Sylvester responds to this comment, “Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church.” How often this desire for a tidier faith recurs throughout the centuries! I am reminded of when the German Emperor Joseph II attempted to make Catholicism “tidier” by cutting the Stations of the Cross from 14 to 7, trying to reduce all the many religious orders to a single form of religious life, and many other so-called reforms. But faith is not just a bunch of ideas; true religion is not just a social program.

As intriguing as the description of Rome is, Jerusalem is the most significant place in the book, as the place where it happened. Having been to Holy Land a couple times, I had images to go with the ekphrases of the various sites, and I appreciated the accounts of how the places came to have their current shape. Waugh even makes one feel some horror at all that might have been lost in the effort to preserve the holy places. Helena’s devotion to the evidence of Christ makes me feel as though I never made a proper pilgrimage to those places, and I am eager to go back and follow in her footsteps, indeed, in the footsteps of the Master.

I heartily recommend Helena for anyone planning to visit Rome or Jerusalem, or even anyone who wants a glimpse at what makes Christianity different. I will probably end up adding more Evelyn Waugh to my list.